Lines be­tween us and the void

Our na­tional cul­ture is di­min­ished when we ne­glect our po­ets, writes Kevin Hart

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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