From Apollo to Pavlova flieth the swan.

Cygnus

When Apollo entered the world, sacred swans circled the island seven times for it was the seventh day of the month. At once Zeus lavished many gifts upon his son including a golden miter, a chariot drawn by swans, and a lyre since legend has it at birth Apollo said, “Dear to me shall be the lyre and bow, and in oracles I shall reveal to men the inexorable will of Zeus.”

Apollo is the Greek God of music and poetry, arts and archery amongst other things.  Swans were held to be sacred to him.  The most common swan in Europe was the mute swan, not quite mute, but not a renowned singer.  But legend held it that at the moment of death the Swan, finding itself moving closer to an afterlife with Apollo, would erupt into a beautiful funeral song.

So it is that we give the term swan song to a final performance.  One last great moment before retiring to anonymity.

The wild swan’s death-hymn took the soul
Of that waste place with joy
Hidden in sorrow: at first to the ear
The warble was low, and full and clear; …
But anon her awful jubilant voice,
With a music strange and manifold,
Flow’d forth on a carol free and bold;

The words of the Poet Laureate of Britain and Ireland, Alfed Lord Tennyson above inspired the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns to write Le cygne which is the central theme to the ballet, The Dying Swan which was performed by Anna Pavlova from 1905.  The Russian ballerina toured Australia and New Zealand in the 1920’s and sparked off a 90 year row between the two nations.  The argument was over which country invented the eponymous Pavlova dessert.  Oxford English Dictionary ruled in 2010 that based on analysis of cookbooks the dish originated in New Zealand.

And so to Gernald Stern, who celebrates his birthday today, sharing it with another great American poet; Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Swan Song; by Gerald Stern

A bunch of old snakeheads down by the pond
carrying on the swan tradition — hissing
inside their white bodies, raising and lowering their heads
like ostriches, regretting only the sad ritual
that forced them to waddle back into the water
after their life under the rocks, wishing they could lie again
in the sun

and dream of spreading their terrifying wings;
wishing, this time, they could sail through the sky like
horses,
their tails rigid, their white manes fluttering,
their mouths open, their sharp teeth flashing,
drops of mercy pouring from their eyes,
bolts of wisdom from their foreheads.

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Happy Birthday Louisa Lawson

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Bord this day in 1848 to a very poor family Louisa Lawson left school at 13.  Married at 18 to a Norwegian sailor who left her on her own as he went gold prospecting she had five children, one who died as a baby.  She gained financial independence by buying and managing boarding houses in Sydney.  She used the money from the boarding houses to buy shares in the nationalist newspaper “The Republican”.  She became a writer, editor, poet, suffragette, Australian republican and feminist.

She edited and published “The Dawn” a feminist journal published monthly for 17 years, the first Australian publication produced solely by women.

She had a difficult relationship with her eldest son Henry, who went on to become a writer, editor and poet in his own right.  Many consider him to be the greatest Australian poet.  His early work was heavily influenced by his mother, and she helped his career by employing him as an editor, and by publishing his work and using her press to print his first book.

Reverie; by Louisa Lawson

I am sitting by the river,
and I wile an hour away,
watching circles start and widen
in their momentary play.

Here a stronger whelms a weaker
as its ring expanding flies,
there one rises to the surface,
as another fades and dies.

And I solemn grow with thinking,
for just now it would me seem,
that each life is like a circle –
on time’s deep, impellant stream.

Do we not upon its bosom
linger for a little day,
making faint and fleeting impress,
then forever fade away.

while the strong unresting river
toward Eternity doth glide,
all regardless of the circles
that have pulsed upon its tide.

 

Lawson

Sharing birthdays

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It’s tough as a poet to share a birthday with someone as famous as Edgar Allan Poe (Jan 19th 1809).  Such is the fate of Reginald Charles (Rex) Ingamells (b. 1913).  The leading light of the Australian poetry group known as the Jindyworobak Movement.  They sought to free Australian art from subservience to old world influences and to celebrate the vernacular voices and indigenous inflences that give Australian English it’s unique character.  The movement flourished in the 1930’s and 40’s.  These days it suffers criticism because it was a white movement that celebrated aboriginal and bush life influences.

These days the Australian first nations peoples reject the hijacking of their culture by white immigrants who had a poor understanding of the native zeitgeist.  Effectively the Jindyworobaks are now seen to have been doing to Aboriginal Art the very thing they were fighting against where European writers were seeking to hijack their first hand experience.

