A Conversation with Australian Poet Chris Wallace-Crabbe

Ronald A. Sharp talks to Chris Wallace-Crabbe

April 9, 2010

I know the Australian government funded a chair in Australian studies at Harvard some years ago and that you were one of the first to hold it. It has been a while now, but how did you enjoy your year at Harvard?

I loved Cambridge as an intellectually accessible area. There were a lot of writers around and I suppose I had been somewhat prepared for it because twenty years earlier I had spent two years at Yale on a poetry writing scholarship.

Did you notice any significant changes in the poetry scene in America during that period?

Yes, Ashbery had become compulsory.

Who were the dominant American poets when you were at Yale?

Lowell and Adrienne Rich and Berryman, all of whom I met.

Did you get to know any of them?

No. In each case it was one evening, but the conversation with Lowell was much the longest and he was in a very tranquil mood because it was autumn not spring. He spoke to me a bit about his collaboration with the Australian painter Sidney Nolan. At least two of his books have Nolan covers and Near the Ocean has Nolan illustrations as well.

Do you think either of your American visits had an influence on your own work?

I think it very likely. I think particularly Lowell’s Life Studies showed me a way to free up talking about oneself and freed me from only writing in fixed forms. But other poets did interest me a lot, Berryman’s The Dream Songs in particular, and the aged Marianne Moore, whom I heard reading in New York. At Yale I learned to like Wallace Stevens. Of course, Wallace Stevens is compulsory there; Yale is built around him. Both Harold Bloom and John Hollander were friends of mine at Yale and they knew about Stevens. In the case of American poets, generation after generation had their effect on me.

I have also been struck by the influence of Auden on your poetry, especially the later poems of Auden, including books of his like About the House. Is that a fair observation?

It is, it is. Early on when I came up to the university I had been influenced by standard modernists like Yeats, a bit of Pound and a bit of Hopkins, and a bit of John Crowe Ransom even. But I did my undergraduate course while working in the city.

What kinds of jobs?

I was a journalist for an electrical trade magazine; I was a clerk at the gas and fuel corporation; I was a laborer in a malt house; and I worked through one summer in an open-cut coal mine. So there was a bit of variety there and I did six months in the Air Force as well. When I came back to the university I majored in English and philosophy, and—this is not following on from your question but I am on the rails of a train line so I’ll just go on along this line—the English Department seemed to disapprove strongly of Auden but the politics and history departments both loved Auden, so I got subversively obsessed with Auden at that stage.

The other poet who seems to me to have influenced your work in an extraordinary way is Keats, especially his sense of the deep connection between transience and beauty. What about Keats’s conception of negative capability? Has that been influential in your work?

More and more, though it may not have come directly from Keats. In middle school I was obsessed by Keats and Browning because both bring the palate up rich, both lay the colors on densely, and I am very interested in what used to be called enactment in poetry and making the language work richly. So that aspect of Keats settled in and I love the stuff in the letters about negative capability. I dote on the letters. I love the way they jump from point to point because I am the son of a journalist and I have a concentration span about a centimeter long. I believe writers should be interested in everything unless they are that strange kind, a Kafka, someone like that, but I like the writers who are interested in everything, from Kipling to Borges. But the interest in Keats remained.

More so than Browning?

No, they both stayed very strong. I’m indifferent to most other Victorian poetry, apart from Clough and Hopkins, but Browning stays interesting because each time I open Browning, I think, Crikey, did he write a poem about that? I read one of his poems the other day that seemed much more complicated than I’d remembered it because he had different voices coming in and out. I think the poet ought to be able to enter into other kinds of consciousness as, in America, Richard Howard does so interestingly.

Howard was clearly influenced by Browning in the dramatic monologue.

Yes, which he seems to have mastered.

I was thinking of the management of tone in your work, which I find one of the striking characteristics of your poetry, and your ability to combine a comic tone with the most serious kind of tone. These seem to me to go happily together in your work. The bright colors of your poetry and the concern with joy and happiness seem to grow out of and be part of an understanding of the darker side of life as well. But there is also an impish tone which people sometimes associate with your poetry, a kind of playfulness, and most people do not associate Keats with that. But there is a streak of it in Keats.

It is very much there in the letters, and it is coming out belatedly in The Cap and Bells. I do agree with you, by the way, about this mixture, and many critics have commented on this as though it were not a natural part of things, but I would have thought nothing could be more natural about human life than the strange mixtures of the comic, the melancholic, and the tragic. In fact, I have got a favorite remark, which is that tragedy is comedy plucked unripe.

Could you say a little bit more about that?

