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Canberra, Schooled

The ‘Canberra School of Poetry’, a somewhat erroneous term, goes back to the early 1980s when Les Murray wrote a favourable review in the National Times of several collections by poets who happened to be living in Canberra at the time. The so-called ‘Poetry Wars’ were  then still underway and it seemed convenient to Murray (and to his opponents) to group a number of very different younger Canberra writers as a more ‘conservative’ alternative to certain Sydney and Melbourne poets of the same age who seemed unduly affected by the work of the New York School of John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara and others.

This so-called ‘Canberra School’ tended to be more  influenced by poets such as Robert Frost in the US, Philip Larkin in the UK and Kenneth Slessor in Australia — along with many others, including twentieth-century European poets in translation. Laurie Duggan suggests something of all this when, as a ‘modernist’, he recalls battling ‘the so-called Canberra Poets who under the guiding spirit of Les Murray were trying to turn the clock back’.

Of course, in Canberra in the 1970s there was also an older generation of poets including A.D. Hope, David Campbell, Rosemary Dobson, R.F. Brissenden and Judith Wright (living out near Braidwood from 1974) who did much to encourage the younger poets and give them a sense of working in a continuing tradition. The term ‘School’ was not, however, used among the locals. It was employed only once or twice by Murray himself who had left the city some years earlier, after having worked at the ANU as a translator and having published his first book, The Ilex Tree (with Geoffrey Lehmann) at the ANU Press.

One of the main movers of the so-called ‘Canberra School’ was Icelandic-Australian poet, Alan Gould. His career has been balanced evenly between prose fiction and poetry. Concerns such as character, morale, metaphysics and the Age of Sail as a metaphor have been common to his work in both forms. In the more recent of his dozen poetry collections, Gould has been showing his lighter side, indulging in the comic, the erotic, the ludic, the satirical and the explicitly domestic. Some might see this is a retreat from the ‘seriousness’ and ‘ambition’ of his earlier work; others, as a late-career demonstration of range. The change began with Dalliance & Scorn (1999) and would seem almost to culminate in this latest collection, Charlie Twirl, which, though serious enough at times (‘For the Finns of 1939’ and the title poem), is mainly playful.

It’s an adjective that might even describe the book’s centrepiece, ‘Ten Homages to Ralph Vaughan Williams’, a sequence in which Gould endeavours to answer the synaesthetic question of what we actually ‘see’ when we listen to classical music. Needless to say, the answers are highly subjective but not perhaps arbitrary. Vaughan Williams’ famous composition, ‘The Lark Ascending’, serves, for instance, to remind Gould of his (half-forgotten?) Englishness. ‘When Violin Inveigles Air’, the poet’s response to this piece, begins:

Shied by the brute of England
             when I was seventeen,
I’ve wondered since if a violin
             might act as go-between

to intercede pro patria,
             uplift me for those shires
of wooden stiles and Queen Anne’s lace,
             and bloodshot-eyed esquires ...

It seems that the violins, cellos, tubas and so forth of Vaughan Williams’ various compositions are able to  ‘intercede’ very well in Gould’s case. This kind of ekphrasis can be very convincing, even as one realises that other listeners’ responses may well be very different. As with his earlier poems about the sea, these also grow out of a real love for the subject but are primarily a ground for speculation, often metaphysical.

Another of Gould’s recurrent inspirations is the work of earlier poets in the same tradition. One feels on him the imprint of David Campbell and Kenneth Slessor and behind them, in their turn, of Wyatt and Surrey. Gould, along with the late Canberra critic, Dorothy Green, believes that literature is a conversation across the ages. In ‘The Epochs Must Go Chatterbox’,  he evokes a place where ‘John Milton talks to William Blake, / so Blake can deal alarum knocks / that bring the dreamy Yeats awake / to take his share of poetry’s ache, // while Wyatt tickles Campbell’s ear / with ‘Whoso list to hunt, I know …’ / that from five centuries appear / those ‘cruel girls we loved’ who show / their daughter’s brilliant counterglow.’

In ‘Yeats’ and ‘Shakespeare’ Gould addresses his poets directly. In other places, such as ‘The Poetry Competition at East Coker’, he invokes them (T.S. Eliot, in this instance) for his own satirical or polemical purposes. ‘Journeymen,’ he asks, ‘do we not inhabit an important city, / moiled in our era’s rage for the mediocre …?’ Obviously, Gould is parodying the liturgical cadences of Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’ but they seem reluctant to do the job proscribed.

More clearly successful are the book’s two most serious poems, ‘Charlie Twirl’ and ‘For the Finns of 1939’. The latter is a monologue spoken by those Finns who fought so bravely and ingeniously against the Russians in the winter of 1939. The poem is based on the ‘Karelia Suite’ and argues that the courage those defenders found was somehow based on the nation-defining compositions of the country’s famous composer, Jean Sibelius.

