Commentary on Poems set for the HSC and VCE exam
I have written these brief but I hope suggestive notes to ease my conscience, on finding that poems I made many years ago, for my own pleasure, are now a cause of anxiety to students.
These poems, chosen by the Department of Education, are all earlier work. Except for the last of them, they were written while I was in my twenties. They are a younger person’s experience. Although remaining essentially the same, they have each, over the years, been persistently revised, to make them more informative.
Poems can be read many times because they have been written many times (but this ought not to show).
In my remarks here, I deal mostly with technique, so that the content, the emotive situation in the poems, is not devalued. The emotion that is being suggested opens beyond words, beyond other words, within the reader. You can talk about how the technique implies the emotion. You can point to it.
The theme of the comments that follow has been stated by Seamus Heaney: “Poetry is language that does what it says.”
Good luck. Despite everything that surrounds them this year, in school-life, I hope you will be able to find pleasure in these poems.
That is the point of them – pleasure in what language can do.
You will notice at once the rhythm of this. It is written in various line-lengths, with shifting emphases that /create a tentative balance in/balance-out through the line. (This is called ‘free verse’, as opposed to regular metre.) The lines overall in this poem are restrained, they are allowed only a fairly narrow gauge or expanse.limit. They are not nearly as flexible and loose as those in ‘Diptych’, for instance. This gives them a strong rhythm. Also, the syntax of the poem unfolds quickly: the narrative plunges down the page, without the hindrance of stanza-breaks. In these ways the poem simulates its context, which is someone travelling by train.
An influence on the poem was the Australian poet Kenneth Slessor, in ‘The Night Ride.’ But I take an opposite position to him: my poem is about coming into the countryside in the morning, with exhilaration. Slessor’s is about travelling out of the country by night, almost as though fleeing. You feel his journey is meant to represent life generally, as he finds it, being baffling and dark and something to be endured. The two poems emphasise opposed views of nature.
There is in ‘Journey, the North Coast’ an image which catches succinctly something of what it is about. It describes travelling past saplings on a hillside, and their elegance makes the observer think of a nude descending a staircase. If one is slightly aware of art history, one at once recalls Marcel Duchamp’s cubist painting of that title (there are about five slightly differing versions of it). Then, immediately afterwards, on the next line, this sophisticated eye is replaced by an innocent and more sensuous gaze, and the emphasis of the image becomes the trees, their being like slender white nudes. This new, naturalistic impression cancels the other. The image can be experienced as like a tableau, a much smaller performance, within the larger context of a play.
The poem ends with its own brief acknowledgement of despondency – it doesn’t forget the plurality of life. Alongside the satisfaction of the suitcase locks biting home, there is a glimpse of a young person’s isolated life in a furnished room (you feel it is a young person because of a certain innocence in the voice, and the freshness of the enthusiasm in the descriptions).
The image of the latches taking hold in the suitcase is a poetic device that conveys a larger emotion by using a smaller one.
Here is a particularly explicit poem, in contrast to the implication of the previous one. To match the clarity of the content there are the precise modulations of the voice, shown in the shifting line-breaks.
The poem ends with a revelation, and the rhythm of the last line is deliberately harsh and roughed-up, in showing what that is.
Ted Hughes, the English poet, wrote a poem called ‘View of a Pig’ earlier than I wrote about those animals, and it may be that his piece prompted mine. His is about not being able to feel for a slaughtered pig, which is very different to the emotion in ‘The Meatworks.’
This poem starts off as if it were a folksong or a blues; it is like a ballad from the Sixties, accompanied by a big 12-string guitar. But that is only in the first two lines, just long enough to establish the reference to the popular protest music of that time. (I admired Bob Dylan, as his music was being released, and my favourite pop song would have been ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ by Kris Kristofferson, which is about hitching a lift, as the speaker of this poem is doing.)
The poem doesn’t continue as a song because it’s concerned with the description of a place, which a song doesn’t do well. I wanted to write about the sort of town I had grown up in and what was becoming of it – how it was “progressing”, but not in the most important sense, the human sense.
There is a historical dimension to this poem, which can be seen in the characterization of the two people in the car that pulls over. They are described as having tattoos and ‘greasy Fifties-style’ hair. There was much more social opprobrium about tattoos then – they were only worn by sailors, bikies and criminals. And ‘bodgie’ hairdos, in honour of Elvis Presley, were flaunted by ‘youths’, as the newspapers called them, who were at times antagonistic to the hippies, with whom the speaker of this poem would be identified. Hitch-hiking was, although foolish, common in the Sixties, amongst the young, influenced by the American ‘Beats’ like Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Gary Snyder, one of whose poems begins:
We’re on our way
out of town
go hitching down
that highway ninety-nine
My poem asserts a sense of freedom, from a regimented way of life, through its casual-seeming treatment of the traditional folk song’s form. Where such a poem ought to maintain eight or ten syllables to a line, this one rebelliously has as many as fourteen, as few as six. It has some perfect rhymes, but also some like ‘chrome’ and ‘town’ which barely acknowledge each other.
