This piece first appeared on page 26 of the Sydney Morning Herald on 20 February 2004. Noted in my Journal.
You can read John Tranter’s 13-page conversation with Bruce Beaver, conducted in 2003, on this site.
The poet Bruce Beaver died in the early hours of the 17th of February 2004 after a long illness. He was 76 years old.
Bruce was born in the Sydney seaside suburb of Manly on 14 February 1928, and returned there to live and write for the last half of his life.
His first poem was written as a teenager in 1945 in response to the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima: he wrote it the evening the bombing was announced. At around the same time he suffered the first of many attacks of manic-depressive psychosis or bipolar disorder, setting a pattern: poetry, mania and depression would accompany him on his life’s journey. Medication was variously helpful in keeping him on a relatively even keel, though he blamed it for the dialysis treatment he had to undergo through the last decade of his life.
One day, as a youth, while working at radio station 2UE, he overheard a young woman being interviewed on-air by the announcer.
He talked to her later, and discovered that they were the same age and had similar interests: she was a 16-year-old schoolgirl by the name of Grace Perry, and had just won a major poetry prize. Nearly twenty years later they met again; Grace by then was a busy mother, poet and medico, and went on to become Bruce’s doctor and staunch friend, publishing many of his poems through the 1960s in her notable magazine Poetry Australia, which Bruce helped her to run. She also published many of Bruce’s books through her publishing firm South Head Press.
All this was in the future, though. When he was nineteen, partly to get away from his troubles, he spent a year working on a dairy farm owned by an uncle. Later he lived in a tent in the Hunter Valley for five years, working as a chainman for the railway survey camp at Singleton, helping to plan the route of a new railway line from Newcastle. He told me that in the evenings he would pump up his Tilley pressure lamp and write poetry until it was time to go to bed. The combination of healthy outdoor life, freedom from stress and plenty of time to write was just what he needed.
Bruce left Australia when he was thirty, visiting Norfolk Island which he didn’t like and New Zealand which he did. He spent four years there doing various jobs including fruit-picking. It was there that he met and fell in love with his wife-to-be, Brenda.
Brenda was already married, with a child, and it is a measure of the strength of their life-long love for each other that she made up her mind to seek a divorce and marry Bruce. It was a painful decision, made worse by the circumstances that followed their arrival in Australia: within three months Bruce was incarcerated in a mental hospital. The marriage worked, despite this dire beginning, and they lived happily together from then on. Brenda did secretarial work to support them, and Bruce worked on freelance journalism and reviewing. It was not a comfortable life, but it was a rewarding one for them both.
What was it that made Bruce Beaver so special to so many poets of my generation, born a dozen years later?
For a start he was a talented poet, keen to explore the best new writing that the world had to offer. Unlike some of his contemporaries he had no university degree and had not encountered English Literature in an academic context. Each new book from Europe, Asia, England or America was a fresh discovery, and he read widely and voraciously.
He came into his poetic maturity in the 1960s, a period of exciting cultural transformation: Australia changed from a conservative, obedient, British-oriented society to a more open, multicultural, pluralist and questioning one which in 1972 elected Australia’s first leftist government in twenty-three years, a party with an agenda for radical renovation. Bruce was part of that turmoil, and Australian poetry at that time was responding to and arguing with the best that the world superpower, the United States of America, could offer.
America’s most vigorous poets then were dissenters and radicals, from the homosexual dope-smoking Allen Ginsberg to the gay Frank O’Hara to renegade Boston aristocrat Robert Lowell, who marched on the Pentagon against the Vietnam War. Bruce, with his strong social conscience, engaged naturally with those issues. He had been doing so all his life, and his poetry thrived under the pressure.
His wide reading had also interested him in Buddhism and Taoism, which was in tune with ideas my generation was exploring. When the young poet Michael Dransfield called on Bruce and Brenda in the early 1970s — Michael placing a wreath of clover on Bruce’s head — it was a natural meeting of minds.
