Launch: Andrew Sant's 'Tremors: New and Selected Poems'

                                                                                    Hobart Bookshop, October 16th 2004

Barry Jones once observed of the political process that the important is always displaced by the urgent. A somewhat analogous situation could be said to apply to literature, at least in the matter of book publication, where the important is often overshadowed by the recent. We tend to be so frantic to keep up with new books that we may forget to go back to old ones which warrant as much attention, sometimes perhaps more.

          For this reason it is always a happy milestone in a poet’s career when a selected appears because, by this miraculous sleight of hand, the old suddenly becomes new again—or as much of the old as the poet chooses to include—and all of us neophiliac readers not only have the opportunity to revisit the earlier books, we are obliged to. Andrew is actually in the curious, possibly unique, position of having two separate and distinct selections of his poetry published in the one calendar year, a piece of good fortune which might almost be said to nudge the boundaries of good taste. However, one of them was in another country and the extreme restriction imposed on space by the publisher means that it gives a less generous and representative overview of Andrew’s work than the present volume, which is the one to get.

          One of the immediate impressions, or rather realizations, borne in upon me when I began to read this selected was how, right from the start, the characteristic Sant sensibility and persona were present. The first poem in this book, from his first full collection The Caught Sky, is "Glenlyon". It is short, so I’ll read it:

          This page is cool light and my shadow’s
          hovering vague shape from the window behind
          defining hazed distances I’ve come from—
          childhood, a city. You could guess my position,
          undefined and remote as the nearby pre-settlement hills.
          The mind behind the particular mind may be thus:
          uncleared, unsettled, mysterious
          enough to look into constantly, while passing a window
          or else, as now, to turn my back on
          and let these passing words settle on the unmapped page.


          So much that is characteristic of the Sant oeuvre seems to me stored or embryonically present in this brief poem: the light of the world around us; the inner world of human habitation, buildings, rooms; the formative and haunting influences of childhood, and history, and geography; and the mind, endlessly curious, questing, engaged, seeking in these external phenomena and in itself points of connexion, points of departure and the words to embody them: communicability, human society. The Unmapped Page, incidentally, is the title of the English selected. I have some theories about the title of this book which I shall share with you later. We see some of these preoccupations even in the titles of poems: "Geologist in a Cave", "A Mount Wellington Sequence" attest to the place of place; "Homage to the Canal People", "Old Woman in Apple Country" to the interconnexion between people and place; "Literacy Lessons" to language and communication.

          What a fine debut The Caught Sky was—and remains. I knew it at the time but I don’t think I knew it sufficiently. Just as we can’t see an oil painting properly when we stand too close, but have to move some paces back into the room before it reveals its true form, so temporal distance is required, I think, for any work of art in any genre to reveal its true lineaments and quality.

          The Flower Industry, Andrew’s second book, is in a similar mould to The Caught Sky, though Andrew is evidently a little dissatisfied with it because he has represented it by far fewer poems. But these include the excellent "Fires" which, in describing the scenes of a bushfire with the panoramic sweep of a camera mounted in a helicopter—"the ripple of fire…like a black sea rising over a blond beach…A row of fenceposts…blossoming with flames…the hurrying sheep confused as poked maggots"—also describes in part the poet’s procedure: "…he could ponder it all/with the detachment/of someone accumulating detail/for posterity"; watching "trapped by curiosity".

          Different poets have careers following different trajectories of development. The traditional Romantic notion, still residually present in the public consciousness, is of poetry as essentially a product of youth. Keats had written such great poems by the time he died at twenty-five that he might well never have been able to better them, so that what his illness forced on him may have been the best career move left open to him in any case—and one that some other poets could do worse than emulate. But not Andrew, because he belongs to that lucky band of poets who, while starting strongly, continue to get better.

          Now, I could proceed doggedly through each of Andrew’s books, but I don’t think we want a full-scale lecture tonight. However, I’ll observe two things. First, the developing assurance and scope from book to book, and the leavening of serious subjects with wit and playfulness, culminating perhaps in The Islanders, which in a way is a single long poem in many parts. And secondly, as I observed at the start, the continuity of a recognizable persona with a recognizable angle on reality. In "Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool", Orwell said of Shakespeare—and relax, Andrew, I’m not actually going to compare you to Shakespeare, except in this—Orwell said, "Shakespeare was not a philosopher or a scientist, but he did have curiosity, he loved the surface of the earth and the process of life." And that sounds Santian as much as Shakespearian. Another thing I notice, and like, is that the authorial "I" is not always present in the poems and that even when it is present it is, as it were, more interested in the surrounding scenery than in jumping up and down before the camera like a small boy at a football match.

