Robert Adamson and the Powerful Owl. Photograph Juno Gemes 20015
The following is the text of a lecture Robert Adamson gave as CAL Chair of Australian Poetry at the University of Technology Sydney.
The American poet Wallace Stevens wrote the following intriguing sentence: “The nobility of poetry is a violence from within that protects us from a violence without”. Seamus Heaney responded to this line of Stevens in one of his Oxford lectures: “It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality.’’
How does one become a poet? What are poems about?
Robert Creeley believed poets are born not made and he’s backed up by the following quote from Philip Levine: “Some poets seem to have been totally self-starting, like the cars they used to build in Detroit; I’m thinking of such extraordinary examples as Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, who over a hundred years ago created not only their own gigantic works but the beginnings of something worthy enough to be American poetry, and they did it out of their imaginations and their private studies and nothing more. But, then, they had the advantage of being geniuses.” Let’s think about that over-used word for a minute: the word ‘genius’ carries the ghosts of its dictionary meanings to this day, “two opposed spirits or angels working for a person’s salvation or damnation”, also “a person who powerfully influences one for good or ill.” The Oxford Dictionary’s definitions crack the word open, revealing what makes it hum. Robert Creeley once pointed out to me that the original meaning of the word genius was to do with where one comes from, “teaching spirit or person from a specific place”, “a presiding deity associated with that place”, or as D H Lawrence called it, the spirit of place.
As I talk about the ‘influences’ on my poetry I believe inspiration maybe the answer to these questions. By example I want to show that poetry’s main job it to inspire people. What more in life could be better than to inspire someone to love poetry?
Things that inspired me were experiences that created an “opening of the field” to use a phrase from Robert Duncan who was one poet who inspired me, both by his poetry and his example. I learned to write by reading poetry and then seeking by out these poets whose work inspired me. Certain teachers have appeared along the way, though they weren’t always the regular kind of teacher. They appeared in many guises, a primary school teacher, an old fisherman, a fishing writer, and a master pastry chef, a priest and a minister, painters and photographers, professors. The others were my eternals: William Blake, Shelley, Emily Dickinson, Mallarme, Rimbaud, Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop and several others whose books travel with me everywhere I go.
John Berryman was the master elegist of his time. He wrote in an extraordinary variety of tones, ranging from the ruefully comic to the blisteringly angry, to the tragic —sometimes within the compass of a single poem. He could be an intimidating figure. He was a brilliant Shakespearian scholar, an inspired poetry teacher and an alcoholic although still brilliant in his later years.
Life friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored
means you have no
Inner Resources,’ I conclude now I have no
Inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
– John Berryman, Dream Song 14
Then there is W.S. Merwin’s poem ‘Berryman’:
I will tell you what he told me
in the years just after the war
as we then called
the second world war
don’t lose your arrogance yet he said
you can do that when you’re older
lose it too soon and you may
merely replace it with vanity
just one time he suggested
changing the usual order
of the same words in a line of verse
why point out a thing twice
he suggested I pray to the Muse
get down on my knees and pray
right there in the corner and he
said he meant it literally
it was in the days before the beard
and the drink but he was deep
in tides of his own through which he sailed
chin sideways and head tilted like a tacking sloop
he was far older than the dates allowed for
much older than I was he was in his thirties
he snapped down his nose with an accent
I think he had affected in England
as for publishing he advised me
to paper my wall with rejection slips
his lips and the bones of his long fingers trembled
with the vehemence of his views about poetry
he said the great presence
that permitted everything and transmuted it
in poetry was passion
passion was genius and he praised movement and invention
I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t
you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write
Robert Creeley wrote a essay in 1974 based on a question an audience member asked after a reading at a college in Chicago: “Was that a real poem or did you just make it up yourself?” Creeley’s response to this was ‘ Well, That stuck in my head so lucent, for so long! “ Eventually it became a title for one of Creeley’s lectures. People have expectations about poetry because it’s been around so long.
“’American poetry,’ like they say, soared on to the stars. Senses of progress, really want that in the worst way … I don’t know where it’s supposed to ‘get to’ in that sense, more than to persist in the clarity of human recognitions and wonder. Poetry, as Duncan says, comes ‘from a well deeper than time.’ It’s ‘contemporary’ in the way that fire, air, water, or earth might be said to be particularly involved in any apprehension of present existence. Sadly it can, as these, go away, be lost to other appetites and acts.”
