Simon armitage: walking home backwards

Review of Walking Home by Simon Armitage

Wordsworth – poet–walker par excellence – had the best legs in the business. As his friend Thomas de Quincy noted: ‘Undoubtedly they had been serviceable legs beyond the average standard of requisition. For I calculate, upon good data, that with these identical legs Wordsworth must have traversed a distance of 185,000 English miles.’ In contrast, Simon Armitage’s legs, by his own admission, generally ‘do very little other than dangle under a desk’ or propel him from the multi-storey car park to the railway ticket office. ‘Even if I’m writing about the Sahara or the Antarctic,’ he confesses, ‘I’m usually doing it in a chair, in a room, behind double glazing.’

Simon-Armitage-297x300Wordsworth – poet–walker par excellence – had the best legs in the business. As his friend Thomas de Quincy noted: ‘Undoubtedly they had been serviceable legs beyond the average standard of requisition. For I calculate, upon good data, that with these identical legs Wordsworth must have traversed a distance of 185,000 English miles.’ In contrast, Simon Armitage’s legs, by his own admission, generally ‘do very little other than dangle under a desk’ or propel him from the multi-storey car park to the railway ticket office. ‘Even if I’m writing about the Sahara or the Antarctic,’ he confesses, ‘I’m usually doing it in a chair, in a room, behind double glazing.’

In 1994 Armitage swapped social work for poetry and quickly became the most recognisable face in Britain’s so-called New Generation poets. Since then he has written fifteen collections of poetry, eleven radio documentaries and verse dramas, two novels, and several non-fiction titles. He has also edited five poetry anthologies – including a new selection of Ted Hughes’s poems – and published new translations of The Odyssey, Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, and The Death of King Arthur. But by 2011 the stodginess of routine had set in; the sediment was building up. So Armitage decided to take a walk.

The Pennine Way, measuring 256 miles (410 kilometres, or roughly the distance from Coff’s Harbour to Brisbane) of adversarial terrain, is generally considered the most demanding long-distance walk in Britain. The route begins in the peat moorlands of Kinder Scout, Bleaklow, and Black Hill, stretches along England’s unbroken spine of bleak hill country, across Hadrian’s Wall and traversing half the Cheviot ridge before terminating in the Scottish border village of Kirk Yetholm.

At least that is the way it is supposed to go. But Armitage – sporting a bad back and the ‘small lungs’ he inherited from his mother – sets out from Scotland to walk the Pennine Way south toward his hometown of Marsden in West Yorkshire. Instead of the weather at his back, Armitage walks headlong into a wind so powerful he has to lift his knees high and cycle into it. Crossing Haughton Common, the wind is so adamant in its opposition that ‘any progress is progress upstream, against the flood, into the rapids, with boulders and logs of hard air’ piling into him and knocking him sideways. It is the medicine he has been looking for:

And I think: this is why I came, to stumble into the unexpected, to feel the world in its raw state. I open my mouth to shout MORE, but the force of air just rams the word back into my mouth and down my throat.

Walking the Pennine Way backwards not only allows Armitage to air his poetic bent for perversity, but also launches the titular metaphor that makes this narrative a homecoming. Armitage was born in 1963 in the West Yorkshire village of Marsden, nestled not far from the trailhead. It is the pull of home – the promise of returning to his wife and daughter – that keeps him walking when his loneliness bites and his sense of humour fails.

Armitage trudges through England’s most literary landscapes – passing by Wordsworth’s Aira Force (‘what a sight it is to look on such a cataract’) and sleeping in Hughes’s childhood home in Mytholmroyd – but Walking Home is not a literary pilgrimage. Homage, if any is to be paid, is to Odysseus and his legendary yearning for home.

In the course of ten years, Odysseus outwits the Cyclops, is spellbound by the Sirens, sees his crew turned into pigs, is kept as a love-slave, and slays his wife’s suitors before reuniting with Penelope in the marital bed. Armitage’s conquests are not quite so formidable, nor as eldritch. He keeps careful inventory of his wounds: five horsefly bites, a bloody thumb, soreness in big toe of right foot when bent backwards, windburn, chapped lips, and wounded pride. Happily, he is spared blisters.
For reasons best described as masochistic, Armitage elected to finance his journey by giving nightly poetry readings at pubs and in private homes along the way. His Sisyphean efforts netted him nearly £2000 for his trouble and provided endless opportunities for poetry gags: ‘In the presence of the spoken word,’ he observes, ‘the scrape of knife against plate or the opening of a packet of salted peanuts are nuclear explosions.’

