By the time he died, John Upton had established himself in the front rank of modern Australia poets, having already been a very successful scriptwriter for television and the stage.
No matter what he was writing, John was, first and foremost, a craftsman.
This was brought home to me, bizarrely enough, through a Jerry Seinfeld video. John had sent me a link to the video and suggested that I should watch it. I’m not a Seinfeld fan, so I put it on the backburner,
Later, he explained to me why he had found the video so interesting. It was Jerry Seinfeld talking about the process of writing comedy.
I still couldn’t see why John had found it so interesting – until he used a phrase that made everything clear. “What I like about it,” he said, “is that it’s about getting under the hood to see how good writing actually works.”
When I thought about it later, I realised just how well that phrase – “getting under the hood” – explained John’s attitude to poetry, as both a reader and a writer.
I remember once sitting next to him when someone was reading a didactic poem that had no rhyme and even less rhythm. When the reader stopped, John muttered – not quite sotto voce – “It’s just doggerel – chopped up prose.”
That response was what you’d expect from a man who described himself as a formalist. In John’s view, being a poetic formalist meant getting under the hood to understand how good poetry is constructed – and then applying what he had learnt to his own writing (and to his critiques of the poems he heard read out at poetry groups).
Unsurprisingly, John was an admirer of Philip Larkin and WH Auden, who were masters of traditional poetic forms. But he also admired TS Eliot, someone else who had looked under the hood and built entirely new poetic structures on the foundations of those traditional forms. He even liked bits of Bob Dylan.
That was why, when evaluating other people’s poems, John wasn’t a narrow dogmatist. It didn’t matter whether a poem was in vers libre or terza rima. The important thing for John was that the poet had paid as much attention to how they wrote as to what they wrote. Fine sentiments did not, by themselves, make a poem.
“Sentiment” brings me back to John the writer. He was, as I’ve said, a craftsman, but his poems were never just technical tours de force. I can’t express this better than by quoting from Thomas Thorpe, the convenor of the School of Arts poetry group, who said to me:
“In contrast to his objectivity about words and their use. there is an intensity, at times a heart-tugging intensity, in John’s poems. At the launch of Embracing The Razor, he said that he would not read some of the poems to those of us there, because for him, the content was too personal too emotional, too `raw’.”
That combination of technical excellence and emotional honesty made John Upton one of Australia’s leading contemporary poets. The only negative to reading his poems is regret at the realisation that he died so soon into his poetry career. Still, we can be thankful that he left us two collections – Embracing the Razor and Sheet Music – that are masterclasses in the melding of form and feeling.
Written by Stiofan MacAedh 2021
a tumble of tiles, a scrabbling on the table,
then the game continues. Letters are laid down,
words grown like cabbages in rows and squares,
an order civilised until it shattered
and dumped into a box. A novelist
assembles tesserae of consciousness
into a speaking icon, with precise
dialogue that photographs the real.
But off the page and in the mouth, real dialogue
collapses in the kitchen and the yard.
Vocabulary’s unhinged — phrases are ambulances
of maimed intention, coffins of evasion
and meaning’s inferences are undone;
words hardened to the fist, the kiss, the gun.
Poem courtesy of Puncher & Wattmann, previously appeared in his posthumous collection Sheet Music (2019).