December 01, 1989

Realms of Gold

Filed under: Archive,Books


The Complete Book of Australian Verse
By John Clarke

Allen and Unwin/Haynes

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of this book. This collection, which has manifest itself as if from nowhere, will have its reverberation wherever Australian letters are seriously read. It is as if poetry, having lost its Elgin marbles, has now found them. Curricula will be overturned, existing library holdings called into question and, I fear, distinguished reputations will topple. Even in the few short weeks since The Complete Book of Australian Verse first appeared I am told that luminaries in the academic establishment have been sobbing into their mousepads.

Anthologist John Clarke, sometime Professor of Comparative Relevance at the University of Princeton and latterly Reader in Extremis at Melbourne University has, in the year following the Bicentenary, produced the results of what may be one of its most significant projects. He has collected previously unknown masterpieces by no less than thirty two hitherto unrecognised Australian poets.

Clarke, in his Introduction explains- “For many years it was assumed that poetry came from England. Research now clearly demonstrates, however, that a great many of the world’s most famous poets were actually Australians. Works by major writers have been discovered in various parts of Australia and published here for the first time. The collection aims to put on record the wealth of imagery and ideas in Australian verse.”

The task was not without its frustrations, as Clarke notes, some works have been tragically lost – “The great Neville Shelley of Eildon, for instance, survives only in the oral tradition (although Pommymandius can still be heard in pubs, no authentic MS exists). Ewen Coleridge, the so-called ‘Automatic Writer’, left nothing whatever and Stumpy Byron V.C. has not been included because much of his work was written in Greece and Italy. It is virtually impossible to find anything from Brian Browning or from ‘Shagger’ Tennyson, who refused point blank to write anything down.”

Undeterred, anthologist Clarke has brought to light some astonishing pieces – Bill Blake’s The Work of Harmony (“What the bellows ? What the blazes ?/ Is it truly thee Oh Lord/Whose alchemy transmutes the sward?” and Rabbi Burns’ To a Howard (“Wee, sleekit, cowerin, tim’rous beastie/I know thou’s probably doing thy bestie”)- these alone vindicate the publication. That any work still exists from “missing” poets such as Trevor Henry Leigh Hunt, Emmy-Lou Dickinson and Walter Burley Yeats is hard to believe, and since it is of such high calibre, I suspect that many scholars may uncharitably doubt its provenance.( At least one Yeats specialist has insisted to me privately that all of Walter Burley’s manuscripts were irretrievably lost to silverfish when the poet was living in a disused cannon turret in Devonport.) But these cadences from The Flashing Gyre are unmistakably W.B.-“I run with the old men, piping their song,/The moon-mad and troubled engaged in a reel/ The careless white hair of them streaming along,/As they dance in the tops of the trees.” There’ll be blood in the quarterlies for years over this stuff.

Contained here are poems that will undoubtedly become classics in the classroom -Pinko Brooke’s The Soldier for instance and more modernly, William Esther Williams’s The Carnival and Sylvia Blath’s Self Defence (although how Clarke got that one past executor, Ted Hews I can’t imagine.)

And the list goes on. W.H. Auding’s Muse of Bauxite, and works by Ogden Gnash, b.b. hummings, Stewie Smith, Larry Parkin’s Mr Peacock, and T.S. (Tabby Serious) Eliot – The Love Song of J. Arthur Perpend will be a definite hit, I can envisage it becoming a musical, whereas, Liquidity, the Accounting Cat , I suspect to have only very limited coterie appeal. Not so the muscular lines of Dylan Thompson’s pungent nostalgia in A Child’s Christmas in Warrnambool:
“One Christmas was so like another in those years around the sea town corner now, that I can never remember whether it was 106 degrees in 1953 or whether it was 103 degrees in 1956. All the Christmases roll into one down the wave-roaring salt-squinting years of yesterboy.”

Australian publishers Haynes/Allen and Unwin deserve commendation for this edition, handsomely set and bound with illustrations and decorations by the distinguished Jenny Coopes. This book will grace libraries and thoughtful homes alike. But that probably won’t stop detractors. There are rumours that many on study leave are returning post haste from as far away as Provence and Detroit.

Clarke’s decision to publish at this time is seen by some observers as a pre-emptive strike. It had been announced that an unnamed English university press planned to release a monograph including several reconstructions of jottings transcribed dyslexically from discarded blotters said to be used at the old Marrickville parish school which both Arnold Wordsworth and Warren Keats attended (the latter sporadically because of an allergy to school milk).These forensic efforts are made almost a nonsense by Clarke’s discovery of completed, mature works by these first order writers.

Mind you I have some reservations about some of the anthologist’s choices. Quibbles, of course, for who could deny the audacity and ‘rightness’, the sense of intuitive wit and good sense that Clarke displays. But I am perplexed that, even taking into consideration his more recent loss of prestige, there is nothing from Agfa ‘Thumper’ Pound whose Condos have been often seen as the repositories of modernism and there is even less excuse to ignore Walleye ‘Inky’ Stephens whose Saturday Arvo is a masterwork in the language. Perhaps Clarke will have a chance to remedy these oversights in subsequent editions.

However, one doesn’t want to end on a carping note. Suffice to say that this is a publication of moment and one that surely demonstrates, if indeed it needs demonstrating, that Australian poetry has come into its own and we have to hand it to John Clarke for that. This is a bold work and a controversial one and for that reason the editor will not always be thanked for his task. I overheard one expert in the field talking by phone to his lawyer some days ago – who, he was asking, does this joker Manning Clarke think he is anyway ?

“Realms of Gold” The Adelaide Review, No.70, December, 1989, p.26.

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