Category Archives: poetry

BOB DYLAN – NOBEL LAUREATE

The choice of Nobel laureates for literature falls into three main categories:

  1. justly deserved;
  2. surely there were others more deserving, and
  3. incomprehensible and/or bizarre.

Glancing down the list from 2016 back to the first winner, Sully Prudhomme from France – a writer who has certainly not withstood the weathering of time – I would include In the first category: Doris Lessing (2007), J.M. Coetzee (2003) Szymborska (1996), Derek Walcott (1992), Nadine Gordimer (1991) Joseph Brodsky (1987), Milosz (1980), Saul Bellow (1976), Patrick White (1973), Neruda (1971), Pasternak (1958), T.S. Eliot (1948), Thomas Mann (1929), Yeats (1923), to name just a few. Indeed, the Nobel Committee gets it right, or close to right, surprisingly often.

Taste is a major factor in the second category. I am not drawn to the work of Hemingway (1954), Alice Munro (2013) and V.S. Naipaul (2001) but many readers are. As for the third category, Pearl Buck has become representative of those who were chosen to the astonishment of all but the committee. But she is far from being alone in this third group.

Many of the winning writers have been politically active both on the page and off. Alfred Nobel stated that the prize would be given to an author who has produced ‘in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction’ (emphasis added). This requirement might help explain that small group of winners like Winston Churchill (1953), Bertrand Russell (1950) and possibly Jean-Paul Sartre (1964) who actually declined the prize, writers who warrant praise for so much of their work, but not, it seems to me, for any literature that flowed from their pen. Winners like Churchill and Russell have excited heated controversy. Indeed, over the 100+ years of the prize controversy has been a major player. And no more so with the choice of Bob Dylan for the 2016 Laureate.

I think Dylan is an inspired choice.

By anyone’s estimation I would be considered a serious reader. Many of the Nobel winners figure among my favourites: Mann, Eliot, Yeats, Russell (yes, although I would not have given him the prize), Camus, Gide, Neruda, Patrick White, Eugenio Montale, Saul Bellow, the utterly essential Milosz, Joseph Brodsky, Gordimer, Szymborska, Coetzee, Doris Lessing. I’ve read Proust, my comfort reading is Jane Austen, I belong to a small group that discusses a different Shakespeare play every month. I read widely in contemporary fiction, and I always have a volume of non-fiction and another of poetry on the go. People have been surprised that a serious literary person like me would celebrate the awarding of the world’s premier literary prize to a singer-songwriter.

Dylan is not a great poet and he’s not the greatest lyricist who ever lived – of the moderns that prize might possibly go to Col Porter – but I do think he was deserving of the Nobel.

The selection committee chose Dylan ‘for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.’ This is a restrained, vague even coy citation, I’m not even sure I know what it means. ‘New poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’ is ambiguous, and one of the interpretations is a contradiction. But leaving that aside, I think the Committee’s citation is off the mark.

Dylan was the voice of a generation. Even more than this, he provided the words to a generation wanting to break with tradition, with the past, with political leaders, with parents. This was a generation growing to adulthood under the threat of nuclear destruction, in a world where the separation between rich and poor was widening, where unions (at least in the USA) were weakening, and workers were being squeezed. Dylan burst on the scene in the 1960s and for the next decade or two his songs expressed what the alienated youth of the time were feeling. He was anti-war and anti-nuclear weapons, he protested injustice, he sang for the worker, the immigrant and the poor.

Dylan’s songs were anthems for the time. ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’ (1963-4), ‘Masters of War’ (1963), ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ (1962), ‘I Am a Lonesome Hobo’ (1968), ‘I Pity the Poor Immigrant’ (1968). Dylan expressed uncomfortable truths, and he gave direction for those who no longer trusted the old leaders.

As a teenager I would sit around with friends and we would sing Dylan songs. This was not an occasional happening. Most weeks, a group of kids would descend on our house, and accompanied by guitars and bongos and occasionally the piano we would sing – folk songs, Pete Seeger, what were known in those days as Negro Spirituals (I don’t know what the politically correct term is these days), Peter Paul and Mary (who often sang Dylan), and the master himself.

Dylan’s songs introduced us to people, places, politics and events far beyond suburban, middle-class Melbourne. And they taught us not to take things on faith or trust. They taught us to question authority, tradition and traditional institutions like the church, the family, the military.

And Dylan’s songs also taught about love – not in a gauzy, dewy-eyed way like most of the offerings on the Top 40, but honestly. A half a century on ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’ remains one of the most brutally honest songs about love.

