Contemporary Australian Poetry.

book review -  Collected Poems by Lesbia Harford

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‘I prefer inchoate beauty’: A review of Lesbia Harford’s Collected Poems

by Nathan Hondros

 

(Collected Poems: Lesbia Harford, UWAP, ed. Oliver Dennis, 2014)

 

By all accounts Lesbia Harford lived a full and fascinating life, almost as full and fascinating as her poetry. But it seems unfair to Lesbia Harford the poet to make her politics and her personal life (as it existed outside of her poetry) the prism through which her writing might be understood and appreciated. I’m not particularly interested in her politics or her sexuality. It doesn’t take a close reading of Harford’s poetry to discover she was radically inclined in her political ideology and democratic in her affairs. Who cares.

And given that Harford objected to the anthologising of some of the work in this volume, I feel prurient enough just reading the personal and moving poetry she may never have intended for publication without raking over her activism.

Sadly, her politics make her the ideal subject for a modern contretemps about her poetry. What better vessel for the tired out left versus right political debates that still persist in academia than a woman who studied law with Robert Menzies, but who opposed the First World War and joined the Industrial Workers of the World? If I think too hard about Harford’s politics and her historical context, then I’ll have to bore myself thinking about Ezra Pound’s. I’d much rather just read the poetry instead of standing in judgment of writers for whatever twentieth century ideological basket-casein which they threw themselves. Harford, like Pound, would have been political nonentities were it not for the poetry.

Besides, can the poets among you imagine a worse fate than spending a lifetime establishing a fine body of work only to have the next century’s academics rake over your (albeit well intentioned) twitter feed? For an understanding of Harford’s politics and historical context, I recommend Jeff Sparrow’s essay in the Sydney Review of Books (http://www.sydneyreviewofbooks.com/collected-poems-lesbia-harford/) and the response by Oliver Dennis, the editor of this volume (http://www.sydneyreviewofbooks.com/render-it-barely-correspondence/).

Rather than thinking of Lesbia Harford arguing with Katharine Susannah Prichard late into the night about class struggle and social revolution, I prefer to imagine her singing her poetry aboard the ferries of Sydney Harbour, which she is said to have done.

The power of Harford’s poetry seems to be in her ability to craft her work with the simplicity of a song that effectively illuminates its subject without wasting words. This also gives her poetry its lyrical depth. She writes exactly what she means as simply as she can. Sparrow is correct in that Harford’s work is written in the context of a fully formed and well-considered poetics. Had I suspected for a moment that her occasionally trite rhymes (‘too’/‘dew’ and ‘sky/by’ in “‘O little year, cram full of duty’” on page 31) or clichés of abstraction (‘lorn fields’ and ‘lonely sky’ from the same poem) were not part of some greater ambition, I would’ve given up on her.

However, Harford seems to have set about writing a body of work that might be accessed and appreciated by anyone without the kind of education that typified the time, but – and here’s her brilliance – without speaking down to the reader or compromising her poetic ambition or the intellectual and emotional depths into which she descends. In this context, language that might seem inexcusable in lesser poets is easily forgiven.

Jeff Sparrow correctly identifies the poem “‘If you have loved a brave story’” (page 41) as a statement of Harford’s method and poetics:

 

If you have loved a brave story

Tell it but rarely;

And, with due faith in its glory,

Render it barely.

 

Then must the listener, hearing

Your tale of wonder

Let his own hoping and fearing

Tear him asunder

 

This is exactly the effect that Harford achieves in much of her work, but this is only part of the key to understanding her poetry. In ‘Street Music’ (page 89), Harford describes a street band busking for coin:

 

And the people walk with their heads held high

Whether or not they’ve a penny.

And the music’s there as the bandsmen know,

For the poor, though the poor are many.

 

Oh the music’s free and the music’s bold.

It cannot really be bought and sold.

