IMPOSSIBLE PRELUDES – PERTH LAUNCH SPEECH

Impossible Preludes by Andrew Taylor (published by Margaret River Press) was launched by Dennis Haskell at the Centre for Stories. Here is the transcript of the Perth Launch Speech. 

Perth Launch Speech

By Dennis Haskell

Andrew Taylor’s Impossible Preludes is his sixteenth or seventeenth book of poems, but the first poetry collection to appear from the energetic Margaret River Press. They could hardly have picked a better poet to begin with, even though he now lives far from Margaret River. It is telling that a poet with such a body of work behind him – an “ouevre” – would title a book “Impossible Preludes”. Of course, in part the title is a lie: if they were really impossible preludes we’d have a book comprised of blank pages. However, there is a long tradition of poets writing poems about the impossibility of writing poems. It was the word “Preludes” rather than the word “Impossible” that caught my attention. It’s a musical word – and Andrew does love music (especially Haydn) and he is a musical writer with a very good ear.

T S Eliot titled some poems “Preludes” but he did so as a young man, and Wordsworth wasn’t yet 30 when he began writing “The Prelude”. One reason that I like Andrew is that he’s older than me, and these days not many poets are! (Drink, drugs and depression have taken off many we knew.) A “prelude” indicates a looking forward, and that is the stance of the poems in this book. Although many of the poems draw on memory, even these don’t involve a great deal of nostalgia. “will I ever stop asking?” ends one poem – a poem about the moon, of all things – you would think it a subject that poets have flogged to death, but Andrew treats it with freshness and wonder. And the book is full of wonder, especially about the natural world and the way it might signify or emblematise meanings in our lives. The answer to his question, “will I ever stop asking?” is clearly “No!” The poems are very much of their moment, with evocations that seem to have come about as you read them, with a great sense of immediacy. In Impossible Preludes Andrew Taylor doesn’t write as an elder statesman poet, like T S Eliot or Wordsworth, but as a young poet who knows a lot more than young poets do.

Part of that knowledge is manifest in the apparently unforced nature of the writing – undoubtedly something that has come about through a lot of work: art is that which hides art. There’s no sense of display in Andrew’s work (and there never has been) but a quiet, balanced wisdom is conveyed through unobtrusive skill. There is a good deal of wry cleverness, that I can evidence through reading you “Lament for the makars” – a title that references William Dunbar’s classic poem of 1508. (Dunbar was a Scot, and Impossible Preludes includes one poem about Andrew’s Scottish ancestry, “My convict past” – which doesn’t exist so, as he says, he gets off “Scot free”).

The internet doesn’t tell me

where they’ve gone, my predeceased

contemporaries. It’s

a lengthening list though the more

notable are tidily erased

from each year’s Who’s Who.

The Catholics are purgatorially

drying out, the Rationalists

in their immaculately designed

resort (their last) are undoubtedly

scrutinising the bill. Those

who were politically bent

are eternally counting numbers

while the Conservationists

have everything they wished for

and on-one to share it with.

All those I’ve forgotten

hover in the Cloud like the shades

that greeted Aeneas

hoping that a casual, even

an accidental keystroke

might grant them a momentary flicker

on the great screen of Eternity.

And me? I’ll be forever revising

that poem, you know, the one

I said I’d read to you

when it was finished…

A similar wryness features in the poem on the adjoining page which is titled “This is the empty page”. Of course, Taylor is lying again: the page isn’t empty at all, but the poem on the page ends,

… if you look closely

you’ll see the empty page

peering out at you

from behind the letters

And no punctuation mark follows that last word; the poem flows out into emply space. The blank page is every writer’s enemy, and every writer’s nightmare. This poem speaks again of Andrew’s modesty, even after a lifetime of achievement, and I think that modesty is integral to his positive outlook. Wry humour is an optimist’s way to meet difficulties. “Whatever the occasion” is a poem about the world going to the dogs – “The music of the spheres / has developed an irritating crackle” – but near the poem’s conclusion Andrew writes, “maybe this is simply some new contingency / the universe has cooked up, so let’s / ride it out for a bit and enjoy / whatever it throws our way”. This is the overall method, and overall theme, of Impossible Preludes.

The book reflects the way Andrew and his wife, Beate, spend part of each year in Australia and part in Germany. That encourages a strong sense of the passing seasons, and there is a lot of nature in the poems. In “Two worlds” he writes, “I manage two autumns a year / and two summers and am at home / in all of them it seems”. This is one of many poems which implicitly show Andrew’s awareness that he is one of the fortunate of this world, as most of us in Australia are. The lines I’ve just quoted are the words of someone who is comfortable in his own being and sure of his own self – it is one of the advantages of age! But not too sure: the really important words in the lines are the apparently innocuous ones, “it seems”. The poet doesn’t proclaim his belonging, he discovers it. Everywhere there is a fairly calm, assured tone and a Romantic openness to experience – something youthful allied to his knowledge and self-awareness.

The poem “Shells” begins, “Shells on my shelf are an empty civility” – a lovely line; it is tempting to say that Andrew’s poems offer a full “civility”. The poem’s last sentence, sperad across seven lines, reads:

… They announce

that their once palpitating citizens

have spawned off, or salted into decay

leaving these bleached wonders, beached

now on my window ledge where a salt-

laden breath of the Indian Ocean

whistles at their open doors.

Keats would have loved these lines, at least if he’d lived in Perth. The poet uses sound to represent the visual; it’s a wonderful use of synaesthesia, aided by the precision of the line breaks. It’s obvious on any sensitive reading that here is a poet of great skilfulness, and that skilfulness encourages our trust.

The opening poem is titled “Poem beginning with a line from Wallace Stevens” but the poem, it seems to me, is more vusual than Stevens’ work, and Andrew Taylor displays none of Stevens’ ostentation. Andrew taught American literature but he is himself very Australian. The book is replete with wonderful images: “a squirrel hung like an orange comma”; a sea eagle has a “white breast / expansive as a dictator’s”; “here / westerlies blow with the savagery / of poloitics”; “beautiful flowering weeds and trees” are “bowed down with fruit like supplicants”.

The title poem – there is a short poem titled “Impossible preludes” – offers a few images, for example “dimples / of light across a river / that phonecall /you never made / or received”, then ends simply with a conclusion drawn from them but really from the whole book: “all impossible / all possible / all preludes”.It’s a depiction of fecundity and uncertaintly: the uncertainty is celebrated because it is alive with possibility.

In the poem about his non-existent “convict past”, Andrew mentions his ancestors, the Taylors and Frasers, and says “What brought the Frasers to Australia / I’ve no idea”. I’ve no idea what brought the Taylors or the Frasers to Australia but we can all be very glad that they came. Congratulations are due to Andrew Taylor and to Margaret River Press as a prelude to declaring the book launched.

Dennis Haskell is a Professor of English and Cultural Studies at the University of Western Australia and a poet whose work has been published nationally and internationally. He has also been Chair of the Literature Board of the Australia Council for the Arts.