Andrew Huntley died in June this year. In lieu of attending his funeral I broke my personal ban on Amazon and bought a copy of From Tradition, which he self-published in 2014. I’m sorry it was too late for my purchase to boost his finances or his morale.
We were friends in the early 1970s when we were both in our 20s. He was witty, warm and exuberant, a recent convert to Catholicism of the pre-Vatican-Two variety, and a keen astrologer. We liked each other. And I loved his poetry.
Lyrical Ballast was one of three slender, stapled books of poetry published by the Sydney University Arts Society in 1970. (The other two were Martin Johnston’s shadowmass and Terry Larsen’s Tar Flowers.) It’s largely nonsense poetry, and though it mostly hasn’t aged well its general benign silliness is charming, and disarming.
Two poems in this collection still give me pleasure. ‘A Paean: Australia’s Praise in Honour of the Makers of Sweat Poesy’ offers a deeply ironic picture of an Australia where poets have ultra-celebrity status that still rings true:
'Sing Huzzah for the poet!' Cries each Australian Son, As a poet passes down the street 'Huzzah!' cries everyone.
‘An Essay on Criticism’ (which I’ve uploaded elsewhere in this blog – link here) was Andrew’s contribution to the website commemorating the 30th anniversary of Martin Johnston’s death (link here). It’s a tragicomic love story and a celebration of non-academic approaches to poetry, which begins:
Maisie were a critical Severe she wore her bun She lecturing on literature was grim. Arnold he be engineer He's reading just for fun – Maisie meaning all the world to him.
And it ends:
A poem can be way to make a friend.
Between Lyrical Ballast and From Tradition, Andrew published three other books: Lalai – Dreamtime, the script for Mike Edols’s 1972 short film of that name, a poetic rendering of a story ‘recounted by Sam Woolagoodjah, Elder of the Worora people, north-west Australia’ (the description is form the AustLit website); Minor Pageant (Island Press 1977); and The Stone Serpent Dreaming (Hale and Iremonger 1983). And he had a number of poems published over the years, mainly in politically conservative journals such as Quadrant and in conservative Catholic publications.
From Tradition is a beautifully produced hardback, containing 33 short poems, mostly sonnets that adhere rigorously to the demanding Petrarchan rhyme scheme (in case you’re interested, that’s abba abab cde cde), and one longer poem in blank verse. Almost every short poem asserts a traditional-to-reactionary Catholic position – on sex, feminism, grief, the afterlife, writing back to Yeats, Pound, Emily Brontë, Phillip Adams. The long poem, ‘The Plough & the Cross’, is a narrative telling of the poet’s conversion to Catholicism. The exuberant silliness of Andrew’s early poetry has evaporated, and the tone is generally combative – the speaker in most of the poems is fighting against modernity and holding fast to his commitment to the One True Church, and to God the Creator and, especially, Judge.
While I admire Andrew’s technical skill and his erudition, and respect his embattled integrity, I found the book uncongenial. I think that’s how he meant someone like me to find it.
Every now and then, the poetry allows a glimpse of a suffering human being under the carapace of Faith. Here’s an example:
Chasing Tolkien 'And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap. He drew a deep breath. "Well, I'm back," he said.' The Return of the King, J R R Tolkien My time seemed flowing there – re-burgeoning – I never knew how strongly years might stay: Once more the final pages, – I could say With Samwise, well, I'm back. Yet in my spring There was no loving Rosie – none to bring Her promise that all years would glide away, Bearing a couple on their wedding day That death alone could part .... come anything! My Middle-earth, little but breaking's been, And scattered flowerings of sadness sown; With autumn silent now in loneliness: Where haven has withdrawn from every scene, And (on and on) mere roads to madness shown – And time is past; and only God may bless.
As an evocation of misery finding comfort or hope in God, it’s a long way from George Herbert of Gerard Manly Hopkins, but it does pull at the heart.