– Pobert Creeley
Robert Creeley gave another lecture in Berlin in January 1967 entitled: ‘I’m given to write poems.’ Peter Quarterman has commented about the precision of this lecture’s title: Creeley was, he said. ‘given’ to it. Not, then, it was given to ‘him’… Creeley says in this lecture:
there is never a ‘subject’ about which one constructs an activity called poetry.
Here’s a quote from the Creeley lecture referred to above:
I don’t want to write what is only an idea, particularly my own.
If the world can’t come true in that place,
flooding all terms of my thought and experience, then it’s not enough
either for me or, equally, for anyone else.
It must be somehow revelation ,
no matter how modest that transformation can sometimes be.
Or vast, truly—’the world in a grain of sand.’
Wallace Stevens wrote much of his best poetry after the War in the 1940 and 1950s.
He was passionately responding to the decline of religion, the gradual acceptance by many that God was no longer viable for him. Stevens wrote: “It is a habit with me to be thinking of some substitute for a religion, my trouble and the trouble for a great many, is the loss of belief in the sort of god we were bought up to believe.”
One afternoon in his office of the Hartford Insurance Company he wrote the line: “The death of one god is the death of all gods.” Stevens dealt with a question Albert Camus posed after World War 2, “How does one continue to live when one neither believes in God, nor totally in reason.” Remember Stevens wrote the lines ‘Poetry must resist the intelligence/ Almost successfully’ and so he continued living by writing poetry that created a world.
Here’s one of his poems that constitutes that world, as it is read aloud it flashes with a multiplicity of meanings. One the page it splinters into kaleidoscopic shards, the imagination sliding and forming new patterns, new worlds, that ‘resist the intelligence ‘almost successfully’.
There is an image of a palm tree. A golden bird is perched in the palm tree ‘on the edge of space’ … ‘at the end of the mind’… ‘beyond the last thought:
Of Mere Being
– Wallace Stevens
The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze distance.
A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.
You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.
Wallace Stevens wrote this poem in 1954, a year before his death. An American mystic whose visions became poetry, he insisted, among many other contradictory statements, that, “It is the belief and not the god that counts”.
Stevens can be seen as a pole in the ‘poetry of the imagination’ hemisphere, maybe another pole in the poetry of ‘recalled experience’ could be Robert Lowell as an example.
Robert Lowell was a very public poet and he is not known for imaginative experiments, however, in a late poem, ‘Epilogue’, Lowell talks about the difference between wanting to write something ‘imagined’ rather than something based on memory or experience:
Those blessèd structures, plot and rhyme–
why are they no help to me now
I want to make
something imagined, not recalled?
I hear the noise of my own voice:
The painter’s vision is not a lens,
it trembles to caress the light.
Yet why not say what happened?
Pray for the grace of accuracy
In 1988 Lowell was on my mind because Robert Duncan mentioned him in a letter he wrote to me not long before his death. Duncan is referring to his Australian reading tour here:
I was excited by the ferment of Australian poetry and the transformations and inventions of possibilities— something quite different from being ‘influenced’ in your absorption of the New American poetry (and in Australian terms), as in your work, Robert Lowell is not that far from R. Duncan;
This was a surprise at the time because I had assumed Duncan wouldn’t be interested in Robert Lowell. They were in different schools of poetry.
I didn’t need convincing, I had attended poetry workshops in the late sixties conducted by David Malouf and James Tulip where they had read Lowell and combed through his lines and opened the field of their meanings.
I wanted to read two stanzas from Robert Lowell’s poem ‘Waking Early Sunday Morning’,
Waking Early Sunday Morning
O to break loose, like the chinook
salmon jumping and falling back,
nosing up to the impossible
stone and bone-crushing waterfall –
raw-jawed, weak-fleshed there, stopped by ten
steps of the roaring ladder, and then
to clear the top on the last try,
alive enough to spawn and die.
Stop, back off. The salmon breaks
water, and now my body wakes
to feel the unpolluted joy
and criminal leisure of a boy –
no rainbow smashing a dry fly
in the white run is free as I,
here squatting like a dragon on
time’s hoard before the day’s begun!
Fierce, fireless mind, running downhill.
Look up and see the harbor fill:
business as usual in eclipse
goes down to the sea in ships –
wake of refuse, dacron rope,
bound for Bermuda or Good Hope,
all bright before the morning watch
the wine-dark hulls of yawl and ketch.
