Impossible Preludes – Sydney Launch Speech
By David Brooks
There are at least four things a launch of a collection of poetry should do: honour the author, honour the book (in this case beautifully designed and produced by Margaret River Press), honour poetry itself, and goad/entice those attending into buying the collection. I’m going to mix them up a bit.
Bob Dylan was just awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Many are up in arms. One of the outraged lists a few of these negative opinions on The Conversation website. These opinions seem narrow-minded to me. Most of them are from generations too recent to have much idea of the younger Dylan’s real verbal power, his political guts, or his remarkable influence on the two or three generations before these generations.
I applaud the award. Poetry is vast and very diverse. There are hundreds of kinds. Auden, once close to being the greatest living poet in the English language (almost as influential as Dylan), once famously said poetry makes nothing happen. That’s rubbish. Some forms of poetry – political and advertising slogans, for example, or amazing lines of amazing songs – make things happen all the time, sometimes very bad things, sometimes great things. Even the kinds of poetry Auden might have had in mind make small but quite mysterious, even magical things happen all the time.
Many contemporary avant-gardists, aestheticians and theoreticians of poetry tend to see it in a narrower, stricter and more elitist sense, though they’d probably hate that latter term. Certainly some of the forms of contemporary poetry most popular amongst them, while theoretically very inclusive, can seem so unfamiliar and challenging in their presentation that, ironically, they exclude many potential readers. Andrew’s poetry is a long way from that. I haven’t checked with him but he seems to be of a view that, while it can be deceptive and needs to be handled very carefully, language is a powerful tool with which to express our questions and concerns and pain and exuberance about the world, and that poetry in particular can be a means of immediate, clear, powerful and yet also very subtle, nuanced and haunting communication. The poems of Impossible Preludes are always clear, immediate, and subtle; sometimes they are powerful, sometimes haunting, and they express, consistently, an engaging mix of question, concern, and (sometimes against the odds, as John Kinsella says in his insightful introduction) love of being – exude, indeed, a gentle, unintrusive but distinct wisdom. To quote a phrase from a poet I think Andrew has much admired, there is in them a ‘tenderness toward existence’; they are inclusive; they are not poems that shut you out.
Andrew’s Wiki entry begins by stating that, ‘Although he lacks the public profile of several of his contemporaries, he has since come to be regarded as a major figure in Australian poetry, with a body of work notable for its intelligence and its formal, emotional and geographical diversity.’ That’s true enough, and is readily borne out here. It will also tell you that he’s published fifteen previous collections of poetry and, in 1987, one of the best books about Australian poetry written so far, Reading Australian Poetry, a book I learnt so much from that for years I’ve been working on a sequel. And in addition to creating this substantial body of writing he’s been, amongst other things, Chair of the Adelaide Festival’s Writers Week, acting Chair of the Literature Board, and foundation Professor of English at Edith Cowan University.
My own contact with him goes back further than he’d ever remember. In 1974, it must have been, he gave a paper on the poetry of Galway Kinnell at a conference somewhere in this great land – I’ve no memory of where it was – that, as a young university student who’d just encountered and become entranced by Kinnell’s work, I hitch-hiked some distance to hear. We’ve met a few times since, but never so memorably as when, on a bench outside the Fisher Library at some point in the nineties, we had a long and very moving conversation – existential, you might call it – about fear, love, illness, dying: the sorts of preoccupations that move, like shadows in water, through the poems of Impossible Preludes.
And here we now are, neither of us dead, and both of us, it seems, still with a fairly unshakeable belief that the glass is not just half-full, but as often as not actually brimming. Which perhaps offers us one possible explanation of this book’s title. Preludes? At seventy-six? They say life begins at forty, but for some of us it begins every morning, and sometimes with the smallest things.
It’s said that thought is impossible without language. I’m not sure that’s so. In fact I think a great deal of the world’s thought is done without language, at least as we human animals know it. And Lacan says that language ‘hollows being into desire’. That sounds good, but I’m not sure I believe it either, at least not in his way. But, whichever way the wind blows (‘you don’t need a weatherman…’), we humans, arguably, are language animals, and there may be something to our perception that language adds something to our world; that our world becomes whatever it ends up being, in part through language’s agency. Becomes, I say, not is hollowed, though I do think that, yes, desire has something to do with it. Good poetry – a good poetic image – both helps us see this world and, more, quickens our desire for it.
There is much in this collection that quickens us. We see this tightening and focussing everywhere:
like the flag that once
settled out of nowhere
at our astonished feet
Perhaps the greatest compliment I could convey to Andrew about the book is that a visitor the other day – someone whose interest in poetry would take a very sensitive instrument to detect – picked up the collection, I thought to say something sarcastic about the way I was wasting my life, and actually began reading with absorption, her attention snatched. Clearly one of those little, mysterious things had happened. I think the lines she read were these, almost the first of the collection –
Thought tends to collect in pools
and pools tends to collect in hollows
leading nowhere or where a stream
bends and gropes its way around rocks
leaving memories of itself and leaves
tremble and rustle as afternoon
lengthens towards night and stars
– but they might have been these, from a poem called ‘Beginnings’:
like a meteorite had hit. Then
I saw its fin, circling and swooping
in whatever the hills’ recent rain
was flushing towards the sea. Matted
old algae. Knitted blankets of twigs,
any rubbish, it seemed, the dolphin
was somersaulting in it
There are many other passages I could quote to you, to goad and entice – the collection is striking, for example, for its love poems:
Times at night
you just disappear
like those birds in the park
behind our fence
before we sold it
you just vanish into silence…
– but you are probably ready to recharge your glasses, and I will leave you to discover them yourselves. I declare this fine book launched. It should be very clear that I’ve enjoyed it. I hope you will too. Andrew will now read and then – you won’t think twice – you can make your purchases. Christmas is close. Think what a nice gift this would make, for that surprise guest.
David Brooks, a novelist, short-fiction writer and essayist as well as poet, has been recently described as ‘one of Australia’s most skilled, versatile and unusual writers’ (Sydney Morning Herald). He is currently Honorary Associate Professor in Australian Literature at the University of Sydney, where he taught for many years, and the 2015/16 Australia Council Fellow in Literature. He has been managing co-editor of Southerly Magazine since 1999. His most recent publications are ‘Open House’, a collection of poetry, ‘Napolean’s Roads’, a book of short fiction – both from the University of Queensland Press – and ‘Derrida’s Breakfast’ (Brandl & Schlesinger), a suite of four essays on poetry, philosophy and animals.