It is not giving anything away to say that the journey is not entirely successful. Neither is the book. It is – to use an Armitage word – a little bit ‘boring’, partly because each leg of the journey follows the same formula: a walk, a quirky fan, a beer, an awkward poetry reading, the scrutiny of his takings (not always cash); and partly because the narrator is often damp, chilly, shaken up, and in a bit of a sulk.

‘In many ways,’ Armitage says, ‘the Pennine Way is a pointless exercise, leading from nowhere in particular to nowhere in particular, via no particular route and for no particular reason.’ Asked if he would walk the Pennine Way again, his routine answer is no. ‘But if I did,’ he relents, ‘I’d rely more on my feet and less on my tongue.’

He would also take someone brave and intrepid with him: ‘Someone not daunted by mist or intimidated by dark clouds, to guide me across the Cheviots, to hold my hand over Cross Fell, and to part the black curtain which hangs over Kinder Scout and lead me through.’

This article was originally published under the title ‘A Pack of Salted Peanuts’ in Australian Book Review 348 (Feb 2013): 56-57.

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Robert hass: blackberries for a black hat dancer

First published in Blue Dog: Australian Poetry

“Meditation at Lagunitas” rides, as Robert Frost says a poem must, on its own melting: “like a piece of ice on a hot stove”. It is perhaps my favourite poem. But writing about favourite poems — as Robert Hass himself notes in his collection of essays, Twentieth Century Pleasures — “is probably a hopeless matter.” You can analyze the music of the poem, he writes, “but it’s difficult to conduct an argument about its value, especially when it’s gotten into the blood. It becomes autobiography there”. I first read “Lagunitas” in 1991 — almost twenty years after Hass first published it — and there was so little in it of what I see now, that it amazes me to remember what it was I originally saw.

robert hassOnly Connect – EM Forster

“Meditation at Lagunitas” rides, as Robert Frost says a poem must, on its own melting: “like a piece of ice on a hot stove”. It is perhaps my favourite poem. But writing about favourite poems — as Robert Hass himself notes in his collection of essays, Twentieth Century Pleasures — “is probably a hopeless matter.” You can analyze the music of the poem, he writes, “but it’s difficult to conduct an argument about its value, especially when it’s gotten into the blood. It becomes autobiography there”.

I first read “Lagunitas” in 1991 — almost twenty years after Hass first published it — and there was so little in it of what I see now, that it amazes me to remember what it was I originally saw. It was the time of the Gulf War, and I was living at the edge of Oceanside, one of California’s largest military towns. Determined to “not let this be another Vietnam,” baby-boomers declared their support for their boys abroad by flying U.S. flags, rescued from the tangle of Christmas lights in their attics, in the skies above their manicured lawns. My neighbours even went so far as to attach plastic “stars and stripes” to the antennas of their Mazda minivans and Volvo stationwagons. One afternoon, I remember, after Bush had issued one of his ultimatums to “Sadim,” as he deliberately “misspoke,” two hundred students from UCSD laid their collective body across five lanes of California highway and stopped traffic for about two hours. Local reporters, overnight celebrities, largely ignored the incident and talked instead of “peacekeeping,” “humanitarian intervention” and “friendly fire.” Operation “Desert Storm” rivaled “The Cold War” for its poetry: from CNN, not Derrida, I learned that language is slick, and meaning is without a centre.

“Lagunitas” is a meditation not on loss but the idea of loss. With its majestic opening, “all the new thinking is about loss. / In this it resembles all the old thinking”, Hass locates the reader in the realm of abstractions where the “luminous clarity of the general idea” is privileged over “each particular”. The idea, for example:

That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light.

Or the notion that, “because there is in this world no one thing / to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds, / a word is elegy to what it signifies”. Hass has never shied away from the language of theoretical discourse. In fact, as Don Bogen notes, “he finds a rarefied music in the polysyllabic abstractions, long clauses and parallel constructions of his argument”. Language here is reduced to its barest essentials, to strings of spondaic feet — “trunk / of that black birch is” or “there is in this world no one thing / to which” — that hit the air like a philosopher’s finger. Deprived of traditional harmonic concepts, Hass’ prosody, in these cases, is absent a feeling of key. Still, I find a dark, almost brooding, beauty to the lines, like the beauty I have found in Nietzsche after reading Foucault.

