Thu 18 Sep 2014
Australia lost one of its finest writers and intellectuals on Saturday September 6, when Martin Harrison died of a heart attack at age 65. A widely revered poet, critic and teacher, Harrison’s death came as a tremendous shock to many.
Born and educated in England, Martin arrived in Australia in the late 70s after three years in New Zealand. He worked for the ABC for a number of years as a producer and broadcaster of drama, poetry and criticism, and innovative forms of sound-work. Until his death he was a senior lecturer in poetry and poetics at the University of Technology in Sydney, where his cerebral, impassioned and inspirational teaching became something of folklore.
Martin was an astonishing poet, one of the most original and sophisticated in contemporary Australian poetry. Often preoccupied with the interaction of perception with landscape, his work was sustained by an unparalleled openness to varieties of form, language and literary traditions. While his early to middle poetry was distinctively contemplative and conversational, an ecstatic love affair that ended in tragedy frames an important turn in his later work, much of which is to be published in a collection forthcoming with UWA Press, Happiness. There are many, including me, who think this later work to be the best he ever produced.
As he was a major innovator of essayistic and philosophical verse, his essays on poetry and poetics are amongst the finest ever written in Australia. Who Wants to Create Australia (2004) is indicative of his profound intellectual sensitivity, and also of his modesty. Something of a ‘speculative critic’, Martin preferred to encourage thought, or to gesture towards new conceptual formations, rather than make bold pronunciations or summations of his own.
Martin had been suffering from serious illness for a number of years, but rarely did his physical malaise seem to impact upon his cognitive brilliance. As late as the Thursday before his death, Martin spoke at a monthly poetics symposium at UTS, where he was typically compelling and entertaining. Such remarkable dedication to the importance of poetry has marked his close friends and readers.
Those who were lucky enough to have spent time with Martin will cherish the memories for ever. I knew Martin for nearly 15 years. In that time I was his student, colleague, drinking partner and travelling companion, as well as a confidant and friend. As he did for so many others, Martin introduced me to a world where poetry is the key to experience, and where attention to poetics is the celebration of our entanglements with the world. I am blessed to have known him.