Poetic justice? None in a country that shuts its ears to the word

On our way to bury a dead poet not long back, Dorothy Porter told me of her apprehension and exhilaration at giving a live reading to thousands of women who had come to a giant Santiago soccer stadium to hear Australian women perform their poetry. "It was absolutely a crescendo of joy and excitement," she said, adding with a wink: "Do you think that would happen in Melbourne?" Or Sydney?

Not likely. The cultural cringe is still in excellent nick, and Australians have always preferred English poets, and then only if they were homosexual. Dorothy died a day after we spoke - maybe we shouldn't have had a conversation about the fate of poets in a country that has no need of them.

A month ago Geof Eggleston died an excruciating death from various aggressive cancers. He valiantly declined chemotherapy and radiotherapy and suffered an abomination of torments known previously only to Job.

I visited Geof at a run-down Koori rehab centre in Brunswick in Melbourne's poetry belt. In the unspeakable gloom of his sepulchral tomb I tried to make him laugh, but he was too far gone. Unheralded, he single-handedly organised the annual Mont Salvat poetry festival at Eltham, where hundreds of T.S. Eliots live only for poeticised sermons and getting their end in.

He attracted the best readers aloud. Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Alan Ginsberg came, and declaimed to great acclaim. Geof must have felt vindicated when poetry lovers clapped their brains out for the thrill of witnessing the cutting-edge of concrete poetry and lyrical poetry previously heard only on radio. Yet the Australia Council never gave Geof a buck.

Listeners are exulted by live readings because poetry offers love and hate and sympathy and indifference and all the other emotions in a way that is inimitable; rather like being kissed more passionately than you expected. Yet poets in Australia die only of poetry; nothing else kills them; not even the Government.

Jas H. Duke died slumped on the wet concrete steps of the Melbourne General Post Office not long ago. He was the funniest hysterical but highly moral poet I ever applauded in a late night pub or early morning car park. He was a genius who died like poor Geof Egglestone, in utter agony and so completely solitary. Then there was my old friend Bob Harris who died sitting up nice and straight in a room after receiving a common cold. He had just won the Victorian Premier's Award for Poetry in 1992. Robert Harris had only known two things in his short life: poverty and poetry. He knew poetry would get him, and it did.

I recently read at a trendy bar for 20 minutes for $5, and yet they threw in free parking. Another bar paid me $220 plus all the grog I could get in me. It was a good deal and ought to be imitated.

Shelton Lea would have approved of such munificence and robust philanthropy. He died five years ago of cancer induced from smoking like a furnace all his limited days.

When young he looked rather like Lord Byron of Carlton. He was shatteringly handsome and read with the lightest touch late at night at the now defunct bloodhouse Albion Hotel in Lygon Street, Carlton. His dearest friend was Barret Reid, the state librarian, co-editor of Overland and a very good poet himself. He championed good poets and made certain they were paid and published as befits Australian artists. His blood was worth bottling, as they say. Like his contributors, he died in agony.

The writing of poetry is more important than the keeping of marriage. Wives tend to leave poets who can't make the mortgage and grope for the understanding cask and appreciative cigarette lighter.

A particularly gauche Melbourne poet was a Jewish bot named Adrian Rawlins, who died 10 years ago. His claim to fame was interviewing in Adelaide Bob Dylan, then beyond interview. That same 1965, Dylan turned up in Carlton, Melbourne. My brother-in-law Boyd Oxlade, who would later write Death In Brunswick, opened the door to Dylan in his white cowboy hat, drunk and stoned on marijuana. "Hey man, have you got any you know what?" Dylan asked. An incensed Oxlade demanded: "Why did you f---ing go electric?"

I got a bad fit of the giggles when we buried Rawlins. I was shovelling fresh dirt on an old friend of a thousand readings and yet I couldn't stop laughing with the relief that Rawlins would never have to con anyone anymore for a free feed or a place to doss.

It sounds so daggy for a man to go to a bar late and read his poems to strangers. But when you get to them it's worth the cowardice of not doing it. Shelton Lea was the best reader aloud of his poems in a pub I ever saw. He wooed them and soothed them.

I cried on a brick fence in Collingwood for six hours when his admirers buried him.

Barry Dickins is an author, playwright, poet and painter.

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