Tag Archives: Francis Webb

Southerly 71/3

David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (editors), Southerly Vol 71 No 3 2011: A Nest of Bunyips

In 2001 the National Library of Australia published Bunyips: Australia’s Folklore of Fear by Robert Holden and Nicholas Holden. Robert said in his introduction that writing and editing the book had taken him ‘down many byways of history, literature, folklore, superstition and cultural studies’, and that he had gleaned insights from palaeontology, evolutionary thinking and anthropology.

The title of this issue of Southerly might lead you to expect something along the same lines. You would be misled. It does include a scattering of atmospheric drawings dating from between 1890 and 1912, citing the Holdens’ book as the immediate source, but they are the only bunyips on offer. As David Brooks says in his editorial, the issue is filled with things from the backlog ‘of pieces too good to reject but refusing any easy categorisation, and the bunyip motif derives from Michael Sharkey’s long poem, ‘Where the Bunyip Builds it Nest’, chosen more or less at random from the pile. (The poem isn’t actually about bunyips, but it is a bit of a monster: a long poem in five parts made up of lines taken from other poems from settlement until now in roughly chronological order, all carefully annotated.)

On reflection, Brooks says, bunyips – nocturnal, haunters of waterholes, ‘strange hybrids whose shrill quarrellings can sometimes be heard late into the night’ – sound like some poets. So the motif gained legitimacy: the issue contains work by 28 poets, essays on and by a half dozen more, and reviews of seven books of poetry. And the online supplement, the Long Paddock, has almost as much again, plus a substantial interview with Laurie Duggan.

The riches on offer include:

  • Jennifer Maiden’s ‘The Pearl Roundabout’, in which the re-awakened Elanor Roosevelt continues the conversations with Hillary Clinton begun in the book Pirate Rain
  • Margaret Bradstock’s pre-elegiac ‘Ask not’
  • Julie Maclean’s ‘cassowary’, a North Queensland poem that compresses an awful lot into a small space, about colonisation, tourism, art, and of course the gorgeous, dangerous cassowary
  • Peter Kirkpatrick’s delightfully old-fashioned, even archaic ‘The Angels in the House’, a meditation on inner city housing in heroic couplets
  • two poems by Craig Powell: a sonnet named from a line from Seamus Heaney, “and catch the heart off guard”, and a reinterpretation of an anecdote from Freud, ‘Fort Da’ (Craig Powell also reviews Toby Davidson’s edition of Collected Poems by Francis Webb, seizing the occasion to share some poignant memories of Webb).

Southerly is a refereed scholarly journal, and I tend to skip the scholarly articles, or at least the ones about writers I am unlikely to read, and those with Deleuze, Kristeva etc in the title. I did read Kevin Hart’s ‘Susannah Without the Cherub’, a fascinating discussion of A D Hope’s ‘The Double Looking Glass’. It may be, as Martin Johnston said, that A D Hope sent away for a Great Poet Kit, and then successfully used it to become a great poet. This essay bears out the second part of Martin’s quip.

It’s not all poetry. There are four short stories, all of which I enjoyed – Matthia Dempsey’s ‘One Week Gone’, about an old man a week after his wife’s death, is superb.

No bunyips, not really, but that’s not a terrible loss, given what’s there instead.

Robert Adamson on Francis Webb

Someone emailed me a link announcing that Robert Adamson, UTS Chair of Poetry, was giving a public lecture on him on Thursday night. How could I not go? As far as I know, UTS – University of Technology Sydney, whose main tower is Sydney’s monument to stark practicality – doesn’t offer any poetry courses, and the prospect of Adamson, anything but stark or practical in his poetry or his person, lecturing on Webb, ditto with bells on, was irresistible.

It turned out to be a fairly intimate affair in a shiny new building across the street from the anti-poetic tower. I recognised a smattering of poets and other writers, scholars, editors and UTS lecturers. I sat at the front, and my neighbours turned out to include Juno Gemes, Adamson’s photographer wife who discreetly plied her trade, Toby Davidson, editor of the new, excellent Francis Webb: Collected Poems, and Michael Griffith, who wrote God’s Fool, the best and only booklength introduction to Webb’s life and work. I’m not suggesting it was a family affair. The room was full, but I don’t think many of us were there without a prior connection to Webb, Adamson or UTS’s Centre for New Writing.

Adamson, whose CAL-sponsored professorship is for three years, began with a disarming list of thankyous – including to poet Martin Harrison for explaining to him what a lecture was. I hope the lecture is somehow made available, as it was a very clear account of Webb’s life and work, informed by a deep engagement with the poetry and a brief but significant personal relationship with the man. He read a number of poems. I’d say he read them brilliantly but that would give the wrong impression: he read them slowly, almost stumblingly, as if he was discovering them as he read them, or even encountering the language itself for the first time, mispronouncing an occasional word (couch in couch grass to rhyme with crouch, impotent with the emphasis on the second syllable), so that the listener was drawn in as a collaborator rather than being cast as a recipient. I find it hard to imagine a better way of reading this poetry.

