Thursday, 22 January 2009

Douglas and me

I dipped into my set of Douglas Dunn books once more yesterday and was reminded how much I admire a great deal of his poetry.

No matter how often I re-read him, Terry Street still stands out alongside Elegies, despite the occasional wobbles in voice that characterise so many first collections. My battered copy was printed before I was born and apparently cost more new (60p) than I paid for it second-hand, which lends it extra kudos. I particularly relish the tension involved in Dunn’s self-imposed ambivalent status as an outsider living on Terry Street. His detached observations are juxtaposed with sharp notes of personal engagement, as in “Incident in the Shop”:

“…I feel the draughts on her legs,
The nip of cheap detergent on her hands…”

Memorable lines, not Kitchen Sink, nor derivative Larkin.

Dunn’s later collections certainly contain excellent work, but his writing also seems to revel more and more in its own ever-improving standards, entering into a dialogue with itself. An exception is inevitably the outstanding Elegies, where the dialogue is of course with Dunn’s memories of Lesley. Immediacy is regained, now combined with consistently dazzling skill, studded with turns of phrase that have been with me ever since I first read them eight years ago…

“…these days of grief
before the grief..”

“…The clinic of “sympathy” and dinners…”

“…the muddle of lost tenses…”

Plus numerous others I could mention.

Since Elegies, I’ve tried and failed to engage with Dunn’s writing. I admire its excellence but cannot warm to it, as in this example from the collection Northlight…

"…Time lets its scientific minutes drop
On the Australian emptiness, a brown
Rugged geology where clocks are baked
In God’s kiln…"

Virtuosity that leaves me cold.

The aim of this post isn’t to bash the way Dunn has developed as a writer, rather to point out that the relationship between a poet and his reader can mirror that of a couple who grow apart as their tastes change. No matter what I may think of the latest work, I treasure Terry Street and Elegies, which says as much about me as it does about Douglas Dunn.

One final point – Dunn’s choice of work from Terry Street to be included in his Selected very much reflects his developing ideas. I thoroughly recommend the original collection and original running order.


  1. Terry Street and Elegies stand out for me too. My copy of Terry Street also has the 60p net sticker, although Faber have pasted an Australian $1.95 over it. Can't see what I paid for it, but can't imagine I bought it at the age of five. Nuala Ní Chonchúir has a recent post quoting Robert McCrum on how writers don't really have a 'career' as they are always starting afresh, which is interesting in the context of your comments on Dunn. 'God's kiln' feels about right for Australia at the moment ... yesterday brought news that another lake was on fire (no water in it for a couple of years).

  2. I like Terry Street a lot, but at times the narrator's outsiderdom seems to bring with it not just objective distance but also a sort of disdain for the people he's chronicling. It's also - it risks - the poet-outsider being completely passive.

    In the end I think I prefer some of the poems in Barbarians, where the distance is traded in for personal involvement in the politics. It feels more like it matters, whereas Terry Street seems largely elegiac and quietist.

    Enjoyed this post - thanks.

  3. I haven't read either Terry Street or Elegies, but I've just read Northlight and enjoyed it tremendously.

    I'll have to seek out those other two books. Thanks.

  4. I haven't read either Terry Street or Elegies, but I've just read Northlight and enjoyed it tremendously.

    I'll have to seek out those other two books. Thanks.