Delicious descriptions: Richard Flanagan on Poetry

In my review of Richard Flanagan’s The narrow road to the deep north I talked a little about the importance of poetry to some of the main characters. I can’t resist sharing just a little more on this topic.

This is Dorrigo thinking, at the end of his life, though he doesn’t know just how near it is at the time:

He felt the withering of something, the way risk was increasingly evaluated and, as much as possible, eliminated, replaced with a bland new world where the viewing of food preparation would be felt to be more moving that the reading of poetry; where excitement would come from paying for a soup made out of foraged grass. He had eaten foraged grass in the camps; he preferred food. The Australia that took refuge in his head was mapped with the stories of the dead; the Australia of the living he found an ever stranger country.

Dorrigo Evans had grown up in an age when a life could be conceived and lived in the image of poetry, or, as it was increasingly with him, the shadow of a single poem. If the coming of television and with it the attendant idea of celebrity – who were otherwise people, Dorrigo felt, you would not wish to know – ended that age, it also occasionally fed on it, finding in the clarity of those who ordered their lives in accordance with the elegant mystery of poetry a suitable subject for imagery largely devoid of thought.

I was thrilled when I read that Dorrigo, who was born around 1913, had “grown up in an age when a life could be conceived and lived in the image of poetry”. It reminded me of my recent observation that poetry seems to have played a more significant role in people’s lives back in the 1920s than now. So, for Dorrigo, poetry is what he turns to for sustenance, for meaning or explanation, in his life. He says at one point that he can sleep without a woman, but he can’t sleep without a book. I love the idea of a world where poetry is widely known, loved and referred to.

Anyhow, here is Nakamura, dying of cancer, thinking about “goodness”:

He told himself that, through his service of this cosmic goodness, he had discovered he was not one man but many, that he could do the most terrible things he might otherwise have thought were evil if he had not known that they were in the service of the ultimate goodness. For he loved poetry above all, and the Emperor was a poem of one word — perhaps, he thought, the greatest poem — a poem that encompassed the universe and transcended all morality and all suffering. And like all great art, it was beyond good and evil.

Yet somehow — in a way he tried not to dwell upon — this poem has become horror, monsters and corpses. And he knew he had discovered in himself an almost inexhaustible capacity to stifle pity, to be playful with cruelty in a way that he found frankly pleasurable, for no single human life could be worth anything next to this cosmic goodness. For a moment, as he was being eaten by Tomokawa’s* oppressive armchair, he wondered: what if this had all been a mask for the most terrible evil.

The idea was too horrific to hold on to. In an increasingly rare moment of lucidity, Nakamura realised what was imminent was a battle not between life and death in his body, but between his dream of himself as a good man and this nightmare of ice monsters and crawling corpses. And with the same iron will that has served him so well in the Siamese jungle, in the ruins of the Shinjuku Rashomon and at the Blood Bank of Japan, he resolved that he must henceforth conceive of his life’s work as that of a good man.

Nakamura, as I said in my review, saw poetry as portraying “Japanese spirit” and it helped him justify his actions as commander of the camp. After the war, he gradually started to question his actions, but here at the very end of his life he wants, needs in fact, to see himself as a good man. And by force of will he does so, enabling him to choose as his death poem one which concludes with “clear is my heart”.

I love the idea of choosing your own death poem – and think I’ll start thinking about mine. What about you?

* He’s visiting Tomokawa, who had been one of his corporals on the Railway.

10 thoughts on “Delicious descriptions: Richard Flanagan on Poetry

  1. I’m number 45 of 45 at the moment for this book at my library. I’m really looking forward to my turn! Another poetry connection for you, there is a Penguin publication of Basho with this same title. I suspect it isn’t a coincidence?

  2. Hi Sue, I don’t like to think about death, so it is not on my agenda. In the past I would have chosen John Donne’s poem, Death Be Not Proud, as my death poem. However, after reading David Malouf’s poems in Earth Hour, I am tempted to change my mind. I did appreciate’Towards Midnight’ and ‘Earth Hour’.

    • I’ll check these out Meg. All I’ve thought so far is not the The Hollow Men with its last line! I do like a Dorothy Porter one from The bee hut … I think it’s the last one. She’s dying of cancer and yet concludes that she’s been lucky. I love it.

  3. Thanks for this lovely reminder of how important poetry is in The Narrow Road, Sue. When I saw Flanagan at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, I was a little disappointed he wasn’t asked about the poetry in the novel, because it is such an important part of the main characters’ lives, as you point out here. I think we could all do with a little more poetry in our lives.

  4. This is a good and important theme, D H Lawrence isn’t to everyone’s taste but he wrote many beautiful poems and about life’s coming to an end: The Ship of Death, and others from Last Poems. Mary Oliver comes to mind, her poems work particularly well at funerals.
    And the Irish priest who wrote Anam Cara, John O’Donahue.
    I’ve yet to read this novel. I saw him interviewed on Newnight last night, he seemed so sad.
    And beautifully serious.

    • Oh thanks Carol … I feel I’m over Lawrence’s man in novels, but his poetry is something different. You reminded me then of Hardy. I’d have to go check my book, but I did love several ones of his, though they may be too cheerless. I also love Gerard Manley Hopkins but would I go for a joyful poem, or an angst ridden one?

      I feel I’ve heard of May Oliver but will have to check her out. I’ll probably find I recognise some.

      • Two poems by Philip Larkin – Ambulances and Aubade are magnificent death poems (perhaps really fear of death poems).

        It is fascinating to speculate on the place of poetry in people’s lives. Paul Fussell’s book The Great War in Modern Memory examines the very central place poetry seems to have had in the culture in 1914-18 war. Palgrave’s anthology and the Oxford Book Of English Verse were central to reading experience. The war perhaps blew that away in the English speaking world and a hypercommercial world (which has its own poetry equivalents) probably has little space for the art to be anything other than extremely marginal – perhaps, I don’t know!

        • Thanks Ian – I’ve heard of Larkin of course but am really not very familiar with his work, so I will check these out. That’s interesting about poetry in World War 1. I’m just reading a biography of Australian poet CJ Dennis whose book The sentimental bloke was published in 1916 and did very well, partly the author says because it cheered people during the way. Last night I read the chapter covering 1920 – 1924, and the author commented on is decline partly because the taste in his sort of poetry was changing but also because the novel continued its move into the prestigious literary place once occupied by poetry. I hadn’t really thought about it before but it makes sense when I think about how askance people viewed novel reading for a long time, and how that has changed.

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