In the excellent Q&A, freed from his written text, Adamson loosened up and spoke more personally: of how Webb was crucial to his own development as a poet, of how James McCauley looked him in the eye and said, ‘You’re on the right track with Webb – follow him instead of these Americans, of how he and his friends turned up like rockstar fans at Angus & Robertson’s bookshop the day the first Collected Poems was published, only to be told, ‘We publish it, but that doesn’t mean we have to have in here for sale.’ He gave a very funny, and accurate, account of A. D. Hope’s article on Webb: ‘Hope was a vitalist, and suspicious of Webb’s religious dimension, but he discusses the poem Canobolas, saying, “Look, he sees the mountain as a naked woman, so he must be all right, he’s one of us.”‘

End of year lists 2011

Here are the Art Student’s best five movies for the year, in no particular order. That’s five out of roughly 43 movies we went to. (If you don’t know a movie the title links to  its IMDb page.)

Inside Job: A documentary about the Global Financial Crisis. The most memorable thing is that at the end Obama kept in something like 20 key positions the same people whose advice had led to the policies that brought about the collapse.

Of Gods and Men: The AS knew this was on my list and wouldn’t give me a comment.

Win Win: She liked this for its moral complexity and understatedness.

The Guard: This made her laugh. She liked being seduced by someone who did bad things.

Bill Cunningham New York: She was exhilarated by this and loved it as a model of a kind of integrity that may well be disappearing from the western world.

And mine:
Bill Cunningham New York: See the Art Student’s comment above

Of Gods and Men: Interestingly enough, this is also a study in integrity, and though it’s fiction, it ends with a profound letter written by the actual man it’s based on.

Source Code: An SF Groundhog Day that I found completely delightful.

If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front: There seems to be a theme emerging: what I loved about this was that its main character had done bad things with good intentions and took responsibility for his actions. It also cast yet more unflattering light on the US authorities’ response to ‘terrorism’.

Toomelah: I saw this at the Sydney Film Festival, introduced by Ivan Sen in the company of two young actors. Perhaps that’s why I saw it as an ultimately hopeful, though unsparing, look at life in a crushed, neglected and dysfunctional Aboriginal community.

About books, the Art Student claims not to be able to remember back past the last book she read, but she’s happy to have Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes in her top five books for the year. This year, following the shocking VIDA statistics on gender bias in literary journals, I decided to keep track of whether books I read were by men or women, and a quick count shows, astonishingly that I read 25 books by men and 23 by women. Compulsive honesty has me acknowledge that many of the books by women were very short. the most dubious inclusion being a YouTube video of Harvard Professors reading Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon.  My top five, a list that might look quite different if I did it on another day:

Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children. What a painful pleasure to re read this! I can’t think of a character I’ve hated more, while being fascinated, than Sam Pollitt.

Francis Webb, Collected Poems and a number of ancillary books.

Charles Dickens, Bleak House. I’m that much less likely to win a game of Humiliation now that I’ve read this. I completely understand why Claire Tomalin read this twice when researching her biography of Dickens – she wasn’t prompted by duty but by pleasure.

Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance. Phew! We’re into the 21st century. After the necessarily careful correctness of, say, Kate Grenville’s novels about early contact in Sydney, this exuberant, multi-faceted, generous, funny, heartbreaking novel is like a blast of clean air.

Robert Whitaker’s Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America. Whenever I’m asked what my favourite book is I’m tempted to name the one I’m currently reading, but this really is a wonderful book, all the more shocking for the care with which it marshals its evidence and argument. I want to push it into the hands of everyone I know.

Please quarrel with these lists, add your recommendations, etc.

SWF: Busy Friday

I had tickets for a 10 o’clock session yesterday morning. One of the participants was prevented from being there by the Chinese government, and I was kept away by an act of vandalism (see previous post). There’s a photo of Liao Yiwu on a chair in the Gleebooks shop, but I got my whole body to Walsh Bay in time to spend a little money and queue successfully for

11.30 am: The Fascinator
Delia Falconer, Ashley Hay and Gail Jones have all recently written books set in Sydney. With Jill Eddington in the chair, the three of them – one a lifelong Sydneysider. one here since she was about 20, one a very recent arrival – chatted interestingly. Jill Eddington recommended reading all three in succession because the effect was like three movements in a piece of music. She imagined a movie that might be made of the three of them wandering the Harbour foreshores, going in and out of the Mitchell Library, walking in each other’s footsteps, almost meeting. The conversation that followed was a nice contradiction to the myth that writers are essentially in vicious competition with each other: Ashley Hay, for example, said that when her book was finally with the printer, reading Delia’s, which covered so much of the same territory but from a very different perspective, was like a special reward.

