I hit upon one of my central reading experiences when I was writing about walking: whatever I read about I want to experience in life as well as books. In some cases, I just feel like I already know how to do something, but in others it really is the case that I read something and want to know what it felt like. I was one of those children forever feeling around in the back of wardrobes, just in case a passage to another world opened up at the touch of my fingertips.
I’ve also written before about reading as true experience: all those hours spent in imagined places were still hours spent in someplace else. Hours spent in the mind of another speaker were hours of learning another sensibility. I often had visceral responses to characters in books, and am still amazed at how authors can tilt a reader’s sympathy in unexpected ways. At times I am even more amazed when I realise that others have had profoundly different experiences of books—a prime example for me is George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Dorothea Brooke is a complex character, almost sacred to me for her ability to both follow her passions, but also to own her mistakes; to me Rosamund is one of the most slappable creatures in literature. Yet friends find Dorothea’s idealism insufferable, and Rosamund’s responses, while entirely self-centred, understandable—even, for some, sympathetic.
As well as being a reader, I am a big fan of film. I often have a similar experience upon walking out of a cinema: I have felt some other life tug inside me. Perhaps what I am really saying is merely that I can be deeply impressionable. But I wouldn’t want to be less impressionable.
Nearly everyone has one or two “best-loved” poems, the pieces that feature in each reader’s “personal anthology.” While I can’t speak definitively, I would expect many of these poems to be classics of the kind that the Norton Anthologists would always be certain to include—I know, for instance, many people who cite Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 (“Let us not to the marriage of true minds/ admit impediments”) as their own best-loved. Beside these “best-loved” poems exists a more curious category: that of the “first-loved” poem. For me, many poems of Banjo Paterson fall into this category: as a child I loved reading “The Geebung Polo Club” again and again. Though I could write much about the ways in which that poem pitted the rough-as-guts Geebung Boys against the snooty Cuff-and-Collar fops and, as such, rehearsed again the old country-vs.-city yarn (albeit in a much bloodier version)—and though I still have to admit to loving “The Geebung Polo Club” as a poem I can’t quite seem to outgrow—I’ve decided to revisit its soberer cousin, “Clancy of the Overflow.”
I sometimes feel something akin to guilt at taking pleasure in Paterson’s rollicking narratives: I’m not sure if this is a version of cultural cringe, snobbery or merely a self-consciousness over spending time with childhood favourites, but in general I am either apologetic when I raise Banjo’s name in conversation, or else I bypass him altogether. I wonder a little at this omission: while his work is sometimes slight, the classics are well-made; however though the ballads of English literature—so often penned by the more authoritative “Anon”—are easy to claim as great work, the genre of bush poetry raises eyebrows among many a well-versed contemporary reader.
“Clancy of the Overflow” was the first poem I ever memorized. My somewhat old-fashioned fourth grade teacher taught me many valuable things, and I am grateful for the lasting influence he had on my life. For the decade or so before I memorised more contemporary pieces of writing, “Clancy” was one of the few poems that rolled around my mind, and though I could no longer recite the entire poem, the opening two stanzas in particular are permanently lodged in my mind.
And I’m grateful that I have these lines in mind: the opening of this poem is bold in its slight awkwardness and emphatic enjambment. The break between “better” and “Knowledge” pushes the poem onward, as does the internal rhyme within the first and third line of each quatrain—often multi-syllabic, or “feminine” rhymes—and the long iambic seven- or eight-beat lines. Paterson later reuses effectively, and the slight jerkiness these line breaks cause helps create the speaker’s voice. The speaker slips between the higher diction that allows him to quote “verbatim” and the looser manner of speaking that makes phrases such as “just on spec” ring true, and the enjambment helps dramatize this slippage. This fluidity of voice seems not inconsistent, but authentic: and defined enough that when a grammatically rougher diction comes in—“Clancy’s done to Queensland droving, and we don’t know where he are” [my italics]—it is clear to the reader that the quoted shearing mate is of a different social class than our narrator. Nonetheless, that direct quote is tender: the reader never suspects that in quoting the letter our speaker is poking fun at the shearer, but is merely showing us something of the shearing milieu.
It really is those first two stanzas that feel relevant to me as a poet today: while I appreciate Paterson’s later “gritty” descriptions of the city, and another great enjambment with “Where a stingy/ Ray of sunlight…” in the poem’s fifth stanza, the poet falls into a comparatively uninteresting romanticisation of the bush. In his praise of that landscape, the phrases sound familiar, with the “vision splendid” and “wondrous glory”: ironically, I feel something like this myself about the bush, but the phrases could be applied to so many sublime landscapes. To me such descriptions have no personality, no specificity—just a slightly empty grandeur. Beyond this, Paterson re-jigs natural language constructions to fit his rhyme scheme, and also relies a little too heavily on the conjunction “and” to adhere to his established meter. Though that meter drives the reader onward quite willingly, in many ways the riches are up front.
