Graeme Philipson critiques his own poetry

(Introduction to the unpublished anthology of his poems).

Philipson – The Man and the Poet

It is not often that we critics are called upon to critique our own work. Some would say that in such a circumstance it is impossible to be subjective. I would argue the opposite – the close proximity (indeed the unitary nature) of observer and observed makes for a quality of comment, and a certain objectivity, that would not otherwise be possible.

This volume contains many of the quite remarkable poetical works of Graeme Philipson (myself) – and unfortunately some of the less impressive pieces. It is by any standards an interesting document, testament to his tortured soul and eternal wit, and to his constant struggle to rise above the structures of prose, where he was long imprisoned, to let his fancies fly. Philipson made a minor name for himself as a prose stylist, becoming one of the world’s leading computer industry journalists, but the relative obscurity of that profession, and the need to observe its rather mundane norms, meant that he was constantly struggling to express his innermost thoughts.

He found solace in poetry. Prose is a form that values precision and clarity, while poetry delights in ambiguity and connotation. They are complementary, though it is interesting to observe that few writers are famous for both.

Who were Philipson’s influences? There is no doubt that he was profoundly influenced by the great Australian bush poets, and in particular Banjo Patterson, Henry Lawson and C.J. Dennis. Philipson often said that his father’s book of Dennis’s poetry, which he devoured as a child, was one of his most important early sources of inspiration. It was one of the few books in his childhood home in Tamworth.

He often mentioned Dennis’s satiric masterpiece The Glugs of Gosh with particular affection. It is sad that that great work is now largely forgotten – it is an Australian classic.

His father John was a major influence. John Buik Philipson was not a writer of poetry, but he won considerable fame as one of Australia top reciters of bush poetry. He travelled to festivals and shows all over Australia, winning dozens of awards for his ability to bring other people’s words to life. The desire to provide content for his father’s talents was a major driver for Philipson’s early work.

There were many other influences. At Tamworth High School in the late 1960s and early 1970s, under the tutelage of such excellent teachers as Brian ‘Cass’ Neil and the redoubtable Mr Cavanagh, he was exposed to such poets as T.S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Percy Shelley, all of whom he has acknowledged as exemplars. It was at this time that he started writing poetry, none of which has – unfortunately – survived.

He was enormous fan of the music (which is to say the poetry) of Bob Dylan. He was particularly impressed by Dylan’s oft-repeated remarks that his words very often didn’t really mean anything, they just “sounded right,” and it was futile to search for any meaning in the lyrics, because there was none.

That is not to say that words strung together in such a fashion do not constitute poetry – they do, but they are type of poetry where form is more important than content. That is another difference between poetry and prose – in poetry form is more important than content, with prose the opposite is the case.

How good is Philipson’s poetry? How does it compare? At its worst it is of course doggerel (indeed, unkind critics have said that all of it is), but at its best it stands comparison with the masters. Some stanzas of The Spirit of Australia are as good as anything Banjo Patterson ever wrote, and The Never Never is a minor triumph. Some of his flights of whimsy, such as The Love Song of the Otago Albatri, are comic masterpieces.

In a time when poetry is often dismissed, if it is discussed at all, Philipson’s work is remarkable. Not only is he the 21st century inheritor of the Australian bush ballad tradition, his marriage of this traditional style with more modern genres marks him out as a true poetic innovator.

He was tireless in his self-promotion, as this thin volume attests, but he was interested in much more than self. He had a genuine love for the poetic form, and by sharing his passion with others he made us all more appreciative of this sadly declining art form.

Philipson was dismissive of many other modern poets. He regarded most bush poetry as arrhythmic crap, lazy and lacking metre. And he regarded much modern “free verse” as lacking any discipline at all – see his comments in his essay On Computer Generated Poetry, published as an Appendix to this volume.

What is Philipson’s legacy? Where does is work fit in bigger picture? Why was he so and where will he go? Why was he so full of shit?

While he sadly never achieved the fame he so richly deserved, he did manage to climb partially out of the pit of obscurity in which most of his contemporaries so justifiably reside.

He is regarded as a 'minor”'poet by his many critics, but they mostly inhabit the self-congratulatory closed world of academia, government handouts and pissing in each other’s pockets which Philipson eschewed. Philipson himself referred to them as “a bunch of wankers”, while admitting he was a bit of a wanker himself.

But he was perhaps a bit too self-deprecating. He knew his poetry was not great, but he also knew that – as was famously said of Wagner’s music – it was better than it sounded, and that the fame that eluded him during his lifetime would surely be his after his death.

Most of all, he wanted to leave a legacy. This is it.

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