Martin Johnston, The Typewriter Considered as a Bee-Trap (Hale and Iremonger 1984)
I treasure my memories of Martin Johnston from when we were both in our mid 20s. I was an Eng Lit student, he was a poet – an intense, chain-smoking, introverted writer of largely incomprehensible but manifestly learned poetry. I was in awe. But not just awe: I loved hearing him read – it was like being taken to a different part of the brain. I don’t think I grasped the depth of feelings in the poems back then, dealing as many of them did, opaquely, with the death of his parents.
This book dates from well after those student days, but Martin’s voice is still vividly recognisable. Many of the poems remain impenetrable to me, but that doesn’t seem to matter any more. The pleasure is the main thing. There’s probably a profound reflection on poetry to be made here, something about it being important to take care what you read when young because those poems do to your brain what a magnet does when it strokes a lump of iron: they configure the molecules to be receptive to a particular kind of input.
That is to say, even though Martin’s poetry is austere, erudite, uncompromising, as I read it now I experience the joy and comfort of greeting an old friend. According to a despatch by John Tranter from the Poetry Wars (the 68ers vs the rest?), Les Murray said to Martin of the long sequence ‘To the innate island’: ‘It’s wonderfully rich, evocative and vivacious, but I fear you’ve left the poetry out.’ I have profound respect for Les Murray, especially since he accepted one of my poems for publication in Quadrant, but I can’t see that he’s right. Here’s the opening of the sequence (which admittedly reads a little =differently now in these post LOLcats days:
The small grey cat in the yard has a knack for the punctuational,
Confronted with unfamiliar yoghurt, it curls
bristling into a fluid query, later ingratiates
itself into tactful receding aposiopesis towards the garbage bag,
illuminated exclamation over the yellow light
of a butterfly to be slapped and broken, lays out evenings
in commas at the window, sentences from Proust
lapping to night where all cats are grey.
See what I mean? ‘Aposiopesis’? But if there’s no poetry in it, I’m easily conned.