In ‘Clear Water Reckoning’, I attempted to describe writing a poem as the poem itself unfolded. With Lowell’s ‘confessional’ poetry in mind, I took up writing itself as the subject of the poem. As William Carlos Williams noted, “the poet thinks with his poem”. Line by line I moved on into a sort of narrative, heading for some luminous place across the border of human geographic space, forgetting about time. However, I wanted to anchor the poem to the local and move outward as it grew. My wife Juno was away from home in Hungary, attending a photographic exhibition of her work in Budapest. So the poem became a description of itself and an epistle to Juno on the other side of the planet:
Clear Water Reckoning refers to events televised as the Bicentenary of Australia was celebrated in 1988.
Clear Water Reckoning
I write into the long black morning,
out here on the end of the point,
far from my wife in Budapest –
as the river cuts through a mountain
in Sydney a poet is launching
his new volume Under Berlin
and I feel like Catullus on Rome’s edge
but this passes and I turn to face
the oncoming dawn, the house
breathes tidal air as the night
fires outside with barking owls,
marsupials rustling, the prawn bird
beginning its taunting dawn whistle;
I burn the electricity
and measure hours by the lines –
I have strewn words around the living room,
taken them out from their
sentences, left them unused wherever
they fell; they are the bait –
I hunch over my desk and start to row,
let the tide flow in, watch
the window, with the door locked now
I wait – hear satin bowerbirds
scratching out the seeds from bottlebrush.
Dawn is a thin slit of illuminated
bowerbird blue along mountain lines,
in this year of cock and bull
celebration the TV goes on unwatched
upstairs, I hear it congratulating us
for making Australia what it is –
the heater breathes out a steady stream
of heated air – I go deeper
into my head, I see the Hawkesbury
flowing through Budapest, the Hungarians
do not seem to mind, they are bemused,
the river parts around their spires and domes,
I see other cities, whole cultures
drawn from territories within,
though with this freedom
comes a feeling of strange panic
for the real; so I get on
with it, writing out from this egg
holding my thought in a turbulent knot,
a bunched-up octopus. I steer
away from anything confessional,
thinking of Robert Lowell crafting
lines of intelligent blues,
his Jelly Roll of a self-caught mess
deep in spiritual distress.
Outside the river pulls me back,
shafts of light disintegrate into clues,
flecked symbols shine with order –
the bowerbirds have woven colour
around the house, through
bushes blue patterns of themselves
traced about the place; half
the moon can topple a mountain,
anything is possible here
I remind myself and begin to hum,
flattening out all the words that were
impossible to write today. I hum
out all the poems I should have
written, I hum away now also
the desire to write from memory –
there is enough sorrow in the present.
I look out over the incoming tide, dark racks
of oysters jut from its ink.
– Published in The Clean Dark 1989.
Larry Schwartz interviewed Seamus Heaney in Melbourne for the Age in 1994. Talking about craft and poetry, sonnets in particular, Heaney says, it was Mandelstam who compared his own writing to the work of the makers of Brussels lace, his aim to produce air, perforation and truancy because lace is about the holes between the things. Summing up Heaney says “That sense of poetry as a loophole for the spirit, to allow it to fly.”
Before this Heaney had used digging and water divining as metaphors to explain poetry.
During the interview, Seamus spoke in terms of the work done by his father’s grandfather, a tailor.
I think that, at this stage of my career… I see my great-grandfather on the road with the needle as a poet’s figure, stitching and stitching.
I have also used the metaphor of sewing and stitching, long before knowing Seamus Heaney or reading his reference to stitching above. Since a boy I have been fascinated with all forms of making, drawing, stitching and sewing. I watched flycatchers weaving their nests with dried grass and mud. My grandfather making his fishing nets, my mother and grandmothers sewing and knitting, my father weaving wire mesh for fish-traps and fowl runs.
They stitched their lives into my days,
Blue’s Point fishermen, with a smoke
stuck to their bottom lips, bodies bent
forward, inspecting a haul-net’s wing
draped from a clothes line. Their hands
darting through mesh, holding bone
net-needles, maybe a special half-needle
carved from tortoise shell. Their fingers,
browned by clusters of tobacco tar
and freckles, slippery with speed—
they wove everything they knew
into the mesh, along with the love they had,
or had lost, or maybe not needed.
During my school holidays I watched them
and came to love this craft
of mending. In our backyard by the harbour
surrounded by copper tubs, brimming
with tanning soup brewed from
blood wood and wild apple bark.
