Books: [omitted from <i>The Meaning of Recognition</i>] — The Great Generation of Australian Poetry |
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The Great Generation of Australian Poetry

[Included (as Chapter 12) in Cultural Cohesion and As Of This Writing,
but absent from both Even As We Speak and The Meaning of Recognition]

First A. D. Hope and then Judith Wright, two of the most famous twentieth-century Australian poets died in the millennium year, and with them the first great phalanx of modern Australian poetry ran out of living representatives. When my generation was nursing its callow dreams of getting established, most of the future patriarchs and matriarchs were still only in their forties but they dominated the skyline: they looked more established than the Sydney Harbour Bridge, than the Melbourne Club, than the Great Dividing Range. Each commanding not just a name but a physical presence, they had first call on the available limelight. Hope, Wright, James McAuley, Douglas Stewart and Gwen Harwood were only the most prominent. David Campbell seemed keen to prove that his wartime productivity had been just the start. Francis Webb, though terminally schizophrenic in a mental hospital, kindly continued to receive visits from young hopefuls who rightly suspected that he might be more original than they were.

Kenneth Slessor, the precursor, was far gone in his latter-day cocktail-fuelled dandyism but lived long enough to meet Les Murray personally and anoint him as a future torch-bearer. Similarly, Christopher Brennan in his cups had once smiled on the young A. D. Hope. The smile was probably a bit lopsided, but Hope, though he himself grew older with more grace, remembered the moment fondly. According to his own account, written in extreme old age but with typical clarity of detail, he had tracked Brennan down to a pub toilet, where the permanently plastered polymath was pointing Percy at the porcelain—or perhaps, considering Brennan’s stature as a classical scholar, he was pointing Propertius at the porphyry. Hope attracted the swaying Brennan’s attention by pencilling the first half of a rude Latin inscription from Pompeii at eye level above the urinal. Brennan took the pencil, completed the inscription, noted that it was in Saturnian metre, and delivered a comprehensive lecture on accentual metres right through the period of classical verse. And then he buttoned his fly.

Growing old was something these legends seemed slow to do, especially if you were waiting for them to give you breathing space. R. D. Fitzgerald—born, like Slessor, at the turn of the century and for some time considered his equal—had suffered a weakening of the reputation but still bulked large: there was a mild uproar when McAuley gave Fitzgerald’s Forty Years’ Poems a bad review. McAuley died sooner than he should have—cancer took him in 1976—but when I was a student he was still to be seen in his acerbic prime, fulminating away on the far right. I can remember a tight-lipped, buttoned-up lecture he gave in Sydney University’s Wallace Theatre. His nominal subject was left-wing incomprehension of the recently published Dr. Zhivago, but the real object of his ire seemed to be liberalism in general, starting with the invention of moveable type, or perhaps the wheel. By that stage Australia’s most adamantine ultra-Catholic made the Vatican look soft on communism, but anybody who thought McAuley was through as a poet would have been making a mistake: “Because,” one of his very best things, was a product of his last phase. Those of us who had panned his epic (Captain Quiros was essentially a lament for Australia’s having missed out on being part of a Catholic empire) were obliged to admit that he went down in a blaze of lyrics.

The year of McAuley’s death was the first year I could afford a trip back to Sydney, where I heard quite ordinary people quoting bits of “Because.” (“Judgment is simply trying to reject/ A part of what we are because it hurts.” He could put a hook right through your head.) Hearing him quoted reminded me of what literary life had been like before I left. In theory there was no literary life, but in practice a supposedly philistine society was already saturated with poetry through many layers.

When I was growing up, the “Argonauts” programme on ABC radio featured a delightfully pedantic character called Anthony Inkwell, played by none other than A. D. Hope. The school reader called The Wide Brown Land read like a thriller. (Douglas Stewart edited one of its revisions.) Some of the home-grown comic strips had dialogue better than a play: Wally and the Major, Ginger Meggs, Bluey and Curly. (“When Bluey drinks, everybody drinks!” shouts Bluey. Everyone in the pub orders a beer and downs it in one. “When Bluey pays, everybody pays!” shouts Bluey, and goes down in a screaming heap.) Thus a generation was painlessly initiated into a concern with language. The nineteenth-century Australian tradition that Les Murray was later to call “newspaper poetry” had never died—one trusts it never will—and it was quite common for newly published poems to be talked about as current events.

