November 2011 Archives

Sir, - A new generation blots out or forgets the one that is passing. This is particularly true of writers as individuals, yet by some curious requirement of the human mind writers are supposed to individually provide fertile tracts of personal story or anecdote to a greater degree than even painters. Sculptors are not in it with either, this perhaps because their art is more confined by rule, in spite of Epstein than the others. The field is already a full one in Australia, even though it is but a few years since Kendall wrote and Gordon rode. But the flower of the field will never be gathered unless we seriously begin to put on record what this one was and what that one said. Shakespeare is an example. Though a library has been written on him and his work, much of it is based on deduction, and who knows yet whether Shakespeare was Shakespeare or Bacon, Oxford, or someone else? Consequently I have suggested, as he is our outstanding poet and the son of one whose recollections had been collected for more than three quarters of a century, that Mr. Hugh McCrae be asked to give a series of talks or lectures, not so much on the books as on the personalities of writers as known to him, as well as on those recorded by his father. We want the living man and woman along with the written word as a part of our national remembrance.

For instance, we could never know why Conrad wrote his remarkable yet confined English unless we were aware that he was a Pole and therefore had a definition of English based on a first knowledge of Polish -- a knowledge that gave fluidity to the otherwise constricted.

Consequently, with your permission, I put forward my suggestion publicly in the hope that others will support it.

I am, etc.,  

Mary Gilmore

First published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 11 December 1929.


[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]

Australian Bookcovers #284 - Remembering Babylon by David Malouf

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Remembering Babylon by David Malouf, 1993
Cover illustration by Jeff Fisher
Chatto & Windus edition 1993

Poem: The Poet's Reputation by Richard Holt

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First published in The Bulletin, 29 October 1898

Caricature #13 - "Norman Lindsay"

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Sir - The Prime-Minister has ridiculed effectively the quaint charges of pro-Comunist bias splattered against the Advisory Board of the Commonwealth Literary Fund in Parliament by Messrs. Keen and Wentworth. Without exposing in detail the garbled inaccuracies of our local McCarthys, may I, as a member of the Board, add a few simple facts?
      

1. As a matter of principle, in aiding Australian literature by the grant of literary fellowships and the sponsoring of books for publication, the Advisory Board makes its recommendations to the Fund Committee solely on grounds of literary merit. The political opinions of the writers are quite irrelevant, and are treated as such. I can vouch for the fact that in seven years' service on the Board I have never once known such political considerations influence its literary decisions.      

2. It would be impossible to operate the literary Fund except on the basic principle of the complete freedom and integrity of Australian writers.            

3. Writers aided by the Fund have naturally held a wide variety of political opinions -- Right, Centre, and Left, including Communist. As a matter of fact, from 1940 to 1952 the Fund has awarded 50 literary fellowships, and only in 5 cases, to the best of my knowledge, the holders may be Communists, i.e. one out of every ten. Since 90 per cent of the fellowship holders have been non-Communists, the allegation that the Board has been biassed and given special preference to Communists is obvious nonsense.    

4. Its absurdity is proved even more strikingly when we note that, of the 30 books published with the Fund's sponsorship since 1940, in not one single case has the author or editor been Communist.        

5. Not only are there no Communists on the Board itself, but in any case the final decisions upon its recommendations are made by the Committee of the Fund, consisting of Mr. Menzies, Sir Arthur Fadden, Dr Evatt, and Mr. Scullin. The charge that these gentlemen direct "pro-Communist" propaganda answers itself.  

6. Within its limited sphere the Fund has done, as Mr. Menzies indicated, valuable service for Australian literature. It has made possible the writing or publication of books which are important contributions to our poetry, novel, short stories, drama, descriptive writting, biography, and scholarship. Its Pocket Library Series made available a variety of books that would probably not have been otherwise reprinted. It would be a tragedy if political ebullitions were allowed to interfere in any way with its literary functions.

7. Finally, it might be added that members of the Advisory Board devote substantial time and labour to its work. This is especially true of its Chairman, Mr. Vance Palmer, who has a very long and honorable record of unselfish service to Australian literature in addition to his outstanding achievement as a creative writer, critic, and exemplar of the highest literary standards. In contrast, moreover, with Government advisers in economics, censorship, and other fields, the Board members have freely given their services as literary advisers for years without any payment. They may reasonably object, however, to their present reward of calumny, however Gilbertian to those who know the facts.  

T. INGLIS MOORE.

First published in The Canberra Times, 2 September 1952

[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]

Australian Bookcovers #283 - Harland's Half Acre by David Malouf

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Harland's Half Acre by David Malouf, 1984
Cover illustration by Mike Hollands
Penguin edition 1985

Poem: Poesy by Mrs. E. H. Dunlop

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   "Who ne'er his bread in sorrow ate,
      Who ne'er the mournful midnight hours
   Weeping upon his bed hath sate,
      He knows you not, ye Heavenly Powers." 
                        LONGFELLOW.

