Regarding Bertram Higgins (1901-1974)
[Recently, Gerald Fitzgerald became interested in Bertram Higgins. He popped into Collected Works bookshop one day & asked if I had anything by Higgins or if I'd even heard of him. Much laughter when I said that indeed I had heard of him, in fact I'd dealt with him at some time when I was poetry editor at Meanjin Quarterly (1976 to '78 inclusive). I believe I was sent a batch of his poems by a friend or relative (perhaps his son) or it could even have been A.R. Chisholm... I've searched for my Meanjin era correspondences but turned up nothing; I cant find my diaries for that period either. If Meanjin retain records of correspondence between editors & contributors then perhaps the original submission & my response might turn up. My memory is that I was singularly unimpressed by the poems & probably said so. One must recall that I was the poetry editor newly appointed by Jim Davidson (Clem Christesen's successor), specifically to bring the 'new poetry' to the magazine --and mine was a particular 1960s'/'70s modernist perspective tempered only by a brief which required me to select from the best of the in-tray in addition to soliciting from the poetry world, local & overseas, I inhabited. Today I'm embarrassed by the memory of that rejection note. Had I been responding to Bertram Higgins at almost any other time in the last 30 years I would at least have been interested in his historical position. Melbourne cultural history wasnt the same type of preoccupation for me in the mid '70s as it was to become. Actually, I dont think it was until the Mallarme in Australia conference in Melbourne, September/October, 1998, curated by Michael Graf & Jill Anderson, that I was reminded of Chisholm, of course via Christopher Brennan's centrality to the theme. This doesnt mean I'd have necessarily accepted Higgins' poetry for publication back then, but would certainly have welcomed the figure he was. Today I'm sure I'd have found something in his manuscript to publish if only because of the importance I now attribute the byways, the undergrowth, the 'secret history' of this (& any) place. Naturally, I asked Gerald to write me a resume of his investigations...
April 30th, '10
This is purely to keep you up to date with my Higgins news. Unsurprisingly the 'subject' burgeons, due almost entirely to his being forgotten more or less totally for a few decades. I'm not all sure anyone has had a go at surveying his multiple activities: poetry, literary reviewing, and editing avant-garde journals devoted to literature and the arts. One problem has been that so much of this activity occurred in UK, roughly between 1921-1939.
But unlike numerous expatriates he returned, twice; firstly between c.1931-33 and then c.1946 till his death in 1974.
On the bits and pieces I've so far garnered, I don't think there's any doubt he's at least a most interesting figure in the story of Australian letters, and most certainly so with regard to the era of modernism.
The following are some of these garnered bits:
- 1925-1927. Asst Editor, Calendar of Modern Letters. Higgins was a friend of Edgell Rickward (ed of CML) at Oxford. There they seemed to have initiated the idea for the Calendar. Higgins was a frequent contributor of poetry and reviews.This journal was highly esteemed by FR Leavis, and (in The London Magazine Oct 1961, 37-47) by Malcolm Bradbury who declared it in 'many ways the best' of the 'three great literary reviews of the 1920s' (the others being The Criterion and The Adelphi). In 1986 a further substantial review of the CSM appeared in the Yearbook of English Studies, V.16, 150-163, by Bernard Bergonzi.
- 1933. FR Leavis. Towards Standards of Criticism. Selections from the Calendar of Modern Letters (1925-27). Numerous of Higgins's contributions appear in Leavis's selection.
- 1931. Stream. Higgins edited (and founded!) this Melbourne journal upon avant-garde Art and Poetry. It lasted for three editions (July- September, 1931).
- 1981. Bertram Higgins, The Haunted Rendezvous: Selected Poems.
As well, there are numerous biographical bits and pieces (many culled from a biographical reminiscence by AR Chisholm in The Haunted Rendezvous):
- After one year (1920) at Melb Uni., Higgins left Australia to continue his studies at Oxford. There he became friends with Roy Campbell and Robert Graves. The former, according to HM Green (A History of Australian Literature 1920-1953) declared Higgins 'the most interesting of all the poets at Oxford'. On his appointment to the chair of English at the University of Cairo during the '30s Graves arranged for Higgins to accompany him as asst lecturer in English. However, Graves didn't take up the appointment, so Higgins's job there fell through too.
- '20/30s. Higgins does much literary reviewing in UK papers and journals. He also becomes the first cinema critic for The Spectator.
