Some of Andrew’s literary essays are reproduced on this page:
1. A Legacy of Joy: In Memory of William Hart-Smith
2. Reading and Reflecting on Haiku
3. Talking about Tanka
4. Comments on the poem, “Finishing Up”
5. An Interview with Hal Colebatch

While not included on this page, another literary essay by Andrew, In Defence of Fantasy, has been published as a chapbook.

In this long essay, Andrew addresses the concerns that some Christian people have expressed about fantasy writing.
You can buy In Defence of Fantasy ($5.95, post free) through this website, here..



A Legacy of Joy:

In Memory of William Hart-Smith

by Andrew Lansdown
My first encounter with William Hart-Smith was through the poem “Windmill”. It was 1974, and I was an undergraduate student at the Western Australian Institute of Technology (WAIT, now Curtin University of Technology).
At the age of seventeen I developed a sudden interest in poetry and began to write reams of heart-felt rhymes. A year later, in 1973, I resigned a clerical position in the public service and began studies at Leederville Technical College. My sole desire was to study English literature in order to learn more about poetry, and thereby improve my own writing.
I began for the first time to study the work of established poets, engaging in that wonderfully creative and constructive process of criticising poems, dissecting them to discover not only the what and the why of them, but also the how of them. I began to learn about precision and metaphor and understatement. And in the process I began to recognise the deficiencies in my own work. This was salutary and spurred me to set higher standards for myself. My writing began to improve, and, at the suggestion of my literature teacher, Mr Peter Good, I began to submit poems for publication to several literary journals.
Windmill, Christmas Creek Station - Andrew Lansdown Then in 1974 I commenced English studies at WAIT, where a tutor introduced me to Bill’s poem, “Windmill”:
The windmill by the water-tank
with his see-through face
and base of latticed iron bars
reminds me of a fisherman
standing ankle-deep in the shallows
of a lake full of minnows
featureless horizon to horizon—
who suddenly enmeshes the water
with a throwing-net of galahs.
I cannot recall much discussion of the poem in the class. The tutor had some point or other that she wanted to make, and having made it, passed on. But the poem had a permanent impact on me.
I was impressed by a number of things about “Windmill”, many of which, presumably, I had encountered but not appreciated in other poems. To begin with, there is both the metaphor itself and the extension of it. Fancy likening a windmill to a fisherman, and galahs to his throwing-net! The metaphor is simultaneously original, fanciful, plausible and precise. I cannot recall reading before this time a poem which existed solely as and for an extended metaphor.
Nor can I recall reading a poem that was so appealingly simple in language and structure. And the simplicity extends beyond technique to both subject and theme. The poem eschews the grandiose. It does not pretend to be profound. It says simply, Here is a windmill, here are galahs: this is what they look like. It seeks to convey no more than a pleasure in correspondences and a wonder in nature.
Although I did not realise it at the time, and did not come to realise it until quite recently, “Windmill” had a lasting influence on the development of imagery and metaphor in my own poetry. I did not encounter more of Bill’s poetry for some time. But then, it only takes one poem to teach a principle. The rest is essentially reinforcement.
In 1975 I enrolled in a second year creative writing class, only to discover that Bill was the tutor. I did not particularly enjoy the creative writing classes at WAIT. Too much time was devoted to reading and discussing student work. However, Bill alleviated this tedium by introducing his students to a wide range of poetic forms and concepts.
I remember being impressed by his deep love and wide knowledge of poetry. It was plainly his passion, his life. During the year he communicated not only information about, but also enthusiasm for, poetry. He also told the class a great deal about himself, and presented every student with a copy of his book Minipoems, which he had self-published in 1974.
By the end of 1975 Bill and I had become friends. Another member of the creative writing class, Philip Salom, also developed a friendship with Bill at this time.
Bill went through difficult emotional times during 1976. His relationship with Dorothy, a woman with whom he was living and by whom he had had a son, was breaking up, and he was breaking up along with it.
On Sunday, 19th September, I visited Bill at his house in Lesmurdie, a suburb north-east of Perth. When I arrived he was in a dreadful state. He had been drinking whiskey and taking Valium. He was weeping and cursing, threatening to burn all his work and to kill himself.
He had several boxes of papers on the floor of the lounge room and insisted that he was going to burn them in the incinerator. I tried to persuade him against this, and suggested that he give the boxes to me for safe-keeping. He agreed to let me have them, saying that he never wanted to see them again. I loaded the manuscripts into the car, and spent the afternoon and evening coaxing him away from suicide.
Three days later he wrote to me and asked me to pick up more of his material:
I have another great wad of unpublished verse here. Do you mind if I put it all into a box and leave it at your place?
I know I have been through some sort of crisis the past few days. One effect is to make me want to stop writing poetry for a while, perhaps for a long while.
I give you an absolutely free hand to do what you like with all this stuff of mine …”
I retrieved the box from him and stored it with the others. Shortly after this, Bill was admitted to the psychiatric ward of Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, where he stayed for several months.
