These [poems] are not shockingly untrue to what he has become… They are an indication of what he almost always was…. He was a dilettante in terms of poetry and he was a dilettante in terms of politics. He had a talent for it… but the whole thing turned out to be harder than he thought. – Geoff Page
Of course, we all do… and say silly things in our youth and at university. But few of us do it with such aplomb. The fact that he was so skilful at writing something so… odious, you know, does tend to go to the character of him… He really is quite good at finding a populous voice. – Matthew Karpin
I think [this poet] was afraid of failing… well, they were afraid of taking the risks that might lead to failure, and they just knew that those risks weren’t worth taking. And they weren’t, for that person, I guess. – John Tranter
As Malcolm Turnbull considers his failing grip on the Prime Ministership, he’s surely counting what’s left of his cat-like lives, if you’ll excuse a Turnbull/feline juxtaposition. History would suggest, at the age of 63, that he’s coming perilously close to nine: he’s already been a journalist, a barrister, an investment banker, a venture-capitalist, a republican and a Prime Minister.
There was one life before any of these, that of Malcolm the Poet.
M.B. Turnbull was a published poet prior to winning the University of Sydney’s Henry Lawson Prize in 1974. The son of former-winning poet, Coral Lansbury, he was educated at Sydney Grammar School in Darlinghurst, graduating in 1972. His writings appeared in several editions of the school’s bi-annual journal, The Sydneian, which he later went on to edit under D. M. Gonski.
We have enlisted the aid of six prominent Australian poets, to textually analyse five works of Malcolm Turnbull, poet, gleaning what we may about the values of the precocious PM-to-be, a young man who, on the evidence of his verse, loved rhyme and cigars but hated proper scansion and the Catholic Church.
THE BALLAD OF G-, THE FAN AND 3A
Originally published in Sydney Grammar School 1969,
The Sydneian, vol. 363, p. 79.
The sun beat down with hellish heat,
And Noble G – rose to his feet.
‘It’s far too hot for mortal man
I think I’ll have to rev the fan.’
He turned it on, and then . . . a creak
As each and every girder squeaked,
All straining hard to keep on land
That whirling, twirling, swirling fan.
But did it stir the mighty G – ?
‘I’m hard, as tough as nails’, said he.
‘You think this fan will make me crack
‘It’s virtus, boys, I do not lack.’
And still the rusted girders fall
And blood and rust bespattered all.
‘It’s cool’, said G – and heard a crunch
‘All right boys, it’s time for lunch.’
But not a single person stirred
They all were dead and all murdered.
‘Ho ho’, said G –, ‘This is my day,
Revenge is sweet. Goodbye 3A.’
This ditty, written by Turnbull at age 15, exemplifies the technical style (and problems) of most of his work. All but one of the poems published here, The Return to the Temple, rhymes. Perhaps he just can’t quite help himself. It appears that rhyme was a Turnbull party-trick, with two articles from the University of Sydney’s Union Recorder in 1974 detailing how Turnbull would reply entirely in verse during debates.
These first rhymes garnered chuckles from author and academic Matthew Karpin: ‘[It’s] a little bit silly … funny, well, sort of funny, trying to be funny. It is a bit.’
Geoffrey Page has published 22 collections of poetry. On The Ballad of G-…, Page says: ‘I think you get a sense of personality, like, challenging established authority, and daring to write something a little bit negative about somebody who officially would be respected.’
Academic Fiona Papps agrees, using her current studies in Classics to recognise ‘virtus’ (stanza 2, line 2) as the Latin virtue of masculine strength: ‘I’m wondering if G– is the Latin master… because [“virtus”] is one of the attributes of a true Roman man.’
Page is dubious of the comedy’s technicality though, reasoning: ‘ “They were all dead and all murdered”, [is] tautologous, in a way. And “murdered” is a pretty rough rhyme…It’s arguable whether they were murdered, I mean, the fan just fell down off the ceiling; he didn’t really murder the kids… The joke sort of exceeds its bounds a bit; it’s not really as funny as he would hope.’ Despite their disagreements on rhyme, it seems Page and Turnbull both share a love of tautology.
