Interview with Peter Boyle



Michael Brennan: When did you start writing and what motivated you?

Peter Boyle: I started writing poetry when I would have been fourteen and then again, as if it was a new start, at the end of third year of university and then again several times over. I wonder if the motivation shifted from what it was at fourteen to what it might have been at twenty-five, or at thirty-one, or at thirty-seven. Likewise, I wrote a first short story when I was about ten and the writing of fictions weave in and across the writing of poems. Stories and attempts to write a novel largely took over from the writing of poetry from my early twenties to mid-thirties, and yet the two activities were also of a piece, as my stories and would-be novels were more like compendia of brief prose poems than mainstream novels.

At fourteen I began writing poetry partly out of delight in creation, partly in response to a range of largely unconscious personal motives. There was the desire to emulate poetry I admired – T.S. Eliot, Hopkins; by fifteen, Pound, Dylan Thomas, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Lorca, Villon, just small snippets of all these, and at age sixteen, Dylan, the great Bobby Dylan and personal motives. Undoubtedly the need to express myself, to create in a verbal form, was partly motivated in my teen years by insecurity, my sense of shame in my own body as a disabled kid who wanted to create some other self for himself. Yet I don’t think that was the sole or most important motivation. There was also the strong desire to create something really powerful, beautiful, that sung the way the poems I admired did. I was conscious from the start of writing bad good poetry as opposed to inept lyrics or rhymes or clever send-ups that might be called good bad poetry. I wrote a poem about Igneous Rocks at fifteen and it channeled my insecurities into images that came spontaneously. It was influenced by Rimbaud’s poem about Ophelia but also something quite my own. I wrote it after going to a party at a girl's place and feeling that overwhelming sense of teenage worthlessness, but the poem wasn’t your classic teenage angst rave. I felt exhilarated by the way the poem worked feelings, images and sounds into a very different whole the way poetry can do. Even if it was fed by that awful sense of worthlessness, the poem took me away from myself and replaced pain with the joy of shaping words. I’m sure that was a large part of the motivation. Over the years there came more balance and more awareness of others’ suffering. Between the age of fourteen and when I started writing poetry yet again at age thirty-six there had been a shift in my motivation towards expressing social or more universal concerns. By then I was married – soon with two children – and living in greater harmony with myself.

MB: Who are the writers that first inspired you to write and who are the writers you read now? What’s changed?

Peter Boyle: The writers who inspire me to write have gone through a series of shifts – from what inspired and enthused me in my twenties, to those poets who had the most impact around the time I was writing my first two books, roughly from 1988 to 1995, then to the range of poets and writers who have most influence on me in the last ten years. In my twenties it was a range of great writers and poets from the early twentieth century, from Eliot and Pound and Lorca, to novelists like Proust and Faulkner. One problem was that the contemporary poets I knew of then, Australian and American poets like Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, John Forbes and Robert Gray, represented in different ways types of poetry I admired but couldn’t emulate. In the case of Ashbery, Forbes and O’Hara, the stance towards life and the style were cool, hip and quite alien to who I was, and with Robert Gray the experiences and the philosophy they generated were something I could admire but not share.

In the second period, between my late thirties and into my early forties, I was lucky to encounter the poetry of James Wright, Philip Levine, Galway Kinnell, Elizabeth Bishop, as well as a range of Latin American and French poets like Vallejo, Char and Bonnefoy, who spoke to me strongly and opened up ways of writing for me. Lorca and the task of translating Lorca was essential in helping me find my own way to write through the 1980s.

Nowadays I read a range of new poets and old favourites – among old favourites would be James Wright, Paul Celan, Rilke, Char, Bonnefoy; among more recent discoveries for me would be Zbigniew Herbert, Niklos Radnoti, Nikola Madzirov, Jorge Palma, José Kozer, Niels Hav, Inger Christensen, Charles Simic, Juan Gelman. If I compare what I read now to what I read back in my twenties and early thirties, I read much more now from the second half of the twentieth century and much more from contemporaries and near contemporaries who also speak to me. Eliot, Pound, Neruda, Montale on the whole no longer speak to me so much – Sylvia Plath, James Wright, Rilke, Vallejo and Borges become deeper, more powerful, more resonant. Among Australian poets, Judith Beveridge and M.T.C. Cronin would remain the poets I most admire, alongside Robert Gray, Bob Adamson and J.S. Harry.