These men could cut the heart clean
from a fish with a swipe of a fillet-knife,
and fill buckets with gut, flecked
with the iridescent backs of flies
as it fermented into liquid fertilizer.
I’d water my father’s beds of vegetables,
rows of silver beet, a fence of butterbeans.
In the last of the sun, I’d watch
our peacock spread its fan; the hose
sprayed water from a water tank, house high
fed by gravity.
There’s a great paragraph in Moby Dick where Melville takes the metaphor of weaving to its limits
The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul… He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad
The year I turned ten, 1953, was the year of Mr Roberts, the teacher who introduced me to poetry and what was then called Nature Studies. Mr Roberts would read poems to the class and go through them line by line explaining what they meant and how poetry worked. ‘The Highwayman’ by Alfred Noyse was the first poem I loved. I learned it by heart and would recite it to the class.
Louis Untermeyer the editor Modern American Poetry called Alfred Noyse a minor poet in (1919). However, aside from this modern judgment, when Tennyson was an old man, he arranged to have Noyes brought to his county home on the Isle of Wight. Tennyson wanted Alfred Noyes to read him the Highwayman as he was dying. Robert Creeley, at school in Massachuetts in the 1930s, also learned the Highwayman by heart and remembered it fondly all his life. (Day Book of a Virtual Poet –Creeley’s story about poetic quality).
Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark inn-yard.
He tapped with his whip on the shutters, but all was locked and barred.
He whistled a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
……….Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.
I memorized many other poems including ‘Kubla Khan’ by Colderidge and Tennyson’s ballad,‘The Revenge.’ There was a State-School contest for the recitation of poetry; I was chosen to represent Neutral Bay Public on an ABC radio program. I left school after I was thirteen and spent time in reform schools, for among other things, stealing a bird of paradise from Taronga Zoo.
I wrote my first poem in Long Bay prison, holding single lines in my memory for weeks on end. Maybe not quite lines, but phrases—before writing them down with a pencil on letterforms. Its title was ‘Jerusalem Bay’ and through the hundreds of drafts and revisions it went through, its title was the only thing that didn’t change.
I eventually published it in my first book Canticles on The Skin. I was under the spell of Dylan Thomas and Hopkins, and everything I wrote was spiked with their cubist-like syntax and infectious assonance and alliteration. Hopkins so in love with life, torn between the church and god, found comfort in nature, writing about a kestrel, a wind-hover ——
I caught this morning
………..dom of daylight’s dough-fin,
……drawn Falcon, in his riding
……As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow bend:
the hurl and gliding
……Rebuffed the big wind.
My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, —the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!
and Dylan Thomas:
The sheath-decked jacks, a queen with a shuffled heart;
Out of the windy west came two-gunned Gabriel
Black-tongued and tipsy from salvation’s bottle.
I didn’t see it at the time but I now recognize Dylan Thomas’ influence on Bob Dylan quite clearly in these lines from Thomas’s ‘Alterwise by Owl-Light’ and the following lines by Bob Dylan:
Upon four-legged forest clouds
The cowboy angel rides…..
The motorcycle black Madonna
Two-wheeled gypsy queen
I discovered that, like Robert Creeley, ‘I was given to write poems’. Poetry literally saved my life, it kept body and soul together. I was writing lines of poetry in my head, mixing imagination with the actual and the sharp reality of prison became less cutting. I would read Shelley or Hopkins from the moment sunlight came into the cell each morning until the screws turned out the lights every evening. But one night my cell was searched and they discovered I possessed items of contraband: books and writing materials. This put an end to reading and writing for a couple of months. Eventually, I applied for a correspondence course, so that I could write poetry on the sly.
I was in Long Bay for my twenty-first birthday and didn’t feel my life was going to improve. After attempting suicide I was charged with having ‘self-inflicted wounds’. I remember my bemusement at the Visiting Justice’s language as he ordered that I serve ‘ 48 hours cellular confinement’. This quaint phrase meant two days and two nights solitary in a black slot, six feet long and four feet wide, with no ventilation or light, even by day.
I remember walking out into the bright, sunlit exercise yard after that stretch in solitary and feeling as soon as the light hit that I just couldn’t go on any longer. Two days later I was back inside again, this time in a straightjacket. I felt a total fake. I couldn’t stand my life but I couldn’t do myself in. Back in the dark cell, I thought about insanity as a space I might occupy, a possible place where I could create an imaginary world, safe from prison life. I wouldn’t have known this language at the time, though I’m sure I was feeling an impulse to create what Seamus Heaney called “the imagination pressing back /against the pressure of reality.”
