The annual Australian Reading Hour is this Thursday. It’s a day when we are all encouraged to pick up a book and read for 60 minutes. Of course, if the book is a page-turner, feel free to keep going. More than 100 authors are leaving their garrets to take part in community readathons. There’s a droll YouTube video made for the day in which “book lovers read the best of the internet”. Seeing crime writer Michael Robotham forced to ask “Are coconuts mammals?” made me laugh. More information at readinghour.org.au. Speaking of page turners, Tim Winton’s new novel has been announced. The Shepherd’s Hut will be published next March. It centres on a motherless young man who turns on his violent father, with life-changing results. Penguin Random House bills the novel as “a meditation on masculinity and power, violence and selfrestraint, and on forgiveness and kindness as the ultimate acts of love”. Congratulations to Perth writer Josephine Wilson for winning the Miles Franklin Literary Award for her second novel, Extinctions. I spoke to her after Thursday’s win and the story is on our website. Congratulations too to the other shortlisted writers: Emily Maguire ( An Isolated Incident), Ryan O’Neill ( Their Brilliant Careers), Philip Salom ( Waiting) and Mark O’Flynn ( The Last Days of Ava Langdon). They are not household-name authors (yet) but that doesn’t make their novels any less brilliant. John Ashbery was the world’s most admired living poet, until Monday that is, when he died at his home in New York, aged 90. A lot of writers and readers have paid tribute to him. The poetry editor of The New Yorker, Irish poet Paul Muldoon, suggested Ashbery’s greatness was “accepted by both sides of the house: the poets sometimes perceived as fuddy-duddies for once falling in with those who are sometimes perceived as whack jobs”. Now, that is high praise. I also liked Meghan O’Rourke’s piece in online magazine Slate. Ashbery, she noted, wrote his first poem when he was eight. Further, it “rhymed and made sense”. I don’t know Ashbery’s work as well as I should, but I think he dropped the rhyming bit. Others say his poems do not make sense. They are not necessarily being critical. On the rhyme question, I had planned to share readers’ views on this hot topic this week, but then I saw the Bryan Appleyard interview with John le Carre and thought it should go to the head of the queue. So next week will be rhyme time.
The however, should go to Ashbery himself, from a 2002 interview with American poet and critic Dan Schneider. He was asked how he felt about “formal criticism” of his work. His response is beautiful, and I think it has something to offer in the rhyme debate.
“Criticism, in general, has less and less to do with my work. I’m sometimes kind of jealous of my work. It keeps getting all the attention and I’m not. After all, I wrote it. I really don’t know what to think when I read criticism, either favourable or unfavourable. In most cases, even when it’s sympathetic and understanding, it’s a sort of parallel adventure to the poetry. It never gives me the feeling that I’ll know how to do it the next time I sit down to write, which is my principal concern.
“I’m not putting down critics, but they don’t help the poetry to get its work done … Very few people have ever written a serious mixed critique of my poetry. It’s either dismissed as nonsense or held up as a work of genius. Few critics have ever accepted it on its own terms and pointed out how I’ve succeeded at certain moments and failed at other moments at what I was setting out to do. I will quote one of my favourite lines from Nijinsky’s journal: ‘Criticism is death.’ He doesn’t elaborate on that statement at all.”