The Quaker graveyard in Carlton:
by Chris Wallace-Crabbe
I want to talk about the way in which the modes and manners of American poetry struck us — and they very distinctively did — in the course of the 1950s. I shall both speak for my own reactions at the time and try to indicate ways in which my reactions resembled those of other poets, other readers even, of my generation. Our sense of British poetry came first, however — inevitably.
It is a truism that any new, or post-colonial, culture has an ambiguous, shifting, even neurotic set of attitudes towards its parent culture. Australian writers and readers have long been in this situation with regard to English literature. It was to define such a syndrome that A.A. Phillips coined his unforgettable term, ‘the cultural cringe’ and Geoffrey Serle added ‘the cultural strut’, thus filling out the manic-depressive cycle into which Australians have so frequently fallen.
By the same token, any writer has mixed responses when he looks back on his predecessors and forebears. On the one hand they are the figures who by their example made his existence, his activities, possible; on the other, they are the burdens or stumbling-blocks who prevent him from being himself. Their ancestral voices sound through his own, even when he would be most particularly himself. As Marx said, recognizing the force of such anguish in himself, ‘Past generations lie like an incubus upon the living’, and all literary exemplars play a role for us which is at first enabling and, later, stifling. When their authority is further derived from their having belonged to a parent culture, their pressure upon us is redoubled. The creative spirit hankers to rebel.
We can find in the writings of Freud grass-root descriptions of such a process of maturation as this, since the obvious connection is with the
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The Quaker graveyard in Carlton
way a child develops: his or her profound ambivalence towards the towering figures of the parents. In a little essay of 1908 called ‘Family Romances’, Freud writes:
For those of us who were beginning to write poetry in the 1950s the situation had a number of distinctive features. It goes without saying that the literature we had been taught at school, university or teachers’ college was English literature. T.S. Eliot, as he would dearly have wished, was thoroughly assimilated into English poetry: it was only well after graduating that I realized how many of his early poems are essentially about Boston life, rather than the London we firmly located him in. Ezra Pound, who fascinated me almost from the start, did not seem American either; he seemed rather to belong to Europe, the cosmopolitan world of Modigliani and Stravinsky, Valéry and Gide.
The copyright agreements which covered book distribution affected our reading habits in ways that are unimaginable today. Since the American copyright imperium was entirely separate from that of the British Commonwealth (with the partial exception of Canada), American books were only available in Australia if they had been published, or republished, by British houses. Then, as now, a few
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bookshops broke the prevailing rules, but all this meant was access to a few Meridian, Harvest or Galaxy paperbacks. More importantly, it meant that American poetry was filtered through to us by the taste and judgement of English editors. Faber was king, of course, and its imprint made Stevens, Marianne Moore and the young Robert Lowell available to us. A few other firms played their part also, Eyre and Spottiswoode for instance with the Southern Agrarians. But our sense of American poetry remained limited and selective.
So, indeed, did our sense of America. In those high, polar years of the Cold War, many of us reacted to its encampments with a sense of‘a plague on both your houses’. America was, for us, the land of Gresham’s Law capitalism, where trash was free to drive out quality, the all-powerful source of comics, hit parade songs (not until the Beatles did pop music become acceptable) and the corny, flavourless movies of MGM and Paramount. The phrase, ‘Coca Cola culture’, which appeared in a Meanjin article, described something which most of us recognized. Grudgingly, we generally conceded that the models of high culture and intellectual endeavour were derived from England, or at least from Europe. The socialist principles which, more or less diluted, a great many of us held played no small part in this instinctive preference.
Into this sort of climate came, not only the books of those few individual poets I have mentioned, but also Geoffrey Moore’s The Penguin Book of Modern American Verse.
It has often struck me that, with rare exceptions, critics have had almost nothing to say about the physical format in which poems are encountered for the first time. For example, I do not know how anyone can get the same kind of pleasure from a roneoed poem as from one on good paper in a decent typeface. More specifically, one’s memory of a period is likely to be intimately bound up in particular books, certain physical and typographical objects in which the poems have a different aura than when we encounter them again elsewhere — even if it be in a well-printed anthology. Certain books, then, yield up my sense of reading in the 1950s: a slim Faber crown octavo with blocky black type, containing a fine little selection of Pound’s poetry, and, in its matt purple and red dustjacket, Robert Lowell’s Poems 1938-1949, where I encountered for the first time that dense, astonishing monologue, ‘Falling Asleep over the Aeneid’. Similarly, the first edition of The Penguin Book of Modern American Verse has for me a recapitulatory power like Marcel’s tea-dunked madeleine: between its sombrely laurelled covers we first had access, we felt, to the poetry of the United States.
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Photo of Thoedore Roethke
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The Quaker graveyard in Carlton
As this and other collections became available from the early fifties on, young Australian poets could feel they were in touch with something which released them from their postures of filial ambiguity towards British poetry, and that of Australian forebears. It is still possible to recapture that first welcome shock of strangeness, that new access to habits, attitudes and voices which lay right outside our habits of learned response. This was a different distillation of the Modernist movement and its aftermath from any we had learned to make, and I now want to go on and analyze what it was that seemed so stimulating or diverting in such poetry. (Alex Craig has done something of this already in his admirably concise account of the period in his introduction to Twelve Poets, but I want to hunt the quarry further.)
