Lines between us and the void
Our national culture is diminished when we neglect our poets, writes Kevin Hart
WHEN A. D. Hope died in 2000 at the age of 93, Australia lost its greatest living poet. That most Australians did not notice their loss is understandable: like almost all our significant poets, his works had long been out of print and therefore unread and untaught. Only in the year of his death did a modest retrospective volume of his poems and essays appear.
Once, some years ago, Hope was asked in an interview, ‘‘ Come now, Professor Hope, what can poets actually do for Australia?’’ His answer was piercing: ‘‘ They can justify its existence.’’ Haughty, the response is nonetheless true, and true, certainly, of Hope. One of the most distinctive things about Australia is that one of its citizens has written poems as simple, sensuous, and passionate as The Death of the Bird , Chorale , Meditation on a Bone , The Double Looking Glass and Faustus.
The Poet Who Forgot By Catherine Cole University of Western Australia Press, $ 24.95, 280pp
As Hope’s answer to the interviewer’s question suggests, he could be a formidable man. In the 1940s and ’ 50s his reviews were feared for their acidity and intelligence. If his reviews hurt some writers — Patrick White included — they also sharply raised the standard of literary discussion in Australia. Yet Hope relaxed: when Norma Davis died shortly after reading his biting and hilarious review of her first book, he was horrified to think of the pain he may have caused her. The man I knew, from 1973 to 2000, was invariably gracious and benevolent.
Catherine Cole met the same man I had come to love a decade after I did, and her new book, The Poet Who Forgot , is a fond memoir of her mentor. In 1982, as an undergraduate, she wrote to Hope, whose poems she admired. He exemplified, she thought, the three attributes that Vladimir Nabokov deemed essential to a writer: ‘‘ storyteller, teacher, enchanter’’.
Hope replied to her letter with his usual hospitality, asking her to visit him if she should ever be in Canberra. And so began a lively correspondence, enriched by lunches and dinners spent talking of Louise Labe and W. B. Yeats, prefaced by whisky and lushly extended with red wine.
In those days a meal with Hope was a heady affair for a young poet. His conversation was wide ranging, always informed by the long perspective, yet never in the least bit intimidating. If he passed from anecdotes about mathematicians to verse by Anna Akhmatova and Mallarme, to the theology of Thomas Aquinas ( whose works in Latin he once gave me), it was done with a lightness of spirit and with unfeigned pleasure in the sinuous curves of an unhurried conversation. If a third party were in the room, he would pour more wine or whisky ( there was always lots), saying ( with a sparkle in his eye), ‘‘ Listening to poets is very thirsty work.’’
Hope’s letters to Cole perfectly recall that sparkling eye and his extraordinary ability to render difference in age irrelevant. Cole, now a novelist and academic, was in her mid- 20s when they met; Hope was in his mid- 70s. Only when I saw Hope at the end of his life in a nursing home in Canberra, suffering from dementia and having forgotten almost everything he knew — the sad burden of Cole’s memoir — did it strike me forcibly that he had been an old man in the years I knew him.
When talking with him, he seemed to live off to one side of time, as though a contemporary of all the writers in the past 300 years; yet, strangely, he seemed not to have been touched by time. He lived well; he aged well. ‘‘ Now I feel I’ve reached the pinnacle of achievement when you equate me with one of Yeats’s ‘ wild, wicked old men’,’’ he wrote to Cole. ‘‘ I’m probably remarkably wicked but not very wild, I fear too much ingrained Presbyterian caution.’’
Or not enough of it, some Presbyterians would say. ‘‘ All women are beautiful,’’ Hope once said to me, ‘‘ every last one.’’ And in the years I knew him, most young women found him enchanting, despite fears ( such as Cole had) that he might have been sexually predatory when younger, even just a bit younger. He was charming and kind, he liked women enormously and listened well to them. In turn, they were attracted to him, regardless of age.
I well remember, after a poetry reading at the Australian National University in the ’ 70s, seeing him sitting with five or six undergraduate girls on their knees before him. The Poet Who Forgot is partly the story of a mutual attraction and a mutual affection.
In his last dementia- affected years, the correspondence between Hope and Cole had dissipated. Hope felt the slackening of the tie. ‘‘ It’s high time you wrote to me again; it’s even higher time you came to Canberra again as you used to in the good old days,’’ he said in the second last
‘ Come now, Professor Hope, what can poets do for Australia?’ ‘ They can justify its existence’
letter reprinted here. And then he passed into the void of memory loss.
I last saw him weeks before he died. He was in a nursing home, sharing a room with a man who shouted at him and threw things at him. We drank wine with another friend, and the wine burned the back of Hope’s throat. We had been friends for more than a quarter of a century, and he remembered me. He did not need to say many words: the touch of his hand was enough.
When I left Hope that day I thought of what he had said years before about what poets can do for Australia. ‘‘ They can justify its existence.’’ One man who had justified its existence was lying on what would be his deathbed, while another man pelted him with bits of rolled up newspaper and yelled at him in a language he could not understand. We Australians do not treat our artists well; we do not even keep their books in print; we forget what justifies us, and consequently suffer from a spiritual poverty that we do not even recognise.
Kevin Hart is Edwin B. Kyle professor of Christian studies at the University of Virginia. His new collection of poetry, Young Rain, will be published by Giramondo Press.
Sparkling eye and ready wit: A. D. Hope captivates
an audience at Melbourne’s Monash University in 1978