Poetry: The Book of my Enemy — To Leonie Kramer, Chancellor of Sydney University: A Report on My Discipline, on the Eve of My Receiving an Honorary Degree, 1999 | clivejames.com
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To Leonie Kramer, Chancellor of Sydney University:
A Report on My Discipline,
on the Eve of My Receiving an Honorary Degree, 1999

The brief is to report on what’s been done —
Or, if it hasn’t, to report on that —
In my field over twenty years. The gun
Is to my head and I will eat my hat
Sooner than flinch, but my job’s too much fun,
Too fissile, for a précis to get at.
Leonie, let’s be frank. My discipline
Is serious like Jack Benny’s violin.

Mine is no academic bailiwick:
In fact it is defined by being not one.
Gowned bigwigs might well find it a bit thick
To see my name among theirs. ‘That’s a hot one,’
They’ll mutinously mutter. ‘This Osric
Fronting a field of study: has he got one?’
They’re right, I haven’t; but I do this stuff
On the assumption they aren’t right enough.

My territory’s the chattering hedgerow
Between the neat fields forming the landscape
Of proper scholarship. By now we know
The ecosystem winds up out of shape
When too much science grabs the soil to grow
The pouffe-sized pumpkin and the pre-shrunk grape.
We’ve organized the land to serve society
So thoroughly we’ve wiped out its variety.

Too bad, some say. We can’t eat singing birds —
You see the way my metaphor is tending —
Or cope with hedgehogs roaming round in herds:
The cost of feeding them would be mind-bending.
The same goes double for the world of words:
The era of the ragged edge is ending.
The kind of writing we can’t classify
Might fairly soon have barely room to die.

I mourn its passing, and guess you do too,
Or A. D. Hope would not have dedicated
His Roman letter to you. Knowing you
Would get a kick from being celebrated
In such a jeu d’esprit, a tiramisu
Designed to leave you nothing but elated,
Our mightiest poet tossed off something lightweight,
Not doubting that that weight would be the right weight.

Of all Hope’s poetry I found that letter
The most amazing thing he’d written, ever.
Had Byron ever done the same thing better?
Had even Auden been so clearly clever?
From then on I was Hope’s eternal debtor,
Convinced, despite the times, the time is never
To let one’s literary ambition stifle
The urge to squander talent on a trifle.

Always supposing talent’s what one’s got —
But let’s take that for now as a donnée
And ask if those of us who, on the spot,
Can put a phrase together in a way
That gets attention ought to, or ought not,
Feel so responsible for what we say
We don’t say anything, however witty,
That might not please the Nobel Prize committee.

I think not. Literature is out of hand.
With so much genius jostling for position
Shakespeare would have to fight for room to stand,
Dante to kneel and pray. A mass emission
Of deathless texts leaves nothing an den Rand
Geschrieben. All’s composed on the condition
We read it with the awe-struck, furrowed brow
We’d read the classics with if we knew how.

None of which means, of course, I want books burned.
Heine foresaw the bonfire in Berlin.
Men who burn books burn men: that much we learned
Sifting the ashes of the loony bin.
Now that some form of sanity’s returned
We should be glad the age we’re living in
Accords great writers every accolade
From the T-shirt to the ticker-tape parade.

The only problem is, no other kind
Of writer except great’s thought worth attention.
This attitude, in matters of the mind,
To my mind robs us of a whole dimension.
Intelligence just isn’t that refined:
It’s less a distillate than a suspension,
An absinthe we’d knock back in half a minute
Without the cloud of particles within it.

Just so, a living culture is a swarm
Of moments that provide its tang and tingle:
Unless it’s fuelled by every minor form
From dirty joke to advertising jingle
It ends up like Dame Edna’s husband, Norm,
Stiff as a post. I think John Douglas Pringle
Was first to spot our language, at its core,
Owed its élan to how a wharfie swore.

