Born and raised in Adelaide, for nearly forty years John Kelly has taught senior English, History, Classical Studies and Religious Education in Victorian, New South Wales and South Australian schools. In addition to this latest collection of poems, A Schoolbag Full, Kelly is the author of two other poetry books: Seasons of the Spirit (Homebush: St Paul’s Publications, 1978) and Bearings (Polding Press: Melbourne, 1982) and has had poems published in a range of magazines and newspapers including Quadrant, Eureka Street, News Weekly, The Advertiser, and the international educational journals Champagnat and Catholic School Studies. His verse-play, The Voice of Blood, (1991), based on the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador, has been performed by senior students of St Paul’s College and St Ignatius’ College in South Australia.
How did you come to write poetry?
I’ve had a fascination with and love of words and music from as far back as I can remember. I grew up in a family with four brothers and a sister, which ensured regular, lively conversation. My mother and father were of Irish Catholic descent. My grandparents spoke with southern Irish brogues. Singing was part of everyday life at home, at school and at Mass, where I loved the beauty and majesty of the liturgy, and the dramatic quality of the sermons. A hand-cranked gramophone was our first record player; then a table-top one on which my father played his favourite tenors, but mainly John McCormack whose bel canto was recognised as sublime — even by the Italian masters. Christmas dinners in Willaston, where my mother grew up, were an extended family gathering, with carol-singing and present-sharing before lunch, and backyard cricket in the afternoon.
Being brought up in such a conversation-and-music-rich environment was conducive to both reflection and self-expression. Though I loved poetry from my earliest years, it was only in my post-schools years that I began to write poems on any regular sort of basis. Poetry was an inexpensive pastime: it cost only attentiveness and time; materials were as close at hand as circumstance, memory and imagination; and receiving an interested response was at least an indication one wasn’t simply talking to oneself.
My engagement with poetry as a specific language form was ignited by my my grandmother’s recital of nursery rhymes and my father’s bedtime reading of Banjo Paterson and John O’Brien on Friday and Sunday nights; these were highlights of my week in early years. At primary school I discovered, Alfred Noyes, John Masefield and Dorothy McKellar, and also, in Grade 7, the French language, which, like the language of the Irish nuns and priests, and our Italian neighbours, was so lyrical.
In secondary school, encountering Shakespeare was a decisive experience. I was introduced to his sonnets in first year, then his drama: firstly, Henry V, then in subsequent years, Macbeth, Hamlet and King Lear. The teacher who taught us Henry V, Fr Martin Wallace SJ, affectionately known as “Skippy” for his bouncy gait, was a native Gaelic speaker. He strode into the classroom reciting from memory the highly rhetorical Prologue to the play. That was a magical moment for me, and a decisive one: for the rest of the term I read, over and over, till late at night the Choruses and major speeches of the play. Such was my fascination with Shakespeare’s imagery and music that my performance in Maths and Science dropped, and my parents on seeing my report discussed what was happening with the Prefect of Studies, Fr Tom Barden SJ who taught me French. He reassured them that I was discovering my future interests and directions, which were more likely to be in languages and humanities than in maths and sciences.
My final school year, then called Leaving Honours as we had completed Matriculation in Year 11, afforded greater freedom to explore our interests. Unencumbered now by Maths and Science, I relished casting off further into Shakespeare, Chaucer, Donne, Yeats, Hopkins, Hardy and Eliot. I also encountered Valery, and in Latin classes with Fr John McAreavy SJ studied Virgil’s Aeneid, along with some Horace, Ovid and Juvenal. Our school’s major drama performance of Macbeth, directed by Mr Richard Flynn — who was to establish a remarkable tradition of performance drama in the then-young school — also enhanced my sense of the possibilities of the word and contributed significantly to my writing, in 1990, a part-verse drama occasioned by the murders on 16th November, 1989, of six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter in San Salvador. The play was performed by students of St Paul’s College where I was teaching at the time, and later by students of St Ignatius’ College under Richard’s direction at the Norwood Odeon.
So, by the completion of my schooling, though I’d written only a handful of poems, I’d had a pretty rich and solid grounding in poets of the Western cultural tradition. There was, too, an emerging poet and folk singer called Bob Dylan who was writing an exciting mixture of love ballads and political and social criticism that my friends and I were discovering around our night fires on the beach at Port Elliot in the summer holidays of ’64 and ’65. With the encouragement of university friends and Jesuit confreres, I began writing more regularly, and produced my first collection of poems, Seasons of the Spirit, in 1978; then Bearings in ’82, favourable response to which by a wider readership was encouraging.
What was the inspiration for your new collection, “A Schoolbag Full”?
A couple of things. Firstly, I retired from classroom teaching in 2016, which gave me more time for the sort of reflection I needed for writing. A year after my retirement, with long-deferred jobs around the house finally done, I experienced several months of uninterrupted creative impetus — a novel experience for me - which yielded a number of poems. By the end of 2018, I had sufficient material to think about a new release, which could also include poems written intermittently since Bearings. But my initial intention was to present to our four children snapshots in poetry of my own childhood and adolescence and the things that shaped them in a world I sensed was rapidly changing. Then, just as I felt the MS was complete, another poem would arise. At the end of 2020, encouraged further by friends and colleagues, and the generous offer of one of them to assist, I decided it was time for a final editing and the start of the publishing process.
So, come May, we should see a third collection “running around”, as Dylan Thomas would say, “on its own little legs.” And at this point I should acknowledge my debt to both St Ignatius’ College and Sacred Heart College for their encouragement and assistance in promoting the book. Both schools have special significance for me as my father was educated by the Marists at Norwood, as was I years later when it had become a Jesuit school.
Is it fair to say that your collection, while it covers a wide range of topics, features faith, specifically the Catholic faith, prominently?
Certainly, though obviously I’d hope it has resonance outside Catholic circles. I think one writes best about what one’s most familiar with, and I think I can say I’m closely familiar with the Catholic faith through my upbringing, education and teaching experience for nearly forty years, mainly in Catholic schools that include the Josephites, Jesuits, Christian Brothers and Marist Brothers — schools that have, I believe, made an extraordinarily constructive and rich contribution to the Church and Australian life in many fields, and continue to do so.
To be a Catholic in the times my life so far has spanned has been almost continually to be challenged — emotionally, intellectually and spiritually — with societal change, locally and globally. While this can be daunting and exhausting, it is, I believe, at root a God-sent opportunity for renewal and growth. I’m gladdened if some of my poetry captures and shares something of this, which is by no means an experience peculiar to me. The faith we receive in baptism is something for which we can be eternally grateful. It is a source of inspiration, hope and gratitude; and a provider of vision and purpose in life beyond ourselves.