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April 01st 2011 print

Clive James

There You Come Home

One of Australia’s great artistic treasures, James McAuley’s poem “Because” is only a slight thing physically. Ten spare quatrains in total, swinging lithely along on a lattice of conversational iambic pentameter, it is over almost as soon as begun. Yet for some of us Australians who were born and raised while the poet was still alive, his miniature masterpiece, during the ensuing decades, has done the work that the tiny Amalienburg pavilion at Nymphenburg does for anyone who lingers in its network of reflections for a while—for as long as possible, usually—and then goes away reassured that there is an eternal value in perfect making. It’s the way the poem is built, indeed, that transmits its aesthetic charge.

The poem’s actual argument—if it could be reduced to its bare prosaic bones, we would find the poet blaming his unhappiness on his parents—I have always found to be as depressingly bleak as McAuley’s brand of Catholicism: a convert’s brand which had a way of condemning his own weaknesses while leaving him free to pursue them, just as long as he sounded strict enough. McAuley’s devotedly anti-communist politics were useful at the time, but this tinge of Jesuit worldliness was never attractive, no matter how winningly he may have played a honky-tonk piano after dark. (In Australia in those wowser-ridden days, it was often the Jesuits who had read Ulysses: after all, they travelled.) Two of Australia’s best critical minds, Leonie Kramer and Peter Coleman, later devoted slim volumes to McAuley without even once making you like him. I myself, in my Sydney University days, saw him deliver a lecture about the newly published Doctor Zhivago and wondered ever afterwards how he could have been so alkaline on such a vital topic. From his dress and manner I would have said he was an accountant, except that he wasn’t having enough fun. But if you look at “Because” long enough you start to wonder if he didn’t have the kind of personality, not to say intellect, that depended on form for its focus.

The poem, a late work, starts off by being about his dead parents. In the first stanza we are already led to suspect that this is a soul-curdling subject for him. The phrase “a kind of love” gives us the evidence straight away: a valuable lesson in dramatic tactics, because very few poets ever learn to start the action early, as soon as the finger has been inserted in the listener’s buttonhole. 

My father and my mother never quarrelled.
They were united in a kind of love
As daily as the Sydney Morning Herald,
Rather than like the eagle or the dove. 

And they’re racing at Randwick. Since we already know that there was something wrong with the way his parents were united, the first three lines of the second stanza come as no surprise. But the third line gives us another lesson, in how to expand an argument by internalising it—by bringing it home to the soul. 

I never saw them casually touch,
Or show a moment’s joy in one another.
Why should this matter to me now so much? 

Any trainee poet amongst his readership would have been impressed by the boldness of this démarche, where the story suddenly turns into a rhetorical question. (It matters so much, we soon find, because the father who could not show love to his mother couldn’t show much of it to him either.) But the trainee poet would have been floored already, by the technique, which even down at the level of the single word is setting a high standard. I can well remember putting aside all feelings of self-congratulation about how far I had got with forming regular quatrains when I saw what McAuley could do when filling a strict form with free rhythms. Auden could do it too, of course: the big story, technically, of Australia’s “Great Generation” of poets wasn’t about what they recovered from their studies of Australia’s literary heritage, it was about what they felt bound to emulate in the heat of international literary competition. But Auden was in America. Seeing McAuley do this kind of thing right there in one’s homeland was like watching a world champion high diver at the local baths. (In fact I first read this particular poem after I had sailed for London, but the best things in his earlier career had prepared me for its neatness, if not for its full coherence.) The way, in the first line of the stanza, that the word casually stretches three syllables over two stresses is the purest lyricism—try saying it without singing it—and the stress on moment’s in the second line imbues a loose line of conversation with all the disciplined metrical strictness of English literary history. Later on, in England, when I saw the same kind of structures in the poetry of Philip Larkin, I thought always of this line: an example of how your receptivity, by example, gets imprinted early on with a range of possibilities.

So there are two dramas going on here, even this early in the poem. There is the story of the lack of love between his parents, with the consequence (as he sees it) of an emotional stunting for a child not often enough picked up. 

Having seen other fathers greet their sons,
I put my childish face up to be kissed
After an absence. The rebuff still stuns … 

His mother did her best. They all did their best: 

People do what they can; they were good people,
They cared for us and loved us … 

And then there is the second story, the story of the poem building itself before your eyes. The sad first story having been told, McAuley begins the wind-up to the poem with another question: “How can I judge without ingratitude?”

With this question placed adroitly near the end, a poem that was already flying brings in the second stage of its supercharger. The narrative is put aside—there was nothing more to be wrung out of it—and the tone suddenly becomes declarative. Young writers who were still learning about the freedoms that verse could allow them could learn from the poem’s penultimate stanza that if you had got the build-up well enough detailed then you could form a climax out of generalities and sound sonorous instead of ponderous. 

Judgement is simply trying to reject
A part of what we are because it hurts.
The living cannot call the dead collect:
They won’t accept the charge, and it reverts. 

