Paul Kelly, the highly successful Australian singer-songwriter with a luminous forty-year career behind him, has now published an anthology of his favourite poems. In the introduction to Love is Strong as Death, Kelly gives us his single criterion for inclusion: " ... if I love a poem, it goes in, no matter how worn out others may think it to be".
Kelly is also happy to concede that: "I've never formally studied poetry: I'm an amateur following my nose, with huge gaps in my knowledge and a wide streak of bias in my choices." Given these statements, it's hard to assess his anthology by any traditional criteria of quality or comprehensiveness.
The anthology ranges from Homer and the Old Testament to poets born as recently as 1988 and includes translations from French, German, Russian, Modern Greek, Polish, Korean, Chinese, Japanese and Gaelic. Those poems written in English include not only many from Britain but also from the USA, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. Given the vagaries and injustices of history, there is also a reasonable balance between male and female poets.
The inevitably subjective nature of Love is Strong as Death is emphasised by the contents being arranged in alphabetical order according to title. This makes for some interesting, if occasionally jarring, juxtapositions reminding us of the huge scope of poetry across time and space and the many different tones it has employed.
The alphabetical arrangement also lets the anthologist "off the hook", as it were, since the book's (almost inexplicable) lacunae are less obvious. If it had been organised by nation of origin we would have to be amazed at the omission of Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams and Robert Lowell, for instance. These are big gaps, even for an amateur, and it would be interesting to know if Kelly is familiar with their works and deliberately didn't include them or whether he has, by serendipity, never encountered them. Copyright difficulties, of course, might be another reason.
Interestingly, there is no particular sign here that the poems here have been selected by a singer-songwriter, though Kelly does include a couple of song lyrics just by way breaking his own rule not to include them. The difference between a good poem and a good song is a real one, even if it was not understood by the Nobel Prize for Literature committee in 2016. Kelly does well to adhere to it.
Inevitably perhaps, most reviews of poetry anthologies tend to concern themselves with what is not in the book rather than what is. It's important therefore to celebrate what Kelly has actually included in his 413 pages. There are, for instance, numerous speeches and soliloquies from Shakespeare's plays (always interesting to read again out of context), and a generous (if arguable) selection from his sonnets.
There are also numerous "good bits" from the Old and New Testaments, including six pages from the "Song of Solomon". Unsurprisingly, given Kelly's Irish antecedents, there is quite a deal of poetry from Ireland, including some translated from the Gaelic and some from poets such as Paula Meehan (b.1955) who is not as well-known here as she might be.
Another strong presence is the book is the poetry of Wislawa Szymborska (translated from the Polish) and Yehuda Amichai (translated from the Hebrew). These are both important modern poets and it good to see Kelly sampling their work so generously. Other major 20th century figures from languages other than English include (if sometimes only with a single poem) Pablo Neruda, Jorge Luis Borges, Federico Garca Lorca, Bertolt Brecht, Rainer Maria Rilke, Marina Tsvetaeva, Anna Akhmatova and Yannis Ritsos.
If some readers (unreasonably) perceive the above names as somewhat rarefied, it's important to note that there are also several popular Australian ballads here, including P. J. Hartigan's "Said Hanrahan" and Banjo Paterson's "The Man from Ironbark". Kelly happily admits his taste is subjective but it is also broad - as is poetry itself. He's done his readers a service by reminding them of this. "Said Hanrahan", for instance, with its bucolic characters prone to "chew a piece of bark" is followed abruptly by Yeats' "Sailing to Byzantium" with its celebration of "Monuments of unageing intellect".
It's possible to think of Paul Kelly, with his hardworking publisher's team performing necessary and tedious copyright chores, as having been given a kind of lordly privilege, not unlike that of Emperor Joseph II ordering up pieces by Mozart. There are many excellent poems in Love is Strong as Death and this reviewer has no trouble in recommending it to the "general reader", albeit with the reservations outlined above.
The only sad thing about the book is the realisation that an anthology of personal favourites from someone as experienced in poetry as Kelly is in songwriting would sell a whole lot less well. "May you live in interesting times", as the old Chinese curse has it.
- Geoff Page is a Canberra poet.
- Love IS Strong As Death: Poems Chosen By Paul Kelly. Hamish Hamilton. $39.99.