As I have mentioned, QLD Poetry Festival 2012 is only weeks away, and I have the great privilege of interviewing several of the featured artists as a preview to what you can experience at the event. The interview with Max Ryan and WWYAL is currently rolling and now, I chat to Melbourne based poet, Ray Liversidge about uncovering the lives of dead poets.
ALS: Your latest book, No Suspicious Circumstances, collects together a series of poems that look deeply at the lives of some mighty fine poets whose words live on despite their passing. It also features portraits of each selected poet by the incredibly talented, Kathryn Bowden. How did you go about selecting the poets you wrote about? And though I am certain, you already had a great deal of insight into the lives of these poets, what were some of the surprises you discovered in your reading?
Ray Liversidge: When I first thought about the book the principal criteria I set were that the poet be dead and:
1. Have taken their own life
2. Have been killed by circumstances out of their control; and
3. Have died because of intemperate living.
With some poets such as Emily Brontë, Keats, Rimbaud and a couple of others I have taken liberties. Nevertheless, as Peter Porter said of Auden, my aim was to take on the challenge of ‘selecting the crucial moments in the lives of people and civilisations and forcing home their psychological truth’ – to channel the spirit of these poets, if you like.
Once I had set the criteria, I had to decide on which poets to include. This was not an easy task as there are so many poets which fit these criteria – especially the intemperate living ones! Selecting the obvious and well-known poets would have been easy; however my research revealed that there have been many talented poets who have not got the credit they deserve. So, one of the aims of the book is to pay homage to some of those lesser known and largely ignored poets, and in doing so enrich readers’ lives and my own by exposure to their writing, lives and times. I plan to have a biographical note in the book explaining what attracted me to the poets I have written about.
The life and work of poets like Dylan Thomas, Rimbaud, Plath and Keats were well known to me so there were no surprises there. However, as I said earlier, during my research I came across poets who I had never or half-heard of. It was a surprise – and a pleasure – to discover and read poets such as Charlotte Mew, Christopher Smart, Sidney Keyes and Yu Xuanji.
Gravity and waggery
In the Age of Reason you just had to be mad:
Cross-dressing as Mary Midnight, hitting the bars,
Praying in public places, being a lad,
Punching out poems of unconditional praise.
‘I’d as lief pray with Kit Smart as anyone else’,
Dr Johnson declared – but he was not your quack!
When Anna runs off with the kids you return to grace
Your prison walls with poems. Crazy, or not,
We give thanks for your song, and the adventures of Jeoffrey the cat.
Christopher Smart, born in 1722 in Kent, England, spent several years in asylums mainly because his habit of praying out loud in public was considered irrational behaviour. His ‘A Song to David’ is considered one of the most original and powerful religious poems of the eighteenth century. Smart died penniless in a debtors’ prison on 21 May 1771.