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Archive for the ‘Australian lyric poets’ Category

The other day I found myself with nothing to read so I pulled out my old copy of A Book of Australian Verse, selected by Australian poet Judith Wright. I was reading the collection when I came across the poems of John Shaw Neilsen, whose work I’d always admired. This shy, slight figure, who had almost no education, had a love of natural beauty and could produce lines of effortless simplicity such as:

“I was around by the cherries today: all the cherries are pale. The world is a woman in velvet. The air is the colour of ale.” He is considered one of Australia’s finest lyric poets.

Shaw Neilsen

Shaw Neilsen

Whenever I think of Neilsen, I’m reminded of a story my old friend Lyle Freeman told me. Lyle (gone now, alas) wasn’t a writer, but he moved on the edges of the literary circles in Brisbane and Sydney in the 1940s and early ‘50s. In his late teens, he ran away from the family business in Kingaroy, went to Sydney and with friend Lois Whose-last-name-eludes me, they opened a boarding house in the vicinity of Kings Cross, where itinerant writers and artists often stayed while they found their feet. Or not. At one stage, Charlie Blackman and his wife Barbara (not his wife at the time, but) boarded there.

I think it was his friendship with Queensland poet Val Vallis that would have got him the invite to Judith Wright’s house that Sunday.

judith-wrightWhenever Lyle told the story (it was a story I asked to hear more than once), the house he described was in Mount Tambourine, though Wright never moved there permanently until 1950, and the event Lyle described must have happened before 1941. (Neilsen was at that time up from Melbourne; he returned there and died within twelve months of this encounter.) Perhaps Wright toyed with renting houses in the country outside Brisbane as many of us did in those days before land inflated to preposterous proportions; my partner and I had a weekender at Mt Glorious in the ‘60s.

On this particular day, Lyle told me, a group of seven or eight aspiring writers were sitting in Wright’s kitchen debating the state of Australian arts and letters when there came a gentle knock on the back door. Standing there was a shy, slight man in his early seventies. Perhaps an elderly gardener, they thought.

The man spoke only one sentence. He said softly, “I’ve come for my tiffin.” (He meant afternoon tea.) Wright handed him a cup of tea and a plate containng some cup cakes and he went away. “That was Shaw Neilsen,” she explained to the Young Turks. “He’s staying with us for a while. He’s a bit shy.” Lyle said he felt immensely humbled to see this unassuming man shuffle away with his tea and cake. There they’d all been, debating the parlous state of Australian literature, and there he was, the real thing, just wanting peace and quiet and a bit of tiffin.

Lyle had an interesting life. He was a roadie for the Borovanski Ballet when Kathleen Gorham was one of the principal dancers, and he was gay at a time in Australia when it took real guts to come out and say so. He was once insulted at a party by Patrick White, that dour, sharp tongued Australian novelist.

patrick-whitePatrick White

Wine must’ve loosened my old friend’s tongue sufficiently for him to begin talking about his ambitions for a novel. “Hmph,” White said to him. “You’re a small man, and you’ll write a small novel.” That put my friend Lyle, who was six-foot-two, nicely in his place. White was famous for these bon mots.

Lyle never did write that novel. There were no mobile phones when I knew him, and the only photo I have of him is more than forty years old and somewhat blurry. Thanks to the expertise of Paul Smith I’m able to reproduce it here.

The photo was taken on the verandah of the house I shared with Queensand poet, Michael Sariban.

the-presentation-on-the-verandah

From L to R: Ann Hurley, DdeV holding a young Sasha Sariban, Olga Sariban and Lyle Freeman.

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