Book Talk S06E06 transcript: On being overseas Australians |
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Book Talk transcript : S06E06 — On being overseas Australians

Jill Kitson: Welcome to Book Talk on ABC Radio National. I'm Jill Kitson. This week: on being overseas Australians. Clive James and Peter Porter in the last of six programs on their careers as poets.

Born ten years apart, Peter Porter and Clive James are two highly successful Australian poets who have lived in England since their early twenties. Peter's first collection of poems, Once Bitten, Twice Bitten, was published there in 1961. In 1988 The Automatic Oracle won the Whitbread Poetry Award. His most recent collection, Afterburner, his 17th volume, was short-listed for the 2004 TS Eliot prize. In 1990 Peter was awarded the Gold Medal for Australian Literature, and in 2002, the Queen's Medal for Poetry.

Clive James' first poems were published in student journals at Sydney University. His first book, The Metropolitan Critic, was published in London in 1974. He's now the author of over a score of books, most of which have never been out of print. They include collected essays, novels, mock epic poems, autobiography and verse. The Book of My Enemy: Collected Verse 1958 to 2003 was a bestseller.

Both poets have never ceased to consider themselves Australians. Here's Clive:

Clive James: Peter, I can remember back in the 1970s and 1980s when an Australian poet operating in Britain (and by that I mean you more than me because you were recognised as such) paid a penalty in Australia sometimes because there were people who would say that you'd left your country and therefore sold out. But on the other hand there was immense generosity in Australia for what you were doing. Am I right about that?

Peter Porter: I think you're right about that, but there was also a degree of suspicion, I feel. Maybe suspicion is the wrong word, but a desire for explanation, a desire for you to explain to people why it was you left. It also, of course, is a matter of the kind of poet you are yourself, it really isn't much to do with the country you come from. I recall, however, in an anthology which Geoffrey Laymen and Robert Gray put together, Robert Gray described me as an example,which was unusual in Australia he thought &mdash: that is to say a cave dweller in the land of the surfgoers. And to some degree I think I was always looking for a certain kind of blackness. In an important sense I don't know whether that has anything to do with the country of my origin, but perhaps to do with my family, perhaps to do with the people I grew up with. I think that one always ought to bear in mind that your family is your closest kind of acquaintance with your country.

Clive James: Myself, I have no complaints. I was sometimes described as a professional Australian, but as I remember it was only by Australians. There was a suggestion that I might show up in a television studio in an akubra hat with corks around the rim if given half the chance. I, in fact, never did this, and very few British people ever said that. From Britain I always found an immense warm welcome for everything Australian, and I realised in 1979 when I published my memoirs, Unreliable Memoirs, (which had gratifying success in Britain, not just in Australia but in Britain too), it tipped me off that there was a very deep and heartening appreciation on the part of the British for Australia; it was their dream land. I think they'd felt that way since 1946 when they got their 'Bundles for Britain' full of strange unknown stuff like honey, and they realised that Australia was the land overflowing with it. I benefited from that, I think. I've got a feeling we all did actually. I've got a feeling the British are basically pro-Australian.

Peter Porter: I think it would be difficult anyway in Britain to pass as an Englishman if you wanted to, if you were an Australian. It would be silly to even attempt it.

Clive James: I knew some who did in Cambridge, and they became very convincing, they had the accent and the tie; I think it was a ludicrous posture.

Peter Porter: But my own experience has been that I've integrated almost completely into England in one sense, but I've always been particularly noticed as someone who's not English, who is Australian. I rather, these days, take an improper pleasure from the fact that I am descended from one Christopher Porter who was born in 1801 in Nottingham and went out to the goldfields in 1853, and found no gold of course; our family's always been very good at finding no gold. But it does give me pleasure that I belong to the great family of the English language.

Clive James: Do you shape your poetry about Australia so as to be intelligible in Britain? Is there such a thing as an Australian reference you wouldn't use because the British wouldn't get it? It's worth asking the question because there's a problem of audience here.

