Monthly Archives: December 2011

Stevie Smith

Stevie Smith, Selected Poems (edited by James MacGibbon 1975, Penguin 1978)

My first boss, who had met Stevie Smith in his youth and been enchanted by her, once delighted his staff, all three of us, with an expressive recitation of the final of pages of her Novel on Yellow Paper, beginning something like, ‘I will now tell the story of the death of the lion Aunt.’ On another occasion he treated us to her best known poem, ‘Not Waving but Drowning‘, and her lines about death being the only god who comes when he is called. I’ve been a kind of fan by proxy ever since.

But I don’t seem to have actually read much of her poetry. At least just now this book felt like a fresh encounter rather than a revisiting. I had a mental image of Stevie Smith as English-eccentric with a quirky take on the world, witty, whimsical and self-deprecatingly wise. This impression had been helped along by two poems we published in the School Magazine when I was editor, ‘My Tortoise’, which verges on baby talk, and sublimely silly ‘The Galloping Cat‘. But though there are a number of whimsical poems about animals toward the end of the book, the dominant tone is much, much darker than I expected. Death and a longing for death are pervasive; there’s quite a bit that’s moralistic, snobbish and outright misanthropic; and she wrestles resolutely with her Anglican heritage. Even the cat that ‘likes to / gallop about doing good’ seems unsettlingly satirical. Yet I enjoyed the book a lot, and had to restrain myself from reading much of it aloud.

It’s hard to say quite what it is that I find so enjoyable. These lines from ‘A Soldier Dear to Us’ help:

But you taught me a secret you did not perhaps mean to impart,
That one must speak lightly, and use fair names like the ladies
They used to call
The Eumenides.

Stevie Smith seems to have been an excellent student of that old soldier. She certainly speaks lightly of serious things, in satirical squibs, in a verse essay on Christianity that ends with a warning of religiously rationalised mass murder, in a denunciation of cruelty to animals, in cryptic narratives of love denied or lost or twisted out of shape, in many lyrics that echo the ‘Come, Death’ sentiment, and so on. Casting about for words to describe her characteristic tone I come up with ‘chirpy’. It’s more complex and interesting than merely cheerful, suggesting something like courage and humility in adversity, not denying anything but refusing to be overwhelmed or melodramatic.

‘The Lads of the Village’ is a poem that struck a chord with me strongly enough that I memorised it, which turned out to be a rewarding process (see earlier post about memorising verse). Here it is:

The lads of the village, we read in the lay,
By medalled commanders are muddled away,
But the picture that the poet makes is not very gay.

Poet, let the red blood flow that makes the pattern better,
And let the tears flow, too, and grief stand that is their begetter,
And let man have his self-forged chain and hug every fetter.

For without the juxtaposition of muddles, medals and clay,
Would the song be so very much more gay,
Would it not be a frivolous dance upon a summer day?

Oh sing no more: Away with the folly of commanders.
This will not make a better song upon the field of Flanders,
Or upon any field of experience where pain makes patterns the poet slanders.

If I had read that aloud to the Art Student I expect she would roll her eyes, but let me try to explain how it gets to me, and some of what I found as I did my learning by heart.

The first two lines promise us a poem in strict meter, like one of the lays they refer to, and then in the third line the rhythm breaks up to become much more conversational, while the rhyme scheme stays intact. The metric shape is increasingly disrupted, so that the rest of the poem is of playful struggle between natural speech – perhaps chatty, perhaps angrily ranting – and songlike formality. It’s almost as if the poem’s sense has been shoe-horned into its shape: the unexpected ‘slanders’ at the end of the long final almost McGonagallesque line could be a desperate ploy to end the poem with a full rhyme. The alliteration in the second line and elsewhere has a similar effect – at first blush it feels as if ‘muddled’ is there purely because it echoes ‘medalled’. I think this apparent arbitrariness is what creates the feeling of lightness.

And yet, and yet, just how arbitrary is it really? When you come to think about it, ‘muddled’ is satirically precise, and ‘slanders’ arrives with tremendous denunciatory force, like a stone hurled from a sling. And the sling isn’t such a bad simile: in this poem tiny Stevie-David takes on the Goliath tradition of poetry that celebrates war and delivers a killer blow. Blood flows, grief stands, generals are foolish, the lads go into clay, and the poet exploits the whole cruel mess for aesthetic purposes. ‘Slander’ justifies its status as the last word, and the disruption of the form enacts in a way the repudiation of the kind of song that is deemed suitable for memorial ceremonies at Flanders.

