Adamson, Robert

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Nationality: Australian. Born: Sydney, New South Wales, 17 May 1943. Family: Married 1) Cheryl Adamson in 1973; 2) Juno Gemes in 1988. Career: Worked as a pastry cook, fisherman, and journalist in the 1960s; associate editor, 1968–70, editor, 1970–75, and assistant editor, 1975–77, New Poetry magazine, Sydney; editor and director, Prism Books, Sydney, 1970–77. Since 1979 founding editor and director, with Dorothy Hewett, Big Smoke Books, Sydney; since 1988 founder, with Michael Wilding, Paper Bark Press. Designer, since 1970, Prism Books and New Poetry magazine, and since 1979, Big Smoke Books. Awards: Australia Council fellowship, 1976, 1977; Grace Leven prize, 1977. Address: 47 Cheero Point Road, Cheero Point, New South Wales 2254, Australia.



Canticles on the Skin. Sydney, Illumination Press, 1970.

The Rumour. Sydney, New Poetry, 1971.

Swamp Riddles. Sydney, Island Press, 1974.

Theatre I-XIX. Sydney, Pluralist Press, 1976.

Cross the Border. Sydney, New Poetry, 1977.

Selected Poems. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1977.

Where I Come From. Sydney, Big Smoke, 1979.

The Law at Heart's Desire. Sydney, Prism, 1982.

The Clean Dark. Cheero Point, New South Wales, Paper Bark Press, 1989.

Robert Adamson Selected Poems, 1970–1989. Queensland, University of Queensland Press, 1990.

Zoo. Montmorency, Victoria, Yackandandah Playscripts, 1993.

Waving to Hart Crane. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1994.

The Language of Oysters, with photographs by Juno Gemes. Sydney, Craftsman House, 1997.

Black Water: Approaching Zukovsky. Rose Bay, New South Wales, Brandl and Schlesinger, 1999.


Zimmer's Essay, with Bruce Hanford. Sydney, Wild and Woolley, 1974.

Wards of the State: An Autobiographical Novella. Pymble, New South Wales, Angus and Robertson, 1992.


Editor, with Manfred Jurgensen, Australian Writing Now. Indooroopilly, Queensland, Outrider/Penguin, 1988.


Manuscript Collection: Australian National Library, Canberra.

Critical Studies: By Dorothy Hewett in New Poetry 27 (Sydney), no. 1; interview with John Tranter in Makar 1 (Brisbane), 1979; "Thoughts on Some Recent Poetry," in Australian Literary Studies (St. Lucia, Queensland), 8, 1977, and "Getting Further Away: The Poetry of Robert Adamson," in Southerly (Sydney), 38, 1978, both by Dennis Haskell; "'My Name Is Rickeybocky': The Poetry of Robert Adamson and the Spirit of Henry Kendall" by Michael Wilding, in Southerly (Sydney), 46(1), March 1986; "Homages and Invocations: The Early Poetry of Robert Adamson," in Australian Literary Studies (St. Lucia, Queensland), 14(2), October 1989, and "The Poetry of Robert Adamson," in Australian Literature Today, edited by R.K. Dhawan and David Kerr, New Delhi, Indian Society for Commonwealth Studies, 1993, both by Martin Duwell; "Feral Symbolists: Robert Adamson, John Tranter, and the Response to Rimbaud" by David Brooks, in Australian Literary Studies (St. Lucia, Queensland), 16(3), May 1994; "Robert Gray and Robert Adamson—A Dialectical Study of Late Australian Romanticism" by Angus Nicholls, in Antipodes (Austin, Texas), 11(2), December 1997.

