“In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
Bur for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”
That’s Auden. The picture is by my Mum.
Thanks to a wonderful high school English teacher, as soon as I saw that photo those words came into my head.
Well we’ve moved in to our brand spanking new renovator’s delight but the boxes are anything but unpacked. Not even the books. I’ve realised how out-of-character this is. The first thing I do when I move into a new rented house is position the bookshelves and start unpacking the books. I make up a new categorisation system every time. Well, that’s not technically correct. I use the same categorisation system (vague Dewey grouping with no real attempt at alphabetisation) but I position the books differently.
It has become more and more difficult to position things as the book collection has grown but the shelf space has not. I usually have an internal argument about which books should be in ‘public’ areas – like the loungeroom – and which books should be in the ‘private’ areas – like the study. I remember reading an article about Kim Beasley a long time ago that discussed this very argument: he had it with his wife. Kim felt that non-fiction and ‘serious’ books should be publicly displayed, his wife felt that fiction looked better to visitors. When I think about my parents’ reading habits I can see them having the same argument. Maybe it’s a gender thing. I don’t know. It’s obviously driven by how we conceive of our book collections and how we think others see us, in light of it.
I remember that article every time I unpack my books.
I’ve been swayed by aesthetic concerns in my recent unpacks, the ‘prettier’ categories of books get to go public. So art, with its big hardcovers and swanky dustjackets, gets to stay. My hardcover/dustjacketed fiction collection has grown in recent years so I usually pick out the best-looking books that I consider to be of quality (ahem) and they stay. Dodgy paperbacks are automatically relegated to private or backrow stacking (I double pack everything these days due to space restrictions) but if the book is Australian or I particularly love it, it goes into consideration for public/front row status.
In years gone by I would have put philosophy and cultural studies (aka teh theory) out there to be seen but the last few moves have seen me squirrel away my Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, Nietzsche et al. Why? I have no idea. Sudden shame? Boredom?
Lit Crit is sometimes public and sometimes private, depending on what I am working on, or pretending to work on. If I am really into it, it’s more than likely in the study because it’s practical. So if you ever come into my house and see it in the loungeroom you can guess that it won’t be at the front of my mind.
Groups of books that I see as being at odds with other groups – my collection of football books for example – get to go public because I feel I’m being honest in displaying them. It says: “yes, I am a literature girl but I love sport and hell, I know more about sport than most people and if I’m going to be honest with you, you have to know that not only have I read Nick Hornby (pfft) but I’ve read a plethora of rubbish books about English football, once bought a book about darts because of one page of stupendous description and place Football Against the Enemy and Muscle as two of my favourite books of all time”.
One section that I make no apologies for making brazenly public – and much to the disgust no doubt of Mr Beasley – is poetry, specifically Australian poetry. I just think it’s something that needs to be done to maintain good health, like eating weet-bix every morning from here to eternity, but with perhaps slightly more enjoyment. (And that’s not a slight on poetry, I happen to enjoy weet-bix).
Right now I’m sitting in a room with a bookshelf that has very few books on it. (We’re waiting until the floors are polished to unpack the books). There’s a few library books, a book borrowed from my mother that has been finished and is waiting to be delivered back up the road to her. There’s a Scrabble box, a bunch of recipe books, a tool kit and some newspapers, amongst a whole lot of other crap. I’m starting to really miss my books. (I went to the library at lunch today just to breathe the pages). If the floors aren’t polished soon I don’t know what I’ll do.
Further to yesterday’s post on the English poet in residence for the Ashes tour, the Sidelined mob have taken up the challenge and Rafe Champion has been appointed poet/blogger in residence for the Australians. He has committed to one poem for each day of each test, to match the expected output of English poet David Fine.
Gentlemen, take up your pens.
Visit the sport section of any second-hand bookshop and you will no doubt notice that crickket seems to inspire print like no other sport. Aside from the endless biogs and autobiogs, there’s the sheer weight of statistics in cricket that has spawned it’s own mini-genre within that of cricket writing. It’s a game for trainspotters.
Now you can add poetry to the mix. A poet in residence has been appointed for the upcoming Ashes series. David Fine will write a poem for each day of each of the five Tests.
Twenty-five poems – one for each day’s play of the five-Test series – will be published at the close of play on a dedicated website at ashespoetry.net. Fine, dressed in a T-shirt bearing the legend “I speak of bats, balls and wickets”, will be discussing poetry with the England team’s most fervent supporters – the Barmy Army – and writing a series of “poetical-anthropological” essays.