Peter Porter: I've done that a lot actually, but mostly unselfconsciously. I have a long and extremely show-offish poem which I now know is bad enough for me to have a fondness for it. It's called 'Delphi' and it's allegedly a kind of build up of the ancient town of the oracle but which is thoroughly post-modernised into all kinds of modern things. But in that I talk about the noise of the birds that could be heard in the public gardens, and I call the birds that are making this noise 'butcher birds'. Now, I don't know why I said 'butcher birds' except that I heard butcher birds as a child in Brisbane, and a butcher bird has a very beautiful sound actually. Now, the sound of the bird, the name of the bird doesn't sound very attractive, does it?

Clive James: It does though; 'butcher bird' has a very strong set of sounds, but that aside...

Peter Porter: So I do it automatically. I see no reason, of course, in my poetry and that's what just makes me prevented from becoming a world-famous popular poet. I don't much bother with the references, not just about butcher birds, but I'd be equally happy to put in a reference about Freud's Vienna without explaining it. I just don't know that it matters in the end because the mind is like a huge kind of fishing fleet; it's trawling all the time for that which seems germane, things which seem important. In the end, you bring the catch onto deck and you just simply hope that that catch will make sense.

Clive James: And I don't think the British would mind being puzzled about an Australian reference. They might not know what a butcher bird is but they know it's Australian and they're quite pleased to read it, whereas the American would mind. You wouldn't get that past an American, he'd say, 'What's a butcher bird?'

Peter Porter: Well, of course America is full of those people who are the last tribe of villains left in the world, people called 'fact-checkers'. I actually had a fact-checker from the United States say, 'You are a poet Mr Porter.' And I said, 'Yes.' 'Your name is Peter Porter?' 'Yes,' I said, 'it is two trochees.' 'Excuse me sir, what is a trochee?' I said, 'A trochee is a foot in poetry where the emphasis falls on the first syllable.' He said, 'Thank you, sir, for the explanation.' Indeed, fact-checking is an admirable thing, but in the end, if you've checked every fact you wouldn't have any time left over for anything else. I think that the point about poetry is that I particularly enjoy those poets like, say, William Empson, who makes me work on what I'm reading, and also makes me look things up actually, it's not a bad thing to do. I don't think you should have your dictionaries and your encyclopaedias at your hand while you are writing but I think you should have them close by while you are reading.

Clive James: I think after I published my...'the verse that I wish to preserve' they used to say, didn't they? All the verse that I wish to 1986, and the book was called Other Passports, I was surprised by the amount of it that was about Australia. I had been writing serious poetry about Australia for some time, more than I suspected. I never minded, when I wrote this poetry, of putting things in that I knew the British wouldn't quite get because I guessed (I think probably correctly) that they rather like not getting it, they liked the idea of the mysterious land where they hear about these wondrous things and the picture doesn't quite clearly form. I wrote one poem called 'Go Back to the Opal Sunset' which is advice to myself. I wrote it during winter...or the writer is pretending he's writing in winter, he's asking himself what on Earth is he doing in London when he could be in Australia where he was born, and he's telling himself to go back there. It starts like this:

[reading from Go back to the opal sunset... to ...tent pegs and go now.]

You see, there was a phrase in there that I knew nobody would get which is 'tent pegs'. If your tent pegs are too tall, it means they haven't gone far enough into the ground. So to me that was a resonant phrase but only to a fellow tent dweller, but I knew that the audience wouldn't mind it. I think it was a fairly good guess. On the whole, the British audience is terribly receptive to what they realise is the Australian experience, which is not like theirs but they wish it was.

Peter Porter: But, Clive, I think a British audience would know about tent pegs. Haven't you ever attended that very English ceremony; the wedding in the country where everything is in a marquee and...?

Clive James: Yes, but the ground is always soft here.