In hospital he met a fellow-patient, Mary Morris, and they began to write poetry together—Mary discovering poetry, Bill rediscovering it. Poetry was their healing: they literally wrote themselves out of hospital. Let Me Learn the Steps: poems from a psychiatric ward is the testament to their recovery.
On 4th January, 1977, Bill wrote me a letter (I was not on the telephone): “could you ring me urgently, please … I’d like to have back all the poems and MSS I left with you as I must sort out the mess—destroy a lot, maybe try and salvage others.” I duly returned the boxes to him, pleased to think that I had played a small part in the preservation of Australia’s literary heritage.
In the second semester of 1976, Bill asked me to take over one of his creative writing classes at WAIT, which I did. I continued to tutor at WAIT throughout the following year.
Early in 1977, Bill moved to a flat in Victoria Park, and I used to visit him most weeks on my way home from WAIT. He still had dozens of copies of his Minipoems, and it occurred to me that he might give me twenty, which I in turn could give to my students. So one afternoon at the beginning of May I asked him. He responded that he did not have any Minipoems at the moment, and that he would try to organise some for me during the following week. I thought this was a strange answer, as I could see thirty or forty copies stacked in his bookcase. But I let the matter drop, assuming simply that he did not want to part with any of his remaining books.
A fortnight later, Bill left a note on the door of my house: “I have some more short poems for you at home. Can you call at the flat?” I duly called, and found that he had written Kangaroo paw Andrew Lansdownforty poems for me! He had interpreted my request for his book as a request for new minipoems, and had written them to order! Some of these minipoems, such as “Kangaroo Paw”, are quite marvellous:
A Kangaroo Paw
by the roadside
with scarlet trousers
is thumbing a lift
with a vivid green thumb.
I included “Kangaroo Paw” and six other minipoems, along with seventeen longer poems, in a feature of Bill’s work that I edited for Artlook magazine in July 1979.* To my knowledge, none of the other thirty-three minipoems that Bill gave me have been published.
Bill often complained about the neglect of his work. I pointed out to him that he could not expect his poetry to be published if he did not submit it to magazines and publishing houses. The truth of this seemed to elude him. He was certain that there was a conspiracy of neglect.
However, in 1978 he began to submit work to Quadrant magazine, and there found a friend in the literary editor, Dr Vivian Smith. The feature of his work in Artlook magazine in 1979 also boosted his morale, as did the publication of his Selected Poems by Angus & Robertson in 1985.
Bill returned to New Zealand to live in mid-1978. We corresponded, but with decreasing frequency, until his death in April 1990. (Due to failing eye sight, his last letters were written by Mrs Joan Dale, who acted as his amanuensis.)
I saw Bill again in 1985, when he returned briefly to Western Australia for the launching of his Selected Poems. He stayed with me (not to mention my family) for a week or so. We went for a few strolls along the Swan River and talked a lot about poetry and a little about eternity. He was quite frail and spent much of his time lying on his bed.
In January 1990 Bill asked if I would look out for copies of his Selected Poems, as the publisher’s stock was fully depleted. I scarcely considered the request, thinking it unlikely that I would chance upon any.
A few weeks later I was in Sydney. Being at a loose end one afternoon, I began to browse in a number of bookshops in George Street. I asked at one shop if they had any collections of Australian poetry. The assistant indicated that there might be a few poetry books of some sort upstairs. I trudge up and rummaged among heaps of remainders and second-hand books, only to discover a pile of over one hundred discounted copies of Bill’s Selected Poems! I could hardly credit it. Here by the dozen was a book that was supposed to be out of print, a book that almost certainly would sell steadily if only it were distributed properly! Perhaps there was some substance to Bill’s charge of neglect after all.
I purchased forty copies of the book and posted them to him. He was pleased and disappointed to receive them. I doubt that he had time to distribute many of them before his death in April 1990.
While he was still in Australia, Bill gave me photocopies of his early books, all of which were and remain out of print. One of the books was The Unceasing Ground. The first poem in this collection is “The Surplus”, in which the poet is trouble by the singing of a bird. Reason tells him that:
Song is for mating only. She
listens, he pours it out.
Song is for mating in season.
But the surplus, the
overflow. More than is
necessary comes
From that bird, far
more than is wanted I’m
positive, positive!
Beneath my copy of the poem, Bill has written, “This poem is a summation of my attitude to poetry. I want to sing with joy.” In his art, if not always in his life, Bill was true to this vision, this desire. His poetry awakens us to life’s surplus. It is a lasting legacy of joy.
Copyright © Andrew Lansdown
from Abiding Things: poems, stories essays Andrew Lansdown Studio (Albury), 1996 ISBN 0-646-28959-4
“A Legacy of Joy: In Memory of William Hart-Smith” has also been published in the following anthology and magazines:
1. Hand to Hand: A Garnering [of poems by and essays on William Hart-Smith], ed. Barbara Petrie (Springwood: Butterfly Books, 1991), “A Legacy of Joy: In Memory of William Hart-Smith”
2. Quadrant, No.272, Vol.XXXIV, No.12, December 1990
3. OzMuze, Vol.1, No.13, October 1991
4. Studio, No.45, Summer 1991-92
* Read Andrew’s Artlook selection of (and introduction to) “Twenty-four Poems by W. Hart-Smith” here:
Read Andrew’s review (“Abiding Things”) of Hart-Smith’s Hand to Hand: A Garnering here:


Reading and Reflecting on Haiku

by Andrew Lansdown
In recent weeks I have been reading R.H. Blyth’s A History of Haiku (Volume One). The two volumes of A History of Haiku follow Blyth’s monumental four volumes, Haiku (which I have managed to purchase through, but have not yet managed to read).
A History of Haiku is an impressive work. Blyth’s knowledge of haiku and of English literature is comprehensive and masterful. Much of the book consists of translations of haiku followed by succinct (and sometimes terse) observation about them. By this process of translation and analysis, Blyth slowly builds up an impression of the nature and function of haiku. Here a commendation, there a condemnation, everywhere an illumination. And while some of his observations are provocative, all are profitable—all help to instil a sense of what haiku are and how they work.
I have particularly enjoyed Blyth’s two chapters on Yosa Buson (1716-1784), the greatest haiku master after Matsuo Basho (1644-1694). Interestingly, Buson disproves a notion prevalent among haiku enthusiasts today—namely, that there is no place for literary devices and techniques in haiku. (Blyth himself does not address this erroneous notion because it was not a notion that was abroad in the 1950s and 1960s when he wrote his works.)
Buson often uses metaphor. Indeed, sometimes the metaphor is the sum of the haiku, as in the following three:
The narcissus flower,—
A beautiful woman
With an aching head.
The colour and scent
Of her retreating figure,—
Departing spring.
Swallowing the clouds,
Spitting out the petals,—
Mountains of Yoshino!
The particular form of metaphor used in the above three haiku is personification. But other instances of metaphor do not involve personification. For example, in the following haiku, Buson asserts that the small white-capped waves passing over the lake are rabbits:
The bright autumn moon;
Rabbits crossing over
The lake of Suwa.
This fantastic association of waves with rabbits—rabbits scampering over a lake in the moonlight, no less!—hints at something else that Buson is fond of doing in his haiku: making up completely fanciful characters and imaginary situations. He has water spirits making love under the moon and bandit chieftains singing songs under the moon. Here he has a crotchety bamboo (personification again!) telling him to keep to himself and to expect no fondness from nature:
“Put up with your own foolishness!”
Says the bamboo, heavy with snow,
Darkening the window.
It is interesting to note Buson’s use of dialogue in the above haiku, and again in the one below:
“A lodging for the night!”
Coming in out of the blizzard
He dashes down his sword.
This haiku is a narrative poem. It has dialogue and dramatic action. That’s some achievement for a three-line, seventeen-syllable poem! Blyth points out that in the Japanese this haiku is rich in sound: “We have here: ya, ka, ka, ta, na, na, da, ka, na, giving the sinister meaning of the demand.” Buson, it seems, loved to use alliteration, assonance and onomatopoeia. Blyth points this out again and again. For example, of one haiku he states, “This verse is nothing much in translation, but the sound of it, ha, ma, ya, a, ta; tsu, u, u, ru; mo, no; ri, ni, hi, gives us a feeling of the harmonious warmth of spring.”
Fortunately, when I first became interested in haiku I never knew of the existence of haiku societies and haiku magazines and haiku feuds. So it never occurred to me that haiku was anything other than another form of poetry, and as such subject to the same literary standards and open to the same literary possibilities as other forms of poetry.
If I remember correctly, it was the West Australian poet and novelist, Hal Colebatch, who introduced me to the haiku in 1975. His first collection of poems, Spectators on the shore, contained two sets of haiku, “Dune Haiku” and “Breakwater Haiku”. Of the ten haiku in these two sets, I particularly like these three:
Cranes and pelicans
at the distant salt-marsh edge
stand pale in silver.
(Small sounds are alive:
the click of bird or seed-pod
or a rifle cocked.)
Rats in dim lamplight
blend on the stone like bits
of windblown darkness.
I was fascinated by the idea of a complete poem in such a short form. Fancy writing poems that express all that needs to be expressed in just seventeen syllables arranged in just three lines!
After learning of the existence of haiku from Hal, I searched the university library and found a book on haiku history and theory written by Harold G. Henderson called An Introduction to Haiku. Henderson’s study was a delight and revelation to me, although he did some quirky things, such as translating the haiku of the masters in rhyme and giving each one a title. This use of rhyme weakens many of the translations. But not all of them. Consider this translation of a haiku by Basho, which Henderson has titled “Beauty”:
The usually hateful crow:
he, too—this morning,
on the snow!
Or consider this haunting translation of a haiku by one of Basho’s disciples, Shiko, which Henderson has titled “Maple Leaves”:
Envied by us all,
turning to such loveliness—
red leaves that fall.
Happily, Henderson did not always resort to rhyme in his translations. One of my favourites of his non-rhyming translations is this one by Basho:
On a withered branch
a crow has settled—
autumn nightfall.
This is a stunning example of haiku’s ability to paint a vivid picture, convey a mood and suggest a significance through simple, precise description. And it is an example of the use of meaningful ambiguity—ambiguity that does not confuse meaning, but rather opens it up to several compatible interpretations. Is the night settling like a crow? Or, is a crow settling like the night? Or, are both things happening simultaneously and serendipitously? All are possible interpretations of the text and none does violence to the other.
I began writing haiku soon after learning about them. I published my first haiku, a set of four under the title “Bird Haiku”, in 1977, in Quadrant magazine. Since then, I have published in excess of two hundred haiku in various mainstream magazines and newspapers, including Blue Dog, The Canberra Times, Imago, Island, Meanjin, Quadrant (which published 60 under the title “A Shoal of Haiku” in 2004), Southern Review, The Weekend Australian and Westerly. ABC Radio National has also broadcast my haiku from time to time, most recently in a two-part series on “Australian Haiku” produced by Ron Sims for Poetica.
All of my nine poetry collections have included some haiku, while the short collection Warrior Monk (Picaro Press, 2005) consists entirely of 22 haiku sequences. Here’s the title sequence:

Warrior Monk

A warrior-monk,
the heron stands at the brink
of the floating world.
Spear at the ready
the heron warrior-monk
meditates on death.
Meditation, step
the heron warrior-monk
resignation, stab.
The grey heron’s koan:
the monk and the warrior,
how can they combine?
In September, Picaro Press republished my poetry collection, Waking and Always, which was first released by William Collins/Angus & Robertson in 1987. The book is published as part of Picaro Press’s Art Box Series, which “aims to provide low-cost access to significant Australian poetry titles which, for whatever reason, are no longer generally available to the public.”
There are only 17 haiku in Waking and Always, but one of these is one of my favourites. It stands alone and bears the title, “On Haiku”. It reads:
Haiku are pebbles
poets lob into the pond
of our emotions.
This summarises my understanding of how haiku work and expresses my aim in writing them.


R.H. Blyth, A History of Haiku: Volume One, The Hokuseido Press, 1963, rpt 1984
Hal Colebatch, Spectators on the shore, Edwards and Shaw, 1975
Harold G. Henderson, An Introduction to Haiku, Doubleday Anchor Books, 1958
Andrew Lansdown, Warrior Monk, Picaro Press, 2005
Andrew Lansdown, Waking and Always (new edition), Picaro Press 2008
Copyright © Andrew Lansdown, 2008
This essay was written for and first published in the Australian Poetry Centre’s online magazine, Zest, September/October 2008:


Talking about Tanka

by Andrew Lansdown
The tanka is a poetic form with a long and rich history. It originated in Japan in the sixth or seventh century and quickly became that nation’s dominant poetic from. The first national poetry anthology, Man’yoshu, compiled in the eighth century, contains 4,500 poems, of which 4,200 are tanka. The 21 imperial anthologies compiled between 905 and 1439 contain over 33,600 tanka.
The Japanese word “tanka” means “short poem” or “short song”. True to its name, a tanka is a short poem consisting of five lines and 31 syllables. The lines are measured by syllables and form a pattern of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables respectively.
Arrangement of lines by syllables is a key feature of the tanka and this feature can be reproduced as effectively in the English language as in the Japanese. The 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic structure guides the phrasing of the poem and lends balance to not only the individual lines but also the poem itself.
Poets writing tanka in English today often abandon the 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic structure—and sometimes create impressive poems in the process! It remains a moot point, however, as to why such poems should be called tanka as opposed to free verse.
In my own practise of writing tanka, I have viewed the 5-7-5-7-7 form as the ideal to be aimed for; but I have accepted that this ideal cannot always be attained. After all, the ultimate purpose of writing a tanka is to produce a poem. If the traditional structure gets in the way of the poem on a given occasion, then it should be abandoned or altered for the sake of the poem.
Within the 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic structure there is considerable flexibility of arrangement. Many of the Japanese tanka collected in the tenth century imperial anthology titled Kokishu, for example, have a tripartite arrangement, with breaks (in rhythm and/or thought) after the second and fourth lines. Other tanka in the collection tend to be bipartite, with a break or shift occurring after the third line.
I have often employed this latter technique in my tanka. Here’s an example from my book Counterpoise (Angus & Robertson, 1980):


An amber cricket
makes her way mechanically
across the concrete.
Eggs must be laid and there is
so much dying to be done.

As can be seen, this tanka falls neatly into two parts. The first part (lines 1-3) is primarily objective and descriptive, while the second part (lines 4-5) is largely subjective and evocative.

Here is another example of a tanka arranged so that a shift occurs after the third line. (This tanka is part of my collection, The Colour of Life, in the book Two Poets, which is scheduled for publication by Fremantle Press in July.)


As I lift the mug,
light reflects from its glazing
in the black window—
faint and intermittent like
a lighthouse signal, far off.

While the incorporation of a pause or shift after the third line is an effective way to write tanka, it is certainly not the only way. Some fine tanka have no specific shifts in thought or pauses in rhythm but rather present a single unfolding statement. Consider this example (also from Fremantle Press’s soon-to-be launched Two Poets):


Lady, the lilies
we admired in the paddock,
the arum lilies
so whitely lovely, have died
from the farmer’s herbicide.

This tanka is essentially a single observation arising from the accumulation, line by line, of specific details (although it is true to say that the concluding couplet rhyme gives the impression of a shift from the first three to the last two lines).