Since morning stars first sang in prayerful praise,
Since Adam's hymns resounded over space,
Or Sinai's hill trembled in glory's blaze;
Immortal song hath had acknowledged place.

Essence inherent of the sentient mind,
Mystic, yet co-existent with our breath,
A balm within the living brain enshrined  
Which mitigates and soothes our ills of earth.

Impassive-while the gloss on world looks bright,
A flitting shadow through our labour hours.
But ever near lone watchers of the night
A spirit-music from Elysian bowers.

Proud Poesy! thy genius leads secure
The golden vein along Time's turbid stream,
A sparkling star, whose light is ever pure
Winning the heart, a love-illumined dream.

"The harp of sorrow" knows thy gentle hand,
Its trembling chords awaking at thy call;
And sweetest melody by thy command
In tender tones floats forth "in dying fall."

Guardian and guide of every wandering thought;
To thee no clime is strange, no land unknown;
Medicine of mind, ever in sorrow sought,
Blest be the heart which claims thee as its own.

First published in The Australian Town and Country Journal, 5 October 1872

Reprint: Hugh McCrae: Poet and Author by D. P. McGuire

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He is tall, and his grizzled hair is greying, and he has a great power of joy in him and a great gentleness. It is difficult sometimes to believe that he is a man with physical bonds and physical necessities; one believes in fairies when one knows him, and one believes, too, in those things which Arnold spoke, sweetness and light. And yet he is very human. One hears his mighty shout of laughter, and sees him holding up all the people in Pitt street, while he enjoys a huge joke; his length doubled across the footpath, his arms poised like birds. I do not think I have ever known any one who enjoyed a joke as much as Hugh McCrae; and no one who has learnt the art of life so fully and finely. He is not a rich man; he is probably very poor, but be is unbelievably endowed with quips and cranks and jollities, and deep, enduring joy that cheats the angels.        

I met him first in an office. I went in with fear and trepidation, expecting to be reviewed in order by some dour and solemn editor. McCrae was the editor. He came in, and I am sure that his embarassment was greater than mine. We fidgeted together, he with a bundle of manuscripts, I with my hat. There were little, intermittent bursts of speech, and long, awkward silences. It lasted a whole 10 minutes. Then suddenly we got over it. I do not know why, but I think it was some glow from the man's spirit. I felt warmed and happy in a very strange way. We marched off down the street, we went to lunch, we marched back up the street, we yelled at one another so that people turned to stare at us. It was four days before I realized that I had some matter of business to settle with him.  

Hugh McCrae is the most exquisite writer we have known in Australia. A poet of ardent sensibilities, and a delightful grace of utterance, he will be remembered as some of the early English poets are remembered, by those who rejoice in pure light and undefiled diction, and the clear song that is like bird's voices.

   Here will I lie
   Under the sky,   
   Green trees above me,
   All birds to love me . . .
   Nature and I.   

   Wish me good den
   And leave me then . . .
   This sweet forest wind   
   Is more to my mind       
   Than cities or man.

   And in the morn I will see born
   That does dappled young,
   Whose father was sung
   To death by the horn.

   Here will I lie
   Under the sky,
   Green trees above me,
   All birds to love me,
   Nature and I.

The whole is a perfect ''lyric cry;" and the third verse especially, is as faultless as Shelley's

   "He will watch from dawn to gloom
   The lake-reflected sun illume
   The yellow bees in the ivy-bloom."

Prose.    

McCrae is one of our first masters of prose, too. No one in English literature has come nearer in spirit and method to Yorick Sterne. Naivette and subtlety, sentiment and a sudden, swift gleam of intellectual passion temper his expression; and though he, himself, declares that he has only a gift for phrasing, and that his argument wavers, his prose is crystal-clear and steel-sure.  

Nothing better than the 'Du Poissey Anecdotes" has been done in Australia. I sincerely doubt that any English book in the manner has been better done since the eighteenth century. Yet the volume is almost unobtainable. I am told that a great number of copies have been destroyed -- because there was no sale for them. And the book shows a freshness and savour, a sauvity and charm, a delicate sophistication that no living writer approaches. I open it entirely at ran-dom.  

"On Wednesday, October 4, Du Poissey and I took boat and rowed up the river to Cropley Lock, where we dined under the tree; upon buttered chickens and orange marmalade.

All at once, in the middle of our meal, he looked up, and, pointing with his finger to the sky, exclaimed:-"Do you see the cloud that's almost in shape like a camel?"            

Whereupon I, not to be outdone, replied in the words of Polonius:-- "By the Mass, and 'tis like a camel indeed."

"Methinks it is like a weasel", quoth Du Poissey.      

"'It is backed like a weasel," said I.  

"Or," continued Du Poissey, "like a whale?"

"Very like a whale," exclaimed I, and burst into a fit of laughing.

"Sir," said he, "this is most childish . . . can it be possible that you have no opinions of your own?"  

