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Shapcott, Thomas W(illiam)

SHAPCOTT, Thomas W(illiam)


Nationality: Australian. Born: Ipswich, Queensland, 21 March 1935. Education: Ipswich Grammar School, 1949–50; University of Queensland, Brisbane, B.A. 1968. Military Service: National Service, 1953. Family: Married 1) Margaret Hodge in 1960, three daughters and one son; 2) Judith Rodriguez, q.v., in 1982. Career: Clerk, H.S. Shapcott, Public Accountant, Ipswich, 1951–63; partner, Shapcott and Shapcott, Accountant, Ipswich, 1963–72; public accountant, Sole Trader, Ipswich, 1972–78; director, Australia Council Literature Board, Sydney, 1983–90; executive director, National Book Council, 1992–97. Since 1997 inaugural professor of creative writing, University of Adelaide, South Australia. Chairman, Copyright Agency Limited, Sydney, 1998–99. Fellow, Australian Society of Accountants, 1970; Churchill fellow (U.S.A. and England), 1972. Awards: Grace Leven prize, 1962; Sir Thomas White memorial prize, 1967; Sydney Myer Charity Trust award, 1968, 1970; Canada-Australia prize, 1979; Struga International Poetry Festival Golden Wreath award (Yugoslavia), 1989; New South Wales Premier's special prize, 1995; Michel Wesley Wright prize, 1995. D.Litt.: Macquarie University, Sydney, 1989. Officer, Order of Australia, 1989. Member: Australian Arts Council Australian Literature Board, 1973–76; Copyright Agency Limited, 1991–99. Address: P.O. Box 231, Mont Albert, Victoria 3127, Australia.

Publications

Poetry

Time on Fire. Brisbane, Jacaranda Press, 1961.

Twelve Bagatelles. Adelaide, Australian Letters, 1962.

The Mankind Thing. Brisbane, Jacaranda Press, 1964.

Sonnets 1960–1963. Privately printed, 1964.

A Taste of Salt Water. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1967.

Inwards to the Sun. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1969.

Fingers at Air: Experimental Poems 1969. Privately printed, 1969.

Begin with Walking. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1972.

Interim Report. Privately printed, 1972.

Shabbytown Calendar. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1975.

Seventh Avenue Poems. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1976.

Selected Poems. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1979.

Turning Full Circle (prose poems). Sydney, Prism, 1979.

Stump and Grape and Bopple Nut (prose inventions). Brisbane, Bullion, 1981.

Welcome! St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1983.

Travel Dice. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1987.

Selected Poems. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1989.

Poems. Skopje, Yugoslavia, Misla, 1989.

In the Beginning. Canberra, National Library of Australia, 1990.

The City of Home. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1995.

The Sun's Waste Is Our Energy. Cambridge, England, Salt Folio, 1998.

Play

The Seven Deadly Sins, music by Colin Brumby (produced Brisbane, 1970). Privately printed, 1970.

Novels

The Birthday Gift. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1982.

White Stag of Exile. Melbourne, Allen Lane, 1984.

Hotel Bellevue. London, Chatto and Windus, 1986.

The Search for Galina. London, Chatto and Windus, 1989.

Mona's Gift. Melbourne, Penguin Australia, 1993.

Theatre of Darkness. Sydney, Random House, 1998.

Short Stories Limestone and Lemon Wine. London, Chatto and Windus, 1988.

What You Own. Sydney, Angus & Robertson Imprint, 1991.

Other

Focus on Charles Blackman (art monograph). St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1967.

Poetry as a Creative Learning Process. Kelvin Grove, Queensland, Kelvin Grove College of Advanced Education, 1978.

Flood Children (for children). Brisbane, Jacaranda Press, 1981.

The Literature Board: A Brief History. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1988.

The Art of Charles Blackman. London, Deutsch, 1990.

Biting the Bullet: A Literary Memoir. Sydney, Simon & Schuster, 1990.

Editor, with Rodney Hall, New Impulses in Australian Poetry. University of Queensland Press, 1968.

Editor, Australian Poetry Now. Melbourne, Sun, 1969.

