When I was in my final years of high school: of barely-moderate achievement; from a family with a fair to middling military history; living in a Navy town; surrounded by friends who either came from a military family or had aspirations to join the military, I pretty much sold my mother on the idea that I was going to join the Army. I had long harboured a dream to join the Air Force– I was, as I still am, deeply in love with military aircraft, and wanted more than anything to be a pilot. However, when my eyes betrayed me, I decided I couldn’t bear to be in the Air Force and not fly, so the Army it was going to be. I applied for, and was accepted into, the Australian Defence Force Academy, and convinced my Mum that I was on my way to becoming a Lieutenant in the Intelligence Division.
Two days from the flight, I had a panic attack and cancelled everything. Instead, I enrolled in an English degree, and stayed at home for the next three years while I learned to write poetry. I literally ran away from the Army to become a poet.
To her dying day, I don’t think my mother ever quite forgave me.
My first publications were poems, and I still, every now and again– especially when the creative well is dry and I need to kick something into gear through sheer wordplay and condensed imagery– turn to poetry. There’s a comfort in working within the form, and a sense of pure satisfaction whenever I make it work (not often enough: I’m just not good enough, or disciplined enough, to be a real poet). My most recently completed long work is a poem, of sorts: a 32-stanza picture book I’m waiting to hear back from my publisher about.
So here, for the fun of it, are 5 poets whose work I love, and whose views of the world have influenced my own work.
FIVE for FRIDAY: POETS
Spike Milligan is my literary hero in so many ways it verges on the absurd. A gently insane polymath, a hundred-mile-a-minute explosion of sounds, wordplay, visual imagery and absurdism, I fell in love with him on first exposure to The Goon Show and have never stopped. His poetry veers from heartbreaking to nonsensical to all points of the emotional spectrum, and so often hides depths within doggerel that more disciplined, traditional authors cannot see, never mind reach. Trying to be him when I grow up is like aspiring to replicate a lightning storm: still, there’s a part of me that wishes.
I could pick so many, but the one I’m fondest of is probably his most famous, even if many people don’t realise he wrote it.
On the Ning Nang Nong
On the Ning Nang Nong
Where the cows go bong
and the monkeys all say BOO!
There’s a Nong Nang Ning
Where the trees go Ping!
And the tea pots jibber jabber joo.
On the Nong Ning Nang
All the mice go Clang
And you just can’t catch ’em when they do!
So its Ning Nang Nong
Cows go Bong!
Nong Nang Ning
Trees go ping
Nong Ning Nang
The mice go Clang
What a noisy place to belong
is the Ning Nang Ning Nang Nong!
I discovered Brian Patten’s work while trying to rebel against a very traditional approach to poetry being taught by a Year 11 teacher I didn’t like, didn’t agree with, and didn’t want to work for. I failed the course– I failed the year– but I kept the love of Patten’s work, and to this day, the following poem is still my all-time favourite.
Little Johnny’s Confession
being rather young and foolish
I borrowed a machine gun my father
had left hidden since the war, went out,
and eliminated a number of small enemies.
Since then I have not returned home.
swarms of police with tracker dogs
wander about the city with my description
printed on their minds, asking:
‘Have you seen him,
He is seven years old,
likes Pluto, Mighty Mouse
and Biffo the Bear,
have you seen him, anywhere?’
sitting alone in a strange playground
muttering You’ve blundered You’ve blundered
over and over to myself
I work my next move
but cannot move;
the tracker dogs will sniff me out,
they have my lollipops.
You probably can’t be English-born of my generation and not be aware of Roger McGough. For a long time he seemed to be the face of English pop poetry: the TV-friendly, whimsical master of gentle verse for after-dinner talk show audiences. But he has greater roots than that: from the fun and nonsense of Counter-culture jesters Scaffold to a series of poems that helped outline the absurdity of the English condition, his works stick in the mind and somehow, never quite leave. Originally a Scaffold single, this is my favourite.
God bless all policemen
and fighters of crime,
May thieves go to jail
for a very long time.
They’ve had a hard day
helping clean up the town,
Now they hang from the mantelpiece
A glass of warm blood
and then straight up the stairs.
