Romantic Malouf goes
IN his preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads ( 1800), William Wordsworth, the progenitor of English romanticism, announces that a poet is a ‘‘ man speaking to men’’ and that poetry is ‘‘ emotion recollected in tranquillity’’. David Malouf’s poetry is unquestionably in this great tradition.
Indeed, Revolving Days, his new volume of selected poetry, begins with a laconic author’s note in which he speaks of the temporal lag between writing and experience, and how this has affected his reordering of poems, written through 45 years or so: ‘‘ For the most part, the poems . . . appear at the point where they were touched off by something seen or felt rather than the time, sometimes years later, when I found words for the experience.’’ Romantic in this placing of autobiography, time and memory at the centre of poetry, Malouf is romantic, too, in his conviction that natural encounters demand to be seized in all their dense imagistic specificity: A frog gulps on the path, earth- bubble green, deep water speaks in its throat. And revenant at dawn a pale fog ghosts among wrought- iron furniture.
Along with the fundamental poetic elements of earth, sun, moon, wind and sea, images of angels, swarms, stars and assorted celestial phenomena return throughout the book, binding the writing of the life to the vagaries of time. In these returns, one has glimpses of peculiar Maloufian epiphanies: ‘‘ the amplified ostinato/ measures of earthed sky- music’’.
Teetering forever on the verge of disabused revelation, the often surprising readability of many of these lyrics derives from their predominantly iambic rhythms, which are then unpredictably derailed by inversions of beat, by sudden enjambments or changes in pace: ‘‘ Late hammering from the forge. The sparks go out/ on a sigh,
psalms and proverbs.’’ These little shocks of arrhythmia are testimony to Malouf’s technical mastery, injecting interruptions into the kernel of experience. And because language is not simply a record of experience but itself an experience, Malouf constantly interweaves memories of childhood, travelling and love with the fruits of his reading: ultimately, there can be no principled distinction between writing and the world. Allusions to the masters are everywhere, from covert echoes of favourite poems to the invocation of canonical titles, culminating in the septuagint of translations of the emperor Hadrian’s self- penned epitaph Animula vagula blandula that concludes this volume: Dear soul mate, little guest and companion, what shift will you make now, out there in the cold? If this is a joke, it is old, old.
Yet a few of these poems are too derivative to be successfully allusive, betraying the difficulties of being an Australian poet who sometimes feels himself far from the metropole at the same moment that he disavows feeling so. Sheer Edge is a kind of after- echo of W. H. Auden’s brilliant Look, Stranger, but it never quite achieves the sibylline convulsiveness of its predecessor. Other poems curb and better master Malouf’s influences: one finds strange fusions of Ezra Pound, W. C. Williams and Wallace Stevens, a menagerie of 20th- century poets pressed into service under strange new stars. Occasionally, one senses Malouf straining for effortlessness; more often, lines race past, then come back with the disjointed power of unhappy dreams: ‘‘ I wake towards morning and look out/ on the snowbound square, the Graben, grave or ditch. The great Pestsaule,/ a column of white worms, writhes out of its pit’’.
Romanticism began as revolution but survives today as a kind of poetic and political conservatism. Malouf is conservative in the full sense of the word, essaying to conserve, to preserve what has passed in the irrevocability of its loss. It’s not so much the dynamism of what happens as the reflection on what has gone that moves Malouf. Take Typewriter Music, the title poem of a 2007 collection, which celebrates an outmoded writing technology: ‘‘ each rifleshot hammerstroke another notch/ in the silence’’. Such forceful elegiacs are at the heart of Malouf’s work, as if poetry was itself a phenomenon that has outlasted its use- by date, yet somehow rattles on like a host of spectral cicadas. This, too, is exemplarily romantic. A born melancholic, Malouf refuses to give up mourning the loss of something that never really existed and was never really that desirable in the first place. Yet such conservation is simultaneously recreation; hence Malouf’s central theme of the dissimulating divisiveness of time. Knowingly split between experience, the memory of the experience, the writing and reordering of the memory of the experience, time, place and person are to be reconstructed in all their density and their dislocation. Malouf celebrates the sober carnival of shattered time, with its giddily revolving days, its ever- gathering and dispersing swarms. David Malouf is a guest at Adelaide Writers Week.