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David Campbell

The writer Meg Stewart remembers, with affection and an abiding sense of privilege, growing up as witness to the friendship that flourished between two passionate Australian poets. One of these was her father, the New Zealand-born Douglas Stewart, for many years literary editor of the Bulletin. The other was the glamorous David Campbell, who served with distinction in the wartime RAAF and wrote his poetry while grazing his country acres on holdings around the Canberra region of New South Wales. Their friendship was sustained over thirty-five years, from just before the end of World War II until Campbell’s premature death in 1979. From the outset, Stewart especially had warmed to the Campbell charisma, always widely admired amongst both men and women, and amongst the young. In a letter to Norman Lindsay describing their first meeting, Stewart described Campbell as a ‘[m]ost likeable, vigorous bloke who believes that the artist & man-of-action are kinsmen’.

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David Campbell published a dozen volumes of poetry between 1949 and his death in 1979, as well as joint selections of Russian translations, collections of short stories and anthologies. Perhaps the purest lyricist of his time, he remained faithful to the few literary forms – the ballad, the song, the sonnet – that first engaged his attention, and never tried to force his range beyond its limits. There was no verse novel, no historical narrative, no extended satires or epistles. But he was not unresponsive to the debates that enlivened Australian literary discussion during his lifetime: A.D. Hope’s advocacy of the discursive mode finds its influence on one phase of his work, as does a highly individual use of neoclassical references. His short poems explore the whole range of Australian history from a variety of angles and, for all their brief and fragmentary forms, build up a narrative that is just as impressive as some of the more popular sequences of the 1940s. In the 300 pages of his Collected Poems (1989), not many go over the page. His poems might seem small in scale, but his collected work has a greater impact than that of many of his more ambitious, heavyweight contemporaries.

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This book came out last November four months after David Campbell died, and represents (say the publishers) ‘the very last of his poems’.

Although of late I’ve read just about everything he published, there’s no space here to sum up his work. Besides, Geoff Page (ABR October 1979) has already taken a keenly perceptive look at the past ten years development and has also foreshadowed my comments on this last collection. Quite rightly he points to those poets (Lowell, Hughes, Zbigniew Herbert, Vasko Popa), in whom Campbell found reminders of ‘some­thing he had long had to do’. Their poems, then, were like good parents, teaching their children not to imitate them but to assume their own identities. In The Man in the Honeysuckle, I especially note the influence of Popa: like him, Campbell in many poems cleans away all punctuation and yet the syntax sings clearly, so that we get a new version of the limpid poem we have always expected from Campbell.

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