I tore myself away early, just as they were playing with possible readings if the session’s title: were we meant to think of the Harbour as a hat or an evil enchanted from a Margo Lanagan short story, or – the preferred option – both? I left reluctantly so as not to risk missing out on the Francis Webb session at 1 pm. This turned out to be a wise move, and brought a sweet bonus: I was hailed by a friend I hadn’t seen for 40 years, and while I kept one eye on the Webb queue we snatched a quarter of an hour to get reacquainted. When the growing queue vanished into the dark, we promised to follow up on Facebook, and I skedaddled to:

1 pm: The Lost Poetry of Francis Webb
This was in a much bigger venue than other poetry events, and we were told that it could have filled a space twice the size. It was one of a series of events around Australia to celebrate the recent publication of the UWA Collected Poems. The book’s editor, Toby Davidson, has organised and chaired the events, in which local poets read poems by Webb and speak briefly of their connections to him.

Toby D is a young man whose enthusiasm for his subject wouldn’t have shamed a revivalist preacher. He wants us all to read Webb, in solitude and aloud to our friends. He recommends the practice of carrying a book of his poems everywhere with us (which Bob Adamson Told us later he actually does). He kicked things off by reading ‘Ball’s Head Again’. He didn’t read badly by any means, but he did demonstrate the difficulty of Webb’s verse and gave us a yardstick by which to judge the other readers.

By any measure they were all brilliant.

Judith Beveridge spoke of the texture of Webb’s language, its compression and richness, and read ‘Images in Winter’ and ‘For My Grandfather’.

Brook Emery quoted a speaker from an earlier session who referred to ‘songs that please the ear and songs that please the heart’ and said he would add ‘songs that please the mind’ – Webb’s poems, he said, are always reaching for meaning. He read ‘Night Swimming’, the first poem by Webb I ever read, when I was 24 or so, and ‘Nessun Dorma’.

Johanna Featherstone, easily the youngest of the poets, struck a blow against the view that Webb is a poet’s poet, read only by scholars and fellow poets. She takes poetry into correctional centers, where prisoners, possibly influenced by knowledge of his time in institutions, believe him. She read ‘The Runner’ and
Harry’.

Craig Powell, a psychiatrist in his day job, told a little of his acquaintance with Webb when in a psych hospital in Melbourne. He read Five Days Old’, prefacing it with the story of its creation a psychiatrist in England took Webb on an outing, and asked him to hold his little baby for a moment. Powell almost spoiled the moment by asking with a snigger, ‘Who would hand their baby over to a certified chronic schizophrenic?’ But he gave us the poem with sound and heart and head. He also read ‘Hospital Night’.

Robert Adamson talked about the stigma of ‘mental illness’, quoting an eminent poet-critic-media-personality’s description of Webb as ‘the maddy’. When they met, Webb asked Adamson, ‘Are you a Communist?’ ‘Why?’ ‘The long hair.’ He read ‘Bushfire’, ‘Black Cockatoos’ and ‘End of the Picnic’. As a final comment he said that whereas a lot of discussion of Webb’s poetry focuses on his entail illness’, the poetry itself is full of hope and lucidity.

The young Bulgarian woman sitting next to me said she’d loved the poetry, though there were many words she didn’t understand. Me too.

As I was on my way to the next session, I accosted Bob Adamson and said how much I’d loved his reading. He reached into his briefcase and gave me a book! So, dear reader, when someone does something that
Ives or delights you, make a point of thanking them.

2.30 pm: The Merchants of Doubt
Naomi Oreskes’s eponymous book (can you say that?) is an exploration of the doubt-mongering techniques developed by the Marshall Institute in the US to defend vested interests against the implications of scientific research. They began with the connection between tobacco smoking and cancer, and progressed to a range of environmental issues, reaching some kind of peak with climate change They don’t have to lie, though they do, but they do systematically create disinformation. She was in conversation with Robyn Williams, and they are clearly kindred spirits, science journalists passionately concerned about the current attacks on science.

I won’t try to summarise. Robyn recommended a BBC doco, Science Under Attack. In a neat echo of Adamson’s anecdote, he told of meeting one of the doubt-mongerers at a conference, and being asked of his journalist colleagues, ‘Are they all Communists?’

My main take-home point was that scientists (and, I would add, others) have a deeply held belief that the facts will speak for themselves. But this is manifestly not so on matters with big emotional charges on them.

Reading about Francis Webb

Bill Ashcroft, The Gimbals of Unease: The poetry of Francis Webb (Centre for Studies in Australian Literature 1996)
Michael Griffith, God’s Fool: The life and poetry of Francis Webb (Angus & Robertson 1991)
Poetry Australia September 1975: Francis Webb (1925–1973) Commemorative Issue
Peter and Leonie Meere, Francis Webb, Poet and Brother: Some of his letters and poetry (Old Sage Press 2001)

Having recently re-read Francis Webb’s collected poems, I didn’t want to just put the book back on the shelf. In order to be as booked-up as possible for the Sydney Writers’ Festival session on Webb next month, I got hold of three books about him, and dusted off my copy of the 1974 Poetry Australia commemorative issue. I can now assert that I have read every book published on the subject of Francis Webb.