Wise after the event, some commentators have suggested that one turned to American poetry for ways to be more open, democratic or committed. Except for the case of Bruce Dawe, whose creative impulses were strongly demotic for all the richnesses of his diction, I think the reverse was generally true. Australian and English poetry (think of ‘the Movement’ and its plain worsted verse) were at the time deeply committed to plainness and good sense. Looking outside the family circle, we hungered for something quite different, and in Geoffrey Moore’s very catholic anthology we found it.
Among the immediate attractions of this American poetry, then, was the fact that it seemed not merely exotic but even mandarin. Stevens, Marianne Moore, Ransom, both the Bishops, and others as well were zany, dandyish poets of an elevation that Australia had only known in Slessor and Lex Banning. An Australian reader knew nothing that resembled Robert Horan’s marvellous, Kafkaesque fable, ‘Suppose we kill a king’, let alone the consciously trendy decadence of H. Phelps Putnam’s ‘Hasbrouck and the Rose’:
And Smollet Smith the poet, and Ames was there.
After his thirteenth drink, the burning Smith,
Raising his fourteenth trembling in the air,
Said, ‘Drink with me,
Bill, drink up to the Rose.’
But Hasbrouck laughed like old men in a myth,
Inquiring, ‘Smollet, are you drunk? What rose?’
And Smollet said, ‘I drunk? It may be so;
Which comes from brooding on the flower,
the flower I mean toward which mad hour
by hour I travel brokenly; and I shall know,
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What use is it talking that way to you?
Hard-boiled, unbroken egg, what can you care
For the enfolded passion of the Rose?
Then Hasbrouck’s voice rang like an icy bell:
Do you know what it meant? Do I?
We do not know.
Unfolding pungent rose, the glowing bath
Of ecstasy and clear forgetfulness;
Closing and secret bud one might achieve
By long debauchery —
Except that I have eaten it, and so
There is no call for further lunacy.
In Springfield, Massachusetts, I devoured
The mystic, the improbable, the Rose.
For two nights and a day, rose and rosette,
And petal after petal and the heart,
I had my banquet by the beams
Of four electric stars which shone
Weakly into my room, for there,
Drowning their light and gleaming at my side,
Was the incarnate star
Whose body bore the stigma of the Rose.
And that is all I know about the flower;
I have eaten it — it has disappeared.
There is no Rose.’
‘Oh Jesus, Hasbrouck, am I drunk or dead?’
This poem is callow stuff, to be sure, a winsome example of what Yvor Winters used to call ‘reference to a non-existent plot’, but its aestheticism had connections with that of Horan’s poem or, more largely, with that of Stevens and Marianne Moore. The Americans showed a certain delight in the fact that they inhabited an Imaginary Museüm — as Andre Malraux called it — in which all the artefacts of past and present coexisted in their jumbled glass cases.
Archibald Macleish, often a boringly rhetorical poet, was also
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The Quaker graveyard in Carlton
represented by a lyric which struck home because of a kindred mandarin charm. This was the misleadingly named ‘You, Andrew Marvell’; the evocativeness of this has nothing to do with the Metaphysicals, being far more like the simple yearnings of Dowson and Symons represented in wry modern dress — the poem has no main verb and no real point of view. Here exoticism is all, as a few stanzas will demonstrate, jointed by their exigent conjunctions:
Dark empty and the withered grass
And through the twilight now the late
Few travellers in the westward pass
And Baghdad darken and the bridge
Across the silent river gone
And through Arabia the edge
Of evening widen and steal on
And deepen on Palmyra’s street
The wheel rut in the ruined stone
And Lebanon fade out and Crete
High through the clouds and overblown
And over Sicily the air
Still flashing with the landward gulls
And loom and slowly disappear
The sails above the shadowy hulls
And Spain go under and the shore
Of Africa the gilded sand …
More about these tones of voice and mannered stances later, when I return to the more demanding of these poets. Another kind of pleasing strangeness, however, lay in the striking regionalism of American poetry. Since Australian poets had developed very few regional characteristics — beyond overt reference to place — it was very puzzling to encounter poets who had no shared sense of a common reader, a broadly recognizable kind of audience. The homespun mid-western pieces from Masters’ Spoon River Anthology had nothing at all in common with the large Californian rhetoric of Robinson Jeffers or with
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the elegant South which Ransom, Tate and Penn Warren so lovingly and craftily reconstructed, linking it by sheer sleight of hand to the ironical complexities of the New Criticism. And were not all these three kinds quite alien to the New York humour of Delmore Schwartz? Schwartz could, occasionally, articulate a world which was to become much more a subject for fiction: the muddled, threatening world which surrounded and entangled the schlemiel. Only one poem really caught it, that unforgettably wry piece of dualism, ‘The heavy bear who goes with me’.