The assertion would be hard to prove without a lot of research but couplets such as the following are convincing enough in poetic terms: ‘Bottled petrol down a hatch, a crowbar jammed in tracks, / one human nerve will stop a tank when need and music mix.’ One again feels here the admiration for ‘morale’ which has marked so much of Gould’s work, both in fiction and poetry. The final couplet reinforces the point. ‘Who wins a winter war? Not us, though we staked our ‘Hereby’. / There’s spoiled faces in the snow. Sweet music tells you why.’

‘Charlie Twirl’, the book’s title poem (and its best), may seem lighter in tone but it’s a serious evocation of the unbelievable relief felt by the Allies at the end of that long and destructive six years known as World War II. It’s based on the famous newsreel footage of the crowd in Martin Place on August 16, 1945 which, in Gould’s view, managed to conjure a ‘genie now to seize their joy, // to skip and sway and doff his trilby, / pirouette his sideways smile, / and signal how all futures will be / made the lighter for his style.’ I suspect ‘Charlie Twirl’ will become (or should become) an anthology classic to rival Les Murray’s ‘An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow’ — also set in Martin Place.

John Foulcher came to Canberra in 1988 with a reputation as a disciple of the Australian imagist poet, Robert Gray, but with a Christian rather than a Buddhist tinge. His first collection, Light Pressure (1983), had been set for several years on the NSW Higher School Certificate and this had given his career an unusually early impetus. Despite an hiatus of a few years in Coffs Harbour, Foulcher has been very much a part of the Canberra poetry scene for almost three decades now. In that time he has published six collections and three volumes of selected poems. He’s on record as saying that he tries to make each book different from its predecessor and this, despite a number of continuing concerns, is true — never more so than with the humour and colloquialisms of The Learning Curve (2002).

The particular innovation in Foulcher’s new book, A Casual Penance, is to book-end a series of miscellaneous poems with two ambitious sequences, one (‘Grachis’) on Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and the other (‘The Greater Silence’) a spiritual autobiography in prose poems which has, to my knowledge, no parallel so far in Australian poetry.

In his previous collection, The Sunset Assumption (2012) Foulcher gave us, among much else, a compact and graphic verse biography of Maximilien Robespierre, the French revolutionary. In this new book he does something similar with the post-impressionist painter Toulouse-Lautrec. The twelve poems are in the second person, addressed to Lautrec himself, and, along with some considerable research, are based on paintings and posters displayed in a major exhibition of the artist’s work at the National Gallery of Australia in 2012-13.

In this sequence Foulcher catches very well the late nineteenth-century Parisian demi-monde in which Lautrec was both an observer and a participant. The opening tercets of ‘La Goulue (Louise Webber)’ are an index to the tone of the sequence more generally, with its subtle (or perhaps not so subtle) implications about power structures based on sex and class. ‘Her legs are everything. She flings them apart / and stays standing, turns on a tide of lace. / The well-dressed men stare up at her thighs. // Tonight they are hoping her arse will be bare. / The women beside them fidget and shift, / squeeze their lips and smirk in the dark.’

This is certainly a long way from the metaphysical imagist poetry for which Foulcher was first known but the reader (the listener?) will have no trouble appreciating the poet’s musical skills — the assonance in ‘legs’ and ‘everything’, for instance, and in ‘well-dressed’ and ‘men’, the same ‘e’ sound linking them all. One notices, too, from the third line onwards, how (after the initial iamb) an anapaestic rhythm, suggestive of the dance step perhaps, is created and maintained in a sequence which elsewhere is in iambic pentameter.

The poems in the interlude between The Casual Penance’s two major sequences include several elegies and range widely in subject matter. To some extent, they look back on the first sequence (‘Paris Evening’) and foreshadow the second (‘Bible Study’). There are a couple at least which have a strong sense of a previous Foulcher canon, ‘Tinned Meat’ and ‘10 December 1952’).

The first of these neatly summarises the physical and spiritual exhaustion of old age where love is, nevertheless, able to assert itself through small, unselfconscious acts of domesticity. The second cleverly situates the poet’s birth announcement in the context of all that is happening in the newspaper on that particular day, much of which is now more than half-forgotten but which still serves to render the appearance of a single baby depressingly inconsequential.

The spiritual autobiography traced in the book’s concluding sequence of prose poems is probably its most remarkable achievement. Some poems, like ‘Father and Son’, resonate in ways the reader may not be quite be sure of. Is a father’s exasperated and brief exile of his annoyingly talkative young son to the ‘back fence’ in the dark an analogy for a more notable father and son mission?

