On Philip Martin and criticism

I was talking to my Year 12 Literature class this morning about Heart of Darkness, its initial critical reception and the polarising re-evaluations since, by Achebe largely, and others as well.

It’s a part of the course called Literary Perspectives, that I initially had lots of reservations about (can we just stick to the text) but I’ve actually enjoyed teaching it and seeing familiar texts in new light.

Later, as I was looking online for post-colonial and feminist readings I thought of a conversation I had with the poet and teacher Philip Martin a long time ago. Martin taught me at Monash University and I’ve written about him here before.

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On this occasion we were talking about the value of critics and I think I said that I liked it when a critic said something that I’d thought or felt, but said it in a way that I never could.

He considered that and replied that, sometimes a good critic can make you see or feel things that you could never have thought of yourself. I liked that answer, and I liked teachers who do that too.

All this made made me think again about Martin and his work. I’m the proud owner of three of Martin’s books, but they’re hard to find, and there’s not much available online.

There is an interview from In Other Words: Interviews with Australian Poets by Barbara Williams available onlinefrom Google Books and a brief biography of Martin on the UNSW site as a guide to his papers. It reads:

Philip John Talbot Martin was born in Richmond, Victoria on the 28 March 1931. He was educated at Xavier College, Kew, 1937-1950, and graduated with a B.A. from the University of Melbourne in 1958. Prior to his teaching career Martin worked at the Titles Office, Melbourne, 1953-1956, and as a Publication Officer at the University of Melbourne, 1956-1960. His teaching career began, firstly as a Tutor in English at the University of Melbourne, 1960-1962, followed by a position as a temporary Lecturer in English at the Australian National University, 1963. In 1963, he returned to Melbourne as a Senior Lecturer in English at Monash University where he worked until his early retirement due to ill health in 1988. During his teaching career he was also a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Amsterdam in 1967, Visiting Professor, University of Venice in 1976, and Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota in 1983. He was a member of International P.E.N., Fellowship of Australian Writers, Association for the Study of Australian Literature, member and former Chair of the Poet’s Union of Australia, Melbourne Branch, 1978-1979 and 1981-1982 and Amnesty International.

From 1962 Martin was a frequent broadcaster of poetry and features on Australian and overseas radio. He read poetry in Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney, Hobart, Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Yugoslavia, England and the United States, and conducted several poetry workshops. He began publishing poems as a student at the University of Melbourne and his poems, articles and reviews were widely published in Australia, Europe and the United States in journals and anthologies. He broadcast both as a critic and poetry-reader, and wrote the scripts for several television features produced by the Australian Broadcasting Commission.

Martin’s publications include:

  • Voice unaccompanied : poems (1970)
  • A bone flute (1974)
  • From Sweden : translations and poems (translated by Martin, 1979)
  • Strava : poems on Attila and the Huns (photocopied from Southerly and published by the author, 1980)
  • Directory of Australian poets 1980 (edited for the Poets Union of Australia by Philip Martin … 1980)
  • A flag for the wind (1982)
  • Shakespeare’s sonnets; self, love and art (1982)
  • Lars Gustafsson (translated by Martin, 1982)
  • A season in Minnesota : poems (1987)
  • Lars Gustafsson : the stillness of the world before Bach (translated by Martin, 1988)
  • New and selected poems (1988).

Philip Martin died in Victoria on 18 October 2005.

I remember Martin as a gifted, articulate, generous teacher who surprised me by revealing that poets really did live in the world.

Some scans from my books of his are below

The cover of A Bone Flute (ANU, 1974)

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A Flag for the Wind, 1982

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My copy signed by Philip

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Back cover of A Flag for the Wind

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The cover  of New and Selected Poems (Longman Cheshire 1988)

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Acknowledgments

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Back cover with brief biography.

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‘Bequest’, the final poem in A Bone Flute, and fitting farewell.

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On Ted Hughes

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I finished the monolithic biography of Ted Hughes by Jonathan Bate this morning and thought I’d reflect on some of that. At 672 pages it’s an effort, but mostly worth it, except for some of the more arcane analysis, particularly close examinations of notebooks and notebook poems and some tenuous links between life and art.