Finally, consider an example of a tanka (also from Two Poets) that is somewhat irregular in its outworking. It is essentially a unified statement/image, and yet it contains a shift of sorts, and that shift falls in an unconventional place:

Bird and Bull

The dotterel,
stalking, sniping—so little
by the muzzle
and muddy hoof of the bull
drinking at the dam’s puddle.

“Bird and Bull”, like “Signal”, works by drawing a comparison, which is a typical tanka technique. Yet while “Signal” draws a comparison to bring out a similarity, “Bird and Bull” draws a comparison to bring out a contrast.

It is worth noting that the first and fourth tanka above deal with nature, while the second and third deal with human nature. This is one of the beauties of the tanka form: it is suitable for any subject and can capture any mood. Stylistically, it can be imagistic or lyrical or elegiac. Its versatility is limited only by a given poet’s imagination and skill.

It is also worth noting that these four tanka employ simple and precise language (as is best suited for tanka generally), and yet they are laced with literary devices. “Cricket” uses alliteration; “Signal” uses simile; “Lilies” uses apostrophe, repetition and rhyme; and “Bird and Bull” uses slant (or half) rhyme and alliteration. The tanka poet may use literary devices and figures of speech like any other poet. It is a mistake to think, as some do, that tanka must be devoid of literary devices. The tanka is a type of poetry, which in turn is a type of literature, and it should be treated as such. .

Copyright © Andrew Lansdown, 2011


This short essay was posted on 6 July 2011 on the Fremantle Press blogsite (here) and on the Fremantle Press Facebook site here.

Andrew wrote it to assist entrants for the 2011 Fremantle Press Online Tanka Poetry Competition, of which he was co-judge (with Wendy Jenkins).



Comments on the poem, “Finishing Up”

by Andrew Lansdown

Australian poet and anthologist, Kit Kelen, asked me for a poem-with-commentary for inclusion in two anthologies he was compiling for publication by the Association of Stories in Macao. Kit published the following poem and accompanying commentary in None So Raw As This Our Land: Seventeen West Australian Poets (2012) and in Notes for the Translators: from 142 New Zealand and Australian poets (2012).

Finishing Up

Nightfall … and I am still here
in the school at the prison farm.

My children will be at the table, filling
their mouths with food and chatter.

And the littlest one will be asking
her mother, “Where is Daddy?”

I am where my resignation
has led me. My roguish students

are in the compound, locked up
for the night. Except for the sentries

the guards are gone. I am alone,
finishing up. Did I miss someone

when I said goodbye? Does it matter?
We have been good to one another,

these bad men and I. I try not
to think I will never see them again.

I am alone. I look out the window.
The forest is in silhouette.

On the lawn, almost dissolved
in the dusk, a young kangaroo

hunches on its haunches to graze.
It was not there a moment ago and

in a moment when I open the door
it will not be there again.

            © Andrew Lansdown

Although “Finishing Up” was published for the first time in Quadrant magazine in 2008, it is a poem that I began writing in 1987. At the time, I didn’t feel that it was good enough to publish but I couldn’t work out how to improve it. However, I did feel it had “something” and so I kept it in a file with other “almost” poems. I came back to it in 2007 and substantially revised it into its present form. And I am pleased with it now.

The gist of the poem is clear from the text of the poem. But a few specific details may be of interest. I was at the time the education officer-in-charge of the education centre at Barton’s Mill Prison Farm. The farm held minimum security male prisoners and was located near Pickering Brook in Western Australia. I had been granted leave without pay for a year in order to write a book on the Swan waterways with the painter Donald Green. The poem picks up on my mood as I stayed late to pack up my things on the last day at the prison.

A few technical comments:

I have used a form of zeugma in lines 3 and 4. Both “food” and “chatter” are said to be “filling” my children’s mouths. But, of course, they must “fill” their mouths in quite different senses.

There is irony and incongruity in lines 6 and 7.  My young daughter’s question, “Where is Daddy?”, is answered with reference not to physical location (ie, at the prison school) but to emotional and consequential location (ie, “I am where my resignation/ has led me”).

The word “resignation” (line 7) has a double meaning. On a primary level it refers an act of resignation—that is, to my decision to give up, finish up, my employment at the prison. On a secondary level it refers to a state of resignation—that is, to my feeling of subdued acceptance, of defeat, even.

The word “roguish” (line 8, “my roguish students”) also has a double meaning. Strictly speaking, a rogue is a bad person—and certainly my students, the prisoners, had done some bad things. But a rogue can also be someone who is more mischievous than malicious. So the epithet “roguish” is playful and lighthearted and conveys a sense of my affection for the prisoners I have been teaching.

The claim that “We have been good to one another,// these bad men and I” (lines 14-15) juxtaposes “good” and “bad” in a surprising and paradoxical way. It refers to the positive, friendly (“good”) relationship I enjoyed with my students despite their criminal (“bad”) pasts.

It might also be worth pointing out that I have used touches of alliteration—eg, “the guards are gone”, “dissolved/ in the dusk”, “hunches on its haunches”—to add to the “music” of the poem.

“Finishing Up” is included in my collection, The Colour of Life, published by Fremantle Press in Two Poets (the other poet being Kevin Gillam) in 2011.


