Sydney Morning Herald 22 September 1990
BEHIND THE LINES Don Anderson
I DON'T know the precise percentage of bowlers who pull off a hat-trick, but the number of poets to do so makes hens' teeth seem a glut commodity.
Yet Robert Adamson, who has been publishing poetry since 1969, has done just that with his latest collection, The Clean Dark.
Not exactly a dark horse, Adamson this month cleaned up the NSW and Victorian Poetry Awards, and the National Book Council Poetry Prize.
Devoting a lifetime to Euterpe, muse of lyric poetry, is not an easy business. As a character in Saul Bellow's 1975 novel Humboldt's Gift – widely believed to be about the brilliant and doomed poet Delmore Schwartz – says: "After all. Humboldt was a poet. Humboldt was noble. Poets have to dream and dreaming in America is no cinch."
Sydney may not be as materialist and tough as Bellow's native Chicago, but dreaming in Australia is no cinch, as Adamson testifies in An Elm Tree in Paddington, where he thinks
of Brennan standing on similar joinery,
in the same suburb, soured by love and Symbolism . . .
. . . I drink American whiskey from a champagne flute
and think of Lawson at the Rose & Crown,
he knew the price of a beer cost more than the blackest sonnet.
Adamson's life, which at times seemed to imitate art (as poets' so often do and are expected to do), has shared luridities with Lawson and Brennan. The admirably restrained entry in the Oxford Companion to Australian Literature hints at these:
ADAMSON, ROBERT (1943- ), born Sydney, had only a limited formal education and spent periods of his adolescence and young manhood in reform schools and jails . . . In Adamson's early, largely autobiographical verse the 'poet as outlaw' predominates, recounting prison experiences and drug experiences of his adolescence together with numerous similar headlong attempts to come to grips with life, which the poetry appears to envisage as a highway of dangerous comers to be negotiated at extreme speed on two wheels (The Big V8) or not bothered with at all.
Yet there must come a moment in every artist's life when he or she identifies with the American novelist and poet John Updike, who said: "My life, in a sense, is trash; my life is only that of which the residue is my writing." That ultimately alchemical image would, I think, appeal to Robert Adamson.
As the arresting, and arrestingly printed, photographs by Juno Gemes on the covers of The Clean Dark testify, Adamson has again come home to the Hawkesbury, where his finest poetry flourishes.
That is where earlier books such as Swamp Riddles (1974) and Where I Come From (1979) are located, physically and psychically.
For the curious, the endpapers of the latter volume feature a map of the Hawkesbury: "Robert Adamson: Sole Owner & Proprietor".
When Adamson returns to the Hawkesbury, it is as Auden wrote in his elegy on Melville: "Towards the end he sailed into an extraordinary mildness . . .", or as A. D. Hope wrote of Yeats: "To have found at last that noble, candid speech/ In which all things worth saying may be said." . . . But I come to praise Orpheus, not to bury him. "No River, No Death", the final sequence in The Clean Dark, opens:
Awake after years: sudden exploding mangroves,
alight as Mooney vanishes in mountain shade –
Late afternoon, confusion of words, language
alive with a life of its own, lashing
out and then licking its flesh wounds.
Definitions of poetry may be as various as the poets who utter them, but the spectrum is surely bounded by Shelley at one extreme ("the unacknowledged legislators of mankind") and New Zealander Lauris Edmond at the other ("the infiltrators, saboteurs, remorseless pursuers/ of dirt under the carpet, investigators without/ permission").
In his quarter-century career as poet, editor, and publicist for poetry, Robert Adamson has bestrid these extremes. His definition of poetry may be found in "Lady Faith", a poem presented to A. D. Hope on his 80th birthday:
What makes poetry for me these days of fear
is the faith a well-made sentence brings about
in the song of our being; poetry in these
post-modern days of crazes that take philosophers
of language like brainstorms, where they mistake
language for mathematics; critics
gesturing as politicians in some revolutionary state
of self-delusion, squandering the stakes;
what makes a poem tick these days of serious fads
where the muse gets deconstructed like a toy –
these days in the name of theory's slaves –
again, is the pure faith that song must employ.
He offers a droller definition in his "New Reality Poem" in the current issue of Scripsi ("I'll do my Writer-in- Residency at the Hilton: . . . Write a Koorie Paradise Lost, be the yuppie's' Milton.").
But Adamson's heartland is not the Hilton, it is the Hawkesbury; and the heart of Adamson's poetry may be found in The Clean Dark.
At $35, this beautifully produced volume, accompanied by Juno Gemes's evocative photographs, will cost anyone, yuppie or not, a little more than a main course at Rockpool, which is not on the Hawkesbury. Adamson richly deserved his prizes; he also deserves readers, and they, him.