I like the poetry of the movement and I think they served an important role in bringing the Australian voice to life.

News of the Sun: by Rex Ingamells

The noon is on the cattle-track;
the air is void of sound,
except where crows, poised burning-black,
cry to the dusty ground.

Through mulga and mirage go none
but brazen Boolee now,
scorning the mercy of the sun
beneath the niggard bough.

But suddenly the mulga stirs;
the hot leaves flash like stars;
and, threading song on wing-beat whirrs,
burst flights of gay galahs.

Man overboard

Ferry

In May 1927 Joe Lynch fell overboard from a ferry in Sydney Harbour.  He was drunk and his pockets were filled with beer bottles which helped drag him down.

This happened while the Sydney Harbour bridge was under construction and the only way to cross Port Jackson was by boat.

Joe was a cartoonist who worked with Kenneth Slessor for Smith’s Weekly magazine in Sydney.  The pair also worked together for Punch magazine in Melbourne for a time.  The night he died Lynch left work and met his brother Guy, Guy’s wife Marge, and Frank Clancy, another Irish Australian journalist who worked for Labor Daily.  They were boozing hard and loaded up with bottles when they boarded the ferry Kiandra at Circular Quay.  Somewhere along the way Joe leaned too far back over the rail and slipped away beneath the Harbour waters.

That might have been the end for Joe Lynch, an embarrassing end quickly forgotten.  But eight years later his old pal Kenneth Slessor had a bit of an epiphany as he listed to the watch bells ring from the Warships in the Harbour.  He penned his most famous, and one of Australia’s greatest poems.  Kenneth was born on this day in 1901.  Happy Birthday Kenneth Slessor.

Because of Slessor Lynch has become the most famous, and possibly the most preposterous, drowning in Sydney Harbour.

Below the poem you will find a photo of a war memorial in Devonport, Auckland, New Zealand.  It was sculpted by Guy Lynch using Joe Lynch as his body model.  It depicts a Kiwi soldier of WW1 coming off duty, and is nicknamed “The Untidy Soldier”.  This statue is the subject of “The Digger and the Faun” a poem by Michele Leggott.  So Joe Lynch is immortalised in poetry twice!  Not a bad memorial.

 

Five Bells ; by Kenneth Slessor

Time that is moved by little fidget wheels
is not my time, the flood that does not flow.
Between the double and the single bell
of a ship’s hour, between a round of bells
from the dark warship riding there below,
I have lived many lives, and this one life
of Joe, long dead, who lives between five bells.

Deep and dissolving verticals of light
ferry the falls of moonshine down. Five bells
coldly rung out in a machine’s voice. Night and water
pour to one rip of darkness, the Harbour floats
in the air, the Cross hangs upside-down in water.

Why do I think of you, dead man, why thieve
these profitless lodgings from the flukes of thought
anchored in time? You have gone from earth,
gone even from the meaning of a name;
yet something’s there, yet something forms its lips
and hits and cries against the ports of space,
beating their sides to make its fury heard.

Are you shouting at me, dead man, squeezing your face
in agonies of speech on speechless panes?
Cry louder, beat the windows, bawl your name!

But I hear nothing, nothing…only bells,
five bells, the bumpkin calculus of time.
Your echoes die, your voice is dowsed by life,
there’s not a mouth can fly the pygmy strait –
nothing except the memory of some bones
long shoved away, and sucked away, in mud;
and unimportant things you might have done,
or once I thought you did; but you forgot,
and all have now forgotten – looks and words
and slops of beer; your coat with buttons off,
your gaunt chin and pricked eye, and raging tales
of Irish kings and English perfidy,
and dirtier perfidy of publicans
groaning to God from Darlinghurst.
Five bells.

Then I saw the road, I heard the thunder
tumble, and felt the talons of the rain
the night we came to Moorebank in slab-dark,
so dark you bore no body, had no face,
but a sheer voice that rattled out of air
(as now you’d cry if I could break the glass),
a voice that spoke beside me in the bush,
loud for a breath or bitten off by wind,
of Milton, melons, and the Rights of Man,
and blowing flutes, and how Tahitian girls
are brown and angry-tongued, and Sydney girls
are white and angry-tongued, or so you’d found.
But all I heard was words that didn’t join
so Milton became melons, melons girls,
and fifty mouths, it seemed, were out that night,
and in each tree an Ear was bending down,
or something that had just run, gone behind the grass,
when blank and bone-white, like a maniac’s thought,
the naphtha-flash of lightning slit the sky,
knifing the dark with deathly photographs.
There’s not so many with so poor a purse
or fierce a need, must fare by night like that,
five miles in darkness on a country track,
but when you do, that’s what you think.
Five bells.