You say you’re lookin’ for someone
Never weak but always strong
To protect you an’ defend you
Whether you are right or wrong
Someone to open each and every door
But it ain’t me, babe
No, no,. no, it ain’t me, babe
It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for babe

(It Ain’t Me, Babe, 1964)

Some have criticised the choice of Dylan because, they say, the lyrics cannot be separated from the music. But they can, they have a different effect, a different power when read as poetry rather than song lyrics with the music playing in your mind. The best analogy is reading a Shakespeare play as against seeing it performed. No one suggests that the plays of Shakespeare are any less worthy on the page rather than the stage. And I think the same goes for Dylan.

Others have criticised the choice of Dylan, not because he is a songwriter, but rather he was the wrong songwriter to receive the prize. These people say that Leonard Cohen should have been the candidate.

I am a lifelong fan of the work of both Cohen and Dylan, but for the politics and the history, for the courage and uncompromising gaze, for the breadth of material Dylan is my choice. This is not to suggest that all his lyrics are breathtakingly good, there are some that are shoddy and banal. But as Somerset Maugham wisely noted: only the mediocre man is always at his best.

And there are those who insist that song-writing is not poetry, in the same way that in the early days of film there were those who insisted that film was not legitimate performance like theatre. There are poets who find their calling through pop songs – Dorothy Porter was one such poet – who see the modern song-writer within the context of poetry’s fluid boundaries. The conjoining of music and poetry is an ancient coupling, witness the minstrels of old wandering from village to village in days long gone.

Are there other writers more deserving of the prize? My reading is very much in the European and English-speaking traditions, so I can’t speak for African and Asian writers. I hope one day the Polish-American poet Adam Zagajewski gets a gong; I think it was inexcusable that the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai (died 2001) was never selected. But in the choice of Bob Dylan for the 2016 Nobel Laureate for Literature, I am surprised that the committee was willing to take such a risk, but very pleased they did.

LETTERS (again)

Personal letters are private. Written by one individual to another, they are composed in private and intended to be read in private.

There are few other human-to-human activities that can claim this level of privacy. Sex perhaps. And good conversation, by which I mean those passionate, exploratory, discursive exchanges that occur over many hours, during which mind and language are exercised to a magnificent degree; where the conversation is a journey, a magical mystery tour, in which the stopping-off posts and the end points are adventures to be discovered.

I have fallen in love during hours of close conversation. (As has often been noted, the brain is the sexiest human organ.)

I am currently reading Ted Hughes’s letters, selected and edited by Christopher Reid. Hughes had some fine correspondents, family of course, as well as many writers and artists; and poets, too, such as W.S. Merwin, Daniel Weissbort, Al Alvarez, and Yehuda Amichai (one of Hughes’s favourite poets – mine too). Often in reading Hughes’s letters I am pulled up short by some seriously intoned astrological aside (not sharing his beliefs, I find some of them laughable), some acutely observed aspect of nature, some superbly expressed outrage. Here he is on a particular critic who had given a bad review of a friend’s work.

Davie [the critic] is a kind of parasite in the crutch & armpits of poetry very common in the States – a strident proclaimer of the latest O.K. notions all sure to be found in a pitiful form in his own latest verse. He’s a grotesquely shrunken silly imitator of Pound, forty years after the phenomenon. He’s the old receptacle of every other critic’s – particularly the American battalion – dud cartridges & empty cases & he’s trying to fit them all together, not dropping one, into a semblance of armament….He’s the mincy mean know-all kind of little office snot – a standard English type – gone into Literature, & in the branch of poetry his own practice is about the measure of his understanding – all creak & no cart. (Letter to the poet John Montague, 1961)

I am reading the letters from 1960, 1961 and 1962. I know Plath’s death occurs in February 1963, but Ted Hughes does not know what’s up ahead. As the terrible time draws closer, I read his letters and I feel for him. Feel for , not her. I read past her death to a letter to Sylvia’s mother, Aurelia Plath, written three months after Sylvia’s death. It is several thousand words long. In this letter Hughes reveals the profound loss he feels – the Plath-Hughes love was a great and difficult one – he also writes about guilt and regret, and he writes at length about his two young children. Always clear and forthright, he states what they need and don’t need – particularly from their grandmother – at this vulnerable time. (Hughes’s relationship with his mother-in-law was never easy. After Sylvia’s death, Aurelia Plath wanted the two children to live with her in America. In this plan, Ted Hughes’s maternal aunt, Hilda Farrer, would look after them. Hilda would have none of it. Nor, of course, would Ted.)

I am reading the letters from 1960, 1961 and 1962. I know Plath’s death occurs in February 1963, but Ted Hughes does not know what’s up ahead. As the terrible time draws closer, I read his letters and I feel for him. Feel for him, not her. I read past her death to a letter to Sylvia’s mother, Aurelia Plath, written three months after Sylvia’s death. It is several thousand words long. In this letter Hughes reveals the profound loss he feels – the Plath-Hughes love was a great and difficult one – he also writes about guilt and regret, and he writes at length about his two young children. Always clear and forthright, he states what they need and don’t need – particularly from their grandmother – at this vulnerable time. (Hughes’s relationship with his mother-in-law was never easy. After Sylvia’s death, Aurelia Plath wanted the two children to live with her in America. In this plan, Ted Hughes’s maternal aunt, Hilda Farrer, would look after them. Hilda would have none of it. Nor, of course, would Ted.)