When Gwen Harwood bailed out of the Bulletin, she gave its editor a poem he was proud of having published until someone pointed out that its capitalized letters at the beginning of each line formed the valedictory acrostic SO LONG BULLETIN FUCK ALL EDITORS. I was serving out my year on the Sydney Morning Herald at the time and I can remember the kerfuffle on the editorial floor when a copy of that issue of the Bulletin was brought in and crooned over by rugby scrums of delighted journos. Everyone who could push a pen laughed about it in the pubs: all were agreed that it was the wittiest outrage since the Ern Malley hoax—which, only fifteen short years before, with Hope whispering encouragement from the wings, had been cooked up by the young McAuley, along with the only slightly older Harold Stewart. Not to be confused with his namesake Douglas Stewart, Harold Stewart was one of those born fringe dwellers who depend for their income by finding money in the street. A homosexual racked by a doomed love for McAuley, decades later he ended up in Japan collecting haikus. Douglas Stewart, on the other hand, was cut out from the start for a career as a listed building. Self-exiled from New Zealand, Stewart took over the Bulletin’s Red Page and diligently built himself an unassailable place as mentor for the emergent poetry. (Kiwis in Australia are like Canucks in the U.S.: they try harder.) In my time Douglas Stewart was not only still around, he was at the height of his influence, magisterially fulfilling his role as editor of the Angus and Robertson pocket collections of canonical Australian poets. Many of them were his personal friends, but there was no point objecting, because canonical was what they were. They were a pleiade, those fiery people, and all the more so for being so individualistic. There had been no literary establishment to further their initial achievements. So they had built one. You could be impressed or not—I was only one of the young writers who petulantly tried to ignore the whole thing—but the only way to escape its looming presence was to get on a ship.

Part of the edifice they built was the critical assessment of Australia’s poetic heritage. Now that they have become part of that heritage themselves, the new critical task is to assess them. They have made it easy for us: every name from that period wrote at least a handful of poems powerful enough to travel through time and space without benefit of academic apparatus. For them it was not quite so simple: the indigenous past could be claimed as a foundation, but to the surveyor’s sceptical glance it was a shaky one, and the urge to firm it up with an injection of scholarship was hard to resist. In truth, their own poetry was written in the context of the modern international achievement, where Yeats and Eliot, rather than Brennan and Shaw Neilson, were the pervasive immediate ancestors. But in politics, nationalism called, with its inevitable attendant imperative to cook the books. The results were sometimes questionable, but we need to remember that the impulse must have seemed like a responsibility, or so many mavericks would not have adopted professorial robes. For Slessor and Fitzgerald, the Grand Old Men, the academy had not been available as a support system. For les jeunes, most of whom were born around 1920, the universities of the pre- and immediate post-war years were available as a refuge, a reservoir of scholastic back-up, and a base from which they might begin the long job of broadcasting their views about the hidden depths of the national achievement.

Sydney University, in particular, was a nerve centre. A. D. Hope, a crucial decade older than the others, had been there in the late 1920s and had covered himself with academic honours. At Oxford he went haywire and came away with a gentleman’s Third. To hindsight, it looks as if fate wanted him to be back in Sydney and firmly placed at the Teachers’ College so that he could offer the benefit of his poetic experience when McAuley showed up there as a trainee in the late 1930s. In fact it worked the other way: McAuley scrutinized Hope’s manuscripts and not vice versa. Hope was, and would always be, a modest man. McAuley was quite the other thing. His multiple personality—intellectual by day, ragtime musician by night, seducer anytime—ideally fitted him for the university’s perennial connection with a downtown bohemia. It didn’t matter if you were officially enrolled or not, because the nightlife was a seminar with piano accompaniment. The atmosphere is well evoked in Cassandra Pybus’s The Devil and James McAuley (1999), whose early chapters amount to the best thing yet published about the poetic ferment that started in the early 1940s: she is not very profound about the poetry, but she is terrific on the ferment. It should be remembered that Sydney University was still comparatively small time in those days. The age of expansion had not yet begun, and indeed when the war was over it still hadn’t. Only after the Menzies government introduced the Commonwealth Scholarship scheme did the universities become the catalytic towers for Australia’s final refinement into the meritocratic society we know today. By the late 1950s, Sydney University was a bustling initial assembly point for the new artistic and media elites, which, having come up out of nowhere, nowadays inevitably tend to reminisce about their alma mater as if it were the somewhere that really counted. Peter Porter, a boy from Brisbane, has several times been heard to say that Sydney University gives its graduates a self-confidence denied to those who never went there.

