Tag Archives: 68ers

Nigel Roberts in Casablanca for the Waters

Nigel Roberts, In Casablanca for the Waters (Wild and Woolley 1977)

2015498179I’ve been vaguely on the look-out for this book for decades. Nigel Roberts was a regular reader at the Balmain Poetry Readings of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and something of a mover and shaker in the volatile poetry scene of those days. He was canonised as one of the generation of 68 in John Tranter’s New Australian Poetry; he turns up in Robert Adamson’s Inside Out as ‘a robust individual with a generous mind, passionate in his belief that poetry should reach more people at a street level’; he helped found a number of poetry magazines with names like Free Poetry; and he worked as an art teacher in the Department of Education, including at the school of one of my sons. He has stayed in my mind because of one half-remembered poem. I was very happy recently to find the book, and the poem, on the shelves of Berkelouw’s secondhand and antiquarian bookshop.

The poem is ‘Flavour of the Month’, in which the male speaker inveighs against flavoured vaginal douches in a romantic, anti-corporate celebration of the female body. It struck a chord with me 40 years ago: in spite of its ‘sexually explicit language’ it reminded me – perhaps by way of Blake’s proverb, ‘The nakedness of woman is the glory of God’ – of Gerard Manly Hopkins’s ‘God’s Grandeur‘: ‘all is seared with trade … nor can foot feel, being shod.’ Rereading ‘Flavour of the Month’ now, I still like it, but it does feel dated: what was fashionably transgressive 40 years now just seems crude.

As it happens, much of this collection is dated. There’s quite a lot of writing about sex, particularly oral sex, that may have been liberatory once but is now deadeningly familiar. There’s some smirking about marijuana, some right-on sentiments about the US-Vietnam War, quite a lot of ephemeral poetry-wars rhetoric and gossip, unaltered phrases from Bob Dylan’s songs, and satiric barbs whose targets have died or moved on. The introductory note, by no less a star than US poet Robert Duncan, reads now as a puerile collection of penis jokes – not a preface but ‘A Prepucal Face’.

The datedness is probably an inevitable by-product of the poems’ strengths – their spontaneity, their aim to ‘reach more people … at street level’. And perhaps it’s a matter of point of view. The poems offer a fascinating glimpse of an epoch that involved group houses, an odd explicitness about sex and sexism, marijuana as a symbol of subversion, and knockabout creativity.

A handful of poems stand out. For me at least there’s still ‘Flavour of the Month’. ‘The Quote from Auden’ is almost a parody of Dylan’s ‘The Gates of Eden’. With ‘In the Family Album’, the poetry comes into its own. I haven’t mentioned the use of illustrations. The photographs that punctuate the poems are mostly comic or ‘satirical’ in effect, as in the advertisement for Raspberry Douche that accompanies ‘Flavour of the Month’. Those incorporated into ‘In the Family Album’ are of a different order: they show the poet’s grandfather as a young man in a boater, at 75 at an Anzac Day March, waiting with Kitchener for a devastating Dervish attack in the Boer War, and their presence enriches the poem’s quiet contemplation of the relationship between the poet and that grandfather – so that when it ends with an anti-US-Vietnam-war chant and an anti-war slogan, the smart-aleckery and bravado that is characteristic of most of the book is just not there.

Pam Brown in the 70s: notes from a naïve reader

Pamela Brown, Selected Poems 1971–1982 (Women’s Redress Press, Wild & Woolley 1984)

Just call me angel of the morning angel
Just brush my teeth before you leave me baby

That’s a mondegreen, and if it doesn’t make you smile you don’t know the song ‘Angel of the Morning’. Retitled  ‘Radiopoem 1968’ and given a page to itself in a poetry book (as, for example, page 67 in this book), it’s still a mondegreen and still funny, but it has now become a poem, and so invites a different kind of attention. You might read it as a satiric jibe at pop romance, an oblique reflection on the nature of intimacy, an implied confession that the poet worries about her morning breath, a surrealist squib, but we read it differently here than if we had stumbled across it in, say, a ‘Kids say the darnedest things’ column in the Reader’s Digest.

In a lot of Pam Brown’s work, the poetry is in the selection, and there’s a mystery at work. Mondegreen as poem is one example. There are plenty of others. Take, one of many possibilities from the early parts of this book, this untitled poem:

HEY SHIT,
SHE SAID TO
NOBODY,
GRAVE DIGGERS
ARE CONCEPTUAL
ARTISTS.