In the darkness as I tried to will myself into a counterfeit silence, or some kind of oblivion: I emptied myself of memories and affections, what was left of them. I tried to strip away the structure of reason. Nothing happened. I lay on the floor in pitch dark with the cockroaches and recited out loud the poetry I had committed to memory at school, stanza after stanza.
I’d been reading a Penguin copy of Hopkins a priest had given me for the last month or so. Then I’d been trying to memorize another poem without much success, however in the dark isolation a few lines came to mind and I gradually pieced them together, they had been drifting separately deep in memory. Here they are, a quatrain from Gerard Manly Hopkins’ ‘Carrion Comfort’:
Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not un-twist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can,
Can something, hope, wish day-come, not choose not to be.
God was beyond me at this stage, and even though I had attended Sunday school as a child and the Kirk as a young boy, I couldn’t really believe in Christ anymore. Fifty years later, I wrote: ‘The Kirk/ we attended appears, the place where the Minister/ refused to tell me exactly what a soul might be—/although mine, come Judgment Day/ would be flung into Hell with the others/ who weren’t chosen. The Presbyterian soul/ is not mysterious, rather it’s something we were/ lumped with.’
This is a good time to look at a poem by another poet who was a great influence on my first two books, James Wright.
I was only a young man
In those days. On that evening
The cold was so God damned
Bitter there was nothing.
Nothing. I was in trouble
With a woman, and there was nothing
There but me and dead snow.
I stood on the street corner
In Minneapolis, lashed
This way and that.
Wind rose from some pit,
Another bus to Saint Paul
Would arrive in three hours,
If I was lucky.
Then the young Sioux
Loomed beside me, his scars
Were just my age.
Ain’t got no bus here
A long time, he said.
You got enough money
To get home on?
What did they do
To your hand? I answered.
He raised his hook into the terrible starlight
And slashed the wind.
Oh, that? He said.
I had a bad time with a woman. Here,
You take this.
Did you ever feel a man hold
In a hook,
And place it
In your freezing hand?
I took it.
It wasn’t the money I needed.
But I took it.
Three years after my release I had my first book published and was the President of the Poetry Society of Australia, also the editor of the main poetry journal in the county, Poetry Magazine, re-named New Poetry. I was also teaching creative writing twice a week with the WEA through Sydney University. This is where I started to discover the poems that had depth, they needed to have a grip, because instead of teaching the students how to write; I decided to teach how to read poetry. These teaching poems had to be convincing because my classes contained people of all ages from many different backgrounds. A poem that held us week after week was The Cold Heaven by W. B. Yeats. It taught me about the way imagination needs to be caged by form before it can actually sing about the reality of our mortality.
The Cold Heaven
Suddenly, I saw the cold and rook-delighting heaven,
That seemed as though ice burned,
and was, but the more ice—
And thereupon imagination and heart were driven
So wild ,that every casual thought of that and this,
Vanished, and left but memories,
that should be out of season
With the hot blood of youth,
of love crossed long ago;
And I took all the blame out
of all sense
Until I cried and trembled and rocked to and fro,
Riddled with light. Ah! when the ghost begins to quicken,
Confusion of the death-bed over,
is it sent out?
naked on the roads, as the books say, and stricken
By the injustice of the skies
During the 1970s I became friends with Brett Whiteley. I believe his example inspired me to continue and make poetry my life. If he could do it as a painter in Sydney, maybe there was a chance for me as a poet. This was a crucial turning point for me and Brett, like Bob Dylan before him, inspired me. Brett Whiteley became a guide and teacher as well. I learned a lot about painting from him, he read my poems and commented on them, we shared a fascination with birds. Brett knew how to read sensation and understood the difference between imaginative flight and real flight. We shared a love of Bob Dylan and Brett introduced me to musicians and singers. We often spoke of Cezanne and Mondrian and sometimes Brett’s disagreements with me were more eloquent than his enthusiasms. His favorite Wallace Steven’s poem was The Man With The Blue Guitar, Picasso’s ‘The Old Guitarist’, painted in 1904, inspired it.
The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.
They said, ‘You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.’
The man replied, ‘Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.’
And they said then, ‘But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,
A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are.’
I know my lazy, leaden twang
Is like the reason in a storm;
And yet it brings the storm to bear.
I twang it out and leave it there.
