Extracts from Fay Zwicky’s Journals
  • Fay Zwicky and Lucy Dougan

Fay Zwicky has kept a journal in longhand since 1975. Now up to its thirteenth volume, it is a combination of writer’s commonplace book, poetry work-book, and personal journal. In its pages Zwicky reflects on what it means for an artist with a cosmopolitan imagination to engage in and sustain a creative life in an isolated place. The following extracts are taken from Volume 5, which spans 1988 to 1992, when Zwicky was truly ‘mid-way through this life’. Here she is coming to terms with great loss, and is both stoical and open to the absurd. The volume is full of dreams and the unbidden arrival of deep childhood memories, which are interspersed with wide-ranging discussions of books, poems, music, and films, and with Zwicky’s often acerbic observations of herself and the world. What unites all these elements is the poetic logic of the journal. Images of light and dark recur, along with images of water, underworlds, and mothers. At this time, Zwicky is also exploring how she might approach a poetic voice as close to natural speech as possible. Beneath it all lies her continuing political engagement, and her telling observation that she is a poet ‘in the old vulnerable sense’.

Lucy Dougan


Volume 5, pp. 588-589

Coleridge haunts me, his fate—the inquiring mind, the innocent questioner foundering against the rock of the world—seems very like mine. A ‘library cormorant’, omnivorous reader always, how could such a writer not transmute what he’d read into his own poems? He knew the ‘shaping spirit of the imagination’ from the inside; that curious alchemical process that seizes upon what sparks into life and makes it over into its own image. He also knew the paralysis of anxiety:

‘I am a Starling self-incaged, & always in the Moult, & my whole note is, Tomorrow, & tomorrow & tomorrow’ (Coleridge 2.782; to William Godwin, 22 January 1802)[1].

Fish and fowl, cormorant and starling, it wrings your heart when such innocent creatures are burdened with ideas: but it’s their saving too:

‘I feel strongly, and I think strongly: but I seldom feel without thinking, or think without feeling. Hence tho’ my poetry has in general a hue of tenderness, or Passion over it, yet it seldom exhibits unmixed & simple tenderness or Passion. My philosophical opinions are blended with, or deduced from my feelings: & this, I think, peculiarizes my style of Writing’ (1.279; to Thelwell, 17 December 1796).

It’s strange but this is exactly how I register my own split …


The two worlds of prose and verse often appear quite distinctive. I have classified them as daytime and night-time worlds. The night is the unconscious seedbed. Light and dark; clarity and murk, the world gained and then lost and maybe recovered again with morning light.


p. 610

My first memory of mother playing the piano: Debussy’s ‘La Cathédrale Engloutie’, the buried souls under the ocean waters. I can’t remember the legend precisely but there seemed to be a sinister and frightening moral in it: ‘Thus perish hypocrites!’ That it should have been a mighty cathedral, symbol of ecclesiastic authority, struck terror into my nervous heart. I associated those booming resonances, the grandeur of something tragic and submerged with my mother herself—her strange long fingers, the rolled up hair, the severe lines of her face, the eyes that never cried but which darted and flashed and missed nothing.


p. 613

Flaubert’s mother said ‘Your mania for sentences has dried up your heart’ (Steegmuller, Flaubert 218). Flaubert thought the remark ‘sublime’. That’s one way of dealing with it—actually proving her right.


p. 627

‘I never “plan” a stanza’, replied M. Moore to a question in Donald Hall’s interview of her: ‘Words cluster like chromosomes, determining the procedure…The spontaneous initial originality—say, impetus—seems difficult to reproduce consciously later’ (Hall).


p. 628

Thoreau was praised for being so original. He demurred, said it was rather curiosity…This is a great part of the writer’s freshness: employing the senses, stretching them towards the miraculous life that’s simply there. We miss so much because people keep talking, wanting to invade you with information you don’t want. To look and listen for oneself is, surprisingly, the hardest thing to achieve. Once you’ve shucked off well-intentioned parental directions, school-teachers’ injunctions, the social rituals that intrude on meditative observation, you might be free enough of anxiety to stand still without shaking. Stand still without trying to do anything. Just stand still like a breathing trunk waiting for its spring shoots.


