The gulls stoop down, the big toy jerks and flies;
and time is tethered where its centre lies.
From Merry-go-round by Randolph Stow
Stopped mid-spin, can it hold its charge,
anchored by a plaque? Son of the town
writes centres, pole we spin around.
His story is our story retold?
From The Merry-Go-Round by the Sea (Geraldton, Western Australia) - in memoriam Randolph Stow by John Kinsella
"I really am sold on this guy," says award-winning WA poet, novelist and critic John Kinsella down the line from Cambridge, where he's an Extraordinary Fellow of Churchill College. He's talking about another extraordinary fellow, the great Geraldton-born author and poet Randolph Stow, whose novel The Merry-go-round in the Sea has been required reading for generations of West Australians and who Kinsella says is "one of the greatest poets in the English language, ever".
Kinsella, who like Stow attended Geraldton High School, has edited and supplied an impressive introduction for The Land's Meaning - New Selected Poems by Randolph Stow. The task was, he says, more than a labour of love - it was "love's labour".
"The introduction alone took two years of really solid research," he says. "I even went and reread every novel a couple of times closely and took extensive notes on all of them. Stowe's a part of who we are in Western Australia. He touches all our lives, as diverse and different as those lives will be. And that's a remarkable achievement."
Born in Geraldton 1935, Stow doubled in French and English at UWA before teaching literature at the same institution as well as the universities of Adelaide and Leeds in England. In 1957 he worked as a storeman on the Oombulgurri Anglican mission at Forrest River in WA's far north; in 1959 he travelled to the Trobriand Islands, Papua New Guinea, as assistant to the anthropologist Charles Julius. In 1969 he moved to Suffolk, England; he lived in Old Harwich from 1981 until his death in 2010. His novels include A Haunted Land, The Bystander, To the Islands (winner of the 1958 Miles Franklin Literary Award), Tourmaline, The Merry-go-round in the Sea, Visitants and The Suburbs of Hell; his poetry collections include Act One, Outrider and A Counterfeit Silence
In 1979 Stow won the Patrick White Award. Kinsella says Stow was always compared with White but "not appreciated as much in the comparison as he should have been".
"I think he's every bit White's equal as a writer generally but he was doing quite different things," Kinsella says. "People say you can equate certain aspects of (White's) Voss with certain aspects in Stow's early novels. That's true: the times in which these novels were written produce certain similarities relating to Australia - its isolation, its relationship between colonial and colonised, those kinds of issues. The thing about Stow is that he really did his own thing in so many ways."
Of which the poetry in The Land's Meaning: New Selected Poems is a prime example - the counterpoint between an archaic formalism and a fraught investigation of literal and psychological landscapes exposing our own fragile sense of self and place in an ancient land not our own. From Stow's The Singing Bones: "Out there, beyond the boundary fence, beyond/the scrub-dark flat horizon that the crows/returned from, evenings, days of rusty wind/raised from the bones a stiff lament, whose sound/netted my childhood round, and even here still blows."
"It's often said (Stow's) poetry, while being quite radical in content, is less so formally," Kinsella says. "I argue that's untrue. There are things happening within those formal constraints that are really interesting and dynamic."
Another attractive feature of Stow's poetry is its immediacy. "It's absolutely rich, seam after seam of complexity and metaphor," Kinsella says. "But it's a very readable poetry. You can pick it up and get an immediate sense of something. That's the trick of great poetry: to have that immediate sense of having appreciated or understood something and then go away and think 'I might have to reread that'. Well, I've been rereading it since I was 15 and I'm still going."
Above all, Kinsella hopes the collection tells a story. "In some ways it's more than a collection of poetry; it's a presentation of aspects of someone's life. I hope the reader gets a sense not just of a bunch of poems but of the incredible and unique nature of this guy. This is someone's journey, and it's a remarkable one."
The Land's Meaning — New Selected Poems by Randolph Stow, arranged and with an introduction by John Kinsella, is published by Fremantle Press ($27.95). John Kinsella's latest collection, Armour, is published by Picador ($21.99).