- c.1974. Thesis. The Nature of Bertram Higgins' Poetry. Copy in State Lib of NSW.
- 1968-1974. Correspondence between James McAuley and Bertram Higgins. Held in the McAuley collection. State Lib of NSW.
These details are still a mishmash. Bits and pieces. I'm trying to track down Robert J King, and Higgins's children (who are proving difficult to find). Still far too early to put together a coherent survey. Higgins spent the final 30 years of his life in Melbourne. What in the heck was he up to then? Jim Griffin, the historian, ran into him in the Beehive Hotel in Kew sometime during this period, noted what an interesting character he seemed to be, but (being an historian!) didn't pursue this 'literary' figure. That was a missed opportunity.
The Selected Poems were published in 1981, almost certainly therefore at the instigation of someone(s) else - maybe Chisholm, or Michael Parer, or one of Higgins's children. At this stage I have no idea how representative of his work this collection is. The poems that I would like to see are those of the '20s, which clearly impressed people such as Campbell and Graves.
The Robert J King I refer to in my previous email is the author of the thesis now held in the SLNSW. I'm also trying to contact Ken Hince. One of Hince's colleagues whilst they were teachers at Xavier (where Higgins also went to school) I know did make contact with Higgins.
Chisholm seems to have been alive at the time (1981) of the publication of the Selected Poems.
Chisholm died in 1981, at 93. He was always interested in contemporary Australian poetry, as you probably know.
His major (publication) interest was in the French Symbolists. Both of these strands would have readily lead him to Higgins.
Two poems from GRAVELLY VIEWS
OM MANE PADME HUNG (repeat)
The sun kissed my cheek
And inspired the chant.
I am mutable and infinite, I reflect exactly
Whatever it is you want to be. I show you.
My slippery tongue between your words,
I might trip you up, but never myself.
I cannot lie. I do. Lately more and more.
You are pompous and pigheaded, arrogant
And vain. I cannot help you. The truth alternates
---yours and mine---yours and mine---
I am not here to show you up. I am here to plump.
Now I am a cat. My tail twists between your legs,
A tickle up the trousers, and you splutter, utterly charmed
By your own wit and wisdom and superior intellect.
Gosh you're attractive! As if it matters what I think
When you're here to tell me what that is.
I want to please. I do. Most of the time.
I hold you in my eyes and wonder what you see.
It only happened once that someone noticed
My eyes are green. But so were his.
Ancestors on show
Bleeding in the corner
Met by loathing
And selfish love
A cruel joke
His death was
Giving time for her
To run the lines
And find her own
Someone to trust
When she's gone
The world will
And become like a
Perhaps trust is
Blood and bones
A clever collection
Full of life
Lasting years as
Chronicles of fun
Born from the edge of the water
Diving at the end of the stream
Life in the city would mean
just a picture of one world to me
that says something else
Keep me alive dear Sir,
Keep me alive dear Sir
Give me memories of love I hold in my mind
Because just a picture of the one world
to me that says
and you're here
Keep me alive dear Sir
Keep me alive.
Two poems from TURDUS MERULA SINGING IN THE DEAD OF NIGHT
[from the Introduction : "The title of this collection comes from the first line of a Lennon and McCartney song "Blackbird". It's not that I particularly like the song; it's nice enough. But I am intrigued by the image of a blackbird singing in the dead of night and by the realisation that unless the blackbird is singing no one would know that it existed. these poems are my attempt to acknowledge my own existence.
The technical name for a blackbird is Turdus merula hence the title of this collection.
[The Seed: My wife's family had a painting with a life of its own until my wife killed it after her brother had killed himself.]
YOUR FAMILY HEIRLOOM PAINTING
Ah that big brown painting.
Painted by an ancestor.
Painted 150 years ago, or so Ma said.
Big, dark and poorly executed.
Wrongly shaped bodies with pin sized heads.
Bodies in stiff unnatural postures in some bucolic Victorian landscape.
A family legend went with the scene.
The painting even had a name:
"Lord Somers negotiating with brigands in Italy to secure the release of his beloved."
A big, brown ugly painting that seemed to say:
"I've earned my right to be ugly and revered - I've been around for ever."
that painting hung in your bedroom.
It must have witnessed your youthful lust and your experiments.
Seen you when your head was bent at your desk.
