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Any Guru Will Do
A Modern Man's Search for Meaning
By Phil Brown
University of Queensland PressCopyright © 2006 Phil Brown
All rights reserved.
In a Bard Way
Anticipation was fast turning to despondency as we sat in the cool of the kitchen waiting to see if anyone turned up to our poetry reading. My pal in poetry, Rod, had put posters up around campus and I had carefully worded an ad for the student newspaper about our poetry evening, but so far things weren't looking good. But finally there was a rapping on the door, which echoed down the long, empty hallway.
'We're on!' said Rod as I went to the door. Two girls were standing there, a bit sheepishly, each with a folder full of what I hoped were poems.
'Hi, I'm Margie,' said the girl with long hair.
'I'm Betsy,' said the other.
'Poetry lovers, of course?' I said, partly as a statement, partly as a question. 'Come in, come in.'
I introduced Rod and we moved into the lounge room. I put Lou Reed's 'Coney Island Baby' on the turntable, ever so quietly, as background music, waited a few minutes in case anyone else turned up — no-one did — and got down to business, which was basically drinking tea and reading and talking about poetry.
'I think it's so great that people are still interested in poetry,' said Margie.
'Yes, but those people are obviously thin on the ground,' I said.
'Few are called,' said Rod with gravitas. 'And anyway, poetry is not for everyone. It takes a refined soul to appreciate poetry. Poetry is like religion, really, in its purest form. Poetry is God.'
Rod tended to make sweeping pronouncements. We all nodded. 'Anyway, are we going to read some poetry or what?' he said.
The girls each had half a dozen poems to read, and as they read we nodded knowingly. Though Margie seemed pretty chirpy, her poems were bitter and depressing. She'd obviously been studying Sylvia Plath, who was on the syllabus. Betsy's were mostly anthropomorphic nature poems in which she identified herself with natural phenomena. In one she was a tree, in another she was a rock. And the poems were full of references to wildlife, which I suspected had come from reading and, judging by the way she wrote, probably misunderstanding the work of Ted Hughes, whose poetry we were all devouring. It was all very Taoist. I tried to concentrate as they read but it wasn't easy because, basically, a poet is only ever really interested in his or her own poems, and a poetry reading is actually just a chance to strut your own stuff. Meanwhile you have to sit and look interested while your fellow poets indulge themselves.
When the girls had finished their readings, Rod read a long poem of his that I was already familiar with about woman as the underdog of history and society. It rambled a bit — or a lot, actually — and ended up with a wife tending to her violent husband, sacrificing herself completely to meet his needs. Interesting trajectory ...
The girls seemed impressed. 'Wow,' said Margie.
'Wow,' said Betsy.
I followed Rod with my poems — poems that had long snaky lines because I was desperately trying to emulate D H Lawrence's poetry at the time ... poems like 'Snake' and 'Bat'. One of mine, which emulated his in shape rather than subject, drew allusions between my bedroom and Calvary — my bed as the cross, dreams, my psychological crown of thorns. In another, called 'Night's Estate', I wandered a Gold Coast canal estate late at night posing questions of, I thought, some existential substance:
'What is there in this darkness men fear?
The passion they may reveal to the evening sky?
The cocktail-hour sorrows?
The loneliness of the loosened tie?'
Not exactly prize-winning stuff ... but I was particularly impressed with my ending:
'Only the autumn's song of woe
Is remembered by the sky,
And silently the white moon mouths
It's ghostly lullaby.'
The girls seemed moved by this, but not nearly as moved as I was. A friend of mine refers to this poetic condition as being 'overwhelmed by your own sensitivity'.
After the reading we drank tea, ate biscuits and eventually broke out some cheap port. One of the girls had Gitanes, which we thought were cool and poetic because they were French. We got maudlin then as we read from books — stuff by Philip Larkin, Arthur Rimbaud, and some Bob Dylan because Dylan was 'the real poet of the street', according to Rod. We waved the girls off around ten, satisfied that the night hadn't been a total loss despite the low attendance. Rod then proceeded to crash on the couch. I went to bed woozy from the port and strong cigarettes we'd been smoking.
When I woke the following morning my mouth felt like the bottom of a budgie's cage. I went into the kitchen to make some tea, and one of my housemates, Peter, was there cooking himself eggs and bacon.
'A night on the piss always makes me hungry,' he said. 'So how did you go with those chicks last night? Did you get lucky?'
'It was a poetry reading, not an orgy,' I grunted.
'What's the use of a poetry reading if you can't get a root out of it?' he said, but I had no immediate answer to that. Besides, Rod and I spent more time thinking about poetry than girls, actually. It was a pure, virtuous, even monastic activity.
'Poetry, like virtue, is its own reward,' Rod would say.