I read this long letter a second time and wish, yes wish, this letter had been public when Robin Morgan wrote her accusation in Monster (1972) and we feminists raised our fists and fury against Ted Hughes, blaming him for Sylvia Plath’s suicide.

I felt ashamed and sorry when, more than 30 years after the publication of Monster, I read Hughes’s Birthday Letters, those brilliant poems of yearning and perplexity about his courtship and marriage to Sylvia and the terrible impact of her death. At twenty I had no idea how ignorant I was. The certainties and righteousness of youth can be so brutal.

But I digress, this article is not about Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, it is about letters. When published letters are by famous people you, the reader, already know the context, you know the life and the work. You are in possession of the basic narrative, a sort of connective tissue which cushions the letters and holds them together. So when Ted Hughes asks a publisher to consider a collection of poems by a poet called, David Wevill in December 1962, but expressly asks that under no circumstances should his, Hughes’s intervention be mentioned, the reader knows why. Some months earlier, Hughes and Wevill’s wife Assia had begun an affair. We know that two months after the letter was written Sylvia will kill herself, we know that Ted Hughes’s second wife will be Assia Wevill. (I find myself wanting to warn Ted.)

None of this sort of background narrative exists when letters have been written by an unknown person in an ordinary context. (An extraordinary context would be letters written by a foot soldier from the trenches in the Great War – we may not know the individual soldier, but we do know the circumstances in which he finds himself.) When it comes to an ordinary personal letter, any reader who is not the intended recipient or a confidante of the recipient is reliant on the letter itself to supply a cushioning narrative, together with the products of their own imagination. The letters of ordinary people in ordinary circumstances, letters that relate loves or losses or illness or travels or local happenings or desires or disappointments provide huge imaginative space for any unrelated reader.

Sylvie Morrow, the character in my new novel, The Science of Departures, who collects letters, is trying to understand the appeal of these private communications that are not intended for her, but speak to her in an utterly irresistible way. The man in the novel who becomes her lover gives her a stack of epistolary novels, including Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, generally considered to be the first of the modern epistolary novels. He gives her Bellow’s Herzog, Anne Stevenson’s Correspondences, a verse novel in letters (and yes, she is the same Anne Stevenson who wrote Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath). He also gives her Dracula.

Like Sylvie I have struggled through Pamela and struggled part way through the Richardson’s 1500 page door-stopper Clarissa (many have started, few have finished). Indeed, I have read quite a number of epistolary novels in recent times. The problem, it seems to me, of the epistolary form is that the necessity of carrying the narrative actually bleeds the letters of their sense of privacy and intimacy, of being intended for just one person. Indeed, in many of the letters in epistolary novels one gains no sense of the recipient whatsoever, and not much of the writer either – the ‘I’ of the writer being too often crushed under the narrator function. In short, often epistolary novels do not read like letters at all, rather they are like any first-person narrative – replete with all the pitfalls of that particular point of view.

I’m yet to be convinced that the epistolary novel can be true to the qualities of letters AND the requirements of a novel.

How very different is the journal novel, of which Dracula reigns supreme. I read Bram Stoker’s novel for the very first time only recently. It is a gripper. The story is told through the journal entries of three main characters, with the addition of a few letters and some diary entries. The work is masterfully structured so it reads like a continuous narrative with changing character point of view. I could not put it down.

__________________

My character, Sylvie, reads the epistolary novels given to her by her lover. She decides that what she gets from her letter collection is quite different – and preferable. She wants the private tone of real letters, that clandestine atmosphere they create. It is, she decides, the very intimacy of the letter form that draws her into other people’s lives, lives that are not her own, lives that are far distant from her own. The letters in her collection, having no back-story require her own imagination to be active; it is she who supplies the connecting narrative. She decides that she wants letters to be letters and do the job of letters; the epistolary novels do not do that. She wants this whether it is the letters in her collection, or the volumes of published letters written by famous people. She wants letters that allow her to trespass on private lives.

I find myself in full agreement with her.

The Books of Friends

This morning I finished Drusilla Modjeska’s new book, Second Half First. Several times during its reading I silently acknowledged that this would be one of my best books of the year. At the end of reading there is no doubt: it is a beauty.

Best Books is an annual tradition for publications like ABR and the Fairfax papers, in which writers name their best reads of the year. So – Drusilla’s book will be on my best of 2015 list. What else, I found myself thinking, will I include?