MB: How important is ‘everyday life’ to your work?

Peter Boyle: I am not too sure what to make of this question. If by ‘everyday life’ you mean the dullest level of routine existence: washing clothes, cleaning the house, going to and from work, the trudge of everydayness: there are plenty of references here and there to such activities but mostly they are not the main subject of my poems. I mostly need something with more emotional drive in it. If by ‘everyday life’ is meant my own life with its crises, traumas and uncertainties, failures and anxieties, then it is very important in most of my poems. If we assume that to fall in love or fall out of love, to face one’s own death or experience the death of a parent is an everyday event, a part of everyday life lying in wait for us, then ‘everyday life’ is central to most of my successful poems. What is everyday life? What is realistic true-to-life content in a poem? I don’t think poems have to opt for the easiest levels of reality or put on a happy face because so many people do that to live. Recounting bright breezy experiences as Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery in large part did is only one kind of slice of some people’s everyday life. I love most of O’Hara’s poems but they represent only one version of everyday life.

Last year I was in hospital three times for various crises. While overseas I was airlifted to a hospital in Berlin and wrote a poem there, a poem that in part dictated itself to me while I was coming out of the anesthetics for the first operation. Revised and worked over but essentially faithful to the words I found myself saying in the post-operative room, the poem comes from my everyday life though I’m sure it reaches beyond that and some people might think it’s not reality. But surely such experiences are as much part of our everyday life as shopping in Woollies:

August 2009

Falling asleep in a hospital in Germany

is like dozing fully clothed and awake
among the crowds of the dead.
I saw caves painted with bison, saw
masks and figures on trains, sat beside
fat ladies and men wearing teeth, rattled
through a fairground like a baited bear, and men
in pelts of foxes and wolves
held out arrows towards me
and I understood how the fish were running
in the streams. There was a bell ringing
on a train where I sat packed in
between schoolgirls and sausages.
I said to myself, of course I am asleep
and there is safety in being only a passenger
and then a man from some tribe five thousand years ago
ran his fingers along my shoulder, a gob of congealed
cowblood planting the sign of the ox
on my smallpox scar.
I understood I might have been invited
to a wedding that took place
in a field where my bed lies
sometime when small people in boats
were crossing the lakes out of Africa
and fire would break at odd moments
from their fingers, stealing light
from the sky's lower stars.
In my right hand
a patched scar has quilted a sign
for the late summer swallows –
the scar in the palm of my right hand
is a long sequence of crossroads
going back to the invention of axes.
“Do you want to go with us far into the forests?”
I understood some hunters were willing to take me
across the hills into Asia,
perhaps we would search out the secret tunnels
that transmitted pollen from the earth's first spring
between Iceland and China.

Then the carriage jolts again,

this steel-framed casing where my body is transported
between whatever decrees have been issued for its fate.
So many people pierce me with their eyes.
From a corner window seat
I see the dizzying chronicle of my births
and when the train slows
just beyond the eastern suburbs of Berlin
a lake comes into view,
a low riverbank and, eloquent
as a stone path entering the sky, a turtle
has just left its log.
The fragile constellation of its face
welcomes me back.

MB: What is the function or place of subjectivity in your poetry?

Peter Boyle: Poetry is inevitably subjective. In a sense what else could it be? There are at the same time certain limits to that. Words have meanings – in a given culture, a given variant of a language, not altogether arbitrary meanings. Something can be sloppy, clichéd, confused, inept, objectively speaking. The importance something has for you, the resonances it sets off, are inevitably subjective. Someone may dislike your poem because it has the word “moon” in it and to meet this word in a non-ironic poem gives them apoplexy. One can never avoid the subjectivity of being disliked. One could try to write objective poetry by recording the physical dimensions of objects, deleting all adjectives, metaphors, similes, symbols and figures of speech. The act of doing this would merely reinstate a particular subjectivity – the subjective claim by implication that such physical details have reality or importance.

There is a hard to define line between the inevitable subjectivity of any work of art and the irritating self-centredness when a poem, novel, short story becomes so bound up in the writer’s sense of their own importance or grief or anger that it excludes the reader, failing to reach beyond a private rant. Different readers will always have different responses to this. Perhaps to some extent I shy away from a poetry bound up with explicit narrative and autobiographical detail out of an instinct that once I get too close to that kind of detail I won’t be able to avoid the perils of a private rant.

