Martin Haley (1905-1980)
Catholic formalist who captured place and time.
When Martin Haley died in October 1980, the Catholic Leader called him a ‘zealous apostle of Catholic tradition’, but he was much more than that: teacher, poet, journalist, controversialist, and literary figure.
He was born in New Farm in 1905 but grew up in Nambour. In 1917 he won a scholarship to Nudgee College, and his four years as a boarder there were a major influence on his life. Indeed his first book of poems even contains a version of a Nudgee school song (‘Onwards, Nudgee, BLUE WHITE BLUE’) and a sonnet to ‘Brother McCarthy’ who taught him mathematics.
In an era when the school leaving age was 12, he did well enough to sit the senior exam, but though he did well overall, he failed English, and thus was ineligible to attend university. He took a job in a bank, first at Nambour, then at rural Beaudesert, but had moral problems with the banking system, so he took up school teaching, ‘to set going a social revolution’.
After an initial posting at Yeronga, Brisbane, he took a variety of teaching positions in rural Queensland and it was in these remote postings and in his time at Beaudesert, that his real education took place. He read widely, Shakespeare, Ruskin, Carlyle, William Morris, George Eliot, and Thomas A Kempis. In an unpublished memoir, he noted that he spent a period of unemployment translating Marmontel’s Memoirs, from the French. During this time he experienced spiritual doubts but he never, ultimately strayed far from his mother church and none of these doubts show up in his published work.
By the early 1930s he was beginning to publish poetry, at first in Catholic journals and then a little more widely. He became a prominent figure in the Catholic Poetry Society and its successor the Catholic Writers movement, but he did not mix in exclusively Catholic literary circles. His was active for many years in the Queensland Authors’ and Artists society and its successor the Fellowship of Australian Writers, corresponded with A.D.Hope and T. Inglis Moore, and his work was anthologized by Mackaness (1946) and in various Jindyworobak Anthologies in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
He published at least 14 volumes of poetry, translations and epigrams, a prolific output for a poet of the time, and largely at his own expense. His work is characterized by rigid formalism, an intellectual streak and a lack of autobiographical poetry.
However, I don’t wish to paint him as some austere, aloof, Augustan figure. He is interested in the world, ideas, politics, current events, his faith, his family, and the places he experienced. He used poetry as a means of expressing his experience.
Occasionally this finds its way into a direct expression of love:
‘Two roguish daughters I, and little hope of sons:
These are my loveliest poems-perhaps my only ones.’
(31st December, 1943)
Sometimes he comments with deprecating humour on the values of the day:
‘…Across the Bridge, across the Flat-
Out to the Doomben Course
To worship the source of our delight,
God of all gods - the HORSE!’
Perhaps more importantly, Haley wrote a number of memorable poems about places and some excellent light spirited narrative poems. The poems I have selected for you are typical of this mode. ‘Red Hill, 1940’ is an excellent, reflective blank verse piece about the suburbs and the country, at a time when the Gap and Mt Coottha were exotic places, ‘December’ an exact description of the Ithaca Baths written in free verse, and ‘First Things First’ an example of his humour and the breadth of his reading. Click on the links to the right to read these poems, which are copyright and reprinted by kind permission of the Haley family.
No-one today would claim that Martin Haley was a major figure, even in the Queensland scene of his time. But he was widely respected in his time and wrote a large amount of readily comprehensible work. If you want to get a poet’s view of what it was like to live in Queensland between 1930 and say 1975 his work is a good place to start.
Best book to buy: M. Haley, Annunciation, Brisbane, Shipping Newspapers, nd .