Of course, I realise no-one wants to nitpick such a beloved Australian poem. My point in doing so is simply to consider the ways in which such a piece of our cultural history is also still relevant to poets working today. The two opening stanzas have retained a freshness that is enviable, and the body of the poem contains its smaller surprises too. The varying diction, the sprawling line, the enigmatic title character—all are still striking. However I am unsurprised to find that my ability to recite this poem twenty years after I first learned it by heart falters after only eight lines.
It’s hard to escape personal resonances at times too: “Clancy of the Overflow” perhaps looms large in my imagination because of this. My father grew up on a farm near the Lachlan River town of Cowra, and as a child, when we spent Christmas on the farm, we were usually joined by a man who stood for Clancy in my mind. I never knew his address, but I once heard my father say that if we ever needed to get in touch with him we could simply address a letter to “Bill Patterson, c/o Cowra” or “c/o Goolagong” and the letter was bound to reach him, he was so well known as he walked around the surrounding farms and towns with his dog close behind him. Having known such a man, I feel that even those hints of Clancy capture a particular type of figure in the Australian scene, and I’m grateful that that’s the case.
Clancy of the Overflow
I had written him a letter which I had, for want of better
Knowledge, sent to where I met him down the Lachlan years ago;
He was shearing when I knew him, so I sent the letter to him,
Just on spec, addressed as follows, “Clancy, of The Overflow.”
And an answer came directed in a writing unexpected
(And I think the same was written in a thumb-nail dipped in tar);
’Twas his shearing mate who wrote it, and verbatim I will quote it:
“Clancy’s gone to Queensland droving, and we don’t know where he are.”
In my wild erratic fancy visions come to me of Clancy
Gone a-droving “down the Cooper” where the Western drovers go;
As the stock are slowly stringing, Clancy rides behind them singing,
For the drover’s life has pleasures that the townsfolk never know.
And the busy has friends to meet him, and their kindly voices greet him
In the murmur of the breezes and the river on its bars,
And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended,
And at night the wondrous glory of the everlasting stars.
I am sitting in my dingy little office, where a stingy
Ray of sunlight struggles feebly down between the houses tall,
And the foetid air and gritty of the dusty, dirty city,
Through the open window floating, spreads its foulness over all.
And in place of lowing cattle, I can hear the fiendish rattle
Of the tramways and the buses making hurry down the street;
And the language uninviting of the gutter children fighting
Comes fitfully and the fainting through the ceaseless tramp of feet.
And the hurrying people daunt me, and their pallid faces haunt me
As they shoulder one another in their rush and nervous haste,
With their eager eyes and greedy, and their stunted forms and weedy,
For townsfolk have no time to grow, they have no time to waste.
And I somehow rather fancy that I’d like to change with Clancy,
Like to take a turn at droving where the seasons come and go,
While he faced the round eternal of the cash-book and the journal—
But I doubt he’d suit the office, Clancy, of The Overflow.
—A. B. “Banjo” Paterson
When I was starting out as a writer, my mother took me to talk with a journalist-friend-of-the-family: this visit had a practical purpose, as we wanted to find out if there was any chance of my fulfilling my “work experience” week at the newspaper she worked for. More importantly, though, it was a chance for me to talk more generally with someone who made their living from words. I think I already knew that journalism wasn’t where I was heading—I dally too long over sentences. Anyway, I’d already published a small handful of poems (establishing an embarrassingly traceable juvenilia…) so when she let us know that the work experience slots were already filled, we talked instead about the dailiness of writing. In the context of this conversation, the subjects of both diary-keeping and letter-writing arose.
Letter-writing in particular: because for a long time I’ve been a letter writer. Though my letter writing goes through its fits and starts (sometimes I’ll maintain a steady stream of handwritten chatter with a dozen correspondents; other times I’ll straggle behind, taking a month or two to answer a single letter) letters are part of who I am.
Of course, the old “snail mail”—which I still think is a remarkably speedy service in most instances—is constantly being threatened with obsolescence. I read recently that the United States Postal Service has decided it can’t go on guaranteeing next-day delivery for first class letters. O! To wait two or three days! Well, it just increases the anticipation. The USPS is also considering once again abandoning its Saturday delivery service; that same service was the source of astonishment to me when I lived in America. Every time a letter arrived on a Saturday it seemed a particular blessing. Yes, the post service doesn’t have quite the same reliable income it used to as we jump into our inboxes online. I do it too.