Cezanne’s paintings were like maps for me, they pointed to ways to drop narrative from my poems, to distil reality with fragments of imaginative colour using ‘the line’ as a measure to pay attention to language; in a phrase Dylan Thomas invented, you can achieve this with, ‘the colour of saying’.
In 1998 a great exhibition of Cezanne paintings and drawings came to Sydney ‘Classic Cezanne’ and I was looking forward to seeing it immensely. Juno even booked us tickets weeks before it opened, then I promptly forgot about it. Time passed and one night Juno said ‘tomorrow it’s the Cezanne show’ I replied ‘ I can’t go I have to finish writing this poem I’m working on for my new book’. The next day Juno, knowing how much I loved Cezanne went off to the Gallery, shaking her head. Not long after she left, it hit me that I was so locked into writing poetry while life itself was passing by, however, as they say, writing poetry about poetry is as real any other activity—well maybe—as Wallace Stevens says at the end of his life: ‘I wonder, have I lived a skeleton’s life,/As a disbeliever in reality, /A countryman of all the bones in the world?’
Here’s the poem I wrote at home while Juno was in looking at the Cezanne exhibition at the NSW Art Gallery: it turns out to be a love poem to her:
On Not Seeing Paul Cézanne
I think of the waste, the long
years of not believing the
in the midst of words
to speak, to keep walking
that bend in the road
I cursed myself for not having spoken
The blank sheets of air could have added
Words smudged out and revised with a colour
stroked instead of butting
coming to the shape by layers, stumbling
in from the corners and rubbing out the hard light
The countless fish flapping on boards
Have they just disappeared?
there’s no way
back to the water to catch
again that possible colour
Outside the window in the black night
mosquitoes gather under floodlights on the pontoon
until the empty westerly blows
Everything that matters comes together
slowly, the hard way, with the immense and tiny details,
all the infinite touches, put down onto nothing –
each time we touch
it begins again, love quick brush strokes
building up the undergrowth from the air into what holds
In the 1970s when I was editing New Poetry magazine, I became friends with three poets who became deep influences on my work. Gwen Harwood, Dorothy Hewett and Fay Zwicky. I visited Gwen in Tasmania, stayed with Fay in Perth, while I was a writer-in-residence at the University of WA where we conducted seminars on William Blake. I collaborated with Dorothy on two plays and a film script, worked with her on our publishing venture Big Smoke Books. We all corresponded and even reviewed each other’s books in the newspapers and literary journals. I loved their poetry and they influenced me in many ways, we had different tastes but the one poet we all agreed on was Elizabeth Bishop.
Here’s the final part of Bishop’s poem ‘At The Fishhouses’, written when she returned to the place she came from. There is a music loving seal and in the background plantations of Nova Scotia’s famous Douglas Fir trees.
from ‘At The Fishhouses’
Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
element bearable to no mortal,
to fish and to seals . . . One seal particularly
I have seen here evening after evening.
He was curious about me. He was interested in music;
like me a believer in total immersion,
so I used to sing him Baptist hymns.
I also sang “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
He stood up in the water and regarded me
steadily, moving his head a little.
Then he would disappear, then suddenly emerge
almost in the same spot, with a sort of shrug
as if it were against his better judgment.
Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
the clear gray icy water . . . Back, behind us,
the dignified tall firs begin.
Bluish, associating with their shadows,
a million Christmas trees stand
waiting for Christmas. The water seems suspended
above the rounded gray and blue-gray stones.
I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,
slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
icily free above the stones,
above the stones and then the world.
If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.
If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.
She also wrote a great poem called ‘The Fish’, where she catches a great fish and studies it for several minutes along side the boat, then as she sets it free a rainbow appears.
I have, as a professional and amateur fisherman, caught quite a few large fish, with both nets and hand-lines or these days by rod. I go fishing when we need fish for food and these days never as a sport or occupation. I was bought up in a fishing culture where the money from a large fish, say an 80lb mulloway, could feed a family for a week or pay for fuel and running costs. I wrote ‘The Gathering Light’ about a huge fish and how I felt about catching it at the time.
It’s almost the opposite of Bishop’s poem because in the end I keep the fish rather than let it go. This poem went through many drafts before I knew how it would end, it’s another example of thinking with the poem.
The Gathering Light
Morning shines on the cowling of the Yamaha
locked onto the stern of the boat,
spears of light shoot away
from the gun-metal grey enamel.
Now I wait for God to show
instead of calling him a liar.
