Our first meeting with Ron Pretty was in the company of a galah, an exotic parrot, a wombat, an echidna, a blue tongue lizard and a fairly gnarly snake, all lovingly handled by their keepers. The occasion was the annual Taronga Foundation Children’s Poetry Prize, and Ron was the chair of the judging panel.
His accomplices were Libby Gore (aka Elle McFeast), master of ceremonies, the ABC’s Richard Moorcroft, reading the poems to a vast audience of family and friends, and the remarkable Bradley Trevor Greive, founder, funder and eminence grise of the whole unworldly enterprise. And Linsay Knight, now consulting publisher to Pitt Street Poetry, who as head of Children’s Books at Random House Australia in that era undertook to publish the winning poems and send them to school libraries, bookstores and fond families across Australia.
During the seven years in which this gloriously uncommercial dream flourished (2003-2009) Ron must have read thousands of children’s poems of markedly varying quality. He brought to the task his unfailing courtesy and care, his genial good nature, his wisdom and his vast experience of poetry as a practitioner, a teacher and a publisher. Some remarkable gems were discovered, and some gifted young poets experienced a thrill of national recognition and success which no doubt changed their lives.
The story is worth retelling because it portrays a defining characteristic in Ron Pretty’s life and work: generosity. In reading so patiently through those thousands of young efforts. In a life devoted to teaching poetry, publishing poetry and writing poetry. And in the arduous, thankless machinations of poetry politics and regional and national poetry organisations.
Ron’s life and work in poetry have been recognised with the NSW Premier’s Prize for special services to poetry in 2001, and with an AM in 2002, and so they should have been. But what of his poetry? Has the voice survived? Is it possible to remain true to a poetic vocation in the midst of so much frenetic activity and so much care of other poets? What impact does such generosity have on the creative imperative?
Our publication this week of Ron Pretty’s most recent collection What the Afternoon Knows provides a clear and ready answer to these questions. These poems look back in a tender, elegiac frame of reference to travel, family, relationships and the nature of things. At their heart is the question of the role of the poet, and poetry, interrogating the human state and puzzling through the beguiling paradoxes of the external world.
The answer is that the various layers of meaning which Ron Pretty’s life in poetry has added to his own writing have enriched and purified his powers of observation, and honed his craftsmanship to a particularly fine level. These poems are technically assured and complex, but do not flaunt their accomplishments in prosody. Like the mechanics of well-oiled stage machinery all that is subtly hidden offstage, never gets between the reader and the idea and serves simply to enrich the rewarding experience of absorbing the sentiments and philosophy which dance across the page.
(for Saroja & Luke)
These tiny white moths. The beetles
at the window. Lights around the lake,
against the indigo sky, the black hills.
Always the barking dogs, who can stand it?
Sleep my love. Tomorrow the wind
will be a memory, your mother’s milk,
her full breasts your comforter
and these late-night squalls against
the noises of the night, a sleep-drugged
nightmare. That exhausted figure
in pyjamas is just your father come in
from the barking night to comfort you.
He would be sleeping – no dog
could wake him – but your whimper
sat him up, your cry got him out of bed,
he holds you now against his chest, against
the night and its noise, against the world.
It’s an everyday family vignette, repeated countless times by young parents all over the world, a moment in time defined by the night, the animal nightlife and the nightly demands of a restive infant. And at its heart, the universal devotional imperative: ‘Sleep my love.’
There are many such moments in What the Afternoon Knows, related lovingly, sympathetically, connecting the personal to the pastoral, and the contingency of family to the inevitable contemplation of the oncoming evening.
Pitt Street Poetry is proud to publish Ron Pretty’s most recent collection, a celebration of a life lived in poetry by a well-loved Australian poet writing at the height of his powers and from the depth and breadth of a generous life.