My friend John Clarke was a brilliant satirist, but many forget what a deeply analytical mind he had for one of his great loves – poetry. He published collections of parodies and in the following interview from 2008, he had just been appointed Patron of the Australian Poetry Centre.
From parody to patronage: John Clarke and poetry
John Clarke: Thank you kindly.
Ramona Koval: The Complete Book of Australian Verse, which you wrote purporting it to be a collection of Australian poets like ‘WH Auding’, ‘Dylan Thompson’, ‘Sylvia Blath’ and others, was published—and I remember this in 1989—and I wonder whether we can just begin by listening to one of them just to get the hang of them. Could you read ‘Dorothy Parkinson”s ‘The Story So Far’.
John Clarke: Yes well…Dorothy Parkinson was a member of a rather exclusive group of drunks who inhabited a particular pub, and she was a somewhat disappointed and sceptical woman but with enormous wit. And this is called ‘The Story So Far’.
Poland works nicely. Chad’s going well.
Burma’s precisely successful as hell.
Haiti is lovely this time of year.
Sudan is just darling, thank God for Zaire.
Chile’s a dish, Brazil is a dream.
South Africa’s bliss and Iran is a scream.
Go lease a car, go purchase a suit,
Everything’s ducky and I’m King Canute.
Ramona Koval: Fantastic. But you do need to know a little bit. I mean it does rely…
John Clarke: Hopefully you do. Hopefully this takes you back to the originals. I had to do a lot of research when I did this book—which is a man sweeping up 20 years after doing an arts degree. One of the great pleasures of this project for me was that I went back and I revisited a lot of these poets whose work I was familiar with when I was too young understand it properly. The originals of these things are just brilliant because poetry requires you to have a very precise notion of form. You can’t just write a poem beginning and then just let it ramble forever. You need to sit it inside…you need to run in your lane.
Ramona Koval: So you’ve got to know where the lines are.
John Clarke: You do. And their forms are very different and of course each poet needs to carve out a bit of real-estate that is separate. If they don’t they get bunched together like Auden and MacNeice and Spender and Day-Lewis are sometimes bunched together. They shouldn’t be. That’s just a casual bit of journalism because they are quite separate, and you need to get into that territory and see how they’re separate and why they’re separate.
Ramona Koval: But you are dependent on people knowing who Dorothy Parker was.
John Clarke: Or wanting to know. Because they can go back and have a look. And perhaps we should go back and have a look, because most of the ideas we have relate to ideas that have been had before. We’re working in a tradition and we need to understand that. And it’s quite important to be the first kid in your street to ride a bike with no hands but it’s quite important also to know that you’re possibly not the first person in the universe to have done it.
Ramona Koval: I’d like you to read ‘The Half Yearly Prophet’, which is actually spelt ‘prophet’.
John Clarke: Yes, it’s based on a bogus work called The Prophet, by a guy called Kahlil Gibran, and this Kahlihliji Bran, he came to Australia so he was our one. And this is based on the work of a man who wrote poems that were read at loose weddings in the 60s.
Ramona Koval: I remember, and the 70s.
John Clarke: Oh in the 70s. Okay. Well, this is ‘The Half Yearly Prophet’:
[Reads from And a punter came forth, which was not unusual… to … must take rest for a time”, he said, “possibly on Venus”, and he was gone’.]
Ramona Koval: God! That is cutting…to the quick.
John Clarke: It’s supposed to be. I thought the original was a lot of crap, but…
Ramona Koval: It was very romantic at the time, wasn’t it?
John Clarke: Well it’s sort of…
Ramona Koval: Why? How come?
John Clarke: Well, it’s vague, ill-defined waffle, which sounds kind of nice. It’s got a lift-music quality to it. It’s not very rigorous I didn’t think. At the time I was student who wouldn’t have got away with that in an essay or something, so I was a bit suspicious of it in an alleged work of art.
Ramona Koval: So is parody what you do to people you do like or don’t like?
John Clarke: Well, both, I think. It’s not an ad hominem argument, it’s a ‘how does this thing work?’ Can I make this thing work? Can I take this car apart and put it back together again? Which is an interesting thing because if you collaborate with something by analysing it appropriately and walking in its shoes, things come out of you that don’t come out of you if you are not doing that.
Ramona Koval: Like what?
John Clarke: Well, if you think of the way that Dylan Thomas writes, for example, is that he very often piles adjectives and nouns and verbs together and then re-writes the verbs as nouns and the nouns as adjectives and so on. And he stacks the richness of language in heaps. And if you think of doing that—and you can do if you concentrate on it—you find yourself making observations that are not your normal observations because you need to in order to make the best use of the tools that he has given you. So it is a pretty interesting thing. It’s a bit like having a conversation with somebody who influences you during the conversation to a point of view and you end up expressing that point of view rather than the point of view that you either originally have or you didn’t have one at all. And you find you can express it and it gives you pleasure to do it and it is quite a good thing to express.
