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Martin Harrison: ‘pastoral’ without shrubs.


Martin Harrison

Wild Bees: new and selected poems
Shearsman Books 2008. | 168pp |$22.50 £10.95

Living Things: five poems
Sydney: Vagabond Press | 16pp booklet, edition of 100 | A$15.00

MHarrisonBeesTHE WORK OF the Australian poet Martin Harrison is roughly characterised as “descriptive”, which it is, though that is the merest beginning of the matter. To say it is “descriptive of rural scenes” is true of a majority of the poems but so inadequate a comment as to be closer to false. He does accept poetry’s ability to convey a location, which he does with intense precision, and is much concerned with natural detail—

I’ve given up talking
save through the world as it is.

but adds–

But the leaf is no philosopher.
It’s just an edge, a flare-mark,
and not a thing in itself.

(‘On the Traditional Way of Painting’)

The phenomena of earth are invoked in the writing and focused on in order to bring perception to a liminal position between the local and the total. The word “pastoral” thus suits him whether the experience notated is actually rural or, in many cases, not. My use of the word here is to indicate nothing about shrubs and milking-pails, but rather a particular power of language that only poetry has, to set before us a proposition which is fictive whether or not it coincides with the actual. Or to make it sound more attractive, a possibility is offered, a theatre in a detail of the world and time, which becomes a site for action (adventure, understanding, love, etc.) by being on the edge of presence in, and absence from, the world. The basic pastoral condition is that poetical writing sets itself apart from prosaic usage by being part of a structure which only operates as a whole, or gains resonance by becoming part of a specifically poetical history. There is a simple exposition of this at the beginning of Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s book Poetic Artifice (1978, page x) where she points out that the sentence “Pipit sat upright in her chair some distance from where I was sitting” could be used to convey particular information in the external world for whatever reason it was needed, but when it becomes the first two lines of T.S. Eliot’s poem ‘A Cooking Egg’, “The statement is altered by its insertion into a poetical context” such that it no longer necessarily indicates a particular event in a real or fictionally represented world. We must wait to see what its import finally is.1 Poetical language is apart from but beholden to the external world, and elicits a particular kind of attention by invoking the nature and history of poetry. The speaker then becomes a voice rather than an author. In Martin Harrison’s words,

This, then is translation
out of ordinary space —

not word for word,
but as someone might feel

sitting outside, in dusklight,
hearing bells and traffic…

(‘An Ordinary Communication’)

The name for this transformation is “pastoral”, which is in essence nothing to do with rurality but is a mode of representation peculiar to poetry. Its literary use descends from classical Arcadian poetry which set up a site of innocence in a remote elsewhere as a contrasting and reflective mirror of society and produced the traditional association with (actually) sheep-rearing, perhaps last used creatively by William Blake. I’d add that Forrest-Thomson’s definition does not necessarily hold in, for instance, narrative poetry, and the textual condition for it is necessarily lyrical, which she calls “formal”.

This cautionary preamble allows me without fear of alienating the aficionados of advanced poetry to say that Martin Harrison’s poems are brilliant and remarkable meditations on moments of perception (or clusters of such moments) most of which take place in the Australian countryside, presumably the “orchard and vine-growing area” in which an earlier blurb says he lives for half the year. The poems have starting-points which are experiences rather than scenes – being somewhere and looking at something, often in a stillness such as dawn, often with a sense of solitude. Birds, snakes, leeches, wallabies, a dog barking, a lake, clouds, paddocks, “fine rain at night”, “a patch of grass” are the foci of his kind of poetry. There are other, more urban, starting-points but generally with the same contemplative atmosphere. He starts from one of these points and unfolds the poem from it quite indefatigably. Not for him the haiku-like brevity which is happy to identify a feature, name it, put it through a minimal process and stop — these are mostly substantial poems, enacting a continuing attention to the initial experience and extension from it. 50 lines later we can still be at the same place, its description still in progress, indeed sometimes we do not reach the announced subject until the end of the poem. The poem ‘Wallabies’ for instance (in Living Things) meditates for over 70 lines on a rural landscape before the wallabies appear in it ten lines before the end, like a reward. And these subjects are essentially simple things which do not themselves demand any explanation or reconciliation. But Harrison treats them as entities waiting to reveal their meaning and the important thing is to press on with the poetical description, and remain explicit and remain truthful, therefore without any of the recourse some poets have to rhetorical structures (or symbolical or metonymic), focused not on language nor on ideology but on the event itself, and the self that witnesses it. It is an act of concentration to the point where the subject yields something greater than itself, an understanding, say, or an interconnection between phenomenon and idea. It is “the glimpse opening up in you”. All the energy and tension of the poem is built up between the object and the self as witness, carefully explicated in a poetically rich but direct manner. It is also a demonstration of the adequacy of an explicit tongue as a meditational vehicle. By this I do not mean plain language: the poems are thick with metaphor, though it is significant that he uses simile rather more than most modern poets would. If there is, and there often is, the phrase “it is as if…” he is immediately off on further reaches of the experience, possibly for quite a long time.