Regardless, Page concedes that Turnbull’s portfolio is undeniably impressive: ‘When I was 15 I wouldn’t have written anything nearly as good as [these].’
THE BEST FOR THE MOST
Originally published in Sydney Grammar School 1969, The Sydneian, vol. 363, p. 60.
‘The best for the most’ the Colonel said,
And the sweat stood like tears on his balding head.
‘Send five-dozen across the bank,
If they’re shot, no matter, we’ve closed the flank,
And take a battalion across the ford.’
The aide stood like plaster, ‘But the men mi’lord?’
‘The best for the most’, the Colonel said,
And the sweat stood like tears on his balding head.
The bank was a failure, the ford a mistake.
And the men bobbed like buoys in a reddening lake.
The aide returned to the Colonel’s tent
Covered in lint, and a shirt that was rent
Into patterns that hung like a chandelier
Reflecting the death, and the pain, and the fear.
The Colonel looked on, while holding his Scotch,
‘It looks like you’ve carved up a bit of a notch,
They hit you with crossfire, a pity you know,
A nice bunch of chaps, but we’ve all got to go.’
The aide paled white and collapsed in the dirt.
‘A nice little fellow, I hope he’s not hurt.
The best for the most’. The Colonel said,
And the sweat stood like tears on his balding head.
The World War I poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon came to mind for Papps and Page, respectively, when reading this second piece, but poet Mark Mahemoff believes it represents more than a class exercise inspired by ‘In Flanders’ Fields’.
Referencing the repeated simile – ‘And the sweat stood like tears on his balding head’—which both opens and closes the poem, Mahemoff says: ‘It’s almost like [Turnbull’s] projecting that on to the Colonel … He’s turning the sweat into tears, but the sweat’s just sweat… That to me, sort of sums up a bit of his humanitarianism – he wants people to be good… He’d like himself to be good… He didn’t want people to be hurt, he didn’t want soldiers to be killed.’
Page takes issue with this simile, thinking its logical flaw distracts from any possible ‘humanitarian’ claims: ‘I think that’s a bit of a messy image… he’s not actually shedding any tears, and that’s a bit of an irony that he’s trying to get at, but sweat doesn’t really stand like tears. Tears tend to be the product of gravity… It would be better to say, “The sweat ran like tears from his balding head” [emphasis added]. He’s not really saying what he’s trying to say…’
What is he trying to say? Papps settles with Page: ‘This one is, very definitely, anti-war,’ but she adds, ‘… it’s also anti—I think—hegemonic masculinity.’
This is a theme she identifies again in later works, and explains: ‘You have this image of the Colonel who’s there with his scotch…There’s obviously a concern with what society expects of men, in terms of needing to go to war, and he’s challenging that.’ Yet symbolism, of all the literary devices, may be the most subjective. Page summons a different meaning from the Colonel’s characterisation, believing it ‘…foreshadows [Turnbull’s] republicanism [because] the Colonel would almost certainly be a monarchist.’
Whatever your interpretation, it’s been constructed by the technical elements of the piece—most obviously, the rhyme scheme. The effectiveness of Turnbull’s scansion is debatable, with the reviewing poets agreeing none of the works utilise metre capably.
Rhyme is a rhythmic device which manipulates language’s aural patterns of weak and strong ‘beats’ to emphasise or create connections between words, dictate pace and satisfy the formal constructions of verse poetry. Says Page: ‘One trouble that he runs into quite a bit of [the] time is that he doesn’t maintain the original rhythm that he starts off with.’
Dissecting the metre of The Best for the Most, Page explains that its first line is written in regular iambic tetrameter, meaning it has four ‘iambs’—an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable—in a row, but then moves through anapaestic tetrameter into trochaic tetrameter, all within the first three lines.
If that all sounds like Shakespearean balderdash, just read the first three lines aloud. You don’t need Page’s technical dexterity to recognise a rhythmic inconsistency because really, you’re exposed to melodic metre constantly in music or in advertising, even in political catchphrases.
Some writers disrupt rhyming metre to subvert formal conventions, halt the reader or disturb tone, but all the interviewed poets felt Turnbull’s broken rhythm merely reflects a lacking skill. This is, of course, to be expected of a writer of 15, but the poets observed something else in addition; they felt Turnbull’s use of rhyme had not stylistic intentions, but narcissistic ones.
