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John Allison 1950-2024

 




 For many years John Allison and I were members of a poetry critique group. Late last year our scheduled date did not work out leaving John and me the only participants. John suggested canning the meeting which was scheduled at his place in Port Hills Road,  but I suggested we meet anyway.

When I arrived, John ever direct, ever the realist, floored me a little by asking for a favour. Of course I said, What is it?  He said I’d like you to talk about my poetry at my funeral. I was quite disconcerted but said it would be an honour.

John, who was terminally ill, did die some months later in April, and these were some of the words I put together for his service.

Of course to do justice to John’s poetry and to his life in poetry would take several lengthy podcasts and so I’ll squeeze in as much as I can.

John was a man of many passions: his family, his loves, his music, his teaching, his friends, art, landscape, photography... I could go on. His passion for poetry ranked high on this list, and in some ways was transcendent  - for these passions  were the passions that informed his poetry and became its raw material.

John was a fine poet. Perhaps it could be said that he was a poet’s poet in that his work was especially admired and respected by his fellow poets and by editors around the world.

I have to say at this point how really I hate having to use the past tense – but reality and grammar compel it.

To describe his work recently I used the word ‘meticulous’. Being part of the poots groop – David Gregory’s term – gave me the privilege of seeing John’s craft is action as we worked through the drafts and John explained his purposes, where the poem came from and what he wanted it to do. The American poet Robert Kelly once described craft as ‘perfected attention’ and this puts me in mind of John’s modus operandi. Perfected attention.

I mentioned editors around the world. In the late 80’s when our ambitions probably exceeded our abilities, John and I had a friendly competition to see which prestigious international journals would accept our work. We aimed high. Journals whose acceptance rate was below 5 percent. I think John won. In addition to publishing in every top NZ journal, he published internationally. Just a smattering of these include top UK journals such as London Magazine and Stand, US journals Atlanta Review and Verse; The Malahat Review and Queens Quarterly, Canada – I should also mention The Antigonish Review from Canada but I’m unsure how to pronounce it – and, of course,  just about every noted  Australian journal.

When Cold Hub Press published John’s A Place to Return To: New and Uncollected Poems in 2019, John asked me to provide a blurb for the back cover. I wrote: (The book) is a rich and rewarding experience. The tone is elegiac and erudite, an erudition worn lightly and leavened by flashes of self-deprecating wit. “Attentive to the words between our words”, the poems reach for the ineffable, the transcendent, seeking things of the spirit in the minutiae of closely observed landscapes- hills, sea, rocks - and they range widely across New Zealand, Europe, the Middle East and beyond. Memory and the present coexist in these poems in a wistful fusion, turning away from darkness, the tell us “what it means to walk inside the light”. The lines Attentive to the words between our words and what it means to walk inside the light I can’t take credit for. They are quotations from the poems and are a marvellous summary of John’s poetic ethos.

Finally, I mentioned that one of John’s many passions was music. He was a fine musician himself and musicality was important to him. It was important to his poems as well.

The great Wallace Stevens once said ‘The tongue is an eye’ meaning, I think, that the sound of poetry read aloud allows us to see things beyond the symbols on the page. John was very attentive to the sound of his poetry, the way cadence, subtle rhythms, rhyme and chime illuminated meaning. To this end he thought very carefully about the way his poems would be heard by the listening ear.

The meant that was an excellent reader of his own work, and his delivery was wonderfully distinctive.

Many of you will have heard John read. Once heard, not forgotten.

And the lovely thing is, that now, whenever we read his work, we will hear John’s voice.

That is something, in fact it is quite a lot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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