It’s a bit of a defence of Hughes against the ‘Libbers’ and, despite the fierce instance of the value of Hughes’s work in its own right, he remains a figure connected always with his relationship with his first wife, Sylvia Plath, a connection that’s evident in both the writing and the life lived forever after.

Bate argues that the release of Birthday Letters, late in Hughes’s career, marks a freeing up moment but Hughes didn’t live long enough after that to benefit from that clarity.

As a writer I was very interested in Hughes’s own working mode, his self-scrutiny and reliance on detailed notebooks, and observations of people and nature, many of which seem like poems themselves. This is an unauthorised biography, and it seems the estate did not give Bate permission to use poems in the text, behind the notebooks quoted a lot.

Most importantly, it’s drawn me back to a poet I thought very highly of when those first books came to my attention in the 1980s, and I pulled these two down from the shelf and re-read them both.

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Roman Wall Blues

It’s funny how one thing leads to another, in life, and in reading. And in writing too, sometimes.

So, sitting down at last to read Luke Davies prize-winning collection Interferon Psalms this week, which I’m luke-warm about (though I get what he’s doing I think, with all the Biblical language and over the top imagery, what they call on the back cover of the book ‘ an oracular language of incantation’) I’m drawn to something other than the Davies work I’m supposed to be reading, a reference to Auden in:

Soaking wet by Hadrian’s wall
I dreamed of sunlight and olive trees
And a comfortable pair of sandals.

[thus said the wise old Wystan Hugh] in Davies…

and I’m drawn back to that poem of Auden’s that I hadn’t read for years.

At first I thought the reference was from ‘The Fall of Rome’, a favourite Auden poem, but a quick refresh finds that Davies’ is referring to ‘Roman Wall Blues’, number 11 of ‘Twelve Songs’, written around 1937, the twelfth song being the famous ‘Some say that love’s a little boy … ‘.

I like Auden, the early things particularly. In my ‘favourite poems’ section of this blog, for example, I’ve talked about ‘Sonnet from China’ and a few others (including, to my shame, the same poem twice, Hopkins’s ‘The Windhover’.!)

So, I was thinking, what is it about this poem that I like? Something of the personification of the great histories of the world into a disgruntled Roman soldier getting a cold in the rain in Scotland? Or, how the great forces of the world (empire, war, the march of history) stand up against time, cold, winter, the forces of nature and time? Landscape, ruins, the decline and fall.

Like the end of ‘The Fall of Rome’, where Auden cinematically cuts to the great uncaring herds of reindeers locked into their own vast migrations, and in other poems like Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ and Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ there’s something about the sweep of history, the fallibility of the human, the illusion of progress.

All those poems I’ve mentioned above are worth entries of their own, and maybe I’ll get around to that. But, here’s ‘Roman Wall Blues’, which I was reminded of by reading Luke Davies’s book this week. I’m an admirer of Davies work but not this one, but it was worth buying just to be brought back here to Auden

Roman Wall Blues

Over the heather the wet wind blows,
I’ve lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.

The rain comes pattering out of the sky,
I’m a Wall soldier, I don’t know why.

The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,
My girl’s in Tungria; I sleep alone.

Aulus goes hanging around her place,
I don’t like his manners, I don’t like his face.

Piso’s a Christian, he worships a fish;
There’d be no kissing if he had his wish.

She gave me a ring but I diced it away;
I want my girl and I want my pay.

When I’m a veteran with only one eye
I shall do nothing but look at the sky.

W. H. Auden

Photo: ‘Looking West along Hadrian’s Wall’ from Flickr by Tyler Bell

If you want to communicate … write a poem

I like John Tranter’s poetry. Sheesh, he’s twice won my Warrick Poetry Book of the Year Award! But, in the discussion between him and Dennis Haskell reported in Australian Poetry (AP) recently, I guess I’d fall in line with Haskell’s belief. Not that I’m against modernism, but Haskell’s definition of what poetry is, sits more closely to what I understand poetry to be, and trying to be. AP reported:

At the Perth Writers Festival this year John Tranter repeated the idea about poetry he has consistently adhered to, “If you want to communicate, use the telephone”. While John has taken it from modern American poets, it’s an idea that dates from the period of Modernism, one hundred years ago. I want to argue that it’s a form of giving up, and that poetry’s most important role is still the traditional one of communicating a combination of deep emotion, complex thought and a spirituality that often seems to lie just outside the reach of language which constitutes the deepest expression of meaning available to humans. Since Modernism people have run away from poetry to the telephone, and the most urgent need of contemporary poetry is to get them running back.