Although there is a sense of staying exactly where we are, however much reminded of something else or noticing something else on the edge of the field, the discourse itself gets involved in terms of surprising distance from the poem’s subject and setting, and there are figurations which are beyond rational connection without becoming distractions or obstructions. You could not say the writing is verbally-centred but it is deeply verbally involved, seeking “the integration of meaning and sound which is essential to each poem”. A full, sometimes perhaps “modernistic”, poetical resource is brought to bear on the task in hand, which is to coax a value out of the subject and so to complete the experience of the poem.2

I FOUND IT difficult to work out exactly how Harrison proceeds so fulsomely through the poem, what the mechanisms are which carry the discourse forward without departing from the principal focus, especially as there is little or no sense of declaration, no message which was not already there, no scenario except what the eyes see in stasis. When there is a human document involved it is treated in the same way as a conifer, by calmly saying how it appears to be, how the self seeks to cope with it or learn from it. To cope with this difficulty I thought of writing a précis of one of the poems but this proved impossible; the tightness of the writing could not be improved upon — a précis would mean copying out the poem. So I undertook instead a kind of description, inevitably longer than the poem, of one of the poems, one which does not have a rural setting — ‘Summer’, 70 lines in five-line sections, which I’ve numbered.

(1) ‘Summer’ begins with a swimming pool on the roof of a hotel at dawn, perhaps in Thailand — its littered stillness (dead bugs etc. — “little shipwrecks”) — which participates in the dawn because the stillness is represented in active terms — “…coolness… greyness and limpidity … shimmering across its transparence, its daybreak light.”.

(2) Its utilitarian features as a “rooftop machine” (caulk, paint, pump, chlorine etc.) forming this “ad-world image of a dream” “for (it says) hotel guests only.” Continuing rational and plain description with a touch of the ominous, as if a critique is pending.

(3) Used by “exhausted travellers” (at the end we find that the speaker is an exhausted traveller) who will plunge into it with a sense of protected purity — “Water (they think) cares for them as it lets them through”. To “think” is here redefined as a figure for the implied meaning of an act, unlikely to be actually “thought” by the agent. This irrational idea is extended to the proposition that “someone jumping in won’t worry” about the disturbance he makes, which is represented as a scene of violent and massive water action (peaks, valleys, hills, parabolas, “sprayed-out grunge”). This is what the swimmer is protected from, a kind of contra-world invoked in the disturbance of the meniscus. This stanza is surprising but too fanciful to disrupt the initial perception of stillness, to which the poem returns immediately

(4) with a kind of summary of where we are up to. The “mirror surface no more than a mirror deep” that “reflects a city’s post-dawn sounds” (in stanza 1 it was, more rationally, the early light that was reflected) with a passing thought about how a lap-swimmer would navigate the pool, turning from underwater like a shark. Again a sense of the pool as a guarded protection from an oceanic elsewhere of which it is a miniaturisation.