I’ve just killed a mulloway –
it’s eighty five pounds, twenty years old –
the huge mauve-silver body trembles in the hull.
Time whistles around us, an invisible
flood tide that I let go
while I take in what I have done.
It wasn’t a fight, I was drawn to this moment.
The physical world drains away
into a golden calm.
The sun is a hole in the sky, a porthole –
you can see turbulence out there,
the old wheeling colours and their dark forces –
but here on the surface of the river
where I cradle the great fish in my arms
and smell its pungent death, a peace
I’ve never known before – a luminous absence
of time, pain, sex, thought, of everything but the light
Hart Crane is an abiding influence on my work. I’d need a whole lecture to talk about his poetry. Here’s a stanza from his poem ‘The Broken Tower’ as an epigram to the final part of this lecture.
And so it was I entered the broken world
To trace the visionary company of love, its voice
An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled
But not for long to hold each desperate choice.
Hart Crane’s poetry addresses the broken world of visions, alcohol, the history of American colonization, he takes up from where Yeats left off. He tries to write against the bleak vision Eliot left us in ‘The Waste Land’. Crane can write of workers and marginalized people, the factory workers, the farmers and the fishermen. My father’s family, were fishermen. There was a culture of drinking on the Lane Cove river where my father fished, and the Hawkesbury where my grandparents lived fishing with mesh nets and farming oysters.
Here is a poem of mine that looks directly at their situation. I took W. B. Yeat’s advice and threw off the cloak of idealized river mythology and of poetry itself, and tried to find the truth in walking naked, writing without literary allusions or imaginative metaphors, it’s a poem about the life of a family whose income comes from fishing.
When my granny was dying
I’d go into her bedroom
and look at her
she’d tell me to get out of it
leave this foul river
it will wear you out too
she was very sick
and her red curly hair
was matted and smelt of gin
sometimes I sat there all day
listening to the races
and put bets on for her at the shop
and I sat there the afternoon
she died and heard her say her last words
I sat there not telling
maybe three hours
beside the first dead person I’d seen
I tried to drink some of her gin
it made me throw up on the bed
then I left her
she said the prawns will eat you
when you die on the Hawkesbury River
That poem is from my book Where I Come From published in 1979.
So without God, with painkilling drink and a need for something other than constant grinding work and poverty, river folk create their own myths, or do away with it all to stare into an abyss with Jack and Coke, country music, the husk of childhood religions, slightly sentimental, slightly tough as nails:
Swimming Out With Emmylou Harris
A long curved horizon, the hazel-
coloured tide and Lion Island
going by. A CD player skips
on the line. A quarter moon
in a ten cent town, on the swell
our wake shatters the reflection
of the real moon. We cut
through the sound of swimming,
the meaningless joy of living,
the random punishment of birth.
The song says, we all live up to what
we get – out here you believe
whoever writes the script.
Yesterday is reflected back by the moon;
mothers wash the sickly
smell from a dozen ruined shirts
every Saturday afternoon. Wives
turn their heads. There’s an old grey
stingray spread-eagled across
the front of the chicken run,
three crows hop around it, the breeze
ruffling their satin collars.
They plunge their black beaks
into the lukewarm flesh. Emmylou,
your sweet holy music drifts
through the new curtains,
your song folds itself around the shack
filling the backyard, flowing through
our days, out on the back veranda
where Old Dutch sits slumped two days
into his latest coma. Sweet Lord,
sweet poison, sweet, sweet music
My book The Goldfinches of Baghdad was published in Chicago in 2006. Juno and I set off that year on a reading tour, set up by my publisher, to publicize the book. It must have worked because the book is now in a second edition. We crisscrossed America and I read at ten universities and several other venues, I gave lectures on Australian Poetry at the University of Chicago and at MIT in Boston, we travelled from Boulder to Birmingham just like Emmylou Harris did in her song.
I was delighted to read at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, where I did a reading with Tom Raworth. This poem is base on the sighting of a great horned owl I saw perched on a telegraph pole outside a branch of FedEx at two o’clock one morning. It also mentions an exhibition of Joseph Cornell’s work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that we visited in New York. It’s an example of a poem that draws on the two stands of this lecture, imagination and reality. Also I find it interesting that the poem turns out to be firmly on the ground as it speeds along the Pacific Highway beside the Hawkesbury River. I wanted to write about the experience of reading poetry in America but like the birds the poem migrates back to the river.