We experience a revelation at the end of this poem, too. There is a transformation of attitude in the speaker, between his thinking of the word ‘Abo’, a slightly dismissive term, and of the phrase ‘not attempting to hitch’. Something happens there, very fast, all within the space of one line – empathy occurs.
In this poem, the plodding passage of an old-fashioned wooden ferry, as it’s moving across Sydney Harbour, late at night, is conveyed through the expressive use of a seemingly-arbitrary four-line stanza (or ‘quatrain’). This stanza is used to break open a sentence and spread it across a verse-space, like a vista, or it can slow down, with its tight lines, the progress of the description.
The tactics of other art-forms are drawn on here. In the first stanza, we read that the ferry ‘goes up onto/ the huge dark harbour,’ which is reminiscent of the way, in a naive or ‘primitive’ painting, things are often shown as distant by being depicted higher up on the painting’s surface. This ‘innocence’ permeates the poem. There is also a cinematic technique in ‘Late Ferry’– the boat’s fairly brief journey is given in a series of filmic ‘takes’, cut and montaged together, as in the editing of a film.
The poem is seen from the foreshores of Sydney Harbour, at Lavender Bay, a little ‘upstream’ from the Harbour Bridge and Luna Park. The ferry is moving diagonally across the Harbour, into the light of the city and Circular Quay. This is the viewpoint of many paintings, set in daylight, by the artist Brett Whiteley.
The poem speaks of a ‘tuberous// shaped bay’, meaning a bay that is like a socket (in the shoreline of the Harbour) from which a tuber, a potato, has been pulled. Plain nature, in which the artist has to make his stand, is not always as glamorous as it ends up being in his depiction of it.
The poem also speaks of the Harbour Bridge as lit-up, its lights ‘swarming’ on the water below, and of the water as spangled like a ‘Busby Berkeley spectacular’. At the time the poem was written, the Bridge was fully lit at night, but that is no longer done. Busby Berkeley was a Hollywood film director who boasted ‘a cast of thousands’ in his all-girl chorus line-ups, his tap-dancing black and white films, like ‘Gold Diggers of 1933’ and ‘Babes on Broadway’ (1941).
The ending of the poem depends on a pun. The last line, ‘filled as it is with its yellow light,’ means the windows of the ferry are filled with their old-fashioned, warm light, as the cells of a honeycomb are filled with honey, and it also means that the speaker is himself filled with this light – with a visual pleasure that is like sweetness. (Such an image is called synaesthesia, the combining of the experience of one sense with that of another – as, for instance, in our literally experiencing a sound as green, which some people are naturally able to do.)
A poem that is set in a great urban rubbish dump. (This subject has also been made ‘historical’, the incineration of garbage in such places having been largely converted, since the latter part of the twentieth century, to landfill).
The poem involves itself with hell, but it is clear from its description that this is not the Christian or Islamic place of torment after death. In classical Greek mythology, hades, which has often been translated as hell, was a realm of gloom and attenuated existence, but not of active punishment and torture (except in one part of it, Tartarus, according to some accounts).
That this is the faded Greek underworld which is being spoken of is indicated by the mention of Charon, who ferries the dead across the River Styx, into hades, and by the use of an extended or ‘Homeric simile’ in describing the place. My poem looks further than the obvious aspect and finds that everywhere in existence, even in the most ‘spiritual’ experience, there is transience, wasting/passing away, ot constant loss. Which is to say that all things are treated by existence as ‘rubbish.’
In the last stanza, ‘horse-laughs’ refers to the staccato pre-recorded laughter that accompanies sit-coms on TV; which is contrasted here with Chopin’s rarefied music. Both kinds of experience are equally lost, the vulgar and the ethereal, the poem says, because they are dependent on our encountering them at particular moments in time, and are never experienced in the same way again.
One of those particular moments is mentioned at the end of the poem. A person is listening to Chopin, on the radio, and the music is likened to the curtains in the room billowing outwards into the light. The word ‘lifting’ is used, which evokes sails, and it seems that the listener is being carried towards ‘a coast of light.’ But that experience is now lost.
This is a dark poem, but it ends with the word ‘light.’ Where is that light?
The longest poem in the selection, but the one least in need of commentary. I should perhaps draw attention to the length of the first sentence: this conveys, if the reader is susceptible to it, the suspense, or discomfort, that accompanied my parents’ lives.
I had wanted to write this poem for a long time but couldn’t discover an expressive form for it; then I thought of the diptych, a scene or a double portrait painted on two panels which are always separate.