In Melbourne, your appetite had gone,
your angers too; they had been leeched away
by the soft archery of summer rains
and the sponge-paws of wetness, the slow damp
that stuck the leaves of living, snailed the mind,
and showed your bones, that had been sharp with rage,
the sodden ectasies of rectitude.
I thought of what you’d written in faint ink,
your journal with the sawn-off lock, that stayed behind
with other things you left, all without use,
all without meaning now, except a sign
that someone had been living who now was dead:
At Labassa. Room 6 x 8
On top of the tower; because of this, very dark
and cold in winter. Everything has been stowed
into this room – 500 books all shapes
and colours, dealt across the floor
and over sills and on the laps of chairs;
guns, photoes of many differant things
and differant curioes that I obtained…

In Sydney, by the spent aquarium-flare
of penny gaslight on pink wallpaper,
we argued about blowing up the world,
but you were living backward, so each night
you crept a moment closer to the breast,
and they were living, all of them, those frames
and shapes of flesh that had perplexed your youth,
and most your father, the old man gone blind,
with fingers always round a fiddle’s neck,
that graveyard mason whose fair monuments
and tablets cut with dreams of piety
rest on the bosoms of a thousand men
staked bone by bone, in quiet astonishment
at cargoes they had never thought to bear,
these funeral-cakes of sweet and sculptured stone.

Where have you gone? The tide is over you,
the turn of midnight water’s over you,
as Time is over you, and mystery,
and memory, the flood that does not flow.
You have no suburb, like those easier dead
in private berths of dissolution laid –
the tide goes over, the waves ride over you
and let their shadows down like shining hair,
but they are Water; and the sea-pinks bend
like lilies in your teeth, but they are Weed;
and you are only part of an idea.
I felt the wet push its black thumb-balls in,
the night you died, I felt your eardrums crack,
and the short agony, the longer dream,
the Nothing that was neither long nor short;
but I was bound, and could not go that way,
but I was blind, and could not feel your hand.
If I could find an answer, could only find
your meaning, or could say why you were here
who now are gone, what purpose gave you breath
or seized it back, might I not hear your voice?

I looked out my window in the dark
at waves with diamond quills and combs of light
that arched their mackerel-backs and smacked the sand
in the moon’s drench, that straight enormous glaze,
and ships far off asleep, and harbour-buoys
tossing their fireballs wearily each to each,
and tried to hear your voice, but all I heard
was a boat’s whistle, and the scraping squeal
of seabirds’ voices far away, and bells,
five bells. Five bells coldly ringing out.
Five bells.

 

Untidy.jpg

Happy Birthday Bruce Dawe

dawefox

Aged 88 and still going strong.  Happy birthday Bruce and may you enjoy many more.

Homo Suburbiensis : by Donald Bruce Dawe

One constant in a world of variables
– A man alone in the evening in his patch of vegetables,
and all the things he takes down with him there

Where the easement runs along the back fence and the air
smells of tomato-vines, and the hoarse rasping tendrils
of pumpkin flourish clumsy whips and their foliage sprawls

Over the compost-box, poising rampant upon
the palings …
He stands there, lost in a green
confusion, smelling the smoke of somebody’s rubbish

Burning, hearing vaguely the clatter of a disk
in a sink that could be his, hearing a dog, a kid,
a far whisper of traffic, and offering up instead

Not much but as much as any man can offer
– time, pain, love, hate, age, ware, death, laughter, fever.

Jindyworobak Club

Drover

Sharing his birthday with Edgar Allan Poe is Australian poet Reginald Charles (Rex) Ingamells.  Originally he followed the trail of poets like Banjo Patterson and wrote the songs of the bush as experienced by the whites.  In the 1930’s he founded the Jindyworobak movement.  Although exclusively white artists, they made the first forays into recognition of indigenous Australian art and culture.