(5) Attention is directed to a closer elsewhere as the speaker notices a Thai family waking up on the balcony of a neighbouring building. They paradoxically haven’t slept but will have been operating some stall of “knick-knacks” all night. Here as time passes from pre-dawn to dawn and the city starts moving the stanza structure, in which most lines have been end-stopped and each stanza represented a distinct phase of thought, is transgressed, and from now on there is a lot of enjambement, even across stanzas, new paragraphs starting mid-stanza and mid-sentence, etc., returning to something more regular at the end of the poem. But the action represented is never other than that of pensive contemplation; the speaker is never anywhere but motionless on a hotel roof in the early morning. And the disturbed prosody is more than descriptive; it enacts the tension and excitement of a thought-process approaching a discovery.

(6-8) Observation of the Thai family, speculation that they moved into the town from an up-country village. Both the village and their city habitat are felt to be exposed to touristic voyeurism, “Americans, heifer-garlanded with cameras” walking through the village, or “any bastard foreigner” with a camera for whom there’s a “wealth of angles” available from up here. The complaint here is coined so as to indicate an appropriation of the terms of the particular and the different by foreign wealth. The interruptive anger, like the earlier imagery of turbulence, returns quickly to “this wind-free, cool lozenge of water”. There is an alternation of still pool and turbid thoughts, both inhabiting the one mind, with a sense of accumulation and intensification. But the discourse remains rational; the move to new matter is made by noticing something different, and the focus returns again to the pool, now seen differently, as an artifice, “…arranged behind concrete tubs in a fake garden-effect.”

(9-10) Stanza 9 begins after the hyphen of “garden-effect”, an extreme disruption of the appearance of regularity. There are six white plastic recliners, which “articulate … imaginary bodies, sipping martinis through straws”. But immediately the chairs “are really signs of death”. This is the major turning-point of the poem, marked not so much by the matter of it, as by the forms of figuration. The chairs firstly “articulate” bodies lying on them, as if the image is collaborative between poet and object, as if it is an inevitable result of the sight of the chairs. The next step in thought, which is what he calls it, is more radical:

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxThose chairs—
the thought’s a shock rising over clear, bare seas—
[Stanza 10]
are really signs of death, sculptures signalling ‘absence of body’
while quiet water, I suddenly remember, is stagnancy and grief.
(It’s water with a texture that seems to look right past you.)

We are still in a movement of thought and remembering, but as if involuntarily, and the connective grammar is neither simile nor metaphor, but identity. The chairs “are”, the water “is”… The presence of the word “really” pushes the thought-process into a parallel world in which things stand as their evident meanings, a world more real than the one we inhabit, reached by a meditative thought process. Nothing exotic or mystical about this —the parallel world is more poetical than visionary. It is where you arrive by concentrated thinking within a necessarily poetical process, because only poetry offers the free resource of imagery you need, and the very act of writing leads you forward into the discovery. The stark realisation is grounded in an appeal to the reader’s recognition of the justness of the figures, the way still water seems to ignore you, as something at once accepted but which you had never thought of. Neither is it definitive. It is the goal of this one moment of perception, this one act of writing. The same object, plastic recliner or whatever, might elicit a quite different identity in another poem. So this climax cannot be the end, this epiphany at the centre of the poem has to be retracted from.

(10-11) “There’s always this desire simply to stop” but he drags one of the chairs over and sits on it to remove his runners. Remarks follow on the clothes travellers wear, like walking advertisements for a New York gym.

(12) What happens in the rest of the poem is a serious consideration of the momentary entity, explored in a richer and rather more difficult language than heretofore, which summates the experience of the poem. Thinking at first in terms of photography he asks what is it that “lines up a world famous shot” when so much is already visualised — “What is the accident that drags you to the shore?” … What draws you to the focus? He is, in no hurry, drawing together the threads of the poem as glosses on the initial moment of perception, traversing its phases of imagery, and not without ambiguity — does the “accident” rescue you from the ocean or bring you towards it? In either case we are brought to an edge experience, a threshold.