I can’t wait. No, really, I mean it!
The fact that we don’t like or haven’t understood a poem doesn’t mean, always, that it has failed. We may have failed the test it set us. This is rather awful when we have exams to face, but in the longer perspective of our life it doesn’t matter nearly as much. We are always free to come back to the poem later, when a degree of personal independence has been achieved and we can afford to be more receptive. A good poem is very much its own thing, and we need to be pretty much out own person to deal with that.
This was written by Les Murray in 1980 as a preface to a book about poetry for high school students. Some may argue that his point here would be lost on such students. But in other ways it allows those few students who may have actually read it, a reason to relax. A catalyst for actually forgetting about the HSC and really trying to ‘get’ the poem, free from constraints.
Of course, in the year or so that make up the HSC such relaxation to experience art is a rarity. There is an end point on which to focus, there are performances to consider, there are expectations, not least those of others, with which to deal and keep in check. There is a pressure to perform the right act, to write the perfect formulaic essay and reap the rewards, in the old days at least, during a heady couple of days in January.
the granite wastes,
“How evasive is your humour, how accidental
You kindest kiss, how permanent is death.
The more I think about it the more I believe high school is not the place to experience poetry and enjoy it.
Having said that, sometimes it is those very failures to pass those tests set by poems in high school that can make one’s subsequent years all the richer.
I sat the three unit English exam in the early 90s. At the time it was the highest level of English one could pursue at high school level. And I was fairing rather poorly. For a number of reasons, none of which I will go into here, I was not focussing on my work as I should.
…But the really reckless were fetched
By an older colder voice, the oceanic whisper:
“I am the solitude that asks and promises nothing;
That is how I will set you free. There is no love;
There are only various envies, all of them sad.
English was my one true love and I found myself fumbling about like a teenager in a car on a headland. I wanted it so badly but had no idea what to do. I just didn’t get it. At least, I wasn’t giving the required answers.
At this time we were studying Auden. We were all given poems to focus on and we had to run the class discussion for our alloted poem. The star of the class was given ‘In Praise of Limestone’. I was given the rather more simple ‘Moon Landing’. I immediately saw that my star status had waned. I was given something a little ‘easier’, perhaps because the teacher felt that he didn’t want to see me embarrassed. I don’t know. Perhaps he thought I just wasn’t up for this whole English gig.
As the year wore on it was clear that I was not going to do as well as expected in the exams. Those reasons, of which I will mention none, had got in the way and to be honest, I was more interested in feeling rather than thinking. Which is kind of unfortunate when you are doing your HSC. It has not been unfortunate though in my subsequent life.
In praise of limestone is one of those poems that has stuck with me through life. I return to it quite often, pour myself a glass of red, read it and take it all in. It’s almost an indulgence. But it also gives fabric to my very being.
My teacher in my final year said one thing (among a lot of others) that stuck with me. I was schooled in the country and my teacher was strangely campy and married to someone who would pass quite easily as a dyke should she decide to wander down King St. He was always going to say things that were ‘outlandish’. That didn’t fit with the rest of my environment. For which I will be eternally grateful. One day he said to the 8 students who were swotting away at their Carey, Lowell and Auden: whatever you are in life, just don’t be mediocre. Never give in to mediocrity.
Watch then , the band of rivals as the climb up and down
Their steep stone gennels in twos and threes, sometimes
Arm in arm, but never, thank god, in step;
I took this as: soar as high as you can, and when you fail, make sure you do it with style and with a bang. Make sure your failures are brought about by passion, not because you couldn’t give a toss. I feel Wystan Hugh would concur with this. Limestone says as much, for me.
I was just glad that I didn’t give up on poetry in high school. I didn’t GET it but there was a small germ of passion that was kindled in me by a decent teacher and some great art. That was enough. I think Murray’s words are wise. If you want the ‘everyperson’ to read poetry, or to engage with at least one poem in their life, you have to give them space. You have to give them poetry that speaks to them. Sometimes it’s the luck of the draw that an individual reads a certain poem at a certain time in their life and it all falls into place. It’s never too late to ‘get’ poetry.
…when I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.
This one goes out to my family (and those privileged enough to know about the only weak spot in my music collection): a teacher in Syracuse uses Billy Joel lyrics to teach her year 7 students about poetry (and no, it’s not a compare and contrast exercise).
This has just made my day. I wonder if they’ve done Scenes from an Italian Restaurant…