Porter enjoys talking himself down: to the admiring observer, he never seemed to lack self-confidence when he set about occupying his world-ranking position. But viewed on the Australian scale, there is something to what he says. Sydney University is a hot spot. The thing to bear in mind is that in the 1940s it wasn’t that yet. The upcoming literary mandarins would help to make it so, but at the time they were not joining a new power structure. They were the misfit products of an old one. The working class and the lower middle class could not afford to send their children to university. (In an otherwise markedly egalitarian society, this was one of the few limitations that made it meaningful to talk about a class structure at all.) The student body was provided mainly by the entrenched bourgeoisie and the squattocracy, social strata united in their unbending conservatism. Any student with artistic ambitions was a conscious rebel against his own background, and that went double if it was her own background.

A clear instance was Judith Wright. In the year before her death an autobiography came out. Called Half a Lifetime, it confirmed the impression she had always liked to give, of a daughter of the landed gentry whose upbringing had given her a disturbing insight into how white civilization stole the black man’s country, and who had gone on to find her authenticity not just through her art but through a modest existence dedicated to living off the land without exploiting it any further. She had already, in the Homerically entitled The Generations of Men (1959), given an account of her family’s history on the land: unavoidably it was a good story, as the story of a dynasty perpetuating itself always is, but she left no doubt that she regarded the whole epic as an offence against natural law. Taken together, the volumes that record her family saga and the way she left it behind add up to a vital work—rather more vital, if the truth be told, than her later poetry—but what it leaves out is the turmoil of her personal transition from chrysalis to butterfly. The official biography, South of My Days, published two years before her death—it is pleasing to note that the great lady made her exit to the sound of trumpets—gives us some of the facts. Its author, Veronica Brady, doesn’t always seem to know what the facts signify, but her determination to leave nothing out pays off. Though an academic by profession, she is a nun by vocation, and is perhaps too pure to realize just how revolutionary her country girl turned out to be when she arrived in Sydney and opened her mind and heart to the freedoms of la vie de Bohème.

At the university, the young Judith radicalized her politics. As an unmatriculated student she was never in line for a degree, but her originality remains chastening even in retrospect. Twenty years later I sat listening to the same anthropology lectures she heard and it simply never occurred to me that the stuff about the Aboriginals was dynamite. Young Judith got the point from the jump. On that and every other social issue, she went left in a big way, although communism was too authoritarian to hold her: too authoritarian, and possibly too plebeian. Essentially a patrician proto-hippie, she would remain unique until the late 1960s made her look normal. But to be radical in politics was unremarkable: the Depression was not yet over. (In Australia the Depression and the war were continuous: fifteen years in a hard school.) Her really radical radicalism was in her love life.

Upstate, in the vast rural area where New South Wales has its own New England, in the territory of the grand families where the marriageability of daughters counted—it still does—she had been a hopeless case. In Sydney’s Kings Cross she found her context. Along with Darlinghurst and Paddington, Kings Cross has been romanticized in retrospect as a combination of the Left Bank, Schwabing, Greenwich Village and ancient Rome on a Saturday night. Actually, there was barely a square mile where unconventional behaviour could have been observed by an invisible man. Even in my day, the area’s resident succubus, Rosaleen Norton, got into the newspapers mainly for wearing green eyeshadow and staying up past her bedtime. Pre-war, it counted as devil worship to drink red wine out of a teacup. My father and mother shared a room in Darlinghurst but they were careful to get married first: somebody might have called the police. Yet Judith Wright took lovers. In the plural! Still amazing after sixty years, this news is set down by her biographer in a neutral tone, as if it were merely a defiant gesture, and not the equivalent of throwing a bomb at the Governor General. For once it is the lack of salacious details, and not their irrelevant plenitude, that drives the reader crazy. Who were these men?