Ramona Koval: Have you written poems that are John Clarke poems and not parody poems?
John Clarke: Not very often. But there are things in this book that are probably like that which I’ve leaned toward pretending they are based on something else but which were an idea I had and I would have tried to have written anyway. I think maybe in my case I need a label. I’m not very good with my own label.
Ramona Koval: Why?
John Clarke: I don’t know. Possibly because I have no training and I need to observe something first…
Ramona Koval: To riff on it.
John Clarke: Yes. Because if it was just ‘What would you like to do now?’ I’m likely to say ‘Well I might just have a sleep on this couch.’
Ramona Koval: Like what’s on the menu? What do you want to eat? Well, what’s on the menu?
John Clarke: Yes. What’s on the menu. Or I’m not hungry. Or how does nothing sound? That’d suit me. Or I might go for a walk. But in order to get going…
Ramona Koval: That sounds like an undisciplined response but actually you are very disciplined if you read these people, analyse what they are doing and then fit yourself into the shape that they make.
John Clarke: It is a kind of discipline, but yes it does come from a shambolic first premise.
Ramona Koval: What sort of a student were you?
John Clarke: Hopeless.
Ramona Koval: Were you introduced to poetry as a kid?
John Clarke: Yes, I was introduced to… and I did English at university and so on. But I wasn’t…
Ramona Koval: But hang on, you can’t be a hopeless student and do English at university.
John Clarke: I wasn’t a good student. And of course when I learned English you didn’t learn to write. You learned…it was vivisectionist’s stuff. FR Leavis was the go when I was at university. So you had to know that FR Leavis though that there were six novelists in the history of the world. Here they are, this is why they are the six.
It struck me quite late in life that if you do a plumbing apprenticeship, you learn how to plumb. If you do an English degree you don’t learn how to write. You can now because there are much more interesting creative writing courses and all sorts of other things. But when I was there it was, you just roll your arm over for the southern end for Yorkshire. You’ve got to get 51 or you can’t get into the next year, so you got 52 or something. But you were wasting your time expending more effort than that. Your creative juices went into your friendships and your other activities.
Ramona Koval: Were you introduced as a kid to poetry?
John Clarke: I was a bit. My parents knew a bit about poetry…
Ramona Koval: That’s an advantage.
John Clarke: Well it is. A lot of people did in that era. People used to say poetry. My father was in the second world war and he had a couple of poetry books that went with him everywhere and he didn’t have anything else to read so without any great education he could recite half the book.
Ramona Koval: Americans can do that. American poets can always recite other poems. And other poets. Are you a reciter?
John Clarke: Not much. Not much. But I was aware that certain things were poetic and certain things weren’t. And I was aware of different styles of poetry. And I was always interested in all sorts of writing and all sorts of storytelling, and all sorts of aspects of the language and how we use it. So I did a bit. And my mother was a writer and a performer. She still has a column in the local newspaper at 88. Which is not actually called ‘What really annoys me’, but which probably should be called that. So I was aware that things could be said, there were forms of saying things. When I studied it I don’t think I was as interested in it as I became later when I was in my 30s and 40s. I went and re-visited the whole thing. And I very much liked poetry because of its precision. The forms are so precise.
Ramona Koval: Sometimes in the introduction to your parodies though. When you talked about Dorothy Parkinson being a group of drunks. The Algonquin group were a group of drunks.
John Clarke: They were.
Ramona Koval: But we sort of revere them because they were drunk in New York, rather than drunk in Ballarat or drunk in Perth.
John Clarke: That’s right, they were celebrity drunks.
Ramona Koval: But you’re also saying something about home-grown-ness aren’t you?
John Clarke: I am. I’m saying also that the principal element in the creative exercise is to do something yourself. And you need to imitate something. You need to get a form. The forms in poetry are very, very interesting I think. I mean you can’t write a long-winded limerick. The limerick needs to be of that length there. We understand that form.
Ramona Koval: You’ve written some pretty hopeless limericks as well.
John Clarke: I always found limericks faintly ridiculous. The Edward Lear ones, Edward Lear invents the form by and large. And his have always got a really lame last line. And good last lines are mostly in filthy limericks. But at the time he was writing them he was developing a form. And there are various of them. You don’t tell a huge story in a limerick so don’t try. This is what you’ve got to do here. Here’s the form. We understand that. Whereas with a novel, almost anything can be a novel. ‘This is an important new novel’. It’s a product description. You know there’s not really a form requirement. And most of the form requirements benefit by being bent around a bit anyway. But poetry not so.