But “talking this way”, Hass understands, after a while dissolves everything: “justice, / pine, hair, woman, you and I ”, an understanding that is at once a lament for the dissolution of language and a critique of “all the new thinking.” So to fill the resultant void — or test these philosophical axioms along his pulses — Hass recalls a woman he made love to, and remembers how, holding her small shoulders in his hands sometimes, he “felt a violent wonder at her presence / like a thirst for salt”. And it is this violent wonder, Hass’ meditation on presence, which yields the poem’s loveliest lines, complete with bittersweet enjambment: “Longing, we say, because desire is full / of endless distances”.

Ironically, it is with the dissolution of language and the commencement of memory, that Hass finds his stride in his heartbeat, and the iambic meter begins: “But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread, / the thing her father said that hurt her, what / she dreamed”. It is not the hands that break the bread as much as the sounds of the words. The surprise of dismantled — a word associated more with regimes and contraptions than with hands and bread — an ugly duckling turned swan by its iambic necessity: the more expected broke would have disrupted the metre, thereby emphasising the bread and not the act. And, in the next line — perfect iambic pentameter — the stresses land cleanly on the thing her father said and what she dreamed, emphasising that it is particulars which create meaning not erase them.

It is the absolute humanity of these lines that moves, and sometimes crushes, me. Hass’ voice resounds with devotion to remembrance, as if his memory of the woman — his true companion in the etymological sense of the word, the one he eats bread with — might save him The scene is erotically charged and yet, evocative of holy communion, it glows with an aura of religiosity. But one need not be religious — and I am not — to appreciate the astounding beauty of Hass’ ultimate realisation: “there are moments when the body is as numinous / as words, days that are the good flesh continuing”.

Perhaps this is why, after reading Jacques Lacan in 1994, I felt — upon rereading “Lagunitas” — as if I were standing in my bedroom and seeing that I was without a floor. “Lagunitas,” I saw, was not simply a meditation on the idea of loss, but an actual working model of Lacan’s theory of the unconscious. Suddenly, Hass’ “clown-faced woodpecker” became an instance of mere lack (manque); his bramble of blackberry, without a corresponding signified, indicated need (besoin); and his beloved, simply the conscious object of his desire (désir).

Without exception, “Lagunitas” models every stage of Lacan’s theory: the Mirror-Stage, where the child experiences itself as le Désire de la Mère is “a first world / of undivided light”; the psychic field of the Imaginary, where reality is grasped purely as images and fantasies for the fulfillment of desire, is Hass’ thirst “for his childhood river / with its island willows, [and] silly music from the pleasure boat”; the field of the Symbolic, where repression and the unconscious begins as the child learns the names of things, is the “muddy places where we caught little orange-silver fish called pumpkinseed”; the Name-of-the-Father (le Nom-du-Pére which, in French, is pronounced like the No-of-the-Father), where desired objects are replaced by metaphor and metonymy is, of course, “the thing her father said that hurt her”; and finally, the field of the Real, which seems to mean those incomprehensible aspects of experience that exist beyond the grasp of images and symbols through which we think and constitute reality, is Hass’ “moments when the body is numinous as words”.

But this exegesis, brief as it is, is not my hamfisted attempt to fit “Lagunitas” into Lacan’s theory of the unconscious. Rather it is a reading which Hass himself not only courts but has carefully constructed. First, the scene is set with “all the new thinking…about loss” — Derrida and Althusser perhaps — resembling the old — Lacan and Freud among others. And second, “Lagunitas” is strewn with synonyms of post-structuralist deconstruction: erase, divide, dissolve and dismantle. As evidence that Hass was conscious of his word choice in this way — twenty-five years later — Hass uses “dismantle” again in “Regalia for a Black Hat Dancer”:

This was a time when,
in the universities, everyone was reading Derrida.
Who’d set out to write a dissertation about time;
he read Heidegger, Husserl, Kant, Augustine, and found
that there was no place to stand from which to talk about it.
There was no ground. It was language. The scandal
of nothingness! Put cheerfully to work by my colleagues
to dismantle regnant ideologies.

This tactic of literary referencing is one of Hass’ most extended poetic tropes; everywhere his poems describe their sources and discuss what they do or do not or cannot mean. One of my favourite examples of this trope occurs in Praise — nineteen poems after “Lagunitas” — with a poem I had largely ignored for years, “Picking Blackberries with a Friend Who Has Been Reading Jacques Lacan.” In it, Hass recasts the conversation in “Lagunitas” and has “stopped talking about L’Histoire de la vérité, /about subject and object / and the mediation of desire”. He has blocked his ears,

And Charlie,
laughing wonderfully,
beard stained purple
by the word juice,
goes to get another pot.

