Interview with Kevin Hart



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

Kevin Hart: I started writing poems in 1968, when I was in grade eight at Oxley State High School in Brisbane. One of my teachers made my class learn some poems by heart. In the last year of primary school, at Corinda Primary, I had heard some bush ballads, which made little impact on me; but in the first year or two of high school I had to learn poems by Shelley and T.S. Eliot, by Sigfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, and I was entranced. I started writing because I too wanted to create that same complex of feelings and thoughts that passed through me when I read ‘Ozymandias’ and ‘Preludes’ and all the other poems. And then I kept writing poems because I wanted to explore, in my own way, the feelings that I experienced that seemed blunt to me, after a while, unless they were refracted in a poem. Finally, I kept writing because I wanted to experience complexes of feelings and thoughts that became possible only through the writing of poems. I sometimes think this progression happened over the course of a week, and perhaps it did in a way, though in truth it probably took several years to become noticeable.

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

Kevin Hart: Shelley was the first great inspiration. After I had to learn ‘Ozymandias’ by heart for an English teacher, John McGrath, I worked on Saturday mornings washing cars in order to get some money to buy a nice edition of his poems. I would read it while lying on my bed in the late afternoons and early evenings, whispering to myself ‘Ode to the West Wind’, ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’, and ‘England in 1819’. I also read and loved ‘Alastor’, and adored ‘Prometheus Unbound’, though in truth I don’t know that I understood very much of it. Another teacher made the class learn Eliot’s ‘Preludes’, which, rubbing against Shelley, made some sparks. I read everything Eliot wrote, and later a friend and I learned all of the Four Quartets by heart. Before then I had got long stretches of The Waste Land pretty much by heart. The first poets I discovered by myself were Tennyson, Keats, Hopkins and e.e. cummings. I read Hopkins so often that I would fall asleep over the Penguin edition of his poems and prose; my mother would come into my bedroom, and would have to take the book from my hands and turn off the light. I bought a copy of cummings’ poems at a stall at the Brisbane Show one night when I took a girlfriend there. Later, I would go to the Brisbane Library, the only air-conditioned building in Brisbane that I could go to easily, and read cummings’ i: 6 nonlectures. Poetry, he says there, is “A new way of being alive”. And so it was, I felt (and still feel), though I don’t care for cummings as much now, except for a few of his lyrics. Now I would say that reading poetry showed me how to pass from asking what? to asking how? I think cummings and the others pointed me in that direction. Reading Husserl and Heidegger years later confirmed me in thinking that it was the right path to take.

Once I settled into going to the Brisbane Library, near the river, on Saturdays, I worked my way through the American poetry shelves and some of the English poetry shelves. I read Hardy and Ted Hughes. Sometimes I would go to look at the poetry of other countries, especially European poetry. I had started to learn French, and had to learn a poem by Verlaine by heart. I did not like Verlaine at the time, but through him I discovered Baudelaire, and fell in love with him. I used to go to the Red Book Shop in Elizabeth Arcade, not that far from the Library, and pick up the little books in the Penguin Modern European Poets series. It was always a great thing to come across a new book: Holub or Herbert, Montale or Ungaretti. Over the years I collected all of them; I think the last one I managed to get was by Popa, which for some reason I never found in Brisbane. Before then I always had that book on loan from one or another library. At the ANU, where I was an undergraduate, I bought a copy in the University Bookshop of The Poem Itself edited by Stanley Burnshaw, which I still think is one of the very best guides to modern poetry, as well as offering brilliant avenues to reading poetry in European languages that one may never learn well, if at all.

At the ANU I immediately joined the Poetry Society, and became part of the community of poets who lived in Canberra in the 1970s. There was Alec Hope and Judith Wright, David Campbell and Rosemary Dobson, Geoff Page and Bob Brissenden, and later Roger McDonald and Rhyll McMaster. The younger poets who were around, either studying or living in Canberra – Alan Gould, David Brooks, Phillip Mead, Mark O’Connor, and I – enjoyed free and easy relations with the older poets. They were enormously kind. I became friends with David Campbell and Alec Hope, in particular, and I never cease to mourn them. David and I would swap books of poetry. I well remember talking with David at lunch at The Run one day about Philippe Jaccottet. I showed him ‘Sur les pas de la lune’. We read it out loud together with champagne flutes in our hands, and it was an important moment for each of us in terms of how we would write in the coming years.

When I was on a fellowship at Stanford University from 1977 to 1978, I came across Charles Simic and Mark Strand’s anthology Another Republic. I had read a fair number of European poets before, many of them in the Brisbane Library, but Another Republic introduced me to some poets I had not come across before: Carlos Drummond de Andrade and Francis Ponge, in particular. The library at Stanford allowed me to read lots more of the poets I liked in that anthology, and the local bookshops took all my fellowship money that wasn’t being spent on books of philosophy and theology. 