There are a few poems where I use lots of detail from someone’s life to build up a picture of them. I’m thinking here of a poem from the book What the painter saw in our faces called ‘Cecile’, closely based on a flatmate with whom I shared a group house in the early 1980s. It’s an experiment, slightly in the manner of Montale, with detail and the building up of an unstated reality. Inevitably it’s subjective in that I can’t know what Cecile’s life was for herself and that the projection of the poem is as much about the imagined narrator of the poem as about Cecile. There is, as often, a certain fictionalization in crafting the details into a poem:


No one will phone you up tonight
and I won’t smell ever again the nuoc mam
and red slivers of uncooked meat,
the fistfuls of flowering coriander
rising in steam from your bowl
as you ate in your room alone.
No more animated small talk
in the gentle fierce abrasion of half French
or tracing your wanderings on the map
or preserving the silent rapture you needed
to watch “Prisonière”,
your one hour’s weekly self-improvement in Strine.

Of the two of us
I’m the only one to reach the Andes,
that high rim of the world you always travelled towards.
I’ll never sort out your stories –
India, Nice, Hanoi, the Isle of Pines –
and I keep expecting to find
somewhere among my papers
your snapshot of two Iranian students
posing shyly under Tehran’s wintry trees
while at their back
the cars, exploding, curl into black smoke.

Everything’s interwoven now
like the beads you threaded for your jewellery
to hawk at the Cross.
The night I first got cancer
I stumbled into the post-op ward with N,
my friend, your lover, to visit you –
your thin being and extraordinary hands
and how my gaze held you then
in the soft sticky pain of your eyes
while N picked a fight and temper tantrumed
and in a flash I saw myself at twenty,
my own inability to love
gathered into one foul gesture,
and still I seem to be watching the two of you,
                                    my gaze drinking you in,
your eyes almost touching mine,
                                    you, my soft undrunk elixir.

MB: Do you see your work in terms of literary traditions and/or broader cultural or political movements?

Peter Boyle: Yes and no. No in the sense that I try to focus on the poem I am writing, to write it as well as I can, to write it in the style and voice it seems to call out for. At that point it feels important not to be too conscious of inheriting any broader literary tradition or promoting a single narrow political agenda.

On the other hand, there is a broad literary tradition I see my poetry as coming out of, a tradition or a merging of traditions from international poetry from the twenthieth century. It is certainly not L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, nor is it narrowly Australian poetry. It is a tradition that doesn’t want old-fashioned nineteenth-century sentimentality but equally does not want to narrow language too much by rejecting the richness of metaphor. This tradition really can only be suggested by names and by the absence of certain other names. It isn’t any single tradition as it spans so many languages and cultures but, likewise, I see it as interconnected loops, with several loose affinities at play. Imagine a tradition that might read like this – from Spain and Latin America, Lorca, Vallejo, Neruda, Paz, Borges, Cernuda; from western Europe Rilke, Trakl and Celan, Reverdy, Char and Bonnefoy, Ungaretti, Montale, Seferis, Eleutis, Ritsos; from Russia Akhmatova and Mandelshtam. I picture this tradition as going on with poets like Inger Christensen, Zbigniew Herbert, Adam Zagajewski, Wallace Stevens, James Wright, Galway Kinnell (especially in The Book of Nightmares), Sylvia Plath, Jack Gilbert. What is this tradition? At the least the language is fresh, dense, rich, pushed towards the limits, the heart is open, with the political and the personal spilling into each other in a constant rich and urgently serious dialogue. There are circles within this circle – Stevens and Pierre Reverdy have their own ambience of a deep inward silence, a great precision with language, a commitment to “the palm at the end of the mind”, a focus on the pared down minima of life that, certainly in Reverdy’s case, was the underpinning for a clear mostly implicit stance towards the social and political evils of his world. Who do I leave out from this list of “my tradition”? Eluard and his rather declaratory, to me overly rhetorical political poems, for one; Mayakovsky, e.e. cummings (a few great poems aside), Huidobro, Apollinaire, Ashbery (again there are some absolutely great poems) – poets where the desire to be new, to shock, to startle and overawe is too transparent, where there is some sense of lack of engagement with the pain of the world. I’m also not very keen on the flurry of celebration of modernity to be found in much Apollinaire and in Huidobro’s Altazor, a tone I find dated and very unappealing towards the end of the anthropocene. I haven’t mentioned Robert Frost, Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, not because I don’t greatly admire their poetry, but because it belongs to a different tradition, the great English-language tradition of more narratival poetry tied, like the novel and the short story, to objective observable patterns of events and personalities. (As an aside I suspect narratival/autobiographic poetry works best when a poet has a very clear, very strong answer to the question “Who are your people?” and the answer fuels the poetry. When I compare myself with Heaney, Frost or Walcott or Archie Roache or Les Murray or Π.O., I feel not state-less but people-less in a way that feels very much a late-twentieth-century reality.) For the most part the narrative tradition is a tradition my poetry has much less to do with. I feel I work better when I work in a different way. Among Australian poets I feel I have a greater resemblance to, more kinship with Christopher Brennan and Francis Webb than Slessor.