I love the humour in this resolution. But what brings “a thin wire of grief to my voice, / a tone almost querulous”, is the idea that “Lagunitas” is not, as I had originally imagined it to be, “the repository of a unique history which makes each of us an irreplaceable being”. Rather, it is like Levi Straus’ unconscious: “reducible to a function, the symbolic function” which, in turn, is merely “the aggregate of the laws of language”.

That a poem can have more than one meaning is not a radical idea. But it can be a disturbing idea, particularly with favourite poems, and particularly when a new reading threatens to undo an earlier one. I can find no “happy mediums” here, only tension: the tension between an original meaning found in melody and a newer meaning found in text books; the tension between always being inscribed within language and the understanding that language does not comprise our ultimate reality; and the tension, finally, between the inadequacy of language and a poem brimming with meaning.

But it is tension, I have found, which keeps “Lagunitas” alive. The idea, then, must be not to resolve but to leap. And because I love so much Hass’ gift of the leap — what Denise Levertov calls “the X-factor, the magic” that happens when we come to rifts, to “undreamed abysses,” and we find ourselves “sailing slowly over them and landing on the other side” in “ecstasy” — I conclude with the final lines of “Meditation at Lagunitas”:

Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.

Which is beautiful, any way you melt it.

“It is summer as I write, / Northern California. Clear air, a blazing sky in August, / bright shy Audubon’s warblers in the pines,” writes Hass in “The Garden of Warsaw”. Although Hass’ 1997 collection, Sun Under Wood, contains poems with settings in Alaska, Korea, Warsaw, Iowa City and New Jersey, critic Alan Williamson identifies Hass as the poet in his generation “who has made California landscapes most memorably symbolic”:

The landscape is mostly Berkeley, with the long Japanese-print views of the Golden Gate; the Marin County uplands; an occasional glimpse of the Sierras. What it embodies is not majesty, as in Jeffers, or a transhuman alertness, as in Snyder, but a mellow clarity, a late-afternoon warmth in which longing is bounded, life is found acceptable.

“Sweet smell of timothy in the meadow. / Clouds massing east above the ridge in a sky / as blue as the mountain lakes”, Williamson quotes from Hass’ “My Mother’s Nipples” to illustrate his point.

Yet, charm and modesty noted, Peter Davison objects to Hass’ frequent use of “passive, copulative or auxiliary verbs” in his descriptions and complains that Hass’ poems “keep relaxing into the voice of an onlooker rather than taking on the energy of full participation — as though they came to the poet through a window, filter, a screen of white noise and unscented air”. Davison’s assessment is not atypical: it is a slight heard frequently not only from Hass’ critics but also from his otherwise admiring readers. As one “customer reviewer” from Amazon.com wrote of Hass’ Sun Under Wood, “more nature stuff than I remember from Praise, which I rarely understand the point of. It seems an overly romantic view of the world.” Another admitted, “this may be a personal bias of mine; I often find Hass’ longer [nature] poems tiring and repetitive.” But the real surprise comes when Hass himself directly confronts this criticism in “Interrupted Meditation” which discloses a conversation between Hass and, I assume, his friend and colleague, Czeslaw Milosz, who is speaking:

Of course, here, gesturing out the window, pines, ragged green
of a winter lawn, the bay, you can express what you like,
enumerate the vegetation. And you! you have to, I’m afraid,
since you don’t excel at metaphor. A shrewd, quick glance
to see how I have taken this thrust. You write well, clearly.

I still smile when I read these lines. Clearly, Hass has taken the “thrust” well. Not only does Hass “out” this criticism of his poetry, taking his own “shrewd, quick…thrust” at his detractors, but he also provides a parody of it. And it amuses me also because until recently I, too, shared this view.

Until recently, I say, because I no longer read Hass’ landscapes this way. When I think of poets where nature figures prominently in their work, I am inclined to think of Wordsworth’s “glory in the flower” or Whitman “nose down in the grass.” But Hass’ experience of nature, I believe, is quite different. It is not transcendent euphoria. It is, I believe, his private symbol of loss.

