Poetry of the Thirties

What so often happens to me in reading is thar one thing leads to another. As it should.

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I recently picked up a copy of Poetry Notebook 2006-2014, by Clive James at Readings and enjoyed most of the essays on poets that he’d felt were important to him over the years; Frost, Edgar, Eliot, Les Murray, Auden. James has a bit of fetish about form and all that, which is repeated a bit, but he always has something interesting to say. At one point, he waxes lyrical over a Louis MacNeice poem, Meeting Point and recommends the Penguin Classic anthology, Poetry of the Thirties, edited by Robin Skelton.

So, I dug out my old copy of that anthology and re-read the introduction and that poem and dippped into those poems from a decade haunted by the rise of fascism and the coming of another war. They are familiar names: Betjeman, Dylan Thomas, Spender, but as Skelton says in the introduction, Auden ‘dominates (this period) from first to last’, and he certainly has more poems in this anthology than any other poet.

My favourite, Lay Your Sleeping Head, later published as Lullaby.

skelton

Coincedentally, picking up my copy of The Monthly today, I read Late Styles, a review by Justin Clemens of Les Murray’s Waiting for the Past and Clive James’s Sentenced to Life.

The review labours to make the unsurprising point that Murray is a better poet than James, and takes James to task, describing his work in this collection as ‘sentimental’, ‘self-pitying’, ‘pretentious’, ‘platitudinous’, ‘narrow’ and ‘almost infantile’. My guess is that Clemens see himself as not shirking the truth of the review but really …?

I’d rather not end my thinking about poetry this week with the mean-spirited superficialities of the review of a dying man’s book, but go back to Auden again, and this poem, from 1937, which seems beyond politics, personal or otherwise.

Lullaby

Lay your sleeping head, my love,

Human on my faithless arm;

Time and fevers burn away

Individual beauty from

Thoughtful children, and the grave

Proves the child ephemeral:

But in my arms till break of day

Let the living creature lie,

Mortal, guilty, but to me

The entirely beautiful.

Soul and body have no bounds:

To lovers as they lie upon

Her tolerant enchanted slope

In their ordinary swoon,

Grave the vision Venus sends

Of supernatural sympathy,

Universal love and hope;

While an abstract insight wakes

Among the glaciers and the rocks

The hermit’s carnal ecstasy.

Certainty, fidelity

On the stroke of midnight pass

Like vibrations of a bell,

And fashionable madmen raise

Their pedantic boring cry:

Every farthing of the cost,

All the dreadful cards foretell,

Shall be paid, but from this night

Not a whisper, not a thought,

Not a kiss nor look be lost.

Beauty, midnight, vision dies:

Let the winds of dawn that blow

Softly round your dreaming head

Such a day of welcome show

Eye and knocking heart may bless.

Find the mortal world enough;

Noons of dryness see you fed

By the involuntary powers,

Nights of insult let you pass

Watched by every human love.

W.H. Auden


Poems about Frankston

Frankston can get some bad press at times. Like many regional centres, especially at the end of the railway line, it has its share of problems: youth unemployment, drugs, crime and all that comes out of that.

But there’s another side of Frankston too; it was once a sleepy seaside holiday town, with a long, sandy beach and a meandering creek wandering by the shoreline. You can even read a passionate defence by the Mayor of Frankston HERE

I grew up in Frankston and though I haven’t written about it a lot, just a few poems now and then, it’s part of who I am. In my writing, my interests have moved further south, to Port Phillip Bay and Western Port Bay particularly.

But I was delighted to be asked to contribute to a forthcoming anthology of poems about Frankston and I can’t wait to see how other writers have responded to this place. I think I’ll have a couple of poems in the collection including, The Day it Snowed in Frankston. More details when I know more about a launch date.


Birdcall

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As I blogged about earlier, I joined a good sized audience this week at 45 Downstairs to hear some short fiction loosely focused on the idea of ‘love and loss’, short story readings from Carrie Tiffany, Arnold Zable and Toni Jordan, which were all interesting and 45 Downstairs is a great place to hear writing.

However, I was really there to hear Liam Davison’s work read. And I was so pleased with the choice, a story called Birdcall which was featured in the Best Australian Short Stories 2013, (Blackinc)

It’s a beautiful story, classically about love and loss, but imbued for all of there with the heard-rending sadness at the loss of the author.  It’s a beautiful story, about a father and son, about putting away the past, about connections and disconnections. The central image of the birdsong, and the bird-caller is wonderfully balanced and subtle and restrained, like his best writing so often was.

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It was also beautifully read by actor Paul English (above). It’s not an easy story to read, with its birdsong (see the opening below) built into the story. Easy to get wrong. And Liam’s voice is also hard to read sometimes, the tone matters, and English got it just right.

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It was very moving to hear Liam’s words out loud again, with lots of his family and friends in the audience too. And I thought I held it together pretty well; I really wanted to hear the story and listen to it, listen to it as a beautifully written piece of fiction and not get all mixed up with thinking about everything else around it.

And I mostly did that, but when we got to the passage below I couldn’t help but think of all the writing that we now won’t get from Liam and that hurts. And maybe I lost it a little then.

