It’s rare that the circumstances of a book’s publication are more interesting than the book itself but, sadly, this is the case with Ed Byrne’s Poems from the City.
Our story begins with neurologist and university administrator, Ed Byrne, spending an English winter by himself in North London after his wife has flown back to Melbourne to, as he says in the book’s introduction, “prepare for (their) return”. Encouraged by a “ good friend (who is also a poet)”, Professor Byrne decides, with apparently no previous experience, to write some short poems which he admits he “scribbled … down between appointments in the office, sitting in the tube or walking down the street”.
Over a lonely winter, he writes 151 of them, expressing, in a quasi-philosophical manner, his views and conjectures on a number of issues, including loneliness, various arts and artists, historical figures, the inadequacies of certain religions and so on. Almost all the poems are less than a page long and use what Professor Byrne clearly intends as free verse, with capitals down the left-hand side and little other punctuation.
And this is where the story becomes interesting. Instead of sending out the best of these poems to various small magazines (and almost certainly having them rejected) or privately printing them and circulating them among friends, Professor Byrne decides (or is persuaded) to send them to one of Australia’s major publishers, Melbourne University Publishing, at the university where he was previously Professor of Experimental Neurology.
Melbourne University Publishing (MUP) have, alas, published just three books of poetry since Evan Jones’ excellent book, Understandings, came out in 1967 — this paucity, no doubt, being due to their considering themselves a scholarly press only or because they’ve been assured that “poetry doesn’t sell”. Now, after a gap of forty years or more, they decide to resume poetry publishing with a first collection by someone who has no track record in the field and who hopes, in his suitably-modest introduction, that “one or two” of his poems “may be interesting”. At this stage MUP contacts one of Australia’s most substantial poets, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, for either a Reader’s Report or a Foreword — it’s not quite clear which.
Wallace-Crabbe kindly commends the book in general terms, praising its “naturalness” and its “moral clarity”. He points to 17 (of 151) poems that he approves of but warns that the weaker poems have a “rhythmical inertia” and that their “dribble down free verse … adds nothing to what would be prose — except for brevity”.
Now, instead of asking Professor Byrne to rework the manuscript or find a less luminous publisher, MUP decides to go ahead anyway, proudly presenting Wallace-Crabbe’s essentially negative comments as a ‘Foreword’. They design the book to the highest possible hardback production standards — and then neglect to copyedit it. One wonders if they even sent it back for the author to proofread. In either case, we have an alarming number of proper names spelt wrongly and several undetected misuses of words. “Lawrence” becomes “Laurence”; “Yeats” becomes “Yate” and Professor Byrne, while fly-fishing, feels his line go “taught” rather than “taut”. The conqueror of Peru, Pizarro, is spelt as if he were the Impressionist painter, Camille Pissarro. T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is sloppily referred to as “the wasteland”.
Clearly, the management at MUP has no interest in, or knowledge of, poetry as a form. The former assertion is shown by their having published almost none of it over more than four decades. The latter is demonstrated by their touching belief that a handsomely produced book by an untested newcomer, highly successful in two unrelated fields (neurology and university administration), will somehow confound the “poetry doesn’t sell” pundits.
Without even bothering to try, MUP has thus offhandedly insulted the hundreds of contemporary Australian poets who take their art and their craft seriously and have worked for decades to develop their skills. One wonders how far these same poets would get if they were suddenly to begin submitting their intuitions regarding the human brain to The Lancet or the Journal of Neurology. Yet MUP seems to think the reverse should effortlessly apply. Poetry, by implication, is only of interest when it comprises the jottings of someone already well-known for something else. An analogy would be for the ABC to hire the Melbourne Arts Centre and advertise that the latest AFL hero will play the C Major scale all night (badly).
If all this seems a tad harsh, look no further than the book’s first four lines: “The march of time / Is always forward / The clock cannot / Be turned Back”. Or, if you’d prefer, the opening lines of the book’s antepenultimate poem, “Free Time at Work”: “The afternoon / Is potentially free / Should I do that work / That has gone / From the in-tray to a large pile / On the side of the desk …”.
Perhaps the fairest way to conclude this tale of literary misadventure would be to quote the poem, “Green Park”, in full — the one this reviewer considers the book’s best. Even Chris Wallace-Crabbe, in his “Foreword”, praises its “welcome particularity of detail”.
If all the work in Poems from the City were of this quality some small publisher might well have taken a risk with it. “The deck chairs look forlorn / As the rain pelts down / The man who looks after them / And collects the small fee / Is sheltering with everyone else / In half an hour / The sun will break through / And soon afterwards / A smattering of people / Will sit on the damp chairs / Desperate for their piece of summer”.
First published in the Canberra Times on Saturday 3 April 2011. Republished with permission from Geoff Page.