They didn’t get into her poetry. Reading between the lines of her early poems, you can just about deduce that there might have been more than one Lothario on the scene, but not more than two, and they both sound the same. As the war got under way, some of her first love poems propelled their best lines into the collective memory. The opening stroke of “The Company of Lovers” rang a passing bell for an epoch:

We meet and part now all over the world.
We, the lost company.

But after that, the poem faded. As with any other subject, she turned passion into an abstraction. She could cantilever an extended line like nobody else: generations of schoolchildren, and not just the boys, have had good cause to remember “Your delicate dry breasts, country that built my heart.” She was the mistress of the stately measure. But too much of her poetry was unpeopled, undetailed and finally unrealized. Clearly she meant to speak for all women—her first two books rank high among the Australian poetry by women that leaves the men sounding Neanderthal—but she rarely did it with the same universal applicability that Gwen Harwood achieved by speaking for herself. Even early on, there were only a few poems by Wright that yielded to being remembered entire, and later she seemed bent on defeating the possibility, as her vocabulary moved beyond the abstract into a kind of profligate inertia. Flames danced, blood pulsed and crystals hummed in an unspecific dreamtime of ectoplasmic images that never swam into focus before they dissipated. In short, she lost it. But when Les Murray hinted that this might be so, he did not get lynched: a sure sign that Wright’s generation had produced, as an incidental benefit, a critical climate in which it would be possible to pass a limiting judgement on a totemic literary figure without seeming to bring the whole national achievement into question.

In her life as an environmental activist, Wright was a lioness. She took on whole conglomerates in open battle, and saved the Barrier Reef practically single-handed. But she would never have dared to say about Christopher Brennan what Murray said about her. Her nationalist commitment ruled that out. It would have been too true. The poets of the 1940s consolidated a national literary culture by writing to world standards. A nationalist impulse is never sufficient to do that: all it can guarantee is to produce a more self-conscious provincialism. But those same poets also felt compelled to act as critics, scholars, editors, archivists and anthologists, and in those roles they had to be nationalists, or else be seen to repudiate the literary heritage of their own country. A. D. Hope was well equipped to have done just that, had he wished. He was thoroughly acquainted with the main body of English literature back to Chaucer and beyond. He read easily in a dozen languages. (Late in life, when he was translating The Lusiads of Camões, he did it directly from the Portuguese, with no cribs.) His first collection of poems, The Wandering Islands, was delayed for years by the threat of censorship, but when, in 1955, he finally published it, the impact was enormous, and not just in Australia. Since it contained scarcely a single specifically Australian reference, the book travelled well. He could have set up shop anywhere in the English-speaking world. But he had already hung out his shingle as the curator of Australia’s national literature. First at Melbourne University after the war, and then during his long tenancy as professor of English at the Australian National University in Canberra, he gave Australian writing the same comprehensive attention that he gave to the rest of the world. The comprehensive attention did not include indulgence. The harsh things he said about Gerard Manley Hopkins (he was as wrong about Hopkins as he was right about Yeats) were a caress compared with what he did to Patrick White, who resented Hope’s assault on his early prose until the day he died. Contemporary writers had good cause to be apprehensive about Hope’s relentless crusade against loose language. But it was notable that when he talked about the Australian writers of the past he was reluctant to erode their reputations. Quite apart from his continuing regard for Brennan, he was determined, for example, to go on finding the longueurs of Joseph Furphy structurally functional: in other words, Such Is Life was meant to be tedious. At least he caned Miles Franklin for saying that Furphy was better than Henry James, Proust and James Joyce. Hope’s collection of critical articles Native Companions (1974) is full of instances where special pleading is made plausible by acumen. But as the title hints, special pleading is the purpose.

