From his earliest involvement, Robert Adamson has been an iconic figure for contemporary Australian poetry, both as a ‘post-symbolist’, lyrical poet, and as an editor and publisher. His achievements are testament to this, whether one is reflecting upon his 17 odd collections of poetry, and the consequent awards, or his various engagements on ventures such as the editorship of New Poetry and the founding of Paperbark Press. He has also played a significant role, along with many others, in bringing contemporary American and other poetries to the forefront of Antipodean awareness. Perhaps what is less known is the life that made this contribution possible.
Certainly, throughout Adamson’s poetry, there have always been strong allusions and connections to this life as it was lived, most notably in collections such as the seminal and accessible Where I Come From, allegedly written in a fit of black LSD laughter, or the sombre songs of Black Water: Approaching Zukofsky, where he often deals, frankly and philosophically, with the consequences of a questioned and perhaps questionable existence. However, what biographical fact is encapsulated in his poetry is hidden behind the shield of poetic character – a very devious form of distance indeed! In Inside Out Adamson lets slide this beautiful, assonant façade for the state of plain and forward prose. And he does so, well, beautifully, and with an incredible assonance for life.
Born in 1943, Adamson describes his early childhood in the lower North Shore of Sydney with a clear, evocative and unsentimental language that draws the reader directly into his life and the tremendous experience of reliving it: ‘My early childhood is a mystery to me; I scarcely remember it,’ he writes. ‘In Wards of the State I described it, borrowing a phrase from Bob Dylan, as “a chain of flashing images”. Gradually, I suppose, I discovered that I lived in paradise.’
In this paradise Adamson relates to us a sensual, almost pastoral world in which appear a love and affinity with the world of birds, and a life-long obsession with fishing, water and the Hawkesbury River; we are introduced to the symbols that will come to define his writing, and his life, as he matures into the poet who seamlessly integrates these elements into odes to life, art and death:
two swamp harriers
sweet whistling killers like us, who cut
fish throats and clasp up
bunches of silver nerves–
calling under stars convicts
hacked in cliff face.
- from ‘Rock Carving with Kevin Gilbert (Waving to Hart Crane)’
What emerges is a patched-together narrative of suburban life in post-World War II Sydney. But the dark tremors that will crack open Adamson’s world are peppered throughout this idyllic pastiche: his dyslexia, an alcoholic father, an intense dream-like state of mind in which consequences emerge only as they appear.
His spiral into a recidivist cycle begins when he concocts an admittedly ingenious and successful plan to steal the rare riflebird of paradise from its enclosure at Taronga Zoo, only to be caught by the police after an unexpected visit from the RSPCA. In return, he receives a good behaviour bond, which he breaks by stealing a Gestetner copier from school. He is then promptly sent to the Mount Penang Training School for Boys – as the euphemism suggests, a juvenile detention centre.
It is from this point that the lyric power of Adamson’s language, and the power that it has come to hold over his life, becomes manifest. He retells with distance and beauty the incredible, surreal sequence that tumbles him from teenage years into his early twenties, a journey distinguished by his graduation from juvenile delinquency, and charges as diverse as theft and ‘carnal knowledge’, to a pastry chef apprenticeship to incarceration at Long Bay, Goulbourn, and Maitland jails.
Adamson leads us through this life, with its bizarre confluence of intense and intelligent strategising – as he works his way to survival, indeed power, in the penitential system, and absolutely thoughtless actions – as he constantly and needlessly re-offends himself into occasions of rape, enforced transexuality, and physical violence. These are the stories that lend weight to poems such as Black Water’s ‘Tropic Bird’ where his past ‘oozes through its pack of black jokes / and disasters.’
But Adamson’s early life, for all its black jokes, is not without salvation. Almost predictably, it arrives through a strange cast – primarily composed of prison system characters: Bob Dylan, whose voice and lyrics appears like ‘a snarled, guttural revelation’ one day over prison loudspeakers; a visiting Jesuit priest who reads Adamson’s first ‘song lyrics’, diagnoses them as poems, and gives the young poet his first copy of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ complete poems; ‘The Hook’, a convicted murderer and rapist turned librarian; and, of course, the books, by Rimbaud, Sappho, Plato, Steinbeck.
It is ironic, as he often admits himself, that without his criminal past, Adamson would not have discovered poetry, would not have become a poet but a fisherman or pastry chef; upon his ultimate release from jail in the early 60s, Adamson never looks back, moving back to Sydney where starts the difficult, but finally successful, ‘business’ of becoming a poet. Inside Out ends where his long string of publications begins: his first book, Canticles on the Skin. A second autobiographical volume is planned to put the torch of language to the rest of this ‘Australian story’.
That Adamson is a talented and vivid writer, of both poetry and prose, with a sly sense of story telling, is cemented by the achievement of Inside Out. His control of language is, simply put, wonderful. The entire book has a pace and quality to it that alternates between the languorous and the anxious with lyrical ease. What is perhaps less tangible is how this book relates to the poetic world that both surrounds and comprises it.
In terms of oz lit history, Adamson was at the forefront of what could be considered the last significant Australian poetry ‘movement’, the so-called ‘Generation of ’68’. His insights into its formation are important and apparently incisive. However, invariably, some accusations have been levelled against Adamson as a self-mythologiser, stemming perhaps from some of the confessional strands that have been apparent in his poetry or the fact that he is, in reality, somewhat of a dreamer.
His account of the events that define this cathartic moment in Australian poetry will always be called into question, even as heated discussions arise between others ‘present’ at the time over who said and did what. Perhaps, there is a certain need, as Adamson’s own mother suggests, to take some of what he says ‘with a grain of salt.’ But to disregard the book over petty fact-fighting would indeed be petty. In any case, the literary history element of this story only emerges in the last quarter or so, when he gets a ‘Knock on the door’ from the poet and then-editor of Poetry Magazine, Roland Robinson.
It should not be forgotten that Inside Out is, foremost, an autobiography, collected from the obscure and often revisionist synapses of memory. Although doing much to capture the somewhat manic and bohemian essence of Australian literature as it walked into the 60s and beyond, this book is ultimately a personal story, rendered in such a way that Adamson can sing a song of himself without, what Charles Olson terms, the lyrical interference of the soul as ego. This book delivers a renewed respect for a man who could both live this life and live with it. But more importantly, at least in terms of Australian poetry, it contextualises what poetry means to Adamson and provides an insight into how it delivered him to magic and meaning.
Peppered throughout the book, especially from the time he lands in prison and discovers both the prison library and a hell of a lot of reading time, are his personal accounts of how poetry, literature and art have become his definition, his framework: the magic of a Hopkins sonnet, the soul-changing experience of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the excitement of discovering that a contemporary Australian poetry existed. These are the entities that have helped him survive and flourish. For the Adamson-o-philes (like myself), the insights into the background of certain of his own poems are also interesting, from a scholarly point of view, if not for their glimpse into the poet’s creative process.
Inside Out emerges as both the account, and perhaps accounting, of an amazing life and an ode to poetry and art. In many ways it is also an invitation for others to share this experience, as sentimental as that may sound. In an age where poetry is the by-and-large marginalised realm of poets, the import of providing a user-friendly guide to contemporary and classical poetry cannot be disregarded. In this case, Adamson has done so by intertwining poetry with the facts of an incredible story. Indeed, for Adamson, the two are utterly inseparable, which makes Inside Out an equally important and engaging contribution to Australian poetry and Australian biography.
Inside Out: An Autobiography (2004) Robert Adamson, Text Publishing.
James Stuart is a Sydney-based poet, DJ and new media artist. He is also Director of the collaborative production c-side.