Christopher Keith Wallace-Crabbe was born in Melbourne in 1934 and is a Professor of English at Melbourne University including the directorship of the Australian Centre there between 1989 and 1994. Apart from editing numerous anthologies, he is the author since the late ‘fifties of thirteen collections of poetry, one novel, and four critical works, including Falling into Language (1990). Since 1985, his poetry has been published by Oxford University Press, making him one of the few Australian poets with an international reputation. His latest collection of poetry is By and Large (2001).This exchange took place in Melbourne during January and February 1996.
DM: Let’s start with a brief discussion of your childhood. You were about six when your father went to the War ‘for the duration.’ What effect did that have on your childhood, especially with regard to your relationship with your mother?
CWC: My father sailed off to Surabaya, Malaya, Burma in 1940. Once Singapore had fallen, there was no way home, and for a while he was ‘missing believed dead’ in the Irriwaddy jungle. He got out in the end, was wounded, gained the O.B.E., and spent the rest of the War in exotic historical locations. Mum represented authority, duty, domesticity. I was very lucky to be a talentless child, just soaking in oral and literary culture, a sponge-like nobody.
Imaginatively, my father represented the Exotic; he was orientalism, versatility, journalistic lightness. He could do anything, like Robinson Crusoe or the Swiss Family Robinson. Short concentration span, that’s the secret. His letters also made me acutely aware of India, in that imaginatively nimble way that Kipling, the great expatriate, made available to us all. But his prolonged absence also cancelled out the conflicts inherent in the Oedipus complex. He was merely an ally: nimble, supportive, utterly unthreatening. He supported anything I did, through thick and thin. It was harder for my mother, who took refuge in irony. But from dad, and his ally-big sister, my Black Rock aunt Violante, it seemed possible to learn everything about the world: geography, jokes, songs, stories, chopping wood, how to fish, how to play cards or make camouflage nets. They belonged to another age, an age in which you could do everything, if you got up at six and went to bed at midnight. My hours remain like theirs; I tend to resent sleep as a waste of time.
DM: Were you early on conscious of your family heritage?
CWC: My mother’s family was largely invisible. My father’s had reinvented themselves in Australia, as fiercely clannish Highland Scots. My paternal grandfather, ‘Black Geordie,’ had reconstructed his Scottishness when he met his second wife, the beautiful Harriet Therese Cluny. His occupation was imprecise and unstable, but he founded Caledonian Societies up and down eastern Australia. And he published two books: one,Varia, I’ve never seen; and the other, Scottish History: Songs and Lore, was published by George Robertson in Melbourne in 1906, by which time he, Harriet, and their three children had finally settled in St Kilda (the Australian, not the abandoned Hebridean, one). George was not young: he’d been born back in the 1840s, like Henry James. Scottish (Protestant) mythology loomed pretty large in our family, and my father’s next oldest brother, Keith, killed by the Turks at Lone Pine, had a faint shadow of Bonnie Prince Charlie about him–virtuously dull though he looks in the photographs. It was Keith who commanded Jacka’s platoon on Gallipoli, and recommended him for the first V.C. of the War.
DM: How would you characterise your family, then? Middle class with a touch of bohemia?
CWC: Yes, middle-class bohemia, or Celtic-military bohemia, is where Dad’s family belonged. My mother’s mob were virtuous working class, scrambling out of the mud of Fitzroy and Clifton Hill. She got to a tiny church-school before training to be a secretary, got out of Fitzroy, and headed for rented houses in Brighton and South Yarra, then a tiny flat in Toorak, where we contrived to live among our stuffy social superiors during the War and after. Dad never owned a house until he was fifty, and then he had largely built it himself. A maverick, he managed to be pro-communist and mildly pro-R.S.L. He disliked the Catholics and the Masons for their militancy. He was against anything that was the Establishment. Certainly he was in favour of Christina Stead and Wilfred Burchett, but against Modern Art: on Lindsayite grounds. But many of my parents’ friends were artists. My mother was also, marginally, a concert pianist. She once played Rimsky-Korsakov on the A.B.C. So she had her arty side. She secretly wrote limply romantic poetry, which I only saw after she died. My parents didn’t have a lot of money, but they liked sports cars, and rode in mountain rallies. To some extent, it was possible for the Scots to be outside the Anglo-Australian class system.