Seen you when dozed off at your studies.
Or when you roasted your legs with the blower heater.
The painting moved when you moved.
It even followed you when you married.
Finally in the interest of tasteful decor it went.
You couldn't bring yourself to dispose it for ever more
So you gave it to your brother.
At least it's still in the family you said.
At least it suits his style of home you said.
Exiled, it stayed with him.
It was hanging there the night he did the same.
He had thought you liked it so he left it to you in his will.
The day we cleared his house you took a knife to that painting.
The exhilaration as the knife sliced at the brittle canvas.
The joy of ripping strips just like lifting tops off scabs.
In the end it was easy.
In the end it was just a pile of little brown stiff rags.
In the end it was nothing.
[The Seed: After 60 years I hunted out the Paris apartment block where I had spent my first three years.]
AN APARTMENT ON RUE DE VINAIGRIERS
In my first three years
I lived in an apartment.
On the Rue de Vinaigriers.
A street linking Boulevard de Magenta to the canal.
Over the years
I believed it was a grand apartment.
Like those in films set in Paris.
A half a dozen decades later I returned.
But it was not what I remembered.
Surely I had never lived in an ugly concrete block.
In my memory my block echoed La belle Epoch.
In my memory my block complimented Haussmann's grand plan.
In my memory my block had charming wrought iron balconies.
Balconies forbidden to any bebe choux lest he should fall.
I didn't remember this featureless building.
Mine could not have been a between-the-wars concrete block
I never gazed out of mean little windows.
In its best years this building could never have been hospitable.
The building across the street was more like the sort
I thought I lived in - typically Parisian.
Surely that was the one - that was my building.
But the block number in notes from impeccable sources
Mine was the ugly block with the mean windows
And I had spent my first three years gazing at that Parisian beauty opposite.
writing face down
the only sense is collage
praying for approval in front of a statue
god-mother telling mother to tell you off for idolatry
leave me alone on the page
I can feel the capillaries breaking in my legs
and my pen running out of ink
I am up to my knees in the story of :
we are only doing this because we love you
when beliefs are more important than people
we are beetles on our backs
children in strollers holding dolls on nooses
prostitution doesn't stop rape
a child holding a bunch of daisies bigger than her face
it exists because of rape
footsteps in the cemetery
I will dye my hair in Autumn
control being a response to loss
a belief you can't be wrong
while the leaves loosen like promises
a belief you can't control your urges
bubble wrap between stacked marble at the masons
both beliefs that you can't
and here in the story up to my hips
I was still laughing from the world's last joke
when the chicken farmer came into the co-op.
I straightened as they strined some nonsense
about oysters pleasing the missus.
Common enough joke in a fish co-op
but that wasn't what disappointed me.
I knew from their downbeaten colonial drawl,
not to mention the younger one's hairlip,
that they weren't your off-the-shelf yobbos
on a lark or a bender, but rather
deeply outcasted, outlasted hicks.
Why should they have to pretend otherwise
in a time that already wished them dead, buried
or at best composted? And with that barbed thought
I heard a keening right there across the counter :
A weird enough gift to right the broken world.
'Have you heard, the chicken farmer's fecund lament
Made of pullets and stink, insignificance, vile roughage
And oh such a relief? A whole town has been healed
From that one frankly extravagant outburst
Sung with an eye turned-in to the heavens
And with sorrow's tears falling out into joy.'
But nup, a fly buzzed, their orders ensued typically.
The hairlip bit and with his downturn of phrase
merely handed me the dosh. It was a fair exchange:
One dozen oysters for a sweet dream short of a quid.
I STAND BY THE ROSE
Viewing and reviewing my stay is an art formed in simple words of surviving, growing old, doing a good job necklaced like the world that can change from one day to the next and hangs on. And I stand by the rose without clean hands although summer is over and passages of melancholy loss recess in dreams that curl like the bannister or a squirrel's tail, squeaking, shivering with possibility for the right moment. all the while dewy mornings, azure skies, pussy willow trees---kit, caboodle of dreams' stocks-in-trade---confront the knife, a tiny blade that conspires like needles, stars, explosions and yet are still not night but light on light: the lake. Between past and future is now, no hands in the stone although breath has many doors to mix retrospect with apprehension, maybe told, forgotten, lost, found this morning.
for Thom Gunn
as we rose, we changed---birthslug, toddler,
kiddo, preteen brainiac out through serious
awkwardness, bootielateral-liciously present
into some normatively developed willfulness
termed 'translucent' 'conduit'---symbols for such
flowering forms transversing to any seedy end.
the who we were and are will swell, seek, range,
swim within the scale our mature notions permit
wading through them conducting translucent lives
PEACE CORPS SKETCH
I honor the Peace Corps and those who brought it into being.