(13) The moment is focused “not on that family, / but the one which flashes through its web of neurones / signifying the merest fact of being here, snapped / in this age of debris, smoke, and fire.” The advocation of the revelatory moment is becoming almost homiletic, as it is represented as a “shot” through a dispersion, a dissolving “glittering electronic dust” in the mind, the attaining of a focus which reveals no more than presence, that you are here now, “indicative as a lawn’s pink flamingo”

(14) “only the dead, their remembered messengers, walk in and out of it” — I take this to mean that only the dead in our memories of them traverse the clouded and obscured terms of human memory, in our acknowledgement of death as fact or absolute conditional. The scenario is now classical, the dead drifting ghostlike on the banks of Lethe (the water image again), where Odysseus no longer goes “with his flasks of blood” — a particularly difficult phrase which might intend that no epic (enhanced political) power with its participation in large-scale slaughter is now relevant to the process of comprehending the mortal condition. And the poem ends with a moral gesture drawn from the moment of the poem — “This split second — this jet-lagged moment” and what is won from it “…fixes my mind on home: a humane life that’s rootless, mindless as summer is.” So this intense extended focus on a particular place comes to the assertion that humanity is represented by the earth’s surface, but not constituted of it. “Human” gains its final E from “elsewhere” in the process of returning “home”, and whatever else “home” is it is also the title-word, mentioned here for the first time.

The discourse at the end of this poem takes quite a lot of concentration and imagination on the reader’s part, which is not always the case. It helps that closely related formulations can be found in other poems, such as the ending of ‘Western Thought’ which is concerned with the impress on memory of a scene of trees, birds, crickets, a slow-moving horse —

Of course, it remains no more than a story
About seeing and forgetting, its narrative is the root of compassion,
Not least because, afterwards, you must still capture it at one go —

yes, in a single, sharp flame of light—

setting and slanting,
raking deep fire behind the trees (they’re black silhouettes on the ridge),
invisibly burning you, invisibly burning itself.

Or again, the ending of ‘Suddenly, Trees’ on the effect of night rain on trees seen in the early morning—

suddenly thinking what it would be like
to have seen this just at the point of having died,
to have had this moment of insight,
of thought—
then to have gone away—
glancing each thing in its passage,
as the light, the water, the bare trees
themselves glance out to me

MANY OF HARRISON’S poems go through a process similar to that of ‘Summer’ which is a form of intervention in the world, disturbing an initial adequacy and wholeness (“how we divide the world with thoughts”) and then following the meditation round to a conclusion which closes the divide and returns the wholeness. This conclusion may be a moral perception, a chastening, or it may be simply a last glimpse of the scene in a singular feature. Senses of the stillness, extent, wonder, or beauty, of an experience initiate the process as if they hold a question in themselves which needs to be asked, (while we know they don’t), about what is the nature of the experience, why was it arresting, what does it “mean” to the agent who recognises it? This question is fed through the poem to reach an epiphanic point, where the experience yields recognition far beyond its initial silence — a telling of the human condition or a moral intent.3 That may be the end of the poem but more often the poem subsides from this moment of revelation to reach a quiet and more localised conclusion at which the lesson can be more calmly, sometimes casually, indicated. But many poems, unlike ‘Summer’, end only with a brief farewell notation of the poem’s focus, a close detail which returns us to the earth. He is in fact very adept at that kind of signing-off gesture in which a detail of the observed reality is felt as both confirmation and departure (“two swallows, scissoring, vanish across the sun”).

In his Preface, Harrison considers himself lucky “…to have so far escaped from being classified in a movement or a generation — new or old, innovative or formal.” But neither, I think, can he be classified as a maverick operating in complete independence from and ignorance of his contemporaries. In some ways his procedures are those accepted in what I might call “standard” modern poetry, especially among poets first active in the 1950s, and their legacy. Sylvia Plath, for instance, in a poem such as ‘Berck-Plage’ and other late poems which do not lapse into authorial anger, grasps the principle perfectly. Even in Seamus Heaney’s later work there are sometimes metaphors whose accuracy can be recognised without tracing a rational trajectory. In a way the usage is common, of more or less audacious extrapolation from a given experience, but the resolution is normally given in terms of human interaction and an empathetic appeal from the self, in both cases ultimately comforting. It is important to distinguish Harrison’s art from this subjective mode. The poems, he says in ‘The Particularity of Poetry’, “…refer to situations which are collective and objective”. The figure of the author is always there and dictates the progression through the poem, but nowhere are the earthly percepts claimed as a property of the self, any more than they are directed towards the public in a hortatory or accusatory sense. He could be said to turn aside from the human world and therefore from love, but I don’t think he does. Its values are implied and interrogated in the entire process of constructing a parallel experience, and sometimes become explicit, as in the significantly titled ‘Double Movement’ which is about wave movement in nature—

In the human world too, a dry force is introduced, one which requires everyone to acknowledge a separateness in the relations between living things, in how one person values another. Shadow is evaporated.

