2012 Auckland 1 Wednesday night

  University of Auckland

  “Short Takes on Long Poems”

  28-30 March, 2012
  JPR 08

Conference Poster


[»»] 2012: ‘The Longest Poem in the World’, on the beach at Waiheke Island in Auckland Bay. A story of a Conference held at the University of Auckland in 2012, in 6 parts. Wednesday evening: lots of short, fast poems:

5.30-7pm: LOUNGE #24 reading with Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Pam Brown, Martin Harrison, Dinah Hawken, David Howard, Jill Jones, Cilla McQueen, Jack Ross, Susan Schultz, Hazel Smith, Robert Sullivan and John Tranter. MC: Michele Leggott

Venue: Old Government House Lounge, Cnr Princes St and Waterloo Quadrant, Auckland Central (in University of Auckland grounds).

You can read detailed abstracts of all the papers delivered at this symposium


Part One: Lots of Short, Fast Poems

I left Sydney at dawn on Wednesday 28 March 2012 headed for New Zealand on an Emirates A380 Airbus, a massive double-decker plane that drives like an aircraft carrier full of warm mud.

Arrived in Auckland and booked in at the «Quadrant Hotel». The name is bound to remind Australian writers of «Quadrant» magazine, founded by poet James McAuley in 1956 as a bulwark against the menace of International Communism, and funded for many years by the CIA.

John Tranter, reading, photo by Pam Brown.

That evening I donned my disguise as an executive of the Hartford Fire and General Insurance Company, to wit, a fine wool summer-weight suit, and a subdued tartan tie; the tartan in honour of my mother’s Scottish-New-Zealand forebears — my mother had been born in Invercargill, a place in southern New Zealand satisfyingly colder than the Shetland islands, whence her maternal ancestry.

Whenever I travel to New Zealand (this was my third visit) I am reminded of a piece of graffiti I saw in Sydney more than twenty years ago. Some disappointed soul had written in large painted letters on a brick wall the legend “Australia Sucks”. Fair comment, I thought. A few weeks later I noticed that someone had added to the sign, in different coloured paint: “New Zealand, nil”. Wystan Curnow suggested that the line should have read “New Zealand, “Ten”, which I quite agree with.

Then again, perhaps you should have been there; that is, to hear the New Zealand pronunciation of “sucks” (hint: to an Australian, it sounds like the numeral that comes after “five”.) (or: “Ten”, a pale silvery metal often used to make cans.)

I took part in the ten-person poetry reading at Auckland’s Old Government House, a sedate and spacious venue in a park across the road from the hotel, in the University grounds. The readers were Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Pam Brown, Dinah Hawken, David Howard, Jill Jones, Cilia McQueen, Jack Ross, Susan Schultz, Hazel Smith, Robert Sullivan and John Tranter.

Olive. Photo John Tranter.

The MC was the capable and enthusiastic Michele Leggott. Her amiable Golden Retriever guide dog Olive seemed unimpressed by the vigorous verse, smiled from time to time, and dozed peacefully. Each reader had five minutes to impress, flatter, startle or otherwise enliven the audience. I read three poems, starting with a sonnet I had written on the plane to the symposium, flying over the Tasman Sea that separates the two countries, titled…

Tasman Sonnet
A, green, the tint of absinthe dripping through
a wad of lawn clippings – E,
chartreuse, colour that only monks can see –
I, cloudy violet with sparkling points of blue
or paler, the fresh paint sheen of a car –
when new, easy to buy – old, hard to sell.
O, orange, the sound of a tolling bell
travelling over town and factory, very far –

U, under clear water, underwear –
your flight spoiled by lots of crying babies
though all of Europe is reflected in your eyes.
You think you hear, as you brush your hair,
the howling of a kennel full of hounds with rabies.
A rainbow as you land; then a career surprise.

Then I read “After Hölderlin”, a poem loosely based on the German Romantic poet Friederich Hölderlin’s 1799 poem “When I was a Boy”:

After Hölderlin
When I was a young man, a drink
often rescued me from the factory floor
or the office routine. I dreamed
in the mottled shade in many a beer garden
among a kindness of bees and breezes,
my lunch hour lengthening.

As the flowers plucked and set in the little bottle
on the table still seem to hanker for the sun,
nodding in the slightest draft, so I
longed for a library loose with rare volumes
or a movie theatre’s satisfying gloom
where a little moon followed the usherette
up and down the blue carpeted stairs.

You characters caught up in your emotions
on the screen, how I wish you could know
how much I loved you; how I longed
to comfort the distraught heroine
or share a beer with the lonely hero.

I knew your anxieties, trapped
in a story that wouldn’t let you live;
I felt for you when you were thrown from the car
again and again; when the pilot
thought he was lost and alone,
I was speaking the language of the stars
above his tiny plane,

murmuring in the sleepy garden, growing up
among the complicated stories.
These dreams were my teachers
and I learned the language of love
among the light and shadow
in the arms of the gods.

Then I read a poem (an Onegin sonnet) that employed a rhyme for “winkle-pickers” that I had been looking to use for two decades. For those not knowledgeable in the field of domesticated grasses, “couch” is pronounced “cooch”, and, like fescue, is a widely used grass suitable for lawns:

The Love Song of J. Edgar Hoover
Punish me with jugs of honey
Tie me down with bramble twine,
Stuff my mouth with wads of money –
          Please be mine.

Kick me with your winklepickers,
Gag me with your crumpled knickers,
Make me lick your brutal shoe:
          Love me do.

Garnish me with couch and fescue,
Dress me in an acid dressing,
Telegram your roughest blessing,
Be my howling search and rescue –
When I’m lost and all alone
          Take me home.

John Tranter and Lisa Samuels, at a Chinese Restaurant in Auckland, after the poetry reading. Photo by Pam Brown.

The audience seemed to like it.

Later a sortie into downtown Auckland led by Selina Tusitala Marsh and a dozen poets and critics from all over the Pacific, and a dinner at a Chinese Cantonese restaurant with Lazy Susans at the tables, something I haven’t seen since I lived in Singapore in 1971. A cheerful and lively evening, then to bed for an early night and lots of jet lag.

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