Photo credit: Courtesy of Creative New Zealand. Photographer: Neil Mackenzie
Warm congratulations to Michael Harlow on receiving the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry this year. To celebrate this well-deserved honour, Michael has shared a few poetry memories and thoughts.
Paula: Name a favourite poetry book by another poet that has stuck with you over time.
Michael: Wallace Stevens’ Harmonium. And then I have to include Emily Dickinson’s Selected (especially the one edited by James Reeves, the best commentary on her work in the Introduction).
Paula: A favourite poem that has also endured.
Michael: ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’ by Stevens. And it’s only fair to include Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. They do share first chair in the orchestra.
Paula: A performance or reading by another poet that has had an effect upon you.
Michael: Robert Frost reading on a number of occasions. And I can’t forget a reading by e.e. cummings at the Poetry Y in NYC near the end of his life. I’m not sure why, since he read in a very flat, slightly monotone style. And must include Dylan Thomas, especially his ‘Child’s Christmas in Wales’. And closer to home, the first time I heard Cilla McQueen read: one could hear that ‘Writing [poetry] is the painting of the voice’, in the original ‘L’écriture est la peinture de la voix’ (Voltaire).
Paula: A poetry epiphany in terms of your own writing.
Michael: When I realised, fairly early on in my music studies, that ‘Poetry is when words sing’. At the same time I was trying to impress the girl next door (literally), who played the piano and the flute, and who said she really liked poetry. As it has turned out, ‘to tell love one must write’.
Paula: If you got to select a group of poets (dead or alive say) who could read at a festival with you – who would you pick?
Michael: Oh, and oh, here we go. Sir Thomas Wyatt (I can hear him so musically on the page); Emily Dickinson, if she could ever be enticed; Gertrude Stein; Henry Miller (the prose that is in poetry); Dylan Thomas (because he’s Dylan Thomas); Cilla McQueen; Michele Leggott, because she reads the words and not the ideas (that’s where the music is); Gerard Manley Hopkins, to hear the voice of ‘sprung rhythm’; Elizabeth Smither, such clarity; the late Christopher Middleton, English poet long resident in USA, and one of the foremost translators from the German (we did read together on a few occasions, and I learned a lot from him); Emma Neale (as poet) for the way she does ‘make words sing’, exemplary in the sound-and-sense converse; Joseph Brodsky (in Russian and English); Charles Simic, who always knows how to ‘say’ a poem; Robert Frost, who always ‘says’ his poem; Brian Turner, because you can hear that he has not only ‘thought’ his poems but has lived them…
Paula: A poem of your own that has really sung for you.
Michael: A poem entitled ‘And yes’, a lyric, love poem (the heart poems are the hardest ones to write and they seem somehow to be inevitable sooner or later).
Sometimes your touch
love’s homecoming is
Not to put too fine a call
on what heart knows
despite head’s long
success in all silly else;
that is, by ‘all flowers’
and these candles,
you light up a parcel of dark,
the way your breasts
wear sunlight: the heart
has reasons reason
cannot know. The green
wild call of spring
that waits over the hill,
and here in love’s bed
wants me you to kiss
and all our trulys touch.
And that is the story
about yes: never trust
a god who does not dance. –
©Michael Harlow from Cassandra’s Daughter (Auckland University Press, 2005)