REMARKS BY ROBERT GRAY
ON HIS POEMs SET FOR THE HSC, 2019
These are from the book ‘Coast Road: Selected Poems’, 2018
- Journey, the North Coast
- ‘Flames and Dangling Wire’
- ’24 Poems’
- ‘Description of a Walk’
- ‘Harbour Dusk’
- ‘Byron Bay: Winter’
‘A poem is never finished, it is only abandoned’ – Paul Valery
The purpose of poetry is to give pleasure. It does this particularly for someone
interested in words (and even for HSC students).
Poetry is primarily a visual art, which conveys ideas and emotions through
imagery. Images are the pictures we have in our mind, derived from memories.
They can be shredded, rearranged, magnified, manipulated in every possible
way, which is the work of the imagination.
My poetry is full of images, because I want to particularize every natural thing
that appears in it, out of respect, you might say. In my poems, nothing is a symbol
for anything else. Everything has its own worth and is presented directly. The
overall effect is one of clarity and light.
‘Journey, the North Coast’
You will notice at once the rhythm of this. The variety of line-lengths makes it an
example of free verse. The poem imitates the swaying movement of an overnight
train (but not too heavy-handedly, I would like to think). Also imitative is the
poem’s narrative plunges down the page, without the hindrance of stanza-breaks.
The poet finds the experience of waking in the country exhilarating, as is shown
in the sensuous imagery used.
There is fleetingly evoked a contrast between the country morning of a holiday
and the rented room in the city, where he has lived out of a suitcase. The shadow
of the furnished room is carried along with him.
‘Flames and Dangling Wire’
This poem is set in a city’s rubbish dump. The poem can be said to have become
‘historical’ because the incineration of garbage has been replaced, in first world
countries, at least, by landfill (which has its own problems). The poem says that
everywhere in existence, even in the most ‘spiritual’ experience, there is
transience, passing away; life is change, wastage; it shares the nature of garbage, which is loss.
The expression ‘horse laughs’ refers to the artificial laughter that accompanies
sitcoms on TV, wherase Chopin’s music is rarefied, highly refined. Both kinds of
experience are equally lost.
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’ evokes sails, and it seems the listener is being carried towards
‘a coast of light.’
This is a dark poem, but it ends with the word ‘light’. Where is that light?
These are obviously influenced by the Japanese haiku. Haiku have been called
‘the building blocks of poetry.’
Because we encounter them early in our school career, some think of haiku as
the equivalent of finger painting, they are more like photography, which
everyone can practice but few can do really well.
Haiku, in their traditional form, use just an image; they have no similes or
metaphors, no expressive line-breaks, and even fewer than the seventeen
syllables we have been told about. They are expected to identify the season in
which they occur.
My versions break all of these rules. I don’t call them haiku, but see them as just
the briefest possible arrangement of words that suggest an emotion. These brief
poems can be subjective or objective, imaginary or factual, calm or anxious.
Haiku are potential in many moments of our daily life. We try to put a precise
word to the emotion we feel. Haiku might be called the language of silence. They
improve our experience of life.
‘Description of a Walk’
This is about walking in the hinterland of eucalyptus forest on the east coast of
Australia, in Victoria or New South Wales. The writer crosses a paddock in light,
steady rain and enters the forest that covers a steep ridge. He finds his way
uphill among boulders and tree trunks and at the top looks out over a valley.
No one else is about. He makes his way along the narrow ridge, in the rattling noise
of cicadas, that have started up chanting in the wet sunlight.
On the way up he notices some particular sights. ‘Plinths and mantels’ are
metaphors for the flat rocks on which stones and pebbles lie around, in
seemingly artful decoration.
One of the meanings of ‘gout’ is a medical one a large splash or clot,’ which
characterizes the latent energy of the boulders strewn around. ‘Syncopation’
means to leave out syllables from a word, or notes in music; here it signifies that
the pattern of the rain sparkling on sandstone is incomplete. ‘Pre-Raphaelite’
refers to a group of painters in late nineteenth century England who worked in
meticulous detail, and ground their own colours, for their purity. ‘Pumpernickel’
is black rye bread, moist and solid. ‘Shekels’ are ancient Middle-Eastern coins–
the word is used here to suggest the sound of a cascade of coins pouring over
The writer walks ‘on and on’ in the drenching sound of the cicadas, which is
their urgency to mate. What it is ‘all about’ he says he forgets in the vibrancy, the
vitality, of the life around him. He imagines for a moment the figure of a lost
explorer or hiker, tormented by the cicadas’ ‘life force,’ their ‘will to live’. We can
conjecture this might be the writer’s own predicament, which he is able to ignore
in his close experience of the bush.
This poem is written in what I call ‘loosened form’, which allows divergence from
the correct examples in the textbooks. The best instances of standard form are
found in Shakespeare’s sonnets: look at Sonnet 23, for example. (Loosened form
shows the effects of the free verse revolution of the 20th century on traditional
formal poetry. Many expressive gestures have been made available — this poem
shows the use of some of them.)
The ‘fading life’ of the harbour’s stone wall tells us that the relationship
between ‘she and I’ is failing. The day at this time is going down into darkness.
Some yachts linger, as if hesitant, unsure; as if they’ve lost their way.
The theme of this poem might be a phrase from the Irish Poet W B Yeats, who
announced sweepingly, ‘Things fall apart’. These resonant words are to be
understood generally, they proclaim a tragic sense of life, realized on a smaller
The last of the evening light is coloured mulberry and orange – a spectacle that
is sumptuous and fleeting. Chiffon is a flimsy, semi-diaphanous woven material.,
The last rhyme (‘sail’ and ‘confessional’) is almost not there; is not to be grasped;
The poem, in its lapsing rhythm, has a melancholy sense of loss, of our plans
being foiled, inevitably; at the same time expresses the appealing relaxation that
hides in pessimism. We like sad songs and music for the calming effect they have
on us. ‘Harbour Dusk’ is one of my favourite among all my works.
‘Byron Bay: Winter’
This poem is written in the traditional form of the ballad, although with loosened
rhyme and rhythm. The great Scottish border ballads date from medieval times,
and the form has been used rewardingly by singers as recent as Bob Dylan. It is a
tight poem in which a significant action takes place.
With this poem, there is in each stanza a full rhyme alongside a half-rhyme, to
enhance the musical effect.
The music of the poem is meant to contribute to a feeling of freshness and light.
The writer says the afternoon sun on his back, as he wanders along the beach,
makes him feel exalted, as if he has grown ‘great wings’.
The lines along the shore, drawn by the surfs edge, are compared to the outline of a mountain range, behind there, giving a sense of scale.
She-oaks have harmless needles as their foliage, which is found to be like a light rain.
It is affected for a writer to speak of an angel in his or her work; but the naivety
of alluding to an angel (as ‘great wings’) contributes a feeling of innocence – the
ideal of an ‘innocent eye’, which lies behind this poem. The poem speaks only ‘as
if’ there were an angel there; it is a simile, not a metaphor, for choosing to be
earth-bound (‘stepping along the earth’), celebrating life in such a place.