Floating Life 4/06 ~ 11/07

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Posts Tagged ‘20th century poetry

Friday Australian poem #17: Bruce Dawe, “Homecoming”

Years ago I had a student just beginning Year 12 at a Jewish school north of Sydney; Bruce Dawe’s poetry was our first mission. Over the Christmas holidays (well, that’s what I’d call them 😉 ) he went to Queensland, found Bruce Dawe in the phone book and rang him up. “Hey, I have to study your poems!” Result? An invitation to come over for a cup of tea, and some good points to make in class…

An Air Force veteran himself, and veteran too of all manner of jobs, this very down-to-earth Australian poet found his voice and his anger during the Vietnam War. “Homecoming” is just one of many he wrote at that time, but is justly the best known.
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Written by Neil

November 30, 2007 at 12:01 am

Friday Australian poem #15: Les Murray, "An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow"

This is a poem that has grown with me as I have read and reread it over the past thirty years and more.

An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow

The word goes round Repins,
the murmur goes round Lorenzinis,
at Tattersalls, men look up from sheets of numbers,
the Stock Exchange scribblers forget the chalk in their hands
and men with bread in their pockets leave the Greek Club:
There’s a fellow crying in Martin Place. They can’t stop him.

The traffic in George Street is banked up for half a mile
and drained of motion. The crowds are edgy with talk
and more crowds come hurrying. Many run in the back streets
which minutes ago were busy main streets, pointing:
There’s a fellow weeping down there. No one can stop him.

The man we surround, the man no one approaches
simply weeps, and does not cover it, weeps
not like a child, not like the wind, like a man
and does not declaim it, nor beat his breast, nor even
sob very loudly—yet the dignity of his weeping

holds us back from his space, the hollow he makes about him
in the midday light, in his pentagram of sorrow,
and uniforms back in the crowd who tried to seize him
stare out at him, and feel, with amazement, their minds
longing for tears as children for a rainbow.

Some will say, in the years to come, a halo
or force stood around him. There is no such thing.
Some will say they were shocked and would have stopped him
but they will not have been there. The fiercest manhood,
the toughest reserve, the slickest wit amongst us

trembles with silence, and burns with unexpected
judgements of peace. Some in the concourse scream
who thought themselves happy. Only the smallest children
and such as look out of Paradise come near him
and sit at his feet, with dogs and dusty pigeons.

Ridiculous, says a man near me, and stops
his mouth with his hands, as if it uttered vomit—
and I see a woman, shining, stretch her hand
and shake as she receives the gift of weeping;
as many as follow her also receive it

and many weep for sheer acceptance, and more
refuse to weep for fear of all acceptance,
but the weeping man, like the earth, requires nothing,
the man who weeps ignores us, and cries out
of his writhen face and ordinary body

not words, but grief, not messages, but sorrow,
hard as the earth, sheer, present as the sea—
and when he stops, he simply walks between us
mopping his face with the dignity of one
man who has wept, and now has finished weeping.

Evading believers, he hurries off down Pitt Street.

The Weatherboard Cathedral, 1969

To explain it? No, just read… But think about the following story from today’s Sydney Morning Herald.

MORE than two years after attempting to kill himself, the former NSW Opposition leader, John Brogden, revealed yesterday he still finds it “harrowing” to return to his former workplace and has given up alcohol because “it’s easier, it’s simpler”. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Neil

November 16, 2007 at 12:02 am

Friday Australian poem #12a

We couldn’t have a #13, could we? In fact if you check “Men in Green” again you will find a revised version. There had been an overlap last week between my role as an English tutor and that poem; I have a coachee, John, who was born in Shanghai in 1995. I had happened to bring an anthology to tuition and he had been given the task at school of finding a ballad or story poem to learn and recite. (I am glad some English classes still do this.) So we settled on “Men in Green” which he rather liked. I gave him a bit of context for it, and last week and yesterday we talked about it — among other things such as vocabulary and grammar exercises. (He has only been speaking English for about three years.)

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Friday Australian poem #12: David Campbell “Men in Green”

This poem is literally the same age as I am, having been first published in The Bulletin in 1943. David Campbell, like my father, was in the RAAF. Both men were in Papua/New Guinea in that year, though my father was comparatively safe on the ground in Port Moresby.

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Written by Neil

October 26, 2007 at 12:01 am

Friday Australian poem #11: “Because” by James McAuley

James Phillip McAuley (1917-1976) is, as you may see from that article, still something of a Right culture hero — perhaps even more so these days. He was certainly charming to me when I met him at one of the first English Teachers Association conferences I ever went to as a young teacher. At that conference he read “Because” and I was totally and deeply moved, and at that level I don’t care a bit what political arguments may centre on him or derive from him: I just knew I had been privileged to hear a truly great poem spoken by the man who wrote it and even more had the opportunity shyly and awkwardly to ask him how on earth he did it. “9 parts perspiration and 1 part inspiration” was part of what he told me over that memorable cup of tea…

The poem has moved me ever since, and hardly a senior class I have had has escaped my enthusiastic teaching of it. Yes it is conservative in form. McAuley was no friend of modernism, but then neither was Robert Frost. When a poem is as good as this one I simply don’t care; after all it could have only been written in this society in my lifetime. In that sense it is thoroughly modern. But enough from me. Can anyone read this and not to be moved?

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Written by Neil

October 19, 2007 at 12:01 am

Friday Australian poem #8: Kenneth Slessor (1901-1971)

Reading aloud this moving elegy on a dead friend and colleague of Slessor — Joe Lynch, who fell or jumped into Sydney Harbour from a ferry while drunk — became one of my better party tricks in senior poetry classes. It reads aloud beautifully.

But it isn’t just sound. I can’t stand beside Sydney Harbour without images from this poem eventually coming to mind. The art work by John Olsen is available from The Art Gallery of NSW.

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Written by Neil

September 28, 2007 at 12:01 am

Friday Australian Poem #5: Judith Wright "For a Pastoral Family"

This poem is in the 1985 collection Phantom Dwelling, in a section labelled “Poems 1979-1980”. My correspondence with Judith Wright, who supported Neos from Issue 1, began in 1981. We exchanged only a few letters, but I really treasured them. Of “For a Pastoral Family” and the later poems, Ted Kennedy, late and famous Redfern turbulent priest, has written:

Tim Bonyhady, an art historian, asserted (Sydney Morning Herald 15/7/00) that Judith Wright’s poetry suffered in her distraction into activism. I found what he said disappointing, in that nowhere does he credit Judith herself with any opinion at all about the debate over the so-called tension between poetry and her impulse to fight social causes. It appears to me a tribute to the accuracy of her own self awareness that she could accept that her capacity to write poetry could not be divorced from her need to express shame and responsibility regarding Aborigines, and for the destruction of the environment. She saw herself as now “grown up”. In her maturity she developed a real concern for Aborigines and what whites had done to their race. She saw her activism as the expression of the one poetic sensibility where the same sensual passion was at work and all the different levels of concern played the same tune. “It’s communication and memorability that make a good poem. It’s got to be memorable enough to keep it with you,” she said.

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