Still, I write letters. The charm of the handwritten remains. With apologies to those penetrating the mysteries of my “style” for the first time.
The poem is an effort to express a knowledge imperfectly felt, to articulate relationships not quite seen, to make or discover some pattern in the world. It is a conflict with disorder. — Richard Wilbur
Though I have admired Maria Takolander’s poetry for a number of years now, I only got in touch with her a couple of months ago when I decided I’d like to write about her poem “Geography Lessons” in my Poems Revisited series. When this email exchange took place I was soon to travel to Melbourne, so I asked Maria if I might be able to interview her as well. Over a brisk weekend visiting my parents and friends, I took a day out to drive to Geelong’s Deakin University campus and meet with Takolander.
Before we sat down to conduct this interview we talked for a couple of hours, sharing lunch and a coffee. At a similar stage of her poetic career to myself, it was wonderful to find that we instantly connected over our experiences as poets beginning to establish ourselves, but also as writers of other forms.
Reviewing Ghostly Subjects, Martin Duwell suggested that while Australia lacks a minimalist tradition, a large portion of your writing could be labelled “minimalist”: is this how you think of your own work? At the same time you’ve written a critical book about Magical Realism, a genre not often associated with minimalism. To begin—what was your experience of writing on this subject of Magical Realism?
I feel that Magical Realism had degenerated into something of a cliché by the time I finished writing my book about it; people were churning out magical realist novels because it was popular, and because it sold well. My resistance to that mode in my own work comes from the clichéd nature of what Magical Realism has become, both actually and in the popular imagination.
I see the roots of Magical Realism in the work of Borges, and how what he does both as a poet, and as a short fiction writer whose fictions almost read like non-fiction: that this is a minimalist version or precursor of magical realism. I can see Borges as a figure that floats behind your work in some ways.
Yes! These days Magical Realism is seen as a maximalist genre, whereas Borges writes with such discipline. If discipline is akin to minimalism, then I might be amenable to that “charge.” I don’t know that I write in a minimalist style—I think, if anything, I write in a hysterical voice! Sometimes I think I’m being funny, but I’m not sure if I achieve that. The sense of minimalism, though, probably comes through discipline… I do like to discipline my verse! Perhaps too much…
Joel McCrea as film director John Lloyd Sullivan watches a film in jail in Sullivan’s Travels
This past week I went to the cinema to see the new Alexander Payne film The Descendants on its opening day. I could easily write a review of this film—and perhaps, another time, I will—but what struck me was my experience of slow time in the watching of this movie. When I say “slow time” I don’t mean that the film dragged (a problem, as I see it that occurs when a director doesn’t understand the proper pace for their material and wants to spread it over a more grandiose temporal canvas)—but that film was paced at a gentle walk, with an occasional, still leisurely trot thrown in for good measure. In a world where films such as Transformers have become the standard blockbuster fare, such a quiet, slow film feels like hard work.
I mention this because watching this film led me to think again about reading time. When I was in primary school, one of my friends was an equally avid reader, and her reading was actually a source of envy for me. After a weekend at home we’d both get back to school on Monday morning, and compare notes. She had usually managed to consume one or two more Secret Seven or Famous Five books than me. I quizzed her, sure she must have been skipping sections, or perhaps just spending more hours reading and less sleeping than I did. Her answers however indicated something I found it hard to accept: she just read faster than me. To keep up I tried to find extra reading time here and there, and though I laugh at this competitive attitude now, I’m also a little grateful. Without this friend I might never have achieved the same kind of reading stamina I have now!
Every so often, too, I read an account of a reader like Harold Bloom: the type who can apparently sit down and read something as mammoth as Clarissa in a day. And then quote from it at length. How useful it would be to have the ability to file the canon in my mind in, perhaps, a few years rather than decades and decades. I longed to know more about speed reading, but when I tried to rush, I don’t gain the understanding I would like to have. I don’t want my classics to appear in fragmented form.
My books are split between cities: I hope this is the last month I will have this problem as I plan to finally ship the most important parts of my library (vast; even the important parts are more voluminous than seems healthy) to Sydney in January. I don’t have the piles of books all assembled in front of me, so this reconstruction will have to do for now.
