A life more-or-less Auden-ry


I find myself part owner of a book shop – Desire Books & Records, in Manly. How I came to own a fifth of it is a blog post for another time (I know I say that a lot, but it’s too long a story to tell now, especially as a preamble for the quick post I want to write right now).

The other day, I was behind the counter when an older gentleman came in. He was in boardies and t-shirt, and though getting on a bit, was built like the proverbial brick shithouse. Like he’d been surfing since surfing was first introduced to Australia by Duke Kahanamoku (or not, as it turns out).

However, I was taken aback by his choice of purchase – a paperback biography of the poet W. H. Auden. (I’d love to be able to tell you who the biographer was, but I didn’t pay enough attention; I was only clever enough to put it towards the end of the a’s in the poetry section, figuring someone looking for Auden’s work might also be interested in his life.)

If you’re not familiar with the work of Wystan Hugh Auden, I say you’re mistaken. You’ve most likely been exposed to one of his poems; it’s read out at the funeral in Four Weddings and a Funeral, the so-called ‘Funeral Blues’ (AKA ‘Stop All the Clocks’):

If you studied him at school, particularly a generatation-and-a-half ago as I did, you would have analysed ‘Lay Your Sleeping Head My Love’, but have been told repeatedly that the fact Auden was homosexual and the love addressed would have been a same-sex partner, was not at all relevant. And then when you got to university, a lecturer would have insisted that of course the poem has a greater imperative, given it deals with ‘the love that dares not speak its name’. Even less mature school kids, nowadays, are generally much more chilled than adults a generation-and-a-half ago – even the adults whose professional duty it was to broaden the educational horizons of the children in their care.

And of course, if you did study him, you probably had a copy of a Faber & Faber anthology, the one adorned with a headshot of the poet quite late in life, where his face was so wrinkled that were you trace every contour with the tip of a fine marker, you could stretch out his skin and come up with a map of the greater London area – or something quite like it.

None of this is, strictly speaking, relevant.



However, being a chatty, interested seller, I of course couldn’t just sell the book, I had to do some ‘interesting chat’.

“Ah, Auden,” I said. “I remember studying him in high school. I can still remember my favourite poem of his, ‘The More Loving One’. It’s about unrequited love.”

I left a polite pause, in which the customer could have directed the conversation away from me; handed over cash, taken change and scarpered. Instead, he looked interested and made an ‘okay, go on’ kind of sound. So I began quoting from memory – not verbatim, because I haven’t looked at it for some 25 years, but as accurately as I could remember it:

Looking up at the stars, I know full well
That for all they care I could go to hell.
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be one be me.

Again, I left a little pause to give him time to close the transaction, or at least give me a ‘look’, to let me know that I should. Still nothing, so I continued.

Lover as I think I am
Of stars that could not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see one, say
I missed one terribly all day.

This time my only pause was a dramatic one, the first of the few that rendered the final stanza a tour de force as I grew in stature and whatever the god or patron saint of hamming it up, possessed me…


Should all stars disappear or die
I should learn to look upon an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime –
Though this might take me a little time.

Although the look on the customer’s face never quite said, “you’re clearly a freak!” it was at this point that he did feel the need to explain, “I just wanted to read about him before I read his poems!” as he literally backed away, and then escaped from the shop.

To be honest, though, he did get off lightly: I only recited a poem. Depending on the audience – ie non-older, former surfy, built like the proverbial brick shithouse – I usually prefer to share a particular anecdote about Auden. It’s one I remember Stephen Fry telling, and, as with the poem, I quote it as I remember it, so I’m almost certain it’s not verbatim.

Apparently, the artist David Hockney, tasked with sketching the poet, looked upon Auden and said, “Christ! If that’s his face, imagine what his bollocks must look like!”

But I barely had time to tweet about it before the customer returned. “What was the name of that poem?” he asked. “I’m going to go to the library and find it!”



Girt by Sea


During the usual course of selecting idyllic wedding photo locations at Long Reef on the weekend after Australia Day, this lovely little image proved difficult to pass by without committing to posterity. I’ll have you know that it took several goes to have the flag unfurling and in focus; where’d we be without digital cameras?

Why the flag is where it is can only be explained, I suppose, by the patriots – early birds who got bacon, eggs and damper – on location on the morning of Wednesday 26.

Now, however, it looks as though HMAS Wherethefuckarewe ran aground at Long Reef.