Perhaps, to give a clearer sense of what I admire in the poets I’ve been mentioning, a few brief examples would help. Inger Christensen’s 1983 book Alfabet, translated by Susana Nied, is a book-length sequence of poems where the number of lines in each poem increases according to the Fibonacci sequence, giving a tightly structured, almost mathematical feel to this work merging the personal and the global, speaking of who we are individually and who we are on earth. Here is an excerpt from a third of the way through the book:

Hydrogen bombs exist
a plea to die

as ordinary people used to die
one day in ordinary

weather, whether you
know you are dying
or know nothing, maybe

a day when as usual you have
forgotten you must die,
a breezy day in

November maybe, as
you walk into the kitchen
and barely manage to

notice how good
and earthy the potatoes
smell, and barely

manage to put the lid on,
wondering whether you
salted them before you
put the lid on, and in a flash,

while puffs of steam
leak past the lid, barely
manage to remember your life
as it was and still
is . . .

I love the tone of voice Christensen creates as she goes on weaving between potatoes and nuclear experiments around the globe, and later between local brickworks and dying animals, and a tree outside her window and the cosmos. There is understatement and breadth and clarity, there is a reaching out to speak of what is largest and smallest, claiming in a very natural way the entire universe for poetry.

In a very different mode, here is a poem, one of the sixty poems called ‘Anima’ in the book Anima by Cuban poet José Kozer. Here in a life of exile from land and language, but also in the inherited exile of Jewish identity, Kozer creates out of the natural world, out of symbols and fragments, the wealth of traditions from Dante and Li Po to Pound, an imagining of what the self might be. Kozer’s poems, so dense and inlaid, elliptical with flashes of lyricism, are extremely hard to bring across from one language to another. This version is my own:


Stretched out in a forest head resting on a porous stone moss against my head my eyes cherry plums hands crossed at the neck eyes staring eyes floating in the sky.

In the sky flowerbeds of pansies forests of poppies the sky a meadow blooming with lavender.

A clump of spikes armfuls of catkins (lilies) (lilies) vast bed of vine shoots.

I look (concave) I look (the fly’s dodecahedron eye) a tide of white chrysanthemums (I gaze) from my concavities.

And the eye is right that it’s a profusion of swarming ants ever-increasing (blue) tide of the sky recombination of lizard and bee, sky extending as elusive as blurred: one more flight (pollen) one more little deposit (drop) (by drop) to fill the concavities.

Lying in the evening’s first darkness in the first days of autumn the eye magnetizes clay from hardened soil magnetizes the autumn the ice.

And the eye looks at the frost in the sky the eye recognizes a black apocalypse of horses (God) in the opposite direction (Lord) now in the opposite direction.

Forty years in the desert: the peak (sand) the estuary (mud) the reefs (dust, of lime): an archipelago of sand these forty years this hourglass of sand (its count) in my eyes.

Stretched out, like basalt, forty years.

And the eye of obsidian watches the sky blooming with black pansies its cardinal point further north surrenders to me a black branch of cherry plum.

And I gaze and reverse it and I try to find myself at some tangent of the hourglass in the eyes: I am the one who occupies the space (to the second, to the length) of the polished pebble reflecting (immaculate strata) a sky (forest, of mirages) studded for descent with the blue rungs of a ladder.

I am of this place. I did not leave. The lizard’s jade is my homeland or vocation. I am a mathematical part. Grammatical accident (enunciation). Permanent scion of the sky.

What aspect of writing poetry and working as a poet is the most challenging?

