Excerpt from The Fight For Sydney: A Memoir

(SOUTHERLY, 60TH ANNIVERSARY Issue, University of Sydney, September 2000)

The fight I lost was fierce because I fought it with real purpose. When I was a young man I felt, as if time elected me, that it was my privilege to play a part in a postwar renaissance in Australian poetry: a movement capitalised by Sydney that I had no wish to quit or deny. I certainly believe that more than 50 years ago, in my early 20s, I began to live it. And Guy Howarth, who invited me from Brisbane to Sydney as a postwar student, to his credit was well aware there was such a company, and I had entered it: the echelon I choose to call the real renaissance: including Judith Wright, Francis Webb, Bruce Beaver, John Blight, David Campbell, Roland Robinson, Kenneth Mackenzie, Nancy Keesing, William Hart-Smith, Ray Mathew, Mary Finnin, Elizabeth Riddell, James McAuley, Ronald McCuaig, Gwen Harwood, Rosemary Dobson, Dorothy Auchterlonie. There at best was a galaxy, a company of metal. Howarth’s only critical oversight was not to realise that, because I was in such company, he could not turn me into his own scholastic image. And there is one of the problems, very American, that poetry faces now. Poets with degrees covet jobs at universities, as I artlessly did later in Brisbane in an attempt to free myself from nine years of nothing with my paper; and who obtain these jobs only to flounder in redundant roles (not wanted!). Like the university, my paper was run by little interests; Brisbane is full of them. It has no magnitude: a condition, I pray, of no ultimate danger to anyone kept as primed as (I like to think) a wartime 303 once was.

And I should like a dollar a piece for the academics who, different from their scholastically gifted fellows, automatically imagine that, because they deal with poetry on campus, they can write it. If some of them can write it, good. But most of them can not. Even Howarth tried.

But I shall always owe a young man’s thanks to Howarth for many adventures other than academic, and to Kenneth Slessor. For example (Howarth had the car), for driving me out to Camden Town to meet jolly Hugh McCrae whose booming voice I used to hear resounding on Angus and Robertson’s steep editorial stairs. I still remember the occasion; it was unforgettable. Our host was not there. My companions knew where he kept the key to his cottage – under the doormat: a matter of amusing secrecy. So we let ourselves in and browsed through the books that lined his kitchen walls and drank tea and ate cake till well into the evening, when we realised our absent host would be absent till god knows when. Whereupon, at last, we left. Howarth, a worldly man, demonstrated how his new car, when he put it into reverse, lit up the ground, he liked to think, for miles around with its big rear parking lights. They also drove me to Ingleburn to meet another elder figure of my youth, the untidily ageing but loquacious and uproarious Harley Matthews, in his spartan hut among a diligently tendered small vineyard, the bottles from which we opened with relish. Such occurrences, when one is young and writing, count as a part of the spirit of literature; of the now probably scorned republic of letters. And it does not matter that some of the literary figures of my youth were exactly that – figures, more than poets whose work would last. They helped sustain the craft and the eminence of the masters they were not.

“Elders” like these of my youth, the masters and those who were not, were generous to me, the boy from the bush down from Queensland. Their manner characterised their courteous attention towards all the renaissance young, who looked up to them. Now who looks up to whom? Our literature today lacks this human element.

With the end of The Bulletin as they once knew it, a splendid weekly paper employing Stewart, appointed in 1940, as its Red Page and Poetry Editor, many of the renaissance poets of the 1940s and 1950s were down in the dumps or devastated. They had the talent, and they had been spoiled. Now they were as shattered, and scattered, as the hosts of today’s young yearning poets are who are faced with no significant publication before they even begin. Like The Bulletin’s splendid innings, the splendid geographical run of my remarkable company was over.
* * * * * *

When Stewart left his post I was back in Queensland, and Nancy Keesing wrote to say: “I’m sure you realise what Doug’s resignation means for the future of poetry in this country. We’re having a small gathering to thank him. You would be most welcome.” The gathering – it was like a wake – was held at the home of Nancy Keesing and Mark Hertzberg, and I remember the presence of the gangling, jovial R.D. FitzGerald and the militarily tall, flamboyant David Campbell. The gathering left me with a sense of unease. It was too small altogether. Was I among Stewart’s favourites? He did have them. Besides reviewing them favourably, he paid them as much as a hundred pounds a poem while I, like John Blight, received sixpence a line; which accounts for the many long poems that Blight and I wrote.