Editor, Poets on Record. University of Queensland Press, 1970–73.

Editor, Contemporary American and Australian Poetry. University of Queensland Press, 1976.

Editor, Consolidation: The Second Paperback Poets Anthology. University of Queensland Press, 1982.

Editor, Contemporary Australian Poetry. Stuga, Yugoslavia, Macedonian Literary Association, 1987.

Editor, The Moment Made Marvellous: The UQP Poetry Anthology. University of Queensland Press, 1998.

Translator, with Ilja Casule, Katika Kulavkova: Time Difference. Skopje, Macedonia, Zumpres, 1998.

Translator, with Ilja Casule, An Island on Land: Anthology of Contemporary Macedonian Poetry. Sydney, Macquarie University, 1999.

*

Manuscript Collections: Australian National Library, Canberra;Fryer Library, University of Queensland, Brisbane; Mitchell Library, Sydney.

Critical Studies: By L. Clancy, in Meanjin (Melbourne), 1967; by Carl Harrison-Ford, in Meanjin (Melbourne), 1972; by James Davidson, in Meanjin (Melbourne), 1975; by Michael Denholm, in Tasmanian Review (Hobart), 2, summer 1979; in Westerly (Nedlands, Western Australia), 1, 1989, and in In Other Words: Interviews with Australian Poets, Amsterdam, Netherlands, Rodopi, 1998, both by Barbara Williams; by Bruce Beaver, in Scripsi (Melbourne), 4 (4), 1987; by Peter Porter, in Australian Literary Studies (St. Lucia), 14 (4), 1990; "'What Is Gone Is Not Gone': Intimations in the Poetry of Thomas Shapcott" by David McCooey, in Australian Literary Studies, 18 (1), May 1997.

Thomas W. Shapcott comments:

(1980) When I first began writing and publishing poetry in the 1950s, I was soaking myself eagerly in T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas, that decade's heroes, as well as discovering new worlds in the important Penguin anthologies of that period. When I had begun to be published, I made contact with my own contemporaries and my Australian peers. I have always been interested in experimentation, in the challenge of form (closed forms, open forms), but in the 1950s experimental writing was unfashionable—and unpublishable. My early lyricism was more immediately accepted. In recent years I have been concerned with exploring ways of balancing essentially lyrical expression with the cadence of lyric speech.

I have always been interested in expressing a sense of region, whether it be the provincial backwaters of "Shabbytown" or "Seventh Avenue" mobility. But my essential concern has always been with issues of personality and belief. I once wrote, "I believe poetry is a movement towards celebration. Art—Poetry—is to struggle toward the light, knowing the light bums all sight to blindness. We cannot outstare the sun, but it is not in our nature to endure the darkness. Thus all true poetry is in some way a form of experimentation, a groping outwards. Even the earth is moving, how can we stand still?" I still hold to that.

(1985) I still hold to that. Recent work in prose has been an attempt to integrate lyric form and tone with narrative and documentary techniques. It all becomes, in different ways, evidence.

(1995) The evidence interacts with intuition or experience, with memory as both a modifier and a trickster. To discover the impersonality of personal recall releases large energies. The task has always been to bridge distance. Distance itself is a real bridge.

*  *  *

Among the new work in Thomas W. Shapcott's Selected Poems is "Make the Old Man Sing," a sequence of fourteen poems providing an answer—defiant, elegiac, energetically physical—to the preceding "A Record of Flamenco Singing," which may itself serve as something of a definition of Shapcott's poetics:

In my country
old men do not sing.
We have closed off
elegy, defiance.
We will not remember
the release possible
the terrible monkeys in the voice
taunting us
haunting
holding out ripe sweet grapes
bitter lemons
in handfuls, till we gulp.

Not that we should take the notion of an old man too literally. Also within later work we find Shapcott making a witty stocktaking and, in "Turning Fifty," accepting the definition of self that comes with growing older, while the sequence "Life Taste" celebrates middle-aged lovers and bodies:

Stiff in parts, subtle,
careful of knots and the meaning of patterns
we can stay in the middle or sprawl like most people:
in the big bed we bounce and are buoyant, believable.

