Beaver, Bruce (Victor)
BEAVER, Bruce (Victor)
Nationality: Australian. Born: Sydney, New South Wales, 14 February 1928. Education: Attended Manly Public School and Sydney Boy's High School. Family: Married Kathleen Brenda Bellam, 1963. Career: Lived in New Zealand, 1958–62. Has worked as radio program arranger, wages clerk, railway survey assistant, farm laborer, proofreader. Since 1964 freelance writer. Awards: Poetry Magazine award, Sydney, 1963; Commonwealth literary fellowship, 1967; Captain Cook Bi-Centenary prize, 1970; Grace Leven prize, 1970; Poetry Society of Australia award 1970; Patrick White award, 1982;F.A.W. Christopher Brennan award; A.M. award, 1991. Address: 14–16 Malvern Avenue, Manly, New South Wales 2095, Australia.
Under the Bridge. Sydney, Beaujon Press, 1961.
Seawall and Shoreline. Sydney, South Head Press, 1964.
Open at Random. Sydney, South Head Press, 1967.
Letters to Live Poets. Sydney, South Head Press, 1969.
Lauds and Plaints. Poems (1968–1972). Sydney, South Head Press, 1974.
Odes and Days. Sydney, South Head Press, 1975.
Death's Directives. Sydney, New Poetry, 1978.
As It Was. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1979.
Selected Poems. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1979.
Charmed Lives. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1988.
New and Selected Poems (1960–1990). St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1991.
Anima and Other Poems. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1994.
Poets and Others. Rose Bay, New South Wales, Australia, Brandl and Schlesinger, 1999.
The Hot Spring. Sydney, Horvitz, 1965.
You Can't Come Back. Adelaide, Rigby, 1966.
Headlands: Prose Sketches. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1986.*
Critical Studies: New Impulses in Australian Poetry edited by Thomas W. Shapcott and Rodney Hall, St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1968; "Gift-Bearing Hands: The Poetry of Bruce Beaver" by Craig Powell, in Quadrant (Sydney), XII, 5, 1968; "Bruce Beaver's Poetry" by Robert D. Fitzgerald in Meanjin (Melbourne), September 1969; "New Australian Poetry" by James Tulip, in Southerly (Sydney), 1970; Poets on Record 7, St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1972; "The 'Livres composés' of Bruce Beaver" by J. and R.M. Beston, in WLWE (Perth), April 1975; "Images of Ideas, Ideas of Images" by W.H. New, in Poetry Australia (New South Wales), 64, 1977; "The Poetry of Bruce Beaver" by Beate Josephi, in Quadrant (Sydney), 146, 1979; "Recent Australian Poetry: The Ordinary and the Extraordinary: Rhyll McMaster, Andrew Taylor, Bruce Beaver, Robert Harris and Jan Owen" by Alan Gould, in Quadrant (Victoria, Australia), 30(10), October 1986; "To a Live Poet: Bruce Beaver" by Lawrence Bourke, in Southerly (Southerly, Australia), 52(3), 1992; in Southerly (Southerly, Australia), 55(1), Autumn 1995.* * *
In his bucolic retrospect As It Was, Bruce Beaver writes that "I had and have no special love of human nature. Pity and disgust are the two emotions it stirs oftenest in me." But this characteristically severe self-criticism is belied by his poetry, which reveals a sensibility intuitively and compassionately responsive to ordinary people. He has a "negative capability," one might say, that together with his intense appreciation of the sensory world endorses his claim to be at heart a Keats man. Like Kenneth Slessor a generation earlier, Beaver is a Sydney-sider, but it is as much the pathos of the lives around him as the evanescent moods and spirit of the place that occupies him in his typically low-key, ruminative free verse poems: a man dying unheeded in a crowded office, a flautist banished to a laundry, an aged fisherman and his clan, an eccentric writing "Eternity" on Sydney's pavements, a young poet who cries "My light has gone out!" as he leaps to his death.
This is not to deny that much of Beaver's poetry is confessional in mode, and at times the act of writing has played a crucially therapeutic role for him. In As It Was he vividly recalls his two attempts at suicide and some of his experiences in mental homes, and in an interview with Thomas Shapcott he describes how he wrote Letters to Live Poets "feverishly one poem a day for seven weeks," haunted by the fear that he might soon "turn into a vegetable." But Beaver's introspective voyages seem less obsessive than those of some of his American models, such as Robert Lowell or John Berryman, and are more modestly self-deprecating and more genuinely dialogic. In As It Was he remarks that "I was born middle-aged," and the vatic persona he projects might be caricatured as a cross between Brennan's romantic Wanderer and T.S. Eliot's Tiresias, a slightly ineffectual, "melancholy &/Tiresias in two minds." But Beaver also sees through the "Shelleyean facade of self-negation," and the cumulative effect is of a poet struggling to sustain a balance between self-exploration and participation, between mental and external landscapes, between anguish and thanksgiving.
