Monday musings on Australian literature: Capital male poets
Today’s Monday Musings is the second in a series of posts I plan to write this year about Canberra writers to commemorate our centenary. The first post covered Canberra’s women poets. Like that post, all the poets mentioned below appear in The invisible thread, Canberra’s centenary anthology that I’ve mentioned before.
AD Hope (1907-2000)
The American poet Ezra Pound apparently once said “I haven’t known anyone worth a damn who wasn’t irascible”. Well, we have, I believe, a few Aussie poets who would live up to that description, and AD Hope, one of Australia’s most significant poets, would be one of them. He is famous, for example, for describing Patrick White’s novel The tree of man as “illiterate verbal sludge”, which, not surprisingly, offended Patrick White who was, I must admit, also known for being irascible. All this, of course, has little to do with Hope’s poetry except that, like White, he was highly critical of Australia. Reviewers have variously described his poetry as “sardonic”, satiric” and “sharp-edged”. One of my favourite poems of his, “Country Places“, makes fun of Australian place names and was included in Jamie Grant’s 100 Australian poems you need to know. Being of a certain age, I also like the following lines from “Spaetlese” in his collection A late picking:
Old men should be adventurous. On the whole
I think that’s what old age is really for:
Tolstoy at Astapavo finds his soul;
Ulysses hefts his oar.
But, the poem in The invisible thread, “Meditation on a bone“, is a different thing altogether. Inspired by an inscribed bone from about AD1050, it is about passion, rage and age, ending with:
… When I am dung
What bone shall speak for me?
David Campbell (1915-1979)
Canberra is a small city, and was even more so a few decades ago. Consequently, poets like AD Hope, David Campbell and Rosemary Dobson knew each other pretty well. In fact, I mentioned David Campbell in my Capital Women Poets post because he and Dobson were good friends and, among other things, translated Russian poetry together. Like Hope, who was born in a country town about 100kms south of Canberra, Campbell was born in an even smaller country town a similar distance by road due east of here. But, unlike the highly academic Hope, Campbell was a war hero, a skilled sportsman, and a keen fisherman, among other things. His humorous poem, “The Australian Dream”, which gently mocks Australia’s fascination with royalty around the time of the 1954 Royal Tour, is included in Grant’s abovementioned anthology.
The poem included in The invisible thread, “Mothers and daughters“, is short and sharp but complex too. Its subject is mothers and daughters, but its themes are youth and age, competition between women, anxiety about sexuality, and there’s a little revenge sting in the tail because the first line of this taut 8-line poem introduces the male gaze as well:
The cruel girls we loved
The poem makes me both smile and grimace at once!
Geoff Page (b. 1940)
Geoff Page is particularly special to me – not that he would know it – because he taught my son English at Narrabundah College and he was also the first author to attend my reading group’s discussion of his work. We did two of his verse novels, The scarring (my review) and Freehold, and Geoff was wonderfully generous in sharing his thoughts with us. The scarring is one of the most shattering works I’ve read in a long time. Geoff is, in fact, well-known in Canberra, in certain circles at least, because he has, for many many years, supported Australian poetry and jazz through his monthly Poetry at the Gods and Jazz at the Gods events, of which I have attended a few over the years. He also holds a popular Dead Poet’s dinner every winter and is a regular reviewer of poetry for ABC Radio National.
Page is also represented in the Jamie Grant anthology by one of his best-known poems, “Smalltown Memorials“, about the plethora of World War 1 war memorials in country towns. His poem in The invisible thread is “My Mother’s God“, a rather wry but affectionate look at the beliefs of his protestant mother’s generation:
His second book, my mother says,
is often now too well received;
the first is where the centre is,
tooth for claw and eye for tooth
whoever tried the other cheek
Well, Christ maybe,
but that’s another story
Oh, and he too was born in a country town, Grafton, some long distance north of Canberra.
Alan Gould (b.1949)
Alan Gould is another poet I’ve reviewed here – but for him it was his novel, The lakewoman – and he also agreed to attend my reading group’s discussion of that book. I haven’t, I must say, read much of his poetry – and, unlike the first three poets, he was born in a city. London, to be exact! His poem in Jamie Grant’s book – yes, he’s there too – is called “Pliers“.
“The roof tilers“, Gould’s poem in The invisible thread, immediately brought to mind a delightful short film that I fell in love with, oh over 30 years ago now, called The Log Driver’s Waltz. Made by the National Film Board of Canada in 1979, and sung by the gorgeous Kate and Anna McGarrigle, it delighted me with its whimsy but also because it’s an ode to the grace (and courage) that can be found in the working man. Of course, I had to check You Tube and there it was. Have a look …
Thanks Alan Gould for a beautiful poem and for letting me wander down memory lane!
Both are slender; one is already high.
You watch as he steps on his wire legs,
from batten to batten, pauses, steps,
like a grazing antelope…
Omar Musa (b. 1984)
My last poet – unlike the previous four – is younger than I and, while he hasn’t attended my reading group, I have seen him perform live. He is a poet and rapper from Queanbeyan – sometimes unkindly called “struggle town” – which is the New South Wales town that borders Canberra. Our cities are, as a result, bound closely together, even if sometimes those binds fray a little. Musa is, for an oldie like me, exciting and refreshing. He performs at poetry slams (and can be found on You Tube) and his subject matter often deals with social justice issues to do with multiculturalism, youth opportunity, and similar. His poem in The invisible thread is, of the poems I’ve quoted here, the most grounded in our region. It’s called simply, “Queanbeyan”, and describes his love-hate relationship with a city that contains some of the worst of urban life – “alcos”, “used syringes”, bullies, and people playing pokies – but that’s also “a place where you can still see the stars”. I plan to keep an eye on Omar Musa in coming years.
Who are your favourite male poets?
Note: if a poem is hyperlinked, it is to a copy of that poem on the web.