Perhaps the brush with death recorded in "Post-Operative" indicates an altered balance in the tonal mixture that has characterized Shapcott's work. There has always been an alert psychological and sensuous responsiveness to present particularities. In "Stuff of Myths," for example, he urges, "Never disbelieve the sensual air on your body. / That keeps you living." On the other hand, he has an elegiac sense of the past, both personal and historical, that is saved from weakening into mere nostalgia partly by intellectual curiosity about the processes and patterns of change and partly by that dramatizing power that enables him to summon up the past with a powerful illusion of substance and immediacy.

This quality makes forcefully attractive Shapcott's middle-period poems of colonial history, whether factual, as in "Macquarie as Father" or "Portrait of Captain Logan," or fictional, as in "Miss Norah Kerrin Writes to Her Betrothed." But these are more than period reconstructions. They reveal formative cultural elements, reminding us, for instance, that behind the mythical, laconic, independent men of the bush stand the urban exiles of convict life, made frantic not by imprisonment ("I got used to chains") but by silence and space, until they twisted into the fabric of Australian attitudes one implacable strand of hostility to nature: "I will cut down every tree, / every one. I will be invincible" ("The Trees: A Convict Monologue").

In such poems presences conventionally dismissed and evaded as defective or freakish claim acknowledgment as "real / and alive / among / us," as in the splendid "Litanies of Julia Pastrani (1832–1880)." "It all becomes," Shapcott has said, "in different ways, evidence." But if that search for evidence has sometimes led outward to the integration "of lyric form and tone with narrative and documentary techniques" in fictional works such as White Stag of Exile and The Search for Galina, it has also provided a stance for poetic scrutiny of personal history. "Instructions for Moving" is a sequence about "broken presents," breaking up a household, a marriage, and trying to do it with neither bitterness nor denial of loss: "We need to demonstrate, this meal, / separation does not exclude civility." It ends with an elegy both playful and poignant for the household cat, used over the years "to bind and divide":

Black cat showed us. More than any animal of ours
the death of black cat claws at our exposed parts.
Her dying was slow we were not sure,
we were dry eyed.
Black cat intended it would be that way.

More ominous evidence is found in "Young Doctor's Kit," about the remembered death of a childhood pet, a dog bitten by a tick at Christmastime in 1944:

We were saved from the War but I heard
what the Vet said: "What's in the system stays."
We don't know what we hoard.

But if it is death that is hoarded, it is unlikely that Shapcott will go down silent. His has been a constant and prolific voice, and in his development is encapsulated much of the history of contemporary Australian poetry. He has said that his early work "explored primarily responses to environment and a young man's apprehension of life." In a poem like "Shadow of War" we find a rural world of substantial images in which the intersection of landscape and human experience is effected by building the poem around a dramatic or narrative nexus. Its serious emotional content—the uncomprehended anguish of the farmer whose son has been killed at war—is contained by normative syntax and formal stanzaic structures.

"Sestina with Refrain" (1976) offers a very different voice, self-conscious about form, playing typographical games, fracturing syntax and narrative sequence, as the speaker resists the "bruising" of his dead World War I father. In the interim Shapcott had been involved as poet, editor, and critic with a realignment of literary allegiances toward North America and with changes in the linguistic and formal nature of poetry that transferred primacy from world to word. There is a migration to New York, to Seventh Avenue and Central Park, where trees become not natural objects to be recorded but elements in a fragmented experience, inventions of perception.

This inventiveness Shapcott carried home with him to Bisbane ("Shabbytown") and can be seen in "The City of Home," where "the smell of lantana still clings to an old pullover," although it is a place "reached only in dreams" for someone who has become much preoccupied with names, exile, and the lively chanciness of traveling. Nonetheless, his has become one of the voices speaking with a new kind of noncolonial confidence, whether in looking back to an inheritance European as well as English or in declaring in "Taste of Life" of the new house that is "the map of ancestors,"

We are in this together,—The key fits. Ours.
Nothing will keep us from stamping this place
into liver-red bricks of our own.

—Jennifer Strauss

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