Vivian Smith, Along the Line (Salt Publishing 2006)
Having mentioned the ‘sixty-eighters’ a couple of times on this blog, I poked around on the net to find out what I was talking about. It looks as if the idea of a distinct ‘generation of 68’ among Australian poets can be traced to John Tranter’s 1979 anthology, The New Australian Poetry: the work of twenty-four poets from Australian poetry’s most exciting decade. The notion of a ‘generation’ was challenged almost immediately by, among others, Rae Desmond Jones (‘the … highly successful anthology and the polemical introduction had only marginal relevance to each other’), but it has lived on. More recently, as one might have predicted, the 24 68ers have been portrayed as a mob of up-themselves, cliquish poetry warriors, and – also no surprise – have been defended against those charges. (The article by Alan Wearne on that last link demonstrates nicely that reality is more complex, interesting and benign than the labels might suggest.) When the Tranter anthology came out I was distracted by being a new parent and earning a living and the like, but during the late sixties and early 70s I had been a regular at poetry readings in Sydney (and once, memorably, in Canberra) and can testify that the poetic times were pretty exciting. I have a copy of a 1971 publication, We took their orders and are dead: An anti-war anthology (edited by Shirley Cass, Ros Cheney, David Malouf and Wichael Wilding), which captures some of the feel of the Moratorium Poetry Readings where elder statesmen of Aust verse like AD Hope shared a stage with as yet un-labelled 68ers like John Tranter or Vicki Viidikas and quite a few in-betweeners like, say, David Campbell. (The 68ers themselves, of course, are now either dead or approaching elder status.)
All of which is a convoluted lead-in to Along the Line, which I bought a while ago as my contribution to Salt Publishing’s Just One Book campaign. If memory serves, Vivian Smith read at those long-ago Moratorium readings. He’s certainly got a poem in the anti-war anthology. But he’s not a 68er – and not just because John Tranter didn’t include him. The poems in this book have a quiet formality that shows none of the influences or impulses that besotted the young ones in those heady days. The poems don’t spread across the page like spider webs catching and displaying apparently random flies of perception. They aren’t Chinese boxes or monkey puzzles. Neither the Ramones nor Bob Dylan are referred to even once. Iambic pentameters rule and straightforward subjects dominate: there are many arrivals in Sydney, the poet’s home, and at least as many returns to Hobart, where he grew up; there are poems about poetry, poets and painters, depression, friends alive and dead. I used the word ‘quiet’ , and that is the overwhelming effect: quiet reminiscence, quiet elegy, quiet observation, quiet wit, even, in ‘Deathbed Sketch’, some quiet philippic. Something of a quiet achiever, then, and reading him is a quiet pleasure.
Incidentally, ‘Return to Hobart’, the poem that appeared in the 1971 anti-war anthology makes another appearance here, unchanged except for much improved editing, which makes me realise that this is not a collection of new poems, but some kind of unspecified retrospective, which accounts for a sense of temporal dislocation – the poet’s daughter is a little girl on one page, for instance, and quite grown up a couple of pages later, and all those comings and goings between Sydney, Hobart and the rest of the world don’t have any discernible sequence.
Rather than say more about the poetry, let me declare an interest. Vivian Smith was the supervisor of my aborted MA thesis in the mid 1970s. Of course it wasn’t his doing that the thesis came to nought, though I wish I’d got my facsimile copy of Edward John Eyre’s Journals of Expeditions back from him before leaving the university. (Vivian, if you chance to read this and happen by some miracle to have those books still in your possession, I love your poems, please drop me a line …)
I have a vivid memory of a Year 3 elective in which Dr Smith gave a series of lectures to a tiny scattering of students. He was a quiet, unassertive lecturer, poles apart from, say, David Malouf, who lectured us with passionate brilliance on the Jacobean playwrights. At about the third lecture, there may have been only three of us in the audience – me up the front dutifully taking notes, and two older women (they must have been at least 28), one of whom has since gone on to wield power and influence in the ABC and elsewhere, the other to do impressive work as a journalist and writer, leaning together like grumpy conspirators. As Dr Smith was discussing the two main kinds of poetry being written in England during the post-war years, open and closed poetry if I recall correctly, the future journalist interrupted his flow:
‘Excuse me, but aren’t these generalisations almost completely meaningless?’
She had a point. Dr Smith responded quietly, modestly, and not at all defensively, ‘Yes, but they provide a structure that allows me to talk about the poetry.’
And he continued with the lecture, of which I remember nothing else. (Maybe I should be explicit here: I’m not suggesting that the poetry in this book is ‘completely meaningless’: rather that it isn’t out to impress, or seduce, or dazzle, but offers itself as a mind at work and play, take it or leave it.)