James Picot (1906-44)
An intellectual modernist; died a POW.
James Picot was born in Hertfordshire, England in 1906. He migrated to Queensland in 1923, and took a succession of agricultural jobs before moving to Brisbane, where he studied at the Teachers’ Training College, the University of Queensland and briefly at St Francis’ Anglican theological college, Milton.
From the 1920s onwards he began to publish poetry, in both English and Australian journals. He was briefly associated with both the Catholic Poetry Society and the Queensland Authors and Artists Association, and with CB Christesen, Paul Grano and Brian Vrepont was one of the 4 founders of Meanjin, in 1940.
In 1941 he enlisted in the second AIF, and was posted to Malaya, where, upon the Japanese invasion, he was taken prisoner. He was one of the many POWs forced to work on the Burma railway, and he died of disease in Burma, in April 1944.
Nine years later, CB Christesen edited and published Picot’s sole book of poetry, With a Hawk’s Quill. It is a strange and often unsatisfying book. Some of the poetry is unfinished, and much of it is so obscure as to be impenetrable. There is one particularly heavy handed tilt at TS Eliot (Karl in the Hofgarten or The Dialectic Chez Madame Sosostris) and a piece that shows the influence of Hopkins (In Praise of Syf).
But the best work in With a Hawk’s Quill has no antecedents among Queensland poets and is entirely Picot’s. Of the poems selected for this website, The Lord in the Wind is a variant of the sonnet form, with clever use of half rhyme, a great feeling for sound and a deep spirituality. To a Rosella and Prickly Pear show an affinity with the natural world. Like a lot of early modernist verse, both poems bring about powerful rhythmic effects through simple variations of the five stressed rhythmic (or metrical) scheme known as iambic pentameter.
Picot is I think among the 2 or 3 most openly intellectual of the early Queensland poets. In fact, he seems to have been ‘poetic’ at a time when being poetic was not discussed in polite company in Queensland. He was described in the introduction to ‘With a Hawk’s Quill’, as having ‘Long unruly hair, gaunt, with a fierce look in his eyes, he stalked around with a terrific air of preoccupation…..When the bombs were falling he went about unconcernedly and singing lustily’. Martin Haley said, more simply, ‘He looked the poet, but died before his summer-time’.
However, his work is not concerned with the intellect but, like all the best poetry, with the heart, and the best of it is still accessible to an ordinary reader. It is to be regretted, from a literary perspective, that no poems appear to have survived which record his time as a POW.
One can only wonder what might have been.
Best book to buy: J Picot, With a Hawk’s Quill, Melbourne, The Meanjin Press, 1953.
See Eliot’s The Waste Land, at line 43: ‘Madame Sosotris, famous clairvoyant’.