Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

Appreciating David Malouf as Poet

Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

Appreciating David Malouf as Poet

Article excerpt

David Malouf began life in Brisbane in 1934. It was not long before World War 2 was about to happen. When it did, it brought-for small boys especially-a sense of excitement with the Japanese threatening from the north, American troops and planes arriving en masse and something called 'the Brisbane line,' that line drawn from east to west across Australia in Queensland, north of which there was to be no defending the country. Or so the story goes.

Malouf can still resurrect stories of his school days in these colourful terms. He belonged, or part of him belongs, to this provincial part of the old British Empire. It spices up many of his best stories and poems. A certain comic brio is close at hand in his recollections. But more importantly he was to find in his Brisbane world much that was valuable, at least in the sense that the memory of it was. The ending of the war and Australia's steady recovery in the 1950s saw a nation on the cusp of change, and Malouf's became one voice to express it well.

Much could be said of Queensland in the mid-twentieth century leading, so to speak, from behind-at least in poetry. The young Judith Wright, Gwen Harwood, Clem Christensen (future editor of Meanjin), John Blight (a mentor for Malouf), David Rowbotham and the philosopher Val Vallis had been carrying the torch for poetry across difficult decades. Peter Porter, a future star of the international poetry scene, would leave Brisbane for London in the 1950s not long before Malouf himself would go overseas.

It was nonetheless a circle of younger Queensland poets in Four Poets (Cheshire, 1962) who were to announce a new presence in Australian poetry. Alongside Interiors, Malouf's contribution, there was work by Don Maynard (now an ABC FM voice often heard), Judith Green (Rodriguez) a close colleague and a sometimes Malouf 'muse,' and Rodney Hall, an English émigré with talent and ambition. It was, however, for them a time for moving out, and the group went different ways. In the 1970s Brisbane recovered with figures such as Thomas Shapcott, Roger McDonald, Rhyll McMaster and above all the University of Queensland Press taking a lead.

I knew David Malouf first as an undergraduate at the University of Queensland. He was a year ahead of me, but in fact, as I have lately learned, one month younger. He had been a brilliant student at Brisbane Grammar (topping the State in History in the Senior Public Exam and winning an Open Scholarship to the University). He seemed, precociously, to be ten years more advanced in his reading of English and European literature than other students. He wrote a thesis on the Jacobean dramatist Thomas Middleton, having come to him by way of mastering T.S. Eliot's poetry and criticism.

After an Honours degree in English Literature he spent time as a Junior Lecturer, as a clerk for BHP, and as an itinerant tutor for a Brisbane coaching Academy before leaving for England and Europe in 1959. There he worked as a school teacher while in England over the next ten years, but his clear interests lay in travel and experiencing the literature, music and art of Europe, especially of the Byzantine and Baroque cultures.

Malouf's Interiors, as his first body of published poetry, immediately suggests a paradox in that they could be called Exteriors. The phrasing is terse and analytic. Yet while a personal self and sharp ingenious mind energises the language, the poems have a frontal or surface effect as if Malouf, before he was 30, had taken all he wanted from Larkin and Lowell while holding back strong feelings and intelligence in reserve. A Wallace Stevens in waiting.

In Interiors, 'Sheer Edge' (in the 1962 version as distinct from the 1991 text) compares poetry's emergence and presence to the precarious situation of a gull's nest or dry weed on a cliff face. A poem exists dramatically:

though words slide off and fingers

touching, fail to hold,

here also may flower,

precarious as dry

weed or grey gulls' nest,

a gesture, a poem. …

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