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Monday, 18 February 2013

Book review: The Land's Meaning, Randolph Stow (2012)

When Randolph Stow died in 2010 he was living, as he had done for decades, in England. Few Australians would have learnt of his passing. Clearly, John Kinsella did. Kinsella edited this collection of poetry and also wrote the introduction to it. For some Australians a major retrospective such as this book is a matter of great interest, but the book disappoints. The rambling and often off-point introduction does the volume no favours, for a start. I'm not sure why Fremantle Press thought Kinsella was up to the job; presumably long acquaintence serves as a recommendation. In this case, it was misguided. There is some history of Stow in the introduction, and this is what most people will be looking for as many will not know anything about Stow, but a lot of odd material enters these pages and in any case the piece is far too long.

In the body of the text there is one poem, an Elizabethan sonnet, about the Burma railway which caught my eye because it held together very well. The rest of the poetry did not, in my view. I shouldn't be unfair by calling undue attention to Stow's main point of artistic reference - Rimbaud - but my reaction to the poetry overall was negative, and so it would not be surprising if I were to label Stow's attempts basically derivative. And so it is. There is not a great bulk of work here, and I get the feeling that Stow did not spend enough time developing an adequate vehicle in language to link his ideas to the page, and to the reader's mind. Most of the poems, although they have length, do not have development. It felt like a series of lines of words bumping along with little idea of where they would go next, and consequently, as there was no apparent destination, there could be no opportunity to surprise the reader.

It appears to me that Stow was an educated and intelligent gentleman in a way not untypical of his generation. The appearance in the poems, despite Kinsella's assurances, of lots of classical references, made me realise how unremarkable Stow was in terms of his artistic vision. You can find the same in dozens of other books by poets of that generation. There are also attempts to assume a diversity of voices, but given Stow's debt to Rimbaud these are not strong enough to overcome the writer's lack of purpose. When he mimics he sounds like he's airing a grievance, but there is no force to it and you can clearly see the figure of the poet standing behind the words.

I read up to the libretti then stopped. Those later poems about the Tao are ludicrous and possess no strength or sense of purpose - no vision. By this time in his life Stow was apparently more intent on pushing a barrow than on creating something unique and beautiful. There is evidence of such an ambition in the earlier poems but ultimately Stow lacked something essential, and it was probably just a matter of application. Stow's juddering syntax and strange word choices promise something that he just did not have in him. The prosody fails to support the ambition, which is shackled too tightly to Stow's models and cannot fly.

The book is worth the money if you are a true devotee of Australian native poetry. It is also interesting as a historical artefact, showing as it does what a young Australian with artistic aspirations was capable of in the 50s and 60s. But Stow's success in novels is not able to be replicated in poetry and his abandoning his native country for the softer delights of East Anglia cannot be much of a recommendation to those who seek something that truly reflects what Australia was during those years of cultural upheaval and artistic transition.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Pity you don't understand Stow's vision. he was a prophetic voice. To call his poems on the Tao ludicrous indicates your lack of gnosis.

Anonymous said...

I would suggest that the follwing sentence is one of the most 'ludicrous' I have ever read: '
"Most of the poems, although they have length, do not have development. It felt like a series of lines of words bumping along with little idea of where they would go next, and consequently, as there was no apparent destination, there could be no opportunity to surprise the reader.'

Anyone who could write such a sentence has no business criticing a fine poet and novelist like Stow.

I also think it would be very difficult to find a single important modern poet who did not use classical references...