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.
As an addendum to my last blog post, it was very enjoyable to attend the launch of Adrian Flavell’s second book of poems, Shadows Drag Untidy, in Adelaide this evening. The book was launched by Professor Nick Jose, and follows Adrian’s 2014 book, On Drowning a Rat (Picaro Press). I first encountered Adrian’s poems as far back as 1998 or 1999. In my teenage years, The Weekend Australian’s Review served as my piecemeal introduction to contemporary Australian poetry. Nowadays, we take it for granted that the internet is a reliable source of contemporary poetry, with the proliferation of websites, online journals, and blogs over the past two decades. But in the late 1990s it was only the newspapers that came into the household regularly that met my growing appetite for new Australian poetry. It was in The Weekend Australian, and later The Age, that I first read the work of poets such as Robert Adamson, Peter Boyle, Aidan Coleman, Luke Davies, Diane Fahey, Michael Farrell, Anthony Lawrence, Jan Owen, Peter Rose, Thomas Shapcott, John Tranter – and Adrian Flavell. Times have changed: The Weekend Australian still publishes and reviews poetry, but now any teenager with an internet connection can access as much poetry as they could possibly want. Congratulations to Adrian on the launch of the book. Shadows Drag Untidy is available from Ginninderra Press.
I’ve had a long affinity with these words of the Russian-American poet and Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky: ‘Every individual ought to know at least one poet from cover to cover: if not as a guide through the world, then as a yardstick for the language.’ In my early 20s, I developed a particular regard for a number of contemporary Australian poets whose work was synonymous with specific regions, among them were Robert Adamson (The Hawkesbury), Robert Gray (Mid-North Coast, NSW), John Kinsella (Western Australia’s Wheatbelt), and Les Murray (Mid-North Coast, NSW). Through Kinsella’s work, in particular, I found permission – at a time I needed it – to write about the farming area in the Mount Lofty Ranges in which I’d grown up, and was then living. I made a compact that Kinsella would be a poet I read – more or less – cover to cover, in the way that Brodsky suggested. It’s a compact I’ve kept, though – as Kinsella is a notoriously prolific poet, novelist, and essayist – I’m often a book or two behind his latest publication. In this way, it’s Kinsella’s work, and perhaps also that of the late American poet AR Ammons, that I’ve returned to most consistently over the past 20 years. It was very welcome, therefore, to have the chance to review two of Kinsella’s recent books for Australian journal Plumwood Mountain. Previously, Plumwood Mountain has published my reviews of Kinsella’s Graphology Poems: 1995-2015 (Five Islands Press, 2016), and Renga: 100 Poems (GloriaSMH, 2017), his collaboration with Paul Kane. Of the two recent reviews, Hollow Earth (Transit Lounge, 2019) is Kinsella’s first foray into the other world of the science fiction novel; and Open Door (UWAP, 2018) is the final book of poems in the Jam Tree Gully trilogy, an essential exploration of a central theme of his work. Special thanks to Anne Elvey, Managing Editor of Plumwood Mountain, for the opportunity to review the books. Click here for the FULL REVIEW of Hollow Earth. Click here for the FULL REVIEW of Open Door.
In the 22 August 2020 edition of The Canberra Times, Geoff Page reviews my book of poems Carte Blanche. He writes: ‘It’s satisfying to observe that the sophistication and idiosyncratic uniqueness of Thom Sullivan’s Carte Blanche have recently been recognised by the judges of the 2020 Mary Gilmore Award for the best first book of poetry in Australia last year.’ A very big thank you to Geoff for his kind words about the book. Carte Blanche is available from Vagabond Press as a paperback, and a limited edition hardcover. Click here for the FULL REVIEW.
I’m delighted to feature in Australian Book Review’s ‘More Poetry for Troubled Times’ podcast, along with 14 others. The podcast includes readings of poems by the likes of WB Yeats, Henry Lawson, Kenneth Slessor, Gwen Harwood, Bruce Dawe, Eavan Boland, Charles Simic, Czesław Miłosz, Denise Levertov, Emily Dickinson, and my selection, AR Ammons. The podcast is available via iTunes, Google and Spotify. The first ‘Poetry for Troubles Times’ podcast is also highly recommended. It features Sarah Holland-Batt reading Geoffrey Hill, Stephen Edgar reading Seamus Heaney, JM Coetzee reading Zbigniew Herbert, John Kinsella reading Christopher Brennan, David McCooey reading Tomas Tranströmer, and Peter Rose reading Wallace Stevens. A full list of the readers, poets and poems for the first podcast and the second podcast is available on the ABR webpage. It’s a great initiative from ABR in the midst of our present maladies.