When asked if they’d call Malcolm Turnbull a poet, all the writers replied: ‘No.’ John Tranter says: ‘I think [these poems] say that this person is never going to be a real poet, that he’s always going to show off and take the easy way out…’ Page had a similar impression: ‘Malcolm has, sort of, found he’s got this [poetic] facility, [but] he hasn’t bothered to do the hard work… I think that reflects his underlying sense of overconfidence, you know. He rushes into things a little bit too rapidly without realising that the whole thing’s a bit more complicated.’
Here lies a possible, if slightly stretched allegory: does Turnbull underestimate the complexity of stringing along iambic pentameter in the same way he underestimates the rhythmic complexity of bedding progressive values in a right-wing party? Perhaps his career has been one of such slight dissonance.
ST PETERS’ VISIT
Originally published in Sydney Grammar School 1969, The Sydneian, vol. 363, p. 58.
‘Twas midday at the Vatican
And through the halls the Pope did run.
‘Go place our treasures on the floor
The more, to please our visitor.
We’ll show him all the good that’s done
By every working monk and nun.’
Who is the person come to Rome
To whom the Pontiff’s gold is shown?
And who does even rate a seat
Below the Pontiff’s holy feet?
The Pope sat in his lofty chair
And at the gilded door did stare,
Waiting for his guest to come
The guest for whom this work was done.
At last there was a tiny tap
And then a knock and then a rap.
A Chamberlain did ope the door
And there he saw, a peasant poor.
‘Who is this man? Who with his shirt
Will stain our floors with pauper’s dirt?’
The peasant shivering from the cold
Advanced and saw the piles of gold.
‘O peasant are you not impress’d
By all the wealth the church carress’d.’
The peasant lifted up his head
‘My name is Peter, Pope’, he said.
‘Are you the Saint? all caked in mud,
With ragged clothes, all red with blood?’
‘In heaven, friend, all gold is dust
And shining steel descends to rust’.
‘This gold is all “pour gloire du Dieu”
It’s in his holy name, good Sir.’
‘If God had needed gold, good Pope,
Then all his flock should take a rope
And hang themselves from rafters high,
When God needs gold, then God will die.’
THE RETURN TO THE TEMPLE
Originally published in Sydney Grammar School 1970, The Sydneian, vol. 365, p. 87.
Christ, you old fisherman,
Fisher of souls,
Fishing for souls and their pennance.*
How would you sanctify
Sanctions for sinners?
And red-black peons of Peter
Peacefully, piously starving a world?
Gold bless you all
All of you –
Bearers of Christ on a Cross,
A silver Christ on a cross of gold;
Aye – you have lost the cross
Upreared on chilly Calvary;
You have lost the Christ
Who saved the sinful world
You slowly try to starve
For the red-black peons of Peter
Peacefully, piously have led back
The lenders of Gold to the Temple.
* Despite attending one of the most prestigious schools in the country, it appears that even D. M Gonski, who was a member of the editing committee for this edition, could have benefited from some increased literacy funding.
A specific kind of young idealism is apparent in both St. Peters’ Visit and The Return to the Temple, with Papps explaining: ‘I don’t necessarily see political idealism in here, but I certainly see there’s a spiritual idealism.’ The poems strongly critique Catholicism, and reflect what Tranter believes is ‘an absolutely idealistic view of the Church and of Christ’.
Owing to its lame archaisms and inversions (‘A Chamberlain did ope the door / and there he saw a peasant poor’), Page thinks St. Peters’ Visit ‘could have been written by Browning on a bad day’. In agreement, the poets felt the nineteenth-century inspired piece quite antiquated for 1969, but Karpin concedes, ‘… it’s ridiculously good for a boy of 14 or 15. Ridiculously well-written and clever.’
