By Stephanie Eslake
Chris Wallace–Crabbe AM describes himself as “an acute noticer”. And it’s this skill of observation that he has turned into an artform, offering his commentary on Australian life through his highly acclaimed works of poetry.
Chris has an international reputation as one of our nation’s leading poets. The son of a pianist and a journalist, Chris has spent his years shaping the literary community as a founding chair of Australian Poetry Limited, Professor Emeritus at the University of Melbourne, and as a former teacher at Harvard University and the University of Venice, Ca’Foscari.
Add all this to his 20+ collections of poetry and books of verse, and you have a powerhouse poet and arts advocate within your reach: Chris will give two presentations in Tasmania – one, a lecture in Launceston on ‘Poetry and the escaping self‘ (Oct 3), and the other a workshop in Hobart on ‘Getting it right‘ (Oct 5). These are in light of the Tasmanian Poetry Festival, and in anticipation we chat about his life and works so far.
It’s fair to say that your life has revolved around poetry. Having written since the ’50s, how is it that you continue to feel moved to share thoughts and ideas?
Poetry is inexhaustible. It can say or sing anything, but is not enslaved by bureaucracy. More than that, it is an art form which can be concise as a haiku or elaborate as a sestina, floppy as Whitman or tight as William Empson. In poetry there is everywhere to go. Accordingly, I am never bored by its range of possibilities.
How do you feel the function or value of poetry has changed over the years?
Originally, it saluted the pagan gods, or else murderous heroes in repeating the tribe’s history. Then lyric found the lyre – or vice versa. From Wyatt to Wordsworth to Emily Dickinson, it learned to sing the individual’s needs. Now it has become scared of speaking tribal or national history: we are all meant to be blind individuals with social media stuck in our ears. We’ll see in due course what this amounts to for our art. Yet, as ever, poetry will survive.
How about your identity as a poet in this context – how have you evolved since you first began?
Well, I lost the likelihood of God, though not his rich natural traces. Instead, I discovered Freud and Proust, Auden and Walter Benjamin. Nature remained inexhaustible (however much we damage its species) as did workings of the human psyche. And psyche means soul, after all. Personally, being the son of a journalist, I try to write about everything: to be an acute noticer.
I was reading that you’ve explored themes of ageing and mortality in your more recent works. While this seems a natural progression, why was it important for you to confront these themes head-on?
Because I have been growing older, and need to put something where Heaven used to be. Also poetry needs, explicitly or figuratively, to keep exploring the ultimate metaphysical truths – as well as numbering the streaks on the gungurru and the wombat. It is because poetry confronts mortality that it can be a sacred art. It keeps language alive.
What would you say are some of the defining features of ‘Australian’ poetry today?
At worst, a sloppy globalization. At best, a hunger to devour the world through language, to make everything get up and sing. Even if that music is darkly critical. Or funny: fun is a very important word for mortals. Hopefully, wit and penetrating judgment will continue to be features of our poetry.
What can we expect from your Tasmania event?
Fun and games in the field of language. Also honour paid to Australian poets past and recent: from Harwood to Judy Beveridge, from Slessor to Wearne. They, along with their forebears, taught us to mix the registers. Above all, I hope you can expect pleasure. And, I trust, memories.
Book tickets to see Chris Wallace-Crabbe in Launceston on October 3, and in Hobart on October 5. Chris is a part of the Tasmanian Poetry Festival, kicking off September 26 and running until October 2.