Monday musings on Australian literature: Black Inc’s Best 100 Poems

I’ve been feeling rather guilty about a book sent to me in late 2013 by Black Inc. I’m usually very conscientious about reading and reviewing books that I’ve accepted for review – not so much for those sent to me “on spec” – but I slipped up with Black Inc’s The best 100 poems of Dorothy Porter. As I recollect, it came just after a major overseas trip and got caught up in the run-up to Christmas. I did read much of it, but just didn’t bring it to conclusion in order to review. So, I thought I’d talk about it “right here, right now”, to use some current vernacular.

The bee hut, by Dorothy Porter

Cover image (Courtesy: Black Inc)

Black Inc, which won ABIA’s Small Publisher of the Year award this year, is a small publisher that actively supports Australian poetry. Not only have they now produced three “best 100 poems” volumes, but they have published the annual Best Australian poems volumes for several years, as well as individual poetry collections like Les Murray’s Waiting for the past, Robert Gray’s Coast road, and Dorothy Porter’s The bee hut (which I reviewed a few years ago now). All these books, as far as I can tell, are published in print and electronic format.

Now, the topic in hand. Here are the three “best 100 poems” volumes published to date, listed in order of publication.

The best 100 poems of Les Murray (2012)

I bought the e-version of this after hearing Murray (b. 1938) speak last year at Poetry at the Gods. As the only living poet of the three, Murray made his own selection. Unlike the Porter collection, in which the poems are grouped in some way, Murray’s selection is simply (though some thought is sure to have gone into the order) a list of 100 poems with no reference to their original context. Murray’s oeuvre is huge – his career has been very long – so without extensive research I don’t know where every poem comes from or how each fits into his career. As you would expect from a “best 100” they  are diverse in subject and style.

The first poem is “Driving through sawmill towns”, from the 1990s I think. Read it and see what you think. I like its understanding of human behaviour – the “tall youths look away” while “it is the older men who/come out in blue singlets and talk softly to you”. Meanwhile, “all day in calendared kitchens, women listen/for cars on the road/lost children in the bush,/a cry from the mill, a footstep -/nothing happens”. I like the sense of resignation in the inhabitants, but no judgement from driver driving through. A later poem, “Mirrorball”, from 2010, describes travellers on a bus riding up the Hume Highway through old towns full of history, but when the driver sets off again “half his earplugged sitters wear/the look of deserted towns”. Oh dear. Not all Murray’s poems are about country towns, but rural life is one of his ongoing subjects.

I’m not sure I really like reading poems in e-format, in which I bought this book, but the upside is that you can carry some poetry with you wherever you go.

The best 100 poems of Dorothy Porter (2013)

PorterBest100BlackIncThis is a posthumous collection selected by Porter’s (1954-2008) partner, the novelist Andrea Goldsmith. It includes a small selection of poems from her verse novel The monkey’s mask which I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read. (Having now read the few poems Goldsmith included here, I’m inspired to rectify this.) It also contains poems from her verse novels El Dorado and Akhenaton, as well as from various other collections of her rather extensive oeuvre. The poems range, for me, from beautiful, heart-rending, funny, and/or wicked to rather obscure. But that’s probably the nature of poetry. Those that draw on classics and mythology sometimes lose me, I have to admit, with their erudition, but her heart, her imagery and the way she can cheekily play with rhyme and rhythm are what I love about Porter.

I’ll just share one of Porter’s poems. It’s called “Circular Quay” and expresses discomfort with perfection, because experience has taught her so: “This perfect day/makes me uneasy … I breathe easier/spying some scum/floating/on a lovely green wave./Nothing’s perfect”. In the middle of this short tight poem she is reminded of the past. It’s the sort of poem that makes me write “Oh, yes” in the margins.

I’m tempted to suggest that Murray writes more of People while Porter’s poetry is more about the Personal. This is a rather coarse generalisation I know. These poets are highly diverse, but it’s how their writing, such as I’ve read in recent years, strikes me.

The best 100 poems of Gwen Harwood (2014)

Gwen Harwood (1920-1995) is the oldest of the three, and is the one I know least, so I won’t say much. I’ve heard her described as one of Australia’s finest poets, and readers I respect speak positively of her, but I really only discovered her when I started researching Australian poets for Wikipedia a few years ago. Why is this? I certainly didn’t study her at school or university, and since then, I must admit, my poetry reading has been very erratic. This selection was made by her son, John Harwood, who is also a writer. Her recurring themes, according to Wikipedia, include motherhood and the “stifled role of women”. Music, the Tasmanian landscape and Aboriginal dispossession also recur in her work.