There are other felicities that I didn’t notice till I did the memorising: the repetition of ‘upon … field’ in the final stanza, the reappearance of the ‘ay’ rhyme in the middle of the third last line, the patterning of the p words ‘poet’, ‘picture’, ‘pattern’ and ‘pain’, and more. But that’s all I’m writing here.

Luckily we’re not Victorians

We’re New South Welsh on an interstate trip. It seems to be safe for us, but we were alarmed by this headline in today’s Age:


Daniel Clowes, Wilson (2009, Drawn and Quarterly 2010)

20111226-124107.jpgOne of my joys at Christmas these days is that my family give me comics. This year I received a grand total of six hefty hardbacks, all by people I haven’t read anything by. Wilson is the least daunting, appearing at first glance to be made up of 80 or so single-page strips about the unkempt, misanthropic Wilson. In one strip he asks a woman to help him out by estimating the weight of a small parcel he plans to post, and then tells her it’s full of fresh dog poop. In another he tries to start up a conversation in a cafe with a man who politely indicates that he’s working on a laptop, and eventually delivers the punchline, ‘Hey asshole, I’m talking to you!’

That sort of thing is amusing in its own depressive way, and then the apparently unrelated strips come together into a coherent story arc. There’s a satisfying payoff to both the dog poop and the laptop man, and in the end it’s a kind of love story.

End of year lists 2011

Here are the Art Student’s best five movies for the year, in no particular order. That’s five out of roughly 43 movies we went to. (If you don’t know a movie the title links to  its IMDb page.)

Inside Job: A documentary about the Global Financial Crisis. The most memorable thing is that at the end Obama kept in something like 20 key positions the same people whose advice had led to the policies that brought about the collapse.

Of Gods and Men: The AS knew this was on my list and wouldn’t give me a comment.

Win Win: She liked this for its moral complexity and understatedness.

The Guard: This made her laugh. She liked being seduced by someone who did bad things.

Bill Cunningham New York: She was exhilarated by this and loved it as a model of a kind of integrity that may well be disappearing from the western world.

And mine:
Bill Cunningham New York: See the Art Student’s comment above

Of Gods and Men: Interestingly enough, this is also a study in integrity, and though it’s fiction, it ends with a profound letter written by the actual man it’s based on.

Source Code: An SF Groundhog Day that I found completely delightful.

If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front: There seems to be a theme emerging: what I loved about this was that its main character had done bad things with good intentions and took responsibility for his actions. It also cast yet more unflattering light on the US authorities’ response to ‘terrorism’.

Toomelah: I saw this at the Sydney Film Festival, introduced by Ivan Sen in the company of two young actors. Perhaps that’s why I saw it as an ultimately hopeful, though unsparing, look at life in a crushed, neglected and dysfunctional Aboriginal community.

About books, the Art Student claims not to be able to remember back past the last book she read, but she’s happy to have Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes in her top five books for the year. This year, following the shocking VIDA statistics on gender bias in literary journals, I decided to keep track of whether books I read were by men or women, and a quick count shows, astonishingly that I read 25 books by men and 23 by women. Compulsive honesty has me acknowledge that many of the books by women were very short. the most dubious inclusion being a YouTube video of Harvard Professors reading Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon.  My top five, a list that might look quite different if I did it on another day:

Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children. What a painful pleasure to re read this! I can’t think of a character I’ve hated more, while being fascinated, than Sam Pollitt.

Francis Webb, Collected Poems and a number of ancillary books.

Charles Dickens, Bleak House. I’m that much less likely to win a game of Humiliation now that I’ve read this. I completely understand why Claire Tomalin read this twice when researching her biography of Dickens – she wasn’t prompted by duty but by pleasure.

Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance. Phew! We’re into the 21st century. After the necessarily careful correctness of, say, Kate Grenville’s novels about early contact in Sydney, this exuberant, multi-faceted, generous, funny, heartbreaking novel is like a blast of clean air.

Robert Whitaker’s Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America. Whenever I’m asked what my favourite book is I’m tempted to name the one I’m currently reading, but this really is a wonderful book, all the more shocking for the care with which it marshals its evidence and argument. I want to push it into the hands of everyone I know.

Please quarrel with these lists, add your recommendations, etc.