The absence of native Australian Aboriginal artists from the group has undermined its validity.  Some might say the current status of Aboriginal art owes much to the groundwork done by the Jindy club.  Who knows?

Shifting Camp: by Rex Ingamells

Glint of gumtrees in the dawn,
so million coloured: bush wind-borne
magpie-music, rising, falling;
and voices of the stockmen calling.

Bellowing of cattle: stamping,
impatient of the place of camping:
bark of dogs, and the crack-crack-crack
of stockwhips as we take the track.

Neighing of night-rested mounts…
This is a day that really counts:
a day to ride with a hundred head,
and a roll of canvas – that’s my bed.

Happy Birthday Harry Hooton

Harry.jpg

Born in Doncaster in 1908 on this day.  He emigrated to Australia aged 16 under a migrant scheme run by the Dreadnought Trust.  From his earliest days, working as a farm laborer, he developed a strong empathy for the lot of the working man.  Later in life his politics moved away from unionism and socialism to anarchism.

It is Great to be Alive; by Harry Hooton

This is an obvious imitation of Walt Whitman, is it?
Well, and wouldn’t that be better than another in sickly rime?
Perhaps you would prefer as more exquisite
some other fellow’s footprints in the sands of time,
or the past perhaps present future of Eliot’s pleasant slime….
But this is not an imitation of anyone: listen to me, I am alive!
Whitman and Longfellow are dead; Eliot doesn’t know he is;
I am for the Great-not the great poet, no matter how true he is;
I say that every man alive is great, no matter who he is,
for it is great to be alive!

The lowest man on earth is a hero and a god with me:
Whoever he is, he is greater than any or all of his fellows;
Means more to me than all the crowned or bald heads of europe;
Cleaner than any dust from greece,
warmer than the bones in westminster abbey;
Greater by far than all that has been before him,
and dwarfed only by what is to come after him….
Whoever he is, he is the One on whose shoulders the world rests;
the One at whose command material empires rise in ministration –
Not some artist or philosopher or emperor, but any man.

What is his social value, his justification?
Well, what is life’s justification?
If he can neither work nor plan, fiddle nor rime,
if he can’t provide occupational therapy for sick psychiatrists,
if rulers ever learn from him to abjure war, and need no gunman,
there would still be justification for his existence, in his sheer existence.
For life, in the saint and sinner, sane and insane, wise and otherwise –
Is its own justification.

Every man is inferior to every other man-in some respects;
And every man is superior to every other man-in other respects.
We can’t live without holding someone else up,
and we can’t live without someone holding us up.
One man is just as good as another, in fact better –
And in fact better than a million men; because you can’t make world wars out of one man,
and that’s all you can do with the latter.
But every man is great only in what he makes, in his subject matter
In the only things that really matter.

The plumber can’t bake, the builder can’t plumb, and the architect has them both beat;
The three are awed by the mathematician, who defers to the man with the axe;
They all yield to the artist who accepts them with all that lives and breathes;
And the all go to work and war-and must accept the superiority of a lunatic who is mad in a world which is terrifyingly sane.
There is no man living who can not find on some one thing higher authority –
That is if we accept those terribly important people who string words together
and think themselves so much better than men who merely stick bricks together;
As we expect other people with similar theses,
such as elephantine labourers who would pull social theories and theorists to pieces,
and such as anyone who seeks to rule over the living, and is in that one fact-dead!

Well then, if there must be lords and masters,
let us rule matter with every man alive;
If we must have slaves, let us enslave machines.
Let us be gods, and selfish –
Let the prostrate worshippers of the past be someone else-ish;
Let us be, and be worshipped ourselves.
Let the painter forgive his painting,
the poet redeem his poem,
and the dead bury the dead…

My poems are revolutions, of the builders, the living great,
searching with god-like hunger new matter to animate –
And of cities steeled in silence, now growing articulate;
Of things, machines, our creatures, raching in lever and rod
to touch the hands of their creators, praying to us as god….
True it is I echo-the mighty shouts of these hordes;
Yes, and an imitator-of impetuous powerful words;
Plagiarist of Whitman, of all the Sons of Man –
For they have heard me in the future, as I do those to come –
Yet greater than Christ or Whitman, than ash from any tomb –
Greater than any history, than ink from any pen,
For you my poems scan,
who despair of your social value, who are despised by men:
You are alive, you are human-by life you are made divine!
You are the revelation-one mightier poem than mine!