Words are everything for Malouf

Australian author David Malouf

If, as prize-winning Australian author and poet David Malouf writes in his introduction to his new collection of essays A First Place, "poems, novels, short stories, as works of the imagination, are written out of inner necessity; they come to us out of who knows where, choosing their own time and having no existence until they are there on the page", then these latest essays "belong to that part of my life that is conscious and considered rather than dreamily obscure until it demands to be expressed; to the world, that is, of analysis, and open opinion and discourse".

And yet as Malouf, who turns 80 this month, admits over the phone from Sydney, there is much in common between his essays and those works of imagination such as the poems in his new collection of poetry Earth Hour. "What the two kinds of writing, different as they may be, have in common is that they are shaped by the same temperament and come to the reader in something like the same voice."

Throughout a lengthy career that has produced such masterpieces as the novels Remembering Babylon, The Great World and Ransom, as well as numerous short story and poetry collections, plays and opera libretti such as Voss and Jane Eyre, the Brisbane-born writer has been first and foremost a lover of language.

So it is for him that poetry - as it must be for anyone who truly loves language - is at its very centre; it is for him that one must luxuriate in its sound, its taste, its texture.

"I write for slow readers in prose, even slower readers in poetry," he admits.

And yet if it is true that there is, as he says, "an extra density in poetry", it is equally true that "all the arts require absolute attention" - which is exactly the attitude one would expect from this cultured and cultivated man who was reading daunting tomes by Dickens and Hugo by the age of 12 and who has lived for extended periods in England and Tuscany.

Another "and yet": despite his sophisticated grasp of language, Malouf's writing across every genre is never less than transparent, accessible and laden with infinite nuance. This is the art that conceals art; the grace and simplicity that takes a lifetime to master.

But don't take my word for it. In A First Place, comprising personal and occasional essays on multiculturalism, federation, Anzac Day, architecture, landscape and much more from 1984 to 2010, we find such visually haunting passages as this:

_When Victor Hugo began The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in 1829, the great cathedral that stood at the centre of his book was a dilapidated ruin. Solemn and neglected, in a style that spoke too clearly of ancient unrefinement and a brutality for which modern people of cultivation could feel only a fastidious revulsion, it was an embarrassment, an ignominious wreck. It was Hugo's extraordinary imagination that restored its grandeur and mystery and made Notre Dame, with its fantastic waterspouts and gargoyles, its buttresses and high inner spaces, the embodiment, for a later generation, of the very spirit of Paris. _

Hugo communicated a highly personal vision of a collective endeavour: the paradox at the centre of any true artist's success.

"Whether it's fiction or in essays, and certainly in poetry, we have to write about the things that are most important to us personally," Malouf says.

"The only claim on us is that we should follow our real interests. You don't owe anything to morality, opinion, your national consciousness or any of those things. It's entirely personal. And the more personal it is, the more truthful it's likely to be, the more original it's likely to be and the more people are going to recognise the power of it because the writing will make it personal to them."

That's where the power of Malouf's highly personal poetry lies, and why its music hits us right between the eyes. One can open Earth Hour anywhere, at random, and find a melody both personal and reflective of all humanity.

A beautiful day by the ocean is _one of those sovereign days that might seem never/intended for the dark. _ A face seen in a dream wears _the look of one already gone, already gone/too far into the forest _. Trees are _standing/in one place only with nowhere to go/but upwards or deeper _. A ghost town is _A habitation/made to be abandoned _.

In the elegiac At Laterina for the late Australian artist Jeffrey Smart, we find these lines, both colloquial and highly crafted: _Drive slowly, Jeff, take care. I'm settled, back/to a limestone wall, in the dense light of tiglio _.

By conducting a conversation with himself, he becomes so absorbed he doesn't even notice others are listening.

"I think a lot of contemporary poetry adopts a dramatic style," he says. "The voice of a poem is that of a speaker to others. That is rather different from another kind of poetry, reflective poetry, which is in a way talking to yourself. It allows for reflection, self communion; it's the unconscious self speaking to the conscious self. That's the kind of poetry I'm particularly interested in, and it's something poetry can uniquely do."

As for his own notion of why one writes at all, Malouf says it's out of puzzlement.

"An idea comes to you, or a group of words comes to you, and you say to yourself 'What's this about?' The poem will reveal to you what it's about. And that revelation is usually something you didn't know when you wrote the first line. I personally wouldn't bother writing if I knew what something was (about) before I started."