Since I had travelled three times as far as Campbell to get to the wake, in a friendly but curious fashion Stewart asked why I was there. “To see you off,” I said. In an impromptu little speech he said he was not going anywhere (he knew he would be joining publishers Angus and Robertson as an editor). He was glad to be getting away from a lifetime of reviewing books – a sentiment that I, as a full-time newspaper literary journalist, wryly appreciated. With my red-rimmed eyes, as red as his, I had already, by the 1960s, read and reviewed most of the writers in Australia. Many times over, he had reviewed them all, the living and the dead.

At A&R, for another 10 years till that place, too, was taken over, Stewart continued as publishing editor for the renaissance poets, bringing out their and other poets’ books in beautiful volumes. Other poets, of other consequence, who had not belonged to the renaissance included Vivian Smith, Christopher Koch, Randolph Stow, Thomas Shapcott, Rodney Hall, David Malouf, Les Murray, Geoffrey Lehmann, Vincent Buckley, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Bruce Dawe, Roger McDonald, Rhyll McMaster, with Strauss and Zwicky to come. Another galaxy – after the first. But a significant number of them did not admit, or they denied, the renaissance. They did so, I think, because they did not live it.

Shapcott and Hall, for instance, were kind enough to include me once in an anthology proposing new movements in Australian poetry. This is how it goes: declare a new movement and, by way of launching yourself, produce an anthology to prove it. But, if flattered, I was still discomfited. None of the old company needed to be used, for whatever reason, as a credit to their discredited period in any new-period book. But I think Shapcott and Hall really put me in because I was the first published author and favourable reviewer of their first books whom they had met. Theirs was a gesture of some gratitude.

Nevertheless, now that Shapcott and Hall are themselves elderly or past middle-age – and Les Murray, John Lehmann, Peter Porter, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, and that great sapper of the poetry wars, John Tranter – I wonder when they, too, will be made by some promotional book-compiling younger to feel discomfited. I hope for their sake they last as we, the living and the dead, do – the still living of whom are regarded as elderly today. That is, provided we are not thought to be not a bit lasting at all. How like a lottery; lady luck smiles tightly as hands play dip-in-the-bin.

Stewart’s hands were deft. He joined A&R publishers after they shifted to Lower George Street from their eyrie in the bookshop in Castlereagh Street. This move prompted the main editor, Beatrice, to wisecrack, with her China smile: “Our new premises are still old of course. But it’s so pleasant to get away from books.” She was the eagle in another eyrie, eyes magisterially lidded, her whole sleek self unruffled, a Beatrice of mystery.

Stewart’s handling of several verse-volumes of mine in that place reached by a drunken cage-lift reminded me of Bulletin times. His swift, almost illegible pencilling down the margins of the manuscript of a novel was like inspired editing writ large. This was a rare, an honoured, yet harassed man; he worked too hard; there were too many writers on his editorial stairs.

And when his stairs, at The Bulletin and A&R, were withdrawn, the renaissance company he published left their significance unstated. It was evident that their common sense preferred distinctive voices – Judith Wright, Francis Webb – that held up poetry. They would never have sanctioned the laying down of innumerable stakes as if a period, like a territory, could be claimed by some feverish lot who felt chosen.

None should ever register such a claim. But I do not think I am being extreme when I say that most of today’s anthologists do it. It flattens, it renders tediously tampered with and supine, as most introductions to anthologies do, a poetic literature notable not for “this leads to that” – because it doesn’t – but for standing pillars.

Nonetheless it would be to leave their significance far too wilfully unstated if the company of the 1940s and 1950s were not acknowledged as being party to the revival of a practice of poetry that, since the ‘Twenties of Slessor and FitzGerald, and the guiding Bulletin criticism of A.G. Stephens, had languished. Stewart opened whole tabloid pages to poetry, and the poetry rushed in, and the poets, featured as they were like news, were prolific. And the the most durable of them became a causeway over which all poets must walk if they are truly serious about the impending glory that has been, and the glorious future that will be, poetry in this country. We are gravely in want of such a revival again; but from where would issue the paper? The tactile paper page. Not the inert Internet.

Although, in the end, I would remain convinced that they required no qualifying, no compromising, statements, to confirm they were a company, and to confirm their unique significance, still they might be more reasonably viewed by Doubting Thomases today within the pattern of perhaps some more acceptable declaration of their singularity. I leave the Doubting Thomases to draft such a declaration. The exercise would do them a power of good.