This was late in 1976. I was 20, and had been writing poetry since high school, secretly for the most part because writing poetry wasn't exactly acceptable in the macho surf culture of Miami State High School on the Gold Coast. I was a sensitive child and an equally sensitive — far too sensitive — teenager. A huge John Lennon fan, I started writing poems influenced by his jottings. But the real outpourings came from unrequited love. I had a crush on a girl who was already spoken for, and wrote long, dire poems about this, some of which I recall giving to her, though I can't remember exactly what her response was. What I do remember is that her boyfriend arranged for his big brother to threaten me with serious physical harm if I ever went near her.
The first time I came out publicly sis a poet was when I had one of my short, Zen-like pieces embedded in the bottom of my surfboard by my school friend and surfing buddy, Pete Kelleher. He got me to write my little poem on tissue paper and then he sealed it into the bottom of the board with a coat of resin. It was sort of like a haiku, something to do with the 'lonely sky' if I remember correctly. The boys down the beach were bemused and confused. Writing poetry was tantamount to declaring yourself gay to that crowd.
I certainly wasn't very literary back then, and only had a couple of books of poetry at home — one containing the verse of Rod McKuen, hardly a poet of the literary establishment. I also had a slim and depressing book of Leonard Cohen's, The Spice-Box of Earth. There weren't a lot of laughs in either of those volumes. My high-school English teacher had opened our eyes to the possibilities that the lyrics of the Beatles and other pop groups were, in fact, poetry. This was a revelation.
It was when I arrived at the Darling Downs Institute of Advanced Education in Toowoomba that I really started to find out more about poetry and get serious about it. I was majoring in journalism but had also chosen to do literature as an optional subject, and my tutor was Bruce Dawe. His highly accessible poems about Aussie suburbia and biting social commentaries on everything from the hanging of Ronald Ryan to the Vietnam War meant he was the best-known poet of the day in Australia — and is still widely studied. He'd even done a reading at my high school once, though I seem to recall it wasn't the happiest occasion. After reading to the unresponsive and depleted student body (there was an offshore wind blowing that day and a good swell, which signalled mass truancy), he asked if anyone had any questions, and one kid in the front row stood up and said: 'Yeah, what the hell are you doing here?' The thing that struck me about Bruce was that he didn't really look like a poet. He looked more like an army sergeant, and in fact he had once been in the air force. He was also a devout Catholic, which set him apart from a large part of the poetry pack back then, in the mid-1970s, when most bards saw themselves as the modern equivalent of the Beat generation — nihilists who thought Christianity was uncool. Buddha was acceptable but Jesus Christ? Forget about it.
The fact that Bruce was unfashionable appealed to me, because even though I wanted desperately to be a poet, I didn't want to be part of any group. It was probably dysfunctional, but I abhorred groups. I refused point blank to go on the school camps at high school because of my pathological fear of being part of a group. I fancied myself an individual — '"We are all individuals," they cried with one voice' — and recognised a model in Bruce, someone who was a bit of a maverick in his own quiet way. It was connected to that idea from the Robert Frost poem, 'The Road Not Taken', where the traveller takes the path 'less travelled by'. Frost was another poet Bruce introduced us to, which seemed very appropriate since Frost too was something of an outsider.
Rod and I were both in Bruce's class, which is how we met, kindred souls — both emotionally unstable and interested in poetry. We were inspired by Bruce's tutorials, his passion for poetry and his encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject delivered while crunching on a frequent peppermint, as he was trying to give up smoking. He didn't just know about poetry, he knew about poets, the minutiae of their lives and relationships and the social contexts in which they worked. He made poets sound like celebrities, and that helped bring the words off the page and fired our imagination and enthusiasm. With Bruce we studied Philip Larkin, T S Eliot, Sylvia Plath, Dylan Thomas, Ted Hughes, D H Lawrence ... even William Empson, who I liked because he had the coolest neck beard — make that the only neck beard — I'd ever seen. Fired up by all this, I started scribbling in earnest every night, and Rod did the same. We compared notes in the refectory before and after tutorials, and sometime during that first term decided we were going to be poets. This wasn't the sort of aspiration our parents would have been too keen on, because poetry and poverty tend to go hand-in-hand in Australia, and poets get excited when their book sales leap into double figures.
A little while after declaring ourselves aspiring poets, I asked Bruce if he would read some of my poems and give me some sort of commentary. I very nervously handed over a manila folder containing a crop of recent works. I wrote in longhand but then typed the finished product up on my rickety old Remington, puffing constantly on roll-your-own cigarettes as I pounded away. The following week Bruce brought back the poems with a covering page of notes. These contained very constructive comments about them, mostly positive and quite encouraging. This from the poetry guru! It was very exciting. Rod had done the same, with a similar result, and he was also on a high.
Even better, Bruce had asked us to come and have a cup of tea at his house on the weekend, which was like being invited to a private audience with the Pope, an appropriate allusion given Bruce's inclinations in that area.