DM: Perhaps you might outline your circuitous route to University.
CWC: Leaving school at sixteen, I moved into a lot of different jobs. As a cadet metallurgist at the Royal Mint in William Street, I was involved in buying gold from the mines, in smelting and assaying it. Then I went into the R.A.A.F. for six months at Laverton, meeting young men from all trades and classes. After that I did a part-time B.A. in the evenings: Philosophy and English majors. Meanwhile, I worked on an electrical trade magazine, labouring in a malthouse (which generated one of my first decent poems), as a clerk at the Gas & Fuel and–one hot summer–in an open-cut coal mine. After all that, I went off school teaching for a couple of years.
DM: I get the impression that Melbourne University in the ‘fifties was rather an exciting place to be for a young writer.
CWC: ‘The Shop’ in the 1950s: yes, I enjoyed that greatly, particularly since I didn’t have to go through with my school contemporaries. There were lots of older part-timers in those days, and of colourful very part-timers. As I like to say, I did first-year English with Barry Humphries and finals with Germaine Greer. I got to know lots of poets, notably Bruce Dawe, Jenny Strauss, Evan Jones, Vin Buckley, Philip Martin, and Lynne Duncan. My closest friend, Graeme Kemelfield, introduced me to the work of many modern poets. In the late ‘fifties, many of my drinking mates turned out to be historians, political scientists and painters. Of course, my brother was, and is, a painter; our two worlds overlapped a great deal.
DM: How do you feel now about your early work, especially The Music of Division(1959)?
CWC: The Music of Division must have been written by someone obscurely related to me, a ‘fifties poet. But I can still see how “Citizen” (1958) was written, on a school bus in Black Rock, on my way to a day’s teaching. There are two lines in it I really like. And the “schizoid barbers” come from Auden, of course. Old Wiz was my new dazzle-hero at that stage. Lowell and Jarrell were rising stars in my firmament; and that lyrist of understatement, Louise Bogan. But I shuffled my poems around and sent them off to Anguish and Robbery [= Angus & Robertson], who spent a couple of years bringing them out. But there I was, out in book form. It wasn’t a very good collection, but my second was much better, containing some things which have lasted in the ambiguous bronze of being anthology-pieces. My third book was a real stinker: cold, numbly chiselled, infected by the risible toughness of academia. Then I got safely away to Yale for a couple of years and changed my tunes. In America, I relearned Romanticism, and tried to understand a truly violent society. I came back to the height of the protest movement over our military involvement in Vietnam: foreign affairs were truly relevant at last, Australia being involved in something nastily real. Everything was more complicated, politically, socially, psychologically.
DM: Yes, you mention an interest in violence quite a bit in the late ‘sixties and early ‘seventies. Did public events solely foster this interest? What about psychology?
CWC: The interest in dramatising violence came partly from American society itself–and from a visit to horrible Mexico, the most hostile ambience I’ve ever visited. But we’re also talking about the period of nuclear stand-off, and conflicts in Central America, Czechoslovakia, Israel-Palestine-Egypt, and, above all, Vietnam. But my psychological reading also led me to ask what happens to our aggressive urges. And, also, what do we do with Thanatos.
Also I moved a lot in Freudian and Kleinian circles. I read the wild blokes, too, Marcuse and Norman O. Brown, but never forgot what Auden said about prodigious Sigmund:
now but a whole climate of opinion.
DM: You were one of the first Australian poets to allow the demotic idiom to come out in your poetry. What things led you towards this style? Did it feel at the time like a risky venture?
CWC: I only got slowly into the demotic lingo, partly because the American poets who first influenced me were more literary–higher on the linguistic scale–than British or Australian poets. The Mandarin way was tempting at first: Pound, Stevens, Moore, Crane, Ransom, all of them performing on elegant stilts. Bruce Dawe played an important part in helping me be my Oz-self. I saw that you could ‘bring it up rich’ by using the whole range of Austrenglish: Nino Culotta meets Hart Crane, as it were. I think there should be no holds barred, verbally. It’s a view I seem to share with Les Murray, in particular; he’s a great one for Hopkinsing about.
DM: Were you consciously trying to break away from the ‘Melbourne Group’ of (academic) poets with whom you were so long associated?
