Edgar Holt (1904-1988)
From avant garde poet to Liberal party publicist.
The establishment of the University of Queensland, in 1911, should have formed the basis of a literary scene in Queensland. Instead, with two exceptions, its first two decades produced a series of promising young writers who promptly fled to the easier artistic climates of Sydney and Melbourne, and sooner or later, one way or another, sold out.
Edgar Holt was born in the decidedly unartistic town of Burnley, Lancashire in December 1904. He migrated to Brisbane, with his parents in 1916 or 1917, and was educated at Brisbane Central Technical College. He trained as a journalist and worked on the Brisbane Courier, the Daily Mail and the Telegraph. He enrolled briefly in the newly established journalism course at the University of Queensland, and edited its periodical ‘Galmahra’.
In 1929, with Colin Bingham, also of the Telegraph, he published a journal Merlin Papers, which lasted 2 editions, and then left for the Melbourne Argus.
There he mixed with the Melbourne literati, and published his poetry in the Australasian and in the short lived avant garde magazine Stream.
Holt’s only commercial book of poetry, Lilacs Out of the Dead Land, appeared in 1932.
The poems in it are mostly short pieces that show almost no connection to the Australian landscape or environment. Perhaps predictably they nod in the direction of TS Eliot’s Preludes and Rhapsody on a Windy Night:
‘Who shall condemn the paltry flare:
the smoky offering of lusts;
the thin pretence of life dispersed
in astral smuts; the bleak disgusts;’
From ‘World’s End’.
Holt acknowledges his debt to Eliot by including a quotation from The Waste Land in the frontispiece. However, the poems in the book are an odd combination of modernist images captured in traditional forms; almost all the poems use conventional metre and rhyme schemes and 5 use the sonnet form.
The poems from Lilacs that have been selected for this website, Fiametta, The Miniature, and Sonnet, in a sense, are a bit like the Australian rock and roll songs of the 60s that contain references to Memphis and Arkansas Grass. We know they are not authentic, but they are technically well executed and still quite catchy. They also make a statement about where the poet saw himself, by rejecting any direct connection with Australia. They hint vaguely at a revolution to come, though, like the best Bob Dylan songs, what kind of revolution is not clear:
'You hear, my friend, the trumpet of revolt,
snarling the message of a thunderbolt.'
Holt continued in a variety of journalistic positions in Melbourne, and moved to Sydney in 1938. He served on the Federal Executive of the Australian Journalists' Association and took a leading role in a paper published by the AJA during the journalists’ strike of 1944.
He ended his journalistic career as the last editor of Smith’s Weekly, and when Smith’s closed down in 1950, he became the Public Relations Officer for the federal Liberal Party. He stayed with the party until 1974, and oversaw such innovations as the purchase by the Liberal party of its first television set, and the first televised policy launch.
Through all this time, Holt continued to publish poetry in Journals such as Meanjin, and Southerly. His later work was anthologized his friend Kenneth Slessor in the Penguin Book of Australian Verse. His last published poem was printed in The Bulletin in 1975. It begins: ‘My name is Gough Whitlam, a man of renown’. Holt died in 1988
Best book to buy: E.Holt, Lilacs Out of the Dead Land, Melbourne, Transition Press, 1932.
Further reading: Griffen-Foley, B., A “civilized amateur”: Edgar Holt and his life and letters in politics, The Australian Journal of Politics and History,Volume 49, Number 1,March 2003, pp. 31-47 (http://www.pol.mq.edu.au/Bridget%20Griffin%20Foley/Holt.pdf)