From the compilers of these collections – the poet himself, the partner, the son – it appears that Black Inc has aimed to make these “best 100” volumes personal rather than academic in flavour, which is lovely I think.

Given these three volumes were published in the last three Novembers, I’m presuming another will be published this November. I wonder who it will be? Meanwhile, I’ll close by saying that these are gorgeously produced books – with lovely covers. They would suit those wanting an introduction to the specific poets as well as their fans.


Dorothy Porter, On passion (Review)

Do you read “little” books? You know those small books that are carefully placed on bookstore sales counters where you are buying the book you really came for? I don’t often, but every now and then one catches my eye. Today’s review is of such a book from Melbourne University Press‘s Little books on big themes series. It’s by Dorothy Porter and is titled On passion. She finished it just before she died in December 2008. I think I could be justified in calling that poignant, don’t you?

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012 Badge

Australian Women Writers Challenge (Design: Book’dout – Shelleyrae)

Dorothy Porter was (is, really) a well-regarded, successful Australian poet. I reviewed her last collection, The bee hut, a couple of years ago. It’s a wonderful collection full of the pains and joys of living. It is, you could say, a passionate book. One of the poems I quoted in that review is about the passion for writing, for finding the perfect way to express an idea:

and your pen slashes ahead
like a pain-hungry prince
hacking through
the bramble’s dragon teeth
to the heart’s most longed for
comatose, but ardently ready

So, writing, of course, was one of her passions but in this little essay Porter explores all sorts of meanings of the word (for her). She starts with her adolescent passions – her youthful religious faith which was replaced by her “dark gods, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix” whose “daemonic songs” were her “new hymns”.

From here she explores the various ways passion has been part of her life … woven always with poetry, hers and others, and music:

Music has been my draught of intoxication since the very moment I first heard the Beatles in early 1964 […] I have been a Beatles pop/rock music maniac ever since, and have written virtually all my poems to rock riffs and rhythm – the catchier, the darker, the louder, the gutsier the better.

She talks in one section of Dionysus and moderation, strange bedfellows, eh? She argues that Euripides best understood the Dionysian, by exploring “how best to respect and live with it”. She admits, though, that “moderation was not something I embraced with Delphic calm, but something I gutlessly and gracelessly caved into” because, for example, she and drugs did not mix!

Nature too features, snakes in particular. “Real and living snakes are sacred to me” she says and then explores Minoan snake worship versus “the debased and diabolical serpent-demon of the Judaeo-Christian Garden of Eden”. She talks of the Rainbow Serpent in Australian Aboriginal Dreaming but admits that, when she actually confronts a King Brown snake in the desert, her worship did not stop her getting “the shock of my life”. She also refers to DH Lawrence‘s poem “Snake”, which I fell in love with in my teens. Lawrence describes the visit of the snake  as “a sacred event”. Porter says she always forgets the ending, how Lawrence’s fear gets the better of him so that he scares the snake away. She remembers only the vision of the wild thing being watched (and appreciated) by the poet.

There are other passions, but I’d like to conclude on the one dear to the heart of readers. She writes

I wonder if some of the most deeply passionate experiences of my life have happened between the covers of a book.

Not only do I love the idea that books have such an effect on us, but I also like her qualification: “some”, she says! Life is, after all, important too!

She describes Wuthering Heights as “the most scorching novel in the English language”; says that “there is, paradoxically, much more convincing grown up sex in Jane Austen than in Emily Brontë“. Oh, yes! She talks of Sappho’s love songs; admires one of my favourite poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins, for “pushing language as hard as it will go into ecstasy – and despair”; and describes Ginsberg as convincing her “of the power of language to shock”. She talks of love and desire, of wanting “to find and deliver scenarios, characters and poems that are magnetic with sexual energy” but asks, provocatively,

… how many readers have we lost because we have ignored the ancient silent cry: ravish me.

Near the end she wonders if reading had been the greatest passion of her life. She says – reminiscent of Francesca Rendle-Short and Michael Sala’s comments that writing/reading is dangerous – that

… at a more profound level I recognise that there is something very unsettling about a book.

Absolutely … but what say you about books, reading, passion?