A delicately paced wind-down follows, but the real work has already been done. The story of his upbringing has culminated in a great concentration of aphoristic summary. But it couldn’t have done so without the second story, which is the story told by the poem’s perfect construction. Whatever the childhood deprivation was, it helped bring him to this: a lyricism all the more musical for being free from any hint of standard beautification. In that regard, the poem is prosaic: its poetics are without poeticism. But a simpler way of putting it would be to say this is a poem made up out of the fullest possible intensity of prose. Good prose is an arrangement, and a great poem makes the arrangement part of the subject. 

All kinds of implications follow, both for McAuley and for Australian poetry in general. For him, we can hazard that here is the secret of why so much of his prose is so chillingly pale. It had to be stretched on a melodic frame before it lit up. For Australian poetry, we can say that this poem was one of the many launching points for an adventure that returned European imperialism towards its origins: what had arrived as power went back as culture. Here was a language that had nothing especially Australian about it except confidence, but this time the confidence was not assertive: it simply took itself for granted. After this the Australian poetic language was ready for anything. It was ready for the world: a fact that Australian critics and cultural commentators were slow to spot, because it had not yet occurred to them that a new nation doesn’t project itself to the world by flaunting its characteristics. It projects itself as a creative personality, which finally comes down to a tone of voice.

The paradox, or seeming paradox, of McAuley’s poetic voice is that its enchantment can’t be deduced from his personal history. It was generated only in his poems, and not always then. The less inhibited he was, the better: but he was hardly ever not inhibited. The hero in McAuley’s poetry as a whole is not the poet engaged in an exploration of himself: it is Quiros, the world-explorer from the past who almost won the future nation for Catholicism. Reading McAuley’s works in verse right through, it is hard to shake the impression that you are trapped in a scriptorium of the Counter-Reformation. A poem like “Because” is not just a breakthrough, it’s a break-out. To be so indulgent towards his own psychological needs was a rare event for a man who had given himself a national role, and pursued it with the zeal of a courier for Opus Dei.

But precisely there lay the misapprehension that Australian literature, of all the Australian arts, has been slowest to get over. A national role is the last part that a writer should want to play. The writer’s role is to express the interior workings of the self, and achieve results that are less national than international, and less international than universal. That being done, a national artistic achievement joins the global conversation at the only level that counts. When McAuley wrote “Because” he wrote a poem fit to conquer the world, and since then it has: or at any rate the tone of voice exemplified by it has become universally recognisable, without needing to be decorated with the properties that Barry Humphries called “Austral”. Apart from the Sydney Morning Herald, there is nothing in the poem that would not be common property in Surbiton, or indeed Saskatoon. And this diminished dependency on local colour has gone on being true. In the poetry of Les Murray, a sandstorm could be taking place in any country that has sand.

It was a happy coincidence. Bitten in the conscience by guilt for colonialism, the Western nations were becoming one world at the very time when the Australian version of the English language had become ready to do its share in fulfilling a planetary scope. But there was also the factor of professionalism: usually the last thing that amateurs of any art want to hear about. Australian poetry after the Second World War produced a swathe of dedicated contenders, and some of them were bound to produce a few lines you could remember.

A.D. Hope, who could never count his syllables with the efficacious accuracy that McAuley found compulsory, still had an onrush to the big stanzas of his early poems that made him sound more majestic than his protégé. (Actually, in the real world, Hope was the protégé: for McAuley, dominance was the default mode.) You might argue plausibly that Nan McDonald could propel a line of pentameter even more sweetly than McAuley: her poem “The Bus-Ride Home” is not one that he could have written even if his sympathies for his fellow passengers had been that generous.

David Campbell could talk about the women on the beach with a joyful longing that was never echoed by McAuley, who longed for them too but was too cramped to say so: his idea of letting himself go was to help cook up the Ern Malley hoax, a nasty episode which has served ever since as a dunce’s cap for the kind of critic who would rather talk about literary events than about literature. (His irascible impatience with pseudo-modernist humbug helped lead him to the foundation of Quadrant, but the wrecking of Max Harris’s career was a high price to pay: literary people should be slow to imagine that they can crucify a colleague without acquiring for themselves a lasting set of stigmata.)

On the whole, McAuley’s poetry was a joy-free zone. But we have to remember that when we are talking about a nation’s “poetry” in general, or about somebody’s “poetry” in particular, we are talking short-hand, and have not yet reached the point. The point that matters is not poetry, but the poem. It’s the poem that makes the impact, and gets remembered, even if only in pieces. For at least one reader, “Because” still has its impact now.

And the impact resonates, as a voice in the head: a language. In another poem, “Terra Australis”, McAuley said that your Australia is within you, as a land of imagination: “There you come home”. Armed with that language, you are always coming home, even when you stay away. A treasure more important than nationalism, a fully developed poetic language is the essence of the only patriotism that matters. It can do without red-back spiders and crocodiles, although those are nice too. What it can’t do without, what it embodies, is a way of speaking about freedom and justice both at once. Not just by luck but by thought and endeavour, Australia is well placed to do that: so well placed that it often forgets its importance to the world, and thinks it has to go on proving itself, when the proof is already known to all. That important place was as much built as found; and McAuley’s little poem was one of the things that built it. 

Clive James’s most recent book is The Blaze of Obscurity: The TV Years (Picador), the fifth volume of his memoirs.