Picaresque Encounters: Martin Langford launches ‘Time Taken’ by Les Wicks

Les Wicks: Five Poems

Time Taken New and Selected Poems by Les Wicks, Puncher and Wattmann 2022 ws luanched by martin Langford at the Friend in hand Hotel, Glebe, on xxx March 2022. 

In a recent Robert Hass poem, Hass quotes what Stanley Kunitz had said to him when he was younger: “You need character for the long haul. Nobody wants you to be a poet.” The publication of a Selected is time to acknowledge that an awful lot of work and effort go into putting an oeuvre together. Contemporary Australia is a difficult context for the poet. This is not the country that Slessor worked in, where the idea of poetry was still valued, even though few at the time thought we had created the conditions in which it might be written. The idea of poetry has been marginalised. This is not the time to explore why this has happened – you would all need your camping gear – but it is worth pointing out that to keep at it, in the way Les has done, is to work against the grain of the society you live in. And that’s difficult. We would all prefer to work in a world of career paths and clear rewards and broad unquestioned acceptance. So even before I say anything about the poems, it needs to be said that just to get to this point is in itself an achievement.

 Les began writing in the 1970’s. He set out on a path that, like so many writing careers of the time, began scratchily enough: a response to a somewhat fluky set of alerts and possibilities – a headmaster who was CPA, through whom a copy of Mayakovsky found its way into the student’s hands; a reference to Michael Dransfield on a current affairs program. This was a period when higher education first became available to more than the wealthy few, but when its implications for the pursuit of poetry were erratic, to say the least. It was as if there was no expectation that that any of this new cohort of less tidy students might ever become poets: the idea had simply not occurred to anyone. Compare, for instance, the way the preceding generation of graziers’ offspring took to poetry – Campbell, Wright, Manifold, Dutton – almost as if it were just another alternative to the stud farm or the local show. In the nineteenth century, just about every Australian poet who found his way into print seemed to have gone to Grammar – Banjo Paterson, Barcroft Boake, Le Gay Brereton. In the twentieth century, however, Macquarie Boys’ High just didn’t suggest the literary career paths that Grammar once did.

Education can, however, have unexpected consequences, and somewhat surprisingly, it turned out the seventies were a period of optimism about poetry. Right from the start, Les was a doer. He formed Meuse press in 1977 – with access to Honi Soit’s typesetter between 6pm and 8am: a detail which speaks eloquently of the times. In the same year, he joined the fledgling Poets Union, and immediately became highly involved – protests, readings – becoming, at one stage, national secretary. The original idea of a poets’ union – no ticket, no start – now looks impossibly idealistic, but there were elements of that idealism which became permanent features of Les’s poetry career: above all, the desire to make poetry available to as many people as possible – an impulse which found later expression in his projects for putting poems on buses and in bus shelters, his Poetry-on-Wheels tours using the NSW rail network, and more recently, in his so-called guerrilla poetry anthologies on social media.

During this period, Les worked in various capacities on the railways. This was a Sydney that is no longer with us, when right-thinking young poets could ignore their day jobs – this was before they had invented Mission Statements – at the Redfern sorting office, the Department of Triplicate Archives – or, as Les explains in one poem, the Office of Playing Silly Buggers with the Rail Network – and get on with the serious business of editing one’s little magazine or improving one’s manuscript. That said, it was a tougher, poorer Sydney – I associate it in my own mind with the old Erskineville – Erskineville before it had a lick of paint – and something about the toughness of the times entered his imagination, and stayed there – which I’ll come back to in a moment.

There followed a fallow period – few poets today manage to avoid them – while he worked as an industrial advocate, and didn’t have the time for anything else. By the nineteen-nineties, however, he had resigned from that role, and was once again turning his energies to verse: still guiding Meuse, and with a new involvement now in Island Press, developing his skills as a workshop facilitator, and, in more recent years, becoming a frequent participant in festivals overseas.

And this is the result of that sketchiest of biographies.

