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An introduction to the Poetry of Peter Nicholson

By Peter Nicholson

 

© Peter Nicholson (5/10/97)

 


I
hope the following introduction to my poetry, along with some examples of my work, will help readers to see how my writing fits into the context of both contemporary and traditional poetic practice. I have used the following abbreviations – A Temporary Grace (1991) ATG, Such Sweet Thunder (1994) SST and A Dwelling Place (1997) ADP.

      My first writing was done during the last two years of high school; I hadn't shown any interest in literature before then. That writing was hardly poetry, more a poetic intention, but it was the base on which I built some technical ability. Then, at Armidale Teachers' College, I started to write a lot of work, most of it not very good, and began to read seriously for the first time. Previously, music had been more important to me than literature.

 

            Music

When thinking of the world, or tired, or excited
And taken with the moment,
Music brings detachment
To our bizarre involvements.
The subtlety of this dwarf planet's errors
Contracts to ample harmony, to water, wind and fire,
When life seems stale desire
And chaos the only factor to remember.
To hear the warp, the earth's emphatic surface,
Pressing from thick scores of black and white
Is passionate, past circumstance or time,
And breaks the barrier of the flesh's senses.
Music is geometry of space
Bending to our doubting minds the final, purest shapes.
                              ATG p43

      Poetic technique is always linked to an individual temperament and sensibility. I have never really warmed to any of the prevailing ideas about how poetry should be written. Theoretical analyses don't appeal to me either. When poets start theorising they usually produce propaganda or discourse that reins in the ironies and ambiguities of poetry. I've tried to employ a flexible metrical line that allows versatility and suppleness. You can listen to contemporary music to pick up the rhythms of the moment, but it is speech rhythms and idioms that will underpin your prosody and help to project its music. The important thing is to be open to new experiences so that you aren't, as Boulez would say, a person who is tired before he or she is born.

      Ithaca is your goal, but the songlines must be your own. I write when I'm moved by some deeply-felt response to life, whatever the subject matter. For me, and I imagine most poets, the word 'poetic' implies intensity and depth; there's no point in writing poetry unless you're trying to say something memorable. However, you've got to revise your work continually because, as Ern Malley's fake Lenin quote has it, "The emotions are not skilled workers!" My first drafts tend to come out too long and overwritten. Then there's the cutting back, the stitching up of the patient, getting rid of wrong tones, arranging the music of the poem so it has the right mixture of abrasion and flow.

      I'm an Australian, but I think we've allowed ourselves to be constrained for too long by narrow definitions of what 'Australian' means. For example, the Australian temperament, so often presented in a clichéd manner by the media, has enormous imaginative content, from the loneliness of the desert to the sensuality of bodies scorching on the beach with sharks waiting offshore. Many of the first white colonists hated Australia. They couldn't find poetry in searing blue skies or a handful of crushed gum leaves. Of course it's there and it's in our suburbs too.

 

Knowledge makes a map
Of every country bend or over-praised domain,
Perishing when readers
Mount the empire ironies
Of their indolence.

Beside the tournament of anchormen in London
Or New York bravos for the Met's last show
There's splendour in the brick veneer's fierce acres
And different beauty, difficult to prove,
Because it is removed from all the baggage

Heaped at capital corners where time
Strokes itself in ego-stretching cities.
The Pacific basin, brindling,
Has more than fauna waiting for the Nikon –
Much more exists than the NBC has captured.
                  from 'Late News' SST p31

      In many ways our painters, with their instinctive response to the landscape, have shown the way forward. They've led us to a more realistic and sophisticated view of ourselves which, together with an inherent cynicism, is a healthy attitude to have when it comes to politics or the arts. Perhaps Australia has finally thrown off the cultural cringe, but some still seem to fall beneath the imperialist juggernaut of whatever happens to be the latest cultural predilection overseas. Australia has suffered from a lot of literary protectionism – look at the hidebound poetics of Vision – but there's been just as much obeisance before modernism. For me it's Baudelaire, Dickinson and Whitman, in advance of Pound and Bunting, who constitute modernism's fountainhead. A preference for those earlier writers convinces some, mistakenly, that you are an antediluvian or that you don't appreciate the interpretative reach of post-modern aesthetics. There are certain legitimate demands that modernism or post-modernism can make, but complexity and obscurity for its own sake is pointless. This is not to deny the value of critical exegesis, but poetry should not rely on it in order to be comprehensible.

      Australian society now encompasses a broad range of multicultural perspectives. However, the distinctiveness of our landscape, iconography and language means that you still incorporate the rusting corrugated iron shed as well as the dialect of the tribe, laconic and sardonic as that may be.

 

            Songlines

Sing your corrugations,
Bellow rough music –
Your noise can't be lost
And that shimmering coast
Of paling teeth
Won't close in abeyance to dullness.

Sing still!
What eloquence brought
From sprocketed fields,
With slang that rusted to mumbles,
Will freshen to a wave,
An emerald, tropical stain.