Ramona Koval: I just remember that last year you were at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival talking with Clive James about Auden. Now, I wasn’t there because I was somewhere else. But how did you approach this?
John Clarke: Well, I was hoist with my own petard because Ellen Koshland and some others wanted to do an Auden session because it was Auden’s 100th birthday in absentia.
Ramona Koval: Yes. Posthumous birthday.
John Clarke: Yes, his posthumous birthday. And Clive is a wonderful articulator of a lot of 20th century work of various sorts. And I suggested that they might approach him to talk about Auden. And he said yes, he’d be happy to do that if I did it with him. And then I thought ‘oh my giddy aunt! What have I done?’, because I know practically nothing about these people and I had only one little road in and that was that I had a secondary school teacher who knew Auden and who talked about Auden in a way that made me feel when I read Auden, that I sort of knew who Auden was, because he was this teacher, in my head. He was like that. He was that sort of Englishman, which was a reasonably safe bet and certainly a nice place-holder to get into the subject matter from. So that was about all I could do.
Ramona Koval: That wasn’t going to last a long time.
John Clarke: No that’s right. But Clive is a very generous talker and I greatly enjoyed doing it. And we did some readings and things and it was terrific fun. But poetry, like anything discussed well…there are just millions of tangents into the rest of the universe and into life generally. So, you know, I’m arrogant enough to have started off with the first story and thought well, something will happen. It generally does.
Ramona Koval: And it did. I wanted you to read your parody of Auden. For those who haven’t read a lot of Auden, which is me included, tell me about what I should be watching for.
John Clarke: Auden is a poet who writes an enormous amount. The Complete Auden is very big. He’s hugely productive. He’s not a perfectionist so he romps through his ideas. He can’t really write bad verse. Now and again he writes things that are a bit sloppy or he has several goes at some subjects, but he’s so productive and he represents a kind of…he’s on about a kind of moral requirement that human’s have got to set themselves up the right way and he’s trying to find a home for it somewhere between Christian ethics and left-wing politics like a lot of people in the thirties. And he’s very interested in other art forms and the particular poem that this is based on is a poem that is about what is happening in a famous Bruegel painting called Icarus. And Icarus, who has tried to fly to the sun—a grand folly—and is unsuccessful; he doesn’t get through the heats, and he falls into the sea. Now when he falls into the sea in the painting it doesn’t happen middle of the painting it happens to the side. And the other things that are going on in the painting don’t have any idea that this has happened. So it’s about the completely random idiocy of so much of life and human aspiration.
Ramona Koval: Why don’t you give it to us?
John Clarke: Well my version of it is sort of the same vague themes but set in an Australian context. So the painting, which I might say I saw the other day in the Nolan exhibition, is one of ours. This is called ‘The Muse of Bauxite’:
[Reads from About telecom, they were never wrong, the old masters… to …Unsurprised, a bystander, he’s thinking, ‘deary me, another balls-up’. ]
Ramona Koval: Fantastic. Now, you’ve been made patron of the Australian Poetry Centre.
John Clarke: Mmm.
Ramona Koval: Now I can understand why. Could you?
John Clarke: Well I needed a little bit of hand-holding through the concept. But I like poetry and I think Poetry Centre’s a very interesting and terrific enterprise, greatly supported by a lot of people. And it’s quite a recent enterprise so it will be interesting to see how it goes. But it’s in a great physical building which used to be an old Boyd family house and is owned by the National Trust and its run by good people. I don’t have to know anything I don’t know. I mean I hope they don’t expect me to be an expert.
Ramona Koval: And what do you have to do?
John Clarke: Support the enterprise. The sorts of things I will attend are the sorts of things, I might say, that I’d go along to anyway out of interest. So I think it’ll be good fun. I think there is a lot of poetry in the world…a lot of people say ‘oh I don’t know anything about poetry’, but they can recite ten Bob Dylan songs and six Beatles songs. They’ve got all this stuff in their head and they know that it works because of the rhythm and the ideas and the forms.
Ramona Koval: That’s right. And Bob Dylan got a Pulitzer recently or a mention, an honourable mention.
John Clarke: He did, he did. Was it for substance abuse or for writing?
Ramona Koval: Well I’m very grateful for your love of poetry, as I suspect are many other people and I think your appointment as patron of the Australian Poetry Centre is inspired. And the Australian Poetry Centre Festival will be held in the Victorian town of Castlemaine over the Anzac Day weekend of the 25th to the 27th of April. John Clarke, poetry patron, thank you for being with us today.
John Clarke: My pleasure, thank you Ramona.
- The Even More Complete Book of Australian Verse
- John Clarke
- Text Publishing
- ISBN-13 9781 8770 0880 1