Peter Boyle: The toughest, hardest thing is writing poetry, the actual writing, not getting discouraged by all the external things, finding inspiration, keeping focus, going on trying new things despite phases where all my new efforts seem slight or flawed or too clumsy, whatever. Over and over I feel on the edge of no longer being able to write but then a good day or a good night comes along and a poem seems almost to write itself. It’s fabulous when that happens but there are, for me at least, always weeks, sometimes several months, when nothing that works seems to come. It is also very discouraging when I have the clear feeling that a poem is there – I have the words or the general structure and feeling – but absolutely no time to write at all due to work pressures and commitments.

MB: What reading, other than poetry, is important to your work as a poet and why?

Peter Boyle: History and biography have always been important reading to me. Several of my poems have their origins in such reading. ‘Group portrait, Delft, late sixteenth century’ from the book What the painter saw in our faces, for example, came out of a reading of a large book on Dutch art in its historical framework.

Group portrait, Delft, late sixteenth century.
They opened the dikes five times that year to flood the land.
Cities were torched, the inhabitants bound and gagged,
then forced at lancepoint into the frozen canals.
I was executing yet another portrait of the public trustees of an orphanage
that their bald correctly-laced presences might shine
in remote museums a thousand years hence.
I enjoy the delicate way their hands rest on the title deeds
for these most Christian places
even as the order “No prisoners” passed along both sides
or another cannonade ripped through the munitions factory
burying in rubble the girls’ school for genteel deportment.
Each year the orphanages increased.
The portraits grew heavier and heavier.
The regents must have thought they would lug the weight of them
into the other world.
Nice money if you can get the work
and no one questioned motives:
fidelity to realistic details
right up to the end of the earth.

These stone embankments that look like Venice but they’re not Venice,
here where the dark river finds its terminus,
where the ship’s prow seeks a tomb among the currents.
Every day as I paint,
winter water shivers under the footbridge.
The gaunt trees shelter their starved layer of birds:
at each level they define a new habitation.
I once captured the local birds in a Biblical triptych:
those rounded brutal mouths shaped by the one cry of begging,
stuffing everything visible into their darkening crevasse.
I wanted to paint as bluntly
as words spoken during an avalanche
yet all’s this inevitable smooth,
these muted blues that are the fashion of the age
recording everything precisely as it is:
each official, each battle, the new born child,
the fruits on the table, the windmill on the hillside to the left
at every change of season—
that’s what they wanted and I could do it,
making present to the touch
each thing as it passes into amnesia.

Today at the abandoned Cathedral
the Italian master continues his rehearsals.
No one notices how there’s a wobbling at the core of his music
and no matter how high the dancers kick their heels
they will never find solid ground.
The goodly burghers will follow the streamers
and no one thinks twice of the five servant girls
penned in their cages
awaiting the sentence of beheading
for certain lewd practices
as reported by their illustrious employers.
Each day the ocean grows outside the dike.
The wounds in the sky slowly multiply.
Ever more threatening the viking ships come closer.
I continue these stern faces, hands folded in laps,
apocalypse near Delft, the circle sealed.
Long needles knit the great cloaks for our third winter in the trenches.
The troops of the Duke of Alba torch another outlying settlement
while the regents’ faces betray no emotion.

They know the civilization I smear on this canvas will last a thousand years.

I’ve always enjoyed in my poetry being able to move into another time and place and write imaginatively using material from such sources. It’s both expanding and takes you out of yourself and the danger of being too bogged down with private obsessions but it’s also a way of reflecting on our own world. Among the areas of history I keep reading about are Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, the Soviet Union, Spanish and Latin American history. More recently I’ve been reading about the Balkans as well as books about China, India and central Asia.

With Apocrypha there is a wide variety of reading behind it. I reread Thucydides, Tacitus and parts of Herodotus, read for the first time Valerius Maximus and several histories of late Rome, some books on lawmaking in Greece, articles off the web on the Nestorians, a book about trade in the Roman empire, several of Plato’s dialogues, essays and poems by Anne Carson. I enjoy the way reading such material can trigger both ideas and styles of writing to play off against. Some other books that fed into parts of the Apocrypha were Levinas’ Talmudic writings, late Wittgenstein, Merleau Ponty’s essays on Aesthetics, Freya Mathews’ various books on Pan-psychism, Edmonde Jabès’ The Book of Questions, Bonnefoy’s amazing collection of stories and essays Récit en rêve that includes the extremely beautiful poetics of writing, ‘L’Arrière-Pays’, as well as the story ‘L’Égypte’ that formed an inspiration for one section of Apocrypha. More recently I’ve been reading a range of web material about Chinese language and history. I’ve started learning to write some of the ideograms, made my way through the text of a few poems and scrolls and been interested in poetry that reflects that. Some of my poetry from last year comes out of that interest. ‘Seven Aubades’ is an example:


A snail recounts its experience of dawn

Like the glittering droplets of my wake, the shadow of my house has enveloped the world.

