J. S. Harry

Photograph: Jann Harry (J.S. Harry) at her book launch of Not finding Wittgenstein: Peter Henry Lepus Poems, Giramondo Publishing Company, 12 June 2007. Photographed by Jenni Nixon, at Gleebooks.

Jann Harry was born in Adelaide in 1939. She began writing at an early age submitting her stories and poetry to children’s magazines with notable success—often the prizes being much-coveted books. She eventually moved to Sydney and although she had a variety of jobs, including educational bookselling, ‘writing between them and sometimes during them’, Harry’s first allegiance was always to poetry. Eventually she was able to devote herself full time to writing.

Her collection, Deer Under the Skin, published in 1971 as one of the first in the ‘epochal’ UQP paperback series edited by David Malouf, was awarded the T. Harri Jones Memorial Prize and chosen as the Poetry Society’s Book of Year. This important volume helped pave the way for poets trying to discover new ways to translate the Australian experience. According to Robert Adamson, ‘…her poetry haunts and invigorates … her work has enriched the way we write poetry in this country’. Harry went on to produce nine more books to continued admiration and critical acclaim: A Dandelion for Van Gogh (1985) was shortlisted for the National Book Council and the Adelaide Festival Poetry Awards. The title poem of her fourth book, The Life on Water and the Life Beneath (1995) was awarded the PEN international Lynne Phillips Poetry Prize; and the 1995 Penguin New and Selected was co-winner of the NSW Kenneth Slessor Poetry Prize. Not Finding Wittgenstein won The Age Book of Year in 2008.

For the poet personal detail was always unimportant, it was the poetry that mattered—all she had to say and as much as she was willing to reveal. Harry used J.S. as a pen name from the beginning of her career. As suggested by her use of initials, she was a very private person. An early bio note tells a great deal about the poet’s modesty and this intense sense of privacy: ‘The elusive JS Harry was born in… South Australia … Since then she has been sighted at odd festivals and seminars but never pinned down. When conversed with, she is usually on her way out. She hides in a post office box in Randwick’.

The use of initials also fulfilled another purpose. Besides protecting her privacy, it was a way to shield herself from the anti-female attitudes of the then, rather chauvinist poetry establishment. When she began publishing in the early 70’s there were very stereotypical ideas about the way women wrote and what they wrote about. Harry smashed through these prejudices. Described as one of Australian poetry’s ‘great transgressors’, her poetry could be shocking and somewhat disturbing, yet always acute.

Harry’s study of grammar and philosophy prompted some of her most original and imaginative poetry. As early as 1989 she conceived of the eponymous Peter Henry Lepus, a philosopher rabbit of insatiable curiosity. According to Harry ‘it was a way of looking at different kinds of situations and in some ways of inviting readers to look at things from different points of view, to imagine what it would be like to be this creature, this rabbit who is trying to understand humans, and starts out very naive and gradually changes as he encounters things’. She first took Peter to Antarctica and Japan, then through meetings with Mother Teresa, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell and the vagaries of the Australian literary scene and landscape. Peter Henry did not in fact start out as a ‘Creole of mixed ancestry’. Harry originally had in mind the Peter Rabbit of the children’s books but her attempt to gain permission from the Beatrix Potter estate was rejected with such ferocity and threat of lawsuits that it left her with a life-long terror of copyright. One of the earliest rabbit poems ‘Calcutta’ (here quoted in full) shows the irony, social critique and quirky humour that would characterise the work.

French beans think they are on the wrong land mass

& wither into dessications of homesickness.

Peter Henry Lepus gets lost in ‘Calcutta’

on his way to visit Farmer McGruber’s vegetable patch.

It is not clement for lettuces in ‘Calcutta’

or carrots either. Unfortunately

it is very unclement there

for the famous fat little British rabbit.

He is pursued by hordes, who have

bones poking through the lines of their arms.

Very unfriendly. While running

lappity lappity—rather fast—to get away—

he cannons into the lower portion

of some hard legs hiding under a sari.

When Peter looks up—he sees a warm face

rumpled with brown hillocks & little friendly furrows

like a dug vegetable patch in Farmer McGruber’s garden.

Peter is pleased to see it—& is ‘rescued’—

grabbed by his ears—rather roughly—he feels—

by Mother Teresa, who plonks him sternly

into a liquid-textured lapin version

of the miracle of the bread & the fishes.

Peter isn’t hungry anymore—& neither

is ‘Calcutta’. No one

has camomile tea, after supper. French beans

have finished withering. They are dead. ‘Calcutta’

is doing very nicely & thanks you for asking.

Harry’s sympathies for the plight of victims in the Middle Eastern conflicts eventually landed Peter Lepus in Baghdad, where he experiences—along with such companions as news reporter Max, Clifta, a huntsman spider and environmentalist Braid—the horrors, violence and inhumanity of war, in contrast to his encounters with Oxford philosophers A.J. Ayer and J.L. Austin. Peter Porter commented that ‘the further Harry seems from taking the horror and extremity seriously, the more the poem insists that, while language can never intercept an incoming missile, it can light up a moral scene as nothing else can’. These were eventually collected in Not Finding Wittengenstein published in 2007 by Giramondo and also by Bloodaxe Books (UK) in 2012.