Joseph Cornell’s Tools
Joseph Cornell used these sturdy tools
and instruments to create boxes,
made from bits and pieces,
three dimensional frames containing
fans, lace, feathers—other
found objects including
a torn fragment of photography
an image of Mallarme’s
hands—One contains an illustration
of a humming bird—it seems
to hover in the space between
the glass and the backing of the box.
In another, an etching
of a great horned owl—like the bird
I watched one night,
perched on a light-post in Boulder,
Colorado: it swoops from
memory, filling my study with silent
flight as I recall another
visitation. This afternoon,
returning from the post office
I drove ahead of an approaching storm,
trees shook and a black cockatoo
flew out of them, it sailed on
just ahead of my car for almost a minute,
a long time given the situation—
stroking the air before the windscreen,
following the road, so close
I could see details of its plumage,
two red patches across the tail feathers.
something other than beautiful, fleeting.
I want to finish up by reading the title poem from my book The Kingfisher’s Soul, published in the UK by Bloodaxe. It’s a poem that brings together things I have learned from various and opposing schools of modern poetry. It reaches back to metaphysical poets like Marvell and John Donne and uses some devices I mentioned earlier in reference to Robert Lowell and Robert Duncan, and like Creeley and Elizabeth Bishop, it takes on the subject of love without, hopefully, sentiment or gush; behind all these poets though, except for his high toned manner, stands the figure of Yeats with his golden bird and his fisherman with a ‘Poem maybe as cold /And passionate as the dawn.’
The Kingfisher’s Soul
……………..– for Juno
A wave hits the shoreline of broken boulders
Explodes, fans into fine spray, a fluid wing,
Then drops back onto the tide: A spume
Of arterial blood. Our eyes can be gulled by what
The brain takes in—our spirits take flight
Each time we catch sight out—feathers of smoke
Dissolve in air as we glide towards clarity.
In the old days I used to think art
That was purely imagined could fly higher
Than anything real. Now I feel a small fluttering
Bird in my own pulse, a connection to sky.
Back then a part of me was only half alive:
Your breath blew a thicket of smoke from my eyes
And brought that half to life. There’s no
Evidence, nothing tangible, and no philosopher
Of blood considering possibilities,
Weighing up feathers, or souls. One day
Some evidence could spring from shadows
As my body did in rejecting the delicious poisons,
The lure of dark song. You came with a wind
In your gaze, flinging away trouble’s screw,
Laughing at the King of Hell’s weird command;
You created birthdays and the cheekbones
Of family—I was up, gliding through life
And my fabrications, thought’s soft cradle.
I scoured memory’s tricks from my own memory,
Its shots and score cards, those ambiguous lyrics—
Clear bird song was not human-song, hearing became
Nets and shadowy vibrations, the purring
Air, full of whispers and lies. I felt blank pages,
Indentations created by images, getting by
With the shapes I made from crafted habits.
You taught me how to weigh the harvest of light.
There was bright innocence in your spelling,
I learned to read again through wounded eyes.
Wispy spiders of withdrawal sparked with static
Electricity across skin, tiny veins, a tracery of
Coppery wires, conducting pain to nerve
Patterns: All lightweights, to your blood’s iron.
You brought along new light to live in
As well as read with—before you came, whenever
I caught a glimpse of my own blood, it seemed
A waterfall of bright cells as it bled away.
The clouds of euphony, created by its loss, became
Holes in thinking, pretend escape hatches. You’re now
A rush, wings through channels of my coronary
Arteries. We slept together when you conjured
A bed in your Paddington tree-house: barb-less hours,
Peace appeared and said: Soon, the future awaits you.
I stepped into the day, by following your gaze.
– Robert Adamson
Robert Adamson has won several major Australian literary awards including the Grace Leven Poetry Prize (twice, for Selected Poems and The Goldfinches of Baghdad), the C. J. Dennis Award, the Kenneth Slessor Prize, and the National Book Council Turnbull Fox Phillips Poetry Prize for The Clean Dark, and the Fellowship of Australian Writers Christopher Brennan Award. In 2004 Adamson won the New South Wales Premier’s History Award for Inside Out, in 2007 The Age Book of the Year Poetry Prize for The Goldfinches of Baghdad, in 2009 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Poetry for The Golden Bird, and in 2011 the Patrick White Award. He was also the inaugural CAL chair of poetry at the University of Technology, Sydney. Adamson’s new book, Reaching Light, was published in March 2020 by Flood Editions, Chicago.