Porter, Dorothy
On passion
Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2010
(Series: Little books on big themes)
ISBN: 9780522858358

Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian literary couples

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning

Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning (Unknown date and photographer, Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Are you fascinated, like I am, by literary couples? It seems so romantic to share one’s calling with another … even if the reality is not always as idyllic or as successful as it sounds. We’ve all heard of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, to name just a few famous couples. I’m guessing, though, that not many have heard of our Australian couples, but we do have them – and so this week I’m sharing five (from the past) with you.

Vance (1885-1959) and Nettie Palmer (1885-1964)

While Vance and Nettie Palmer are not particularly well-known now (at least to the best of my knowledge), they were extremely significant in their heyday, the 1920s-1950s, as writers, as proponents of Australian literature and as mentors for younger writers. Nettie in particular corresponded with and supported many women writers, including Marjorie Barnard (1897-1987) and Flora Eldershaw (1897-1956). They were literary critics and essayists. Vance was also a novelist (I read his The passage many moons ago) and dramatist, while Nettie was also a poet. They were political – egalitarian, anti-Fascist, and tarred, as were many back then, with the “Communist” brush! Their relationship seems to have been a productive and supportive one.

George Johnston (1912-1970) and Charmian Clift (1923-1969)

This is one of those troubled pairings, and it ended in the suicide of Charmian when she was not quite 46. They met in Australia, lived together in England and Greece (where they tried to live on their writing), before returning to Australia with their three children in 1964. Johnston wrote the highly successful My brother Jack, which some see as a contender for the Great Australian Novel and which is the first in a semi-autobiographical trilogy. Charmian wrote two successful autobiographies, Mermaid singing and Peel me a lotus. Both wrote much more across a wide spectrum: novels, essays and other journalistic pieces, short stories, and so on. Theirs was, in the end, one of the more self-destructive rather than mutually supportive relationships. Sad.

Ruth Park (1917-2010) and D’Arcy Niland (1917-1967)

Ruth Park (born in New Zealand) and D’Arcy Niland were more than a literary couple. They created a literary family, with two of their five children, twin daughters Deborah and Kilmeny, becoming successful children’s book writers and illustrators. I have written about Ruth Park before. She and D’Arcy worked as free-lance writers and shared a concern in their writings for the battlers in Australia. They worked hard to survive on their writing, turning their hands to a wide range of forms and genres, including novels, short stories, plays and journalistic pieces. They were, like the Palmers, a successful and happy couple until D’Arcy’s early death.

Rosemary Dobson (b. 1920) and Alec Bolton (1926-1996)

Rosemary and Alec were a little different from the other couples I’ve chosen to discuss here, but I’ve chosen them because they lived in my city, and I (ta-da) met and worked for a few years in the office next door to Alec. Rosemary Dobson is a significant Australian poet who associated with other major Australian poets like A. D. Hope and David Campbell. She has published around 14 volumes of poetry, edited anthologies, and translated poetry from French and Russian. Her husband was not so much a writer as a publisher. According to the AustLit* website he “was a creative force in Australian publishing for almost half a century. After his war service he worked as an editor for Angus & Robertson and Ure Smith before establishing the publishing program at the National Library of Australia”. He established one of those wonderful small presses, Brindabella Press, in 1972 while still working at the Library, and then continued working on it after his retirement. It was a labour of love, and among the authors he published was, of course, his wife!

Dorothy Porter (1954-2008) and Andrea Goldsmith (b. 1950)

Dorothy Porter, whose last book The bee hut I have reviewed here, is (was) another Australian poet. She lived with her partner, the novelist Andrea Goldsmith, for 17 years before she died through cancer in 2008. Goldsmith, whose latest novel The reunion I’ve also reviewed here, said in an interview after Porter’s death that “I’ve always loved Dot’s work – indeed I fell for the poetry before I fell for the poet”. Porter, who also wrote several verse novels, was more prolific than Goldsmith, but both produced well-regarded work during the course of their relationship. Another productive and successful pairing.

Some time ago I read an article about literary couples and the challenges they face: financial (supporting themselves from writing), space (finding room for each to write), and the big one, jealousy or competitiveness. I’m impressed that, despite such issues, four of the five couples I’ve described seem to have been remarkably successful – and this is beautifully exemplified by Ruth Park’s words at the end of her autobiography, Fence around the cuckoo:

We lived together for twenty-five years less five weeks. We had many fiery disagreements but no quarrels, a great deal of shared and companionable literary work, and much love and constancy. Most of all I like to remember the laughter.