Harry’s interest was always in the way language is used or actually ‘uses’ us, and she was impatient with muddy or clichéd thinking (‘ “the baby, with the bath-water, thrown out” ’) and the reliance on slogans and platitude that are prevalent today. For Harry ‘meaning’ was on a relative continuum from one to ten and more than once she quotes Bertrand Russell as an epigraph to a poem or book:

A word has meaning, more or less vague; but the meaning is only to be discovered by observing its use; the use comes first, and the meaning is distilled out of it.

For Harry every poem is a testing ground for the meaning of words or ideas and not a syllable is treated lightly. This exactitude, which was not an affectation but an indication of her moral integrity, resulted in the unusual typography she deployed which so delighted her readers and exasperated critics and sub editors. She also had a remarkable sense of cadence. Her use of the line is masterful—moving easily from the shortest, one word only, to the very long—often necessitating a turn (depending on the size of the page), which was sometimes a real frustration for her. Harry could naturally employ slang and scatology in her poetry but just as easily transition into a lyrical mode. She was the most human of poets. Her last published work PublicPrivate (Vagabond, 2014) contains, as the title suggests, beautiful and poignant lyrics—including a moving elegy for her late partner and fellow poet Kerry Leves. It also illustrates her wicked humour and thoughtful critique of government machinations.

PublicPrivate confirms Harry’s great love and respect for Australia’s flora and fauna, which characterised her poetic career. Her attentiveness and extraordinary descriptive abilities bring to life even the most minute seed or insect, all of which she found equally important in the grand scheme of things. The brilliant poems observing the antic behaviour of birds alone could form a substantial volume. Concern for the environment and nature’s innocent creatures were essential to her poetry, as was her sometimes ferocious criticism of unthinking destruction caused by technology and mass progress. Ivor Indyk insightfully recognises that ‘if one were to make a single claim for Harry’s significance in Australian poetry, it should be that she was our first and foremost ecological poet’. A poem from Dandelion is a striking example of this. Rather than a simple description of pelicans on a lake, Harry follows the observation through to the consequence of human actions, which besides affecting the water quality and therefore the pelicans, in turn ripples outward to note the effect on the human offenders as well.

time in a pelican’s wing

lake george’s

pelicans

stationary

as elders or royal relations

immobilised

by an absence of light

stand formal

like knives & forks

stuck upright

in mud for the night

day will have them up

using themselves

differently

spooning mud

water vegetables

& fish

so what

if they’ve been having

the flavours of the

lakes they fished in changed

as the nameless

brands of water

were formed & disappeared

on this continent

for 30 or 40 million years

they have followed water

scooping fish frogs crabs to live

to here—

today lake george

            is the clearest of soups—

unknowing

as the tide’s pollutants move

            on the shore-crabs

as the effluent flows

            down the rivers & creeks

as the agricultural chemicals

            wash   off the land

into streams

what time is left

            in the flight of their wings—

unlike humans or sun

            they are not

big drinkers of lakes

they will dribble back the water

            keep the fish

we are joined to them by ignorance

what time is left in anyone’s drink

For Harry, ‘humans’ for all their power and stupidity were simply part of the ecosystem, no more no less, and she often observed them as curious creatures strangely bent on their own destruction.

Always generous with her time and attention, the extent to which Harry supported literary journals and fellow poets would probably be little known. She subscribed to most of the publications in Australia and often did not accept payment for her published poems. A member of many organisations, including the Australian Society of Authors and Pen International, Harry also bought (and frequently read) almost every book of Australian poetry published in the last decades, whether she knew the poet or not. She edited the Friendly Street Poets’ anthology and, until she was unable to do so, regularly attended their annual events. She also worked as an editor for Radio National and held a residency at Australian National University. Harry was often asked to judge poetry contests, but her empathy for poets enabled her to find something good in every poem regardless of its faults, to the neglect of her own work. This hesitation to judge and resistance to closure is expressed in numerous poems.

Never didactic, Harry maintained throughout her career that she wrote ‘with the hope that there should be room in each poem for the imagination of the reader to work in’. Until her death (May 2015), in spite of increasing physical difficulty, she continued to work on what will now be her final book (forthcoming) and the last adventure of Peter Henry. Her loss to Australian literature is immense. Fortunately, we have been left with the gift of her astonishing poetry.

Nicolette Stasko is a contemporary Australian poet, novelist and non-fiction writer of United States origin. Nicolette Stasko was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania to Polish and Hungarian parents.

Nicolette Stasko wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald Obituary pages, JS Harry, the virtuoso poet who took her curious rabbit on world discovery tour, (4 June 2015).