Peter Porter: Yes, I suppose that's the case. I forget who that famous biblical character was who drove a tent peg through an enemy's ear. All references, you see, are germane to the mind of the writer but not necessarily to the reader. I would never censor a poem for difficulties. Of course, on the other hand, I would hope to have a tactful enough imagination that I would not have to censor it, and this is the matter which really controls everything. When you sit down to write a poem, I think there is a deliberate intention to produce something which is both a construct, a work of art, and also something which is a clarification. In the end, what actually needs clarifying will depend upon so many factors that your country of origin ceases to be, in any sense, an important contribution.

Clive James: And that's what tone does, isn't it? It tells you what that strange word or term must mean. Shakespeare's doing it all the time. Shakespeare knew every creature, every animal, every bird, everything in the hedgerow, for example. That's how we know he grew up with the country near to hand. Some of the vocabulary is very, very arcane indeed, but we know it generally means because the tone of the speech is telling us. I think that's one of the things a poem does. A poem is painted together by its tone.

Peter Porter: But don't you think, if you are to look at a really good Australian anthology, that a lot of it would be pretty well understandable anywhere where English is spoken, and I think the same thing would apply to English poetry. The same thing might not apply to American poetry, largely because Americans are so much governed by theory. You wouldn't be worried about whether or not it was in Louisiana or whether it was in Nebraska. In America you would be worried about whether the writer belonged to a particular group who had a theoretical knowledge or idea of what poetry should be. I find every time I pick up an anthology of poetry published in Australia, I don't find I have to change gear, I don't find I have to make a different adjustment from, say, the stuff I see week by week in English journals. It seems to me that, in a good rather than a bad sense, the world has become a place where everybody is explicable to almost everybody.

Clive James: But also there is such a thing as a universal frame of reference building up all the time. One example which incudes America (it's a frame of reference I use all the time) is the movies; if you're making references to movies in your poems, they're far more likely to be American movies than British ones nowadays because there is such a thing as American cultural imperialism and we take it in whether we will or no. That's become a universal frame of reference, but on the whole the English language is what binds English poetry together. We all have a sense that there is only a certain distance we can travel towards the edge of the English language or we're going to lose everything. It's got to make some kind of sense.

Peter Porter: That's another aspect of what we have talked about elsewhere which is where we talk about the elements of poetry, we talk about rhythm, we talk about rhyme, we talk about various forms of structure and syntax, but I think it's very important also to recognise that rhyme itself is one of those peculiarities which is...well, it's not a universality in the world. It is now, and has been for 200 years, an experience of the European languages. But if you look at the fact that the English language is rather poorly stocked with rhymes, you suddenly appreciate that the use of rhyme becomes a device of virtuosity, and only virtuosi should use it. If I were teaching in school, I would not let kids rhyme their poems because that would make them think they knew what poetry was by finding these acquaintances, these chimes...

Clive James: I wouldn't allow them not to. I think they should be able to do it before they get over it.

Peter Porter: I think that's the case, but here's where you find that if you're rhyming in Tennessee or you're rhyming in Western Australia or you're rhyming in Bloemfontein or you're rhyming in Newcastle-on-Tyne, you've still got (except for a few local variations in pronunciation) exactly the same limitations and exactly the same enticements. And I think that this is an enormously important thing to understand about poetry and to understand about all literature, in fact, is that we are working in a tribal medium. We cannot make it just for ourselves, it has to apply to all the people who also speak that language.

Clive James: But it also pleases me that to write an effective poem is actually quite difficult, far more difficult than it looks, far more difficult than people are encouraged to think, and I really am horrified by the idea that everybody has a poem in them. Unfortunately it's true, they do. Often they've got 100 poems in them and they send them to me. What do you do about the unsolicited manuscript? This is the most embarrassing question I could possibly ask you.

Peter Porter: Far worse though is the manuscript which is almost good and which you can say nice things about, and then you're on the hook because if you say these nice things, why can't you deliver? I've discovered, in fact, that encouraging people can be a very dangerous thing because they think if you encourage them (and this sounds a very ungrateful thing to say because people have helped me so much in the past) that you have it in your gift to make the way smooth for them, but you do not.