Who do I read now? Well, in a sense nothing has changed: I still read the poets I read then. Just the other day I read a new translation of Popa. But I didn’t come across all the poetry I love now all by myself. In my formal studies at university I was introduced to poets I might not have come across by myself. I am thankful that I read many medieval lyrics and studied them intensely. I didn’t much care for George Herbert when I was an undergraduate, but now I know many of his poems by heart. I read Pope and Wordsworth for class, and I read them with passion. I read Yeats for class, and loved him; I read Auden, as we all did in the Poetry Society. Recently I have been reading Tennyson and Hardy again. Over the past few years I have read more and more Chinese and Japanese poets, all in translation, and have tried to translate some Chinese poets with the help of a friend who knows the language very well. I’ve come to recognise the greatness of Tu Fu, and regret that I cannot read him in the original language.

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

Kevin Hart: There is a tired grayness to the expression ‘everyday life’; I’ve never felt that the quotidian was hell (Camus) or utopia (Lefebvre) or had distinct revolutionary possibilities (Blanchot). And yet I enjoy daily life: my teaching, talking with my colleagues, cooking at home, being with my wife and my children. Work and love: isn’t that the everyday in its best sense? But work and love are also the two things that raise us above the everyday, if one is fortunate, the two things that inform one’s inner life if the work and the love are good. There is the cliché that if you are observant, everyday life will give you all you need for you poems. Experience makes me think almost the opposite: that poems come despite the everyday. I walk a good deal and always have a little notebook with me. I find that I don’t tend to write down anything that occurs around me but that the notebook is important for writing down things that come directly from my inner life. To walk the streets is to place life in brackets for a while, and it is only then that life is likely to whisper something of its essence.

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

Kevin Hart: I think that writing poetry is always a shrinking of subjectivity, or perhaps a stretching of it, a kenōsis or an epektasis; but of course it returns, angular, and seems a bit more interesting when it comes back.

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

Kevin Hart: Not at all. I have no sense of working within a tradition. Perhaps I work across traditions, but that is for others to decide. I live on the left side of politics, and to the extent that it informs me as a citizen it may influence me as a writer, though I’m not conscious of it.

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

Kevin Hart: The only challenge is being open to writing the next poem, for perhaps it will be one’s best poem. 

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

Kevin Hart: I work as a professor of theology, and so I read and re-read a great deal of theology and philosophy, mostly in English and French but sometimes also in German and Italian, more rarely in Latin and Greek. I read the Fathers for lectio divina.

I read and re-read poetry almost every day, and sometimes read or re-read the entire works of a poet over a short or long period. For long stretches, I may not read a novel at all; and then I shall gulp several of them over a summer. I often read biographies and autobiographies when I travel, especially when I fly overseas or across the country. The same is true of histories, especially anything to do with the ancient world. I read magazines and books of popular science whenever I find something interesting. Except when doing research, which sometimes compels me to read theology or philosophy for hours, I read in an eclectic manner, often with five or six books open at a time. I read and re-read the books I love slowly, very slowly, always regretting that I cannot read them more slowly.

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

Kevin Hart: I lived in Australian from late childhood until early middle age, and published my first books of poetry there. Some of my most important references are there – David Campbell and Judith Wright, Alec Hope and Frank Webb, and of course Ken Slessor – and some of my oldest friends are there, Robert Gray for one. ‘Australian poetry’ is what those people write, and what some others write: Rosemary Dobson and Gwen Harwood also being high on the list. I will always be an Australian poet, even if I spend the rest of my days in the United States.

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?

Kevin Hart: I’ve lived in the United States now for eight years and have lost contact with contemporary Australian poetry. When I’m back each year for a few weeks in Melbourne or Sydney, I try to squeeze back into the poetry world and find out what has been going on. Right now there are a number of fine younger women poets in Australia, and that is a new and exciting development. They seem to have shaken off some of the repetitious post-modern ‘experimentalism’ that characterised poetry when I was living in Australia. It is always possible to write well in all sorts of ways, but Australia has not been fertile ground for the avant garde.

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

Kevin Hart: Every so often someone reads an extraordinary poem by Ken Slessor or Judith Wright or Robert Adamson or Robert Gray and his or her life is transformed. It may be transformed for an hour, a day, a week, a month, or forever. It may be transformed a little or a lot. One cannot tell. One is born once, in Sydney or Melbourne or Dubbo or wherever, and then one can also be born in Poetry. For those people, life is never quite the same again. The same thing happens with paintings, with music, and sculpture; it happens with religion, needless to say, but to be reborn in poetry is to be aware, as Walter Pater says, of the “finer edges of words”, and that may seem a very small thing but in truth it is vast. To feel the finer edges of words allows us to talk better to ourselves, as Harold Bloom says so well. If we cannot talk with ourselves, we have little chance of talking well with others. In the end, poetry is valuable to Australia in that it the country will be remembered for its poets – it abounds with fine poets – and, after all, no one remembers its politicians or the vice-chancellors of its universities.

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