The conundrum is that if the company were reduced to a declaration acceptable to the lesser poets of today, and had they known of their significance even to some lesser degree, still they could be seen as going in danger. They could have lost the natural love and labour with which they wrote. And to this degree, still, they would prefer not to see themselves exclusively as a company. Rather, they were contemporaries and saw others, provided these were writing regardless of age, as the same. To have seen themselves otherwise would have ruined their individuality and the very essence of their being poets.

I am labouring a point to make another one, momentous. Without the conundrum, which in the end, despite their individualities, revealed them to their real selves, a company together of contemporary significance destined to be forever relevant, they would never have been so prolific. There would not have been a renaissance at all. Or certainly there would not have been one that advanced so quickly. The company, mostly young but admitting poets who were not – room for differing ages vitalised the scene (a principle not observed today) – definitely knew that the years of their youth in which they were living and writing were exceptionally exciting.

And the excitement was provided precisely by that prominent weekly publication in the Sydney Bulletin whose Red Page Editor was Stewart. There in his dingy working office, crumpled, small and stooped whenever he rose from his worn swivel chair as wide as the old Bulletin stairs in Lower George Street, he employed a select dry wit somehow in keeping with a muted dusty voice refined by chain-smoking that looked like an act of elocution.

“I hear your book’s with the CLF. Do you know Tom Inglis Moore? He’s on the committee. A good fellow. He has a tic, a wink. Next time I see him I’ll have a wink with him about it.” It was a book which he had asked to see in manuscript, and about which he wrote me a wondrous letter, saying I could use the letter for any purpose, even as a cover-blurb, with his name. It subsequently appeared on the book’s dust-jacket.

“A book that builds into a world – a re-creation of your home country – and a very pleasant sunlit world it is. I can’t think of any other other Australian book of poems that sets down a country town – village, landscape, history; the continuity of the land in time – so completely and compactly.” Stewart later added that not even Judith Wright had done this. What literary, or poetry, editor today – what anthology editor; what academic critic – could ever hope to match the marvellous perception, command, and time-giving generosity of Stewart?

May the ghost of Stewart allow all my anecdotes and all that I attribute to him. May the ghosts of all I mention allow my stories about them. It is not at all too fanciful to claim that to see what I think of today, I feel I have to let an era acquire me again, and speak.

* * * * * *

Stewart’s achievement in that dingy office was brilliant, and his magnanimity unexpected, often hidden. In the 20 years that he was there, many poets found him, or he found them. He helped them give our literature a glitter. I am grateful when I think that time made me one of them. Of course he played those favourites. And he and FitzGerald went into a conspiratorial crouch to prevent A.D. Hope’s inroads into Australian poetry. Hope, Roman of appearance, Augustan of style, and gladiatorial, came in like a Vandal. But Stewart had nothing to fear. Because of his position and vision, he literally remade Australian poetry, and remade it soundly.

I do not mean that he attempted to run or control it, though some critics thought and still think that he did, captiously labelling that postwar period as the period of the Bulletin School. A lot of the published verse came from poets living in the country and writing of country things (Les Murray, please note). Although there is no denying our urbanism, that is much the kind of nation we are and were – because of our vastness.
A migrant from a country of infinitely smaller territory, New Zealand, and standing in awe of his new land’s geographical dimensions, and of its supreme poet, the national Slessor, Stewart published at the foot of our poems not only our names but the names of our states of residence. For example: David Rowbotham, Queensland. This was the seal. Irrespective of how far apart we were, we were undivided; we stood, as well as we could, for a nation: an important psychological and geographical distinction, recognised.

So-called landscape and nature poetry might have seemed to predominate. Certainly the mainly Melburnian academic or urbane school who had other things to promote, mainly themselves, presumed to turn this into their bane. That counter-movement could claim importance, too, as long as it did not grow aggressively provincial; very Melbourne. I never did read the polemical essays of propagandists like Vincent Buckley.

We already had, and were to have, enough dogmas and theories from plenty of “schools”, including Slessor’s and Stewart’s Parnassians, whom they outgrew. Slessor outgrew the Parnassian verve (some termed it Vitalism) of Norman Lindsay’s paintings and prose and Hugh McCrae’s poetry and prose just in time to become our most modern and most Australian poet; which he remains.

Yet Lindsay, with whom I spent a day in his home, studio and gardens at Springwood, had the nerve to say: “Ken Slessor is one of the great disappointments of my life.” Whether this was because Slessor had stopped writing at a comparatively young age, or because he abandoned Pans at Lane Cove to write classics like “Five Visions of Captain Cook” and the immortal “Five Bells”, I was too bemused to inquire.