Note: In 2008 (?), poet Andrew Burke kindly asked me for a poem accompanied by a few comments, which he wanted to publish on his website, Hi Spirits. The above commentary is based on a shorter one I wrote for him.




An Interview with Hal Colebatch

This interview between Andrew Lansdown and Hal Colebatch took place in 1978 and was published in the September 1978 issue of Southerly.


Andrew Lansdown:  Hal, when did you first begin to write poetry?

Hal Colebatch:  Well the first poem I ever wrote was at the age of eight. It was a very lyrical piece of free verse about the folding of seagulls’ wings against the sky. However, many years later I discovered it had actually been written by my father who at that time had been dead several years. I must have subconsciously remembered it, but I had no idea of that when I wrote it.

Lansdown:   Did your interest in other genres—I am thinking here of your journalistic work, short stories and radio drama—stem from an interest in poetry, or was it the other way around?

Colebatch:   When I was a little older—eleven or twelve—I spent my nights writing novels when I should have been doing my homework: I wrote two or three fairly long novels. Then I didn’t write very much until I went to Leederville technical school, when I was seventeen or eighteen, where I started writing poetry again. The main reason I started then was that I got to meet a number of other people who were interested in poetry: they were writing it, and they were friends of mine. I don’t know if I’d have gone back to it independently, although I’d always had an idea that I wanted to write something. I think that prose writing is more important than poetry.

Lansdown:   When did you first begin to send your poetry out for publication?

Colebatch:   I’m not sure, at this stage. I would probably have been about twenty when I began to send it out; and I certainly didn’t get anything published for two or three years. My first poem was published in 1967.

Lansdown:   Since then you have had poems published in most of the major literary journals in Australia, a book of poetry published by Edwards and Shaw, and another accepted by Hawthorn Press. What is the title of your new book?

Colebatch:   In Breaking Waves.

Lansdown:   What have you aimed for in In Breaking Waves? For example, is there a central idea around which the poems are written?

Colebatch:   Well, when I wrote Spectators on the shore, I intended it to be the first of a trilogy of three books of poetry that would add up to a single, reasonably large statement. Spectators on the shore was, to an extent, the world as it appeared to a person somewhat detached—a young person who had lived rather little, or had little deep experience of life. In Breaking Waves is meant to be the work of a rather deeper involvement with life. I hoped then that the third book in the series would take the thing further, in a sort of dialectical process. Now, however, I think this sort of categorization is misleading.

The poems which conclude Spectators on the shore coincided with a fairly large upheaval in my life; and at that time one part of my life, it seemed, came to an end and a new phase began. In Breaking Waves has a different emotional climate. By the time I’d begun most of the work in In Breaking Waves, I had indeed experienced a great deal more, and I think my ideas and perceptions had somewhat developed—but not in the way I’d originally planned.

Lansdown:   Hal, you have probably covered this, but are there any major shifts in tone theme or form from Spectators on the shore?

Colebatch:   Well, the emphasis of the two books is different. Neither of them is really a unity; but there are several things in In Breaking Waves which are not in Spectators on the shore. For example, I wrote four fairly long poems—I think they come to about 240 lines altogether—exploring the theme of courage from four different angles. There are also some poems about travel—particularly the trip I had to Britain and Europe in 1973—which are to do with history, legend, current government, politics and economics in Europe, and which go into these matters in a bit more detail than the fairly few poems about travel in Spectators on the shore.

Lansdown:   Then the poems which appear in both books were really written as individual poems, without regard to their overall place in a body of work?

Colebatch:   A bit of both. Mainly the poems were, as you say, written as individual poems; but I did have this larger construction in the background. Among other things, I hoped to make the books balanced; and I did hope that the two books, while made up of separate poems, would have a cumulative effect. I think that is quite an important point.

Lansdown:   You recall the essay I wrote for Quadrant1 on your poetry?

Colebatch:   Yes.

Lansdown:   In that essay I claimed that you tend to shy away from emotional commitment and involvement in your poetry—or at least, have tended to do so up until recently. Is that observation correct?

Colebatch:   Well, up to a point. There are a couple of things I’d like to say about that. Firstly, one reason I don’t write about my own state of mind very much is that my state of mind probably isn’t very interesting: my emotions are similar to other people’s, and they probably wouldn’t thank me for inflicting my emotions on them. But it is a bit more complicated than that. I think you can generally gather what my emotions and state of mind may have been at times from reading these poems—not by overt statement but by implication.

You could say that my emotions emerge as a secondary product of a poem about something else. Hopefully, if I do want to communicate a state of mind, which I suppose all poets do, this is a more effective way than bludgeoning a reader with what one’s self is thinking or experiencing at that moment. This is, of course, subject to exception. There are poems in which I make much plainer statements, but I do feel a little hesitation in doing so.

Lansdown:   Yes, though I wasn’t thinking of emotion dealt with in a gross or sentimental way in poetry; I was thinking more along the lines of lyrical poetry—for example, are you familiar with James McAuley’s “Pieta”? The emotion, there, of the poet comes through very powerfully—the poet is directly, emotionally involved. There seems to be a lack of this sort of direct emotional involvement in much of your poetry.