Train station at dawn

The pine forest has drawn close: a haze of pink cloud stretches my windows awake.

In the hospital ward

All night I was waiting for dawn; now I can start to relearn my ignorance of the grace hidden in waiting.

Shoes at the doorstep: daybreak

Freed from all the comings and goings we have known, we are flooded by our own openness.

Bridges at sunrise

All through the night we have held a watery chaos under our sway: now we are again a small locked door in an endless passageway, a failed mirror hung between two infinities.

A foot interrogates dawn

Why do you grow so slowly, so insistently from far hills and treetops to the foot of this bed? Why do you waste all your light on forest paths and bending roads that can’t alter our journey to death?

The birds at daybreak

Don’t ask us to be your interpreters: don’t come to us with your theories of night and its terrors: making the present is what we do.

MB: What is ‘Australian poetry’? Do you see yourself as an ‘Australian’ poet?

Peter Boyle: I guess Australian poetry is simply poetry written by people who identify themselves as Australian. It can be as totally varied as the people within and without Australia who fit that description. I do feel there are significant differences between Australian poetry and American or British poetry. Some of these differences reflect different temperaments and cultures, some the differences between our languages. I suspect that the fact that most Australian poets are not university poets, did not undergo some long university-based apprenticeship into poetry and do not aspire to careers teaching the writing of poetry to others, marks a significant difference between Australian and US poetry. There is less pressure to make every word obscure and less risk of a small number of styles defining what can and cannot be accepted. Perhaps the level of unconscious self-censorship is lower in Australian poetry and possibly neither language poetry nor naively autobiographic recount poetry are so strong. (By the latter I mean poetry that takes for granted the all-consuming importance and/or interest to the reader of all the details of one’s friends in high school, twists and turns of every moment recalled in detail as if the wealth of detail alone was enough.) But that too is probably just a simplification.

A sense of what I have in mind in contrasting Australian with American poetry can be gleaned, I think, from my poem ‘Nine ways of writing an American poem’. I think the Australian ability to keep a sense of humour, a suspicion of pretentiousness, and an at times self-deprecating uncertainty about the all-importance of every trivial detail of one’s life may also play a role:



If you put
                    your hand
                                          in fire
it hurts.


Knoxville Idaho Nebraska Angel Falls
South Linesville Bridge
and Louisiana
                          especially Louisiana

as Pa said on the slow road,
                                                “That’s it.”

or two skunks mating under a chainsaw’s shadow
           in Alabama twenty winters ago

by knocking about
                      you learn a thing
                                                          or two.


He put it in me
and he said, Suck
Suck harder
Suck it harder
and he put his fist in my eye
and it hurt.


Writing to Tashkent promptly on odd-numbered days is a good recipe for peptic ulcers.

All of Cicero’s best pupils received straight A’s but did they rule empires?

Sometimes an exercise book will open in a sandwich bar in New Brunswick.

By travelling around limestone caves Hieronymus Bosch’s cousin encountered miasmas of snowflake dispensers.

If you are breezy enough we’ll all come back without problems and who can say we don’t have the best seats for walking on clouds.

Summer requires that all cats immediately empty their ashtrays and address their closest human as Frou-frou.

It is essential that adjectives fill spaces as coyotes hunt kinkajous in the arboreal autumn.

When you open a stone, twilight will bark ferociously on the nearest corner.

Do you know Hausa? Can you spell that in Urdu?

Numbers equate only as optimistically as rocks gather peppermint sticks.

The foot is alien to the subway as the eye is innocent of autopsies.

A full page is better than an empty line.


              Open paratwang
                                                    of helio-
trope in


You take the stick of wood
and slice it carefully
                       down the centre
as smooth as you can
then you take each half
and place them
in one of the two piles.


Fall rises softly in the hamlets of South Dakota.
The prairie dog roils in mid-Catskill umbrage.
I don’t know how many roads
have lead me to this house
but it is a house
and it is a road.
I walk on it delicately
with two feet
and it takes me
to a place I have never been
but always dreamed of.


