A recommendation in support of Australia’s inaugural national Poetry Month… ‘Adelaide Stone’, a poem by Thomas W. Shapcott – written during Shapcott’s time as the Professor of Creative Writing at Adelaide University. The poem appears in his 2006 book, The City of Empty Rooms (Salt). As Shapcott writes in the poem, ‘Adelaide stone was here, on the spot, / It is only now we are surprised / And grateful. You didn’t notice it much? / Ah, but you were brought up here. Best things / Should perhaps be taken for granted.’ I became an avid reader of Shapcott’s poems in my late teens, long before I identified the poems with the shuffling gentleman I often passed in the corridors of the university’s English Department.
Adelaide – like California, and relatively few places outside the Mediterranean – has a ‘Mediterranean climate’, characterised by dry summers and mild, wet winters. Listening to The Daily Poem’s recent episode (Spotify) about Dana Gioia’s poem ‘California Hills in August’ was a welcome reminder of the warmer months ahead of us. In particular, it reminded me of early evening walks at Brown Hill Creek and Chambers Gully. Both can be a breathless hike, especially on a hot summer day, but the view of the sun setting over the city and the gulf beyond is a just reward, and something to look forward to. You can read ‘California Hills in August’ at the Poetry Foundation website.
As Facebook reminded me this week, it’s two years since my debut book of poems, Carte Blanche (Vagabond Press), went out into the world. And it’s almost two years since I was in Sydney for its launch… a much simpler time. In the meantime, Carte Blanche has won the 2020 Mary Gilmore Award, for the best first book of poems published in Australia in 2019, and has been warmly reviewed by David McCooey for Australian Book Review (behind the paywall, unfortunately), Geoff Page for The Canberra Times, and Martin Duwell for Australian Poetry Review.
Australian Book Review has followed its 2020 podcasts Poetry for Troubled Times and More Poetry for Troubled Times with the more optimistically titled Poetry in Times of Recovery. The podcast includes Sarah Holland-Batt reading Adam Zagajewski’s ‘Try to Praise the Mutilated World’, Felicity Plunkett reading Tracy K Smith’s ‘An Old Story’, Peter Goldsworthy reading Eugenio Montale’s ‘Forse un mattino’, Judith Bishop reading Tomas Tranströmer’s ‘Face to Face’, and John Kinsella reading Emily Brontë’s ‘No Coward Soul is Mine’. Recently, I’ve been revisiting some of my favourite poems by Zagajewski, having come late to the news of his death on 21 March. Likewise, I was late to hear of the death of American poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, in February. And, finally, this week brought news of the death of American poet Stephen Dunn (24 June), whose poems ‘Sweetness’ (itself a consolation in times of bereavement) and ‘Poem for People Who Are Understandably Too Busy to Read Poetry’ I return to often.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – / I took the one less traveled by…
British poet Edward Thomas was killed in action on this day (9 April) in 1917, at Arras, France. He’s best remembered for his poems about the English countryside, the most memorable of which, to my mind, are ‘Adlestrop’ and ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’. Thomas was an unlikely soldier: at the time he enlisted he was a family man aged in his late 30s, who’d been mostly indifferent to the war. His decision to enlist, and his death, are often associated with Robert Frost’s well-known poem ‘The Road Not Taken’. The friendship between Thomas and Frost is recounted in an excellent and accessible episode of Today I Found Out, which addresses a common misreading of Frost’s poem, which critic David Orr has described as ‘The Most Misread Poem in America’. The poets’ friendship, and the import of Frost’s poem to Thomas, are discussed extensively in Orr’s The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong, and Matthew Hollis’ Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas. Click here for the Today I Found Out episode, entitled ‘The Almost Universally Misinterpreted Poem ‘The Road Not Taken’ and the Fascinating Story Behind It’ (via YouTube).
‘And you read your Emily Dickinson / And I my Robert Frost…’
– Simon & Garfunkel, The Dangling Conversation
Is indie music a gateway, or a virgil or a psychopomp, to the hinterland or heartland of poetry, particularly for people who aren’t ordinarily predisposed to read it? Perhaps. Here’s a haphazard selection of poets name-dropped in contemporary indie rock and indie folk song titles that have made their way into my recent playlists. 01. Aeseaes: Rilke Song. 02. Ryan Adams: Sylvia Plath. 03. Augie March: Owen’s Lament. 04. Better Oblivion Community Center: Dylan Thomas. 05. Mal Blum: Robert Frost. 06. Billy Bragg & Wilco: Walt Whitman’s Niece. 07. Fleet Foxes: Jara. 08. Night Teacher: Emily Dickinson. 09. DCR Pollock: Ezra Pound. 10. Okkervil River: John Allyn Smith Sails. 11. Sea Wolf: Frank O’Hara. 12. Spider the Cat: Hey, Theodore Roethke. 13. Sufjan Stevens: Come On! Feel the Illinoise! Part I: The World’s Columbian Exposition Part II: Carl Sandburg Visits Me In A Dream. 14. Sufjan Stevens: Wordsworth’s Ridge. 15. M. Ward: Blake’s View.