"Why," I replied, "these are neither your opinions nor my opinions. They are not even the opinions of Shakespeare, but the opinions of Hamlet and Polonius."

"Sir,'' said Du Poissey, "I quoted nobody. What has happened is simply this:- Looking up in the air just now I saw a curious cloud, which I remarked upon as being a little like a camel; you immediately agreed with me; but, because I had doubts of your sincerity, I now pretended that the cloud had taken the formation of a weasel and you had the assurance to say so too.This kiss-breach kind of conversation would serve to madden a saint, yet I was not unwilling to give you another chance, wherefore I declared the cloud --"

My patience having come to an end, I would not allow him to continue, but, looking at him very fiercely over some buttered chicken, challenged him to say another word.        

He grew silent in a moment, and a little later expressed his sorrow, "not that I have been rude to you, but that you have been rude to me." I am afraid the quotation is a long one; but it will convey more of the significant savour of McCrae's writing, than a dissertion of mine.

It is, perhaps, a sufficient justification for an Australian authors' week, that this jolly book should have passed with notice from no more than a score or so of McCrae's countrymen. It makes one desperate. All about us, we hear opinionated ignorance talking of our art with a dreadful air of despair; deploring the barrenness of the natives; and neglecting a writer who is conceivably of a very high rank, and is certainly of that class for whom an especially delectable corner of Elysium has been reserved, because they have been gentle and kind, and have lived only with beauty. 

First published in The Register, 10 September 1927

[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]

Great Australian Authors #54 - Hugh McCrae

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Hugh Raymond McCrae (1876-1958)

Author reference sites: Austlit, Australian Dictionary of Biography

See also.

Reprint: Enchanted World Of Hugh McCrae

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"The Ship of Heaven," by Hugh McCrae. (Angus and Robertson, Sydney. 21/-).

Seventy years ago, in
Hugh McCrae's father's time, a trifle like this would have been served up as a pantomime, in which form it would have been a huge success, and printed -- if printed at all -- on cheap paper, unbound, and sold for a shilling at the show. It would have been sentimentally remembered for a year or two and forgotten thereafter.

Why should we be expec
ted to take "The Ship of Heaven" seriously as poetry? Certainly it is full of a whimsy flimsy Hughie McCraesiness which is delightful in a fairy-moonlight-and-spoilt-boy mood. And Mr. McCrae has a ready sense of the theatre, plays charmingly with notions, writes first-rate verse when he wants to, and has the right sense of music and mystery. But it is all so eighteen-eightyish! There would not be a hope in life of any commercial company taking on a thing like this, even if the Independent Theatre did put it on in Sydney-- with music by Alfred Hill-- and the effect was charming (it may have been).

There is a solemn aspect
to this. Mr. McCrae has his followers and they are idolaters. True, his best work has appeared, and we ought not to expect more of it. But this is a sentimental descent, and there was always too much sentimentality in his poetry. If Australian readers respond to this kind of appeal, then it means not merely that they have failed to progress in half a century or more: it means that they have regressed. For in 1880 or 1890 they would have known how to value a performance like "The Ship of Heaven."

First published in The Advertiser, 15 September 1951

[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]

Australian Bookcovers #282 - A Imaginary Life by Davif Malouf

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An Imaginary Life by David Malouf, 1978
Cover illustration by Mark Edwards
Picador edition, 1984

Poem: Last Stanzas of "The Bush" by Bernard O'Dowd

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Where is Australia, singer, do you know?
   These sordid farms and joyless factories,
Mephitic mines and lanes of pallid woe?
   Those ugly towns and cities such as these,
With incense sick to all unworthy power,
And all old sin in full malignant flower?
No! to her bourn her children still are faring;
   She is a temple that we are to build;
For her the ages have been long preparing,
   She is a prophecy to be fulfilled!

All that we love in olden lands and lore
   Was signal of her coming long ago!
Bacon foresaw her, Campanella, More,
   And Plato's eyes were with her star aglow!
Who toiled for Truth, whate'er their countries were,  
Who fought for Liberty, they yearned for her!
No corsair's gathering ground, nor tryst for schemers,
   No chapman Carthage to a huckster Tyre,
She is the Eldorado of old dreamers,
   The sleeping beauty of the world's desire.

She is the scroll on which we are to write
   Mythologies our own and epics new;
She is the port of our propitious flight
   From Ur idolatrous and Pharaoh's crew.
She is our own, unstained, if worthy we,
By dream or god, or star we would not see;
Her crystal beams all but the eagle dazzle.
   Her wind-wide ways none but the strong-winged sail;
She is Eutopia, she is Hy-Brasil,
   The watchers on the tower of morning hail!

