VICTORIA LAURIE meets
WRITER Catherine Cole has done something too few of us do. She has taken time out to reflect deeply on a person who helped shape her career and who arguably changed her life. Cole’s mentor nurtured her passion for writing and poetry. Her book The Poet Who Forgot is a tribute to the man who corresponded with her for 20 years until, aged 93 and suffering from dementia, he died in 2000. He was a wellqualified writer of encouraging missives: he was Australia’s great poet A. D. Hope.
Hope was already an academic when Cole fell in love with poetry at school: ‘‘ Robert Louis Stevenson, Walter de la Mare, Robert Browning, long narratives about pied pipers and Lorelei rocks and highwaymen recited en masse, loudly, in stifling summer classrooms,’’ she recalls. At university, she memorised the verses of Kenneth Slessor and Hope, whose poem The Death of the Bird was a particular favourite.
One day, when in her 20s, the undergraduate felt compelled to express her gratitude for all the beautiful words. Slessor was dead but Hope was not. So Cole sent the famous literary figure a note thanking him for the pleasure of his verse.
That triggered a lively correspondence for two decades between Hope and Cole, who is now professor of creative writing at Melbourne’s RMIT University and author of crime novels Dry Dock and Skin Deep , the nonfiction Private Dicks and Feisty Chicks , and her Vietnam- based novel The Grave at Thu Le .
‘‘ It seemed a way of honouring people just to drop them a line and say, ‘ I studied your poetry and thank you very much’,’’ Cole explains. She thought little more about it until, to her surprise, a reply came in Hope’s handwriting.
‘‘ He reacted very kindly. He said, ‘ If ever you’re in Canberra, look us up.’ ’’ Some months later she did, knocking hesitantly on his office door in the Australian National University’s A. D. Hope building. ‘‘ I was nervous because Alec was already Australia’s most famous living poet; he’d written very sexualised poems and people said he had a roguish reputation.’’
But the white- haired, avuncular man with a twinkle in his eye merely offered her sandwiches and a glass of shiraz. ‘‘ We talked poetry for hours,’’ Cole recalls. ‘‘ He was warm and friendly and genuinely interested in my work.’’ The friendship grew and further meetings occurred. ‘‘ I look back on one particular day 30 years ago, when I went on a ( Sydney Harbour) ferry with Alec and we talked about Kenneth Slessor all the way to Manly. I think now what an incredible privilege it was.’’
Occasionally Cole looked after the Canberra home of Hope and his wife Penelope when they went away. But the most precious exchanges were on paper. ‘‘ I sent him a postcard from Ravenna of Byzantine mosaics, and he sent back this amazing letter full of information about the empress Theodora.’’
Another missive was a scholarly exposition on Zen Buddhism; yet another described his efforts to write poems inspired by Old Testament tales about Susanna and the elders. Yet others were hasty notes dashed off between finalising poetry manuscripts.
‘‘ He was so clever, so able to talk widely across philosophy and ideas,’’ Cole says. ‘‘ He would love to chat on about a writer you’d discovered, because inevitably he knew all about them.’’
And as Cole struggled to get work published or find jobs, Hope’s advice was always gentle and encouraging. ‘‘ If I used a word that was too florid or inappropriate, he’d simply say, ‘ I don’t think I’d use that word in that context.’ What he gave me was a sense of ‘ when the time is right, you’ll write’, and a sense of discipline. He said, ‘ You just have to keep working at it, keep going.’ ’’
Cole did keep going, not in the area of poetry but crime fiction and novel writing. She kept every one of the 38 letters Hope sent. And the older poet, who was awarded a Companion of the Order of Australia in 1981, clearly cherished Cole’s letters, postcards and comical notes, because he kept them, too.
‘‘ I discovered that all the letters I’d sent to him were in the National Library. He’d kept them all. It was lovely but it was also quite terrifying. You suddenly feel very exposed.’’
Cole’s correspondence is kept in the National Library’s Hope archive of 80 boxes, nestled alongside letters to Hope from luminaries such as Patrick White, Judith Wright and Slessor.
‘‘ I got permission from Alec’s two wonderful sons to get copies of my letters, which I paired with his and put them together in the book, wrapped around with essays,’’ she says.
Cole’s crime fiction writing, set in Sydney’s Balmain, has attracted fan letters. Once an elderly fan arrived at her doorstep. ‘‘ I was a little bit shocked at first, until I realised she didn’t see the books as fictitious but about her own experience of Balmain. I invited her in for a cup of tea.’’
She says she tries to bring Hope’s mentoring qualities to her own teaching because budding young writers and poets deserve ‘‘ an empathetic ear, honesty and a generous response’’.
‘‘ Talk of poetry appreciation being dead among the young is untrue,’’ Cole says. ‘‘ It’s just that they appreciate it and savour it differently.
‘‘ My generation would study poems at school, take them apart and recite them. You’d carry those poems with you all your life . . . Younger people like poetics through song: they like Leonard Cohen as much as we did. They understand notions of metre and rhythm and word play, so none of that’s lost.’’
Thinking back on the interaction between her and Hope, Cole muses in The Poet who Forgot on the ways we remember events.
‘‘ Like ( Scottish philosopher David) Hume’s notion of memory as a kind of palimpsest — where memories overwrite one another, leaving indelible prints one under the other — reading A. D. Hope’s letters takes me back to a past which has been overwritten with layers of experience. Had I known then . . . If I’d followed that direction . . . Whatever happened to . . . What might have resulted if?’’ Hope had severe Alzheimer’s disease by the time he died. ‘‘ There’s a beautiful poem in the book by Geoff Page about Alec’s loss of memory. But it’s also about what we lose as we get older, and the last two chapters are about memory and forgetfulness. I feel I’m a bit like I’m at that point in life where I’m both remembering and forgetting.’’
The Poet Who Forgot is not a memoir of Hope or even a biography, Cole says, but a personal account of one man’s kindness towards a youthful apprentice. Cole plans to donate her package of Hope letters to the National Library.
‘‘ They’ve been sitting in a little cardboard box for years in their original envelopes. It feels as if I’d be sending them to their rightful home, and it’s time to let them and the stories go.’’
Picture: Andy Tyndall