Bill Ashcroft was writing an MA thesis on Webb in the Sydney University English Department in the early 1970s when I was a postgraduate student there. Michael Griffith was also in the Department then, and interested in Webb. Both of their books were published in the 1990s. Poetry as dense as Webb’s yields its riches slowly, so I was interested to read the results of such long gestations.

Bill Ashcroft’s emphasis is on explicating the poetry. He talks about Webb’s use of language, and about Webb as Catholic, as schizophrenic and as explorer. I believe Bill approaches Catholicism as an outsider, since he seems to miss references to Catholic liturgy and lore, but his analysis may be all the more useful for that, as he goes instead to major spiritual and intellectual traditions within Catholicism (namely the Thomist–Ignatian and the Augustinian) and locates tensions between them in the poetry.

His discussion of schizophrenia reads as if it was mostly thought through in the 1970s when R D Laing and the anti-psychiatry movement hadn’t lost the battle with Big Pharma for domination. In my opinion it’s all the better for that. He argues that Webb’s extraordinary use of metaphor is intimately connected to the condition for which he was repeatedly hospitalised, drugged and subjected to electroconvulsive therapy; that people diagnosed as schizophrenic often don’t distinguish, as others do, between metaphoric and literal ways of thinking, that this is generally a brilliant way of dealing with impossibly painful situations rather than the symptom of an illness. In the section on Webb as explorer, he argues that Webb’s poetry is groundbreaking post-colonial work, holding ‘a balance between the European spiritual roots and the post-colonial vision’.

According to the book’s back cover, Bill Ashcroft has been a trailblazer in post-colonial studies. As might be expected, then, his prose is heavy with theoretical ballast, and occasionally reaches dizzying heights of abstraction. I expect book would repay close, careful study, but at least for now I’m happy to have read it in a companionable way: I might not understand a lot of what this bloke says, but it’s good to have listened to him talk at length.

Michael Griffith co-edited Cap and Bells, a selection of Webb’s poems that came out the same year as God’s Fool, so he’s probably done as much as anyone to keep the poetry in print for the last 20 years. This book is an offshoot of Griffith’s PhD Thesis. ‘In reducing the work from its longer academic form,’ he writes in his introduction, ‘I have tried also to introduce some aspects of Webb’s humanity which had less place there.’ For this departure from academic rigour, I for one am grateful.

When I studied Eng Lit we did a lot of close reading, and the idea of approaching literary work by way of the author’s biography was sneered at. Bill Ashcroft deals with such potential sneers by talking about the poetry and the poet’s life as two intersecting texts that illuminate each other. Michael Griffith doesn’t see the need for such justification, and just gets on with the illuminating. He does do some explicating of the poetry, but I found much more value in his delving into Webb’s life story than in any tight focus on the text. He draws on Webb’s letters and other documents, including two ‘Hospital Confessions’ written as part of campaigns to have him released from institutions. He quotes correspondence with Norman Lindsay, Douglas Stewart and David Campbell among Webb’s elders, and Rosemary Dobson, Nan Macdonald, Vincent Buckley and others of his contemporaries. One day a collection of Webb’s letters may see the light, but in the meantime this book draws on those that have been preserved by colleagues and family to show us a working poet who, in spite of long periods of incarceration and serious difficulty in coping outside of institutions, was a cherished and active member of a creative community. In particular, it is fascinating to learn details of his early connection to Norman Lindsay, and to consider his poetry of the 1950s in the context of the resurgence of Christian, even Catholic, themes in Australian poetry and art at that time.

The September 1975 issue of Poetry Australia was devoted to Webb, who had died nearly two years earlier. As well as several previously unpublished poems (all of them now available in Toby Davidson’s 2011 Collected Poems), it includes essays by Griffith, Ashcroft and other scholars, but its enduring interest lies in contributions from Webb’s fellow poets who knew him and appreciated his work – Rosemary Dobson, A D Hope and Vincent Buckley among them. There is also a poignant memoir by Sister M. Francisca Fitz-Walter, a Good Samaritan Sister who befriended Webb.

These essays are a striking reminder of how the language of literary criticism has changed in the last 40 or so years. Compare Vincent Buckley, in his essay ‘A Poet of Harmony':

He was a great phrase maker and 
there are phrases, sentences, cadences in poem after poem that are quite 
unforgettable. He was a great master, and sometimes a victim, of metaphor, 
the most metaphor addicted poet in this country, I would say, and it is noticeable that time and time again the energy of those very ample driving
 rhythms is also the energy with which metaphors are picked up, created
 and extended through the stanza.

with Bill Ashcroft, 30 years later:

The compatibility of schizophrenia and the post-colonial, or to put it a different way, the schizophrenic discourse of post-colonialism, is seen most markedly in the similarity between the absence of the metacommunicative mode in schizophrenic language and [the] metonymic gap [of post-colonial discourse].