Sarah Kanowski’s conversation with musician Paul Kelly, for ABC Radio National, is an engaging encounter with one of Australia’s most highly regarded songwriters. Of particular interest are Kelly’s comments about the craft of writing songs based on poems, which has become a central aspect of his songwriting. I think, for example, of Seven Sonnets and a Song (2016), an album which comprises six songs based on Shakespeare’s sonnets, one based on the Clown’s Song from Twelfth Night, and one based on a poem by Sir Philip Sidney. Then there’re the songs of Spring and Fall (2012), Nature (2018), and Thirteen Ways to Look at Birds (2019), which draw on the poems of Emily Dickinson, John Donne, Thomas Hardy, Miroslav Holub, Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Keats, Philip Larkin, Sylvia Plath, Dylan Thomas, Walt Whitman, Richard Wilbur, and WB Yeats – and, closer to home, Denis Glover, Gwen Harwood, AD Hope, and Judith Wright. Most recently, Penguin Books has published Love is Strong as Death (2019), an anthology of poems chosen by Kelly. It’s evidence of his wide-ranging and abiding engagement with poetry.
Based on Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 73’
Kelly’s comments about discovering poetry during his high school years particularly resonated with me, as I attended the same high school, albeit a few decades later. It was in the same classrooms that I found my own interest in the poetry of Keats, Hopkins, Harwood, Wright, and others. Until only a few decades ago, I suspect that much of Adelaide had no more than two or three degrees of separation from Kelly and his family. Though it’s matured into an elegant and cosmopolitan mid-sized city, Adelaide still has about it some of the charm (for better and/or worse) of a big country-town. I certainly grew up with family members who knew Kelly’s siblings or were at school with Kelly himself. Naturally, his music seeped in through the seams of my childhood and adolescence.
Based on Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Mushrooms’
In the course of the conversation, Kelly also talks about (among other things) the influence of Shakespeare and the King James Bible on his work, his affection for the poetry of Yehuda Amichai (‘conversational and warm’), and his memory of sharing his earliest poems with family members (‘kind of shy and proud … at the same time’). He’s sanguine about poetry’s place in our modern world (it’s ‘on the march’). It’s a hospitable conversation about poetry, borne out of Kelly’s generous regard for it. The conversation ends with Kelly playing his song ‘Barn Owl’, based on Gwen Harwood’s poem of the same name, and ‘Pied Beauty’, based on the poem by Hopkins.
‘Poetry for Troubled Times’, the latest episode of The ABR Podcast, features readings of 18 poems that speak to our present malady, even as news of the coronavirus (Corvid-19) pandemic worsens by the hour. As ABR’s editor Peter Rose says in his introduction, ‘These are such rattling and ominous times, as we all hunker down hoping for a cure, some cessation. Perhaps only poetry really offers true insight and consolation, if we lean on it, as we’ve always done in past crises.’ Among the 18 poems featured in the podcast, we find Sarah Holland-Batt reading Geoffrey Hill, Stephen Edgar reading Seamus Heaney, Peter Goldsworthy reading Jane Hirschfield, JM Coetzee reading Zbigniew Herbert, John Kinsella reading Christopher Brennan, David McCooey reading Tomas Tranströmer, and Peter Rose reading Wallace Stevens. A full list of the readers, poets and poems is published on the podcast’s webpage. Perhaps the most resonant poems for me were Rose’s reading of Stevens’ ‘The Plain Sense of Things’ (‘It is difficult to choose the adjective / For this blank cold, this sadness without cause. / The great structure has become a minor house…’) and McCooey’s reading of Tranströmer’s ‘December Evening 1972’ (‘Here I come, the invisible man, perhaps employed / by a Great Memory to live right now. And I am driving past // the locked-up white church…’). As for me, in a moment like this I might recommend Stephen Dunn’s ‘Sweetness’ (‘Often a sweetness comes / as if on loan, stays just long enough / to make sense of what it means to be alive…’), or Adam Zagajewski’s ‘Try to Praise the Mutilated World’ (‘You should praise the mutilated world. / Remember the moments when we were together / in a white room and the curtain fluttered…’). New episodes of the podcast are released by ABR (Australian Book Review) fortnightly on Wednesdays. iTunes Google Spotify
Last call! You’re invited to celebrate the joint-launch of two new books of poems, my ‘Carte Blanche’ and Aidan Coleman’s ‘Mount Sumptuous’. Join us at 7pm for 7.30pm on Wednesday, 12 February 2020, at The Wheatsheaf Hotel, 39 George Street, Thebarton. ‘Mount Sumptuous’ will be launched by Ken Bolton; ‘Carte Blanche’ will be launched by Peter Goldsworthy. Hosted by NO WAVE Monthly Poetry Reading Series, in conjunction with Wakefield Press and Vagabond Press. Full details on Facebook.
Spare a thought for the poets. When your favourite band records their latest 12 track album, there are 479,001,600 ways they can arrange the songs on the album. When a poet writes an average-sized book of 70 poems, there are 11,978,571,669,969,891,796,072,783,721,689,098,736,458,938,142,546,425,857,555,362,864,628,009,582,789,845,319,680,000,000,000,000,000 ways they can arrange the poems. And, even if they arrange them well, it’ll be something that’s scarcely noticed. Every book of poems I’ve had a hand in editing has gone through a tried and tested process. The poems are printed, then laid out on a large floor for painstaking arrangement and rearrangement. It’s an arcane task that’s part intuition, and part logic. Its aim is to find a compelling order and a natural balance for the poems’ themes, images, vocabulary, etcetera. But, anyway, that’s the maths.