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Sunday, 24 February 2013

Book review: The Poet Who Forgot, Catherine Cole (2008)

In 1982 a young Arts graduate living in Sydney who had studied Australian literature wrote a letter to the renowned Australian formalist poet A.D. Hope, a resident of Canberra. The missive did the trick and the two met. Lots of people write fan mail to favourite writers and most get a reply but Catherine Cole got a lot more, over the course of the ensuing years, and clearly the poet did too. For why otherwise would he continue to respond to Cole in such a positive manner? They met many times in the course of time. Then, much later, Cole visited Canberra again with the goal of accessing Hope's letters, which had been given to the National Library of Australia, and which included many of her own sent to the poet, in pursuit of the larger goal of writing about the relationship that had blossomed for so many years, so many years earlier.

This book is the result, and it's a strange and often beautiful creation that sits somewhere between the genres of memoir, essay and collected letters. The book starts in an uncertain manner, something like the opening passages of Beethoven's 9th symphony, with short forays into narratives that are quickly abandoned as the author looks for the right tone and the right set of referents with which to address the problem of describing her relationship with the poet. Who was she? Who is she now? What did the correspondence with Hope, and the occasional meetings, mean for the younger woman? How did they translate into the maturing writer's achievements, goals and dreams?

Literature is of such importance to some people that a personal connection to an esteemed writer is attractive. Many people will be able to understand the younger Cole's impusliveness. Older people will be able to understand the reason why Hope responded the way he did. Other people again will "get" the relevance for an aspiring writer of a personal connection to a major literary figure.

The way the book proceeds you have a few letters and then there's a sort of essay/memoir within which Cole tries to look deeper at both who she was in her earlier years and at the nature of the relationship that adorned it. These interpolative passages often have a theme, such as love or old age or memory. Cole uses direct quotes to harness the writings of other people and in this way strives to make sense for the reader. But this highly literary method has a studiousness about it that can be slightly alienating. Instead of insights from Cole herself, we are given borrowed insights from writers far removed from Cole's central drama. And although Cole's prose is dextrous, allusive and stimulating it does not often rise past ordinary concepts, as for example in the poetry of Judith Wright which, while excellent as poetry, does not really reach far beyond the routine concerns of the world. I think that Cole might have better on occasion used indirect quotation to amplify her own thoughts. Her way of proceeding can verge on the academic, which is not the best prosodic medium, I think, for her material. Her material I think demands something more personal (although the sheer number of references Cole locates demonstrates how broad her knowledge of the world of letters is) and more immediate.

But it is easy to criticise what you have not yourself put the time into creating; this is a point that those who write about books should always keep in mind. In the final analysis Cole has made a fascinating work of non-fiction that bends genres and goes against so many conventions that it would be enough to talk about this aspect of the work alone.

In the final pages there is a slowing down that you feel in such poems as Tennyson's In Memoriam; a flagging of energy for the writer contemplating the final years of Hope's life. These moments make you realise how good Cole is at what she does. And in the end you come to think about the reason why Cole undertook the work. Because it's not just about Hope, it's about herself and who she has become and how she came to be where she is at the time of writing the book. And because Cole's experiences often cohere with those of the reader - at least they did with me - you are drawn into a story that spans the gap between the world of public concern and the world of private interests.

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