I don’t discount the importance of Bill’s theorising – on the contrary, it opens up great vistas of understanding. But Vin (as Webb called him) says a lot more about the immediate experience of reading the poetry.

Francis Webb, Poet and Brother is a labour of love, compiled and self-published by Webb’s younger sister and her husband in 2001, when they must have been in their 70s. It includes a number of poems that had not been previously published – but which are mostly in Toby Davidson’s collection. Its appendices include an impressive bibliography of critical writings about Webb; nearly 60 pages listing all his poems, the place and date of first publication, the place of composition where that’s known, and all subsequent publications; and 12 pages listing errors in those publications and in writings about Webb. All this will probably be of interest to scholars, but then there are the letters – 56 of them, written to his three sisters and his brothers-in-law from 1943 when he was 18 to a month before his death in 1973, with linking passages by the Meeres, including occasional quotes from other sources, such as for example Vincent Buckley’s memoir Cutting Green Hay – a quotation which, incidentally, tells a story of youthful drunkenness that Buckley hinted at but declined to tell in his Poetry Australia essay. If Webb’s letters to colleagues are as compelling, and poignant, and interesting as these, someone really ought to be getting a collection together.

Four things shine through: Webb’s great affection for his family, especially for Leonie and Peter Meeres; his Catholic piety (almost every letter ends asking to be remembered in the recipient’s prayers, and promising to remember them in his); his single-minded dedication to his calling as poet; and his mental anguish. The reason for his repeated confinement in psychiatric institutions remains (of course) obscure: he repeatedly insists that he is completely non-violent, but the letters are peppered with references to incidents such as ‘a silly brawl’. Whatever the reason, it’s heartbreaking to read his pleas for help, his assurances of his harmlessness, his wretched descriptions of himself as a no-hoper, and towards the end his warnings not to upset and possibly damage children by bringing them to see him in his abject state – and through it all, his piety, his affection and his hunger for solitude and peace enough to write poetry.

The Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama lives in a mental hospital in Tokyo, and is able to go to her studio regularly. It may be that Francis Webb needed to be kept apart from the general community, for his own or other people’s safety, but that he lived a life of such deprivation must surely stand as a reproach to the way people labelled mentally ill have been treated in this country. Yet the miracle of it is that he too created marvellous works:

Are gestures stars in sacred dishevelment,
The tiny, the pitiable, meaningless and rare,
As a girl beleaguered by rain, and her yellow hair?

Rereading Francis Webb

Francis Webb, Collected Poems (Angus & Robertson 1969)
Toby Davidson (ed.), Collected Poems: Francis Webb (UWA Publications 2011)

I reach for Francis Webb’s poetry fairly regularly – mainly the same handful of late poems. After listening to pieces about him on the Book Show and Poetica (parts One and Two), both on the ABC, having wept at the superb readings on the latter and been stung by Geoff Page’s describing the poetry as defective on the former, I decided to re-read the whole book. I started out on my 1969 edition, with its copious pencilled annotations by twenty-something me, but about a third of the way in I bought a copy of the new edition and switched to that. One learned person, according to my faint pencil notes, wrote that ‘reading Francis Webb is like wrestling with an angel’. No one would disagree that wrestling is involved: just decoding the syntax can be a challenge in many of these poems, then there are compacted metaphors, elusive rhyme schemes, buried religious references, and an expectation that the reader will be as alarmingly erudite as the poet. Just have a look, say, at the first lines of ‘Stendhal':

Italy, and a nom de plume – better than in the van
Of France defeated: his clean scarlet brain
Must work in a pure detachment over man
Who was nothing without his D.R.O.s again.
Love, hate, ambition mustered at his bugle,
Sorties of good and evil were in vain.
With watchful eye and towerings of the eagle
He must disarm the priests, immobilize pain.

To which I admit I don’t have much more to say than ‘Huh?’

The angel part is harder to describe – the exciting part, that makes you feel you’ve been through the wringer, but that the world is somehow clearer, richer and more harshly beautiful because of it. He writes about sunsets, fog and wind as if they contain all the deepest struggles of the cosmos.

If you haven’t read any of Webb’s work, I recommend you start with the relatively straightforward ‘Five Days Old’. My mother, no lover of difficult language, wrote to me in a 1972 letter: ‘”Five Days Old” is sweet. I have to concentrate to read poetry so I haven’t read the others yet.’ More ambitiously, you might try the two sequences, Eyre All Alone and Ward Two. (If you’ve got plenty of time, I recommend reading Edward John Eyre’s Journals of Exploration as interesting in itself, but also, as my pencilled notes remind me, because it sheds interesting light on Webb’s poem, which at some points comes close to paraphrasing passages from it.) I’d skip the radio plays about Hitler (Birthday, this one was broadcast on the BBC in 1955), the Holy Grail (The Chalice), the anthropogenic end of the world (The Ghost of the Cock) and the man who invented electroconvulsive therapy (Electric).