Clive James: No, poetry doesn't work by recommendation. Nothing in publishing does, and I sometimes have to tell people that I might even like your work, but if I tell my publisher that I like your work it's not going to mean a damn thing to the publisher.

Peter Porter: This is entirely the case, and in fact I will disappoint and also disgust some of my friends who I've given endorsements to on books...I've done it because I've felt it was true, I've also done it because I felt it might help, but alas I think it doesn't help. I think, on the whole, it probably detracts because it tends to be trying to take over the reader's response.

Clive James: And it can make the writer hope for the wrong thing too. I remember when I was very young I actually sent some of my callow poetry to Philip Larkin who had bowled me over when I first read him, and he very kindly replied. I didn't realise how unusual that was at the time. He was very encouraging, and I thought in later years, wouldn't it be nice if I could persuade him to let me publish some of that encouragement on a book jacket? Well, it would have been a fatal error, for him and for me. Thank God I didn't do it, but I remember the wish that maybe something will help me smooth my path, and it's not so, the world isn't like that.

Peter Porter: I would like to think that the encouragement which we offer to others is something we could, in a non-egotistic way, offer to ourselves. I'm pretty old by now, and one of the things I have in mind is not to go out in a blaze, nor even for that matter to dwindle away to nothing, but I want to approach the next poems I'm going to write in the next few years...I want to approach it with exactly the same sense of enthusiasm with which I approached poems in the past. I don't want there to be the sense of a dying fool, I don't want there to be some kind of lachrymose feeling — 'ah well, I've come to the end of my day' — I don't even want to be defiant like Robert Browning, you know; 'grow old along with me, the best is yet to be'. I don't believe that kind of thing. But I would like the idea, the innocence of creation to still continue in such a fashion that you don't really take any cognisance of where you are in your career. In fact, that every moment is a new bit of career.

I've got a poem I'd just like to...since I haven't actually read any poetry for while, I haven't spoken any, about Igor Stravinsky, one of my great heroes. Now, the last stanza of this poem (it's called 'Stravinsky in Hollywood') is about the fact that you've's the best meaning of Pound's rather, I think, hyped-up phrase, 'make it new', and nobody could do it as well as Stravinsky who had a complete command of everything which was old, and that's the thing which I, the stanza goes:

[reading from I put the carnal bells of marriage... to ...broken letters of the alphabet.]

Now, this is my hope, but I know that does have a sort of lachrymose sound to it, but the point is I don't mind the lachrymose subject matter, I do not want to be lachrymose about writing poetry.

Clive James: I've become much less lachrymose about it. I'm bound to say that in my earlier days poetry was identified for me with my most sorry condition of getting nowhere and really shivering in the cold, and things have got better. I had several strokes of luck; one of them was that a lot of my poetic impulse I could put into writing lyrics for the music of my friend Pete Atkin, and that was show business and we could go on tour and make albums and it was public and it got me out of myself and so on. But another, in my more private poetry, was that I was lucky with my editors. It's something I haven't paid sufficient tribute to, because nothing really counts like a sympathetic editor. A sympathetic editor isn't necessarily the soft one. In fact, he or she is quite often the opposite. I say 'she' in haste because Clare Tomalin, who was literary editor of The New Statesman at one stage, was one of my most important editors.

But they had the gift sometimes of being quite tough and asking exactly what you meant, of putting the blue pencil on the bit that needed correction and so on. And even now, today, when I've been doing this kind of thing for a long time, there are one or two editors who I will allow to point out faults in my work and ask for corrections. Not many. Usually when somebody says there's something wrong with a poem I take it back in a huff, and I think I'm usually right, but when the editor says, 'Look, I think this bit could be better,' and I look at it and I realise they're right, then I do that.

I wrote a long poem for Les Murray called 'The Great Rassi' which is about a big fish on the Barrier Reef. It was miles too long and it was quite out of control, and an editor who I won't name because I don't want to embarrass him, did exactly the right thing of saying, 'you don't need this, you don't need this, you don't need this', and that is actually an act of collaboration which is very unusual in poetry.