A little later, I realised it makes a suitable illustration for the following poem, inspired by beachy barbecues on Australia Day, and SMS’d to me by its author in the early hours following some late night beers:

Bodysurfing the blue hills.
Swelter crowning Dardenelles.
Irish bloom, Chinese swells.
Duckdive hands run along the sandy bottom
Tickling the belly of the earth.

Christopher Stevens



When I first met the enchanting Johanna Featherstone I was amused to discover that she was responsible for the ‘Spit or Swallow’ advice column in that esteemed satirical publication The Chaser. I’d known that she was a writer and had worked in book shops, but was most impressed to discover that she is also the Artistic Director of The Red Room Company, an entity devised, she says, in order to “create, produce and distribute” all manner of projects inspired by poetry, utilising the talents of “the most unusual, talented people” that she can find in the process. The ‘Fingerprints’ exhibition, mounted as part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, is one of those projects. It seemed a worthy topic of conversation, and and so an interview ensued. During the course of it, I discovered that I was responsible – somehow – for introducing Johanna to her partner, composer Elliott Wheeler. But that’s a whole other story. He figures in this story, however, as providing the sonic landscape of songs that will feature at the launch, as does Timothy Brunero, who collaborated on the satirical room notes with Johanna. The interview that follows was broadcast Saturday 15 May.

Soundbite: ‘Bicycle’ – David Malouf, from the album David Malouf reads from Poems 1959-89

Demetrius Romeo: Johanna, tell me a bit about this ‘Fingerprints’ exhibition which is part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

JOHANNA FEATHERSTONE: The ‘Fingerprints’ exhibition is a collection of ten hand-written poems by Australian poets – a variety of very new poets who haven’t published anything before, such as a ten year-old poet who is coming down from Tamworth, who has written a fantastic bush ballad about a wolf, and then, from esteemed poets we all know about, such as Dimitris Tsaloumas and David Malouf.

They were asked to submit me on an A4 sheet of paper a hand-written poem. I gave them a few ideas of my favourite poems which they had written, and then they turned up to me – the most amazing experience and one of the most beautiful was Dimitris Tsaloumas’s submission, which is this divine calligraphy with a little note attached, saying,

You asked me to submit something on an A4 piece of paper, but I have no idea what an A4 piece of paper is, so I have just taken the closest piece of paper at hand and hope that fits.

And of course, it did.

Demetrius Romeo: In addition to the exhibition of the hand-written poems, you have an exhibition of art, as well as readings on the day.

JOHANNA FEATHERSTONE: That’s right. Tonee Messiah is a student at Sydney College of the Arts and she was asked to create ‘a civilization of poets’, in terms of the visual interpretation of poets’ heads. This has luckily been supported by NAVA, which is the National Association of Visual Arts, and there are nine separate little heads that hang in between the poems to emphasise the idea of the poet as a person – just like the handwriting – rather than the poet being something only on a computer screen now.

Demetrius Romeo: Have we lost touch with poets in the modern age?

JOHANNA FEATHERSTONE: I don’t think we’ve lost touch with them, but I think perhaps we forget how powerful and exciting poetry can be, in that a poem doesn’t just have to be something that you can read, although a great poem gives you everything in just that experience. Poems can bring about an entire cultural community; they can take people from the school halls into professional careers.

Demetrius Romeo: Who are the poets represented in the ‘Fingerprints’ exhibition?

JOHANNA FEATHERSTONE: Well, there are ten all up, but to give you an example of a few, there’s a girl called Lucy Holt from Melbourne and another girl called Mia Dyson who’s an Australian blues singer who recently won an ARIA award. She’s submitted a blues lyric for us to decide whether it’s a poem or not.

Soundbite: ‘Roll On’ – Mia Dyson, from the album Cold Water

JOHANNA FEATHERSTONE: John Clarke contributed a fabulous satirical poem called ‘The Hunting of the Smirk’, that’s a satire on one of Lewis Carroll’s poems. John Clarke is really appropriate for another aspect of the exhibition – a series of room notes that I have written, that talk about, in a fun way, the idea of how poetry is valued and financed in our society. On the back of these room notes are some absurdist price tags which actually stand, because if someone can produce the price that we say on these absurdist price tags, they can take away the poem. But I do warn the listeners that they range from a vial of imagination, to a cornfield of Cypriot corn.

Demetrius Romeo: So if I wanted the John Clarke poem, for example, what would that cost me?

JOHANNA FEATHERSTONE: I think something like John Howard’s fiscal policy on a plate.

Soundbite: ‘The Hunting of the Smirk’ – John Clarke, listed as the track ‘Carol Lewis’ on the album The CD of The Even More Complete Book of Australian Verse