For Bruce was sincerely interested in the ideas of younger writers. He supported their enthusiasms, welcomed them to his house, gave them food and drink — there were many noisy parties — and submitted his poems to their little roneod magazines.
He was also unusual among poets in that he was never envious or critical of other writers. Quite the opposite: he would go out of his way to find something generous to say about another poet, and he would search for some extenuating circumstance to excuse a lapse. Recently when I was interviewing Bruce I happened to remind him of his difficulties as a co-editor of Poetry Australia during the 1970s, when an ambitious fellow-editor pushed him out of the limelight for many years. He said he had thought it was only a few months. ‘I couldn’t remember,’ he said, ‘because I wanted to wipe it out of my mind.’
Another admirable thing about Bruce was that never had another career, but with Brenda’s ongoing support focussed himself entirely on his work as a writer. Other poets made a living as accountants or lecturers or arts administrators from nine to five, but Bruce was nothing but a poet. Younger writers admired that commitment.
His love for his wife Brenda was another marvel to a generation brought up to expect marital distress and change. Her devotion to him over the nearly forty years they were together was constant.
His mental illness was central to his life and to his writing. It was both a burden and a strange blessing, one that fitted him to follow the path followed by Robert Lowell, who suffered from the same problem, as did many of Lowell’s contemporaries. Some writers of my generation were attracted by extreme mental states, though we hoped to avoid the fate of our greatest poet Francis Webb, who was incarcerated in Callan Park mental hospital for long periods during the 1960s.
Bruce worked his way through his episodes of mania and depression and made good use of them in his writing, though he never wore his problem like a badge of honour, and he never let the more distressing episodes get him down. He knew that his illness allowed him — and perhaps forced him — to experience life more intensely, and he simply put up with it.
One of his long-term consolations was music, with its deep emotional currents and its freedom from argument or rhetoric. He loved all kinds of music from the popular songs of Rogers and Hart to the moody complexity of Mahler.
He also explored psychology and philosophy, and was particularly interested in the writings of the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung, who founded analytical psychology and pioneered the study of archetypes and the collective unconscious.
Bruce Beaver’s first collection of poems Under the Bridge was published in 1961, but the book that made his name (and which won three prestigious prizes) was his fourth, Letters to Live Poets, published by Grace Perry in 1969. It begins with a poem to New York poet Frank O’Hara, who had been killed in an accident in 1966. The act of making a poem is central to the book: ‘Writing to you ... sends the president parliament’s head on a platter; / writes Vietnam like a huge four-letter / word in blood and faeces on the walls / of government; reminds me when / the intricate machine stalls / there’s a poet still living at this address.’
There’s a rich range of day-to-day material in these poems, from the Vietnam war, where young Australians were being killed, to bikini meter maids at the Gold Coast, from carrying shopping bags back from the market, to the Manly aquarium ‘that people pay admission to, / watching sharks at feeding time... the grey / sliding anonymity, / faint blur of red through green, / the continually spreading stain.’ Life and death were both celebrated in these poems, and the forces of creation and destruction were brought into being and held in balance by the act of writing.
Letters to Live Poets, out of print for many years, has recently been reissued in the print-on-demand format by Sydney University Press.
Sydney University, with the encouragement of the English Department, had planned to offer Bruce an honorary doctorate degree in April, and he had accepted with delight. The award which he so richly deserved will now be made posthumously.
Bruce Beaver is survived by his wife Brenda. The funeral will take place in the East Chapel at the Northern Suburbs Crematorium at 11 a.m. on Tuesday 24 February.
You can buy Letters to Live Poets from the Sydney University Press Internet site. Search their site using the Search feature and look for ‘Beaver’.
Eight of Bruce Beaver’s poems appear in the Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry (Eds. John Tranter and Philip Mead) published by Penguin Australia.
Search their site under > ‘find a book’ > ‘authors’ > ‘tranter’
Poets and Others, a recent volume, is published by Brandl & Schlesinger.
The University of Queensland Press has published a number of titles by Bruce Beaver.
John Tranter is the editor of the popular Internet literary quarterly Jacket.