Among the most memorable and indicative poems here is ‘At the Crusade’ where the fourteen-year old poet and his brother attend a Billy Graham crusade but do not ‘go down’ at the end. It’s a clear rejection of a certain sort of religious simplifying, a rejection that recurs through the sequence (indeed throughout Foulcher’s work more generally). The poems are arranged chronologically by year, the earlier ones emphasising the interpenetration of faith and sexual attraction. ‘The girls in the Evangelical Union are like Jesus, theirs is the promise of salvation. They roam a lush savannah, but there is no path there, no map.’ As this suggests, there is a deal of irony and quiet humour in these poems too. ‘Why the Anglicans’ is particularly enjoyable in this regard.

The underlying seriousness of the sequence, however, can be felt in the last three sentences of ‘Wedding, the Sea’. On the day after the wedding, ‘away from the world’,  the poet remembers, ‘we walk by the sea, where the wind is tearing itself to bits. Shreds of it fall in the surf, they are taken in and out. At night we lie together and listen to the sea. Only our voices, as they drift in and out of the night, seem to mean something.’ There is a nice minimalism here (and more than a whiff of agnosticism) but I suspect that the wind may have overdramatised itself here — just a little. Personification, when overly extended, can often take a poet to aesthetically problematic places.

Paul Cliff moved to Canberra in 1997. The Impatient World, published in 2002, was his first full-length collection. A Constellation of Abnormalities is, in effect, his second though he has six books altogether counting chapbooks. On Constellation’s back cover the late Noel Rowe describes Cliff as ‘Murrayesque in (his) capacity for correspondences’.  Certainly, like Les Murray, Cliff has a high degree of individuality (some might say quirkiness), an egalitarian brand of compassion and a considerable wit but his end product is very different to Murray’s.

Constellation is not explicitly divided into sections, but, as the product of fifteen years’ work, there is a sense of development throughout. ‘Continuity with Change’, as the politicians would have it. One definite continuity here is a feeling of relaxation. Cliff’s poems are always as long as they need to be — and this applies to the book’s prose poems too which, to some readers, might seem to risk prosiness but which do not actually succumb to it. Many of the poems are leisurely autobiographical narratives; many others are similarly-paced dramatic monologues.

An early example of the former is ‘Himalayan Rock Salt’ in which the poet recalls the hardships endured by porters bringing sacks of rock salt on their shoulders down from ‘the cloud-shredding peaks’, through the tree-line and rhododendron forests to where the poet is at leisure to enjoy ‘its pure, salt-sweet deliciousness on (his) tongue … / … the  true, precious taste of this earth.’ Though there is a passing reference to ‘education’ and the ‘study of a trade’ foregone by (or not offered to) the porters, Cliff is careful not to labour the ideological point the poem clearly makes.

A fine example of the monologue (and of the prose poem) is seen a few pages later on as Cliff assumes a sensibility totally unlike the autobiographical one in the poem just discussed. Matters of industrial justice are far from the mind of Harry Flashman, hero of George MacDonald Fraser’s twelve ‘Flashman’ novels, who has (probably deservedly, according to Cliff) fetched up at a ‘rag-tailed paradise crawling with Adventist & Presbyterian religious at the scrag end of the Imperial World.’ Here, among other denizens, our hero has to endure ‘braying packs of loud-mouthed Australians on diving tours’ while he savours (at a distance, these days) ‘the frisky fillies and lovely young mares trip(ping) their way to Sunday church.’

At times these narrative elements can produce something akin to flash-fiction — as in the title poem, ‘A Constellation of Abnormalities’. Here Cliff creates a nice juxtaposition of an ‘inexplicably foxy’ female cardiologist and her hapless, middle-aged male patient who suffers from the eponymous, though admittedly poetic, ‘constellation of abnormalities’. ‘Should 25 years’ intensive medical training preclude you from being a poet as well? At heart.’ The poem’s last sentence, with its brand name and jokiness, has a typically Cliffian tone to it: ‘ … she’ll need to kick this consultation along — and get her cardiological skates on — if she wants time to get home and tug on her Lorna Jane sports shorts and top and fit in her evening jog.’

Certainly, Constellation is a constellation. The variety of subjects, strategies and accents in this long-anticipated collection is impossible to summarise neatly. The comedy ranges from unapologetic farce through to oblique and sophisticated wit; the drama from political protest, through unalloyed tenderness to historical irony, a fine example of the last being ‘Traudl Junge at Noosa: the sea, the sun, the dictationist’.

Hitler’s ‘personal dictationist’ survives the war and in the early 1970s is visiting her sister at Noosa. The poem’s closing lines are another indicator of Cliff’s talent for tone and detail: ‘ … her shoulders start to burn, and she takes a last drag / on her cigarette, pushes it face-down in the sand. / Snaps her bathing cap on — stands and saunters light-hipped / toward her sister and niece who wave from the surf. // One life might bear all manner of strange fruit. / As it does for this ex-Hitler girl: / the dictator’s dictationist, at 22. / And now showing a leg at Noosa, thirty years on. / Still looking good in a two-piece swimsuit.’

