To like most the poems most needed

Barrett Reid: Making Country (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, in association with Paperbark Press, 1995).

I had read these poems many times before they were published here. Barrett Reid worked hard on his poems. He polished them, sometimes for years; and many major changes were made to them only months before this book was sent to be set. Many fine poems, I am told—I never read them—were lost in a house fire, years ago. (What is it about poems, even small, apparently easy poems, that no effort of will can make them come back, force them to be reconstructed or remembered, if a writer should lose them?) So, Barrett Reid’s first and last book of poems will be the last we hear of him as a poet, even though there are fragments, some pieces nearly but not quite finished, that might usefully be studied alongside the ones in this book: no future edition could confidently add anything significant to this one.

Shortly before his death, after the manuscript of this book was settled and he had himself had a little time to assess it, Reid commented to several friends on the surprise of noticing he had been an editor who encouraged experimentation and modernity even though his own poems, seen as a whole, seemed a bit “old fashioned”. Well, yes, maybe. That would be one way of putting it. As much as I would like to give Barrett Reid the last word on this, I think it is truer to say that Reid did not write an ‘old fashioned’ kind of poem but that he failed to overcome his influences. He was in some ways a better reader of poems than a writer of them.

These influences sometimes announce themselves very loudly, leaving me with the impression that Reid has borrowed another writer’s signature. In ‘Seatime’, Reid’s love of Wallace Stevens competes with the poem’s content for my attention:

There is a voice that does not reach the shore.
We do not hear it, walking on the shore.
[‘Seatime’, p. 3.]

At other times the influence of reading is more productive when Reid engages with another writer’s ideas. In ‘Go Gently’ his disagreement with Dylan Thomas is as clear, and as deeply felt, as Randall Jarrell’s with Auden:

I will go gently to the unmanned night
where good and bad are left behind the light.

When in life I shared the quiet of nature
why, dying, should I seek to make a stir?

I had some joy, I had some pain,
some sense they may not come again.

Loved much, but too carefully. Do not rage
but love madly to furnish your old age.

[‘Go Gently’, p. 65.]

But the first couplet is unnecessary; the second (sitting under the same title), in my view, would have been the better, epigrammatic opening.

As ‘Go Gently’ shows, I believe, Reid’s poems are most potent when he is most sure of his meaning. This sounds like a truism, unless we recall what Reid often said, as an editor and reader of poems: that he liked most those poems which were most needed. The first principle of his reading practice was to keep one ear alert to the part of writing’s energy that signified this need. And, if that urgency or sense of necessity were present in a poem or story, then there was a good reason to take the writing seriously. It’s a liberal urge: to look first for writing’s urgency, rather than judge its content or intent.

Measuring Reid’s poems in the same way, by his own method, any reasonable estimation would have to conclude they succeed wonderfully. (Examining the poems by a different method might lead me to different conclusions, of course. Why, for example, are there twenty-six references to ‘air’ [twenty-seven, if I count all senses] in only 117 pages of poems? Can it be because this is an important leitmotif, or are there at least a few instances where a too-easy rhyme causes an imprecise image to appear? Close reading of any kind, according to a program or ideology, will have the effect of making a text unwind before your eyes; and at a point somewhere near the reader’s exhaustion—or frustration—it isn’t hard to imagine the author shrugging his shoulders and saying, “But you weren’t meant to read it like that. Does anyone read poems like that?” And this imaginary author is right—so I will not read them that way.) There is a marvellous variety of poems here, humorous, philosophical, satirical, generous, on love and lovers, on friendship, on places, on art, cancer, poets and plants. The mixture seems, because it is, a perfectly natural reflection of Reid’s interests, preoccupations and ethic.

So, it also seems natural to say that these poems are not about nothing, even when (in at least two poems) that is exactly what they are about. How to make a life, a way of living, of being with others, out of ‘nothing’? The atheist’s problem: there is no god, so, what now? This appears to have been, going on the evidence of the poems themselves, a theme that Reid struggled to work out and to write down. ‘Making Country’ offers no solution, except to note what can be done:

So take it easy.
We can do no more
than map precisely
and explore the world we make.
[‘Making Country’, p. 47.]

‘Nothing’ is one of the poems in this book that benefited by being severely cut late in its career: there was a whole fifth section, now gone, that added nothing important to the difficult and hopeful conclusion of its final version:

Such is their nakedness.
You would say: their love
has come to nothing after all,
there is no other here, or anywhere —
nothing to take the strain, nothing
between each one. Here
in distance, in exile, above
all, shall love grow.
This is its very air.
For there is nothing here
there are no names for you to go by now
there is no prayer,
only a heart beating, below
all, and being human
free to move
into that nothing which is love.
[‘Nothing’, p. 61.]