After sharing five children and a rather insecure career, that’s pretty impressive.

I’d love to hear about other literary couples – Australian or otherwise, past or present – that you have come across.

* I have not provided a link to this site since most of its content is available by subscription only.

Dorothy Porter, The bee hut

The bee hut, by Dorothy Porter

Cover image (Courtesy: Black Inc)

The most powerful presence
is absence
(from “Egypt”)

The above lines open Australian poet Dorothy Porter‘s The bee hut, a collection of poems mostly writen in the last five years of her life. The lines are prophetic … and they appropriately open a collection which deals very much, though not exclusively, with the tension between life and death. The poems are, in turn, angry, resigned, beautiful, humorous even, and philosophical. Some draw on Christian and other mythology, some allude to other poets, and some are simply founded in the unembellished here-and-now. And, despite the fact that we and she know that death is coming sooner rather than later, they are life-affirming.

The collection is divided into eight groups:

  • Head of Astarte
  • The enchanted ass
  • Poems: January – August 2004
  • Smelling tigers
  • Jerusalem
  • Africa
  • The freak songs
  • Lucky

The title poem, “The Bee Hut”, is in the “Poems: January – August 2004” group:

But do I love the lesson
of my thralldom
to the sweet dark things
that can do me harm?

In her brief introduction to the collection, novelist Andrea Goldsmith, Porter’s partner, writes that:

The bee hut became a metaphor for these last years of her life … She marvelled at the bees, as she had always marvelled at life, but she was also aware of the danger amid the sweetness and beauty.

Danger in life, the darkness that is found alongside beauty, is the defining paradox of the collection: “In living there is always/the terror/of being stung” (from “Bluebottles”). Not all poems explore this idea but many do.

There is some sort of thematic underpinning to the poem groupings, and there is a strong autobiographical flavour. The “Africa” section, for example, clearly relates to travels in Africa; “Poems: January – August 2004” were written about her time undergoing chemotherapy for the breast cancer that was to kill her; while “The Freak Songs” are “a song cycle written for performance with the music of Jonathan Mills“. These last are older poems, and therefore predate her diagnosis, but are an apt inclusion. They are wild and defiant: “I bite the apple/I lick the fire/I kiss the sweet sweet snake” (from “The Fruits of Original Sin”). But even here there’s recognition that death, in the end, has the upper hand: “You live your life/as if there’s a secure cage/for the clipped wings/you’re planning” (from “The Bluebird of Death”).

Even more than with a short story collection, it is impossible to discuss every poem in a collection – and, to be honest, I would find it hard to do so since while  some spoke to me easily and some I could grasp with a little thought, there are others that elude me, mostly because their allusions are not familiar to me. I am not, for example, an expert on French poets like Rimbaud, Verlaine, Baudelaire, so when she invokes them I can guess at their meaning but am not totally sure I “got” it. Consequently, I’m just mentioning a few of the poems which particularly appealed to me.

Her poem “Blackberries” in “The enchanted ass” deals with the imperative to write poetry and the urgency to get it down, to locate and express the idea:

and your pen slashes ahead
like a pain-hungry prince
hacking through
the bramble’s dragon teeth
to the heart’s most longed for
comatose, but ardently ready

Most of the poems are like this – strong, vivid and comprised of short active lines. There are quite a few recurrent images – blood, birds, incense. All very concrete and yet all highly evocative as well. I think that’s what I like about most of the poems – they work well on a visceral as well as a philosophical level. You feel them as well as hear them.

Also in “The enchanted ass” are “Three Sonnets”. The first refers to Byron, the second to Woolf and the third to Blake. In the Woolf one, she writes:

Life is so dangerous,
but this morning you can take
the wave
right to the sparkling shore

You can bear knowing
the street will one day dump you.
(from “What a plunge!”)

One day she finally is dumped … and yet, even then, just two-and-a-half weeks before her death she can write:

Something in me
despite everything
can’t believe my luck.
(from “View from 417”)

There are poems here that are a little obscure to me – that I will need to read again with Google at my side to check the allusions – and there are no amazingly new revelations about life and death, but their passion and vigour engaged me from the get-go! I’m glad I’ve finally been introduced to Dorothy Porter.

Dorothy Porter
The beet hut
Melbourne: Black Inc, 2009
ISBN: 9781863954464