For instance, circling back to Williamson, it is entirely possible to get an impression of “mellow clarity” from the lines he quotes from “My Mother’s Nipples, but only if the reader omits the stanza’s first line, “what we’ve never had is a song”, and its last three: “the many seed shapes of the many things / finding their way into flower or not, / that the wind scatters,” which bracket the stanza in melancholy. Or more clearly, if the reader chooses not to read the prose stanza that immediately follows it:

I came home from school and she was gone. I don’t know what in-
stinct sent me to the park. I suppose it was the only place I could
think of where someone might hide: she had passedout under an or-
ange tree, curled up. Her face, flushed, eyelids swollen, was a ruin.
Though I needed urgently to know whatever was in it, I could
hardly bear to look. When I couldn’t wake her, I decided to sit with
her until she woke up. I must have been ten years old: I suppose I
wanted for us to look like a son and mother who had been picnick-
ing, like a mother who had fallen asleep in the warm light and scent
of orange blossoms and a boy who was sitting beside her daydream-
ing, not thinking about anything in particular.

The “justified” text and unwarranted word breaks draw attention to the self-consciousness of both the boy and the adult poet. It is as if Hass is commenting on his tactic of literary referencing as he does in “Our Lady of the Snows” where the mother is visited “in a hospital drying out,” and her son, learning to bear his “navigable sorrow” stands at his older brother’s closet “studying the shirts,” convinced that he “could be absolutely transformed / by something [he] could borrow”. To me Hass views nature this way, as if it is a shirt — or even a body — that he can borrow.

“Regalia for a Black Hat Dancer,” I believe, provides the key to understanding Hass’ private symbol. It is a poem about emptiness, or rather “two emptinesses: one made of pain and desire and one made of vacancy”. Consider, for example, the juxtaposition in these lines: “my throat so swollen with some unsortable mix / of sorrow and desire I couldn’t swallow — / salt smell, grey water, sometimes the fog came in”. Just as lungs fill with air when the pressure is greater outside the body than within, Hass is “filled” with nature when he is at his emptiest. He continues:

and I’d present my emptiness, which was huge, baffled
(Rilke writing in French because there was no German equivalent
for l’absence in ‘the great positive sense’
with which it appeared in Valéry:
one of my minor occupations was raging against Rilke),
and most of the time I felt nothing,
when the moment came that was supposed to embody presence,
nothing really. There were a few buffleheads,
as usual, a few gulls rocking in the surf.

Nature, then, is a mask for his own disembodiment. His “baffled” emptiness is filled by the off-rhyme of the buffleheads. This gesture is also present in “Sonnet” which begins with “A man talking to his ex-wife on the phone” who, we are told, “has loved her voice and listens with attention / to every modulation of its tone”. He knows the voice “intimately” but knows not “what he wants / from the sound of it, from the tendered civility”. And with this admission of need and longing, the man “studies, out the window, the seed shapes / of the broken pods of ornamental trees”. Unlike “Lagunitas,” this poem does not melt as if “ice on a hot stove,” but continues to dissipate, its thrust irrecoverably lost, until it ends on the line “patient animals, and tangled vines, and rain”. Another illustration, my favourite, of Hass using nature as a body comes from “Interrupted Meditation”:

She sat on the couch sobbing, her rib cage shaking
for its accumulated abysses of grief and thick sorrow.
I don’t love you, she said. The terrible thing is

(In my edition of Sun Under Wood the page breaks on this line, making turning the page a shattering act, knowing as I do the next two lines by heart.)

that I don’t think I ever loved you. He thought to himself
what he had done to provoke it. It was May.

And with “May” we know where Hass is headed; out of his body and out the window:
Also pines, lawn, the bay, a blossoming apricot.

Everyone their own devastation. Each on its own scale.

“When you look past my shoulder and out the window,” Hass said in a lecture on imagery, “it is not an aspen you see quivering in the snow, but the play of light on your retinas.” I remember being disappointed with this idea and, when I transcribed it into my journal, I wrote above it, “which robs the world of yet another tree.” But these days I am inclined to see Hass’ comment as another rewriting, another retelling, of his private symbol of loss. But, as Octavio Paz has said, “the feeling of separation is universal.” Paz continues:

It is born at the moment of our birth: as we are wrenched from the Whole, we fall into an alien land. This experience becomes a wound that never heals. It is the unfathomable depth of every man; all our ventures and exploits, all our acts and dreams, are bridges designed to overcome the separation and reunite us with the world and our fellow beings. Each man’s life, and the collective history of mankind, can be seen as an attempt to reconstruct the original situation. An unfinished and endless cure for our divided condition.