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With several major collections, plus two volumes of selected poems, published since 1970, Robert Adamson has claimed for himself a central position among the poets of his generation—a generation that has accomplished a remarkable revitalization of poetic energies in Australia. His work over this period has balanced an overt need to surprise and challenge (or even shock) the reader with an ongoing discovery of the sources of creative nourishment from his personal experience and his background in the Hawkesbury River region. Adamson is not, however, a regional or a confessional poet. His 1979 volume, Where I Come From, would seem to be a collection of autobiographical pieces about parents, childhood, and a delinquent adolescence, all related with a sort of deadpan selectivity. It is a carefully contrived game, exploring ways of approaching the self (and themes already uncovered in earlier volumes) that imply a complex relationship not only with the reader but also with the possibility of ever realizing a state beyond "the lie" of the conscious artist. In all of his verse Adamson has sought to transcend the easily ironic stance (or the glibly petulant). His poetry constantly undercuts its own pretensions, but the effect is lacerating, not denigratory. Its surface may range from the artful simpliste chronicler of Where I Come From to the arty fabulist of "The Grail Poems," but the masks are worn with a wholehearted willingness, a risk taking, that drags us into the exploration and the search. Adamson's work is, in the best sense, self-conscious. It is also consistent in its deeply felt need to seek out, if not to find, some transforming quality from the rawness of observed data and experience.

Adamson's first book, Canticles on the Skin, established all of the ongoing concerns he has subsequently followed: poems of prison experience (notably the opening sequence, pointedly titled "The Imitator" and bearing an inscription from Saint Paul that still illuminates his approach to art: "For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more"); poems of literary homage; poems of homage to the landscape; and those nervous drug/car/energy poems that were probably his most immediate successes. The book was followed by The Rumour in 1971, with its long title centerpiece, pivotal poems of the early 1970s in Australia (the other two being John Tranter's "Red Movie" and Martin Johnston's "The Blood Aquarium"). Though its derivations are clear, "The Rumour" reveals a sense of intense purpose and a drive that carries it into areas almost unexplored in Australian verse. Swamp Riddles, though diffuse, includes the first outstanding group of Hawkesbury poems and a much acclaimed set of elegies for his contemporary Michael Dransfield. Cross the Border, ambitious and uneven, attempts a large synthesis but survives through individual achievements. Where I Come From is a deliberate turning away from this aesthetic experiment in a self-proclaimed "New Romanticism." It is immediately gripping and seemingly accessible. It is also a progress report.

The Law at Heart's Desire was seen by many to be a retreat into arcane symbolism, much influenced by the work of one of Adamson's early mentors, Robert Duncan. The collection The Clean Dark, however, recovers the firm Hawkesbury River concision of Where I Come From, thus placing the earlier collection in a new perspective of clarity and certainly reinforcing its centrality as a major statement of Adamson's poetic vision. The Clean Dark allows itself more lyric grace and in doing so gives rein to his so-called New Romanticism without overwhelming the reader in misty stances. Adamson's Hawkesbury is a river of sharp, clear lights, not hazy distance.

The Clean Dark won the three major poetry prizes in Australia and reestablished Adamson as a leading poet in a now mature generation. It was succeeded by an autobiographical volume of prose and poetry, titled Wards of the State (1992), which also attracted high praise. The collection Waving to Hart Crane (1994) continues to utilize the Hawkesbury region as a poetic base for intensely observed metaphysical meditations, while enriching this achievement more overtly with a consciousness of dialogue with the poet's own nominated "peers." The poems include the extraordinary meditation "The Sugar Glider," which, in a ruminative manner perhaps learned from Bruce Beaver, pulls together observations on the work of the poets Michael Palmer and Les Murray with images of rare Australian marsupials and an elegy for lost tribes and species.

The Language of Oysters (1997) offers a consolidation and a synopsis of Adamson's Hawkesbury River poems, being meditations and observations on the river of his childhood and his more recent residence. It includes earlier poems, and in the new context their metaphysical intent is underlined. Black Water (1999) maintains Adamson's laconic late tone, but in moving back toward city landscapes the poet reasserts one of his basic beliefs in both the deceit and the power of poetry: "this geodesic discotheque is held together by art alone."

—Thomas W. Shapcott