I mentioned the way an earlier Sydney had entered Les’ imagination and stayed there. One recurring feature of Time Taken is that of picaresque encounters with people who for one reason or another were doing it tough. Many poets who were working at the time Les began wrote portraits of similar characters – Shelton Lea, Jenny Boult, Geoff Goodfellow – there were a lot of drugs around, there was a lot of drink – but Time Taken contains what is I think the best collection of portraits of Australians who are struggling in contemporary verse. If someone were compiling an anthology of Australian characters, one would hope to meet a good spread of them there. Some of the poems describe people from Les’s own life, some originate in accidents of travel – overheard conversations, incidents witnessed on the train. But it’s not enough just to have been exposed to such people. The other prerequisite is that something about them spoke to his imagination – in a way that was unique to Les: a charge of attention or responsiveness, as if, for this poet, they were sites where live questions were at play – questions about justice perhaps, as lives which, in ways which were not necessarily clear, were nevertheless understood to be victims in the broadest sense; or even existential questions – the sort which attend lives stripped to essentials – though without necessarily raising any expectation of answers. I invite you all to have a look at poems such as “Jenna”, “Trouble”, “Nurse” and “Domestic”. There are many more.

It is a relatively small jump to move from individuals who are trapped in situations with limited agency, to places where human energies don’t lead anywhere sufficiently interesting or exciting: London – see “Clapham Pirate”, for instance – or squats Les has known. Even Bondi, wealthy though it is, can be infected with such questions.

It is not clear what the link is between an alertness to lives that struggle for direction, and the possession of a keen sense of injustice: except for the understanding that at some level, these people are victims of a society that hasn’t framed its gestures generously: that there are problems with its decision-making that underly the individual’s anomie and lack of purpose. That sense is also present in these poems: not overtly, but still very much there: that this is not an easy society to make sense of, and that that does have consequences. Related to this background unease, not necessarily articulated explicitly, there are also poems of a more overt injustice, such as “As we speak”, about a campaigner against sex slavery, or the subtler injustice of “Chengdu”, about a city that has sacrificed its sense of life for order and efficiency.

The sense of injustice also prompts another pervasive feature: there is a tension between the pressure to do something about injustice – to fix something, to make it better – and the presence of pleasure. Because there is another recurring image: the beach – an ambiguous image of mere hedonism, on the one hand, and of genuine pleasure, on the other. Time Taken is never very far from the presence of water. It is hard to avoid the availability of pleasure sometimes in Australia – and pleasure is a central aspect of who we are. There can be something life-denying in refusing pleasure in the name of one’s obligations. That said, it can be almost impossible to decide what we owe to our obligations, and what we should allow ourselves in terms of pleasure. I think this is a widespread uncertainty – though it rarely appears in as many ways as it does here.

If the activist struggles with Australia’s legendary apathy:                      

I tried to sow outrage,
But under this sun, nothing taken,

 And is aware that there can be an emptiness to the pleasures Sydney has to offer:

on Sundays all are bought by Plenty,
this city with its polished shells, the driftwood
desolation that is a kind of sensuality

 He also knows that there are real pleasures, and it can be hard to justify asking people to walk away from them:

Would anyone really change this. . .

Those few dissidents left caught a train home
to fill out job applications.

 – The Sydney Problem

 We want writing to ask awkward questions, to send us away with a frown of uncertainty. For those who prefer easy answers, I would draw your attention to the election posters that will be appearing soon in a location nearby. There are no easy answers in Time Taken. Les has a very puzzled imagination. In almost every poem, he is aware of how tricky things can be – of how, on the one hand, yet how, on the other. . . .

I am assuming that this audience is also not comfortable with answers that come too easily, and that they will recognise many of their own questions and musings in this poems. It is a strange thing to live during a period when no answer comes pat – but there’s much that’s positive about it too. For all our puzzlement, we wouldn’t have it any other way. Time Taken is also a record of the period when that puzzlement became endemic.

I am sure, when Les started writing, that he didn’t really know what he would end up producing. Well now he has written it: a further contribution to the ongoing album of Sydney, a keen-eyed portrait gallery, a record of travels far and wide – and with the whole lot framed by questions we haven’t resolved yet, and almost certainly won’t, but which it’s essential to keep on asking.

Congratulations Les – and to all those who have helped to build this vessel – the small presses, facilitators, poets, listeners and readers who have helped bang a nail in along the way.

I mentioned the tension between duty and pleasure. One thing you can do to resolve this unfortunate tension – resolve it exquisitely – is to buy a copy of this book. Duty and pleasure. They are right over there, and impossible to ignore.

 – Martin Langford

Les Wicks: Five Poems


Martin Langford has published seven books of poetry, the most recent of which is Eardrum (P&W, 2020). The Boy from the War Veterans’ Home will be published in 2022. He is the editor, with J. Beveridge, J.Johnson and D. Musgrave, of Contemporary Australian Poetry (2016). He is the poetry reviewer for Meanjin.


Time Taken is available from https://puncherandwattmann.com/product/time-taken-new-selected/

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