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Celebrating Tradition

John Tranter reviews

Product: Later Verses by R. D. Fitzgerald,
Ethnic Radio, poems by Les A. Murray,
Words with a Black Orpington and other poems by David Campbell

Angus & Robertson, $4.95 each.
This review is 1,500 words or about 4 printed pages long. It was first published in 24 Hours, July 1978

Angus & Robertson have released three more books in their current deluxe ($4.95 each) series of contemporary Australian poets. Unlike the cheaper but larger books in their series of collected and selected poems, most of which seem to fall to pieces as soon as you pick them up, these books are attractively designed and properly bound.

Apart from good looks, the 15 books so far published in this series also share a clear tradition of conservatism: Vincent Buckley, David Campbell, Rosemary Dobson, Anne Elder, R. D.Fitzgerald, A. D. Hope, Geoffrey Lehmann, James McAuley, Les A.Murray, Vivian Smith and Judith Wright — the names make up what is almost a roll-call of the poetic (of course, not necessarily the political) Right.

The main problem with this area is not lack of quality or skill — many of the poems in this tradition are quite well-made — but rather lack of relevance to what’s happening to the last half of the twentieth century. The poetic forms and the concomitant attitudes of mind developed in England in the nineteenth century are of little use in exploring post-Vietnam Australia.

The good things to be found in these three books have to do with the individual qualities of the poets concerned, as seems to be the case with poets of every persuasion.

R. D. Fitzgerald is the most overtly and intransigently traditional of the three. All his poems rhyme, and the diction is either restrained and elevated or restrained and down-to-earth, but never rash, colloquial or fervid. His method is generally to take a common-place incident and, by manipulating the forceps of rhyme, to drag a timeless moral or philosophical lesson from it.

Many poems, by occasional syntactical or rhythmic awkwardness, show the strain of keeping up the rhyme scheme and regular metre. I confess to a temperamental dislike of excessive rigidity in poetic form, though one can hardly expect a man who has spent a long life as a quantity surveyor to run amok across the boundaries of verse.

Within the territory he has mapped out for himself, Fitzgerald has surveyed some interesting and important areas of human experience. At his best — that is, when the formal elements of his verse fit easily to what he has to say — his insights and conclusions have an unusual authority.

The most striking and effective poems in his book are the sonnet ‘Deep within Man’ and the longer poem ‘Verse for a Friend’. They are both against the war in Vietnam, and speak of a firm and deeply-felt commitment. The latter poem, after ‘paying full tribute to brave men ... and to that duty- and-discipline’ that make up the virtues of an army, goes on to conclude

Though theirs are virtues to admire,
here you and I and conscience meet.
Elsewhere the village is afire;
women are screaming in the street.

The blend of civility, passion and bluntness is worthy of Auden at his best.

Another pleasing example of what rhyme, alliteration, assonance and the whole bag of poetic tricks can do for a poem is the light hearted ‘Currencies’. The first verse goes:

Being for this moment happily out of the ditch
of debt and the mud of troubles and, to be strictly fair,
always, for a rhymer, comparatively rich,
a shilling in my pocket makes me a millionaire.

Though I didn’t like much else in this book, I feel these three poems are fully worth the purchase price.

Les A. Murray’s Ethnic Radio is his sixth book of poems, and follows on from his Selected Poems: The Vernacular Republic, published a year ago. I was surprised to find nine poems from his Selected Poems reprinted in this new book; they have been available for more than a year, and in a cheaper format at that.

It seems that Les Murray is determined to resist change. The themes in his new book are not much different from those he was dealing with 12 years ago — the bush, farming folk, Anzac, his Celtic heritage, his university adolescence. Some politics and a little religion are added here and there, and a piece of Australian history, and a note from a foreign poetry conference.

The book contains a number of long and ambitious poems. ‘Immigrant Voyage’ is about migrants leaving war-torn Europe for a new and difficult life in Australia. It has some interesting moments, but is too reminiscent of Peter Skrzynecki’s predictable gestures in the same direction for my taste. ‘The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle’ is 10 pages of free verse reputedly in an aboriginal metre, and is a pleasantly rambling celebration of the joys of life to be found in a region of the NSW north coast.

Like Kenneth Slessor, Murray has the ability to capture an image in a memorable phrase. His diction is firm, capable and wide-ranging, though it sometimes stumbles on its own orotundity. His chief virtues lie in his technical skills, and this makes an academic appraisal of his verse a bracing and pleasant exercise.

More important are his faults, which lie on a deeper and more widely relevant plane. ‘Black men and Rosenberg and I/ Have beliefs in common, I exclaimed...’ he says at one point; this blend of ingenuousness and crassness appears throughout his work, and there seems no prospect of its diminishing. In one poem he tells us confidently that he will meet his friends in Heaven, and, directly addressing Christ, says ‘it will amuse you to hear our discussions then...’ As Andy Warhol used to say: Oh, really?

Though Murray seems content to stick in the various ruts he has worn for himself, he is clearly one of the more talented of the radical conservative poets we have produced. The close of ‘Rainwater Tank’ shows him at his unequalled best:

Pencil-grey and stacked like shillings
out of a banker’s paper roll
stands the tank, roof-water drinker.
The downpipe stares drought into it.
Briefly the kitchen tap turns on
then off. But the tank says Debit, Debit.

David Campbell is a much harder poet to pin down. His style varies almost from poem to poem. There is the pure Lehmannese of ‘Rainforest: Tambourine’, where a poem is made up of quotes from a guide-book stuck to a few heavy-handed metaphors. Then there are his versions of Sappho, a mixture of middle-aged gossip (‘What a delightful catch Doricha / Has made — a love-match, and for the second time...’), purple Pre-Raphaelite prose (‘the love of a slim young man ... / Who comes from Heaven and throws off his violet clothes...’), an echo of Pound (‘Dead, you will be forgotten who never tended / The rare Pierian rose...’) and various plain though vivid images.

His best effects seem to derive from a contemporary version of Imagism:

Like rinsed words
Wet and coloured
On a white page.

Elsewhere, a cosmopolitanism of emotion colours his versions of paintings, cities and beautiful women.

The most dramatic achievement in his book is a sequence of seven rhymed sonnets, ‘Visions of Life and Death’, about the tangled and highly-coloured affairs of a family rich in Australian history. The characters in Campbell’s tale speak with a distinct individuality, and the quietly observing author allows them full play to speak for themselves. The contrast with Les Murray’s characters, who are often little more than mouthpieces for the poet, is instructive.

The long love poem ‘Portrait of a Lady’ is different again: free verse in form, it owes a lot to Pound, Provencal and Chinese poetry. The blend of passion and contemplation is nicely handled, and the tone manages to evoke poetry from the everyday without self-consciousness. It is this mature ease of statement that is, to me, Campbell’s most attractive quality.

Yet, while the reader will find the author’s personality strongly presented in many poems in the book, it is difficult to find that crucial focal point where style, personality and poetic purpose meet and fuse. A strong drive is something that Campbell often lacks; though the success of many of these poems points to an alternative methodology, and one I find attractive and dubious at the same time: that of subordinating the poem’s energy to the claims of the subject-matter. Unlike Fitzgerald and Murray, Campbell presents not the viewpoint, but the view itself.

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