          I shouldn’t fail to point out that this is not just a selected, it is a new and selected, and there is a group of terrific new poems to conclude the book, the last of them, "Nike at the Megaliths", one of Andrew’s best poems, I think, certainly one of my favourites: a portrait of a tourist at an archaeological site which conjures, wonderfully, the heat and clarity of the Mediterranean and the simultaneous presence of the ancient past and today. It concludes:

          To return, like the caver, to the present
          Is a trek via the Enlightenment
          Through the many ages of humankind.
          Her Nike runners are fit for it.
          The sea shimmers and glints there,
          A tabula rasa. She’s recomposing,
          With effort, her febrile life on the fringe
          Of the tour group, modernity
          —the megaliths a gang of shadows, lost
          cosmology protected from the olives—
          when, as if conjured, a silent jet
          splits the sky overhead, like a zip.


          I think it was T S Eliot who said that meaning in poetry is like the piece of meat that the burglar throws to distract the watchdog while he makes his way into the house. The watchdog in a poem being the conscious intelligence, which demands to understand everything, and the house being those larger regions of the imagination from which poetry emerges in the poet’s mind and which must be penetrated in the reader if the poem is to achieve its effect. Or, as Housman put it in his wonderful essay "The Name and Nature of Poetry", "I think that to transfuse emotion—not to transmit thought but to set up in the reader’s sense a vibration corresponding to what was felt by the writer—is the peculiar function of poetry." This is not to say that poetry does not, or should not, make sense, but that a prose sense transcribed from a poem will scarcely tell you anything useful about why or whether a poem works, why or how it moves us or stays in our memories. All of this is a roundabout way of saying that Andrew’s poems are about a broad range of fascinating subjects and these are indeed interesting, and often informative, to read about, but we could, after all, if mere information was our requirement, read about them in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. What Andrew’s poetry, like all good poetry, gives us is the nimbus surrounding the facts—"uncleared, unsettled, mysterious", as he said in "Glenlyon"—the aura of intimation, imagery and music which makes those facts begin to speak of things whereof we cannot speak. And, you know, interconnectedness being, after all, one of Andrew’s abiding themes, whatever a Sant poem is ostensibly about, or begins by being about, a hell of a lot of other matters are likely to be encountered between beginning and end.

          After he finished A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Douglas Adams wrote Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. In Chapter Sixteen Dirk is engaged in a contretemps over the phone with a Mrs Sauskind, who is disputing her latest bill, one of the items on which reads: "Detecting and triangulating the vectors of interconnectedness of all things, one hundred and fifty pounds." Detecting and triangulating the vectors of interconnectedness of all things. Now, it is not entirely tongue in cheek that I propose to you this evening that this is the very enterprise in which Andrew has been engaged for upwards of two decades and the fruits of his researches are gathered for us in this compendious volume—and it costs a good deal less than a hundred and fifty quid.

          To end on a more personal note, contemplating the poetry collected in this book, which dates back to the early eighties and earlier, inevitably makes me think of the length of my friendship with Andrew. Last month marked the thirtieth anniversary of my arrival on this interesting island and, although I haven’t known Andrew all that time—indeed I arrived before he did—I have known him for the bulk of it. And one of the things that occurs to my reflexion is the astonishing, the truly astonishing number of… hangovers he has caused me. And I suddenly realize why this book is called Tremors—it’s a subtle gesture in my honour. You all think that I am trembling with suppressed emotion because of the occasion but, no, I’m just hungover from the last time I saw him. I wouldn’t want you to think, though, that that is the only noteworthy feature of our friendship; there are many other things, and just as soon as my brain has cleared I promise to write some of them down.

          "The intellect of man is forced to choose", said Yeats, "Perfection of the life or of the work". To which Auden tartly replied, "Perfection is possible in neither." No. But Andrew can be cited as evidence that it is after all possible to be pretty good at both.

          So if he would like to triangulate his way to the microphone, I shall declare Tremors shaken and poured.


(Published in Famous Reporter 30, December 2004).