Now a regular part of my life, I have books for review. While Barry Hill’s beautiful volume of poems accompanied by the art of John Wolseley is waiting for me in January, I have been reading Cate Kennedy’s The Taste of River Water for the purpose of reviewing. I’m mulling that over, and plan to write up my thoughts early in the new year, well ahead of amorphous “deadline.” Another poet I plan to write about is the American Dan Beachy-Quick. His work is layered, and takes time to pick through, but I have consistently found that he astounds me, and deserves to be better known outside of the American milieu. Born in 1973, he has already published six books (five poetry volumes, and a book of essays on Moby Dick called A Whaler’s Dictionary… just reading this description leaves my fingers itching to get hold of a copy) as well as four chapbooks, and is an editor of the wonderful online journal A Public Space. He has a new book of essays coming out soon, and already I’m planning to clear a “Beachy-Quick Corner” in my library. I’ve been spending time with his 2006 collection Mulberry, but I will dive deeper over the coming months and really peel through all of his books and write something a little more formal about this wonderful poet and essayist.
I’ve been fascinated by Charles Dickens for a long time, and two things always stand out most: that wherever he travelled, whatever tourism wonders he took in, he always sought out the local prison; and that he was an inveterate walker, often taking in 20 miles a day of the London streets. I imagine that without such extreme walking he would have found it difficult to write his long intricately woven tales, that that very act of putting one foot in front of another over and over was a crucial part of his composition process.
He’s not alone: there are countless others, but Wordsworth in particular immediately springs to mind. Many of us associate him with his long jaunts around the Lakes District in England, yet these were nothing compared to the walks he took across Europe before he settled into his poetic career. He set off on foot across Revolutionary France, covering over 1,000 miles. More recently I’ve been reading about Werner Herzog: for him walking is akin to spirituality (I imagine this is true of many walkers. I particularly love the “My Cat Jeoffry” section of Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno, in which he suggests that every cat-like activity of his beloved pet is an act of praise, a prayer, because Jeoffry so perfectly performs his cat-ness; I imagine in many ways that walking is likewise a perfect performance of human-ness.) At 14 Herzog took off on foot from his home in Germany, wanting to go to Albania. He wasn’t able to enter the country, then closed to outsiders, but he walked its border to the Adriatic Sea. Imagine! In an interview he describes the application for the only kind of film school he would consider running:
…you would only be allowed to fill out an application form after you had travelled alone on foot, let’s say from Madrid to Kiev, a distance of about 5,000 kilometres. While walking, write. Write about your experiences and give me your notebooks. I would be able to tell who had really walked the distance and who had not. While you are walking you would learn much more about filmmaking than if you were in a classroom.
I realised, reading this, that it’s been a while since I deliberately set out for the act of walking itself, rather than to explore a particular place or get to a particular destination. Alongside reading these interviews with the inimitable (an adjective often applied to Dickens, but just as deserved by the German filmmaker…) Herzog, I’ve been revisiting one of my favourite contemporary nature writers, Craig Childs. No one can quite convey the power of the deserts of the Colorado River Basin as Childs can, and I am in awe of his knowledge of secret water holds, tinajas, kiss tanks scattered through the desert. As a reader, I am frequently stirred to action by the work I read, and when Childs and Herzog collided on my bedside table I knew that I must take notice.
I’m starting small: first just a 5 kilometre wander around the suburb, then an 8 kilometre saunter along the Yarra River (Sydney-siders will forgive their City Poet for visiting her parents for Christmas in Melbourne), and I’m realising both that I haven’t wandered like this for some time. Soon there will be more walks, different settings, hopefully longer. I suppose I must remember to keep reading the work of the walkers, or my focus on walking will slip as my highly suggestible mind becomes preoccupied with, say, tapestry weaving or the best uses of sorrel in cooking, or the cultivation of native peppermint. And when these new preoccupations come, I want to follow them too; but not at the expense of walking.
I’ve realised that there, in one regard, walkers come in two types: those whose minds must empty of their own thoughts as they are drawn again and again to their surrounds, and those who sink into meditation such that the world can all but disappear. I suppose there is a third kind: the thinkers who try to drag themselves back to the present moment. Because I am one of these third kind, falling into a cadence of thought and foot, but then realising my cadence is set and re-awakening, slowing, looking around to see where my thought has carried me. I nearly always come back to the moment when I see desire lines tantalisingly unwinding from the main path. I always want to follow desire lines.
On my walk sentences formed, thoughts on pieces I have to write for others and thoughts on poems I want to write for myself. I’m always conflicted about whether to get my notebook and pen out at the moment these ideas arise. In the end, I wore them in and then as I sat at the Fairfield Boathouse, watching over the ducks, I scribbled some notes to myself. Because walking, like cooking Texas Chili, is another form of long-simmer, and sentences tumbled over the rhythm of footsteps become worn in over the course of kilometres.
