Talking Underwater: How to Finesse the Prize

Mark Tredinnick’s poem “Walking Underwater” recently won the inaugural Montreal International Poetry Prize.

Mark Tredinnick 2011
Meditative ... Mark Tredinnick was inspired by Oregon's landscape. Photo: Steven Siewert, courtesy the Sydney Morning Herald, 2011-12-19. It’s not often you see a poet hugged by a brace of trees.

I was fortunate to share the podium with him in Perth, Western Australia, earlier in 2011. He read poems about spirituality and the Australian bush landscape with great intensity, and at some length.

Talking about the Montreal Prize, Tredinnick told the «Sydney Morning Herald»: “I didn’t know about the competition when I had the experiences and thoughts that led to the poem. I finished the poem in the [United] States and finessed it for the prize. I put in eight and had five longlisted. I’m not even sure I thought it was my best poem.”

A writer I know suggested that an early draft of the poem “Walking Underwater” was titled “Talking Underwater.” People can be unkind, can’t they?

I’m glad to see a fellow-Australian win a lucrative Canadian prize: those Canadians have too much money anyway, pouring into their coffers from those shale-oil mines that are helping to destroy the planet.

The poet talked about his poem for the «Sydney Morning Herald»: “It is a walking meditation on dispossession and the holiness of the affection the earth, in its power and humour and maddening self-possession, seems even yet to hold for us all,” he said, according to the newspaper.

“Horses in the Waves”
“Horses in the Waves”, copyright the artist Jim Warren, at

His work is very popular – the poetry, that is, not so much the frank discussion about how to finesse the winning of the prize – and somehow his more muscular poems remind me of those paintings you see for sale from time to time, which are also very popular: a troop of horses gambolling in the dawn surf, the sun shining like inspiration through the water.

And in his more sombre moods, the poems remind me of those touching paintings – also very popular – of sad large-eyed waifs, often Gypsy, Mexican or Filipino, for some reason.

Crying Gypsie Boy
Crying Gypsie Boy

I hope the popularity of those paintings doesn’t have any racist underpinnings. Perhaps it’s just a colonialist thing, the pity of the happy conquerors for the unhappy conquered. But that’s not a very comforting thought, either. Oh well. This one is called “Crying Gypsie Boy” (sic).

Strangely, in their overt – not to say pushy – spirituality, they are quite unlike the painting I am reminded of by the exotic writing from an earlier generation of Australian poets. Funny how things grow more modern every decade, isn’t it? Kenneth Slessor’s chinoiserie poems from the 1930s sometimes remind me of the 1950s painting by the South African painter Vladimir Tretchikoff, of a Eurasian woman with a greenish-blue face. You used to see prints of this painting in coffee lounges and bachelor pads in the sixties. It can be seen hanging in the living room of Bob Rusk, the crazed killer in the Alfred Hitchcock film «Frenzy» (1972). I should like to think that Mr Hitchcock was not suggesting that the cold, sultry and commanding stare of the model had anything to do with Mr Rusk’s psychological problems and their unfortunate homicidal reifications.

Tretchikoff - Chinese Girl
Tretchikoff - Chinese Girl

From Slessor’s poem “Marco Polo”:

    In silence dreamed the splendid Khan.
    Green china bowls of wine were there,
    And oranges and milk-of-mare,
    While, stamping on his jewelled wrist,
    A falcon climbed with eyes aflare.

You don’t come across “milk-of-mare” much any more. The local store certainly doesn’t stock it. In fact I think there are health regulations against selling it, which is perhaps why it has gone out of fashion.

When I was a kid growing up on a farm we milked cows, not horses, and I remember that there was a degree of concern among us dairy-farming folk about people catching brucellosis from unsterilised milk, which I used to think was a disease originally spread by a person called Bruce. In fact it was established as a disease by a public-spirited person called Bruce (first clearly identified in 1887 by Dr. David Bruce), which is quite different.

But those horses in the waves don’t care: they are wild and free, and drink all the milk-of-mare they like.

5 Replies to “Talking Underwater: How to Finesse the Prize”

  1. Kim Novak: “Think what trees have witnessed, what history, such as living through the Civil War, yet they still survive. I’ve always felt that part of why they survive is because they don’t try to intercede, to advise ‘No, that’s the wrong way,’ or to try and wipe out an army. They stood and observed.”

  2. Thanks, Melissa. From the definitions below, I like “the minimum outlay of time, energy, or both”. Perhaps “Adroitness” means almost the same thing. Then there’s “nifty”. Wasn’t NSW Premier Neville Wran known popularly as “Nifty Nev”?

    Finesse (disambiguation) (From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)
    Finesse is a technique in the card game of contract bridge
    Finesse may also refer to:
    General usage
    Skill, the learned capacity to carry out pre-determined results with the minimum outlay of time, energy, or both
    Adroitness (personality trait), ability to handle a difficult or highly sensitive situation.

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