From time to time, these days, I wonder why I have spent so much of my life reading – what I have gained by that, and what I have lost. When I was seven years old, I was reading in the bath with the taps running. All at once, my mother was standing over me, her pale look changing to frustration. The bathwater had run over the walls of the bath, flooded the bathroom, run into the hall. She thought that I had drowned but I was only reading. I remember seeing the water and thinking, first, that it was the world of the book flooding out into the room. Now I think of that rapt passivity, that flood going out through all the houses in all the places I have ever lived– This is what I remember when I read Emily Dickinson’s stanza: ‘You cannot fold a Flood -/ And put it in a Drawer -/Because the Winds would find it out -/ And tell your Cedar Floor.’
For anyone who has given over much of their life to reading, it has the reality of those hours forfeit to it; which are, in the public register, lost hours; and which make, in private experience, one flood. The word tradition first conjures the image of a structure monumental and remote: built of history and authority. To read, however, is to enter into a different sense of tradition: a sense of the history of reading, a clustering web of connections between writers, which, because influence works so oddly, has no main line but many nodes and outposts. Of this web, the threads that interest me most are those only glintingly present and unprovable: whether Donne’s sermon, in which he describes being distracted from prayer by a fly, might have influenced Emily Dickinson’s poem, ‘I heard a Fly Buzz’; or how far Spenser’s The Faerie Queen might have formed the landscape of contemporary science fiction.
This is an interest epitomised by once discovering, in a second-hand bookstore, a collection of bush ballads by some lost writer. Opening a page at random, I found an end-rhyme, ‘the wind’s unrest’. It seemed to me possible that Judith Wright took up this phrase in one of her best poems, ‘Black Cockatoos’, in which she described cockatoos in a wild wind ‘crying the world’s unrest’. It is pleasant to imagine Wright reading the ballad in childhood – inside, perhaps, on a day of wild weather; and pleasant to imagine how that single phrase gathered to itself the experience of that hour, which she later recalled and remade in the dream country of her writing. For me, the connection suggests, in little, a poet’s work of theft and transformation.
In one of my grandparent’s books I once discovered the traces of a bookworm: two pin’s head holes in the margin paper, very neat. When I opened the book, I saw the worm’s calligraphy – written, as with an acid-tipped pen, slantways through the pages. Its crookedness has stayed in my memory, an image of how our mind works slantways through those books that our eyes read side to side. To read a book again is to realise how our imagination has lit upon certain scenes, has drawn to the heart of the book things held to one side in its narrative – so that if it is possible to think of images as places where narrative draws itself together, it is equally possible to think of narrative as a technique for drawing out the strangeness of images. It seems to me images take their power from no trick of language but of thought: from memory’s trick of possession, which remakes rooms as facts of consciousness, and from its trick of scale, which stores lost years in a small fact.
To consider tradition as a history of reading is to consider it subject to reading’s nature, which is wayward, and which gathers itself in images at once intimate and old. For that reason, the matter of the canon, of social authority, which someone speaking of tradition in poetry so often means, interests me least. It’s true: poems are often drawn into that lie that the past was in its own present as it seems in retrospect: a monument.
I have heard a brilliant poet say that she wrote sonnets in order to enter into a tradition. There’s something to be said for that, of course: it has a nice humility. But the sonnet form now means something different from what it meant when it was the new brave thing. Or, as John Tranter puts it in ‘Red Movie’: ‘an experiment which succeeds, he said,/ wiping the breath from his face/ which had started to congeal/ is no longer an experiment, but has become/ a demonstration of the obvious’. Form should feel invented: it should work in the poem the way counting out loud used to work in hide and seek, and the way lines scratched on the ground used to work in downball. From the outside, and in retrospect, they might look like lines of authority; but at the time they weren’t rules; they were in the nature of the game.
For this reason, it seems to me, tradition expresses its power most fully in the history of images – images so layered and habitual they come to shape and concentrate our feeling for the simplest facts of our lives: tables, wardrobes, handkerchiefs. Through this history of images, tradition comes into its full power, which goes well beyond authority. Consider this brief canonical history of ice, from an Anglo-Saxon riddle to a recent poem:
The wave, over the wave, a weird thing I saw,
through-wrought, and wonderfully ornate:
a wonder on the wave – water became bone.
Frost shall freeze
fire eat wood
earth shall breed
ice shall bridge
water a shield wear…
Meanwhile, the sword
began to wilt into gory icicles,
to slather and thaw. It was a wonderful thing,
the way it all melted as ice melts
when the Father eases the fetters off the frost
and unravels the water-ropes …
Beowulf ll 1605-1610
All shod with steel,
We hiss’d along the polish’d ice …
Not seldom from the uproar I retired
Into a silent bay, or sportively
Glanced sideway, leaving the tumultuous throng,
To cut across the image of a star
That gleam’d upon the ice …
Wordsworth’s The Prelude (1850) Part I, ll.156-174
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
and would suffice.
Robert Frost, ‘Fire and Ice’
When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,
In windless cold that is the heart’s heat…
Where is the summer, the unimaginable
Zero summer? …
T. S. Eliot, ‘Little Gidding’, Four Quartets
The iceberg cuts its facets from within.
Like jewelry from a grave
it saves itself perpetually and adorns
only itself, perhaps the snows
which so surprise us lying on the sea …
Elizabeth Bishop, ‘The Imaginary Iceberg’
Remember how I used
to carry ice from the road
for the ice chest …
the only utter cold in all those summer paddocks.
I loved to eat the ice,
chip it out with the butcher knife’s grey steel.
It stopped good things rotting
and it had a strange comb at its heart,
a splintered horizon rife with zero pearls.
Les Murray, ‘Midsummer Ice’
From the first riddle, there is through all these images of ice a riddling sense of preciousness, of fire in ice, of containment and flood – as though, in the experience of ice, the poets meet also the ‘zero’ strangeness of familiar things. Perhaps at the heart of every image is the riddle, its trick of knowing and unknowing the world – so that an image holds in itself the strangeness of reading, the long history of experience that we inherit when we read.
NOTE ON TRANSLATIONS
The Anglo-Saxon riddle and gnomic verses come from The Earliest English Poems, translated and introduced by Michael Alexander(Penguin Classics, 1966; 1969). For Beowulf, I use Seamus Heaney’s translation (Faber and Faber, 1999).