David Campbell’s pure lyricism is in vogue again, writes Bernard Lane
NOTHING seems so alien as the recent past. Imagine a time when poets complained of postal strikes. When petrol rationing got in the way of their fishing expeditions. When Manning Clark was just good company on a stream as the trout rose. Imagine a time when a poet who put women in mind of a Greek god wrote lyrics for a shearers’ concert. When verse could be praised as ‘‘ gay, vital and masculine’’.
These were the times of David Campbell, farmer- poet of the country around Canberra, and something of their spirit is being recaptured by Jonathan Persse, who is working on the biography that Campbell lacks and deserves. Persse recently published an absorbing selection of postwar letters between Campbell and Douglas Stewart, once a power in the land as editor of The Bulletin ’ s literary Red Page . Thanks to Philip Mead, poet and academic, Campbell once again has a book of selected poems on the market. And Strike , a novella- trophy of Campbell’s good war, was published last year and has sold half of its ( modest) print run.
Campbell died, rather young, almost three decades ago, but he left a rich harvest; it’s still coming in. Listen to Under Wattles : Now, here and there, against the cold, The hillsides smoulder into gold And the stockman riding by Lifts to the trees a yellow eye. It’s here the couples from the farms Play in one another’s arms At yes and no — you’d think the trees Sprang from their felicities. So may our children grow up strong, Got while the thrush drew out his song, And love like you and I when we Lie beneath the wattle tree. Mead puts it well: ‘‘ David Campbell is a poet of the lyric encounter. Almost every poem he wrote has the energy, surprise and immediacy of an encounter with some aspect of the natural or human world.’’
This was so as he roamed the high, snowgum country of his birthright, contemplated Aboriginal rock carvings on Sydney’s outskirts or stood, late in life, astride the Pont Neuf in Paris thinking of all who had passed that way before.
Campbell came into the world a year after World War I began. On his mother’s side of the family was James Blackman, a grazier and colonial pioneer of Bathurst, Orange and Mudgee. His father was a medico but his family too were land- holders. Campbell inherited the pastoral tradition ( and in time his father’s property, Wells, to the north of Canberra).
At the King’s School, Parramatta, young Campbell shone in boxing, rugby and rowing. ‘‘ They left my mind completely alone,’’ he recalled. ‘‘ I was lucky.’’ Sporting achievement also marked his time at Cambridge University — he played two rugby Tests for England — but there he read widely and deeply. Thanks to Cambridge, he would draw on the English poetic tradition as well as Australia’s verse and landscape. For Stewart, Campbell’s lyric was Australian and aristocratic.
The local air squadron at Cambridge also taught Campbell to fly, which he put to good use a few years later over Rabaul, New Britain. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He was keen ‘‘ to get back on the land as soon as the war was over, and not to be a poet, if a poet means a long- haired gentleman living in a garret with a geranium’’, according to Stewart. But of course Campbell’s ideal of the poet was something quite different, something alien in today’s poetic economy of grant application, creative writing class and tribal politics by email list.
In one of the hundreds of letters that made their way from country NSW to The Bulletin buildings of George Street, Sydney, Campbell told Stewart: ‘‘ I have discovered the perfect work combination here, writing in the morning and wool pressing in the afternoon, though I hope my writing is better than some of the bales I turn out.’’ In Stewart’s formula, Campbell believed ‘‘ the artist and the man of action are kinsmen’’. Not narrow, political action but a passionate engagement with life.
Read Campbell’s letter excoriating W. H. Auden, a model of the playful poet given to political gesture: ‘‘ I’ve been exercising myself by throwing Auden out of the window — what a compassionless bastard, what an irrelevant wrecker of occasional gold themes, what an offcentre graceless Iago, what a cursing Caliban, what a lame Stavrogin — and fetching him back again to read many of his lyrics with delight when he’s not trying to be clever.
‘‘ He seems to me to have everything that goes to the making of masterpieces, except what it takes: a respect for, and delight in, life.’’
And here’s Campbell after reading T. S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party : ‘‘ What an insipid cold tonic that is; and what a distaste Eliot has for ordinary life.’’ Later, his property besieged by drought and being forced to handfeed his sheep, Campbell’s thoughts return to the author of The Waste Land and he writes with bitter irony: ‘‘ Dung and death. Eliot was cut out for a farmer.’’
In the Campbell- Stewart correspondence there’s plenty about fishing (‘‘ Manning dropped in on his way back from the south coast with a 2lb ( 900g) leatherjacket’’), a fair amount of shop talk (‘‘ I don’t think that final spondee quite works when the rest of the metre is so regular’’) but almost nothing of politics.