 

I think Harford’s artistic project was in the writing of a kind of democratic Australian poetry that could be unpacked by anyone, which deliberately avoided the self-referential obscurantism of modernism as it was emerging at the time. Think of how turgid Harford’s contemporaries T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound must’ve been to anyone in this country without an early century background in classics. She was writing a music that was free, which couldn’t be bought or being sold, but which nonetheless can ‘tear asunder’ anyone who is prepared to be open to her work. A music that might be sung on the Manly ferry. Nonetheless, Harford’s poetry does not compromise in the complexity of its sentiment.

It is the ‘tearing asunder’ that is most interesting to me as a poet and a reader of poetry. Irrespective of the politics or the sexuality or even the aesthetics, Harford had worked out a way to conceal and deliver a powerful and at times overwhelming emotional charge. She gets it into you almost without you noticing; take almost any of the short poems in this collection and you’ll be profoundly moved by her.

There is no announcement of the lyrical energy she possessed; like most good poetry, the hit is injected with an unassuming statement and a natural image. If you’re not careful, you can be easily ‘torn asunder’ by the simplicity of poems such as ‘Hecate’s Due’:

 

You who are dead,

Do you know

They’ve dug up half the irises

That used to grow

Here in the quadrangle a year ago?

 

Harford masks the emotional intensity of poems such as this with effective and direct imagery expressed in unequivocal language. While her poetry isn’t entirely conversational, she writes in a natural voice that is uniquely her own. Whether or not her lines suffer from a phrases that would’ve been archaic even in her own time, Harford makes them her own, even if only because of the peculiarity of her subjects; she wrote movingly of the human cost of war, the daily regime of workers (whose ranks she chose to join), music and song, and most poignantly of all, her affairs:

 

I shaved my legs before I came over.

You noticed, and said

they were whitewashed pillars,

artful ruins beneath the lights.

 

It reminds us that the body is subject to as much scrutiny and myth as historic objects. Elsewhere, Frost dissects childhood rites, such as in the poem ‘Odontophilia’, where the loss of milk teeth is presented as obsessive pleasure, a nascent desire for one’s own body. She addresses the children who (like her):

 

I love to see

Her looking up at me,

Stretched on a bed

In her pink dressing gown,

Her arms above her head,

Her hair all down.

 

She carefully avoids affectation, which perhaps explains the brevity of many of her poems. Only a handful stretch to a second page. When I read “’We climbed that hill’”, the longest poem in the volume and one of the finest, I wondered how many of the shorter poems might have fared had Harford not bottled them so succinctly and instead let them run with less structure or concern for their welfare. This long poem feels like a horse that’s bolted: ‘Rose sandhills’ are ‘Humped like the Punch and Judy of a farce,/Comical, cleft’ and ‘Spotted/With dark/Clumped tea-tree’, ‘Blotted/With purple earth’. She’s measuring her sense of aesthetics against her walking companion who prefers the ‘…far/Eternal unity of things that are/Like Plato and the mountains’ to the immediacy of the world Harford finds at her feet: ‘I prefer/Inchoate beauty’. Her friend in this poem – who is said to Guido Barrachi–thinks too much, I think.

Lesbia Harford reminded me of a kind of poetry that sometimes I forget I love. A poetry that is not concerned with schools of ideas, or movements or itself, but with the complexity of feeling that exists between the poet and his or her life. Harford most often did not write as a considered act of politics or ideology. She wrote because she had no choice, because poetry was an extension of life itself, as fundamental as breathing. Reading her work is not thinking, it’s living. Not much thinking required at all.

If you can, when you read her put aside the learned criticism of her work, the politics, the pointless debate about the her sexuality, her historical context, which minor academic or political nonentity she was writing fervent lyrics about, and just hear her singing on the Harbour ferries. I can’t help believing that’s how she would’ve wanted it.

From “’Tonight when woes are manifold’”:

 

For Lavender and Neutral Bay

And all the points for black and gold,

Though they are lovely to behold

And star-bedecked and warm and gay,

 

Are not like hands I used to kiss

Dear fragile human hands of clay, —

And I’ll not clasp for many a day

Those hands that hold my all of bliss.