CWC: Yes, I suppose I was trying to ‘break away’ in some sense. There was a stage when those of us who wrote about the scorned suburbs were looked down on by scions of the squattocratic gentry, like Judith Wright and Geoff Dutton. Subconsciously, they treated us as lower middle class–terribly politely, of course! One reacted against that, and against the restrictions of academic language. This rebellion got dramatised in such different poems as “The Joker” (1971), “Mental Events” (1990) and “Sonnets to the Left” (1987). They’re all saying, in Isaiah Berlin’s terms, that I’m a fox, not a hedgehog.
DM: Some of your poems present an ambivalence concerning the cultural heritage Europe offers Australia. Yet you are obviously steeped in it, defined by it, in very important ways.
CWC: I love European culture. Where would I be without Mozart, Picasso, Wittgenstein, Keats, Lampedusa? But we also have to create a space in which to remain our native selves, especially in this worst age of cultural imperialism. We have to clear our little space in the bush. In a sneaky way, I admire hackers: they dare to refuse the compulsory, the boring ‘Multinat.’ Australians are very timid, I think, about standing up for themselves. Perhaps our flag should have ‘Get Stuffed!’ printed across it. You can certainly learn from Hume and Freud, and still be a dinkum Aussie. Ignorance is in no way admirable.
DM: Let’s turn to your elegies. Did you find any difficulty (I suppose I mean a ‘moral’ difficulty) in writing these poems?
CWC: Well, yes, the closer the death and more direct the elegy, the greater the moral tensions implicit in the work. You ask yourself, Is my art preying on the lost one? Am I getting expressive mileage out of the death? Yet the elegies–those for my son, Ben, come most to mind–are also an important stage in the grieving process: they provide the writer with a degree of catharsis, making the world less horrible.
DM: Thermodynamics (1986) and The Life of Ideas (1987) are notable in that they seem to both accept and reject the traditional topoi of elegy. Would you care to comment on that? Were you, for instance, trying to invoke something of your subjects’ spirit, or work, or something else?
CWC: You mention poems which are also imaginative voyages of exploration: ‘thinky’ poems. Yes, the spirit of the departed one plays its part here, but so do the poetic traditions I come out of, particularly four big examples—”Lycidas,” “Ode to a Nightingale” (with the death of Tom Keats behind it), “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” and, of course, “Five Bells.” All four fascinated me for many years in that their elegiac emotion gave them the athleticism to range very widely in human time and psychological space. I do like traditions that are rubbery, not constricting. And I really enjoyed writing “The Life of Ideas,” with its use of the cactussery (Cactusplatz?) in the Melbourne Botanical Gardens.
DM: To see your “phantoms…obscuring their tragic origins” (as a T.L.S. [no.4591, 29th March 1991, p.20)] review of For Crying Out Loud  put it) is to miss the point then, isn’t it? Such criticism is uncomfortable with your brand of ‘thinky’ poem. Is that a problem you encounter often; a discomfort with the mixing of registers, of modes and tone?
CWC: The notion that you can only suffer when you are not thinking seems to me remarkably naïve. I am appalled by the sense that we can only ‘appeal to the senses and affect the emotions’ by pretending to be less intelligent than we are. In a state of horror or of despair, you still might well be asking what the world really is, or in what ways language touches immediate realities. The ‘mixed registers’ of my verse are part of my attempt to record how plural and baffling our lives are.
DM: You have what I call an ‘eccentric euphony’: it shares with Hopkins and Heaney an attraction towards consonantal language, alliteration, and the avoidance of liquid sounds which, when used, are used expressively.
CWC: That makes a lot of sense. I see myself in a line coming down from Keats, but not thinned, as it were, by Tennyson, but thickened, as it were, by Browning, and certainly working through Hopkins and having affinities with Heaney in that I’m particularly interested in consonants in constructing the poems. I’m interested in the ways in which they represent chipping, clashing, hitting, bouncing off, chunkily meeting and so on–those kinds of physical sensations. So that does represent a way in which I approach poetry whereas it did seem to me that the vowel-sound euphony had fallen into the kinds of Victorian fullness that my generation reacted against.
DM: You have an obvious interest in large artistic structures, from The Divine Comedyto A Dance to the Music of Time. I feel, however, that when you turn to writing longish poems yourself such as The Otways (1990) or The Sixth Man (1984) (or, on a larger scale, Splinters (1981)) you tend to simultaneously undermine the narrative impulse, fragment your narrative structures.
