The Godfather: Peter Corris on poetry
I was exposed to poetry in primary school – Walter de la Mare, perhaps, and ‘My Country’ by Dorothea Mackellar almost certainly. The greatest impact was from the Australian bush ballads by Lawson, Paterson, Gordon, et al. A fourth-grade teacher, Mr Harry, was an enthusiast and read them to us. In discussion I distinguished myself by guessing correctly what ‘his ancient clay’ was – a clay pipe.
In the early years of secondary school there was Browning, I think, and Sir Henry Newbolt. I can still quote lines of ‘Drake’s Drum’, but I didn’t persist with Eng Lit at school, preferring to opt for two histories.
So I had very little grounding in poetry when I enrolled for English at the University of Melbourne in 1960. The English Department had produced a slim anthology, paper-bound, with all copyrights observed, presumably, entitled Three Modern Poets, incorporating selections from Hopkins, Eliot and Yeats – a heady mixture. There were lectures on Donne and the Metaphysicals. I became wildly enthusiastic, pored over the poems, annotated them and read all the criticism I could get my hands on.
There were two examination papers, one for poetry and one for prose and plays. The first question on the poetry paper listed excerpts from a slew of poems – eight perhaps or maybe ten. A piece of cake. I was told later that I’d correctly identified them all and had got close to full marks for my exegesis. It was a triumph of memory and swotting more than insight but it helped elevate me to the Honours class.
Poetry loomed large over the remaining three years of my course – inspirational tutorials from Vincent Buckley on Yeats and Eliot, lectures from Buckley, Jock Tomlinson and others on the Metaphysicals, the Romantics (I vastly preferred Coleridge to Wordsworth). Milton I never warmed to, Keats I found restful. Byron I found tiresome apart from pithy lines here and there. Shelley I admired in parts; ‘Ozymandias’ stands forever as dramatic and memorable.
Auden and Dylan Thomas brought us close to up to date, though not as far as Ted Hughes. I can’t remember Americans such as Frost, Berryman, Lowell or Sylvia Plath and so on getting any shrift and to this day my acquaintance with them is slight. My loss, no doubt.
During the second-year vacation my girlfriend (my first) was killed in a motor accident. During the next year I wrote maudlin, self-pitying verses, which I submitted to student magazines. Mercifully they were never published.
The fourth-year course concentrated on Australian poetry and I was captivated by AD Hope and Kenneth Slessor far more than, say, James Macauley or Christopher Brennan. I admired some of Judith Wright. Oddly, one poem sticks in my mind from that time – ‘An Old Inmate’ by Kenneth ‘Seaforth’ Mackenzie. It was read well by poet and lecturer Evan Jones. I can’t quote it here because of copyright restrictions but the opening lines stay as fresh and powerful to me now as when I first heard and read them more than 50 years ago.