I have just visited a town that was once home to a celebrated poet. More accurately, I have just visited a town that celebrates a poet who once lived there. The town is Narrandera, New South Wales, and the poet is John O’Brien, the nom de plume of a priest named Patrick Joseph Hartigan (1878–1952).
By any reasonable standard, O’Brien had a successful career while he was alive. His volume Around the Boree Log (1921) went through five editions and sold 18,000 copies within five years. His ballads about Catholics in the agricultural region of the Riverina, including ‘Said Hanrahan,’ ‘Tangmalangaloo,’ and ‘The Road to Danahey’s,’ are unfailingly droll and gentle, if not as exciting or imaginative as the much more famous bush poetry of Banjo Paterson. After his retirement from his presbytery at Narrandera, he was in demand as a speaker. And O’Brien is not forgotten now. In Narrandera today there is an annual John O’Brien Festival. My partner’s uncle and aunt, in an admirable display of local pride, had the refrain from ‘Around the Boree Log’ stamped on the bronze face of a sun-dial they had commissioned for their garden. And at St Mel’s church, O’Brien’s own, two small paths cut through the grounds: John O’Brien Lane and Hartigan Lane—the intersection of his real and pen-names.
Yet, on the whole, O’Brien’s star has faded more than it has shone. His studied unfashionableness, his total indifference to developments like Modernism, and his slight output have inevitably limited his influence and appeal, even within Australia, and certainly in the wider world. Except in one place. O’Brien held a mirror up to the people of the Riverina, and the people of the Riverina, with reason, like their own reflections.
I was made aware of another poet’s home town reputation recently. A university library near me, struggling for space and able to digitise some holdings, cancelled and gave away a number of books. One that I picked up was the collected poems of Pennsylvanian Bayard Taylor (1825–1878). Taylor made his name as a poet by writing Byronic poems of the exotic East, and he was a notable travel writer. Some of his poems, ‘Kubleh,’ for example, are very good indeed. He piqued the appetite of the reading public of a young country ravenous for stories of the world, and he repeatedly hit the bestseller jackpot, as authors did in those days. But if you’re not a nineteenth-century Americanist, you’ve almost certainly never heard of him. Except, of course, if you’re from Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. For in that town stands Taylor’s house, Cedarcroft, which is on the National Register of Historic Places and is a National Historic Landmark. The official NHL statement of significance on the property boils down to: ‘Taylor did much of his writing in this house, which he built himself.’ It’s easy to see which achievement, writing or house-building, remains more important today. The house is of national significance; the writing is something that was done in the house.
I am also reminded of the case of Joyce Kilmer (1886–1918). At a glance, it would seem that Kilmer, known only as the writer of the sappy ‘Trees,’ has been honoured widely in the U.S., and especially throughout his home state of New Jersey. Parks, schools, libraries, and a section of national forest bear his name. This is, I suppose, because ‘Trees’ is seen as early eco-poetry and its author was a fallen ‘war hero’ (another man killed in France during the Great War).
But is it an honour for a poet to be commemorated widely when the scale of the commemoration is out of all proportion to his achievement? It’s jolly awkward, I’d say. In any case, the centre of the Kilmer cult is in the places where he lived. In New Brunswick, where I went to university, the name Kilmer is everywhere, even on a library at Rutgers, the school he loved so much that he transferred from it to Columbia. And in Mahwah, New Jersey, near where my parents live, and where Kilmer lived when he wrote ‘Trees,’ the people of the town held actual celebrations for the centenary of the poem’s composition (it was written on 2 February 1913), which is a bit like a really shit Bloomsday.
This list could go on, because there are countless C-list poets and even more towns desperate to have one of their own. If this sounds sad, I apologise. I actually like home town poet worship, but perhaps because of the sadness. Or perhaps because it represents a way of short-circuiting the machinery of fame-making. If you can get yourself remembered in one place, you’ve got a chance to not die in all the others.
Keep this in mind: if you’re a poet, you’ve probably got a home town, too. If you look around and you can’t see the famous home town poet, it’s you.