I chose to enjoy the stick-like, parched-looking but penetrating and endlessly talking Lindsay; to watch his chain-smoking with a mixture of admiration and horror; and to be shown by a proud yet down-to-earth Rose the piratic and erotic paintings he hoarded in a private inner room along with his miraculous and meticulously carved ship-models. I at last understood the enormous influence he must have had on McCrae, whose poetry he invaded with nymphs and satyrs, and on Slessor, and for a while on FitzGerald and Stewart; and on Peter Hopegood? who is now, unjustly I think, diminished more than he should be.

The Slessor who greatly disappointed Lindsay was dismayed by the myth-poetry of A.D. Hope. Slessor: always beaming, impeccably dressed, with his trim moustache, carefully clipped cigar, neatly winged bow-tie, the very model of a Sydney gentleman. Into his eye over luncheon I squirted lemon, and squirmed. The beam only brightened. “I once did that to Blamey. Since I was about to send a dispatch, he was forced to like it.” This innately imperturbable manly presence was, with a stutter, constrained to remark more than once over snooker at the Sydney Journalists’ Club that “Australia is full of poetry” – so why write like Hope?

More than once he said this to me also at his home in Billyard Avenue, with its stairs leading up to his study containing neat glass-doored bookcases of caressingly dusted volumes, the study where he still religiously sat down each late night with a pencil and paper waiting for more amazing words to come. They did not. To this terrible extent the Slessor who beamed was tragic; was grievously sad. “He sits there waiting for a word and writing it, then crossing it out. He’s a perfectionist,” said his wife Pauline, who later became a tragic figure herself. She was too young for a man so set in his ways whose beam at home could be replaced in a flash by anger over some trite domestic thing.
Slessor often invited me to stay at Billyard Avenue: a huge hospitality I hope I acknowledged – even tokenly – by dedicating my Selected Poems 1975 to him. With one of his copperplate letters, he accepted the dedication before he died at 71. He was not so old. I first met him at an Angus and Robertson Ball in one of the big reception rooms on the upper floor of Grace Brothers on the Broadway. He sat at the head of the table. Opposite me sat Beatrice Davis, and between Slessor and I was the beautiful Pauline, who was not yet his wife. Overwhelmed by being so close to this man, and tiddly into the bargain, I asked him was he still writing any poetry he had not published. I was painfully kicked by Beatrice under the table. “Mr Slessor, I have just been painfully kicked by Miss Davis for asking that question.” He positively chuckled, Beatrice smiled sugar all over the table, and he invited me to have lunch with him next day at the old Journalists’ Club in Phillip Street. That is where I squirted lemon in his eye. It is also where I told him my main ambition, after poetry, was to be a journalist, because it paid. “Of course it does, he said. And I know of no other profession where you are paid to gain so much experience. It will compliment your poetry.” It did; and he felt that my later visits as a poet and journalist to Billyard Avenue confirmed his certitude. This was Slessor the journalist of stature, the man loyal to a lifetime’s practice who was once Editor-in-Chief of Smith’s Weekly for which he wrote so much humorous verse. Several years after his poetry-and-journalism remarks, at the Club and Billyard Avenue, when I was irresolutely back in Queensland, but a journalist – a wise man, he had waited for that moment – he offered me a Sydney A Grade with the Sydney Telegraph where he wrote the leaders and book reviews and was so highly esteemed by Frank Packer that Packer employed him long after retirement-age. I did not take him up on his offer. Marriage and the birth of my first daughter seemed to preclude the opportunity; and, by losing that opportunity, I lost Sydney. I have always put family before literature; I trust I go to heaven for it.

waited for that moment – he offered me a Sydney A Grade with the Sydney Telegraph where he wrote the leaders and book reviews and was so highly esteemed by Frank Packer that Packer employed him long after retirement-age. I did not take him up on his offer. Marriage and the birth of my first daughter seemed to preclude the opportunity; and, by losing that opportunity, I lost Sydney.

Sydney: where I had fought to win; where bullock-work was the order of the day, whether it was in my editorial hutch at Angus & Robertson’s, for ten pounds a week (a sum that London cut to six); or freelancing; or doing evening shorthand-and-typing classes at Sydney Tec; or being unpaid housemaster at Knox Grammar; or taking money behind bars as a bank clerk at Lindfield; or counterjumping at Gowings; or selling (for an hour) suburban throwover-newspaper ads; or, for one weekend, washing half a street of windows…

There were no grants then, and if there had been I could not, after marriage, have afforded them. I have always put family before literature; I trust I go to heaven for it.