John Clarke’s Complete Verse

18 April 2017

This, of course, has the added bonus of making the moments where he does pick up on a particular piece of bullshit or mendacity resonate with greater force. I still remember a very early interview with an emotional ‘Bob Hawke’:

Dawe: You cry a lot, don’t you?

Hawke: I don’t cry a lot, no …

Dawe: You cried three times last week on national television.

Hawke: Oh yes, sure, I cry on national television.

In The Even More Complete Book of Australian Verse Clarke cannot, of course, wholly resist calling out any bad faith or pomposity amongst the poets. Nob Dylan’s ‘Rain Train Pain Song Number 407B’ contains the chorus ‘Gimme that old time religion / Gimme that old time religion / Gimme that old time religion/I’m as radical as a chocolate frog’, while Arthur ‘Guitar Boogie’ Patterson’s authentic Australian bush ballad, (called ‘The Authentic Australian Bush Ballad’) starts ‘There was Kipling in the Kipling for the kipling got around/That the colt they called The Kipling got away’.

And he is particularly – and justifiably – hard on Kahlihliji Bran, who ‘had studied sculpture under Rodin, but in Australia nobody had heard of either sculpture or Rodin, so he became a mystic’. Clarke presents Bran’s ‘The Half-Yearly Prophet’ which includes:

Everything is its own opposite. 
Paradox is that which is not paradoxical. 
Only the living know death. Only the dead are living. 
Only the lonely, dum dum dum dumdedoowah, know the way I feel tonight. 
Jameson's if they've got it.

But for the most part, these are poems which celebrate the originals even as they deconstruct them. The apogee for me is the poem by Dylan Thompson (‘a martyr to the turps, he frequently woke in unfamiliar circumstances and attempted to catch the speech rhythms of the sea’) – ‘A Child’s Christmas in Warnambool’. The poem evokes a world where your ‘hand goes into the fridge of imperishable memory and out come: salads and sunburn lotions, the brief exuberant hiss of beer being opened and the laugh of wet-haired youths around a Zephyr 6, the smell of insect repellent and eucalyptus and the distant constant slowly listless bang of the flywire door’, where ‘the Aunts. Always the Aunts’ are ‘in the kitchen on the black-and-white photographed beach of the past, playing out the rope to a shared childhood, caught in the undertow and drifting’, accompanied by ‘some numerous Uncles, wondering sometimes why they weren’t each other, coming around the letterbox to an attacking field in the Test match and being driven handsomely by some middle-order nephew, skipping down the vowel-flattening pitch and putting the ball into the tent-flaps on the first bounce of puberty’.

The word genius is overused, and John Clarke would not have had a bar of it. But I once heard a football commentator say ‘I know the word ‘tragedy’ is overused these days, but Nathan Buckley pulling his hamstring today is a tragedy’, so if it pleases the court, perhaps Mr Clarke may allow me just this once to say, the lad is a bloody genius.

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