Shifting that notion further up the scale
We soon discover it applies worldwide.
The casual jotting priced for a quick sale
Can be a bridesmaid that outshines the bride.
There is a vantage point beyond the pale:
To pull the inside job from the outside
Confers on essayist or rogue reviewer
The plus of knowing where to put the skewer.

Nor need he specialize in kicking ass
(Pro tem to bluster à l’américaine).
In fact a gadfly’s likely to sound crass
If all he ever does is dish out pain,
Just as to pump the anaesthetic gas
Of adulation backfires on the brain —
Dooming the sycophant to a sclerosis
Off-putting as the cynic’s halitosis.

The voice I favour questions and enjoys.
No pushover, it’s ready to submit.
It homes on a clear signal through the noise
Kicked up by the tumultuous cockpit
We call the Arts, and from the girls and boys
It separates the men and women. Wit,
When true, well knows a show of cleverness
Means least when it is most meant to impress,

And yet a comprehensive lack of flair
By no means guarantees the truly serious.
It takes a cool, hard head to be aware
How art is in its essence a mysterious
Compound engendered by a gift as rare
As hen’s teeth of the base and the imperious.
It takes an artist, though that appellation
Seldom adorns his dodgy reputation.

Just such an artist was my most revered
Role model from the old world Hitler wrecked,
Alfred Polgar, who, as the menace neared,
Focused despair to such a fine effect
His feuilletons teem with all that disappeared.
Schatzkammer snow-domes of the intellect,
Polgar’s packed paragraphs reintegrate
A time bomb getting set to detonate.

He and the other refugees who scattered
To the Earth’s four corners not excluding ours
Personified the unity left shattered
Where once they had devoted first-rate powers
To the ephemeral as if it mattered.
Their fate proved that it had. The topless towers
Of Ilium arise from the hubbub
Of the bazaar, the throb of the nightclub.

It is the wasted talents that I sing,
The ones that might have climbed to high renown,
Have done great things, had they done the done thing
And steered clear of the demi-monde downtown.
A nation needs them the same way a king
Lost on the heath should listen to his clown,
Lest literature withdraw to a top shelf
And vivid language serve only itself.

Australia Felix, sea-girt land most fair —
Fair go, fair suck, fair prospects of success
For all — there’s an equality more rare
Even than these, though it be cherished less:
A mental life that everyone may share.
Its secret lies in the receptiveness
Of how we speak, our tongue that makes a poet
In two weeks of a taxi-driving Croat.

Whole cultures in our time razed to the ground
Enriched us with their homeless destitute,
A thriving proof the Promised Land is found
Where all is hallowed save the absolute.
That thought revives my hopes as, with one bound,
Like Emile Mercier’s Wocko the Beaut,
I fly to my reward at your fair hand.
Lady, I’m blushing. Will there be a band?

Note (from Collected Poems)

The sprightly decorum of ottava rima is meant, in this case, to be a match for my view of the subject’s achievement and personality. Leonie Kramer, both as a Professor of English and later in her role as Vice Chancellor of Sydney University, was a stickler for sound academic behaviour but found it within her heart to promote me for an honorary doctorate. In her youth she turned the heads of romantically minded men, and A. D. Hope’s long poem Letter from Rome can be thought of not only as a satirical masterpiece, but as a love song. Almost as much as Auden’s Letter to Lord Byron, it had a lasting influence on my own verse, for the way it helped me to realize how the play of tone could be wider the more strict the form. My admiration for Alfred Polgar I later expressed in greater detail in Cultural Amnesia: the phrase ‘an den Rand geschrieben’ (written in the margin) was his title for one of his collections of pieces. At the time I wrote the poem, Marcel Reich-Ranicki’s definitive six-volume Rowohlt edition of Polgar was still coming out. Regarded even by Thomas Mann as the greatest modern exponent of German prose, Polgar was the kind of writer that Leonie would have approved of: an untrammelled thematic scope based on perfect grammar. As her little book about the poet James McAuley attests, her cultural conservatism was adventurous: more so than his, in fact.