So the following Saturday afternoon Rod and I went to Bruce's house. We were a bit nervous about the visit and felt like devotees approaching the master's ashram — in this case, a fairly ordinary house in a fairly ordinary street. When we arrived, we were somewhat surprised by the scene of suburban domesticity we discovered there. Bruce, the great bard, wasn't in his study composing verse but was, instead, up a ladder at the side of the house, wearing a pair of Stubbies and slapping on paint, while his wife, Gloria, was in the veggie garden nearby digging away, a cigarette dangling from her lower lip. Not exactly Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath; it was more like something out of Dad and Dave. This was the great poet in his natural habitat? There was nothing even vaguely bohemian about the scene.
When we went inside we were offered Bushells tea and Sao biscuits smeared with Vegemite. We repaired to the lounge room so Bruce could keep an eye on the Saturday afternoon Aussie Rules football game on television — something that, as poets, Rod and I had no interest in.
In awe of the man as we were, we were surprised that such a great poet was living such an apparently ordinary life and seemed so down-to-earth. Yet his grasp of the ethereal world of poetry was so impressive and wide-ranging. His own poems could, at times, be as detached from reality as any of those by the drug-addled scribblers of the day. They soared within the context of a relatively prosaic domestic life — wife and kids — which intrigued us.
He was very encouraging, possibly because he didn't get that many prospective poets through his classes. It had been Bruce's idea that we form some sort of poetry group and hold a reading to flush any other closet poets out of the student body. He was not too surprised, though, when we told him of the outcome of our poetry evening. Poets were few and far between in Toowoomba, he reckoned.
Anyway, we were too disorganised and concerned with our own poetry to bother about anyone else's after that first attempt. So we wrote on, showing each other poems as we went, and sometimes asking Bruce's advice, which was always generously forthcoming.
Rod, however, eventually drifted away from poetry, which I think had just been a temporary foil for his obsessive personality. Besides, he got a steady girlfriend and that really ruined things. I stuck with it, though, even after I dropped out of college and went back to the Gold Coast. I kept writing my mostly depressing poems, aping this poet and that, sending them off to various literary magazines. Bruce had encouraged me to do that, though most of what I sent out boomeranged back pretty quickly. I was rejected by the best of them ... New Poetry, Meanjin and a dozen other lofty publications. Poets often say they could wallpaper their room with their rejection slips, and I got to that point pretty quickly, which isn't really anything to boast about, I suppose. Receiving your stamped, self-addressed envelope back in the mail in under a fortnight and opening it to find a 'Dear Phil ...' rejection note is a real downer when you feel you've put your heart and soul into a poem.
I'd had a few of my verses published in student rags at college, though, which gave me some hope, and I also managed to get several poems included in a slim anthology published in Brisbane. That kept me going. Meanwhile Bruce, who I kept in touch with, had suggested I might send some to the great Les Murray, who was a friend of his: a fellow Catholic and another poet outside that bohemian fringe which always seems to colonise the poetry scene. Of course, Les is pretty famous nowadays — some might say the most famous Australian poet — and has a well-deserved international reputation. He wasn't quite as famous then but his profile was solid and building. Around this time he was co-editing one of the country's most august poetry journals — Poetry Australia. I bravely sent some poems off to him hoping for glory in that publication, only to have them returned a few weeks later. The difference was that instead of patronising notes about how poetry was far more than just plain narrative, Les gave constructive criticism, line by line, just as Bruce had done. And like Bruce, he was encouraging, so there was good news as well as bad news.
I went on for quite a while without an actual acceptance of a poem for publication but his words must have convinced me that success was not too far off, and due to his helpfulness I got it in my mind that I had to make a pilgrimage to Sydney to see him: to sit at the feet of the great man and soak up some poetic wisdom. I read and re-read his book Lunch & Counter Lunch countless times in the preceding months and was very taken with his work, which seemed to have an authenticity, like Bruce's and unlike the fashionable set.
So I had taken poetic initiation from one master and was now shaping up for an audience with another Poobah, the big fella of poetry himself. I wrote to Les of my impending trip to Sydney, asking if I might meet with him, and he very graciously told me I was welcome to visit him at his home in Chatswood on the North Shore. This was more than I had hoped for.
So I packed my poems into a tatty suitcase and booked a berth for Sydney on the old motorail service that used to run from Murwillumbah. I guess I could have flown but rail seemed more romantic, more literary, and I probably couldn't have afforded air travel anyway, since I was what a friend used to refer to as 'a poet with a liquidity problem'. I sat in cattle class, clutching my fountain pen and notebook, jotting lines for poems and occasionally dipping into the books I carried with me — a collection of Robert Graves' verse and some D H Lawrence. Plus I'd brought an anthology of Australian poetry, which included poems by Kenneth Slessor, who had written about train travel. His The Night Ride', one of the few poems I remember from my schooldays, brilliantly evokes a country town glimpsed from a train at night. Inspired by that, I began making notes for a future poem to be called 'Night Ride Revisited'. I had big ideas.
Excerpted from Any Guru Will Do by Phil Brown. Copyright © 2006 Phil Brown. Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
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