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Liam Davison featured at Shorts@45

I saw this week that a forthcoming event at FortyFive Downstairs (Flinders St, Melbourne) is going to feature a reading of a short story by writer Liam Davison, tragically killed last year. In my opinion Liam’s stories were among his very best work; his collection The Shipwreck Party is one of my favourites. It will be interesting to see what story they choose and no doubt moving for his friends and admirers to hear his work aloud again and reflect on the work that didn’t get written.

shipwreck

More details here.


Remembering Dylan Thomas

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I couldn’t let this year slip away without dedicating something to the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, who was born 100 years ago in 1914, and who meant a lot to me when I was a young writer trying to develop my own voice, or grow out of his.

Thomas is a bit out of fashion now; that lovable, hard-drinking, hard-partying, womanising? thing looks a bit self-indulgent now, and his poetic legacy remains in some uncertainty; a lyrical poet or someone too in love with the sound of their own voice?

Still, for me, some of Dylan Thomas’s poems were always important, and I was drawn to their voice and lyricism as well as the sense of ‘place’ and the sea that has always mattered in my own writing.

For a little while, when we were first married, we rented an old weatherboard place that overlooked Port Phillip Bay and I spent a charmed summer writing poems that tried to sound like him. While I hope I eventually found my own voice, I still admired Thomas, and even named him in my 2011 list of My Top Ten Poets (though I might revise that list now a bit: Auden up, Donne down)

And, in that first literary pilgrimage, that first trip to Europe when the kids were little, Dylan Thomas was firmly on the trail, along with Wordsworth, Yeats, Eliot, Hardy, Austen, Shakespeare and Bronte. We travelled to Laugharne especially: had a pint of Guinness at the local (I did, the kids didn’t!) and then walked up the hill to the The Dylan Thomas Boathouse and the small, humble white cross of his grave.

Later, I taught Under Milk Wood to senior students and dragged my tattered old Everyman paperback version of his Collected Poems around with me a lot; I even remember someone asking me what I was doing with a book of poetry at a surfing competition at Bells Beach a one stage.

There’s some links below, if you want to read more about Thomas, and below that, one of my favourite Thomas poems, Fern Hill: the text and an audio of Thomas reading that poem.

And, I’ve dragged that copy of his Collected Poems out to look at again today too, before the year tilts away.

The Dylan Thomas Official Website

The Poetry Foundation site on Dylan Thomas

Dylan Thomas 100 Years Festival Site

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Fern Hill

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs

About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,

The night above the dingle starry,

Time let me hail and climb

Golden in the heydays of his eyes,

And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns

And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves

Trail with daisies and barley

Down the rivers of the windfall light.

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns

About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,

In the sun that is young once only,

Time let me play and be

Golden in the mercy of his means,

And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves

Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,

And the sabbath rang slowly

In the pebbles of the holy streams.

All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay

Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air

And playing, lovely and watery

And fire green as grass.

And nightly under the simple stars

As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,

All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars

Flying with the ricks, and the horses

Flashing into the dark.

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white

With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all

Shining, it was Adam and maiden,

The sky gathered again

And the sun grew round that very day.

So it must have been after the birth of the simple light

In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm

Out of the whinnying green stable

On to the fields of praise.

And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house

Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,

In the sun born over and over,

I ran my heedless ways,

My wishes raced through the house high hay

And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows

In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs

Before the children green and golden

Follow him out of grace,

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me

Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,

In the moon that is always rising,

Nor that riding to sleep

I should hear him fly with the high fields

And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.

Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,

Time held me green and dying

Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

Dylan Thomas, 1914 – 1953


2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,600 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 43 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.


Abandoned picnic places

Picnic spot

I’ve always been fascinated by those places that time and history has passed by: Industrial archaeology, the stone circles of Celtic Europe, or the smaller, more intimate places, derelict houses or picnic places that have been by bypassed and abandoned.

Near where I live, and cycle regularly, there is a short stretch of the highway that was diverted off perhaps thirty years ago now and replaced by a newer streamlined bit of more modern cornering. The original stretch of highway, that we used to travel on as kids, maybe 400 metres or so long, was just cut off and left to grow over.

Sometimes, riding in the area, I like to take that old detour and explore that old niche. Included in the off-cut was a roadside picnic table and stools, now being overgrown in grass and emerging saplings. Here, I like to think, families would pause in their travels, unpack a thermos and some sandwiches and take a rest. I blogged about it already in 2011 in a post about The Lost Highway.

It’s still falling apart gently. And, I was reminded of it recently when I saw a recent article on WebUrbanist about 150 Vanishing US Rest Stops, which a photographer had been documenting. An admirable project I thought. I heartily approve.

Below, another photos I’ve taken over the years on that theme, a drawing and a poem too. Seems that these ideas keep bubbling up in lots of versions.

Picnic table

Abandoned picnic table

Picnic Place

These families with their picnic baskets,
their kids weightless on the swings
legs flashing in the sun,
think they invented this place,
think they found this place near the bridge
by the estuary where the creek flows into the sea.
They think they found this place this summer evening,
but we were there.

I walk from the swings and the families,
their wine glasses and picnic plates
their kids racing to the jetty,
the last sun shining in their hair,
someone putting on a jumper against the cold.

Up ahead, up river somewhere,
I can hear the beating of wings.

Top: Picnic spot, near Mildura, VIC. Photo: Warrick
Middle: Abandoned picnic spot on ‘the lost highway’, Mt Martha Photo: Warrick
Bottom; Picnic table, iPad drawing. Warrick


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