One of the things that I loved about Webb’s poetry from the start is that it’s work. You can feel the labour of getting the words down, squeezing meaning onto the page, into the shape of the poem. Even at his most difficult, he is working at communication, never being difficult for its own sake.

Forty years ago I went searching for the first publication of his early poems, and found one or two that hadn’t been collected, and others that had been substantially edited on the way to being collected. The former and one or two of the latter are in the new collection, but my favourite example of revision isn’t. Here are the first three stanzas of ‘The Day of the Statue’, in which fishermen catch an ancient statue in their nets, as they appear in both Collected Poems:

You look for prodigies leaning on the sill of storm,
Or loose in the yellow gap at a candle’s end,
But here was patience: fishermen out on the bay,
Work and silence inching with the minute-hand.

Moored in a lulled spinny of sun and shadow,
With an impotent tremor in the sails, the ketch nosed down
To the long lunge of the swell, rose dripping, gasping
As if with eagerness to suck in air again.

And the men, snug in this casual pediment of time,
Their gestures grouped and restricted and interlocking,
Felt the haul stubborn to their hands, an eye-tooth wrenched
From the iron gums of the sea-bed, shuddering and aching.

Compare the first five stanzas of the version published in the Bulletin on 8 October 1947, when Webb was 22 years old:

You look for prodigies leaning on the 
sill of a storm
Or loitering about the wake of a snuffed-out light;
But such things are apt, as you know, on these days of full sunshine
To be quietly pocketed or else shoved clean out of sight.

Certainly, three fishermen out on the bay
And the shaping of a miracle are rarely aligned,
History bells hours only, clock on the walls of speeches:
Work and silence tick unnoticed with the second-hand.

Moored to drifting banks of sun and shadow,
With an impotent tremor in the sails, the ketch nosed down,
plunged to the bowsprit in the swell, rose dripping, gasping
As if with eagerness to suck in air again.

And the men grouped snugly in this leeward pediment of time,
With their slow gestures of toil, felt a curious lagging in the strands
Of their sunken net, as if parallel action under the water
Passed on a sort of nerveless shock to the hands.

Your touch on a net-load of fish short-circuits life:
The cargo is arteries stabbed in their element and shaking,
But this haul yielded stubbornly like an eye-tooth wrenched
From the iron jaws of the sea-bed, shuddering and aching.

I love the way he pared those stanzas down, even at the risk of making his meaning harder to grasp. And the revisions towards the end of the poem are even more telling. The last stanza changed from

Beauty comes baleful as a skull, comes riven from the sea:
Well to consider the mortal, the native token
Before you polish, incise – before you replace
What that bronze arm once clutched that time has broken.

to

There were some to roll back the heavy stone of the sea;
There was none to ponder the mortal, the living token.
But later, men polished, incised, established at last
What that raised hand once clutched and years had broken.

With great economy, the resurrection of Christ is invoked, and the contrast between the practicalities of dragging up the statue and understanding it is conveyed as a further piece of narrative rather than in a slightly priggish address from the author.

Ramona Koval said she’d never heard of Francis Webb. That’s a great shame. The Sydney Writers’ Festival has a session on ‘The Lost Poetry of Francis Webb’. I’m assuming that phrase refers to his whole body of work rather than to the handful of previously uncollected poems that begin and end Toby Davidson’s collection. I plan to be there.

In which I go on a bit about buying two books

I happened to be in Glebe this morning, and as I had earned a little bit of money last weekend I allowed myself to yield to the allure of the bookshops.

First, the secondhand poetry shelves of Sappho’s beckoned. There were a number of tempting morsels – enough to make me think that a Sydney poetry lover had recently died or radically downsized. There was a book of Philip Martin’s, inscribed in a shaky hand  that suggested he had already embarked on the disease that was eventually to kill him; Adamson’s Waving to Hart Crane signed ‘affectionately Bob’. But the one I bought was a selection of Stevie Smith’s poems. When I worked at Currency Press, our Editor in Chief Phillip Parsons impressed me hugely by reciting the last page of Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper, and I became a fan on the spot (of Phillip, yes, but also of Stevie Smith). I recently saw a copy of her slected poems on a friend’s bookshelf – I took it down, and behold it was inscribed on the inside cover as a birthday present to a different close friend – a birthday present from me. The birthday girl later denied all knowledge of having given the book away, so I was left with a nagging sense that one or other of my dear friends was a book thief, a liar or an ingrate. Somehow when I saw this book in Sappho’s today – same selection, different cover – it seemed that buying it would make everything all right again. So I bought it.

Oh I am a cat that likes to
Gallop about doing good.

