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into old rhyme

Yesterday, I wrote a list of my top five books for a promotion thing that the City Library is doing. It’s not online yet but most of the books were ones that had been important for projects on which I’d been working. I listed The Poems of Lesbia Harford, for instance, because I’d written a biography of Harford’s  lover Guido Baracchi and had come to appreciate her writing during the course of it.

Harford was an extraordinary woman. She was one of the very first student radicals in Australian political history. During her time at Melbourne Uni, she took on the young Robert Menzies in a public debate. (Menzies, at the time, was also a budding poet but that’s a different story). She graduated with a law degree but then abandoned the university and went to work in a clothing factory and joined the Industrial Workers of the World, just as they were declared illegal. Her personal and political choices were all the more extraordinary since she had a congenital heart problem that made almost any physical activity very difficult (and guaranteed that she would die young).

Very little correspondence survived from her relationship with Baracchi but each of her poems was dated and so you could look through the original notebooks in which they were written and get some idea (although a very mediated one) of what she was thinking about the events around her. For instance, one of her most famous poems runs like this:

Into old rhyme
The new words come but shyly.
Here’s a brave man
Who sings of commerce dryly.

Swift-gliding cars
Through town and country winging,
Like cigarettes,
Are deemed unfit for singing.

Into old rhyme
New words come tripping slowly.
Hail to the time
When they possess it wholly.

Obviously, it’s a poem about modernity, not a million miles away from T S Eliot’s much more famous lines in ‘Burnt Norton’ about how:

Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.

But there were also a couple of other referents.

Firstly, both Harford (or Keogh, as she was then) and Baracchi were part of the new Left that emerged from the Great War. The poem was written in 1917, when many of the traditional ideas of the Left were being reshaped and rethought. In that respect, it foreshadows the tortured attempts of the Australian Left, a few years later, to grapple with the new political paradigm represented by the Russian Revolution.

Secondly, and more specifically, the lines were written as a direct response to a book of poetry called Commercium by Frederick Macartney. Macartney was also, at that time, associated with the Left and Commercium satirised the world of trade by making it the subject of a mock epic. Baracchi showed Harford the book; the point of her poetic response was to assert the necessity of poets responding the world around them. One couldn’t simply sneer at the unheroic world of commerce as ‘unfit for singing’. Rather, the truly radical poet needed to find the words to understand it.

Anyway, all of this is really apropos of nothing in particular. I was just thinking about it.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Jeff Sparrow is the former editor of Overland. He is the co-author (with Jill Sparrow) of Radical Melbourne: A Secret History and Radical Melbourne 2: The Enemy Within, the editor (with Antony Loewenstein) of Left Turn: Essays for the New Left and the author of Communism: a love story, Killing: Misadventures in violence, and Money Shot: A Journey into Censorship and Porn.  On Twitter, he's @Jeff_Sparrow.

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