Cultural theorist Professor Jen Webb is more critical. Having judged many young poetry prizes, she argues: ‘I probably wouldn’t say he was particularly bright. I’ve seen much more intelligent work from 15 year olds… There’s an elevation—he’s standing aside, he’s standing back… He’s writing about stuff that doesn’t touch him, and at 15, 16, 17, he’s got passion, he’s got hormones, he’s got emotions, he’s got desires, and he simply does not go there at all.’ Despite this, she felt The Return to the Temple, which appears to be an attempt at free verse, ‘[is] not a bad poem… It’s the only one where there is a little bit of a sense of, maybe, what he was saying when he was republican… or when [he was in] Opposition pushing for environmentalism. A little bit of a belief, but clearly there’s nothing to hold on to.’
The belief expressed in St. Peters’ Visit and The Return to the Temple is that the Catholic Church’s pomposity makes it a hypocritical and immoral institution. Page explains this, saying: ‘…one of the main criticism[s] of the papacy, going right back to Luther, has been the way it sucks money in from all over the world and spends it on grandiose projects.’
At first, this may appear as quite a subversive perspective on the part of the young poet. Both works were written while Turnbull attended Sydney Grammar School, the sandstone relic which still looms over Sydney’s Hyde Park. Positioned opposite St. Mary’s Cathedral, it could be mistaken for a Catholic boys’ school, but in fact, it’s been officially non-denominational since its incorporation by Parliament in 1854.
Attending an Anglican college in the 1950s and ‘60s, Page recalls the anti-Catholic sentiment of the time, remembering that when his football team would play a Catholic school, they’d often shout rude insults at them, like: ‘If you don’t get a try, you won’t get a sausage tonight!’ Considering this, he provides a different reading of Turnbull’s religious poems: ‘Most of the people in his school would agree that popery was a bad thing… He’s not challenging his own school or his own teachers here, he’s going along with a popular prejudice…’
Some deeper research into the school’s religious affiliations confirms Page’s judgement. Whilst Grammar has always been secular, several headmasters throughout history have instigated prayers and the singing of hymns at assemblies—some of which are still printed in the boys’ diaries today. Furthermore, it is believed that John Woolley, an ordained Anglican clergyman and the school’s inaugural Secretary to the Trustees, introduced the school’s motto Laus Deo (The Praise belongs to God), which still stands today. Therefore, the Anglican faith could, in fact, underlie Sydney Grammar School, which supports Page’s perception that Turnbull was playing into a populist anti-Catholic sentiment in these works, and thus, is much less subversive than he may first appear.
Turnbull had a flair for pointing out ironies—in the Catholic Church, in the army, in the classroom—and as a pastiche to him, we should identify some too. You can’t ignore the fact that after Turnbull wrote these scathing poems against overt wealth and the Church, he went on to become both a multi-millionaire and a Catholic.
Turnbull, who was raised Presbyterian, seems to have discussed religion only once on the public record, telling Mark Coultan of Sydney Morning Herald in 2004: ‘…I said somewhere once I was neither pious nor devout. So, you can assume I’m a very imperfect Catholic…’ And with that, the former Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen, agrees. In his 2008 book, The Future of Jesus, Jensen writes: ‘I think that Jesus would dispute all of Malcolm Turnbull’s positions.’
Of course, Catholicism—like poetry—is a broad church. Page thinks: ‘[Turnbull] sees Christ as a proto-socialist…’; while Webb says: ‘[These] two church poems… suggest [Turnbull] does see a… sense of noblesse oblige – that you should be doing for the poor and not gathering for yourself. But it is underscored by… what I think of as a fairly disdainful tone to people who are not like him in the poems as a whole.’
Karpin, discussing Turnbull’s wealth, reminds us to be gentle on these apparent ironies: ‘Of course, your politics change… I do think that you need to be aware of Malcolm Turnbull as a capitalist figure now, and it’s not consistent with his position here as a boy. But you know, things change.’ And maybe they have to; as François Guizot, a nineteenth Century French Prime Minister, said: ‘Not to be a republican at 20 is proof of want of heart; to be one at 30 is proof of want of head.’
Tranter similarly recognises the teenage worldview and its ironies: ‘He’s complaining about the fact that [the army and the Church] won’t compromise at all in their views…. And yet he’s ended up in a position where he has to compromise all the time … It’s a sad thing to see… He had more idealism when he was much younger than he has now, but that’s the way things are.’