Colebatch:   Yes. Well I have tried to write work that might have the same kind of background and motivation as James McAuley’s “Pieta”; but, for me, the result has not been satisfactory. I’ve either gone too far or the expression has not been original or it has not been dignified or it has not been something I have felt like revealing.

Lansdown:   So it is not a matter of disliking lyrical poetry—I mean “good” lyrical poetry—but a matter of feeling unable to deal with it at this stage?

Colebatch:   Yes, I think that is part of it. I don’t dislike lyrical poetry. I think, actually, you can find a fair bit of lyrical poetry amongst my work. But I think perhaps my poetry has been influenced by a reaction against a lot of writing that is around at the moment which is not merely introspective but positively solipsistic. I know of quite a few reasonably talented poets whose work is spoilt by the fact that it regards the whole world as nothing more than raw material for the poet’s own emotions, as though everything was put there for the poet’s benefit to react to and write poetry about. This is not a thing that is to my taste.

Lansdown:   This is probably duplicating what has already been said, but what place do you consider emotion should have in poetry, and what place do you strive to give it in your poetry?

Colebatch:   Emotion has a very important place in poetry, but I think that at the moment we must emphasize that other things have an important place in poetry, too. Poets must also have knowledge, they have to be able to conceptualize, to intellectualize, they serve as part of a transmission-belt of ideas—perhaps they even occasionally create ideas of their own—and they have, in theory at least, very great responsibilities of which they must be cognizant. I would certainly say that emotion is not less important than anything else, but there are other things that are important as well.

Lansdown:   You often use either the sonnet form or rhyming quatrains—I’ve also noticed you’ve experimented with the haiku, the tanka, and the sestina forms in your poetry. Why is this? And what place do you give to form?

Colebatch:   There are a number of reasons for this. I think that completely free verse, without any form whatsoever, is the most difficult, if not very nearly impossible, verse to write well. It’s obviously extremely easy to write bad free verse. On the other hand, rhyme and metre have a certain mystery, magic and music of their own. Also important is the fact that rhyme has extremely memorable qualities—rhyme often communicates. It sticks in the mind.

This brings me to something which has been important to me: I have tried in my work consistently—it is one of the few things I have been consistent about—to bridge the gap between the esoteric poetry that flourishes in literary magazines which have tiny audiences and which are mainly read by lonely misfits late at night in dusty libraries, and the popular poetry which usually expresses itself in greeting cards and death notices and inscriptions on wishing-wells (and which we should not despise, because it does have a strength and immediacy and communicative faculty of its own, and also it is what a very large majority of people think of when they think of poetry). I feel it’s significant that so many people feel impelled to write newspaper death-notices in the form of rhyme. Apparently, when people are under the deepest emotional stimulation and passion—and I would not be one to mock the passion of grief—their passion expresses itself in rhyme. I don’t know why. Perhaps this is something they learnt at school; perhaps it’s something back in the ancient roots of our race and civilization. But, as I say, it is for the people who do not normally read poetry, as you and I understand it, as well as for the people who normally do read poetry that I am trying to write. I am trying to enlarge the audience for “good” poetry; and I am also trying to enlarge the subject-matter for it.

Lansdown:   To backtrack a moment to what you said about free verse: you have no objection to the so-called “free” forms, when they are done well—for example, e. e. cummings comes to mind—but feel, rather, that the “free” forms are very hard to deal with successfully and perhaps lack some of the memorable quality of more structured verse?

Colebatch:   Yes, that’s right. I think that if they were dealt with successfully then they would not lack this memorable quality—or they would not lack a memorable quality of their own. I’m glad you mentioned e. e. cummings because his work is an excellent example of what appears to be free form, but is actually the result of a very long process of technical development; and, of course, if you read his poetry, it has tremendous impact and usually stays in the mind.

Lansdown:   You write a lot of reviews and journalistic articles: does this affect your poetry in any way?

Colebatch:   No.

Lansdown:   You mentioned earlier that you considered prose to be more important than poetry. Can you elaborate on that?

Colebatch:   Well I consider it more important for me.

Lansdown:   So it is a personal thing, not a blanket statement?

Colebatch:   No. I mean it in terms of what I want to do and be as a writer. I would see myself as primarily a prose writer.

Lansdown:   What do you want to do and be as a writer?

Colebatch:   Well, I’d like to be a novelist. Although sometimes I feel I’d like to be a playwright, and sometimes I feel I’d like to be a short-story writer. But like every professional writer, what I do is dictated by the market.

Lansdown:   Hal, are you affiliated, or have you been affiliated with any literary or poetic movements or societies in Australia?

Colebatch:   I have been, but I am not now. I have not rejoined the Australian Society of Authors as a small protest over the fact that its president, Professor Manning Clark, appears to welcome a future of political censorship.

Lansdown:   What association do you have, then, with poets and poetic movements?

Colebatch:   I have some individual friends, though not very many, who are poets; but I would not see myself as being part of any school or movement that is represented in Australia today.

Lansdown:   Are there certain poets whose work you particularly like?

