John Upton, ‘Embracing the Razor’ in the Southern Highlands Branch Newsletter

John Upton, Embracing the Razor

Review by David Clune in the Southern Highlands Branch Newsletter of the ALP ed. Rodney Cavalier

Poetry is today’s lost art form. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, intellectuals and the literati esteemed it as one of the highest forms of expression and often turned their hand to verse. Early Australian nationalism was expressed by poets like Charles Harpur. Henry Parkes gained early recognition for his – by today’s standards leaden – verse. John Hirst in The Sentimental Nation has persuasively argued that it was the poets who made a nation at Federation rather than the merchants and industrialists. But how relevant are the poets today? John Upton’s collection Embracing the Razor provides an answer. Upton has been a journalist, scriptwriter, playwright and now has now attempted that most difficult of challenges: poetry. 

The nature of poetry has changed as much as its relevance. From the Tennysonian grand style we have moved to a Prufrockian: ‘Do I dare disturb the universe?’. Modern poets favour an introverted, internal murmuring rather than public declamation. Successful poetry has to use language that is much more powerful than ordinary descriptive prose. It is a concentrated, emotive use of words. Good poetry should spark an intimate response (like good music) – that kind of immediate: ‘This reaches me somewhere special’ reaction. Professor Kevin Brophy of Melbourne University has said of Embracing the Razor: ‘The voice of these poems barely lifts above a whisper but punches great holes in the psyche all the same. If these four o’clock in the morning words do finally touch us, with some sense of a soul, we must be grateful Mr Upton went without his sleep for us’.

Some poems in Embracing the Razor are humorous, some topical, some deeply personal. The first section depicts grief at the loss of a partner. It is stark rather than mawkish and descriptions of hospitals and funerals are the more telling for that. Some pieces celebrate the quotidian by making it anything but:

I shall wear this day like a garment,
I shall draw it upon my spirit reverently.
Abroad, I shall bear witness
to the right dash of birds,
the diligence of spiders,
the patience of animals…

And when comes night
I shall drop this day like a shroud
And disappear into the ether
In the hope of finding another.


Other poems are reflections on travel. ‘Nagasaki Rain’ is built around the irony of Nagasaki Peace Park being up the road from pachinko parlours full of young people playing video war games. ‘Dream Fellini’ reflects on Diocletian’s palace in Split:

A fortress, it has stood through Slavs and Avars,
Twitch-fingered Croatian kings, drunken Venetian
sailors and tax-crazed Turkish governors.
Il Duce came, a fascist re-imagined
Diocletian – the strutting circus strongman.
Death turned him upside down.


Some poems deal with contemporary concerns. ‘The Party Secretary in the Tower of London’ has a modern spin doctor inspecting old fashioned instruments of torture and concluding: ‘Today it’s civilised, with men like me’. ‘New Privateer’ says of the global financial crisis: 

It couldn’t last, it wouldn’t keep,
when Lehman landed in a heap
a desperate SOS was sent
for rescue – could the government
while staying out, please get involved
but only till the problems solved.
It did. It worked. Too big to fail
keeps all the bankers out of jail.


There is a local poetry scene but it has lost the mass audience. This is unfortunate as poetry can help readers forsake screens and reignite the dialogue of the interior self. A message in verse is a palliative for the social media viral pandemic. Poetry offers solace to baby boomers searching for something more subtle than rock songs, whose lyrics sound like poetry to people who have never read poetry. Hopefully, like a forgotten grape variety, Australian poetry will become popular again. 

David Clune, the Southern Highlands Branch Newsletter

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