Percy Bysshe Shelley finishes his famous essay, In Defence of Poetry, by asserting: ‘Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’ But perhaps when a poet becomes a legislator it’s their poeticism that must remain unacknowledged: ‘… I think he’d disavow these poems entirely now,’ Tranter concludes.
THE BALLAD OF GUNDAMIRE
Originally published in The University of Sydney Union 1974, Union Recorder, vol. 54, no. 4, p. 55. Delivered during the debate: ‘That A Woman Is Just A Woman But A Good Cigar Is A Smoke.’
You told me that a woman cannot match a fine cigar,
And compares with it as a pushbike to a flash mercedes car;
But I Wonder in my ignorance, there are few of both in Gundamire,
Why a man would ever want to set a lovely wench afire.
Yet I have a tale, was told me by a mate of Iron-bark Fred
Who fills his teeth with plastibond, or so its often said:
Of how Sam McFee, the licensee of the “Golden Bandicoot”
Was charged by Sgt. Bailey, for running a house of ill-repute.
200 hundred miles from Charters Towers, the air is thick with dust,
And men go made in the twilight hours from an unrequited lust.
‘Tis not the girls they’re dreaming of, thousands of ewes abound,
And a bottle of rum, I’m told by some, is always easy found.
No, what they discuss as the damper burns and they suck their roll your owns,
Is a long Havana’s fragrant fumes and incomparable Dutch corones.
For though the papers arrive and the beer comes down in the weekly railway car
There’s rarely an urbane traveller with a box of fine cigars.
But occasionally, Sam McFee acquires a cigar or two
And auctions them off to the drovers as their herds are passing through.
Now it was three days before Christmas Eve and the thermometers all had burst,
The pub was full, the church was hot and even the parson cursed;
For well he knew, in his sweltering pew, if there wasn’t a rainy day
No bastard would come and pay for his rum and pray on Xmas day.
For the parson ran a business, to wit a General Store,
And generally its sign obscured the cross above the door.
But once a year he covered the shelves with a fading Union Jack
And shifted the till and the bags of feed to an outhouse round the back.
And then after a dash of Gilbeys, holy water defied his search,
The General Store became transformed into a Lutheran Church.
So on Xmas day he forgave their sins and saw the sermon was 1st rate
So he’d feel no qualms as he took the alms that were left in the Red Cross plate.
It seemed only just that after a year of dealing fair and square,
He should get a quid for making a speech and reciting a musty prayer.
So, as he carefully arranged the chairs he earnestly prayed for rain,
For 18 months he’d been driving beef and all he could see was the promised land,
Where Sam McFee would gently place a fat cigar in his hand.
The publican had a daughter, tall and slim was she,
And she worked in the bar, a-slinging the slops, along with Mother McFee.
But Sam had a problem and announced it in the bar,
“Me boys” he said “I’m afraid to say, we’ve smoked the last cigar,
There ain’t one to be found for a hundred mile and the drovers are due tonight,
And if they’re on rum and can’t find a cigar, we’ll be in for a nasty fight.”
But just as he spoke, the thunder peeled and raindrops filled the air
And the parson rubbed his chubby hands and was convinced of the power of prayer.
So the candles were lit and neatly arranged in the holders around the bar.
And the pub shone out like a lighthouse or a mariner’s guiding star.
But although it was small, the pub loomed large in the frenzied drovers mind.
And he turned in the saddle and spoke to his mates as he called the dogs behind.
“Lads” he said “I must leave you now, I need that cigar tonight
And though the stars aren’t out, I’ll find the pub by its shimmering candle-light”
So, he spurred up his horse and rode like the wind for the Golden Bandicoot
And hoped that he’d soon be wrapping his lips round a smouldering fat cheroot.
He leapt off his horse and burst like a shell through the hotels swinging doors,
Fixed Sam McFee with a madman’s gaze, “You know what I’ve come here for.”
Sam had started to tremble and cracked the zinc as he clutched the bar
“I hate to tell ye, me drovin’ lad, but we’ve smoked the last cigar.”
The drover fell into a stupor and hit the floor like a stone,
But after a moment of silence, rose to his feet alone.