Mallarmé opens his book
and immediately
                        as Delacroix once ate oysters in Eze-sur-Loire
I am finding
Cape Canaveral is Houston is potatoes is pommes frites is
           Oscar Wilde’s tombstone lone in the lacework of Père Lachaise
under the still spring of the Adinrondacks
          Rimbaud on the high road
with the angels dressed in cowboy suits
We were all Zorros twenty haciendas away
skating on that immaculate summer ice of Greenland

At twenty-seven
I still wore a tie with a green stripe in the centre
and on “see-saw summer nights”
not far from Wynnesville
where Chagal’s violin played in the strawberry dance halls
and all the onion-domed churches of Moscow
kept pealing the first blush of childhood in red satin

mais où sont-les. . . ?

Not far from Smithsville
                                               the road curves to the left
and then curves back to the right.
If you stop there
you will find a gas station
a post office
two banks
three diners
and a building that used to be a department store,
                        then a motel, and is currently up for sale.
When it was a department store we used to buy things there
as did most people.

Hemingway  Pound  Scott Fitzgerald   my cousin Elie
my best friend in fourth grade, Max
and my dog, Sam
all came this way
or they might have
                                   if they had only


Here where the angel of unknowing rips from the jawbone’s incandescence
calling in the long bonfires
a last first breathless haul away from the space
we all enter in the midstream’s cicuitry of fire

as the lone birds carol in unison
this unscrolled catalogue of the bleeding obvious
and the fire almost breaks from the fingertips
in one last desperate lifesurge
and the water almost falls in one miraculous drop from the faucet

If you look closely enough in the dry bonetalk of the hillside
grassblade, rat spoor, pine needle,
the upended radishes of becoming

the mortal wound opens
and the bear goes back to his bearness.

MB: Don Anderson once described Australian poetry as Australia’s only “blood sport”. More recently critics have seen Australian poetry in terms of a “new lyricism” (David McCooey) and “networked language” (Philip Mead). What is the current state of play in Australian poetry? How do you think Australian poetry and discussions about Australian poetry might best develop in the next ten years?

Peter Boyle: The greatest thing about Australian poetry is its diversity. While ‘lyricism’ as a label might fit much of Robert Adamson, Anthony Lawrence, Kevin Hart and Robert Gray, it wouldn’t really be a helpful label for J.S. Harry’s Peter Lepus poems or Jennifer Maiden’s poetry, or for Dorothy Porter’s verse novels or Nathan Shepherdson’s more experimental poems. Lyricism to me doesn’t seem like the right label for Judith Beveridge’s beautifully intricate word-tapestries or the varying worlds they invoke. Ouyang Yu, Π.O., Lionel Fogarty all create their own style and voice, and ‘lyricism’ hardly seems the right word. Most Australian poets seem to write a diversity of types of poetry as well. Lyric poetry (meaning I guess short subjective poems aiming to evoke private emotions and feelings or dealing with the natural world but with a core of fairly easy to identify content and emotions) accounts for a large amount of poetry but there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that. Experimental poetry, narrative poetry, prose poetry, verse novels and any number of more idiosyncratic forms are also significant in Australian poetry. Every form of poetry has its corresponding dangers – lyric poetry can easily end up a boring recitation of what we know already; experimental poetry can end up as no more than wordplay pretending to a value it lacks, claiming novelty when it’s merely aping things done in Europe before 1925. Likewise, each approach to poetry in the right hands and right circumstances may produce stunning work. Stephen Edgar has written marvellously inventive fully alive poems using rhyme that might be regarded as fitting into a traditional framework. Sam Wagan Watson writes wonderful humorous punchy poems that deal with his childhood and life in Brisbane. Luke Davies’ Totem is a brilliant tour de force using content that might seem remote from present realities in someone else’s hands. Each of these poets finds their own way to make what they are doing interesting and relevant. Stepping outside Australia, Inger Christensen’s Alphabet strikes me as one of the most original, stunning, socially, politically engaged works of poetry I know to come out of the late twentieth century. What I would like future critics and teachers of Australian poetry to do is to remain open to it as a powerful varied art-form that reflects a wide range of personalities, issues, aesthetics and not to pigeon-hole it into some nationalistic, narrowly social/sociological framework.