Judith Wright’s equivalent volume, Preoccupations in Australian Poetry (1965), worked the same strategy. She was a discriminating critic, but she wasn’t going to give Brennan away. Well capable of seeing that his World War I propaganda poetry was inexcusably awful, she still wanted to preserve a lyrical harbinger. It was a lie, of course: international Modernism was the harbinger, not Brennan, whose connection to his admired Mallarmé had been the same as the connection of the “Paris end” of Melbourne’s Collins Street to Paris. But it was a necessary lie, one that felt as if it ought to be true. Douglas Stewart’s critical collection The Broad Stream (1975) was in the same case. Stewart was illuminatingly enthusiastic about the balladeers. But he also managed to say approving things about Norman Lindsay’s novels. The Magic Pudding is still read by every Australian child whose parents buy books at all, and there were few male poets of the great generation, from Slessor onwards, who were not influenced by Lindsay’s unflagging labours as a sexual libertarian, a species of which pre-war Australia possessed few examples who were not in gaol. (As an artist with the female form for a stock in trade, Lindsay was surrounded by strapping models who looked as if they might like a young poet for breakfast—a dream come true.) But Lindsay was a hopelessly slapdash novelist, and for someone of Stewart’s fastidious taste to have pretended otherwise can have only a political explanation.

The politics worked. By conjuring up the foundations of a nationalist edifice from the past, the poets built an ideal world—Australian literature—in which they could confidently pursue their real work, which was to get on with their poetry without feeling flattened from the start by the weight of Britain’s example. And if some of the reputations they rescued from the cellar were fragile, others were well worth dusting off. The poet-critics made their best judgements when they edited active anthologies intended to show the line of succession since the days of Henry Lawson and Banjo Patterson. McAuley’s A Map of Australian Verse (1975) was particularly good. Sweating the luminaries down to a few strong poems each, he intercalated short critical articles to analyse their strengths—and, in the vexed case of Brennan, the weaknesses. Letting go of Brennan altogether was still out of the question, but McAuley was able to say that Shaw Neilson, who knew much less about English literature and nothing at all about any other literature, was the better poet. He simply wrote better poems.

Through their widespread critical activity and their tireless anthologizing—anthologies sold well, but they were hard work—the great generation had taken a long route to a goal they had scarcely glimpsed when they started out: but, aided by the unarguable quality of the poetry they themselves had produced, they finally got there. They had made a beginning on the essential job of switching the emphasis from the poetic career to the actual poems, and done it without abandoning the past, where even the failures could now be seen to have made a contribution, if only by marking the wrong tracks with their bleached bones. Australian poetry consisted of good poems written by Australians: and that was it. The way was open for the next generation to speak in an Australian voice, which could now, at last, be defined as a voice that had no need to worry if it did not sound British. There was no other definition it needed.

The next generation was in the enviable position of spending the money daddy made. Inevitably the results were not always edifying. Where poetry had once been a life sentence for the elect, it now became a lifestyle for the ambitious. Every kookaburra thought he was a songbird. But to a gratifying extent it has been the story of a nation achieving eloquence without just talking to itself. Luckily the critical tradition has been passed on. Les Murray, for example, has proved to be a critic as finely tuned as his masters, and even better as an anthologist. His A Working Forest (1997) is the first collection of essays to read about Australian literature, and The New Oxford Book of Australian Verse (augmented edition 1991) is a wonderland of a book that would be indispensable for its Aboriginal poetry alone—in a single bold gesture he pushed back the far boundary of Australia’s cultural past from 1788 all the way to the dreamtime. But a less striking boldness is the one that really counts: without fear or favour, he picked his way through the output of his predecessors as if they were contemporaries, and found the poems that live. The predecessors turned out to be mortal, and from that the contemporaries have taken courage. Now every aspirant realizes, or should realize, that it’s not the career that matters: it’s getting something said that will speak for itself. A measure of how the Australian poetic world has been enriched is that Murray does not dominate it, either as critic or as poet. Except for Porter, Murray makes incomparably more impact abroad than any other Australian national, but at home, though he is primus, he is definitely inter pares. Nobody would want to be without Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s critical views, which are as sharply focussed as his verse; or without the wild lyrical flights of Bruce Dawe, who was the first to remind Australia that it was the American voice, and not the British one, that threatened to drown us out. A typical Dawe poem has no more structure than an evening in the pub, but radiates a humane intelligence that makes you want to join him at the bar. When Bruce drinks, everybody drinks. We lost John Forbes too early, and his unique voice is rightly praised: but some of his uniqueness he got from Dawe. When Forbes started a poem with “Spent tracer flecks Baghdad’s/bright video game sky” he was developing a tone that Dawe discovered, principally by watching the television screen, through which the world’s griefs came to remind the lucky country that it had never been as isolated as it feared or fancied.

