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Oz Arts Issue 12, September-December 1995

Stopping by woods on a sunny day...

Thor Svenson

'What makes poetry for me these days of fear is the faith a well made sentence brings about in the song of our being...'

Radio ABC in a noble gesture to bring culture to its listeners frequently programs rising poets reading their poetry. Lately I have switched to another station.

The reason for this is that while initially I was fascinated with the fairy floss intensity of emotional self-abuse and the vocal eccentricities of each poet, eventually I only yawned, aware that there was so much ado about nothing.

A display of traditional rules of poetry does not make a poet: ignorance of those rules, no matter how intense the emotion, seldom produces a poem. Auden said that we do not repeat history, but we do not leave it behind.

I write these thoughts to warn the reader of my motivation in visiting the home of Australian poet Robert Adamson. I was convinced that Adamson could be our finest contemporary poet. Why?

His credentials suggest as much: The Kenneth Slessor Award (a NSW literary award); The Turnbull-Fox-Phillips Poetry Prize (the National Book Council Banjo Awards); and the C.J. Dennis Prize for Poetry (the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards).

Because he had just completed an elegy to the late Brett Whiteley with whom he had a long friendship, I wondered if I would be allowed to read it. It had been entered in a national poetry competition which prohibits the poem's publication for several months.

'My lies are for you, take them
utterly, along with the truth we are
explorers for.'

Adamson lives with his third wife, Juno Gemes, in a modest home on a remote point of the NSW central coast. His father and grandfather also lived in the area. As a boy he briefly attended school at Neutral Bay, although more time was spent on the central coast staying with his grandfather, a fisherman. He has never travelled outside Australia.

Juno was born in Budapest, came as a child to Australia; a photographer, she is working with Robert on a book to include her black and white photographs with his poems.

'oyster-farmers who strive for an order of their own, gardening shells, bunching up smoked mullet, assorting old bleached branches along a ragged shore—'

Outside their home is a banksia bush at the edge of the National Park on one side, the glassy waters of the Hawkesbury on the other. Silence is only interrupted by gnarled oyster farmers, the occasional squabbling of their eleven cats or a chorus of bell birds, kookaburras, lorikeets and crimson rosellas, singing ballads, singing to the poet.

'I will catch you the delicate firetail finch, and for you feed her flames so you can see fireworks of love.'

Inside, sitting at his desk, the poet replies. Nested on the shelves of his study are countless books, most of them the collected songs of history's poets. Well-thumbed copies suggest a cosmopolitan familiarity with disparate members of his fraternity: Robert Lowell, Allen Ginsberg, Emily Dickinson, Robert Duncan, Hart Crane, Arthur Rimbaud, Garcia Lorca, Sylvia Plath, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, Stéphane Mallarmé, etc. etc.

Scattered about the floor are copies of New Poetry magazine, publications of Prism Books, Big Smoke Books and Paper Bark Press which Adamson has variously created, edited and published; also, his own publications which include Canticles on the Skin, The Rumour, Cross the Border, Where I Come From, Swamp Riddles, The Law at Heart's Desire, Selected Poems 1970-1989, The Clean Dark and Waving to Hart Crane.

'We enter the new century through glass, black oceans and black winds, thin fibre funnelling poetry out of existence.'

Often from life's dung heap comes a most beautiful flowering; from the briefest encounter with formal education (which could have suffocated him) and a most brutal exposure to bureaucracy Adamson has arrived. Too much has been written about his past days, too little about where he is now. A few finally blossom with what is given them; most of us achieve less.

'Touching earth again animals loosened fur, feathers, scales. Noah set about building this time a house.'

His first steps? To the country and western songs loved by an Irish father. Then a long apprenticeship not just of learning his craft well, but also of observing, questioning, and listening (that's what reading is) to those with the best questions. Writers for example, from Jack Kerouac to Samuel Beckett, from Sophocles to Shakespeare.

'The afternoon's last light has gone under now, a flying fox swims in through a star and the catfish are pecking the sting-ray's wing, the larrikin prawn bird starts to sing.'

Briefly we discussed Eliot's The Waste Land and agreed that it was unnecessarily pessimistic, that little joy could be found there. On a poetic Procrustean bed, under a grey English sky, Eliot's Bloomsbury view of life was often cynically myopic, whereas under an Australian sun, Adamson's lyricism is sometimes romantic as the clear waters of the Hawkesbury, sometimes as twisted but real as an angophora.

'He finds forked trees growing from jungles inside his brain
Trees that draw him further down feminine
Atmospheres, where intricately coloured birds float out singing
Where earth embraces and fills his being.'

'We are happy and lost in the meaningless sound of verbs and
toss them off like stones
let them skip out in a sentimental wash of ink
abstract and obscure
the way we like it, yet vague
reverberating with little edges of meaning
just enough to keep a child from wandering off
and yet, who knows what death means, what matters is pain
as you cross over the water.'

Writing in the Melbourne Herald, John Forbes praises Adamson as 'probably the best lyric poet in the country'. David Malouf in New Currents in Australian Writing says: 'Adamson takes successfully the sort of chances that lead to big events... poems that escape from the materialism of most Australian poetry into a world of positive belief, where the imagination is free.' Michael Wilding assessing the Collected Poems 1970-1989 writes: 'A powerful force and focus of poetic activity for twenty years... this new collection amply confirms his stature.'

'My generation gets older, one of our best painters is dead... Back in those days, a painted lyrebird would scream in his yellow head.'

Creon's Dream, his latest poem, an elegy to Whiteley, went through twenty drafts. Of it, he says: 'Two thousand years ago the dictator, Creon, said to Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus by his mother Jocasta, 'Go to the dead and love them'.' Speaking of Whiteley he believes, despite the artist's last depression, that Whiteley's death was accidental, that Whiteley's dark anguish of living never extinguished light from the burning bush by the edge of the path on which he walked.

Quotations are from Robert Adamson's poetry. Photographs are by the poet's wife, Juno Gemes.

This article reprinted from Oz Arts Issue 12, September-December 1995.
© Oz Arts magazine 1995