By “experiencing” the aspen this way, as enscripted onto his body, Hass attempts this reconstruction. As do all of his poems, I suppose.

“Private pain is easy in a way,” Hass says in “Regalia,” “it doesn’t go away, but you can teach yourself to see its size”. I remember the years following my own divorce, years of my own devastation, when I liked to hike barefoot in California’s San Jacinto mountains. “I have feet like hooves,” I would joke. But it wasn’t a joke — it was my private ritual — walking until I could feel something and, if I was lucky, it was only my feet. On a good day, I would make it as far as “Hidden Lake” and, if it was winter, my body would tear the thin crust of ice as I stepped into it. And I would stand, or sit if I could bear it, until my heart beat so loud I could find it. When I got home, if I was lucky, I was hungry.

In 1997 I attended the annual Squaw Valley Poetry Workshop in Lake Tahoe, California. The idea of the week-long workshop is to write a poem a day, and then workshop it with a “celebrity poet” the next day. My last workshop was with Robert Hass — who was still US Poet Laureate at the time — and I was terribly nervous. But when the moment arrived, it felt a little anticlimactic. His comments on participants’ work were sparse and random, and I got the impression, for all his empathy, that Hass was pained by the process. Or rather, pained by the workshop’s mandate of “positive comments only” — a flawed philosophy, I believe, that insists that poets learn more from being told what is good than what is not; or at least, the philosophy goes, it keeps them writing. And flawed, I say, because it seems to me — a self-accused Romantic — that the whole is better than any half. I thought of Hass’ “minor occupation of raging against Rilke” and wondered if he felt at all stifled, trapped as he was, on only one side of a dialectic. I never did find out. I had written a poem called “Betel Nut and Lime” and it was up next. Hass said he liked my “blank couplets,” that a writer of good couplets was rare, and that he envied my material. I felt I was up to more criticism than that, wanting so desperately to learn, but in the end I was grateful for the fragment.

After the last poem of the workshop was read, Hass was silent. While the other poets offered their praise and “suggestions in the spirit of options,” Hass stared at the floor. He appeared happy or sad, but mostly puzzled. When the commentaries petered into silence, Hass looked up, a little startled to find us still with him. He smiled. “The first word of the first poem on the first day was sorrow,” he said, “and the last word of the last poem on the last day is marrow.” Silence. “I’d call the week a success,” he concluded.

I left Squaw Valley that afternoon and drove south seven hours along I-5, a pittance of highway’s great unbroken length, stretching from Canada down through California’s burgeoning agricultural belt to Mexico. I felt at once invincible and vulnerable as I drove through a herd of migrating butterflies and, in my head, I wrote a first draft of “Driving into Distance.” But once home, instead of writing out my new poem, I sat down to a cup of green tea and rifled through the copious notes and poems I had collected during the week. I needed to locate the first day of workshop. From sorrow to marrow. Its marvel of assonance and rhyme — Carlyle’s “melody that lies hidden in it” — its serendipity and transformation. It felt too near-perfect for coincidence; so near perfect as to appear contrived. I just had to know if Hass was correct. He was. Only connect.

First published in Blue Dog: Australian Poetry 1.1 (2002): 74–80

Foreword: The Best Australian Poetry 2007

The editor of the fifth volume in our series does, literally, need no introduction, at least for most readers of Australian poetry. Since the mid-sixties John Tranter has been a continuous, modernising force in our poetry, and, more recently, risen to the point where he is acknowledged as one of a select few of Australia’s really great poets.

Guest Editor: John TranterGuest editor: John Tranter
Series editors: Bronwyn Lea and Martin Duwell

The editor of this, the fifth volume in our series does, literally, need no introduction, at least for most readers of Australian poetry. Since the mid-sixties John Tranter has been a continuous, modernising force in our poetry and, more recently, risen to the point where he is acknowledged as one of a select few of Australia’s really great poets. His poetry, as shown in his most recent New and Selected poems, Urban Myths (UQP, 2006), is a complex mix of abstraction and concreteness (he writes as well about the ambience of Sydney, his home town, as any poet), experiment and nostalgia (it is remarkable how often the rural world of his adolescence emerges in the poems). He is also a formal master, reinvigorating old forms and inventing new ones. It is worth noting that Tranter has also been an editor of and for magazines. At the moment he is the editor of an online journal, Jacket, which many people have thought – and said – is the best of its kind in the world.

