Remembering John Pfitzner (1942-2013)

I was at work the day a friend phoned to tell me that John had passed away unexpectedly overnight. It was extraordinarily sad news. John came to poetry late in his life and I remember him remarking that he was writing with a sense of lost time. Two years after his death, it seems appropriate to write a few words in recollection.

When I met John, in 2008, he was already retired. Earlier in his life he’d been a minister of religion and an editor for a publishing company. Earlier still, he’d played football for West Adelaide in the SANFL. It was a rich and varied life – and it shows in his poems, in his reflections on the Australian outback, Australian history, Aboriginal language and culture, sport, art and poetry, a life of faith (and the crumbling of “old certainties”), and the experiences of grief and loss.

In 2012, John published a short collection of poems (Fence Music) in New Poets 17, which I edited. I have fond memories of sitting with him in my backyard on a long, blue afternoon in December 2011, while we prepared his manuscript. I remember a candid conversation about one of his poems, “A Plea”. The poem resonated with me at the time (and still does) and it clearly stood for much that was hard-won in his life:

Dear God / complicate my world / […] / provide me with questions not answers / puzzle me with paradox / remain hidden from me / leave me wondering

Voices from the Fire, a full-length collection of John’s poems, was published posthumously. It was launched to a packed house at the Effective Living Centre, which was where he had rediscovered poetry, through the Poet’s Corner group. The book begins with the poem “Pointless” (“for Graham, who is mad on sport but sees no use for poetry”), which celebrates poetry as an art form that is “as useless // as a Michael Clark cover drive”:

as pointless as a poem / with language that dances down the pitch, / gives itself room and launches / its outrageous idea, its subtle / observation high over midwicket /and into the members stand / with perfect timing, rhythm and / seemingly effortless eloquence.

The poem was selected for The Best Australian Poems 2012 (Black Inc, 2012). And, characteristically, John was very unassumingly chuffed about its inclusion.

One of my enduring memories is of John astride “a six-speed Softail Harley / all sleek slinky low-slung silver and black”. As a memory, it’s pure fiction: it’s an image he evokes in his poem “Somewhere I’ve Never Been Before”. It’s an unlikely image of John for those who knew him, but it’s stayed with me because of its vitality and its spaciousness of spirit:

I want to own the road, glide the highway / breathe sun-laden rain-scented air / slide the kilometres under my wheels / find myself somewhere I’ve never been before.

John’s poetry remains memorable and accessible. His best poems show an instinctive understanding of the way in which metaphors and conceits, simply expressed, can prime us for subtle and unexpected insights. It’s a poetry that is generous and reflective and attentive to the physical and metaphysical facets of the moment. Vale John.

Ref.

  • Pfitzner, J, 2012, Fence Music, in Pfitzner, J, Jones, G & Mead, R, 2012, New Poets 17, ed. T Sullivan, Wakefield, Adelaide.
  • Pfitzner, J, 2013, Voices from the Fire, Friendly Street, Adelaide.
  • Tranter, J, 2012, The Best Australian Poems 2012, Black Inc, Collingwood (Vic).
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