By the early twenty-first century, Australian poetry ought to be seen as a vibrant part of world poetry. Most people that listen to Beethoven or go to a gallery to watch an exhibition of the Impressionists do so because they want to experience a powerful and revealing form of beauty – not because they need to analyse Viennese social dynamics at the opening of the 19th century or the social layering of late-nineteenth-century France. Poetry deserves the same close attention for itself.

Likewise, I can’t see the need for poets endlessly to justify their art form before people who couldn’t be bothered reading it but want to dismiss it. Such people like to dismiss poetry as elitist, irrelevant and somehow in a unique position as being an old-fashioned taste propped up by Government subsidies. The same people seem to have no difficulty with the visual arts, avant-garde music, an Australian film industry, the existence of opera, or indeed anything beyond mass market television which may itself need government subsidies to continue as more than Big Brother or reruns. The only difference is that poetry (unlike the visual arts or opera) can exist and thrive on a shoestring budget. In any case, why should financial considerations dictate the value of activities, art forms or artistic/spiritual practices and creations? On a related tack, I’m sick of the trope “Wozu Dichter?” as if one couldn’t equally say “Wozu artists? Wozu musicians? Wozu everybody involved in the creative and intellectual life?” A very good reason to write poetry is to keep one’s sanity, at least for a time. A different valid reason is because it’s the form of art that summons you, you have the ability somehow to do it (just like some people can really paint and others have a gift for the piano), and it gives you a tremendous sense of joy. How poetry, or art in any form, might open up life, human society, our being in the world, the moral crises of a given time, is a complex thing. Maybe the two crucial things are authenticity and energy. Energy certainly goes a long way – whether it’s the humorous energy of Danish poet Niels Hav, the passionate love of language and the Buddhist focus of Judith Beveridge, the integrated political and spiritual energy of Inger Christensen in Alphabet, the personal, literary, deeply philosophical energy of Yves Bonnefoy in Dans le leurre du seuil or the open, vulnerably human energy of James Wright. Authenticity, I think, is the other hard-to-define essential element in all poetry that matters. You can feel it in the poems evoking the Hawkesberry of Robert Adamson or the patient, thought-rich poetry of Transtrømer. You can feel it when poets start to lose it in places when they go on writing too much of the same thing – most of the last book of Galway Kinnell affected me that way as did large parts of the later books of Charles Wright.

MB: How is poetry relevant or valuable to contemporary society and culture in Australia or at an international level?

Peter Boyle: Poetry is, at least potentially, the freest and most democratic of art forms. It includes Ginsberg as well as Rilke, Rimbaud as well as Antonio Machado, academic figures who live retired scholarly lives, busy diplomats and businessmen like Saint-Jean Perse, Seferis and Wallace Stevens, famous public figures who rise to stardom like Yeats and obscure figures who remain almost unpublished in their lifetime like Cavafy. Its very lack of commercial viability gives it a freedom and potential authenticity often lacking in contemporary novels where editors and deliberate tailoring to markets can undermine the ability to be risk-taking that is essential to art. Unlike films, poetry doesn’t cost a fortune to produce, so it is open to ordinary people. Compared to painting or writing novels, poetry can fit into the widest variety of lives – a poet can be a poet while living their own life, earning their own living in whatever way. There are advantages and disadvantages in this ability of poetry to exist quite separate from the question of how to make a living. At the very least it allows more people to participate as creators of art and offers them the time and freedom to grow at their own pace.

Poetry at its best works with words in a most intimate and visceral way, encouraging people to re-examine feelings, how they describe feelings, how they see who they are. A powerful poem has the potential to affect people, ordinary people in a very deep way. Neruda’s best poems did that, as do Celan’s poems. Many poets, I’m sure, have had the experience of giving reading and having someone later come up and talk about some event in their lives that a poem opened up for them. Poetry may not have the audience numbers of popular television but the chance that a poem will come back to someone in a crisis is much greater than their likelihood of finding illumination in an episode of Big Brother.

In a secular world poetry, like the other art forms, is immensely important in shaping values and articulating who we are. For many poets poetry is essential in maintaining balance, maintaining that calm certainty that lets them persevere in living. Whether or not it works beyond oneself is always hard to prove, but it is hard not to believe that poetry as a spiritual practice ripples out and affects the world.

• Links (Australia)
• Organisations (Australia)
• Australia Council For The Arts (Australia)

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