Just a sense that if everything is cyclical, then the tragic may lead again to the comic, which may lead again to the tragic, which may lead again to the comic. And voice must be given to the different stages of the cycle, even if the planet is going to wipe us out, whether shortly or in a few million years.

In your new book there is a deep consciousness of the possibility of the planet wiping us out.

I am afraid so, yes.

And yet there is not a hint of gloom that hangs over the book.

I tried to look at deep time, and I tried to look at moral, political, ethical issues as they play across the face of everyday life and across its details and its actions, even small actions. Like William James, I’m a great believer in the importance of ordinary human actions.

Among the delights of your poetry is a head-over-heels first love feel about language. One memorable example of that is in a recent poem of yours in which you seem to palpably relish the use of a very unusual word for armpit.

I hold on to lots of odd words, some of which I throw aside as merely arcane or merely scholarly but others of which may find a place in a poem in due course. As I moved into writing the sequence of little domestic poems called “The Domestic Sublime” I thought about something that I had been thinking about for many years: the moment in the morning when you stand in front of the mirror with froth all over your face and begin dragging the razor down it. And to provide some variety at this time of my life I started making sure that I was shaving from a different point every day, if possible. I’m creating different patterns, like Aboriginal hunting paint or something like that, on my face as I shave. As I got to writing about this, I thought about shaving and I thought about putting on roll-on deodorant and how typically it goes into the armpit and then the word oxter came back to me and it is a word that sounds good. I mean, that is very important to me: words sounding good. I remember from early childhood words like assegai, Timbuktu, dandelion sounded good, quince, also.

Thirty years ago, in an essay that you wrote on open and closed poetry in America, you welcomed the vitality of a poet like Robert Bly (despite the limitations of his that you pointed out, I think astutely, in that essay), as you put it, “in the midst of a landscape of so much solemn formalism and conscious polish.” How do you see that dynamic playing out in American poetry a quarter of a century after you wrote that essay? It has been one of the axes of debate about American poetry. Do you think that is still a lively issue in American poetry or has it moved beyond that polarity?

I don’t know. Marilyn Hacker is very keen on holding on to traditional forms. What does disappoint me in a certain amount of American poetry (and I cannot say that I am an expert in keeping up with it) is the combination of apparent informalism with the actually extreme conservatism of being inside campuses. I think in America, possibly even more than in the rest of the English-speaking world, poets are safely corralled inside campuses. I think this leads to limitations in the way they go about things. I do not think there is any inherent advantage any longer in free verse versus formal verse. Someone said that the free verse lyric is the present equivalent of the heroic couplet in eighteenth-century poetry.

Or the sonnet in the Elizabethan period. Has this dynamic of open and closed been a factor in Australian poetry as well?

Very strongly. The generation of ’68 defined themselves in their opposition to the Vietnam War, about which they didn’t write much. They were very hostile to poets who wrote in the closed forms. In fact, A. D. Hope was a kind of curse uttered by them, which is interesting because he was the greatest Australian poet around at the time.

Are the old poetry wars that involved John Tranter and Les Murray still raging in Australia or have people moved on to other issues?

They are probably waging but not raging. I think, you know, Tranter and his friends have a particular line of aesthetic, and Les Murray and his friends have another, and it’s often assumed that Murray’s position goes with political conservatism, but I partly suspect that Murray uses political conservatism to thumb his nose at the trendies and wave it as a red rag in front of a mean and mangy bull.

He often uses Melbourne as a kind of metaphor for the trendy. Does that get under the skin of Melbourne writers?

Yes, it does a bit, but it probably includes Balmain as well. Balmain is Sydney’s Carlton, if you like. He thinks, “from Carlton and Fitzroy and Balmain they come,” like the dark riders coming out of Mordor and he is a virtuous Hobbit.

If you could design a course in twentieth-century Australian poetry or in Australian poetry of the last two or three decades for American students, who really do not know much about Australian poets, who would be the main figures?

Back there among the elders who were still alive in the last few decades, Judith Wright and Hope would represent two markers. Francis Webb would be a diminished poet of genius as filling a kind of Rimbaudish role. Peter Porter would represent the expatriates. Among the best young women poets there would be Judith Beveridge and Gwen Harwood, whose poetry I have just edited. You might add Dorothy Porter as the one who pushes poetry into novel writing; that would be interesting to people. Among the learned and literary poets, Peter Steele I would include, and of course Kevin Hart is a very good poet. And Robert Gray for the clarity of his depiction of Australian landscape and a steady eye on things. Bruce Dawe for the colloquial suburbia. Bruce Dawe invented suburbia in Australian poetry.