Listen. Music of hot monoliths,
Songlines stretched through stone,
Artesian basins filling
Under the intent,
Words washed onto pages
Round a continent.
                              ADP p43

      Australian English has a mordantly descriptive slang and a relaxed way of putting things conversationally, characteristics that get into some of my work. I also utilise the sequence's improvisatory possibilities along with dramatic and lyrical expressive styles. Even though rhetoric invites certain dangers – the tendency to preach, portentousness, loss of rhythmic vitality – rhetorical usage is important to me. That's anathema to those who will quote Verlaine at you, convinced that overt rhetorical gestures will turn you into a reactionary Romantic, but then praise someone like Rendra, a writer whose work is rooted in rhetorical effects.

      With Australian poets it's the contribution, against terrible odds, of writers such as Neilson and Brennan that I respect most of all. Slessor and Webb are two later writers whose work means a great deal to me. Australia's own independent and combative literary tradition has led to the present range of Australian poetry, enhanced by influences ranging from the Acmeists to Williams and Ashbery. Some critics see the movement from the metrical restraint of that earlier generation of poets to the free verse of more recent writers as indicative of a movement from repression and conformism to liberation. That seems too reductive a response to a complex set of political and cultural changes. It's also reflective of the habit that's developed of pigeon-holing writers, denying them individuality, like Larkin being hauled over the coals for not being 'modern' enough.

      Poetry itself has to be useful to people, though not necessarily in an obvious way. Writers often get nervous when there's talk about their responsibilities. Whatever might be said against the strident nationalism and ersatz Aboriginality of the Jindyworobaks, they at least had this in common with European poets such as Rilke and Lorca – they believed in the social value of poetry. Ultimately, they believed that poetry mattered. There were none of the doubts about the function and value of literature, even of language, that some writers and critics have latterly espoused.

 

I guess I'll reach the end, then time
Will rinse its lacerating hands.
What was there to him? Who was that jerk?
The interim is all for all of us on Earth.
Keep on, the bloodline says. Write. That is your truth.
Why does it say that? Something that appals
With all the incivility of death,
Yet still past that finality such certainty and strength.
                        from 'Poet' ADP p33

      If you think about the role of samizdat in arousing and focusing political resistance you can see that as one of the twentieth century's most important poetic achievements. Still, quite a few writers agree with Wilde: "All art is quite useless". But we know that art can alter the way the mind thinks or the heart feels and, in the long term, shape broad-based cultural change. If you believe that, then the objective, self-contained poem as envisaged by Mallarmé, will probably strike you as a bankrupt medium with which to engage the dilemmas that now confront us. Having said that, it is important, knowing the past, not to overestimate art's capabilities. With all the magnificence of German culture behind it, and with Hitler's favourite composer warning the nation in performances of the Ring, cultural enlightenment obviously failed to prevent the rise of Fascism.

 

Douse that nation! Crop those children!
Aryan nation you're my elation,
Pure and true as youth is wise!
If the nearest you've got to this delicate issue
Is a cut finger dried with a desperate tissue,
Don't think you're au fait with the truths
Of old rigor mortis – one day you'll dive in,
Drink up, do laps in its festering soup
Before the lot stiffens and drags you beneath
In battlefields, hospitals or baths
Where time runs out and razors are preferred.
Still we must bathe for pleasuring, then
We'll search and kill, for we are sporting men.
            from 'Five Shakespeare Studies' ADP p90

      Artists have to be responsive to the poetic elements within popular culture. To give one instance: it now seems to me that Gaia, or however you want to symbolise the advent of a green consciousness, is demanding a defence of this planet, one element of which is a gathering in and a strengthening of all the resources of poetry. This imperative has been imposed because Chernobyl and the like haven't left any time for the assurances of the past.

 

Concrete buckles, peacocks flame,
And glitter of the world is tamed,
Apocalyptic vision splendid
Hung across the sky upended.
Pray for mercy unbeliever
And a quick death, mortal stranger,
As the splendour of the will
Wraps around each burning field.
Here's an ending not expected;
Pretty ones, the journey's ended.

So farewell, and may sleep follow
All the wounded on their pillow,
Centuries of rest enamour
Human kind in strictest glamour,
Dusty trace of human might
Circling this galactic night,
The music of the spheres unheard
By all except a silent world
Abandoned by its residents
In the name of politics,
Greed and indolence, pollution
And each short-term, cheap solution.
So goodnight, and may God bless
Another time with loveliness.

A swirl of ash curls into space
Then disappears without one trace
Left of all the human race.
                  from 'Apocalyptica' SST p101

      Surely poetry is enhanced by a sensibility that is open to all aspects of contemporary experience. Personally, an interest in and a knowledge of science is a prerequisite, although I think science alone presents too austere a view of the world. I don't see how an artist can endorse a purely scientific view of existence, as Hawking does. Art should give intuitive expression to all the variety and mystery that's inside us and out there in the universe.