Yet she shall be as we, the Potter, mould;
   Altar or tomb, as we aspire, despair;
What wine we bring shall she, the chalice, hold;
   What word we write shall she, the script, declare.
Bandage our eyes, she shall be Memphis, Spain;
Barter our souls, she shall be Tyre again;
And if we pour on her the red oblation,
   O'er all the world shall Asshur's buzzards throng;
Love-lit, her Chaos shall become Creation;
   And dewed with dream, her silence flower in song.

First published in The Oxford Book of Australian Verse edited by Walter Murdoch, 1918. 

Reprint: Our Own Writers: O'Dowd, the Questioner by Nettie Palmer

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Who was to gather up the two strands of life in Australia -- which I have perforce called the belltoppers and the moleskins -- and make from them something new? Who was to show us as a coherent group instead of fugitive colonials? Such questions are answered by the name of a poet whose great work has been to put revealing questions. Through all his books Bernard O'Dowd makes demands and challenges. His first book, with its austere, democratic chants in the barest of ballad stanzas, was called not "Downward," as printers so often have it, but "Dawnward?" the query being not only in the title, but wistfully pervasive:

   Flames new disaster for the race
   Or can it be the Dawn?

His earliest and most famous sonnet, "Australia," which has been strangely described as aggressively patriotic, deserves rather to be called an ode written in time of doubt:

   Last Sea-Thing dredge by Sailor Time from space,
   Art thou a drift Sargasso, where the west
   In halcyon calm rebuilds her fatal nest,
   Or Delos of a coming Sun-God's race?

Not much positive swashbuckling there. Indeed, throughout his questioning poems that have appeared over several decades, O'Dowd is hardly more confident about this Terra Australis Incognita than was Robert Burton, three centuries before him. Burton, too, suggests both sides: "Antipodes (which they made it a doubt whether Christ died for)"; and "whether that hungry Spaniard's discovery of the Unknown South Land be as true as his of Utopia .... it cannot choose but yield in time some flourishing kingdoms to future ages." For the matter of our being antipodes -- "the underworld," as the Oxford Dictionary condenses it -- O'Dowd uses a gesture of some warmth. Aware, as a child or a scientist is, that a ball has no up or down, he laughs, with a moment's swagger, at the traditional north, the top of the map, from which all blessings must for ever drop down. Cannot the south, perhaps, prove a source of renewal?

   Antipodeon? Whew! We are the top,
   The fountain . . . .

So begins the sextet of a brilliant sonnet in the fourth of his books, "The Seven Deadly Sins." But it is in the fifth book, "The Bush," with its single, long poem in a striking ten-line stanza of his own, that O'Dowd has put his questions about Australia at full length; solemnly, whimsically, now by allusion, now by sensitive and powerful descriptive passages; again and again with the movement of high poetry, so that, as cannot be shown here in this crumble of prosy comment, the ideas are "carried alive into the heart by passion."

A Significant Link

This questioner-poet brought to his ever-growing task a hoard of curious learning and an almost tactile sensitiveness to a landscape that had hardly begun to be frankly seen and recorded in words. In possessing these two gifts, one recondite, the other intimate, he recalls, not for the first time, the Irish poet A.E., whose twin passions for agriculture and for Hindoo religions have been hit off by James Joyce in a satirical dramatic passage of "Ulysses." Joyce pictures A.E. as a fantastic mythical figure exclaiming "Patsypunjaub!" and so expressing the two sides of his being. O'Dowd, firmly based in the realities of the land that bred him, yet having his head in "The Silent Land," with its overtones, linked the academic writers and the bush bards. Drawing down upon Australia in "The Bush" all the Utopian prophecies,

    Bacon foretold her, Campanella, More,  

He is aware, too, of our yearly spectacle, north to south,

   ..... the Wattle River, rolling,
   Exuberant and golden towards the sea;

O'Dowd weaves past and present into patterns that are continually repeated, yet never the same. He has shaped his urgent questions over and over, never content with a single answer. Is this unknown south land, indeed, to give flourishing kingdoms to succeeding ages? Then what is a flourishing kingdom? Is it perhaps like this?

   There, lazy fingers of a breeze have scattered
      The distant blur of factory chimney smoke
   In poignant groups of all the young lives shattered
      To feed the ravin of a piston-stroke!

What is a flourishing kingdom to be?

   No corsair's gathering ground, no tryst for schemers
      No chapman Carthage to a huckster Tyre,
   She is the Eldorado of old dreamers,
      The Sleeping Beauty of the world's desire!

But here arises a question of another sort. Beauty? In his curious and brilliant preface to Gordon's poems, Marcus Clarke wrote, "In Australia alone is to be found the grotesque, the weird, the strange scribblings of Nature learning how to write" -- no other beauty. Was Barron Field's horrible old verse wrong in granting that this fifth part of the earth was redeemed, from that utter failure with which he had forced it to rhyme? And was Aldous Huxley right in his instructive use of an Australian phenomenon for a mere gruesome measurement of time?

   The time of waiting began. Each second the earth travelled 25 miles and the prickly pear
   covered another five rods of Australian ground. 