Already I am trying to decide on the next direction I will wander, and wondering what words will unlock themselves in my toes.
When Sarah Holland-Batt’s debut volume Aria appeared in 2008, it made a welcome addition to Australian poetry. This fully formed new voice gave readers a fully realised first book: among other things, the architecture of that book was a particular strength. The final poem “The Art of Disappearing” sends readers out of Aria with the mind opened. Reading its simple catalogue and seemingly artless style, my own phrase for my first encounter with this poem was that it “took the top of my head off.” Yet “The Art of Disappearing” is a quiet poem—this piece doesn’t contain the verbal fireworks of many memorable poems. However, it is from that very quietness that the poem gains its power.
With its echo of Yeats’s line “Things fall apart, the centre will not hold,” from the poem “The Second Coming” (a poem full of now-famous phrases) this poem holds not an apocalyptic vision, but instead a swelling melancholia at the inevitability of change, at the marching-on of time. The boldness of this poem is wrapped up in its simplicity and directness. Repetition forms a central part of the piece, and while repetition is a vital tool in all poetry—especially in lyric verse—the poet will normally repeat her language exactly only two or three times. Here, however, Holland-Batt repeats the borrowed phrase six times within the opening five lines of the poem, guaranteeing that when she does vary from this the phrase will linger on in the reader’s mind. This repetition is a gutsy move: it takes an assured poet to understand the rhythms of her own poem to the degree that she knows just how long she can string out that incantatory repetition. Adding to the incantatory effect of this repetition is the structure of the poem: nearly all lines are end-stopped, and most frequently this end-stop comes in the form of a period. With the line so frequently equalling the sentence, the poem is formed primarily from simple declarative statements; the second line, made of two complete sentences, initiates the reader into the form of the poem at the outset.
At the same time that it draws on repetition and the unit of the line-as-sentence, Holland-Batt names an entire world. The image of the moon breaking on the fencepost of the opening line creates the distance between earth and the heavens. The move to desire and memory create the emotional register of the poem. Then the poem veers toward a more specific situation and sensibility as the poet writes “The house you grew up in: its eaves; its attic will not hold,” and follows this with still lives, Botticellis, “white peaches in the bowl.” The world described is as curated as those still lives—until it is not. Here the poem turns as it notes that “Something is always about to happen,” such that there can be “no stay or wait or keep.” Change enters the poem in the form of marriage, re-naming, and from the artful vision of still lives, the messier debris of “the car idling” and “scraps of paper” enter—these are the things that “go on.” The “dark water” that “flows endlessly on” at the poem’s—and the book’s—close is both akin to and the opposite of the scarf of sunshine mentioned earlier. This dark water is the strange material we gather about us as the world itself flows endlessly on, beyond the poem. And yet, despite this seemingly bleak exit, I personally find that each time I read “The Art of Disappearing” I feel, perhaps oddly, only the beauty of the poem, and a new openness to the beauty of the complicated world. The naming of abstracts—desire, memory, later pain—combined with Holland-Batt’s images create an emotional openness that transcends melancholy.
"The Art of Disappearing" appears in Sarah Holland-Batt’s collection Aria, available from University of Queensland Press.
The Art of Disappearing
The moon that broke on the fencepost will not hold.
Desire will not hold. Memory will not hold.
The house you grew up in: its eaves; its attic will not hold.
The still lives and the Botticellis will not hold.
The white peaches in the bowl will not hold.
Something is always about to happen.
You get married, you change you name,
and the sun you wore like a scarf on your wrist has vanished.
It is an art, this ever more escaping grasp of things;
imperatives will not still it—no stay or wait or keep
to seize the disappeared and hold it clear, like pain.
So tell the car idling in the street to go on;
tell the skirmish of chesspieces to go on
tell the scraps of paper, the lines to go on.
It is winter: that means the blossoms are gone,
that means the days are getting shorter.
And the dark water flows endlessly on.
Image: Frank Hurley’s “A radiant Turret lit by the midsummer midnight sun”
The ice was all between
The ice was here, the ice was there
The ice was all around
- Coleridge, from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”
Though it’s summer here, I’m preparing for ice: this Tuesday (20th December) at 6pm writer Rebecca Giggs and I are giving a free reading at the State Library for their weekly Tuesday in the Galleries program. The current exhibition celebrates Antarctic exploration, including maps from before the European discovery of the landmass, as well as objects such as Captain James Cook’s telescope.
Join us in the ice fields.
In the galleries
State Library of New South Wales
Macquarie St, Sydney