Perhaps less well-known is the fact that Tranter is an anthologist of real importance. Most will know of his anthology of the group of poets to which, in terms of literary history, he belongs, The New Australian Poetry (Makar, 1979) and of his editing, with Philip Mead, The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry (Penguin, 1991). The second of these surprised many readers, who perhaps feared a stony-hearted, experimental rigorousness, by its generous inclusiveness. Less well-known are Tranter’s Preface to the Seventies – a prescient selection of new poets published by Poetry Australia – and The Tin Wash Dish (ABC, 1989) – a selection of poems made from entries in a bi-centennial competition run jointly by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Australian Bicentennial Authority. Again, what stood out, was its editor’s love of poetry and of the surprises it can bring. As he says:

I saw a chance to compile a genuinely democratic collection of poems by all sorts of Australians, all living and writing in the late 1980s, about every theme imaginable, in every style and form under the Australian sun. Perhaps it’s only now, at the beginning of the third century of white colonisation, when we have learnt to face the often unpleasant facts of our history and the difficult compromises of our social and cultural mix, that an authentic Australian voice can begin to be heard. If so it’s a voice rich with diversity.

‘Rich with diversity’ sounds very like the keynote of The Best Australian Poetry 2007.

All poems are built along an axis with Life at one end and Art at the other. Some – Tranter’s own work is an example, as is Robert Adamson’s, though in a very different way – negotiate this binary with more complexity than others. Some seem to speak simply about, to represent, the world but are in acknowledged or unacknowledged ways verbal creations true to laws which are the laws or art not the world. Others may take the  inside of the mind as their subject – meditations – but are never entirely divorced from the world – which is, after all, if nothing else, the home of their metaphors. Others attempt to be entirely referential, to live inside the world of art or its equally complicated friend, language, but even the most abstract or self-referential of works is an object in the world. Many readers of this anthology will expect from someone with Tranter’s reputation as a high postmodernist an anthology of poems leaning towards the ‘art’ end of the spectrum. They will be surprised. There are many powerful poems here deeply concerned with life as it is lived. In the case of a poem like Pam Brown’s ‘Darkenings’ this involves a rapid sketching of an immediately apprehended reality. Michael Sharkey’s brilliant ‘The Land of Eternal Verities’ is a comic meditation on generational relationships in a distorted but recognizable Australia and Reg Mombassa’s ‘A Commemorative Tone Poem of Surprising Delicacy’ is also in a high comic/hyperbolic mode. But poems like joanne burns’ ‘fork’, John Millett’s ‘Elderly Woman at the Financial Planners’, Megan Petrie’s ‘Peter Doyle’, Brendan Ryan’s ‘What It Feels Like’, Mary Jenkins’ ‘In Tidy Town’ or Cath Keneally’s ‘Crying Girl’ or, indeed, a number of others, derive from a kind of quiet but insistent social-justice tradition in Australian poetry in that they record events and scenes with social implications. Underneath this surprisingly large representation you can feel, I think, Tranter’s abiding interest in the voices of poetry as social and cultural phenomena, intriguingly diverse and, at their best, never drab, predictable or pontifical.

The book opens with an elegant meditation about art in Robert Adamson’s ‘Double-Eyed Fig Parrot’ where that fantastic bird seems an icon of poetry itself looking simultaneously at life and at art. The fact that our anthologies are organised so that the authors appear in alphabetical order produces the accident that the Adamson poem is followed by Judith Bishop’s ‘Still Life with Cockles and Shells’ a work that seems almost to be a counterpart. Here the life is in the art, not the reality of the dead subjects. The poem speculates about the implications of life arising from the dead and finishes with two visions of the end of the world when we are all, paradoxically, dead but still alive. Barbara Fisher’s ‘The Poet’s Sister’ concerns itself with Dorothy Wordsworth’s interaction with her brother and though it may be, at one level, an attempt to recover the reputation of an important and unjustly silenced figure, the level that intrigues us is where Wordsworth’s ‘The Daffodils’, in pretending to be a solitary’s experience, is built upon a lie.