 

      Now, Voyager
      Voyager II passes Neptune August, 1989

Here, near the edge of the heliopause,
All miracles look back at Earth:
From a methane atmosphere
To the warm technologies
Knowledge is desiring
Our enlightenment.
Life is larger than we guess
Mystery whispers at us.

Triton, maverick satellite,
Shows our difference in kind,
Our histories coloured in blood and rust,
The trip from Tyrannosaurus rex
to Mysteries of the Dinosaurs,
Millenia squashed to video chunks.
Time swarmed a set of planets
(One of them is blessed).

Giant, leap for all
Of personkind:
Pitchblende burnt on hands,
Eureka vaccines brought from mould –
Science strings our nerves
To golden, invisible rings.
Tracking stations haul it in,
Secrets gathering, like our sins.

Stretched from caves
Our chance is thrown
Like dice to this magnificence,
Principles renewed, melancholy cured,
The world a little better known
And its greatness understood.
Metal whirls to the stars
Whose destiny is loved.

Bleeping facts on monitors,
We are a happy planet –
Didn't the spacecraft find
Angels' wings on the solar edge?
We must be content with facts,
Our blue imaginations mustn't hedge their bets.
Time endures the slap of violet space
But as the signal weakens we come to further grace.

                              ADP pp.26-27

      Literature has usually advanced through the complementary absorption of, and reaction to, contrasting sensibilities. Think of Stevens and Frost misunderstanding each other's work. Yet they kept on writing according to their individual convictions and poetic vision. That's the way it should be. We need diversity, not the mentality of the police state. Despite the manifestos that proclaim brave new worlds, the separation of the avant-garde and derriére-garde is impossible. Culture remains free, waiting to accept what is offered. And if what is offered can engender a passionate response and give lasting pleasure, then that work will prevail, whether accompanied by the noise of proselytisers or the silence of Emily Dickinson's lonely room.

 

For once a passion that will last
Past what rusts and buckles,
There with Walt in double grandeur,
Mystery's odd couple.

Rushing to the sunlight's shards,
Toppling to greatness,
Adoration in your nerve
And the bandaged fierceness

We thought closer to our time –
Yours was purer, truer,
With those words that cauterise
The mouthline's wounded murmur.

There is a wonder wide enough
To fold all things within it,
Intoxication offered up
With a goodness granted:

Yours – by right of the burden given,
Yours – by the White Election,
Yours – though centuries steal away,
Yet ours, at the end, your perfection.
                        from 'Emily —' ADP p66

      We are living through one of the most extraordinary periods, but you'd never know to look at the doubts and hesitations of, say, Beckett's last poems. Whatever happened to Whitman's 'barbaric yawp'? If you look at those poems of Beckett you can see their sense of absence embodies the doubt that words can be trusted to convey meaning or truth. That's been a persistent idea in much twentieth-century literature and criticism. Yet it is the poet's duty to celebrate the gift of the word, not necessarily to give readers or critics what they want or have come to expect. Poets are supposed to celebrate life. And celebrate their feelings too. People live as much through their feelings as their ideas. When you put ideas above everything else you can end up believing in absurdities such as that humankind is insignificant or that the authorial self doesn't exist. In a period when we have been told not to look for referential meaning in poetry any longer and persuaded to regard art as value-free, it is up to each person to decide whether such suggestions are relevant or hall-of-mirrors preening above literary entrails. In the meantime, as poetry and its relationship to language continues to evolve, you must try to fulfil the freedom you've been given to write and the demands that art has placed before you.

      I would like to finish this brief introduction to my work with the poem 'Lustre' which I hope exemplifies the inclusiveness I have aimed at in my poetry. Of course I leave it to the reader to decide whether I have been successful in my aims.

 

Could all our various lustres meet
What a shining would result,
This pressure in the skull
That brought the magic mile
Where Mozart played
And Shakespeare was romanced.
But all will not be golden;
Cataracts can seize,
The bright pool fill with rubbish.

Through this there is a music
That can't be denied,
A frequency not halted,
Surpassing every stroke
That butchered in the shadow of the furnace,
A thing whose greatness bears
That magnitude which flows
Beyond our terminus,
A mind no tear has felt
Or haemorrhage yet blooded.

Each skin will come to know its own enigma,
After shoving in and out of oceans and bruised beds.
Whether in the surgery or when the Big Mac settles,
There's bound to be that time when silence roars
And you are feted with your own charisma.
Each precipice must be prepared to have the bronze poured in,
Hot metal poured in mouths, this O that sighs and suffers.
Branded here by circumstance; that's you becoming sculpture:
Passion stuck to every part,
Genetic slipstream setting,
Finally the metal's polished, ready for a viewing.
                        SST p81

© Peter Nicholson (5/10/97)

 


© October 1997. The above material is copyright. Except for passages quoted in a newspaper, magazine, radio or television program, or used in an educational institution, no part of this essay may be reproduced in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner. Students especially are reminded that plagiarism is a serious breach of ethical conduct (and your instructor probably also visits OzLit) so please acknowledge the source of your ideas even if you don’t actually quote the text.

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