‘The heavy bear who goes with me’
‘the withness of the body’
A manifold honey to smear his face,
Clumsy and lumbering here and there,
The central ton of every place,
The hungry beating brutish one
In love with candy, anger, and sleep,
Crazy factotum, dishevelling all,
Climbs the building, kicks the football,
Boxes his brother in the hate-ridden city.
That heavy bear who sleeps with me,
Howls in his sleep for a world of sugar,
A sweetness intimate as the water’s clasp,
Howls in his sleep because the tight-rope
Trembles and shows the darkness beneath.
— The strutting show-off is terrified,
Dressed in his dress-suit, bulging his pants,
Trembles to think that his quivering meat
Must finally wince to nothing at all.
That inescapable animal walks with me,
Has followed me since the black womb held,
Moves where I move, distorting my gesture,
A caricature, a swollen shadow,
A stupid clown of the spirit’s motive,
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The Quaker graveyard in Carlton
The secret life of belly and bone,
Opaque, too near, my private, yet unknown,
Stretches to embrace the very dear
With whom I would walk without him near,
Would bare my heart and make me clear,
Stumbles, flounders, and strives to be fed
Dragging me with him in his mouthing care,
Amid the hundred million of his kind,
The scrimmage of appetite everywhere.
I should also mention the spark of sheer experimentalism in some poets. Cummings had already left his mark here and there. A laboured-at density could be felt to be part of the genuineness, the depth of both Lowell and Hart Crane, both of whom have had much influence in this country: first upon Francis Webb and latterly on many others. Crane’s ‘Voyages’ has struck many people, myself included, as a seminal poem, especially in its musical organization of syntax. By 1954 John Berryman, too, was experimenting with syntax in curious ways, which were about to give us that powerful tour de force, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet.
In retrospect I believe that the core of the attractiveness of this poetry lay in its solipsism; or, more strictly, in the American poets’ acceptance of the narcissistic self as the necessary core of their poetry. Where English poets like Auden, Robert Graves and the young Larkin were disposed to use tonal control as a means of keeping subjective assertion in harmony with social values, one found in Americans as different as Crane, Roethke and Lowell a poetic force [Note 3] a passion which declared its raw subjectivity. In Lowell it was, to be sure, entangled with the language of religious tradition and New England history, but his syncopated language was still the voice of the raw self flailing against the world’s restrictions: the cool novelistic tones of Life Studies still lay ahead of him; and, as we all know by now, the stabilized poise of Life Studies and Near the Ocean was not to be available to Lowell for long.
Roethke, whose Words for the Wind came from Secker and Warburg in 1957, was a poet of exceptional fascination to readers in the 1950s, even though, or because, his oeuvre was so narrowly idiosyncratic at root. Here was a poet who made the contemplation of simple natural objects become a strange music of psychic dislocation. Free of the
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common irony of the times, he could borrow the styles of other poets all unabashed: and not to create cultural perspectives at all. It was as though he had not noticed what he was doing, much as his poetry showed almost no sign of noticing the existence of other people — except for the missing father whose unavailability haunts ‘The Lost Son’:
Dark all the way,
Over slippery cinders
Through the long greenhouse.
The roses kept breathing in the dark.
They had many mouths to breathe with.
My knees made little winds underneath
Where the weeds slept.
There was always a single light
Swinging by the fire-pit,
Where the fireman pulled out roses,
The big roses, the big bloody clinkers.
Once I stayed all night.
The light in the morning came slowly over the white Snow.
There were many kinds of cool Air.
Scurry of warm over small plants.
Papa is coming!
In this astonishing work of psychomachia, the insulated and fragmented self was dramatically articulated. Freudianism was an enabling influence in Roethke, helping to liberate his plangent music, his vulnerability.
But Roethke was also, like many of his fellows, a poet of great
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The Quaker graveyard in Carlton
technical abilities. The same poet who wrote the unaffected greenhouse lyrics and the experimental ‘Lost Son’ invented a new kind of elevated love poetry in the end-stopped lines of‘I Knew a Woman’, and wrote the only good villanelle of a decade which was unaccountably given to that stupefying verse-form.
The solipsism that could be felt in Roethke and Crane was something more than the charming strangeness of the dandies. It was a kind of romantic liberation from worldly terms and scales of reference. It could be felt as a-social, unrepressed. And it could certainly produce intensities that were particularly attractive to young poets reading their work. This baffled, lyrical strength of feeling communicated itself strongly to a reader, even while it remained foreign to his normal imaginative priorities.
The time was still ahead in which the dandy and the solipsist would coalesce, becoming one in the frigid, evasive wit of John Ashbery.
I find my conclusion in Les Murray’s comment that ‘art is the intimate memory of nations’. Twenty years ago I was fascinated by modern American poetry, its various and scintillating performances. (I even remember being roundly scolded by Jim McAuley for my interest in a body of literature which he regarded as vacuously subjective and formalist.) By now I am chiefly struck by how strange, how completely American it remains: one returns in time to one’s own familial needs.