Poetry

Boy with A Telescope by Jan Owen & The Twofold Place by Alan Gould

by
February–March 1986, no. 78

The ways of poetry are many but sometimes, as it turns out, they are simply oppositional. These two new volumes of poetry from Angus & Robertson could easily have been produced as the occasion for some compare-and-contrast parlour game. The first, and continuing, thing to be said about them is that Gould is strong on artistic form whereas Owen is strong on life. The harder question to ask about any writer is whether it is better to be good at forms or to be full of life. Both, you will say, of course; but then we can’t have everything.

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The three books under review here promote no generalisation about the condition of poetry, the health of the beast, unless they call to mind the difference between poems which are interesting from line to line and those which somehow resonate as wholes. R.H. Morrison, the eldest of the three poets, is the one who most often produces whole poems, at least to my ear.

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The Typewriter Considered As Bee-trap by Martin Johnston & Fast Forward by Peter Porter

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December 1985–January 1986, no. 77

I have sat on these books longer than is reasonable for a review, yet have to confess that I am not satisfied with the readiness of what follows. I got the Porter first, but receiving the Johnston thought that they in some ways offered similar difficulties, perhaps similar rewards, to the reader, and that it might be neat to review them together.

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Sometimes I’ve written reviews ‘because I was invited’, or felt I should. But this is a book I really want to review. And I wasn’t invited: I applied for the job. For close on thirty years I’ve been grateful to Rosemary Dobson, especially for her third book, Child with a Cockatoo (1955), the one through which I came to know her work. Her latest, despite obvious continuities, gives a rather different kind of pleasure, and new reasons for gratitude.

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It is a brave thing to publish your Collected Poems in your early fifties, braver when you are an Australian resident in England publishing there, and a loading might be put on for additional hazard when, like Peter Porter, you are poetry editor both for Oxford and for The Observer. For, when it comes to Collected Poems, it is your very influence that makes you vulnerable.

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What is more common than the indicative mood, and what is more uncommon than the way Les Murray uses it? His Christian finger ‘scratches the other cheek’ (‘The Quality of Sprawl’) but more often points out tracks seen from the air, but invisible on the ground: a hibiscus becomes ‘the kleenex flower’ (‘A Retrospect of Humidity’); the shower an ‘inverse bidet,/ sleek vertical coruscating ghost of your inner river’ (‘Shower’); a north-coast punt ‘just a length of country road / afloat between two shores’ (‘Machine Portraits with Pendant Spaceman’). You see it in his use of the demonstrative pronoun – ‘this blast of trance’ (‘Shower’); the definite article – The man imposing spring here swats with his branch controlling it’(‘The Grassfire Stanzas’)’; the deictic use of ‘I’ and ‘we’ to get his readers looking in the same direction as he points out where we are and where we’ve come from – ‘So we’re sitting over our sick beloved engine / atop a great building of the double century / on the summit that exhilarates cars, the concrete vault on its thousands / of tonnes of height, far above the tidal turnaround’ (‘Fuel Stoppage on Gladesville Road Bridge in the Year 1980’).

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It is 116 years since Charles Harpur, Australia’s first poet of real eminence, died with his own collection of his works unpublished. Except for a couple of small selections – the most recent of which, made by Adrian Mitchell in 1973 and containing only about 120 pages of the poetry, was the most comprehensive – and the infamously corrupt 1883 ‘collection’, it has remained so. This has been a blot on the reputation of Australian critical and academic workers and a loss not only to Australian literature but to Australian history. Now Elizabeth Perkins, of the English Department of James Cook University, has handsomely remedied a long injustice.

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Andrew Taylor’s Selected Poems opens with rain and a quote from Rilke’s first elegy, collects new poems from 1975–80, touches his The Cool Change (1960–70), Ice Fishing (1970–72), and The Invention of Fire (1973–75), and ends with an epilogue the final image of which is a night watchman whittling a wooden deify which ‘Glows like a storm lantern / burning all night’. It’s night and the poet has gone to bed and closed the shutters, and the nightwatchman of the subconscious gets to work.

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The Fremantle Arts Centre Press is an example of what a state-oriented press can do. Under intelligent guidance and with sympathetic but not irresponsible state funding assistance, it has now established a solid reputation for publishing good­looking and worthwhile books. If west coast writers are now better known in the east than they were several years ago, this is only partly due to their qualities as writers, good though some of them undoubtedly are. It is also because the Fremantle Arts Centre Press has actively encouraged and promoted west coast writers, giving them the confidence that only professional book publication can.

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The acknowledgements included in the Preface to this collection name some of the most common places for poetry to be published in Australia, but by chance few of these poems seem to me familiar. That of course makes it more interesting to see them individually; and also makes the whole thing easier to see at large.

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