And then next door to Gleebooks. I’d listened to Poetica’s excellent two part broadcast on France Webb recently, heard Geoff Page deliver a  lukewarm account of him on the Book Show (Maybe you need more than one poetry reviewer, Ramona! But I don’t need to say much, as commenter named Junius has given you the rounds of the kitchen on this one.) and been prompted to open up my 1969 Collected Poems. This is one of my favourite books – I mean the actual battered, slightly foxed object on my shelf, which I love because I spent quite a bit of intensive time with it in my mid 20s. I was planning on writing an MA thesis on Webb’s poetry. It didn’t happen, but I did a bit of work that left its traces in the margins of my copy (as well as in a little exercise book in which I pasted photocopies of poems by Webb that had been published but not collected). His explorer poems sent me off to read the published journals of Leichhardt, Sturt, Grey and Edward John Eyre. My book has notes on when and where poems were first published, textual variations and any annotations, and occasionally there’s a commentary from me. For example, in ‘Leichhardt in Theatre’, just before the explorer’s party is attacked by the people whose land they have invaded, the poem goes:

————————————Gilbert, the naturalist,
is planting some precious flowers that he has found,
Cradles them in his hands like diamonds

There’s a pencilled note in the margin:

This indicates he had probably not read the Journal - Gilbert was learning to plat (sic)

Presumably it was Leichhardt who misspelled ‘plait’. I imagine these notes would annoy anyone else, but they fill me with an affection for my younger self.

But back to the visit to Gleebooks. On the display table in the poetry section was the new Collected Poems, published by UWA Publishing and edited by Toby Davidson. I flipped it open and had to buy it. Not only does it include the poems I had found in my postgraduate days, plus more. It also promises to correct errors Webb had noted in the 1969 edition (his notes evidently came to light in the 1980s). Am I doomed to read with both books open – one for the poetry and the other for young Jonathan’s occasional comment?

I thought you’d like to know.

Sad news

I notice that my note from last June about Diana Wynne Jones’s illness has risen to the top of my ‘Top Posts’ list over on the right. I assume people are coming here to learn something of her death on the weekend. For anyone who has come for that purpose,  some links:

The Diana Wynne Jones Official Website
Neil Gaiman: Being Alive. Mostly about Diana
Misrule: Saying Goodbye to Diana
Emma Bull on tor.com: Remembering Diana Wynne Jones
Farah Mendlesohn, also on tor.com: Diana Wynne Jones
Christopher Priest in The Guardian:  Diana Wynne Jones obituary

No doubt there are others. The Australian newspapers may mention it, but don’t hold your breath – she’s not a sports star or an obscure US politician. In 1973 it took the Sydney Morning Herald weeks if not months to mention the death of Francis Webb, a great poet who had spent his last decades living in Sydney.

Les Murray, Prone to be Tall

Les Murray, Taller When Prone (Black Inc 2010)

A new book by Les Murray is an event, and I didn’t hesitate to use my birthday voucher to buy this. And I wasn’t disappointed. The book has already been reviewed well by people more articulate and perceptive than I am. Clive James in The Monthly, for instance, may be a little OTT in suggesting the Nobel for Literature and characterising the intemperate and possibly libellous ‘The 41st Year of 1968’ as ‘a sharp rebuke to ageing hippies who imagine themselves to be in sympathy with Gaia’, but he generally does a nice job of illuminating the poetry.

I was struck many years ago by something Francis Webb – who like Les Murray experienced severe depression – wrote about poetry:

I do value in poetry that heightening or ameliorating sense of companionship in human experience. What do we seek of the trusted companion? His honesty, and that half-loaf of comfort. Poetry, as in Dante, can teach; but that is not its primary function. And pure, honest companionship may implicitly carry  comfort within itself, neutralising the often frightening sense of solitude in our affairs.

Much as I admire and enjoy Murray’s poetry, I don’t get much sense of companionship from it.  I don’t have anything against the man – after all he published a poem of mine in Quadrant. And I’m a fan – I’ve been buying his books for decades. I’ve just seen a copy of The Weatherboard Cathedral going for more than $500 at Biblioz.com, but I’m not even slightly tempted to part with mine. But I do have a creeping sense that his poetry doesn’t much like me. I don’t mean just the splenetic outbursts like ‘The 41st Year’ (which, though its explicit targets are amalgamated Hippies and Greenies and New-Classies, none of which I quite am, I manage to take personally). Nor do I mean only the obscure pieces – Robert Gray says in The Australian that about a third of this book leaves him not having the faintest idea what it is about, and not ‘cajoled by the expression into wanting to find out’. I have a sense that the poetry generally doesn’t seem to want to communicate, to expect a relationship with the reader: it’s as if it’s reporting brilliantly on the world sharply seen and heard and thought about, on understandings (and positions and judgements) reached, even on emotions felt, and all it expects of me is that I look on,  admiring its brilliance. To vary the metaphor, the poems are like grenades lobbed over a wall – they may explode in verbal fireworks, release lyrical aromas, or scatter the shrapnel of opinion, but the wall stays there, solid and opaque between us and the thrower.