Macabre, grotesque, unlovely to alien eyes;- that was Australia. O'Dowd accepts Clarke's challenge, recognises the degree of honesty in his vision, shares it and transcends it. Without reluctance, he upholds the tragic quality in the land- scape that has confronted him since his birth:

   Out of the heights what influence is pouring
   Thin desolation on your haunted face? 

Again he dreads that alien forces should seek

   To drown the chord or purifying sorrow
   Born ere the world, that pulses through your trees.

Born ere the world. With such a statement O'Dowd meets the more serious and persistent charge that is made against a new country, especially against the newest of all -- the simple charge of being new. Chesterton and Belloc, for instance, in book after book, have casually mentioned an "a priori" detestation of us as crude, empty, dull. At best we are to such onlookers a bad joke; but no, they would never subject themselves to the pangs of looking on. At most, they may now glance at America, which certainly started off before us; and what do they see there?

Perhaps Herny James could still tell them, with another of his comprehensive sighs. (And for America let us read, again, "Australia.")  

   There is in America no State in the European sense of the word, No sovereign, no court, no
   personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service, no
   county gentleman, no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country houses, nor
   parsonages, nor thatched cottages, nor ivied   ruins; no cathedrals, not abbeys, nor little
   Norman churches; no great universities, nor public schools; no literature, no novels, no
   museums, no pictures, ...

This was written perhaps 50 years ago, but we are still much newer than America was then. The charge is valid: a new country has none of the mellow gifts of age. How, then, can it live?

A Whimsical Discussion

It is a poet who answers, moving on a plane where Time is not the mere calen- dar. "For Troy hath ever been," and the great themes of human love and   strife reappear

   Across each terraced aeon Time hath sowed
   With green tautology of vanished years.

That tautology, that strange inevitable repetition, can save us. "The towers that Phoebus builds can never fall." But here, in the poem, the argument rather shifts, and the verse from being a poetic utterance becomes a discussion, whimsical and bizarre. To one who looks back from that great day when we shall all be contemporaries together, this newest continent, says the poet, will seem no younger than Babylon. Readers of the future will readily confuse Euripides with the Australian, Gilbert Murray, his translator; they will confuse "Elzevir," the Australian critic, with Longinus who counselled Zenobia.... The verses become full of names, sometimes wittily handled; but it was :Elzevir" himself who protested, when "The Bush" first appeared, that he was like a fly in amber -- but in the cloudier part of superb amber, he might have added. For those wayward and cloudy stanzas in this poem are outnumbered by others of a golden clarity; and in many passages O'Dowd's almost legal statements of both sides, both possibilities, have given a profundity that this poet could achieve in no other way.

The questioning poet, O'Dowd has been accustomed to remember the phrase of one who guided his youth, Walt Whitman. 'The poet is the Answerer." The man of law, O'Dowd, may well have remembered that it is only by the zig-zag of questions that you arrive at a verdict. He leads toward our answer. 

First published in The Argus, 23 February 1935

[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]

Great Australian Authors #53 - Bernard O'Dowd

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Bernard O'Dowd (1866-1953)

Author reference sites: Austlit, Australian Dictionary of Biography

See also.

Reprint: Letter to the Editor: More Than a Poet by T. Inglis Moore

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Sir. -- Since Bernard O'Dowd died a few weeks ago, may I, as a memorial tribute, supplement Dr. Todd's interesting lecture on O'Dowd by touching on a few aspects of the poet which he expressly excluded from his formal survey.  

O'Dowd was more than a fine poet. He was a significant figure who has historical importance in two ways. He was the first Australian poet to be an intellectualist and thus founded the tradition of an Australian poetry of ideas which was continued by Brennan, Baylebridge and FitzGerald. He was also the prophetic spokesman of his age, the era we call "the nineties." He expressed passionately its faith in democracy, social justice, and the Utopian dream of a great Australia in the future. Speaking for his contemporaries, Professor Walter Murdoch praises O'Dowd's "songs of democracy that stirred us like trumpets in the opening years of the century." O'Dowd was one of the foremost creators of a national tradition that his influenced Australian thought and literature ever since.  

Certain weaknesses of O'Dowd's earlier poetry, such as rhetoric and a limited verse form were justly pointed out by Dr Todd. There defects were, of course, recognised by critics of O'Dowd's day and discussed in my own study of O'Dowd. It is fair to add, however, that the tendency to generalise shown by O'Dowd is the same as that shown by English poets of the eighteenth century. So, too O'Dowd had, like Pope, a gift of expressing abstract ideas in striking epigram. He had none of Pope's technical perfection but was a more original thinker. Poetry or not, in both cases this epigrammatic expression is excellent writing in its genre. In O'Dowd's work it showed acute intellect at work and an unusual breadth of thought.  