p. 633

I’ve often thought that no woman poet gets attention in our culture until she ceases to be sexually threatening i.e. old and physically knackered. Therefore, the fifties are a bad decade if public notice is what you’re after… Just as, in life, a woman over 50 is invisible, so is she in the literary spectrum. She may pop up in journals, anthologies. She may publish a book or two. But she will not be accorded the critical attention she needs either favourably or otherwise. It will be just one more book on the growing CV. She is not young enough, new enough to be given the homage we pay to youth for actually doing anything at all. She is past modernity, having spent tenuous years wondering when it’s all going to stop mattering that much, wondering who’s listening, who likes and approves of her work, worrying about the self that doesn’t seem to fit anywhere. She is, in fact, almost ready to write her best work.


pp. 636-637

Making impromptu changes in poems when I read aloud, loosening up certain formalities of structure to make it more accessible to a listener, adding colloquialisms, apostrophes...cutting out didactic turns, learned allusions... Trying to come as close to natural speech as possible … Loosening meter and giving up rhyme is not so easy in the particulars of a poem … I was more dependent on rhythm once liberated from strict scansion and rhyme. That ‘rhythm’ is presumably the groundswell of energy that makes free verse come to life if and when it does. Loosening the meter takes place when you loosen your own anxieties, when you start breathing deeply instead of the shallow, intense, intake. Giving up the artful, learnt carapace that once went through the hoops of others’ expectations of the ‘scholarly’ child, the ‘bright spot’, the brainy one with the glasses & the migraines.


p. 647

June 6th—now 7th (haven’t slept): went to the march of Chinese students grieving for the terrible events in Beijing which started June 3rd when tanks rolled into Tiananmen square and gunfire started indiscriminate slaughter of students and civilians camped there. I have never felt so shattered. Because I was there last year, because I am a mother, because these students are young, vulnerable, idealistic, and helpless, because the sight of those shocked, angry, desperate young faces won’t go away.


p. 654

Writing at night as I do & always have done seems to reproduce the conditions of a cell, a kind of autistic incarceration which has less to do with fear of interruption than I once thought. Creative energy has a foot in derangement of a sort.


p. 655

Cocteau ‘practised friendship without respite’, (Steegmuller, Cocteau 398) spread his talents too thin. Proust wrote to him about ‘his marvellous and sterilized gifts’, (Proust 25) never really getting into the depths.[2] ‘Orpheé’ was so beautiful at the time (1949), there wasn’t much beauty around then. I loved French films because they had life and energy—‘Attends, poete!’, trying to dredge back the lost beauty from the underworld, Trying to find the music of the lyre that would lead me out of the shadows into light.


p. 658

Languages are like keys to the psyche. I’ve been looking up Karl’s elementary textbooks from which he learnt Bahasa Indonesia. Seeing the old words again which resonate back into my youth with the long dark vowels I found so musical, the relative simplicities of grammar, the cultural associations built into that post-independence period …—Kementerian (Ministry); Sang merah-putih (the red & white national flag); Utara (North) Barat (West) Timur (East) Irian Barat, Selatan (South); surat izin (permit) ... Inar negeri (foreign) ... All these words started up memories, ringing like muffled bells in a dark forest ...


p. 659

I remember at twelve determining to be a ‘lone wolf’, alone was the chosen state, a choice made in ignorance, bravado, defensive fear, and some glimpse of a future fate as a writer.


p. 674

My grandmother’s room, source of comfort, shelter from family riots, trouble in general, always smelt smoky. Even the drawers with hairnets, powder, bobby pins, trap-like metal clips to make waves in the hair and any amount of cosmetic junk smelt like smoke. So smoke and comfort were synonymous. Then the smell in the sitting room after a card party with all the tables still set in place with their fringed covers and the ash-trays full of butts from the night before … I used to creep out in the morning and sniff and look. To retrieve these memories while another war was brewing, and all the jolly fathers would leave the house with the wireless, the gramophone, the Chinese market gardeners, the beer drays drawn by Clydesdales, the steaming heaps of orange manure on the roads on winter mornings, the milkman’s horse-drawn cart with its warm red light clopping in morning darkness and to wake one day to find it all gone and fifty years passed! ...