You were talking earlier about the palate and laying the colors on richly, and about your early attraction to Keats and Browning having something to do with that. I think it is not coincidental that you use such metaphors to talk about poetry. Painting and the visual arts have always figured heavily in your work, and of course you are married to a distinguished artist, and you also dabble a bit in drawing, I gather. Can you say something about the place of the visual arts in your poetry?

I don’t make a practice of writing ekphrastic poems, that is to say, poems based on works of visual art, but I have always been interested in visual art. I have long been an art critic and I was art reviewer for the Sydney Observer before Robert Hughes was. There have been moments of illumination, moments of epiphany, that have resulted from scenes and paintings. Piero della Francesca, for instance, is incomparably important to me. But at other times, when I saw paintings that I had only seen in reproduction before, like J. M. W. Turner forty years ago, I thought, well, here is a representation of that movement of the mind and imagination akin to what Freud called the oceanic feeling, an opening out into the boundless.

Although you have lived abroad, Melbourne is a place you have stayed, and for certain writers a sense of place has been very important not only to their own lives but to their work. Do you see Melbourne itself as somehow related to your sense of things?

Very much, very much. Increasingly, I like the fact that I have traveled but I like to come back. There are many Australian writers like the novelist Christina Stead, who hardly ever lived in Australia, except for very early and very late in her life, or like the poet Andrew Taylor, who has lived in Melbourne, Adelaide, and Perth, and frequently in Germany, and sometimes in Italy, and whose poetry turns on that kind of moving from place to place. It turns on transience, and I like the thread of transience to be torn out and then the spring to go brrring and to return to my home base, to return to my natal soil, to return to my beloved foliage.

Your most recent collection of poetry, I think probably your 20th or 21st such volume, has just been published by Carcanet in England. How do you think that book, Telling a Hawk from a Handsaw, relates to your prior work? Any changes?

Probably, probably, and others discern that more. I continued to work for a range of kinds of things from the domestic to the cultural, from what is happening in this instant to what has happened in the last few million years. I just had an email from a distinguished art critic and curator in the United States who said what he finds in these poems that is so interesting is that they contain questions that snap like a lock at the center of who you might be.

Like “What on earth is an upshot, by the way?”

Yes. I think there are not always questions but booby traps or byways, like, in the midst of the poem—“Do I Sleep or Am I Slept?”—which is a Cartesian question. But in that same poem, “On top of my questions, the answer lay / like an old cat.” But elsewhere, you know, there are questions. There is enquiry in the poem “Where are the old values?” and these are meant to open up the country. They get you out of the bush into a large field where there is a lot of possibility around.

Speaking of large fields, there is another large field I want to move toward and that is the issue of belief. As you know, I have written about Keats and part of the interest that we share in Keats has to do with his understanding of the relation between beauty and transience, which I asked about earlier. I see Keats as somebody who was trying to address a very large question about what happens when traditional belief in a transcendent God is no longer operative. I wonder if you might talk about your own sense of belief, and about the secularization of modern life and how your poetry might play into this.

Once in conversation with someone, when asked what I believed, I said I was an imprecise deist. This was perhaps a characteristically British move, designed to tease as well as to answer. But what I meant was that I find as much difficulty with dogmatic atheism as I do with dogmatic Christianity, for instance, or dogmatic Islam. What I am interested in is the fact that when you get to the end of the very large or the very small—for instance, the gigantism of astronomy or the tininess of particle physics—the question is, what’s there?

We seem to live at—or in—some interstice: I want to ask what, essentially, our lives mean. Then again, more harshly, I ask questions about the planet and whether it can get tired of us, the termination of the human species, in short. Reverting to a normal historical span, I wonder about the great issues that painters had to represent from the Renaissance down to the Enlightenment, and then what practitioners of the arts have to do nowadays, what lesser cries and scribbles. One result of the whole Protestant Enlightenment revolution is that too often what creative artists do is say, “Look at me! Listen to me! Look at what I have put on the wall or on the floor, or behind the door!” and that seems to me not enough, by a long chalk.

So I like to leave the way open for what epiphanies might seriously be. Last night, actually, I saw Kubrick’s 2001 and I think it is an absolutely marvelous film, partly because it does not even know how to ask the questions, it only knows how to raise the areas where the metaphysical is called into play. No coherent enquiry is even possible. It is just extraordinary. I think one of the things the arts do is ask questions about the mysterious, the mystical, the extraordinary, and find ways of pushing their art so they can present those questions so powerfully, as Beethoven does in his late quartets or Debussy in Pelléas and Mélisande. Surely the greatest writers seem to be asking these questions. Shakespeare goes on testing them in the romantic comedies even after having raised the bar so high in the tragedies. Somewhere out there, there are questions of belief and I still don’t believe that belief is impossible. Mind you, it’s psychologically a curious box of tricks.