HARRISON WAS BORN in the UK and before he moved to Sydney in 1978 he was associated with some radical tendencies there (the “Cambridge” group) and had a book, entitled 1975, published by Andrew Crozier’s Ferry Press in 1980. Without wanting to cast him as the puppet of various movements I like to think his escape from popular subjectivism might have been aided by this association. That particular grouping was itself divided, between abstract and symbolised versions of poetical representation. His own poetry at that time was one of personal and vocal direct address in unpunctuated common English, avoiding both strong figuration and conservative formalities and thus aligning himself with the Americanising force of those poets, indeed sometimes slightly New York. Although he has reprinted none of it, there is in it a sense of driving forwards towards the consummation of an experience which recognisably leads forward to his later work. But the point is that Harrison knows what is going on in English-language poetry and uses what he needs of its attributes. For all the rural pastoral there is a freshness, a freedom to transgress accepted procedural norms and to formulate disarming connective figurations which might set him with the innovative poets, though not the experimental, but this quality is mainly his own claimed liberty. In an Australian connection too, where there has been a great deal of rural pastoral, he stands apart, for he is manifestly not saying that the rural is our site of basic earthly realities, its inhabitants sources of rural wisdom,4 and his narrative is not anecdotal, thus well apart from the interests of Les Murray or John Kinsella (or Seamus Heaney for that matter) though there is a shared ecological awareness. In the one poem I can find, ‘A Breath of Wind on a Summer Night’, which pays more than passing attention to an inhabitant, an old woman living in a remote place, there is no story to tell, indeed she is hardly identified, and her speech is valued not for its proverbial weight but for its accuracy in describing a natural event — precisely an aim of the poetry itself. All she says is, describing the appearance of a dangerous snake on her threshold which she had not seen, that she felt it “like a breath of wind when you don’t expect it”, and “that plain, deathless phrase”, that hearing of the virtually inaudible, that sensing of the real, stands as his motto at beginning and end of the poem. Among Australians only Robert Adamson occurs to me as close to Harrison, especially with his poems of entranced extrapolation from the appearance of a bird.

I reckon Harrison had established what he wanted to do by the mid-1990s, before the book The Kangaroo Farm appeared in 1997, which is well represented in Wild Bees. But there are signs of a restless wish to progress, especially in his more recent work. The final section of Wild Bees, a dozen poems under the heading ‘Music’, has as much prose as poetry in it and seems to show a wish for expansiveness, to state himself as fully as possible with or without the concentration demanded by verse. He sometimes here seems to be on the track of an existential anxiety, and focuses on more disturbing experience, as of personal loss and accidental death. He is also free, at times, to seek out the terms he needs more widely, indeed across the world. The poem ‘Winter Solstice’ begins nowhere in particular—

A vague mood, a sadness, a feeling as when recovering from illness,
a kind of “whatever it is which is going on at the time” mode—

but this is immediately represented in earthly terms:

a defile bulldozered between trees where the powerlines go through on a ridge top
their suspended wires as out of place as a street’s tramwires would be…

and goes on to examine and enlarge upon this emotional correlation at length, passing through Miró, Calder, and the Berlin Wall in search of what is damaged and what can be recovered, before returning to that first scene.