If anyone asks my religion, I say I’m a smoking Buddhist.[3]


p. 705

If only we could allow the natural speaking voice breathing room, squashed and mashed as it gets within the awkward social prohibitions we impose on its release.


p. 710

There’s a constant cormorant on the rocks of the groyne where I swim. The other day he was floating quite near me in the calm waves when he suddenly dived and disappeared. I thought he’d get his fish, pop up close. But he was so smart and quick. There he was, back on his rock, a long way from me bumbling in his wake. Perhaps that’s how it is with poetry—you wait for the fish, dive at the right time and—who knows?


I found words for the Chinese upheaval of 1989, but this new eruption of madness leaves me speechless with dread [Gulf War]. Like the dumb cry of Gerhard Marcks bronze statue ‘der Rufer’ outside the State Gallery … The mouth yawns open and stays tight & wide like a Greek tragic mask. Poets in this country are excrescent. You can say what you like because nobody listens. Or maybe ‘hears’ is the more correct word.


p. 713

When can one face the terrible vocation that chooses you? Why do I keep pushing away the obvious fact that I am a poet in the old, vulnerable sense?


p. 719

Indecent questions which social beings have mutely decided to refrain from asking. I ask them now in poems which is probably where they belonged in the first place … I see the poet as a seismograph of the age’s darker regions. Living out fifty years of this dreadful century has certainly made the needle twitch without stopping.

Plain speech, like playing Mozart, is the hardest to come by. Sometimes I think I am getting there.


p. 722

I had a strange dream the night before my birthday.

I seemed to be inside my grandmother’s house and outside the door stood a young man dressed as a girl in a pink dress (the face was a little like mine when young, long dark brown hair, fresh colouring). In his/her hand was an old-fashioned duelling pistol with a light wooden curved handle. I was the intended victim but the figure seemed content to wait outside. I decided to go out by the back door and, as I left, it clicked shut and I realised I was locked out …

Houses often occur in dreams. Some times they have a familiar feel. Other times, they are quite unknown and yet still familiar. I can always remember the interior of the old house I once dreamt of that had many different sections, some easy of access and others waiting to be discovered.


p. 729

You have to find your rhythm, feel your way into it, refuse distractions … And then, can you bear the silence of your own company, your own dreams that can change days into nights? What does the turtle do when someone turns her on her back and her little legs claw the air? How does she regain her plod? Musicians are so fortunate to have a non-human language.


p. 745

Maybe I’ll always be a compromiser with art and never fully accept the vocational responsibilities and loneliness it demands. And yet sometimes I despise myself for lacking the courage of isolation, for liking the company of friends, for needing their respective forms of survival … To have a clever tongue is such a small thing; to use it, even smaller. Learning ones place in creation is finally where we land, and that’s pretty small in the scheme of things. I can hear the 4 am birds already …


p. 748

Home—the peace of it! Wordless with happiness. Sang Mozart all the way back in the car in a deep voice and pretty hoarse too. The open flat roads are wonderfully expanding to the nerves and I’m more competitive than I ever suspected, overtaking slowpokes in my demon little wagon. In another life, I’d like to be a speed-car driver with a humungous engine and an eagle eye to guide me.


[1] Ed.’s note: Zwicky quotes extensively throughout her journals, but rarely references quotations. Here, I have provided references where I was able to trace them.

[2] Original reads: ‘his marvellous but sterilized gifts’.

[3] Extract from p. 674, Vol 5 was first published in June 2014 at http://cordite.org.au/essays/crawling-across-tram-tracks/: ‘Crawling Across Tram Tracks: Extracts from Voumes 5 & 6 of Fay Zwicky's Journal’.




Works cited: 


Coleridge, S T 1956 Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Earl Leslie Griggs, 2 vols, Oxford: Clarendon

Hall, D 1961 Interview with Marianne Moore, The Art of Poetry No. 4, The Paris Review 26 (Summer–Fall) http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4637/the-art-of-poetry-no-4-marianne-moore (Accessed 26 October 2015)

Proust, M 1992 Marcel Proust: Selected Letters: 1910-1917, ed. and trans. Philip Kolb, London: Harper Collins

Steegmuller, F 1970 Cocteau, a biography, Boston, MA: Little Brown, p. 398

—— 1980 The Letters of Gustave Flaubert 1830-1857, Cambridge, Mass. & London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, p. 218