Colebatch:   My favourite Australian poets would be Douglas Stewart, James McAuley, Les Murray, Bruce Dawe, A. D. Hope and David—I think it’s David—Rowbotham. I wouldn’t like to say who my favourite West Australian poets are; but among the younger poets in other states, I am impressed by the work of Peter Kocan. My favourite poet, otherwise, is John Betjeman. But as I said earlier, I’m more enthusiastic about certain prose writers—particularly novelists.

Lansdown:   To return to your own poetry, Hal: you seem to deal with political and philosophical themes in many of your poems. Would it be true to say that your poetry is a poetry of ideas rather than things and personal emotion?

Colebatch:   Well, I would never write a poem that conflicted with my beliefs, or my ideas; but you’ve got to be very careful about this, because if you write on nothing but ideas, you tend to become pretty obsessed with ideas and pretty cranky. The result is as incomplete, and therefore as potentially destructive, as if you write on nothing but emotion.

Lansdown:   What role does politics, what role do political ideas, play in your poetry?

Colebatch:   That would rather depend on how you defined politics. I certainly would not like to think I wrote rhyming propaganda for any political party. I do feel in my own life a strong commitment to ideas of individual freedom.

Lansdown:   You mentioned earlier that you wrote four poems, which will be appearing in In Breaking Waves, dealing with the idea of courage. I assume the poems you referred to are “A Song of the Prague Spring”,2 Freisler to von Witzleben”, “Climbing” and “Party Time”. Can you tell us a little more about what you mean by courage?

Colebatch:   They are four poems approaching courage from four different angles. “Song of the Prague Spring” I thought you wrote about very well in Quadrant. It is set off against “Climbing”.

“Climbing” is about sailors trying to escape from a capsized ship—climbing up through it, once it had been turned upside-down, from the top to the bottom. This was symbolic of a world turned upside-down. It was something that really happened in Norway. It was, of course, an extremely gruesome, horrifying and hopeless situation. The important point of it was that the sailors were rescued. A hopeless and terrible situation was saved by courage. “Song of the Prague Spring” is an extremely hopeful, optimistic, joyous situation which was thrown away by lack of courage. “Freisler to von Witzleben” was about the trial of Field Marshal von Witzleben who was one of the officers who planned to remove Hitler. It was about the fact that if anything will save us, it is to have a knowledge of some absolute moralities—a knowledge that some things are absolutely right and some absolutely wrong. “Party Time” was the complement of this. It is set in the present day, and is about a concerned group of media people having a party with their windows shut against what was going on outside, and regarding moral values and philosophical ideas as a plaything and a pastime in their debate.

These four poems cross-relate to each other in different ways. “Prague Spring” and “Party Time” are contemporary. They are also somewhat negative poems, whereas “von Witzleben” and “Climbing” are two positive poems, and were both set in 1944. They are all based upon true events, one way or another. “Party Time” is the only one I personally experienced, obviously.

They are all written in more or less the same form of rhyming quatrains, but within that form I have tried to vary them a great deal. For example, in “Party Time” and “Song of the Prague Spring”, which are set in rather artificial, plastic societies, I’ve tried to get in the background, here and there, a music to the words which would suggest “muzak”, piped, artificial music, or the throbbing cords of a Wurlitzer organ, or something like this to emphasize that at the back of them there is a certain artificiality. “Climbing” was the most interesting onomatopoeic exercise: I was trying to get in that the screeching sound of steel grating on steel—for example, one couplet went, “Through each next hatchway towards the crazed black sky / Of armoured steel that seals us freezing down”. All the “e” sounds were put together in that quite deliberately to give this effect. I also wanted to get the effect, when it is read aloud, of feet climbing a ladder: “We are already dead, we have no wreaths or sagas / Or know what fire or waves may roll above the steel”. There are similar metrical devices in the other poems.

Lansdown:   In part II of “Past Cactus Land”, which appears in In Breaking Waves, you state: “Courage is obviously lovely / and we distinguish it from suicide, / or we have nothing”. Would that sum up your ideas of courage, perhaps?

Colebatch:   Yes. Yes, I think so.

Lansdown:   You mentioned that you considered that there is a need for absolutes in relation to our knowledge of good and evil, and that you were dealing with this problem in “Freisler to von Witzleben”: such a view would require a firm grounding in a larger spiritual worldview. What are your spiritual, your religious beliefs?

Colebatch:   Well, my religious beliefs haven’t been really consistent. I’ve never been an atheist. On the other hand, I have never had what might be called a gift of perfect faith. At present, I suppose, my religious beliefs are very close indeed to traditional Christianity.

Lansdown:   You say that your religious beliefs are very close to traditional Christianity—what exactly do you mean by that?

Colebatch:   Well, what, perhaps, C. S. Lewis defined as “mere Christianity” in his book of that title.

Lansdown:   To conclude, Hal, and to return to your poetry: would it be true to say that “Freisler to von Witzleben” is an example of how your religious and spiritual values influence your poetry in important but subtle ways?

Colebatch:   Yes. Once you have definite values you find you can’t write anything that goes against them.


1. “The Traditionalist: Hal Colebatch and his Poetry”, Quadrant, July 1977.
2. Published in Southerly, No. 3, June 1976

© Andrew Lansdown, 1978

First published in Southerly, September 1978.
Also published in The Eye’s Habit, Vol. 1, No. 2, Autumn 1978





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