Memorising poetry with Dan Beachy-Quick

The Poetry Off the Shelf podcast for 13 December is a lovely interview with US poet Dan Beachy-Quick about memorising poetry, ‘Inscribe the poem on yourself’. I listened to it when I had just finished my first stab at memorising Stevie Smith’s ‘The Lads of the Village’ (of which more in a later post), and a lot of what was said on the podcast rang very true for me. Here are a couple of hastily transcribed highlights:

Something about the act of memorisation puts the poem inside me in such a way that I feel like when I do need to know what exactly it is in the poem that draws me so much it will be there as a kind of constant resource that I can call upon whenever I want to or when I need to.

And this on memorising poems using traditional forms:

When you go through the work of memorising a poem the metre of it or the rhyme of it or the formal pattern that it’s in ceases to just be a technology of the poem and you begin to see the real necessity that might underlie the choice of writing in a sonnet or the power of taking as a genuine concern the need to find a perfect rhyme or a slant rhyme, because those things too, metre and rhyme, are so absolutely bodily and part of the meaning. One feels a rhythm. Rhyme is felt as much as heard. It’s almost as if the ear is learning to feel when it hears a great rhyme. So I think in a way memorising such poems helps one learn to read and take seriously traditional poetic values that in a postmodernist framework might be easily dismissed.

If you have 12 minutes and 19 seconds to spare, you could do better with that small slab of time than listen to the whole thing.

Incidentally, as I was fiddling around trying to get you that link, I found that the Poetry Foundation’s Poem of the Day has featured a swathe of Australians, including most recently Michael Sharkey reading his ‘Eating Sin‘.

You wouldn’t read about it

On Friday night my book club had its end of year meeting. That’s the book club where we swap books and keep discussion to a minimum. I missed the end of year meeting of the book group, where the rest of the chaps discussed a book of essays by David Foster Wallace which I hadn’t managed to read, so I didn’t miss anything but conviviality and shame (unless of course something happened that they’re being secretive about). The book club met at Anong in Kings Cross for the best Thai food I remember ever eating, and we had a wonderful night, helped by two of our number being on first name terms with the restaurant owners and several having had recent travel adventures.

Rather than the usual complex swapping, this meeting each year is the occasion of a bit of simple giving. Each of us brings a gift-wrapped book, and each goes home with one. Two years ago three of the six books turned out to be The Slap, which has become even more ubiquitous since then, if that’s possible. This year, despite all the double guessing and byway exploration that goes into the choice of books, there was another hat trick: Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?


Along with about 30 other people, the Art Student and I heard Paul Ham talk at Gleebooks last night. It was one of the smallest Gleebooks turn-outs I’ve seen, and it’s hard not to think the subject may have had a bit of a deterrent effect: his new book Hiroshima Nagasaki. In fact it was a terrific talk. I’ll save whatever I have to say about his argument for when I read the book, which may be some little time. (He was on Lateline recently – here’s a link if you want his gist.)

What I want to note here is that he described what he does as Narrative History. I’m sure learned historians have many finely nuanced definitions of  that, but I liked his version, which is that it is history told without benefit of hindsight – that is, trying to get to the story as it was understood by the actors themselves. He is categorised as a revisionist historian, but objects, saying that the orthodox version (that the bombs were the ‘least abhorrent option’, that they saved a million US lives, that they brought about Japan’s unconditional surrender) is itself revisionist – a recasting after the event that distorts what actually happened on almost all counts.

Fortuitously, I have just been reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article in the Atlantic,  ‘Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?‘ I can’t recommend this article strongly enough for its eloquent challenge to received versions of history. The bit that chimed with Paul Ham’s talk, and with some reading and thinking I’ve been doing about massacres in Australia, was this, in reference to the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Battle of Gettysburg:

Speakers at the ceremony pointedly eschewed any talk of the war’s cause in hopes of pursuing what the historian David Blight calls ‘a mourning without politics’. Woodrow Wilson, when he addressed the crowd, did not mention slavery but asserted that the war’s meaning could be found in ‘the splendid valor, the manly devotion of the men then arrayed against one another, now grasping hands and smiling into each other’s eyes’. Wilson, born into the Confederacy and the first postbellum president to hail from the South, was at that very moment purging blacks from federal jobs and remanding them to separate washrooms. Thus Wilson executed a familiar act of theater—urging the country’s white citizens away from their history, while continuing to act in the spirit of its darkest chapters.

Urging the country’s white citizens away from their history, while continuing to act in the spirit of its darkest chapters. Familiar indeed, but ne’er so well expressed.

Asia Literary Review 21

Stephen McCarty (editor), Asia Literary Review No 21 ([Northern] Autumn 2011)

[Note added in 2021: All the links in this blog post are broken except the ones in the journal title above and in the image to the left. The whole journal is still available online to subscribers.]

