David Camp­bell’s pure lyri­cism is in vogue again, writes Bernard Lane

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

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).

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