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John Lucas

Martin Johnston and the matter of elegy

This piece is 3,000 words or about eight printed pages long.


MARTIN JOHNSTON was born in November 1947. By the time he was 30 his mother, Charmian Clift, and sister Shane had committed suicide - the former in 1969, his sister in October, 1974 - and Johnston's father had died in 1970, officially of tuberculosis, although by then his health must have been undermined by long years of heavy smoking and drinking. Then, in 1988, his older half-sister died from a drug overdose. In the history of tragedy, the House of Johnston seems fit to rival the House of Atreus. And in both, some primal curse passes from generation to generation. "The way my parents lived has perhaps been disastrous for me in the long term," Martin Johnston remarked in an interview with Erica Travers, "in that what they did was, they wrote very hard, I know, they were terribly hard workers - they wrote from say seven in the morning till midday, and then, then went down to the waterfront and got pissed. And I suppose that's a pattern of life that I've followed ever since..." That interview was recorded on 17 June, 1989. A year later he himself was dead.


The waterfront in question belongs to Hydra, an island in the Saronic gulf. That was where George Johnston and Charmian Clift lived and worked as free-lance writers for a decade, from the mid-50s. (There was a one-year break when they tried and failed to make a go of it in England.) I don't know whether their reputations gave the island its present cachet, but for years now it's been part-time home to hordes of would-be writers, amateur painters, and Joan Collins. When the Johnstons were there, however, Hydra was innocent of the pressures of international tourism.

Martin's formative years were therefore spent in learning to speak and write Greek. Given that he absorbed an enormous amount of Greek culture and history, he'd have known that although Hydra shares its name with the nine-headed monster Hercules destroyed, the Hydra certainly didn't come from the island. Lake Lerna in the Peloponnesus was its stamping ground. He'd also, I suspect, have been sceptical of, if not downright resistant to, any attempt to see his family's history in mythic terms. And he certainly wasn't comfortable with that process whereby death is appropriated for literary purposes, through elegy. William Empson, with whose poetry Johnston was familiar, acknowledged that death "is the trigger of the literary man's biggest gun", but he added the proviso that he thought it a topic "most people should be prepared to be blank upon."


For Martin Johnston death wasn't, of course, merely a topic. It was a brutal reality, and I can therefore understand his contempt for those who took advantage of the topic in order to make it topical. Hence, the opening of his fascinating, unfinished essay "On Berryman's Elegies".

When an Australian poet dies there is, invariably, an almost instant exudation of rich - not to say overripe - elegaic verses from large numbers of his colleagues . . . . In fairly recent years it has happened with Michael Dransfield, Francis Webb, James McAuley, and is now getting under way with that superb poet David Campbell; he being at last unable to defend himself.
In his exemplary Martin Johnston: Selected Poems & Prose (U.Q.P., 1993), John Tranter notes that David Campbell "died of cancer on Sunday 29 July 1979. Peter Skrzynecki's poem, 'On the Death of David Campbell', largely a description of the funeral in Canberra, appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on the following Saturday, 4 August 1979." In view of the almost indecent haste with which Skrzynecki's poem made its public appearance, I'm not much surprised at Johnston's comment that the "news of a convenient death" causes poets to "flick with no perceptible period of transition their mental switches from Quotidian to Elegaic; upon which the memorial verses commence to flow . . . and flow massively, mindlessly flow to that vast confluence where all personal identity is lost."

It was said of that indefatiguable late-nineteenth century biographer, Hall Caine, that he came in with the undertakers. Anyone unlucky enough to be one of his subjects - at last unable to defend himself - would be scarcely in the grave before Hall Caine's biography was hitting the streets. It still goes on. I don't know how many biographies of Princess Diana were jostling for space on the bookstalls within weeks of her death, but at a conservative estimate the number won't have been lower than a baker's dozen. And the same holds true for elegies. An article in a recent issue of Poetry Nation Review by that fine English poet, Lawrence Sail, begins, "On 12 October last year, exactly a week after the Paddington rail crash, Andrew Motion's poem about the accident, 'Cost of Life', was printed in some, though not all, editions of the Guardian." Two days after the publication of Motion's poem, the journalist Catherine Bennet, writing in the same paper, commented, "Even supposing that this horrible recent event is proper material for instant poetry, Motion seems to have nothing in particular to say about it, other than to urge his readers to imagine (had anyone in this country not done so already?) the agony of the victims." (PNR, Vol 26 No 4, 2000, p.4).

It should perhaps be said that "Cost of Life" isn't dealing with the death of poets but of anonymous citizens (well, subjects, according to the British constitution), and that Motion's elegy isn't therefore required to align itself with the tradition to which Johnston draws attention when he remarks that "once poets in any culture become conscious of themselves as occupying a place within a tradition . . . it is only natural, if not inevitable, that they should choose to stress both the existence and importance of that tradition and their own position in it by means of elegies on their fellow-poets." Still, there is a tradition for dealing with natural or man-made disasters, as Sail points out; and although he's too tactful to say as much, Motion's poem certainly doesn't contribute to it.