It is starting the wrong hare of course, to discuss whether O'Dowd was a "great poet," since no reputable critic -- and least of all, the modest and unaffected poet himself -- ever claimed such a title for him. "Great poets" are rare. They do not grow on gooseberry bushes. There have been none in Australia, and in England during this contury there have been possibly only two - Yeats and Eliot. O'Dowd at his best -- and a poet must be judged by his best work, not his lapses -- was a fine poet. That is enough. This assessment is accepted generally in Australian literature.

Indeed, it goes wider, since some of the strongest tributes to O'Dowd came from the American critic, Hartley C. Grattan, who praised O'Dowd as one of the four outstanding literary representatives of his epoch, a significant figure in Australia, and the creator of "powerful poetry." In his later work O'Dowd sang with a true lyrical impulse. Instead of rhetoric, he used simple language, varied verse forms, and flexible rhythms. The best parts of "The Bush," the sonnets, and "Alma Venus," like the earlier "Young Democracy," are excellent poetry by the strictest standards.

The fiery personality of Bernard O'Dowd, the idealist and the crusader, made itself felt in his earlier days. When I knew him in his later years I was struck by his mellow wisdom, tolerance, and lovable charm. Above all, one felt in him the sincere nobility of mind expressed so forcibly in his poetry. We have been honoured in having such a fine spirit as one of the makers of the Australian tradition.

First published in The Canberra Times, 7 October 1953

[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]

Australian Bookcovers #281 - Johnno by David Malouf

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Johnno by David Malouf, 1975
Cover illustration by Pam Brewster and Jacqui Young
Penguin edition, 1986

2011 Patrick White Award

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robert_adamson.jpg    The poet Robert Adamson has been named the recipient of the 2011 Patrick White Award. Adamson was born in Sydney on 1943 and visited the Hawkesbury River district of New South Wales on a number of occasons when he was a child. He took to poetry in gaol and has become one of the most awarded poets of the past twenty years in Australia. His major collections include The Clean Dark, The Goldfinches of Baghdad and The Golden Bird.

The Patrick White Award was established by the author using his 1973 Nobel Prize Award to initiate a trust fund. It's aim is to recognise writers who have been highly creative over a number of years but who have not received their due critical acclaim.

Poem: In a Library by Christopher P. Cranch

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In my friend's library I sit alone,
Hemmed in by books. The dead and living there,
Shrined in a thousand volumes rich and rare,
Tower in long rows with names to me unknown.  
A dim, half-curtained light o'er all is thrown.
A shadowed Dante looks with stony stare
Out from his dusky niche. The very air
Seems hushed before some intellectual throne.
What ranks of grand philosophers, what choice
And gay romancers, what historians sage.
What wits, what poets on those crowded shelves
All dumb for ever, till the mind gives voice
To each dead letter of each senseless page,
And adds a soul they own not of themselves! 

A miracle-that man should learn to fill
These little vessels with his boundless soul;
Should through these arbitrary signs control
The world, and scatter broadcast at his will
His unseen thoughts, in endless transcript still
Fast multiplied o'er lands from pole to pole  
By magic art ; and, as the ages roll, 
Still fresh as streamlets from the Muses' hill. 
Yet in these alcoves tranced, the lords of thought
Stand bound as by enchantment; signs or words
Have none to break the silence. None but they
Their mute, proud lips unlock who here have brought
The key. Them, as their masters, they obey;
For them they talk and sing like uncaged birds. 

First published in The Australian Town and Country Journal, 15 March 1884

Reprint: Observation as an Art: An Open Mind by Nettie Palmer

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The happiest people I know, at any age of life, are those who can observe and be startled by what they see or hear. Some people, so the intelligence testers tell us, are of a mental age of 14, and stay there, never developing nor learning. Very sad, of course, but to me it is even sadder to see people, who, while apparently quite well educated and intelligent, cannot notice anything for themselves. They would be happier and live more richly if their minds were, in a sense, emptier and more receptive. "I had rather forge than furnish my mind," said Montague (though I can never manage to find where he said it). Well, the forging of the malleable mind should be a continuous process: on the other hand, the minds that are furnished with conventional "suites" and the kind of pictures that are sold with dining-room sets are soon over-full. Windows and doors are shut to protect these precious possessions from dust and robbers. There is no entrance for new ideas or interests. Some minds are permanently furnished in this way at an incredibly early age. I would suggest that they need the alternation treatment: to be flung into a melting-pot and forged, over and over again. The melting-pot is, of course, life, experience, art as an interpretation of life. How many people can experience life and its revelations? I am not speaking, for the moment, of what we call deeper revelations, given to a poetic mind; but how many can even, without prejudice, observe?

Bad Observation.

