I recently lost one of my dearest friends, the poet, critic and teacher Martin Harrison. Martin’s health had been an issue for much of his life, but such was his force of will, his passion for life and lack of complaint, that these problems always seemed a minor part of him. Having apparently been told at the age of 25 that he would likely live but 5 more months, he survived a further 40 years, and I feel enormously fortunate that I was able to share many of those years with him. He was the most extraordinary human being – deep thinking, wise and compassionate, a man of great knowledge, talent and understanding. Over the years of our friendship, he had a profound effect on me personally, as well as on the development of my work, and his influence will be palpable within Australian poetics, as well as the arts generally, for generations to come. We gave him a lovely send off in an old church, and he was buried in Wollombi’s beautifully situated cemetery. During the burial a magpie swooped low over the crowd, landing on a headstone and remaining there as our friend was lowered into the earth. A poignant presence, considering the attentive spiritualism with which Martin viewed the natural world.
I’ve had some requests for my eulogy, and so I’ve included it below. I included the service sheet here as well, for anyone who knew Martin and was unable to attend.
Martin Harrison 1949 – 2014
I’m going to preface this by acknowledging the impossibility of finding adequate words when it comes to Martin, except perhaps his own. And yet, at the same time, to recognize that this is precisely what so many of us have been doing, over and over, through the years of friendship. Martin was a man for whom conversation was an artform, and one that held great joys. I have a vivid memory of the first lecture of his I attended, how there was this space around him, there at the front of the class, as though the air itself might be different. No doubt it was in part the awe of his student disciples, and the unmistakable brilliance of Martin holding forth, the bright marvel of it. That sense that, rather than just attending another university class, something was happening.
And more than anything, more than the dynamism of his talk, the breadth of his knowledge, was the fact that he made welcome everyone who wanted, really wanted, to be part of the conversation. He had a gift for making his students feel as if they, we, were all fellow travellers, embarked together on some voyage of discovery. That the world of ideas, the great universe of literature, might unlock those metaphysical doors that philosophy knocks on again and again and again, if only we worked at it long enough: that if we stuck at it, we might just find the key together. And this belief, in some small way, made a fact of it.
Another element that drew students into this close orbit was his capacity for forgiveness. There was so much understanding in him, such variety and extent in his points of view, that when it came to the personal failings of others, he judged very rarely. Perhaps this talent more than any other saw him act as confidant and councillor for so many of his students, and saw so many of those students become his close friends.
For Martin, the role of mentor and teacher was inseparable from his place in that world of literature. He writes somewhere in a poem – I think it’s in Music – that he likes to keep his pleasures separate. And yet he was a man incapable of separating himself into pragmatic modes. There was no middle ground in him. There were many points of view, but no relativity. The aesthetic dimensions of existence were also co-mingled in Martin. He loved the bush, and in many of his poems there arrives that sense of stepping outside – a casual human gesture – to walk about in the sensuousness and music of the world. Frogs. Birds. Strobing cicadas. Transcribing that music was his life’s work; or was, at least, a part of it. There is so much there; the cultural sweep, the borderless-ness of its great world of empathy, which, for him, really was a world. From Tunisia to Cambridge. From a small Paris winter café to a towel stretched out by an inland summer river in NSW. All these intersecting moments, tangled up, just as we are tangled in the world: poetry, nature, spirit; the great connectedness of one thing with another, of us with country, of us with each other.
He once described to me, in miffed tones, how a doctor had told him he had to accept the fact that he had a body, that he was more than just a mind. And of course we know what the man had meant, for it was such a mind, and with a body constantly betraying him; yet he took great delight in corporeality, in physical pleasures. He approached the act of eating with an open-hearted joy. And how many of us here have passed the night’s better part with him, lost in talk, and on taking a rude shock from the clock, have had him say, with nine parts sincerity and one part mischievousness: ‘Or we could get one last glass of wine. There’s a place nearby that’s quite good. It is. Yes. Really…’
Martin’s life was too short. I wanted to keep him with us forever, or at least, selfishly, until my own time is up. And there was even some weird part of me, no doubt leeching from his rampant optimism, from the force of his will which surely, surely, could conquer anything, that despite all else he would be. Yes, his life was too short, but wow, did he ever live those 65 years, and how lucky we all were to share them with him.
His capacity for love, for generosity, was boundless. Yet on matters of principle he was utterly uncompromising. He was a man who felt the spiritual significance of landscape, of its furrows and spines, and such spiritual connection was part and parcel of this compassion. For we are connected with the land just as we are connected with each other. Martin was a man who felt that a tree, a field, a rock, could possess some kind of spiritual essence, might contribute something to the elemental sway of who, of what, we are. He was, in short, the most extraordinary man I have known.
In Harrisonian style, I want to finish by offering two images. The first is of the tragicomedy that is his great impatience with bureaucracy. That still, now, back at the house, there is a stack of debt recovery letters an inch think, demands for money generated by some bureaucratic machine as a result of minor infractions in the driving codes, ignored parking violations, a toll booth he had refused to acknowledge. And that, without meaning to gloss those practical parts of his life which, toward the end became so difficult – would have been utterly impossible, I think, if not for Nick Keys acting in the capacity of personal care giver, as well as friend and editorial assistant – and that there is a peculiar, dismissive victory in this stack of stupidly generated fines. For why waste life on things that are not worth our time? When there is wine to drink. When there are poems to write. Conversations to be carried through the night.
The final image is one I have carried around with me for many years, from when Martin was supervising my honours thesis at UTS. We had spent weeks talking incessantly of Heidegger, and at a delicate stage of the work, he came in for our Monday meeting and described how he had spent the weekend in the Great Lakes region, that he had sat on the beach reading Being and Time – just to see if he agreed with what I was writing, to see if I could get away with it. And how this for me has always expressed something elemental of him. Its beautiful incongruity. As though you could take the entire history of western literature and plunk it on the sand with a beach umbrella. As though it could be this uncomplicated. Nature. Culture. Mind and sense. And that this is one memory I will keep of him forever. Reclined under trees, shirtless, a book open, then occasionally lifting his eyes, to glance across the shining water.