Writing to the moment is all very well, but if you want your poem to be momentous rather than momentary, let alone monstrous, you need to be very sure of what you're doing. In a wonderful letter to his friend, Marion Scott, the poet Ivor Gurney criticised a sonnet of Rupert Brooke's she'd just sent him. "His manners have become a mannerism . . . Great poets, great creators, are not much influenced by immediate events; those must sink to the very foundations and be absorbed. Rupert Brooke soaked it in quickly and gave it out with great ease . . .  but what of 1920. What of the counterpart to 'The Dynasts' which may still lie within another Hardy's brain a hundred years today." Gurney was writing in 1915. Given the terrible pressures of the Great War, it's not surprising that the best poets, Gurney among them, absorbed experiences which they were then able to transmute into poems of lasting worth. But it's also the case that perhaps the finest elegies of that war - Owen's "Futility" and Gurney's own "To His Love" - aren't specifically about the war at all. If you didn't know their dates and the circumstances of their composition, you wouldn't be able to say that they were "war elegies". They're about handsome young men dying before their time.

Put it this way and it's at once obvious that both Owen and Gurney are writing in the tradition whose agreed starting point in English poetry is Milton's "Lycidas." With this difference. That Milton's young man, "dead ere his prime", is a poet, Edward King. And it was Milton's lament for the poet which famously provoked Dr. Johnson's scornful dismissal. "In this poem there is no nature, for there is no truth", Johnson says, and by way of proving his case quotes the lines in which Milton claims "We drove a field, and both together heard / What time the gray fly winds her sultry horn." Johnson can hardly contain himself. "We know that they never drove a field, and that they had no flocks to batten." And let that, he might have said to Boswell, be an end on't.

I've seen it argued that Johnson, against his natural inclination, pitched into Milton in his Lives of the Poets because he'd accepted a royal commission in undertaking the work and could hardly then speak in favour of the most famous Republican poet of them all. Hogswash. Johnson was always an ardent Royalist. "Sir, the King cannot have too much power," Boswell records him as saying on one occasion. But his criticisms of "Lycidas" are anyway not so much to do with Milton's politics as with his morality. The poem presents its author as a close friend of Edward King's, which he wasn't. Milton is therefore thrown back on artifice. And according to Johnson, "He who thus grieves will excite no sympathy."

Johnson himself wrote one very beautiful elegy, although he didn't call it that. "On the Death of Dr. Levet" is a poem Martin Johnston would surely have admired because, in its tribute to that oddest of all odd figures in the Grand Cham's household, it does what Johnston thought the elegies he had in sights failed to do: preserve at least some sense of its subject's "personal identity." Levet, Johnson says "fills affection's eye/Obscurely wise and coarsely kind;/Nor, letter'd arrogance, deny/Thy praise to merit unrefin'd." Johnson didn't deny Levet a formal "Elegy" because he thought him so obscure and coarse as to be beneath its dignity, as has often enough been suggested. (Of the incorrect arguments advanced about Johnson there seems no end.) People who play this line should be made to look up Johnson's definition of Elegy." 1) A mournful song; 2) A funeral song; 3) A short poem without points or turns." In short, not especially important.

For Martin Johnston, on the other hand, Elegy was important. Too important to be left to certain Australian poets, he suggests, especially if they are writing about other poets. Berryman is therefore appealed to as the figure whose achievements in elegising his fellow American poets provide both model and reproof to his counterparts in Australia. But then fate hasn't dealt them a kind hand. "The embarrassing juxtapositions in Thomas Shapcott's twinned collection of contemporary American and Australian poetry serve as a painful reminder of the thoroughly peripheral, parochial, contingent quality of all but a tiny fragment of our culture," Johnston remarks. "How pitiful, how secondhand, how weedy all our sub-O'Hara, sub-Ashbery, sub-Creeley and sub-Ginsberg; how ill-fitting the borrowed clothes; how sadly comical the attempt to set up our rag-and-twig lay figures against the overwhelming weight of this century's dominant body of English-language verse."

Not having access to Shapcott's anthology, I can't judge the accuracy or otherwise of Johnston's dismissal of then contemporary Australian poetry. But reading his words from afar I have to say that they suggest more than a hint of that bent-backed posture which, when directed elsewhere, was called the cultural cringe.

We might even suggest that there is an element of bad faith in Johnston's praise of Berryman over and against Australian poets. As I understand his argument, it runs as follows. Bad Australian poets (for which in this instance read "Peter Skyrznecki") write inadequate elegies for other Australian poets, who are themselves for the most part pretty bad. By contrast, John Berryman writes elegies well up to the standard required of poems that are to commemorate major American poets. (Schwartz, Jarrell, Pound, Roethke, etc.) And so, having quoted Berryman's "Song 18: A Strut for Roethke", Johnston says, "The initial point I would wish to make here has to do with that equivocal and tricky quality of mind, 'self-confidence'; and it is just here that Berryman's practice impinges most unavoidably upon the question of what's wrong with Australian elegists."

We're thus set up for an answer to the question. But, rather like snakes in Ireland, no answer ever appears. Johnston endlessly - the word is strictly accurate - defers one. Instead, he begins to talk, fascinatingly, about other aspects of Berryman, aspects which lead him further and further away from the question he was supposed to be dealing with. And then the essay simply stops. There is no ending.

