An ode to my champions of the quill

If art is a commodity, poetry is the most affordable of all its forms. You can buy in a single volume the entire printed output of almost any poet for the price of a meal at Macdonald’s. It’s clearly no way to make a living.

To me as a child, the earnest Victorian poetry on our family bookshelves was akin to ageing relatives, best left alone. My mother confessed late in life that she never really understood any of it and much preferred a romantic novel or (better) movie. I couldn’t but agree.

As a young adult, to please the girl in my life I enrolled to study literature at the University of Queensland. She did me a favour. The course included a scion of Queensland poetry, Val Vallis, expounding for an hour on the literary merits of just eleven words from Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “Light thickens, and the crow/ Makes wing to the rooky wood.”

I recall Vallis pacing the lecture stage, forensically examining what Macbeth’s words portend about his murderous scheme to seize the throne of Scotland. Vallis spoke of the power of English, with its distinct Latin and Norse roots, to convey many meanings in single words, and the genius of Shakespeare to exploit this ambiguity.

That lecture has stayed with me for half a century. It sparked a lifelong fascination with the meanings and rhythms of poetic lines, and a deep respect for those who create them.

When I was a student it was men who dominated poetry ranks, from the Elizabethan and Romantic greats down to Vallis and James McAuley, who taught me at the University of Tasmania. But these days my champions of the quill are all women, and all Tasmanian.

We should start (where else?) with Australia’s finest poet, Gwen Harwood. Those inclined to split hairs would say that having been born and raised in Brisbane she was actually a Queenslander, but except for a single early poem all her published work emanated from Tasmania, her home for half a century until her death in 1995.

I can’t usefully add to the verbal accolades that have piled up around Harwood, especially since the recent publication of an outstanding new biography by Ann-Marie Priest, which explores in fascinating detail the life behind the lines. Her wit, originality of thought and mastery of language put her in the front ranks of any writer in English, anywhere.

The poems that made her reputation are vivid reflections on her life in Tasmania, but she was also a prankster. In 1961, under a pseudonym, she tricked a magazine which had spurned her into publishing two sonnets concealing a caustic message about the magazine and its editors, including a four-letter word, that almost ruined her career before it had begun. Which seems ridiculous now, but not then.

Personal acquaintance may have coloured my views about two other Tasmanian poets, but I believe they deserve recognition in their own right. Ginny Jackson was a student of English literature back when I was, and dabbled in writing for most of her life until she finally made it into print with her single volume, The Still Deceived

The Ginny Jackson poem that has stayed with me since she died over a decade ago is about getting off the bus: “It is hard to get off right,/ with dignity, it’s hard to leave/ as they all pull off from the curb,/ a swaying cargo, brightly lit/ of all the living, trundling on,/ into their future lives.”

Finally there’s Mary Blackwood, who you might remember from her 1980s illustrated children’s poem Derek the Knitting Dinosaur. Her modestly titled collection, Small Cosmos, was released last year by Ginninderra Press of Adelaide. Ginninderra also published Jackson; in both cases it used an art work by the author as a cover illustration.

You don’t need to know anything about Blackwood to relate to her poems, but you will discover much about her inner life as you read them: God’s bureaucracies, love and its decay, motherhood, truth and rage, death, dementia, management-speak, food… all that and more, observed with gentle irony.

Her wit recalls Harwood’s wry observations of everyday life, along with the breezy verse of Pole Wislawa Szymborska, who wrote shortly after winning the 1996 Nobel Prize for literature, “I prefer the absurdity of writing poems/ to the absurdity of not writing poems.”

Simplicity is the common thread among the work of all these luminaries. As a failed poet I’m a dubious adviser to those who would follow them, but my best suggestion comes courtesy of W.B. Yeats: begin by taking a lie-down “in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart”. And always keep some self-deprecating humour in reserve. You never know when you’ll need it.

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