Melinda Smith came to Canberra in 1989. Her fourth book, Drag Down to Unlock or Place an Emergency Call (2013) won the unusually munificent Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Poetry in 2014 which rapidly accelerated her career. Goodbye, Cruel is her first collection since that happy event and arrives with high expectations.

Smith is a hard poet to categorise. She often displays a mastery of traditional forms such as the sonnet. At other times she can be almost an avant-gardiste with her use of computer-generated poems and centos (poems created entirely with lines from other sources). She has a seemingly innate feeling for irony and humour but can also produce poems of extreme tenderness and emotional depth when the subject demands them. Goodbye, Cruel displays all of these features and more.

It’s broken into five sections, of which the most ambitious, ‘Goodbye, Cruel’, comprises a series of poems on suicide. It’s a risky title, seeming at first to trivialise the issue with a cliché but it’s soon apparent that Smith’s aim is to demonstrate a genuine truth beneath the over-used phrase. The poet seems to stand at exactly the right angle to the issue — not having been touched by it personally yet close enough to it through conversation, acquaintance and research to see the issues clearly.

A good example of Smith’s relative objectivity is seen in ‘A Plate of Biscuits’, a monologue derived from Jeremy Gavron’s memoir, A Woman on the Edge of Time. Throughout the poem, Smith seems merely to amass details in sequence but their cumulative impact is a devastating illustration of the holes suicides inevitably leave in the lives of people they loved. Thus, in ‘A Plate of Biscuits’, a woman drops her two kids off at school (the daughter only in kindergarten) and then drives  to a friend’s empty house where ‘(you) taped the doors and windows shut / and gassed yourself’. At the age of sixteen, the narrator (that same kindergarten girl) is finally told by her father what happened. The last few lines of the poem embody the unbearable poignancy of which Smith is often capable: ‘People thought I should be angry with you. / I wasn’t. / I did find a note from you / years later at grandma’s house / after she died. / Tell the children I love them, terribly. // Nobody had, of course. ‘ That normally fatuous ‘of course’ tells us (or reminds us of) everything we need to know about the age in which the note was written (and withheld).

There are several other poems in the ‘Goodbye, Cruel’ sequence of the same quality and intensity. The ending of ‘Not to be’, for instance, has a comparable impact. The poem is about a farmer who is drowned (accidentally?) when his ‘quad bike overturns in the creek’. ‘In the end the left-behind can know nothing cleanly, and all he knew / is what he wanted for them, and what he didn’t want.’

The book’s other sections include a relatively playful opening group called ‘Tiny Carnivals’, another devoted to the almost mythical Persian female poet, Rabi’a Balkhi, as well as a miscellany of landscape and character poems in ‘Riverine’ plus a final burst of forceful, often brief, almost ‘European’, poems called ‘Endtime’.  There are numerous highly memorable works scattered throughout — and particularly in ‘Endtime’. These include poems such as the elusive tanka, ‘Uta’, the jokey personification of Sydney as a ‘sandstone / blonde with your wide blue eyes’ (‘Do You Come Here Often?’) — and the final poem, ‘Bone Tree’, short enough to quote in full: ‘In the bare blue air of my dream / there is a bone tree growing // it may not know where I have been / but it knows where I am going.’

No less powerful than all these however is the curiously-titled confessional poem, ‘DKA-TID-BGL-HBAIC’, concerning a near-fatal diabetic coma endured by the poet’s young,  Type 1 diabetic son. Again, it is based mainly on the accumulation of detail. Its last two lines sum things up only too nicely: ‘ … one day, seven pinpricks, four injections, dozens of questions without answers. / Cyborgs are not the future. You are already among us, quietly calibrating.’

All of the four poets discussed here are also contributors to a 2014 anthology edited by this reviewer and Kit Kelen. It’s called The House is Not Quiet and the World is Not Calm: Poetry from Canberra and includes 45 poets then living in Canberra and ten notables from the past. Most of the living poets have produced books which are nationally distributed and, predictably, they differ greatly.

Three poets in the anthology represent the performance poetry scene which has been quite strong in the city for a couple of decades now. None of the poets included is particularly associated with the  experimental poets currently flourishing in Melbourne (and to a lesser extent in Sydney). It would seem then that, after fifty years or so, the so-called ‘Canberra School’ is still loosely ‘conservative’, though that single and somewhat pejorative adjective massively oversimplifies the variety to be found here. These new collections by Alan Gould, John Foulcher, Paul Cliff and Melinda Smith are all fine examples of the strength and diversity of poetry to be found in our capital city (and its regions) at the moment. The ‘Canberra School of Poetry’ may never have quite existed but clearly something substantial has. Long may it continue to thrive.