MHarrisonthingsTHE FIVE POEMS of Living Things are named after singular entities: four creatures and a cloud, though in two cases they don’t manifest themselves until the last words of the poem. They are very much in Harrison’s established mode but enhanced both in detail and in scope, moving freely among more daring figuration and more freely abstract discourse, while continuing to tangle with serious notations of loss and destruction. There is less firm a sense that the ending of a poem resolves anything but the construct it terminates, and a self-questioning about his whole enterprise (“And how will it end? this half-traced ecstasy at merely being here.”). I think that this tremulous uncertainty as it works its way through his impressive techniques of resource and continuity, produces some of the finest things he has done.

Martin Harrison’s poetry is described in a blurb by Nigel Wheale as creating “utterly convincing places where ordinary happiness might reside”. Though written before the more recent work which admits of a negative epiphany, of “details too terrible to bring to mind”, I think this is true. His modernity allows him to deploy exploratory figuration without that unkindness to the reader which is almost ubiquitous in British and American “innovative” poetry. However abstruse he gets he is always explicit, which means there is none of that double-bind on the reader, that yes-with-no, give-and-take-back, now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t as practised (and encouraged and taught) in advanced circles, but also to be found among conventionalist poets, courting and absorbing the reader in a world reduced to language.

For, as I drove, earth was paradox
flat for miles yet curving into clouds —
sensed like a rear-view mirror’s glimpse
yet always opening up, leading onwards

(‘Clouds Near Waddi’)

Paradox but not contradiction, thus an opening for a richer perception and not a door closed in your face. An important statement in his Preface says: “…the limits of our experience and understanding of the world are the limits of time and of our senses, and not just of language. The provisional nature of our selves, our own temporary glimpse of the world’s tragedy and loveliness, is at the heart of the matter.’5 This, as it is manifested in the tentative and studious nature of the poetry, and the ordinariness of the perceptive encounter, is a gauntlet thrown down before a vast (and growing) industry of artistic and literary production and the institutionalisation and theorising that props it up.

The last poem of Living Things, labelled as a coda and shorter than usual, is entitled ‘Frog’. It is untypical in its smiling light-heartedness, and more so in being actually spoken by the creature itself—

I’m a member of the kingdom of happiness
and I live under a dream-stone. Yes, you’re right:
I’m a frog, it’s obvious.

This friendly frog speaks of its song for a few lines, defining it as “the source of metaphor”, apparently through its double, or paradoxical nature. But then the frog is suddenly allegorised into a member of the general public speaking out against the assumptive elitism of modern poetry (and modern other things) by which he is normally and automatically cast as idiotic and in need of (our) enlightenment. Against this the lumpenproletariat, the sack of potatoes, the frog, actually speaks—

I’m the source
of metaphor. My sung trills and rising clacks,
back and forth, up and down, here and there,
on and on — and on — into the rainy murk,
give me time for thoughtful immediacy.
It’s far too much. You think I eat chips, drink beer,
waste my time on crap TV — I’m thinking, see —
my movements lithe, smart, enviably athletic.

Peter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry – and some of prose. His latest book is The Glacial Stairway (Carcanet, 2011). He lives in Yorkshire and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.


  1. Poetic Artifice is sadly long out of print and the web book-sharks want £150 for it. There are useful selections from it in Poets on Writing edited by Denise Riley (1992) introduced by Martin Harrison.
  2. Poets on Writing also contains two more essays by Harrison, one of them from 1973. The other, more recent one, which my quotation comes from, is ‘The Particularity of Poetry’ in which he gives in his own terms a version of the textual condition under discussion, how it rests on “the tonality of individual perception” and the question of “what kind of ‘is’ a poem brings into being”. “This”, he says, “is a lyrical task.” and “Poetic ideas are emblematic sensations”.
  3. “…poetry is epiphanic, anticipatory — and no matter how external, how painfully cumbersome one’s means for making it are forced to be, it is essential to remember what this self-announcing quality of each new poem is.” —‘The Particularity of Poetry’.
  4. He neither finds nor claims wisdom: “The prerogatives of superior wisdom can become another trap” because they do not start from ignorance and wordlessness. –‘The Particularity of Poetry’.
  5. And in ‘The Particularity of Poetry’ he speaks of the need to accept both the largeness and the limits of feeling and perception “in order to locate, live in or possibly emigrate from them.” … “There is no other way through to copiousness”.
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