It’s lofty, recklessly ambitious, even old fashioned but those words, ring true with me a bit:

Poetry is about “communicating a combination of deep emotion, complex thought and a spirituality that often seems to lie just outside the reach of language which constitutes the deepest expression of meaning available to humans” Haskell.

You can read more on the AP site, but you’ve got to be a member and I recommend anyone with a strong interest in poetry to join up. I wonder, what’s the best definition of poetry you’ve heard?

Fitzroy poems

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Picked up an old copy of ‘Fitzroy Poems’ by Pi O today, published by Collective Effort Press in 1989. Nice grungy, earthy work of a place that has just about disappeared now: the old Greek Fitzroy. At times it’s like these poems are in some strange dialect and the personalized typography doesn’t help.

Oddly enough though, it was the typewriter cut and paste feel of the typefacethat grabbed me, and made me grab this. It feels hand made, and the bookseller in Fed Square told mr that Pi O still calls past the booksellers at times. Of course he does!

The Top 10 Poets

I see that the San Franciso Chronicle is running a competition to try to find the Top 10 greatest poets of all time. Interesting.  They have some rules too and say:

It’s a ridiculous and futile project, but those are often the most fun. I fully expect to anger many and satisfy few (myself included).

Some parameters:
* Figures like Homer, the author of the Epic of Gilgamesh, The Biblical Psalms, and other oral narratives are not eligible for this particular list. Questions of authorship are too complicated here. It’s hard to know who wrote what or how many people were involved in the final composition. So, even though this may be the most controversial part of this whole project, we’ll confine ourselves to those poets who wrote their own poems themselves.
* Poets who did or do not write in English are eligible. Though, again, issues of translation complicate things.
* Musicians have their own lists–dozens of them. So, for this project, no Bob Dylan, no Jim Morrison, no Springsteen, unless they have a separate life as a poet. Ryan Adams, for example, has published at least two books of poems. Jewel and Tupac (two sides of the same poetic coin?) have also written books of poetry. So, those works could count but their lyrics, not.

Greatest? Does greatest equal my favourites? Or historical epoch changing somehow?  My personal favourites would be quirkier and more subjective somehow, poets who’ve somehow touched me. If greatest means historically important, it’s a different list. The ‘official’ list of the Chronicle comes out in a few days but readers of this blog would not be surprised that my own personal list might include names like this:

  1. W. B. Yeats
  2. Robert Frost
  3. William Wordsworth
  4. T.S. Eliot
  5. John Donne
  6. William Blake
  7. W.H. Auden
  8. Dylan Thomas
  9. Thomas Hardy

Okay, I’ll stop there. Too many to fit into that next slot! What do you think? Is my list too modern for you? Or not modern enough? I’m looking forward to seeing how my list lines up against the final SF Chronicle list in a few days.

 

 

 

 

Poetry Book of the Year

What is this new European thing with two German writers winning my Book of the Year after the dominance of American writers. But Enzensberger is no sudden surprise. I’ve liked his poetry ever since I read his early book The Sinking of the Titanic. The image of the grand piano falling down the slanting floor of the grand ball room as the great ship lists to its fate, is one that’s so embedded in my psyche that I can’t remember whether he invented it or me but this book is just as good and may bring new images that will last. The subtitle of this new collection is revealing, ’99 meditations’ and these are much more inward looking and private poems than the grand metaphor of hubris. The book is summed up as a celebration of the ‘tenacity of normality in everyday life’.

Other Poetry.

Ron Pretty is an Australian poet who has been writing poetry for more than forty years and his latest book Postcards from the Centre, is just as good as anything he’s written. These are lovely, thoughtful, crafted poems and, continuing the theme of the cloud, there’s plenty of weather here too. But the greatest compliment I can pay this book is the one where I know a book has touched me: it made me want to write. Finally, I didn’t entirely ignore the American connection this year. Once again in NY I found a book that’s been on my Amazon wish list forever, Raymond Carver’s A New Path to the Waterfall. It was good to revisit one of my favourite American poets again.