CWC: Yes, it’s a horrible admission, but I do have something in common with the less silly postmodernists in this respect. I tend to dance around the narrative I’m building; truly, I wish I didn’t. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be a magical spinner of great stories, like Hardy or Dickens or George Eliot? It’s partly my short concentration span: son of a journalist, that’s the point. At least I can always make deadlines.
DM: Do you see such a frame of mind operating in your unfinished quest poem, which is undoubtedly a long poem? Will it be–to be abstract for a moment–structure rather than character which will bind that poem together?
CWC: Yes, I reckon it will. It’s only 800 lines or so at this point, but it’s going to be a really big jigger. I need a large bench or corkboard really to plan it properly. A lot of the structure is running out into the sands…getting away from me. One night I saw how it should end, but forgot to write the point down and it’s all gone. Someone who’s interested in dreams should never make that mistake.
DM: Do you have a favourite collection?
CWC: I’m very fond of The Amorous Cannibal (1985) which had a kind of freedom to it; and, much earlier, Where the Wind Came (1971) had that same sense of breaking certain bounds. Selected Poems (1995), of course, is attractive because it gives me an historical span, but I also keep being anxious about things that are excluded.
DM: Do you regret the first ‘selected poems’?
CWC: It came a bit early, but it came as a result of a book of mine that ran rapidly out of print. I asked Douglas Stewart if he would do a second edition and he said no, but we’ll do a ‘Selected’ for you, which was too early. It was some lunacy on the part of Angus and Robertson.
DM: Is music important to you in the way that the visual arts obviously are?
CWC: Music is the queerest of all the arts. None of the others, not even sculpture, delivers its emotional whammy so directly, but so insidiously. There are things in Mozart, in Berlioz, Bartok, Schubert, which are utterly piercing, as though the lost past were still alive in them. I can understand how the visual arts work, but a soprano singing or a piano sonata is pure mystery. (Nietzsche: “By means of music the very passions enjoy themselves.”) In practice, I play lots of music in the background, turning it into a wallpaper of ‘muzak’ while I work or drive.
DM: You draw, don’t you? Could you characterise your style and what led you to drawing? Does, by the way, your brother show an interest in your arty side?
CWC: Yes, I’ve drawn in my present way for ten years or so. Long ago, as a schoolboy, I was the form cartoonist; indeed, I’ve always thought about drawing, but in recent times I’ve found it to be an alternative language of consciousness. My style was defined by a charming student as Biomorphic Abstraction. Wow! It’s most like Arshile Gorky, with echoes of Klee and Paul Nash. What I try to do in drawing is find a language which is internally coherent but not mimetic, the sort of thing that happens in Forbes’s poetry. And yes, my brother’s presence has always influenced or interacted with mine. We tease one another out of thought; sibling games can last for a lifetime.
DM: Do these other modes, music and drawing, have any material affect upon your writing?
CWC: A few of my poems…have rhythms derived from musical works; others are certainly about the haunting effects of music on my feelings. I once wrote a poem about drawing which also tried to echo my drawing mannerisms. Like the fox, I perceive the world as thronged with multitudinous small things. (See “The Bush (1989), for example: mine, not O’Dowd’s!) And there’s a new poem about my wanting to be a sculptor–which is true: I’d love to make sculptures, elegantly elaborate assemblages of curious substances. But the effects of art are widely smeared across my poetry, for those who have eyes to see them, to spot the scribbles.
DM: Do you have a characteristic way of working?
Poetry saturates my life so that there are many ways in which I write. But long walks and aeroplane flights are both especially likely to free my imagination from merely linear thought and release me into the buoyant musicality of poetic production. The lines come into my head like tunes. Sitting in a study is bad for inspiration, of course, but good for revision. I also like a poem to go through several typefaces or hands; it would be good to suddenly catch it out and detect its weaknesses before it becomes improperly familiar. You can’t write a landscape poem sitting in front of the very landscape: the text in progress has to meet and struggle with another matrix of experience before the poem emerges. Koestler is very good on how this happens. But I would like to live in a house with scribbling pads and nylon-tipped black pens at every turn. That would be the threshold of Paradise.