To observe is to surrender to your environment, letting it show you what it can. Most observers are not passive enough. They put a landscape or a city or a group of people through some test of comparison, instead of taking it for what it is. They look at some wild landscape and contrast it, not with some other virgin region (if they must draw a contrast), but with some idyllic, cultivated, possibly unvisited spot. I have heard people say that the Bon Accord Falls, in the Blackall Ranges, were not as beautiful as a cherry orchard in Kent, which, incidentally, they had never seen. I don't quarrel with them for admiring imagined cherry orchards, if that refreshed their mind; but I feel that, when faced with the rich glooms of the Bon Accord precipices and forest, they already had enough to fill their minds for the time. It is hard, indeed, to concentrate steadily on any wonderful experience so as to carry it with us afterwards as a pure vision:

   For each day brings its petty dust
      Our soon-choked minds to fill,
   And we forgot because we must
      And not because we will.

But when we allow our impressions to be blurred in the beginning by making irrelevant comparisons, the "petty dust" has all too easy a task: There is almost nothing for it to cover up.

So much for the registering of beauty. What about observation as applied to matters of what is called every-day interest? How many of us can know what to look for if we go to a new place which has a civilisation unlike our own? Can we go with a mind open enough to guess at the essential quality of what we see; or are we merely intent on measuring, let us say, Italy or Ceylon, by our own habitual standards of what is important in daily life? Lately, I was reading some travel notes by the solid American novelist, Theodore Dreiser, Dreiser, whose chief quality has always been that of a detailed registrar of American life, if any one has appeared objective, unbiassed, coldly observant; Dreiser has been so; that was in America, But now he goes to Russia, not as a novelist, but as a journalist, and writes his impressions. The first batch of them that I saw contained a long, pained account of living in some Moscow flat, where he had to go right to the bottom of the building for his bath. From this he drew the darkest conclusions as to Russia's psychology and future. Excellent; but if he had lived, in the same, inquiring way, in London, he would have found London County Council model flats where, in a group of buildings containing hundreds of flats, there was simply no bathroom at all. Not that that proves anything in particular either; there was water laid on, with basins, and there were some public baths not far away. But Dreiser would logically need to apply the same type of American plumber's test to all countries instead of merely to Russia. In London he would never think of making such a test. There-fore I say he was observing the wrong things about Russia; he was losing that power of detached observation that had been his at home in America. He condemns many things in American life, yet accepts its standards after all, as against those of any country that he sets out to study. He is like a mother who scolds her own little boy with steadiness and vigour, but after all thinks there are no other little boys in the same street with him. This does not make her a good iudge of the others; she is not seeking out their essential qualities, whatever they may be. She is merely saying that her Freddie never does that or this. No, the first rule for an observer is surely that he must keep an open mind, or as open as possible. One does not go to Italy for advanced methods in plumbing and central heating, nor to America for ancient palaces, nor to Russia for punctuality, nor to France for the cloudy variety of philosophy. Figs from thistles ? No, nor mangoes from apple trees. If this is all very trite, once I write it down, is it not also quite necessary? Don't we all sometimes go to steep Corsica and ask for plains? And this, of course, means missing the tragic beauty of Corsican ravines.

The First Rapture.

Once we are more or less fitted to observe, having "cleared our minds of cant" as far as possible, it must be admitted that the greatest or the easiest pleasure of observation comes during the first moments of seeing a place. I state this with reservations, for we all know that there comes a long-lasting delight from steeping the mind in some well-known beauty. But that other, startled and fresh, is an extraordinary boon, seeming to come wholly from outside ourselves. You emerge from a tree-covered road and suddenly see a line of blue before you -- an arm of the sea, unguessed at -- it takes you by the throat with beauty. Or you reach a foreign port before dawn, hearing boatmen singing near the shore, and watch the new outlines dawn magically upon your sight. You feel that this is all given to you, outside your volition; you have not "used your imagination"; the work has been done for you. Yet even for this some preparation was needed, the preparation at least of eagerness and willingness to be moved by beauty. People can become blind to every kind of beauty for want of letting some strong hand "stab the spirit broad awake."

Some writers have the faculty of describing first rapture, faced with a new scene, above all others. Among these, first among them surely is D. H. Lawrence, whose impressionism is dazzling. Nothing in that way is beyond his powers. He can do an ice-cold landscape in the Tyrol or a glittering day along the South Coast of New South Wales, and, whether you know the scene or not, you feel that with him you are perceiving it for the first time. This is not the only nor the ultimate kind of observation, but while it lasts' it is miraculous.  Lawrence has done Mexico, Australia, Sardinia, England -- but there are many untasted astonishments for him still. So there are for all of us, unless we keep our minds over-furnished with factory-made impressions and opinions.

First published in The Brisbane Courier, 22 September 1928

[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]

Janette Turner Hospital Interview

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janette_turner_hospital.jpg    Janette Turner Hospital is probably best known as the author of the novels Orpheus Lost and Oyster. She has also written a number of short stories which have appeared in 6 separate collections. The latest of these, Forecast: Turbulence, has just been released. The author was recently interviewed for The Australian by Stephen Romei:
Like Shirley Hazzard, but more prolific. Not like Peter Carey, though: no matter how celebrated he becomes overseas he will almost be more famous, some might say notorious, in the country he left 20 years ago. Like Carey, Hospital tries to teach would-be writers the art and craft of fiction: would-be American writers mainly, he at the City University of New York, she at the University of South Carolina.