Once again, however, it is poems that matter, not reputations; and I can think of dozens of Australian poems I have read enthralled in the last few years whose authors I couldn’t name to save my life. Such profligacy of achievement is the surest sign of a culture in the ascendant, but the inescapable result of an outburst of energy in the present is that the past, even the near past, begins to look different. Of the first wave, Hope looks stronger than ever for the first two thirds of his career, but some of the later work, when he lost the tension of his line, is starting to sound garrulous. McAuley gets more interesting personally and less so poetically: a bad bargain. Wright, we can now see, paid a progressively more severe penalty for her lone stand against modern industrial society: she left out too much of its detail, and her timeless language has dated, as deliberately timeless language always does. Harwood, on the other hand, gets better all the time: the poems she wrote about her randy European music teachers are like chapters of a phantom novel that you wish existed. Rosemary Dobson, a secondary figure in the 1940s, has ascended to prominence now that the foreign travels she condensed into her verse have become the common experience of everyone who can afford to fly—which means practically everyone.

Australians feel better about wanting to see the world because they know now that the world wants to see Australia. After the Sydney Olympics, Australia’s long identity crisis is over at last, even for the dullards who never realized that no such thing ever really existed. (In the last year of the war, when Australia was coping with the cultural threat of American troops tipping too much for taxis, Stalin was wiping out the few aspects of Polish civilization that Hitler had missed. Poland had an identity crisis. Australia just had a problem.) No stable, liberal and prosperous democracy has the slightest need for nationalism: it’s an insult to a less fortunate world. National pride, though, is a different thing. Aided by the post-war immigration that brought memories of all the world’s sufferings to temper and anneal the national consciousness, Australia’s cultural upsurge by now amounts to a legitimate source of pride. The poets of the great generation were in at the start of it, gave it a manner of speaking and deserve respect, although there is no need to stand to attention with one hand over the heart. After all, it’s Australia we’re talking about, where even the most exalted language draws its rhythm and cadence from the vernacular, and a pretty rough vernacular at that. The first memorable phrase in the colony might have been coined by a convict who was stung by a bull ant, and the resplendent modern age of Australian poetry probably started when Hope met Brennan in the used beer department.

(Times Literary Supplement, January 5, 2001 ;
later included in The Best Australian Essays, 2001)


More than forty years of self-imposed exile, though nowadays I make frequent visits home, have had the merit of keeping me out of Australian literary politics. Hence I have been able to take a detached view of developments in Australian poetry, which have been manifold, often beneficial and sometimes breathtaking, like a long, fully dressed version of the Sydney Olympics with the whole nation for an arena. As the previous two articles demonstrate, I have been unable, in recent years, to restrain myself from providing a commentary, but I had the advantage of knowing that whatever I said would do no harm. The day has passed when home thoughts from abroad could make much difference, either through encouragement or through belittlement.

There is no reason, however, to think that the literary politics I was glad to leave behind do not continue unabated. On the tom-toms I hear about hatreds between poets, feuds between editors and grisly forms of verbal assassination. But even from my distant perch, it is obvious that the Australian literary life, especially in poetry, also continues to be blessed by the local sense of the ridiculous, which rules out any posturings as a man of destiny. The careerism that infected American poetry after World War II took a more benign form in Australia. There was much jockeying for government grants—understandably, because with such a small population few writers of any kind can live on sales alone—but the prizes were not big enough to encourage foul play, and the worst injuries were to pride. Hardly anybody committed suicide, and despite the example of the erratically inspired Francis Webb it did not even become fashionable to go mad. The tragedies, when they happened, were more real than willed.

The worst tragedy was the early death from leukaemia of Philip Hodgins, who was greatly gifted, and fulfilled more of that great gift than his brief span and failing energy might have allowed. His poetry is not much known outside Australia. There is a lot of very good Australian poetry that isn’t, and what Australia must come to terms with is that this is a desirable state of affairs. When a burgeoning culture produces more wealth than it can easily export, it starts to get interesting, through sharing the condition of the mountain to which Mahomet must come, and the better mousetrap to which the world must beat a path.