Friday, March 25, 2016

A Glimpse of Manning Clark in 1990

Manning Clark's public celebrity, as opposed to his reputation as a historian, was partly based on the fact that he was such an unusual historian. Most of the time he seemed more interested in literature, religion and sexuality than in history.  He was more likely to talk to you about Dostoyevsky than about Australian history.

As a public speaker he understood the power of unpredictability, and his speeches often seemed to be running off the rails into some inappropriate theme, before he would find a Manning-esque way to loop back to the subject in hand.

I once saw him interviewed by ABC TV News about the political situation after Malcolm Fraser had been elected prime minister. He deplored the deep antagonism between the two main parties and compared their behavior to that of two bulls in a field that have locked horns and lost interest in all else. This (potentially salacious) rural analogy seemed to be going on for some time, when Manning abruptly concluded: "And the way this ends -- I understand -- in a field -- is with the cows realising they’ll have to look elsewhere."

Manning launched most of my poetry books in the 1970s and 1980s. His speeches were always memorable and Manningish, but only this last one in 1990 happened to be preserved, by Bill Tully who recorded it for a Canberra radio station and later gave me a copy. It starts with a few seconds of off-mike mumbling, but then Manning's voice comes through clearly.

Here it is, as text, and soon, if  only I can work out how to attach it (!), as an audio-file. (The link at the bottom this page may not be working.)

It contains a characteristic detour from poetry into AFL football, when he refers to "that great half-back line of  Lucas, Kingston and Tuck" --which I think had last played together 31 years earlier in 1959, and not for his own AFL team.


AT THE CO-OP BOOKSHOP, Australian National University,  26 September 1990.

I apologise I'm going to read what I have to say but my memory is getting so dreadful that sometimes I've stood up in public and couldn't remember the word "the".   I apologise I'm reading.

 Now every book is in a sense  a child of the heart, and I believe, Mark, that you have every reason to be proud with this child of your heart, which I understand are the poems you wrote between 1972 and 1990.   I say this because I think of you first of all Mark, as a traveller.   It's clear from these poems you've travelled all over Australia, over England and Italy and as they say in some books, and see stop comma, and see stop comma and see stop. [=?  and c., and see c.,  . . . ]   Or, as Barry Humphries says, you name it and you've been there.   You're a traveller who in this work it is quite clear has been transfigured into a pilgrim.

The other reason why I liked it, and I hope people who read it will share this view, is that you obviously know a very great deal.   You are a very close observer of nature - that's quite plain, its a simple point.   You are in that as it were one of those chaps whom Hardy used to admire, a person who notices such things.   You notice small things such as the way the various species of birds handle the breeze to find the air currents.   One could quote many other examples of this.   

The third reason I think why I particularly liked it was that if you follow the advice which I think we all must follow, we must become exiles.   I don't mean exiles from one's own country.   But you, I understand, left your native Ararat, but unlike some very distinguished people in Australia, you were able to return to a native place without sneering at it, or mocking at the locals.   I'm thinking particularly of the poem you wrote about going back into the church there.

It was a point that Michelangelo made - I'm sorry - that Freud made about the statue of Moses by Michelangelo - that there are moments in life which are testing moments where it's tempting to be angry, to be savage, to be severe, but you have the wisdom I think to see it all not as green[?] with the eye of pity and with love.   The other reason why I liked it is that you obviously have a lively and a witty imagination, for example in the poem "The Beginning" which I take it, being a clergyman's son, I noticed is based on the Book of Genesis. You have God donning a snorkel and you have God as it were feeling/finning* his way over the coral.   I believe that one that I saw "was very good indeed".    

For me there was only one thing lacking Mark, in this collection.  The one great absentee in these poems was the members of Collingwood football team.  I know that you have great passion for the Collingwood football team.   There's some wonderful human characters in your collection, but I'm sorry that there's no eulogy in it for that great half-back line of Lucas, Kingston and Tuck and I'm also deeply sorry that you made no attempt to compare them with a much superior line of Brown, Deakin and Clarke for Carlton.   I was hoping that there would be a sketch in this of Mick McGuane.   

I was hoping to meet James Manson in your words and not  just on the television screen and I hope one day quite seriously that some of these Godlings. will catch your eye and you will confer on them the same immortality as you have conferred on the fish of the Barrier Reef and your old parish church in Ararat.

But seriously, what I found most pleasing in this book is the voice of the poet himself.   It is not, thank God, the voice of a smart alec - and my God there's a lot of those around - it's not a showoff.   It's not the voice of a man who is making any special claims of the role of the poet.   That can be very nauseating.   It's not the voice of a man who believes that the poet is special things to special people, or any picture where he claims that the poet, unlike other human beings, is someone who is beyond good and evil.   

It is the voice of a man who can create people and create them in memorable words.   It's a very serene voice, and that I think is very important.   It's the voice of a man whose eye is single.   Happily it's the voice of a man who is an enlarger of life and not a straightener and not a frowner.   It is the voice of a man whose voice obviously has already gone further than college walls, and that is most important.   

The voice must go further than college walls.   In that way you've joined that band in Australia of people like Les Murray, Bruce Dawe, Judith Wright, Alec Hope - and of course the others that you could mention.   I must apologise for making a minimal selection.   

But above all it is the voice of a man who is singing to those who have ears to hear, a hymn of praise to life.   It is not the voice of a mocker or a sneerer.   So let me conclude by thanking you Mark for sharing this vision with us and giving us the hope to go on.  It is with great pleasure that I launch this volume.

 Manning Clark Talk