Letters to Live Poets, with which Beaver achieved recognition as a significant voice in Australian poetry, emanates from the years when opposition to the Vietnam War was escalating, and it is probably his most anguished and politically confrontationist work. It consists of thirty-four free verse epistles addressed in the first place to Frank O'Hara—whose death by being "crushed on the littered sands" by a dune buggy epitomized the vulnerability of humanist values—and more broadly to "the community/world-wide, of live, mortal poets." Letter XV is at once a powerful indictment of a "war spun out like an incredible/competition between two soap/and cereal kings" and a poignant expression of vatic impotence: "how may I, tentatively sane, comment sensibly upon/a wider spread insanity?" Letter XII exposes the system indirectly through its effects on the poet as society's conscience, on the poet on antidepressants, marginalized like the park methadone drinkers or the imprisoned Ezra Pound, fearful of reverting to the state in which he had "walked on hands and knees/like Blake's Nebuchadnezzar, scenting the pit." Satirical sallies against the banality, complacency, and ugliness of modern consumerism are frequent, occasionally bordering on the grotesque in the manner of A.D. Hope: "young wives drab,/swelling with hormones," old women painted like "superannuated tigers," or executives like "white worms that seethe in filth." Yet considering that Beaver wrote Letters to Live Poets in crisis, it is remarkably varied in subject matter, tone, and rhythm. And partly perhaps because he takes seriously Pound's imagist dictum "No ideas but in things," the poetic meditations in which he "tr[ies] again to learn/how to accept a mutable world" are all rendered concretely familiar. Like Beaver himself in Letter XIX, where he declares in appropriately measured cadences that "I welcome the anonymity of middle years, years of the spreading/girth and conversational prolixity," on balance these poems are clear-sighted but accepting.
In the interview with Shapcott, Beaver talks of Lauds and Plaints, which took him five years to write, as his "best book" and one in which he was "able to include my religious attitudes." The book certainly extends his poetic register considerably. Some of the poems ("time to engage/with the radioed day's news/sports results road accidents/election speeches bank robbings/such a busy day to stifle/a yawn at") retain O'Hara's impromptu casualness or Jack Kerouac's "words/& staccato as jazz notes." But more typically the tone is lyrical, and the quotidian is handled with the imaginative daring espoused by Robert Bly. And although Beaver carries his learning lightly, the sophisticated notes of Rainer Maria Rilke and Eliot are often heard. In IV a visit to a cave evokes thoughts of the "terminal facts" of womb and tomb and of Blake's "Urizen trapped in giant/adamantine/obsidian selfhood." In VI, inspired by Rilke, Beaver sweeps the "beautiful/and the hideous horses of creativity" through several sea changes with Viennese abandon. Sometimes Eliot's influence can be deadening, but more often his cadences have been felicitously assimilated, as in XIX, which begins with "to stand hushed an hour or two/in that garden is not to redeem/time." This poem, which describes how in an Australian "autumn's summery spring at winter's/wane" the speaker fancies that he catches "an oblique glimpse" of the "goddess Kore," perhaps comes closest to encapsulating the essence of Beaver's religious faith in "the ordinary miracle of/here and now." There is, too, a love of paradox and oxymoron in these poems, of "shallow mysteries," "a day's eternity," or "empty plenitude." And there is a higher incidence of mellifluous phrases than in the earlier volumes, sometimes in the syntactic mode of Berryman or Gerard Manley Hopkins, for example, in glimpses "of opened to spicy air serene/casements" or, on a more Australian note, in the "whipcrack and till-ring of birdsongs." At times, however, romanticism and nostalgia are summarily deflated, and a view is merely "as beautiful as/itself."
Technically a prosimetrum interspersed with family photos, As It Was is at once an honest and at times humorous autobiography in the tradition ultimately of William Wordsworth's The Prelude, a warm tribute to relatives whose kindness "helped me continue to live," and an evocation of a bygone age of comic books and Dad and Dave and Judy Garland. This is a common impulse in Australian letters, perhaps because the past seems more evanescent than in Europe. The early scenes are set in Manly, but some of the episodes on the uncle's farm seem Wordsworthian even in cadence: "The hawk—for hawk it was—twitched its head to left and right/at the flat concussions of unexpected rifle fire." Others, like the glimpse of a girl spearing eels, are more Keatsian in feel: "I & stood there musing/how I so full of Endymion should come upon a true/Diana." More interesting perhaps as a cultural record than as poetry, the volume is full of insights into the Australian mateship syndrome, the sexual imperative, and the alienation of a generation worn down by war, the Depression, and "barely fertile land" and often leading "totally bewildered lives."
Charmed Lives, a later work, is in many respects Beaver's most accomplished. The ardor of Letters to Live Poets has mellowed into an acceptance that seems a shade complacent, and there is a new preoccupation with old age and death. But assumed American voices obtrude less frequently, the cultural register is wider, and one is conscious of an often playful exultation in the hard-won mastery of words. The opening "Verse Biography of Raine Maria Rilke," though less effective as a period retrospect than As It Was, convincingly portrays the poet as a kindred spirit who "preferred a moderate mania/and a fair degree of poetic constancy/to a normality more nominal than actual." The best poems are in the middle sections titled "Silhouettes" and "Solos," many of them on simple matters like picking apples, flying kites, and singing in the rain. Beaver's insight into people is as keen as ever: "I watch the faces of acquaintances/and see in them a lost child here or there." "A Pair" describes how a promiscuous mother and prudish daughter rally to each other's aid in times of trouble. Many of the poems, as the section titles imply, invite our contemplation of poetry in relation to painting or music, as if to emphasize the humanist end of all of the arts. "Stroll" is a Blakean dream vision in which the poet finds himself in eternity "accepted as a fellow artist" by Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams. "A Brave Music" finds the "unsolvable enigma/of life and death, its razor edge of severance/and trumpet summons to the lone review" expressed in a rhapsody by Butterworth. In "Metamorphosis" age has transformed a "slim dark cousin" from a "Modigliani" into a "Rubens." In general, the Keatsian intensity with which the sensory world is evoked confirms the earlier impression that Beaver's art is less often symbolist than sacramental. Charmed Lives ends with a series of dramatic monologues in which an androgynous Tiresias appears in different masks, times, and company to suggest the ubiquity of the poetic imagination in its quest for truth. Conceptually, therefore, this last series, though perhaps a little coy in places, is organically related to the earlier sections and brings the volume to an appropriate crescendo.