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This item is taken from PN Review 135, Volume 27 Number 1, September - October 2000.

In 'To Any Poet', the severe Australian James McAuley wrote:

Take salt upon your tongue.
And do not feed the heart
With sorrow, darkness or lies:
These are the death of art.

It is a classical injunction; few poets aspire to it as an absolute measure of their work. Some try, among them Yvor Winters, Elizabeth Daryush, Laura Riding and Geoffrey Hill. McAuley's contemporary Alec Derwent Hope, who died in July, often strove to do so. Born in New South Wales in 1907, he studied in Sidney and at Oxford, returned to Australia and became a psychologist and lecturer in English at Canberra, where he was subsequently Professor and where he spent his long declining years in a Centre which bore his name. He was the first substantial Australian poet to be properly hearkened to abroad. He had much in common, formally speaking, with Yeats, Graves and Frost. But there is at work an over-insistent maleness, a libido which does not temper or disguise itself. And he often imposes traditional form on chaotic experience. The chaos is not only in the world he perceives out there but within himself: fears, powerful desires, violent faith. 'Make no mistake; there will be no forgiveness;/No voice can harm you and no hand will save.'

Few poems in the twentieth century are as bleakly unforgiving as 'Imperial Adam'. Hope snatches narratives from the Bible, from the classics, traducing them and us. His furious wit, which Judith Wright calls 'defence-by-attack', gives way in later poems to moral vision. In him Swift does not become Goldsmith: the salt remains upon his tongue. But his obsession with sexual physiology, the smells that go with mortality, finds open air and he is at last able to praise. The earlier poems, which are cruel like Swift's (without Swift's justice), will abide despite a political incorrectness as rebarbative as Robinson Jeffers's. In Australian poetry he looks out of place, a late antecedent, no less rooted in Australia than Kenneth Slessor, Francis Webb and James McAuley, but - by choice of forms and expert handling of familiar registers - a poet of the turbulent 'main stream', a main stream into which the poems of Eliot and Pound never flowed, or flowed only as effluent.

What made him controversial and for years unpopular in Australia was his refusal to privilege Australian poetry, his insistence that it be appraised in the same terms that an Australian reader would appraise the work of a British, American or Indian poet. This was not what literary nationalists wished to hear. Even internationalists like Les Murray find him unsympathetic: is he 'academic', 'traditionalist', 'misogynist'? Negative adjectives flock to him and some stick. In the light of the poems (and the better essays) one can only say: so what? He was a great Australian poet.

Great in a more radical sense was Judith Wright, always an advocate of Hope's work, but different in kind from him. Donald Davie saw her as the Cassandra of 'that still to be guilty nation'. She found forms and themes in the matter of Australia, its history and geography. A different savour of salt is on her tongue, and it is invariably there. She could have vouched for every syllable she set down, even in those poems from the middle books where she bit off more philosophy than she could chew. If Hope's early poems are most alive, Wright's last poems are her most vital, the poems she wrote nearing her seventieth year when - in 1986 - she decided to stop versing and devote her time to prose, to land rights and aboriginal emancipation.

She did in Australia, and with fewer literary resources, some of the things that Adrienne Rich and Eavan Boland do in the United States and Ireland. She marked out a space, not only for the experiences of women in poetry, but for the experience of other voices that history had driven to the margins. Was her celebrated 'Lament for Passenger Pigeons' influenced by Eliot? Stevens? Dante? Its themes are ecological, feminist avant la lettre. Its generic nature is not quite satire, or elegy. The poem, whatever its antecedents, is largely her own in theme and genre.

She was born in the year of Gallipoli, in New South Wales. World War I shadowed her early years, her history happening on another side of the world. Then the Depression, and World War II which actually touched the continent of Australia. These facts overarch the early and middle work. Her antecedents were English, French, Scots, 'pastoralists rather than farmers' - owners of shire-sized ranches where sheep were raised. Her father was an enlightened landholder. Early on she was made aware of Aboriginal dispossession and the brutal inequity of the terra nullius position of the national government. 'Niggers' Leap', 'Bora Ring' and other poems explore the theme, and the 'clearances' which in the interests of making pasture altered the ecology of her country for ever.

Her later books, Alive (1973) and Phantom Dwelling (1986), discover Australia in a uniquely resourceful way, and The Human Pattern, a selected poems which she saw as essentialising her work, is one of the defining collections of the last century both in its trajectory and its accomplishment. In 'Notes from the Edge' she declares

I used to love Keats, Blake;
now I try haiku
for its honed brevities,
its inclusive silences.

Issa. Shiki. Buson. Basho.
Few words and with no rhetoric.
Enclosed by silence
as is the thrush's call.

The main verb disappears, the poems seek stasis. A Human Pattern ends with ghazals, 'The Shadow of Fire', which in its condensation owes a debt to oriental verse, and in formal choice to Persian. She aligned herself, after decades of working in European forms, with cultures nearer at hand: she came to Asia. In 'Dust', a ghazal from the sequence, she puts her new approach to the test:

In my sixty-eighth year drought stopped the song of the rivers,
sent ghosts of wheatfield blowing over the sky.

In the swimming-hole the water's dropped so low
I bruise my knees on rocks which are new acquaintances.

The daybreak moon is blurred in a gauze of dust.
Long ago my mother's face looked through a grey motor-veil.

Fallen leaves on the current scarcely move.
But the azure kingfisher flashes upriver still.

Poems written in age confuse the years.
We all live, said Basho, in a phantom dwelling.

Between the 'construct' of European nature and the 'reality' of the Aboriginal contact with nature a gulf opened. How could a poet of the privileged classes bridge it? Being a woman helped; being a woman of liberal temperament and strong character. The women she wished to reach, writers in particular, welcomed her, especially Oodgeroo (Kath Walker), whose work Wright championed.

Wright belongs to the generation of A.D. Hope and James McAuley; she belongs equally (as they do not) to the two generations that followed, her own work changing and leading the thematic and formal changes in Australian writing, and showing a way too for the new poetry of the older people. Thus early, in 'Niggers' Leap' she asked:

Did we not know their blood channelled our rivers,
and the black dust our crops ate was their dust?
O all men are one man at last. We should have known
the night that tided up the cliffs and hid them
had the same question on its tongue for us.
And there they lie that were ourselves writ small.

Like the older native peoples of her country she has a sense of good and of evil. Moral rather than metaphysical, her poems declare; she moved among personal, social and ethical concerns. Man is continually touched by a grace he repeatedly denies. It is almost too late, she said; but she kept reminding us - finally in prose - until her death in July.

This item is taken from PN Review 135, Volume 27 Number 1, September - October 2000.

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