Batman and Robin
are saying their prayers.
* * *
They’ve locked all the doors
and they’ve put out the bat,
Put on their batjamas
(They like doing that)
They’ve filled their batwater-bottles
made their batbeds,
With two springy battresses
for sleepy batheads.
They’re closing red eyes
and they’re counting black sheep.
Batman and Robin
Are falling asleep.
A perfect combination of acid-etched observation and utterly objective satire, Parker’s poetry (and short stories) cut through the verbiage I often burden my works with and say the things I want to say with stunning simplicity and a turn of word so sublime I could weep for one-hundredth of her skill. For a while, after my first wife died, I wore a tee-shirt with her poem Resume on it: very few people got the intent. The one below, however, says so much in six lines that it makes me shake my head in admiration, every damn time.
By the time you swear you’re his,
Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is
Infinite, undying –
Lady, make a note of this:
One of you is lying.
A legendary figure in Australian poetry, at the time I was in High School he was one of only two Australians (the other being Les Murray), who was taught to us. He was the first poet to show me that message and voice could be as important as the traditional measures of rhyme and metre, and that an essential Australianness of voice could be transmitted without losing quality or universality of message.
For a long time, reciting enter Without So Much as Knocking was my particular literary party piece, and it remains, to this day, a poem I hold close to my heart.
Enter Without So Much as Knocking
Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.
(Epigraph: Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.)
Blink, blink. HOSPITAL. SILENCE.
Ten days old, carried in the front door in his
mother’s arms, first thing he heard was
Bobby Dazzler on Channel 7:
Hello, hello hello all you lucky people and he
really was lucky because it didn’t mean a thing
to him then…
A year or two to settle in and
get acquainted with the set-up; like every other
well-equipped smoothly-run household, his included
one economy-size Mum, one Anthony Squires-
Coolstream-Summerweight Dad, along with two other kids
straight off the Junior Department rack.
When Mom won the
Luck’s-A-Fortch Tricky-Tune Quiz she took him shopping
in the good-as-new station-wagon (£ 495 dep. at Reno’s).
Beep, beep. WALK. DON’T WALK. TURN
LEFT. NO PARKING. WAIT HERE. NO
SMOKING. KEEP CLEAR/OUT/OFF GRASS. NO
BREATHING EXCEPT BY ORDER. BEWARE OF
THIS. WATCH OUT FOR THAT. My God (beep)
the congestion here just gets (beep)
worse every day, now what the (beep beep) does
that idiot think he’s doing (beep beep and BEEP).
However, what he enjoyed most of all was when they
went to the late show at the local drive-in, on a clear night
and he could see (beyond the fifty-foot screen where
giant faces forever snarled screamed or make
incomprehensible and monstrous love) a pure
unadulterated fringe of sky, littered with stars
no-one had got around to fixing up yet: he’d watch them
circling about in luminous groups like kids at the circus
who never go quite close enough to the elephant to get kicked.
Anyway, pretty soon he was old enough to be
realistic like every other godless
money-hungry back-stabbing miserable
so-and-so, and then it was goodbye stars and the soft
cry in the corner when no-one was looking because
I’m telling you straight, Jim, it’s Number One every time
for this chicken, hit wherever you see a head and
kick whoever’s down, well thanks for a lovely
evening Clare, it’s good to get away from it all
once in a while, I mean it’s a real battle all the way
and a man can’t help but feel a little soiled, himself,
at times, you know what I mean?
Now take it easy
on those curves, Alice, for God’s sake,
I’ve had enough for one night, with that Clare Jessup,
hey, ease up, will you, watch it —
Probity & Sons, Morticians,
did a really first-class job on his face
(everyone was very pleased) even adding a
healthy tan he’d never had, living, gave him back for keeps
the old automatic smile with nothing behind it,
winding the whole show up with a
nice ride out to the underground metropolis
permanent residentials, no parking tickets, no taximeters
ticking, no Bobby Dazzlers here, no down payments,
nobody grieving over halitosis
flat feet, shrinking gums, falling hair.
Six feet down nobody interested.
Blink, blink. CEMETERY. Silence.