The hotel was spinning around him, and as he looked up at the bar;
He imagined the publican’s daughter to be an enormous cigar.
He grabbed her in an instant and with her toes clamped hard in his teeth.
Proceeded to set the poor girl alight as he grinned in ecstatic relief
They overpowered him in a moment, and knocked him out with an urn.
But alas, too late for the daughter, who’d suffered a hideous burn.
So blistered she was, that the hardest men wept with intense emotion
Till Mother McFee appeared at the door with a bottle of Calamine Lotion.
She poured it over her daughter’s back and soon the girl revived
When suddenly Sgt. Bailey of the Queensland Police arrived.
“A’ha,” he cried. “You can’t fool me, I’m a regular Sherlock Holmes,
Such indecency’d rarely be seen in the lewdest of nursing homes,
I can see a naked woman she’s stretched out flat on the bar,
Not only is this a perve show, but clearly a massage parlour!”
In vain they attempted to tell him, that all was not as it seemed.
For this was the big arrest of which Bailey had always dreamed.
But fortunately the judge was a man far more inclined to think,
And acquitted all but the drover, to whom he gave six months in the clink.
Yet the judge was not a hard man, and understood the drovers plight,
So he mentioned to the drover, just to set the matter right;
“There’s one thing you must remember, you be a lawabiding bloke,
“A woman’s just a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke.”
Beginning his Arts/Law degree at Sydney University in 1973, Turnbull was well-known for his wit around campus. Both a representative university debater and a representative for the people, Turnbull was elected as a Director to the University of Sydney Union Board in 1974 on the promise of lower cafeteria costs, persuading students to ‘Elect a director that’s not afraid to fight for what he believes’.
During the time he was involved in student politics, the Union held regular social debate nights, where the brightest and brashest would assume the structure of State Parliament and argue fatuous topics. This particular night in February of 1974, the topic was ‘That A Woman Is Just A Woman But A Good Cigar Is A Smoke’ (to what that means, we will—unwillingly—return). The Ballad of Gundamire was Turnbull’s response, recited for the room as Deputy Premier, a member for the affirmative. We can assume the ballad was raucously received, as Turnbull then entered his argument-in-verse as a poem into the University’s Henry Lawson prize, and won.
Before we even approach Turnbull’s response, let’s consider the topic itself. ‘That a woman is just a woman but a good cigar is a smoke’ could be a reference to Freud considering the high likelihood of a supercilious philosophy major on the USYD debate committee (‘But Mal mate, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar!’). It could, also, be an allusion to Rudyard Kipling’s The Betrothed (1922), in which he ponders bachelordom over marriage. Using cigarettes as a symbol for promiscuity in the poem, a young Kipling muses: ‘Which is the better portion—bondage bought with a ring, / Or a harem of dusky beauties fifty tied in a string?’ After equally as many shameful references to his girlfriend, Maggie, and ‘the great god Nick o’ Teen’, Kipling resolves:
A million surplus Maggies are willing to bear the yoke,
And a woman is only a woman, but a good Cigar is a Smoke.
Light me another Cuba – I hold to my first-sworn vows.
If Maggie will have no rival, I’ll have no Maggie for Spouse!
Sounds like the kind of poem a group of 20-something-year-old Sydney university debating boys would identify with, doesn’t it? Yet Papps has another idea where the topic could have originated, and it, too, is anti-feminist.
Noticing Turnbull’s comparison between women and pushbikes in the opening lines, Papps wonders whether the topic was set as a jab at the feminist aphorism, ‘A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle’. This could well be the case, as while the saying is commonly attributed to Gloria Steinem, it was actually coined by Irina Dunn in 1970, while she was a philosophy student at – you guessed it – the University of Sydney.
Wherever it came from, the topic is sexist. But is Turnbull’s response? Well, the poets had mixed answers.
Karpin believes it is, unequivocally so, saying: ‘[The poem] is very dismissive of women, because the girl is introduced, and he won’t even take the gambit of then making this a poem about some beautiful, young girl. He turns it into a poem about a cigar… So, it’s doubly dismissive. Not only are women no use, but they’re even less use than a cigar…’ The remaining six poets echoed this, but Papps also presented an alternative perspective.