I keep a reading notebook which I usually consult when deciding on my best for the year. But I was sitting on the couch, dawn was breaking, I had not yet finished my first coffee, Lotte was lying next to me, snuffling in her sleep her head on my lap, and I didn’t want to move. So I relied on my memory, trusting that in this instance memory would hold fast to the truth, or, rather, truth would fix on to memory, and I came up with Peter Rose’s latest collection, The Subject of Feeling. I’d read it earlier in the year when the publisher asked me to write a few words for the cover, and I read it again when the book was published. It has been several months since I looked at it but many of the poems have stayed with me.

Two best books and both written by friends. How then to phrase my contribution to a best books of the year section without being accused of literary nepotism or some other sort of self-serving agenda?

Ours has been a small literary community. It’s changing now, but those of us who have been around for several decades are known to one another. That I count among my friends other writers is to be expected. At the same time all of us are aware of instances when John has cited Joan’s book as the best of the year because he’s sleeping with her or, more likely, wants to sleep with her; and Susan cites Barbara’s book as the best of the year as a means of apologising for a past wrong. These sorts of things happen commonly, and can be staggeringly transparent.

Reviewing is even more vulnerable to personal agendas. A 4th or 5th novel being reviewed by someone who has been trying to get her/his own first novel published for years can be easily tainted by anger, disappointment and envy. A bad book receiving a glowing review can very often be traced to a long-standing friendship between author and reviewer.

Then there’s the poison ink review.

I remember the day Dot (Dorothy Porter) opened the Saturday Age to a review of her latest verse novel (I think it was Wild Surmise) written by Alan Wearne. She slumped, her face was writ with distress. ‘He hates me,’ she said. And true enough the review was a killer, it was so vile and venomous it was hard to make sense of it. Underneath his review, and occupying the same amount of space, was another review praising the book in every respect: the poetry, the fiction, the characterisation, the pace, the artistry of the work. As it happened all other reviewers agreed with the second reviewer. The book went on to win prizes, it was short-listed for the Miles Franklin, it was adapted for radio and the theatre.

__________

I’ve done a lot of teaching in my time. I start all my writing classes with the same question: What are you reading? And what has been the best work you’ve read this past year? Invariably there will be a student whose reading has been confined to her/his friends. Why bother with Shakespeare, Austen, Woolf or White when you can have Raelene and Kylie, Brett and Baxter?

So, how do I get away with naming my friends’ work as the best of the year?

The fact is, and it’s a crucial one, that you want to like the work of your friends and it’s painful when you don’t. You want the best for them, and when their work falls short it is cause, not simply for disappointment, but actual sadness. You just wish it had been otherwise. You suffer for them – even if they are not suffering for themselves.

And when friends write a book that is a stunner, well, you feel doubly rewarded: as a reader (how fortunate am I to have read this book) and as a friend (how fortunate am I to have a friend who can write like this). So I will make no apologies here about my two best books for 2015.

In regard to The Subject of Feeling, I wrote the following as the cover endorsement:

Youth and maturity, love and infatuation, memory, music, loss, landscape, Peter Rose exposes the human experience in poems that are gorgeously lucid and often profound.

The Subject of Feeling reveals a fearless wisdom, a wry wit and a quiet depth. These poems stop you in your tracks.’

There’s a maturity to the poems, a quiet intelligence that I find irresistible, and complex but accessible emotional undercurrents. As for the Catullan Rag poems that make up the final section of the book, Peter has been adding to this series for years and the poems just get better and better. I’ve always delighted in the conceit of contemporary subjects being couched in the ancient world. One of the poems was, I believe, seeded at my own dining table.

Drusilla’s Second Half First might well be her memoir, but it is also the story of our lives, women like me born in the mid-twentieth century. She writes of passionate friendships, of fervent conversations around kitchen tables with cheap wine and cigarettes close at hand. She writes of family, of parents in particular and our conflicted feelings as adult children, she writes of lovers (so many of them and so fraught), she writes of books (Woolf, Christina Stead, Doris Lessing, the essential reading of those days), and she writes of the business of writing. Her tone is gentle – easeful – and questing, often infused with a sense of wonder. As I turned the pages of her book I found myself grateful to her for having written it.

Drusilla writes too of PNG, of the Ömie people and their barkcloth paintings, and the SEAM project that she helped to found, a remarkable scheme that brings books and education to children in remote areas of PNG. She writes so vividly about PNG that I easily see my pale, English friend trekking through forests, climbing mountains and sitting on verandahs in the wet heat talking with PNG women.

Two books, poetry and prose, both coming from the deeper part of the author to reach the deeper part of the reader, both have enriched my year and my life. Good books become like old friends. I am grateful to my friends for adding to this precious stock.