There ought to be a mythology that depicts The Poet as a being with two skins: a tender inner membrane that’s pervious to the world, and a thick hide or pelt that insulates them from the inevitable slings and arrows of rejection notes, or reviews, or – failing that – the abject neglect of their work. In December 2020, critic Martin Duwell published a review of my book Carte Blanche (Vagabond, 2019) and Ella Jeffery’s Dead Bolt (Puncher & Wattmann, 2020) at Australian Poetry Review. It was a fearful thing to discover that the book had been reviewed by a critic I regularly turn to as one of the country’s most incisive readers of poetry. Sincere thanks to Martin for his careful and generous reading of the book. It was a delight to be reviewed alongside Ella’s debut book of poems, which I very much enjoyed reading, and which I had the pleasure of seeing launched online in September. Click here for the FULL REVIEW of Carte Blanche and Dead Bolt.
Vagabond Press has had an extraordinary 2020, with Natalie Harkin’s Archival-Poetics winning the 2020 John Bray Poetry Award, Peter Boyle’s Enfolded in the Wings of a Great Darkness winning the 2020 Kenneth Slessor Award, and my book Carte Blanche winning the 2020 Mary Gilmore Award. Not to mention the acclaim garnered by the recent books by Melinda Bufton, a.j. carruthers, Toby Fitch, LK Holt, and Jessica L. Wilkinson. For 20 years Vagabond has published established and emerging poets from Australia, the Asia-Pacific and the Americas. Like many small literary presses, it faces an uncertain future, and has launched a gofundme page to aid its survival. In particular, the campaign will support the publication of three new titles, presenting work by LK Holt, Tanikawa Shuntaro, and Shinkawa Kazue. You can support Vagabond via its gofundme page, or by purchasing from its extensive backlist of poetry, fiction, essays, memoir, and criticism.
It was so enjoyable to ‘attend’ the launch of Benjamin Dodds’ second book of poems Airplane Baby Banana Blanket, via Zoom this evening. The book was launched by Stuart Barnes, with readings by Ben, and Judith Beveridge. It’s become a small concession of the Covid year to be able to attend these launches from faraway Adelaide. And, in this case, it meant I had the chance to hear some of the poems in Ben’s own voice, to hear Stuart’s launch speech, and to get a sense of the rapport between Ben and Stuart, whose bodies of work I’ve been reading for some time. I really enjoyed Ben’s first book Regulator (Puncher & Wattmann, 2014). I’m glad he hasn’t kept us waiting too long for this second book, but also that Airplane Baby Banana Blanket draws us into new and worthwhile territory. I hope the book finds the wide readership and acclaim it deserves. For those wanting a foretaste of the book, there’s a recent ABC Radio National interview with Ben – Lucy’s Story: the chimp, the poet, and the interspecies experiment that went weird – describing the bizarre-yet-true story of Lucy, a chimpanzee raised by psychotherapist Dr Maurice Temerlin, which is at the heart of the book. Congratulations to Ben: Airplane Baby Banana Blanket is available from Recent Work Press.
‘April is the cruellest month…’, the opening line of TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, is one of the most famous phrases in Twentieth Century poetry. It’s famous enough that it often escapes poetry’s sequestered colonnades and turns up in the popular culture. But for those of us in the southern hemisphere, the phenomenon Eliot was referring to is something we experience in October (‘if at all’) as a sort of seasonal affectivity, a dark irony rooted in the burgeoning Spring. (There’s a similar seasonal reversal required for Ted Hughes’ ‘October Dawn’, another poem I’ve had a long attachment to (it’s mastery of half-rhyme), though it’s hard to find a correlative for Hughes’ ‘premonition of ice’ in the Australian autumn or winter.) Michael Austin reflects on Eliot’s phrase, particularly in a time of pandemic, in a blog post from April this year, entitled: ‘Why is April ‘the Cruelest Month’? TS Eliot’s Masterpiece of Pandemic Poetry.’ Austin writes: ‘Eliot wrote his famous poem in the aftermath of the last global pandemic to shut down the world. He and his wife caught the Spanish Flu in December of 1918, and he wrote much of the poem during his recovery.’ He goes on: ‘In the Waste Land, nothing can be crueler than hope, since it can only lead to disappointment […] The more I have read the opening lines of Eliot’s great poem, the more I have realized just what a dangerous emotion the great theological virtue of hope can be. Cynicism and irony are safe. To hope, one must open the door to disappointment, rejection, and disbelief.’ It’s a timely thought for those of us in our own ‘cruellest month’, as the beginning of the southern Spring this year coincides with the lifting of Australia’s most stringent lockdown. The attached video footage captures some essence of an October evening in Adelaide, a welcome relief after a particularly subdued winter. Look at all that glorious cruelty.