‘[The cigar is] an interesting symbol of masculinity, because it’s obviously taking up Freud’s idea… but this guy ends up setting this woman alight thinking that she’s a cigar, and so he ends up punished by the end of the poem [emphasis added]… so it’s almost like, for me, a critique of masculinity.’
Tranter agrees: ‘I think the idea of a cigar and a cheroot and a good smoke, it’s a way of talking about feminism in a reverse way. It’s talking about masculinity… he’s playing at it.’
Are we giving young Malcolm too much credit? Probably. The image of a packed room of university debaters howling in laughter at a story about a man that is so drunk and desperate for a smoke that he ignites a woman, and then gets only mildly punished, is really quite a perverse one.
Mahemoff was most perplexed by the choice of form: ‘It’s hard to see [Turnbull] as someone who would convincingly like ballads…. I can imagine him at the opera, the ballet – I don’t imagine him doing ballads.’ Webb believes The Ballad of Gundamire was more likely an appropriation of the ballad than a tribute to it, and thus, sees the piece as another incarnation of chauvinism: ‘I think the classism [in it] is actually more profound than the sexism…’ She continues: ‘You look at this concatenation of images he’s putting together here around this pub, and around this community… What they do [is] they smoke the wrong stuff, they drink the wrong stuff, they fantasise sexually about the wrong stuff, they do the wrong things, they don’t behave like sophisticated people, like “urbane” people… So, the classism, the sexism, the vulgarity of these people, is what disturbs me.’ Considering the context, Webb maintains that Turnbull’s audience would have been well-acquainted with the (often classist) canon of bush poetry, and therefore suggests: ‘What he’s doing is dog-whistling actually – to use political language. He’s going for an easy laugh.’
The Ballad is certainly a performative genre, and Tranter thinks this choice fitting: ‘[Turnbull’s] always performing for the public. He’s very conscious of the public and he’s aware of his role as a performer – all the way through … He’s a very vain person, and I think you can see in his poetry his vanity…. I think it’s the rhyme, and the acting out of the poem…’ Papps also evaluates this element of the poem, saying: ‘He would not be a good revolutionary, because he plays people, I think. I think that performative element is certainly playing people.’
While we can dismiss our annotations of Turnbull’s high school poetry, Karpin thinks: ‘… by that time, age 20, you need to start owning what you put on the public record…. You can’t entirely wash your hands of it.’ With this in mind, Karpin’s overall observation of Turnbull’s university work is that: ‘… [It’s] a triumph of form over substance—it really is… [and] that speaks volumes about his career, because he really does know how to put things into words effectively, even into a story…But there’s not much substance to it.’
Also discussing Turnbull’s deflection in The Ballad of Gundamire, Mahemoff says: ‘I think that sums him up in terms of how he’s gone as Prime Minister… in his desire to want to understand everything, everyone, and try and let everyone feel understood, he actually doesn’t take a position.’ Webb agrees, saying: ‘Again, he’s using a very derivative form and an attempt at humour to avoid making a case, to avoid sharing what he really cares about, what he really thinks about.’
Having taught high school debating, Page argues this merely reflects contextual restraints: ‘It’s almost inappropriate in a debate to make a strong statement that shows your own personal convictions. What you’re trying to do is win the contest… I don’t think that’s behaving immorally, but it’s just a convention of the competition.’
Do those same conventions apply in the contest that is politics? It’s an uneasy comparison; we discuss the Party which is most successful in an election as that which ‘won government’, so is democracy simply a competition that can be ‘lost’ or ‘won’? To some—it must be, and it seems that in 1974 Turnbull was already in the game, with Karpin observing: ‘[Turnbull] didn’t take a position that might have seemed ethical at that time, when he [was] doing that debate; he took the position that was populist.’
Both poetry and politics are art forms. Politics is the art of the possible, while poetry is an art in itself. In 1956 – long before Turnbull’s time in office—an American world leader saw an opportunity, even a necessity, for an affinity between the two, affirming:
If more politicians knew poetry, and more poets knew politics, I am convinced the world would be a little better place in which to live.