Under Stephen McCarty’s editorship, the Asia Literary Review tends to have themed issues. The last three focused on China, Burma and Japan respectively. This one moves to a subject that transcends political and geographic boundaries: food.

Where a focus on a single country can lead to a journal as diverse – and as integrated – as anyone could wish, other kinds of themes, even one as vast as food, risk crossing the line between relatedness and sameness. This issue comes close to that line a couple of times, but it manages to stay on the right side. Notably, Felipe Fernández-Armesto kicks things off with ‘History à la Carte‘, a short essay on food as an ‘instructive historical document’, particularly about the ‘relative input of different cultures to a globalising world’ over the centuries – and the pages that follow provide a number exemplars of the kind of thing he means: Fuchsia Dunlop, an Englishwoman who has trained as a chef in Sichuan, writes of her childhood love for sweet and sour pork, and explores its origins as a dish invented for despised foreigners (or was it?); Bernard Cohen’s story about a disintegrating marriage, ‘The Chinese Meal, Uneaten‘ can be read as a meditation on the cheap Chinese restaurants of a bygone Australia; in Erin Swan’s ‘Tomatoes‘, a couple of western tourists in the Himalayas get some humility about their privileged status thanks to a box of tomatoes; Jennifer 8. Lee’s ‘Making Pasta Sauce: My Independence’ tells of a Chinese New Yorker’s discovery in Italian cuisine (this little memoir-recipe, sadly not available online to non-subscribers, has had a significant impact on the cooking in this house); in Wena Poon’s story ‘Fideuà’, a woman who was a ‘China baby’ adopted by a Spanish couple finds in seafood noodles a deep emotional connection between her birth home and her adoptive one (a Chinese matriarch watches the protagonist cook Spanish fideuà in a paella pan and says, a little scornfully, a little proudly, ‘This pan is like our wok. This noodle, come from China. Seafood, same. All same. We call it hoi seen meen. We use same ingredients.’). Perhaps because a jungle of self-sown vines is producing abundantly in our tiny back yard, I particularly enjoyed the way tomatoes kept appearing: here we learn they are known in some parts of China as barbarian aubergines, there that Europeans thought they were poisonous for hundred of years after they were brought over from the Americas, in a third place that they have delicacy status in Himalayan villages.

I should mention Lizzie Collingham’s fascinating piece of history, ‘Japan and the Battle for Rice’, which makes the case for thinking of Japan’s participation in World War Two as in part a war about food, of which we may be about to see many more. Chandran Nair stops short of making that prediction in his chilling article, ‘The World Food Crisis – An Asian Perspective’, which echoes the Annie Leonard video I posted yesterday by calling on Asian governments to ‘reject the consumption-led growth model and adopt instead an approach that makes resources conservation the heart of all policymaking’. Good luck to us all with that!

Oh, and there’s ‘Table d’Hôte’ by Murong Xuecu, translated by Martin Merz and Jane Weizhen Pan. It’s the journal’s only prose piece translated from an Asian language and easily its most powerful fiction, with something of the feel of that contemporary Chinese art that plays around with death and mutilation.

And there’s plenty else. I’ve linked to the stories that are accessible online. If you want to read the others you have to subscribe.

The Story of Stuff

This has been around for a while, but just in case you haven’t seen it, here it is for your instruction. Annie Leonard spent 10 years researching the materials economy and made this incredibly lucid video The Story of Stuff:

That was a while back. Just recently the Story of Stuff Project uploaded a new video, The Story of Broke:

‘So where is all that money going?’

I like the way she never mentions Marx – though she does seem to mean capitalism when she talks about the dinosaur economy.

Harpur on the sonnet by way of Middlemiss

Perry Middlemiss often blogs Australian newspaper articles from decades past on literary subjects. He recently treated us to a  essay on the sonnet by Charles Harpur, originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1866, which I found fascinating for reasons that might be obvious. Here’s a sample:

the untransgressible limits of the sonnet often tend to induce that closeness of expression, and that sublimation of imagery which are proper to the highest kind of enduring poetry, namely, that kind which is suggestive rather than descriptive, or which by a few select images, intensified in the putting, suggests infinitely more than could be circumstantially described, or otherwise than wearisomely; and which, therefore, while it amply recompenses the imagination of the reader, exercises it as well, and thereby quickens and strengthens it for direct conception upon its own account, or as an individual and self-sustained faculty. And, having, as I think, this tendency, of course these exact limits prevent in an equal degree that verbal delusion of the sense which is the besetting weakness of most modern writers, both in a verse and prose.