Poet with the gift of friendship

Philip Martin: 23 March 1931–18 October 2005

For more than 50 years Philip Martin has been an essential part of my life and imagination. Notwithstanding a distance of sometimes thousands of miles, his companionship has been one of my constant reference points, and not only in literary matters. Philip had the essential gift of friendship, which is much rarer than we usually think. It goes well beyond, though it includes, camaraderie and mateship. Philip could scan a difficult situation (as well as a poem) with great deftness. He could listen, hold still, empathise, keep his counsel then, if it were needed, give it with a candour and clarity that were often disarming and nearly always liberating. In other words, his friendship was one that paid attention and did not flinch.

Thoroughly Australian in that he felt completely at home in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra, Philip was a true cosmopolitan. He had a strong pulse of affinity with Italy, Eastern Europe—particularly Hungary—and most especially with Renaissance England. His knowledge of Elizabethan poetry was astonishing in its range and accuracy. He knew by heart hundreds of lines of Spenser, Donne, Shakespeare and many others, and he found occasions to quote them, quite naturally, when they were relevant to what was happening right now. Yeats, too, and A. D. Hope and David Campbell and Bruce Dawe. He also had an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of classical music which he carried lightly, without the slightest fuss or pretension.

Besides his own four volumes of poems, Philip also made some fine translations of a selection of poems from the Swedish of Lars Gustafson, and his book-length study of Shakespeare’s sonnets Self, Love and Art is one of the best introductions to the sonnets that one could wish for. To pick it up and read it now has a most salutary effect. It rises out of the desert of techno-critical jabber of modern criticism and sounds like a human being speaking to us without the least condescension about some of the important things Philip found in the poems. I regard it as a rare treasure.

All of us who were touched by Philip’s companionship, his wide-ranging talk, his hilarious and affectionate mimicry of colleagues and teachers, and his quick generosity are at a loss. We find ourselves walking about in an emptiness where Philip used to be. If we are sustained somewhat in this bleakness it is because the things that Philip stood for, though threatened, are still here. These gifts and qualities are not only personal. They come from a long humane and, in his case, religious tradition for which Philip was one of the outstanding lightning rods of his place and time. They have little to do with the tawdry trappings of ‘personality’. They work on a different level. Our mutual friend, the late A. K. Ramanujan, once said, when we were all together in Chicago, that the deeper we go into ourselves the more we find we are alike, and it is in this sense that we should understand the word ‘kind’. We are all kin. Kindness is therefore our natural state, though we attain it only intermittently. It is in this sense that I want to call Philip a kind man; he made us aware that we all share whatever we have, and not out of any moral compulsion. It is just the way things are. It was because of this unspoken but clear belief that Philip made so many solid friends in every part of the world where he touched down.

In his own poems Philip made a distinctive contribution to Australian letters. Two fine articles by, respectively, Noel Rowe (Southerly 1, 1986 ) and Gary Catalano (Quadrant, Jan–Feb 1998) detail the nature of that contribution. I won’t repeat what they both say fully and eloquently but will add only that what some readers might miss is that, although Philip’s manner and diction are somewhat reminiscent of earlier lyric and meditative poets such as Herrick and Herbert, this is really a mask. The bones of his poems are distinctly modern.

Peter Porter once said, ‘Philip Martin is incapable of writing an inelegant sentence.’ That remark gives a clue to much more than his prose and poetry. Although he was by no means a saint, he was incapable of living an inelegant day. He had an unswerving sense of value and style in music, painting, food, architecture, and much else. He was what Yeats called a ‘social man’ who could set the table on a roar with a beautifully rounded story. But he was also very engaging one-on-one, a skill that one rarely sees among men in Australia or America or, come to think, in most other places.

In his life companion in his mature years Philip was extraordinarily lucky. Before and after his severe stroke in 1987, Jenny brought him so much joy that I think he often believed he was in some kind of reverie. And even after the stroke Philip was a loving and humorous companion. The last time I saw him, all three of us laughed outrageously at some of the madder moments we recalled from Beyond the Fringe. I remember that moment vividly: it was as if all of us were, for a moment, completely whole.

So many people sense that we have lost one of our stable co-ordinates, a way of speaking and of thinking. This sense is a strange admixture of sadness and anger that Philip could well understand. Were he here, might say, ‘Yes, well it all seems part of the bargain.’ And then he might add, ‘And I’m afraid you’ll have to get used to it as best you can.’ 

Now resident in Canberra, Keith Harrison has published a dozen books of poetry and translation.



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