When I mention to a well-read friend that I'm interviewing Hospital and that her new book, Forecast: Turbulence, includes a beautiful memoir set in Brisbane, she says, "Oh, she's Australian?" Yes, she is, as Australian as Hugh Jackman, who features as an object of desire in two of the short stories in Hospital's new book. As Australian as Patrick White, in whose name a literary award is given each year to an important writer the judges consider to be under-recognised. Hospital picked it up in 2003.

If Hospital presents as something of an enigma, she is partly to blame, or credit, for that. Late in our interview, when I mention the topical debate about the under-representation of women in literary culture, especially on the prize circuit, it's news to her.

"It's been a long time since I worried at all about what happens to the book," she says. "I'd rather not do interviews, I would rather not be profiled, I'd rather live my private life and enjoy the pleasures of writing."

TV and Film Adaptations of Peter Temple Novels

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It's been a bit remiss of me not to have mentioned the proposed television adaptations of two Peter Temple novels featuring his Fitzroy lawyer Jack Irish.  There is a bit more information out about these now, namely that production has just started on the telemovies with airing on ABC1 scheduled for some time in 2012.  The two novels to appear are Bad Debts and Black Tide, the first and second novels in the series.

Guy Pearce will appear as Jack Irish, with the adaptations being written by Andrew Knight and Matt Cameron, with Jeffrey Walker directing. 

Andrew Knight is also adapting Temple's novel The Broken Shore into a telemovie for ABC TV with production due to commence next year.

This follows the announcement earlier this year that Temple's Miles Franklin Award-winning novel, Truth, is being filmed, though there appears to have been little in the media about this adaptation since February.

Review: Ali Abdul v The King by Hanifa Deen

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aliabdul.jpg
   Hanifa Deen
Ali Abdul v The King
University of Western Australia Press, 164 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Michael Freedman

It is probably not controversial to suggest that, historically, Australia has not always treated migrants with overwhelming generosity. Indeed, Australia's treatment of its own indigenous population has not always been especially benevolent. A writer who decides to wade through the archives researching Australia's past treatment of those with dark skin, or who pray to a different God, then, is unlikely to find a dearth of material. And should that writer decide to commit his or her findings to paper, any WASP-ish reviewer of such writings is guaranteed an uncomfortable experience. It seems that the level of discomfit for the reviewer is likely to be proportionate to the talent of the writer - unfortunately for this reviewer, Ms Deen is very talented.

Foreshadowing the discomfit early, the cover of Ali Abdul v The King proclaims the book to contain 'Muslim stories from the dark days of White Australia'. What follows are tales of injustice, racism, violence and death. Hanifa Deen follows a theme common to a number of her previous works, that of issues facing Muslims in Australian society, and does so with characteristic clarity. A previous book of Ms Deen's, The Jihad Seminar, was more contemporary and focussed on a complicated and protracted legal dispute between Christian and Muslim groups. Ali Abdul and the King takes a more historical view of relationships between Muslims and everyday Australians.

Unsurprisingly, the book does not reflect well on the Australia of the time - one chapter describes a tragic incident in which an Afghan man was shot and killed by a local. The response from the public and the criminal justice system to the incident, while largely predictable, is worthy of a book in itself. It should be remembered that, as Ms Deen is at pains to point out, attitudes of racism and prejudice were not endemic to all Australians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the period in which this book tells its stories. Some enlightened souls wrote articulately in support of Afghans to the newspapers of the day, but far more critical letters to the editor abounded as well, threatening to drown out the Afghan's proponents. By modern standards, such writings bordered on vilification - and more than occasionally crossed the border.

To be fair, well over a hundred years has passed since then and now. The optimistic side of me thinks that, sure, maybe Australia was not especially enlightened back then, and foreigners were treated quite poorly, but things are different now. The era of 'White Australia' is one that we can all look back on now in dismay, and promise ourselves that this could never happen again. As Ms Deen argues, Australia has a racist past, but is not a racist society today. Although, the more cynical part of me looks at the way in which contemporary Australia treats refugees, and wonders just how much of a change has really occurred.

In a way, Ali Abdul v The King acts as somewhat of a cautionary tale. It examines how resentment and fear of the unknown can manifest itself into prejudice, which itself can give way to inequality, injustice, violence and death. It makes the case that while aesthetic differences can overwhelmingly and negatively govern the way in which people interact with and respond to each other, it is by understanding the past that leads to less hostile and more enlightened attitudes in the future.

Australian Bookcovers #280 - Underground by Andrew McGahan

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underground.jpg

Undergound by Andrew McGahan, 2006
Cover: Design by Committee
Allen and Unwin edition, 2006

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