I honor the dedication of its Volunteers and staff.
Before it began, as a WGBH-TV (then located on the MIT campus) as a lowell fellow (lowell institute for cooperative broadcasting) intern in 1960-61, I met (as switcher/technical assistant director) candidate John Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Hubert Humphrey, Harold Stassen, Adlai Stevenson and others who discussed (on Nieman Foundation curator Louis Lyons' thrice weekly 14 minute 25 second shows on WGBH-TV the then New England Television-NET that preceded PBS) its establishment; and also worked on putting together at WGBH-TV the announcement program that aired on all major commercial networks in the Spring 1961 under the direction of the cameraman and director from our station who gone and gotten the footage in Washington, D.C.
Then when the test was given at Harvard yard, I took it. I got and accepted the call to go to U.C.-Berkeley for training for the Ghana 1 contingent (the first of several that went out then); in due course, after meeting the President in the Rose Garden and in his White House Oval Office, we left for Accra from Washington, D.C. in late August 1961 in a two engine prop Convair across the Atlantic stopping for refueling in the Azores, and again in Dakar, Senegal rearing up above the Ocean before coming down over the beaches of Ghana.
So it is with sorrow that I feel the Pace Corps has been dishonored and irrevocably tainted by the Bush and Cheney administration who for a time gathered it into the American military's house. I, after consultation with others, began to compose a draft, a protest. I sent the completed 'draft' to the Poets Against The War protest site:
today as we look forward now let us say
goodbye to our hopeful good past and not
let it stink and fray along with the misdeeds
we have recently been made party to, for
by including the Peace Corps as a career path
of military service under the guise of
some "national service" rubric, the great
ideas has been fatally compromised, dissembling
the intent in John F. Kennedy's creation
of the Peace Corps by a sneaky reformulation
the substance gone, what's left is a shadow
of a dream now morphed into the nightmare.
the ethical and criminal, even treasonous
contempt toward the American people by the
Bush-Cheyney administration stains even our
history. Peace Corps in practice is now dead.
[Forward email Peace Corps Response / 1111 20th Street NW / Washington, D.C. / 20526]
GERALD FITZGERALD, ex Classics at Monash University, well-known Proustian, & now for something completely different!
JURATE SASNAITIS, artist, bookseller colleague at the Greville Street Bookshop (Prahran, Victoria). These poems from Gravelly Views (Ratas Editions, February 2010). Her book of prose pieces, Sketches, published by Nosukumo (Melbourne, 1989). Contact, www.gravellyviews.wordpress.com
LAURIE FERDINANDS, Melbourne librarian, previously in Poems & Pieces #1
GEORGE LEVANTAKIS, one of Melbourne's Nicholas Building poets, via Button Mania. Working on a first collection to be published in Greece.
ALBERT TRAJSTMAN, once a mathematician now a poet on Melbourne's spoken word scene, e.g, the Dan, Passionate Tongues.
CLAIRE GASKIN, Melbourne writer & writing teacher around town. Anthologised in the Puncher & Wattmann Anthology of Australian Poetry, & Motherlode (both 2009). Previously in Poems & Pieces #6
GREGORY DAY's two novels with Picador are Patron Saint of Eels (2005), Ron McCoy'sSea of Diamonds (2007). Various limited edition books with his Merrijig Word & Sound Company, including Where Darkness Never Seeps : Poems of the CBD (featuring M Farrell, C Grierson, K Hemensley, A Stewart, J Taylor) (1999). Previously in Poems & Pieces #3
ED MYCUE lives in San Francisco. Seventeen collections of poetry, most recently Mindwalking, 1937-2007 (Philo Press, 2008). Longstanding Australian (via K Hemensley's H/EAR, W Billeter's Paper Castle) & English (via B Hemensley's Stingy Artist, & P Green's Spectacular Diseases) connections. Aka, The Chronicler. Previously in Poems & Pieces #13
--A couple of months in the gathering, finally done this day, 9th May, 2010