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Max Harris

Commentary on Australian poetry

From Voices magazine (Vermont, USA), Number 118, Summer 1944

This piece is 1800 words or about four printed pages long.

The beginnings of any kind of valid poetry or poetic stirrings in Australia date into the present century. Earlier, the process of urbanisation that resulted from the decline of the gold-rush days with its influx of population brought about a literary “club” atmosphere in the Eastern cities of Australia. The “bush-balladry” of this period was by no means a spontaneous and dramatic reaction to the wild bushranging Australian environment. It was rather a nostalgia, and in tone, if not in subject, part and parcel of the disintegrating romanticism of the Victorian epoch. Just as many cowboy songs are, no doubt, the product of New York commercial songwriters, so this flowering of vigorous “bush” balladry was European in tone and artificial in subject.
      Only when an Australian writer reverted to a spontaneous romanticism, and acknowledged the technical influences from the contemporary body of European poetic method did this country produce a first-rate poetry. This was the late Christopher Brennan who above all was profoundly influenced in imagery and outlook by the French symbolists.
      This little piece of literary history is highly relevant to any picture of contemporary Australian poetry. For the Australian situation presents a fairly clear-cut picture of some three distinct schools of poetry operating at a degree of intensity never before known in this remarkably uncultured and unpoetical country. They are the Nationalist poets, the “Reportage” poets, and the “Angry Penguins” or modernist school. The nationalist poets carry over organically from the romanticism of the “bush-balladist” with the distinction that each of the several groups waves a Nationalist political banner with varying degrees of fervor. These writers are highly urbanised, organised into clubs and the like, and produce a decadent romanticism which looks with nostalgia towards the Australian scrub and the Australian aboriginal on the one hand, and on the other looks with distaste at the capitalist social framework and urban values. (Human values, such as love, fit into the intellectual pattern in some subsidiary way, but do not emerge as poetic material). One of these schools surrounded the Australia-First Movement (our local equivalent of its American counterpart, to speak Irish). This included the National Extremist writers such as Ian Mudie. Rex Ingamells, and other members of the “Jindyworobak Club.” In Queensland a stronger and more valid movement sprang up behind Clem Christesen and the organ of this group “Meanjin Papers,” is a strong journal with an ostensibly liberal programme for culture. The values of its writers are more genuine and less decadent than “throwbacks” like Rex Ingamells, or Flexmore Hudson, who edits “Poetry,” but there still can be sensed unreal perspective of the function of poetry, and that most dire of all failings, linguistic flatness. They have produced no powerful nor moving poets.
      The “Reportage School” is the least defined of the present forces in Australian poetry. It operates, I am inclined to think, mainly in a geographical insularity in Sydney and is reflected in the English Association journal, “Southerly.” These writers bear somewhat the same relation to the “Angry Penguins” writers that the contributors of “Chicago Poetry” do to the school of Treece and Tambimuttu in England. There is none of the current preoccupation with Personalism in their writings, sociological reflections permeate their writings, and one can see a vigorous effort on their part to instill personalised and illuminating reaction upon the fields of social experience. I feel that both the U. S. A. poets here, Karl Shapiro and Harry Roskolenko, belong within this idiom, but that their reportage is successful when it emerges through the brazier of sharply personal language rather than personal vision. In Australia Muir Holburn and Elisabeth Lambert are the strongest poets of this type. In one successful long poem, “Courthouse,” Elisabeth Lambert gets across intense and valid sociological feeling; the movement and fluidity of mood is both sinuous and subtle; and yet one would look in vain for that sharp, original illuminating image; one discovers no memorable language. The whole is strong significant verse and succeeds almost, in spite of language. Imaginative forces no longer dominate through language, and with these writers we are back at the Audenesque vision, but a stripped and disciplined vision.
      Romanticism is the product of the modernist or “Angry Penguins” school. I here speak, not as a critic, but as expositor and partisan. I hope that in this issue you will see examples of the work of Ern Malley, the late D. B. Kerr, and Geoffrey Dutton. The modern Australian school had quite autonomous origins and therefore its parallelism and distinctions from the romanticism of the younger English writers, the Apocalypticists and the Personalists, is quite striking. The movement towards a strong personal romantic poetry was well under way while Auden’s social criticism poetry was in its hey-day. An intellectual formulation of the function of myth was well advanced.
      The poet Ern Malley came out to this country as a child after the last war with his mother and sister. Here he grew up quite unknown. When he was 14 he left school and became a motor mechanic at a garage at Taverner’s Hill, Sydney. At the age of 17 he suddenly left his job and went to Melbourne where very little is known of his activities. He lived in the Melbourne slums earning a few pounds as an insurance salesman and a watch repairer. Up to this stage he is not known to have shown much interest in literature or culture. At the outbreak of this war he was called up for a military examination. It was discovered he was suffering from Grave’s disease. An operation might have cured it, but this solitary unknown young man refused to have any such treatment.
      Grave’s disease is a thyroid malfunctioning, one of the worst and most debilitating diseases known. The effect is that of the human machine going faster and faster until it explodes and stops, as it were. Its effects can be delayed by doses of iodine in increasing quantities until it is no longer efficacious. Malley died in May 1943. During his last months we have a description of the terrible ravages that this disease inflicts up the personality, the diabolical tension, the nervous irritability of the sufferer is all-consuming. The disintegration of the individual is almost certain. It is in the light of these facts and the terrible nature of his death that Malley’s experiment with death can be examined. Knowing that he faced almost certain death before his 25th year Malley set about his experiment. He amassed a diverse but beautifully integrated body of erudition over the three or four years, so that his poetry possesses a richness and breadth of vocabulary that is quite amazing. He threw off everything which would weaken his struggle to produce a cool, unimpassioned interpretation of the conflict between his mind and vision and the prospect of immediate death. He left Melbourne and a young girl with whom he was very much in love. At his death he left behind him a manuscript of 16 poems entitled “The Darkening Ecliptic” with the following sub-line:

      “Do not speak of secret matters in a field full of little hills...”

—Old Proverb.

The sixteen poems are principally autobiographical. They have a strange quality of detachment about them, and even, in those poems written a month or so before his death, a quiet humor, as when he speaks of

      “A man’s inalienable right to be sad at his own funeral.”

The poems have a formal and technical unity which reflects his own attitude that a poem is a complete and autonomous act of existence. His resilient and defined imagery shows an unerring feeling for language. On reading the series as a single experience the reader has a broader idea of their import and their aim. They are primarily an act, a will to vision, and through the very purity of that vision of the mind’s relation to its own death, the titanic underlying conflict is suggested to the reader. Everything is there and in such a creative form that the uncommunicable is communicated. His experiment with death is also seen as an experiment with truth.
      Donald Bevis Kerr, who was killed in New Guinea in 1942, was I think the first outstanding poet of the modern movement. One of his poems is included here. The lyric incidence of certain experiences used by Kerr undergoes a broadening of implication through his bitter and elegaic philosophy. All values of the senses work themselves out through time and memory into tragic terms. That unity which is the entire individual perpetually preys upon what Blake would call “the minute particular.” This attitude comes emerges strongly in a poem which I found among his papers. It was titled “Epicentrum.”

The silent thunder which applauds
The daffodils destroys them,
The humor kindled in the sea
For death goes breaking later.

So is the rotten water harbor of the lily,
And the body a delight for the raven,
And apprehension born in rented poverty,
Which sees the purple bones a beggar shot.

Here is that adulteration we seldom fear,
The check in the circle, the urgent arc.
Yet less than that comfortable eunuch, freedom,
We devour beauty when most we need it.

Kerr seeks symbols for his tragic inner transmutations in the external world. In doing this he has written his major poem, one of the best poems to come from this country “Oration for Australia.” Here the whole typography of this country becomes a diverse, all-embracing idiom for Kerr’s own nervous and psychic structure.
      The last poet whom I wish to mention is Geoffrey Dutton. His language is stronger, more passionate, and febrile than any other contemporary poet I know. He is not yet capable of that sustained level of illumination which reveals control over his idiom. Felicity of language is sometimes missed, but he tackles the complex threads of his vision with linguistic daring. Moreover, he possesses what is much too rare among many poets, technical brillance. His pyrotechnical rhythms and intonation are far more healthy than the domestic competence of many of his Australian co-writers.
      Finally, I wish to add the feeling that the virility and independence of the present contemporary poetry movement in Australia provides a level of achievement, a force equating with the international writing of our day. I should be happy to see more extensive liaison between the cultural worlds of both countries. No U. S. journals are accessible in this country.

— Max Harris.


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