The poets interviewed for this piece disagree with those words from John F. Kennedy. Page says: ‘The skills that you need to write, such as Keats’ idea of Negative Capability, [are] probably almost disastrous for a politician to have.’ Coined in an 1817 letter, Keats used his idea of Negative Capability to describe a “Man of Achievement” as someone for whom ‘the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.’ Clearly this “Man of Achievement” would not be a patron of ‘The Art of the Possible’.
Tranter agrees, adding: ‘I don’t think that politics and poetry go very well together at all… Politicians are more worthy of respect… but then they always have to compromise… Whereas the poet says, “No. I won’t compromise. Fuck the lot of you. I’ll do what I think’s right, and that’s it.” And the poet does what’s right, but it may not be right for the average person.’
In the beginning, Malcolm Turnbull’s centrism seemed to straddle both the persona of Poet and Politician; a seemingly idealistic pragmatist, he assured Australia that change could be achieved even within the utilitarian structures of democracy. Two years on, we realise this is simply (oxy)moronic.
On whether this literary analysis approach could truly reveal anything of Turnbull’s values, Webb replies: ‘We don’t have enough of his poems to see what he was really like, but we do have enough to say that he’s not exposing himself.’ She concludes: ‘In [Turnbull’s] refusal to take risks, he has failed. They’re not good poems.’
Perhaps this is the greatest metaphor for his Prime Ministership.
Lane Pitcher is currently studying creative writing and law at the University of Technology, Sydney. She advocates for more rhyme during question time, and thanks Dr. Sue Joseph in the Faculty of Communications for her help with this piece.
Fiona Papps received her doctorate in Psychology from Macquarie University, with Vice Chancellor’s Commendations, in 2001 and won the Milton Acorn Award for Poetry in 2010. Fiona worked for nine years at the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada, where she served in a variety of roles, including Assistant Professor of Psychology, Head of the Department of Psychology Research Ethics Committee, and Head of the Department of Psychology. She now lectures in Psychological Sciences at the Australian College of Applied Psychology.
Geoff Page has published twenty-one collections of poetry as well as two novels, five verse novels and several other works including anthologies, translations and a biography of the jazz musician, Bernie McGann. Now based in Canberra, he has won several awards throughout his career, including the ACT Poetry Award, the Grace Leven Prize, the Christopher Brennan Award, the Queensland Premier’s Prize for Poetry and the 2001 Patrick White Literary Award, and was nominated for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards in 2014 for his work, 1953.
Jen Webb is the Distinguished Professor of Creative Practice, and Director of the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research in the Faculty of Arts and Design at the University of Canberra, where she previously served as Dean. She is a poet and the ACT editor for the Australian Book Review’s States of Poetry mini-anthologies, chair of the NSW Premier’s Literary Award (Kenneth Slessor Award for Poetry), and co-editor for the Australasian Association of Writing Program’s literary journal, Meniscus. Webb is currently undertaking an ARC-funded investigation focused on creative labour studies.
John Tranter is a prolific Australian poet. Having consistently written, edited and critiqued Australian poetry since the 1960s, he is the recipient of numerous poetry grants and residencies, and the winner of countless literary awards, including; the 2011 Age Poetry Book of the Year and the 2011 Queensland Premier’s Award for Starlight: 150 Poems, and the 2006 Victorian Premier’s Prize for poetry, the 2007 New South Wales Premier’s Prize for poetry and the 2008 South Australian award for poetry for Urban Myths: 210 Poems: New and Selected. He has compiled four anthologies of other writers’ work, including co-editing the Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry (1991), and founded the free internet literary magazine, Jacket, in 1997.
Mark Mahemoff’s third collection of poetry, Urban Gleanings, was released by Ginninderra Press earlier this year. Based in Sydney, he currently works as a psychotherapist, and has written poetry for over twenty years. His other works include Near-Life Experiences and Traps and Sanctuaries, published in 2002 and 2008, respectively.
Matthew Karpin holds a Master of Arts in English Literature from The University of Sydney, where he helped re-release Hermes, the university’s literary journal, in 1985. His works include In Our Own Day (1995) and The Thesis (2004). Karpin currently teaches courses in fiction at Griffith University.