Or ‘The Leaps’ on the next page:

MYOPIC POSSUMS
MYOPIC POSSUMS
MYOPIC POSSUMS
Coked off my stoop

A snatch of absurd conversation, some stoned nonsense … transformed into poetry pretty much by being excised from their original context and put on these pages. Not so much cut-up as cut and paste. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying they’re terrible poems. On the contrary. For some of them, though, it feels as if you had to be there. That is, to really understand a lot of the earlier poems you probably have to have been around, when Pam Brown was performing in cabaret, making movies, hanging out with a particular creative crowd. (I wasn’t.) Kate Jennings’s introduction tells us that this volume is, ‘a fever chart, an ecg of the times when the new feminism demolished the geography in our heads, blew up the bridges of retreat, and mined the way forward.’ If so, the instrument recording the chart is no mechanical transcriber. The poetry is in the selection, in choosing which fragments of  those times to record, which will retain their fragrance when replanted.

By the end of the decade, possibly because there’s less coke on the stoop, things are much more intelligible. There are some intensely personal pieces about / growing out of / feeding into relationships, but there are still those oddly banal moments, there for no obvious reason, but catching something, some whiff of the times, like the end of ‘Drought’:

so i drank
oomineral water
ooootried two
ooooooredhead
oooooooomatch tricks
solved them both

There’s much more to these poems than this, of course, but it’s a feature of PB’s work that has persisted over the decades. There’s an excellent conversation between her and John Kinsella in Jacket 22, where she talks very interestingly about her practice. This book is out of print (well, what do you expect, it’s poetry and published 26 years ago?), but her 2003 book Dear Deliria includes a handful of the same poems.

Comfort reading

Martin Johnston, The Typewriter Considered as a Bee-Trap (Hale and Iremonger 1984)

typewriter003I 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.

Not a 68er

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.)

The sixty-eighters’ young appreciators

Beautiful day in Sydney, what better to do than take the bus into town for a free event at the Museum of Contemporary Art. ‘The Young Appreciators‘ was part of the fourth floor exhibition, avoiding myth & message: Australian artists and the Literary world (capitalisation not mine!), which seems to be mainly about artists and literary folk from the late 1960s and on – that is to say, not so much Sidney Nolan–Ern Malley as Tim Burns–John Forbes.

Today is the first time I’ve realised that there is a group of Australian poets known as the 68ers, or perhaps the 69ers: John Forbes, Robert Adamson and John Tranter (whom those in the know refer to by second name only), and quite a few others who are sometimes hard to see because of the long shadows cast by those three. The three speakers at today’s event are younger than the 68/9ers: the oldest admitted to 39, and I’d guess the other two were quite a bit younger. That is to say, none of them had been born in those days when I used to go  regularly to poetry readings to hear John Forbes, who I thought was a bit of a smart aleck and not as interesting as, say Martin Johnston (another 68/9er who doesn’t seem to cast such a long shadow).

Anyhow, it was fun. The first speaker spoke of Vicki Viidikas, beginning her talk by saying she hadn’t known much about her until after she’d accepted the invitation to talk. Since I’d heard the ABC radio programs that she based most of her talk on (with acknowledgement), I can’t say I was riveted. The second tackled John Forbes, mostly, as she said, in terms of marginalia and biography – mentions of herself she’d found in published Forbes letters, for example. It was in her talk that I became aware that those poets of my youth have since become the subject of academic attention. The third, the elegant poet Tim Wright, speaking softly and swiftly enough to be near to incomprehensible to me, talked about Pam Brown, visibly writhing with embarrassment at having the subject of his talk actually in the room.

I loved the moment during the brief question time when Kerry Leves, another of the apparently short-shadowed 68/9ers, admitted that when he’d seen a particular person’s work on a table in the exhibition, he’d said, ‘I don’t remember her!’ It’s a small world, the world of Australian poets and artists.

And I got a real hand in my understanding of Pam Brown’s poetry. I managed to hear Tim Wright say that her work was in many ways similar to Jennifer Maiden’s, but that whereas you tend to read one of Jennifer Maiden’s poems right through to the end, and when you do you feel you’ve learned something (a true statement), with Pam Brown’s work it’s not like that. You tend to stop and ponder a phrase, stare into space, let it sink in or just be distracted (he called her the master of the poetry of distraction, or something of the sort), then go back and read it again: it’s perfect for reading on public transport. I realised that my unexamined working assumption that reading is a linear process – you start at the beginning and go to the end and derive meaning on the way – has made quite a lot of poetry hard to enjoy. And I do read it while walking the dog — surely picking up a bag of dog poo or playing tug-of-war with a stick between lines should have put me in the perfect state of mind. I’ll try again, not so much harder, as with less resistance to the forces of distraction.