Peter Porter: This, of course, comes under that heading which has now become legendary; 'Il Miglior Fabbro'...

Clive James: That's what Ezra Pound did for TS Eliot, you mean?

Peter Porter: Yes, the person who edited...and if you look at what that manuscript (which has been restored now) shows, you see that Pound was 99 per cent right. Occasionally he may have been wrong, but mostly he was right.

Clive James: I think Eliot was exaggerating when he called the poem 'Il Miglior Fabbro', 'The Better Maker', because Eliot was the supreme maker. But Pound did have a sense of what was alive and what was dead, and yes, he did put his blue pencil, every time, on the bits of The Waste Land manuscript that weren't up to the rest of it.

Peter Porter: Perhaps there was a secret understanding bout the 'Il Miglior Fabbro' because Philip Larkin once told me that he thought it actually meant 'It's Better at Fabers', and I think there is an element there perhaps of what you might call the good counsel which comes from close friendship, and I think in many respects most of us have been done good turns by our friends, as much as by our editors.

I have to go back, I think, to when I was starting out where my friends were decidedly of the opinion that what I was writing was bad. They managed to, at the same time, convince me that I had it in me perhaps to write better, but they were very specific on the page; that poem, that line, that particular notion, that is no good. I feel that that is something which I don't get so much of today at all. In fact, what I noticed today is that all the people I regard as quite close friends and also colleagues tend to, if they don't like something, to just ignore it, and they don't often intervene and say...but I think they should and I wish they would.

Clive James: It's the eloquent silence, isn't it? I'm bound to say, I get much more reaction nowadays than it did, because I couldn't possibly get less; I used to get none. And now I get printed and the editor might comment and I might get the occasional letter, and it makes me feel an awful lot better about life, much better than when I was operating in the dark. But one of the privileges that accrue to actually having been around and getting a name and finally getting some kind of reputation is that you get asked out more, in the sense that you get asked to read, and it's a question I think we ought to raise; the function of reading. I think some poets get so successful, they go on the reading circuit for the rest of their lives and simply cease functioning as writers, and they become performers. But to me the reading is the big reminder that what you're doing as a poet is reaching an audience because the audience is sitting right there in front of you.

Peter Porter: I wonder about that because it's true that some writers are enormously present in their reading. I remember during the '60s when there was there were a lot of manifestations of reading performance. I remember being often taken in by American poets who on the page did look like wonderful Whitman-esque figures, but their readings were mere mutterings, and I think that the element of reading, particularly in this country (by that I mean Britain), a lot of people here have been trained by voice coaches, and I quite like it but it does give an extra tone to poetry which the poets themselves may not necessarily have.

And this country, unlike Australia, is also bedevilled by the changes of accents from class to class, and I think that that actually impedes reading. It's an upside-down thing too in the sense that if you've got a working-class accent you're considered much more authentic than if you've got a posh accent, and that is as much a distortion as the other way around. And you find, in fact, that readings can introduce all manner of difficulties, and the worst difficulty is that you begin to censor, you only read the pieces which you think are going to get applause, and I think that's a limit because I think some of the best poems you've ever written do require exactly that intervention of the reading voice but which you're too frightened to read because you think they're difficult and will be misunderstood.

Clive James: I hasten to say that, first of all, there's a liturgical sing-song element to be avoided, and second, you're absolutely right, that people tend to pick out only the thing that works well, and 'works well' of course is a theatrical concept. Also I do believe that a poem has to work first on the page, that's where the event starts. But the things I mean about the reading is that it's a reminder that the poem is not a completely closed circuit, that it's got to have readers and at least they're sitting there.

Jill Kitson: Clive James, ending that conversation with Peter Porter, the last of six programs about their careers as poets. Peter Porter's latest collection of poetry is Afterburner, a Picador. He edited The Best Australian Poetry 2005 for University of Queensland Press. The Book of My Enemy is the title of Clive's collected poems. His latest collection of essays is The Meaning of Recognition. Picador is the publisher. And that's all for this edition of Book Talk.

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