There are a number of meditative poems too in this collection ranging from Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s ‘A Vocation’ which is a kind of audit of his current physical and psychical status (‘The myth I keep on peddling through a life, / That work may be identical to play, / Will do me after all’) to Jennifer Harrison’s ‘Baldanders’ – a difficult but impressive meditation on mirrors and their capacity to, at any moment, be ‘something else’, “Baldanders”. Finally there is Clive James’ ‘A Gyre from Brother Jack’ which, despite being an unlikely candidate, seems quite central to this collection. It compares the two brothers Yeats – one as poet the other a painter – opting for the artist rather than his far more celebrated brother. What James finds in a single painting of by Jack Yeats, ‘A Morning Long Ago’, is a registration of life, not in mundane details but in the realized drama of just how meagre our time on earth is:

William had theories, Jack had just the thrill.
We see a little but we miss the rest,
And what we keep to ponder, time will kill.

            …

The only realistic general scheme
Of the divine is in this rich display –
Proof that the incandescent present tense
Is made eternal by our transience.

It is a fine meditation on art and its complex interactions with the process of living.

Last year’s anthology, The Best Australian Poetry 2006, had already gone to print when that year’s guest editor, Judith Beveridge, wrote to tell us that her good friend, poet Vera Newsom, had died on 10 July 2006. It was therefore not possible at the time for Beveridge to acknowledge the loss in these pages. And so we do it now. Newsom began publishing poetry in Australian literary magazines in the early 1980s and her first collection, Midnight Snow, was published in 1988 at the age of 76. Newsom published three further collections of poetry, including the award-winning Emily Bronte Recollects. At a celebration for Newsom’s 90th birthday in 2002, Beveridge delivered an address in which she described Newsom’s poetry as ‘characterised by a meticulous attention to craft, to clarity, to directness, to rhythm, to a sparse lyrical elegance, and by a deft tonal and formal control’. In 2003 Newsome was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for service to literature as a poet and through her support for the emerging talent of other writers. At the time of her death, Newsom was working with Beveridge and other friends to produce a volume of new and selected poems to be published by Five Islands Press. 2006 was also the year in which Lisa Bellear, a Goernpil woman of the Noonuccal people of Minjerribah (Stradbroke Island), died. As well as being a poet, Bellear – author of Dreaming in Urban Areas (UQP, 1996) – was a visual artist, academic and social commentator actively engaged in Indigenous affairs throughout Australia.

From poets to poetry presses: two of Australia’s smaller publishing houses announced a change focus for 2007: Pandanus Books, based at the Australian National University, ended its poetry publishing days in 2006 with Windchimes: Asia in Australian Poetry, an anthology comprising poems that offer perspectives on Asia by eighty-six Australian poets; and feminist publisher, Spinifex Press, stopped publishing new books altogether. Five Islands Press – with the retirement of founder Ron Pretty – also announced a change of focus, dropping its New Poets Program (which published 32-page chapbooks by six emerging poets each year) and streamlining its mainstream program. From time to time, the New Poets Program had been criticised for being too large to maintain a consistently high quality, nevertheless it launched the careers of a number of 1990s poets who went on to enjoy critical success – Peter Minter and MTC Cronin among them – in much the same way as the Gargoyle Poets series did for Australian poets in the 1970s. It is sad to see it go.

Fortunately, a few small presses have risen to fill the gaps: David Musgrave’s Puncher & Wattmann, which started modestly with one title in 2005, kicked into full swing in 2006 with the publication of three new poetry titles; Paul Hardacre’s papertiger media launched its attractive Soi 3 Modern Poets imprint in 2006; and the eponymous John Leonard Press, producing books noted for top quality production, unveiled a promising list with four poetry books in 2006 and six in 2007. Which goes some way toward ensuring that the poetry book, while doing it tough in the current publishing climate, will not entirely disappear from bookshelves.

We made mention earlier of our guest editor’s role as the editor of an online journal. Taking off in the late nineties, online poetry journals have offered a new world of opportunity for editors not wanting (or unable) to finance expensive print journals. Tranter’s Jacket, launched in 1997, was one of the earliest and has become the most eminent, bringing into conversation poets and critics from around the world. At reportedly over half-a-million hits since its inception, it is difficult to imagine a poetry journal in print format attracting a comparable amount of traffic. A short list of other Australian-based, online poetry magazines that have steadily grown in profile might include Cordite, Divan, Retort, Stylus Poetry Journal, hutt and foame:e. Since we monitor each year the ground rules for our anthology, we have updated our initial decision to avoid taking poems from electronic journals. In coming anthologies, we intend to add the best of these sites to our list of literary magazines from which we source the year’s best poems.