Or maybe that’s all rubbish. One of the many poems I liked here is ‘The Filo Soles':

When tar roads came
in the barefoot age
crossing them was hell
with the sun at full rage.
Kids learned to dip
their feet in the black
and quench with dust,
dip again, and back
in the dust, to form
a dark layered crust
and carry quick soles
over the worst
annealing their leather
though many splash scornfully
across, to flayed ground.

When I wrote just now that I liked this poem, I thought of writing instead that the poem ‘spoke to me’, but actually it didn’t, even though I lived in the barefoot age in the tropics, and know about crossing a bitumen road in the summer heat. The poem doesn’t work on me by reminding me of that experience. What I like about it is the way the title adds a clever visual element, the way the disintegration of the rhyme and metre towards the end  mimics the desperate, unprotected run as opposed to the methodical application of protection, and the way ‘flayed’ unexpectedly describes the ground rather than the young feet in the last line. There’s a lot to like. Maybe my grumbling about lack of communication is just lack of sleep. I’d be interested to hear other people’s thoughts.

Adamson’s best of 2009

Robert Adamson, The Best Australian Poems 2009 (Black Inc 2009)

This is an excellent anthology. In fact, in the context of previous years’ round-ups, both from Black Inc and UQP, it’s a strong contender for Best of the Best. It includes a wonderful range of poetic styles and modes and subjects – incomprehensible post-modern stuff, impassioned story-telling, linguistic virtuosity, delicate lyric. There’s Clive James‘s assured iambic pentameter, Pam Brown‘s asthmatically short lines, Ali Cobby Eckermann‘s lines you might need to know didgeridoo breathing to recite adequately. In the introduction, Robert Adamson talks about his solution to the difficulty of reducing his short list to fit the space available – he persuaded Black Inc to give him more space. I’m glad he did, and that he kept commentary, analysis and explanation to a bare minimum. He does offer this gem of commentary:

People ask me, why are so many bird poems being written and published? I have a theory: we miss having poets among us who can imagine that a soul can ‘clap its hands and sing, and louder sing’, that we need to acknowledge visitations by intense psychological presences, and that birds are the closes things we have, more or less, to angels.

Perhaps that’s mainly a clue as to how to read his own poems, but it’s an interesting general thought as well.

I’m not going to try to name the poems I liked best.  My copy has far too many page-corners turned down for that.

As I was reading this anthology, my Art-Student Companion, as part of her preparation for an assignment on Australian Federation, was reading The Sentimental Nation by John Hirst, and kept regaling me with interesting bits about the major role poetry played – poetry, he says, is ‘the best guide to the ideas and ideals that inspired the movement’ for Federation, and again: ‘The nation was born in a festival of poetry.’ Well, even though poetry festivals rarely make the news pages these days, to judge by this book poems are still looking for words for what inspires and ails us as a nation and a species. But now, instead of writing bush ballads or ponderous and forgettable sonnets, they tell about Iraq, global warming, the ills of capitalism, but they tell it slant. There are any number of examples, but I’ll just mention Luke Davies’ ‘Maldon, 991 AD’ which ends:

oooooooooooo I felt an outsider
to laughter. Out there the Vikings sang,
that was more like it, something eerie
to get spooked about, distracted by:
and the world so tenderly
unveiling its final unveiling.

I was also struck by the sense of community among the poets, particularly as shown in the number of poems honouring those who have died: Dorothy Porter (‘Word‘ by Martin Harrison), but also John Forbes (‘Letter to John Forbes‘ by Laurie Duggan, Jan McKemmish (Pam Brown’s ‘Blue Glow‘), Francis Webb (‘Reading Francis Webb‘, by Philip Salom [the link is to a PDF]) and Bruce Beaver (a couple of mentions, but mainly Peter Rose’s beautiful imitation, ‘Morbid Transfers‘).

Buying this book in March felt a little bit silly, like buying hot cross buns in July, but it turns out it’s not a seasonal thing at all. It’s an anthology that I’m sure I’ll go back to.

Footnote: One of my wise younger relatives recently chided me for reading while walking: ‘It’s as bad as walking around with those things in your ears, Jonathan,’ she said (by which you can she’s not so very young). ‘You have to let the world in.’ She may be right in general. But sometimes reading while walking is a way of letting in both world and poetry. The other morning I was throwing the ball for Nessie at the bottom of the hill and noticed that the longish grass was pearled with dew so that previous walkers both human and canine had left tracks of darker green, and the rosellas wouldn’t shut about something. I realised it must have rained quietly in the night. The next words I read were these, from Sarah Day’s ‘A Dry Winter: Some Observations About Rain‘:

… an elemental transition from dry to damp.
Listen, you can hardly hear its outward breath

on the tin roof. In the morning,
grass and earth are wet and everything

but the mercuric globe in the nasturtium leaf
is translucent.

I don’t know anything about nasturtiums, but the rest could have been a condensation from my surroundings. (The whole poem is lovely, by the way.)

Added later: Tara Mokhtari on the Overland blog has a completely different view. She does identify herself as a ‘shunned poet’.