I don't know when "Oh Berryman's Elegies" was started, although I assume it will have been sometime soon after David Campbell's death. In his edition, John Tranter identifies it as "From an undated, unpublished and incomplete typescript." And the question that must surely occur to anyone reading it is, why is it incomplete? Johnston had, after all, plenty of time to finish it. Well, perhaps he lost interest in what he was saying. Perhaps. My own hunch, though, is that he stopped at a point where he knew he couldn't go on. He stopped because he sensed he was on the wrong track.

The essay is of course full of remarkable insights and, for all its fragmentary nature, remains one of the best pieces of writing about Berryman I know. And as with all Johnston's prose, it is beautifully deft, witty, gracefully allusive, learned and yet accessible. Nevertheless, it is wrong, not so much because of what it says about Berryman, but because the author doesn't really believe his own argument. On Johnston's showing, Berryman might almost be said to rejoice in elegy. So he did. Indeed, he was positively trigger-happy about it, and this led to the winging of too many defenceless victims. Johnston, on the other hand, couldn't take so cavalier or appropriative a stance. Hence his remark to Hazel de Berg that "I've never been able to write an elegy about that [his sister's suicide], that was just too much, and too shattering, and to write an elegy about that would have seemed a truly disgusting and automatic response: 'right, someone dies, so Martin writes an elegy'. But - I don't even want to talk about that."

The interview with de Berg took place in 1980. By then Johnston had written elegies for both his parents. But "elegy" isn't quite the right word and it's certainly not one he himself uses. "Letter to Sylvia Plath" carries the discreet epigraph "i.m. C.C." It isn't a very good poem, not because Johnston deflects his agonised feelings about his mother onto the by then public figure of the American poet who'd killed herself some seven years earlier, but because it isn't especially accurate about Plath herself. The poem's clotted phrases - Lowell out of Hart Crane, with, for good measure, a touch of Eliot's 1920 satires - quite fail to suggest anything of the poet's "personal identity". They do no more than set up a kind of Gothic chamber of horrors. ("Introverted claustrophobia", Gig Ryan's phrase for some of Johnston's poems, seems especially apt here.) By comparison, "The Sea Cucumber", which bears the dedication "for Ray Crooke", is far more assured. But it, too, deflects attention away from George Johnston towards a painting of Crooke's, so that only gradually do we sense that when "my father talked of waiting", what he's waiting for is death.

The poem's true worth doesn't depend on anything directly to do with George Johnston. The explanation for its success lies elsewhere. In "The Sea-Cucumber", George Johnston's son has discovered how to make the most of his extraordinary gifts, his encyclopaedic knowledge, accretive wit, sudden darts of speculative fancy. And these gifts are not put on self-glorifying display but as an implicit act of homage to his father. Because whatever else his poem is, it very certainly registers the propriety of a life that can't be judged by prudential values. In his interview with de Berg, Johnston told her that not only had he been surrounded all his life by books, he'd also been "surrounded by a sort of mental climate in which it was virtually assumed that what one did was write." This is the climate so finely evoked in "The Sea-Cucumber", and without in any way wanting to devalue the poem's note of wistful sadness, I think it entirely proper to remark that it also endorses the intrinsic worth of his father's life, of a life which takes for granted that art matters. In this sense, and in this sense only, it's about "personal identity."

Johnston's poetic procedure is therefore very different from the out-frontedness so evident throughout Dream Songs. Nor, I think, would he be especially sympathetic to the stark claim in "Homage to Mistress Bradstreet", "We are on each other's hands/who care", a claim which is worn as a badge of honour. Johnston's temperamental quizzicality won't permit him such plangent utterance. Hence, the poem dedicated to John Forbes, which he called "In Memoriam", and whose mostly sardonic account of dead poets and the elegaic mode, while full of good things, is perhaps rather too anxious to demonstrate that Johnston himself is above "writing elegies/notebooked and rainslicked at the graveside." But that note of fastidious demurral is unmistakably his. And it clearly struck home to John Forbes. For in a late poem, "lassù in cielo" (a kind of deflected elegy to both Johnston and David Campbell, although -- further deflection a la Johnston - dedicated to Julie House), Forbes recalls the two poets arguing "over a lunch time stew".
Martin chopping garlic to
vague, patrician interjections -
"mate, isn't garlic something
one can over do?"
Martin pauses, mock pedantic -
"Aristotle, Galen, Hypocrates
& all the authorities agree,
          garlic, de natura
is not subject to degree!"
Like Campbell and Johnston, Forbes is now "lassù in cielo". His poem, in no sense rainslicked, persuades me that it's captured something of that "personal identity", the absence of which from most Australian elegies drew Johnston's scorn. But as Johnston and now Forbes - among others - have demonstrated, you don't have to write like Berryman to write well about your fellow poets, or anyone else, come to that. And if elegies matter, then the matter of elegies needs to be handled with the kind of tact not often to be found anywhere in the world.

Photo of John Lucas by John Tranter

Photo of John Lucas by John Tranter

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