Consider Campbell’s response to Rutherford , Stewart’s long, ultimately optimistic poem about Ernest Rutherford, the father of nuclear physics: ‘‘ Though I sense too that movement towards perfection in nature, & grant it too in the thought of a great scientist, I can’t see any progress in the art of living well & happily since the Greeks.’’
A sentiment such as this is hard to reconcile with the Campbell introduced by Mead, who seems intent on digging up a bush poet so he can give him a decent reburial as a Balmain bohemian. He acknowledges Campbell as a member of Stewart’s decidedly unhip Bulletin school but quickly adds in mitigation: ‘‘ He restively sought to refashion the native tradition.’’
For Mead and presumably for the readers he hopes to turn towards Campbell, the Vietnam War era was ‘‘ a crucial period of change in modern Australia’’. He makes much of Campbell leaving his pastoral property, moving closer to town and mingling with younger poets such as Michael Dransfield and Martin Johnston, who were giving expression ‘‘ to a new version of Australian modernity’’. Mead suggests that nothing in Campbell’s earlier poetry could have prepared readers for his ‘‘ shocking poem of protest’’ against the 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam. By shocking, Mead means shockingly good, I guess. Here’s the opening stanza: I was milking the cow when a row of tall bamboo Was mowed by rifle fire With my wife and child in the one harvest, And the blue milk spilt and ruined. It is a powerful poem, but why be surprised that Campbell, a person of feeling, could identify with a fellow farmer and his family in this way?
Anyway, the chameleon- like Campbell observed by Mead simply doesn’t make an appearance in the selected letters.
In November 1975 there’s talk of Campbell’s new book, Deaths and Pretty Cousins , his old cat Claudia and Jane Lindsay, daughter of artist Norman, naked under a waterfall. Not a trace of the troubles Gough Whitlam was having just up the road from Campbell.
In 1976 Campbell published Flame & Shadow , stories that drew on his pastoral childhood, and he thanked Stewart for a warm review, joking that he’d ‘‘ felt certain that some Surry Hills New Left technician would take it to pieces & find a knock in the ideology’’. In his last year of life Campbell moved into Canberra proper and told Stewart he wasn’t writing: ‘‘ I seem to need the countryside to feed me or get the inward eye working.’’
Mead’s New Left makeover of Campbell is hesitant and incomplete. He hints at but doesn’t pursue a vague comparison with those literary children of the squattocracy — Judith Wright, John Manifold and Patrick White — who went in for self- criticism of their caste. Campbell admired Wright as a poet and a woman ( she had ‘‘ a mouth in a million’’). He also knocks her, remarking by way of apology for one of his own nature poems that ‘‘ this kind of green- tongued moaning has been a bit overdone since Judith took up conservation’’.
Presumably Leonie Kramer, who wrote Campbell’s entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, would not recognise Mead’s shapeshifting poet. She writes: ‘‘ Throughout his life he was remarkably consistent in his interests and in his view of the world. He loved the land, and valued its history as part of his own, through his family’s continuous connection with farming.’’
Here’s a dispute for Persse to arbitrate as biographer.
But a bush poet can do many things. Campbell goes on city jaunts ( Campbell promises Stewart ‘‘ filthy postcards’’ from Surfers Paradise and reports some ‘‘ rewarding nurse- watching’’ after a spell in hospital). He does nature poetry, not the same thing as bush poetry. A Campbell landscape has a purity and beauty in part because it is viewed from a distance. Mead says the ‘‘ aerial perspective’’ of Campbell’s art — watch it at work in a poem such as Windy Gap — has its objective correlative in Campbell’s life as a pilot. He had an affinity for birds; you could say the magpie was his totem.
Campbell lived in poetry, which is not divisible. In September 1954 he declared himself ‘‘ Russian again, in love with Chekhov’s plays’’; in December he had love songs ready for a shearers’ concert and saw no contradiction. Not long before his death he went to Paris. Stand with him on the Pont Neuf and look: Two geese flew over The Pont Neuf swiftly as we Crossed the green river. Caesar, Charlemagne, And others paused here beside The west- flowing Seine. Two geese flew over The Pont Neuf swiftly as we crossed the green river. Letters Lifted into Poetry: Selected Correspondence Between David Campbell and Douglas Stewart, 1946- 1979, edited by Jonathan Persse ( National Library of Australia, 256pp, $ 29.95). Hardening of the Light: Selected Poems of David Campbell, edited by Philip Mead ( Ginninderra Press, 132pp, $ 20). Strike by David Campbell ( Pandanus Books, 200pp, $ 29.95).