John Bray was born in 1912. He was educated at the Sevenhill Primary School, St Peter’s College and the University of Adelaide. He was Chief Justice of South Australia from 1967 to 1978 and Chancellor of the University of Adelaide from 1968 to 1983. In 1979 he was made a Companion of the Order of Australia. He died in 1995, aged 82.
John attended Friendly Street readings from the first reading on 11 November 1975 until his death in 1995. He was already a well established poet at the time of Friendly Street’s inception, having starred at Adelaide’s first Festival of Arts Writers’ Week in 1960, and having published two collections of poetry: Poems (Cheshire 1962), and Poems 1961-1971 (Jacaranda 1972). He was described in a review of his second book, Poems 1961-1971, as ‘a considerable personality of engaging candour, literate and learned yet with an earthy and rigorous commitment to social causes and humanity in personal relationships’ (S.E. Lee, Southerly).
In 1979 he published a third book of poetry, Poems 1972-1979 (A.N.U., 1979). In 1986 Friendly Street Poets published a fourth book, The Bay of Salamis and Other Poems. His poetry was favourably reviewed across Australia. He was referred to as having ‘a talent for the perfectly phrased aphorism’ (Gary Catalano, Meanjin), as writing ‘urbane, amusing yet weighty poetry’ (Barbara Giles, Australian Book Review) and as having a voice that ‘spans the old and new worlds to make a fresh statement about today’s values’ (Geoffrey Dutton, The Bulletin).
John was a towering figure in the first 20 years of Friendly Street. His poetry was included in every Friendly Street Reader until his death with a total of 75 poems appearing in the first 19 Readers. John was co-editor of the Friendly St. Poetry Reader No. 7 (Friendly Street Poets, 1983) together with Jan Owen.
A collection of addresses on classical literature, poetry, law and scholarship, was published in 1988 in The Emperors’ doorkeeper (Adelaide, 1988). In 1990 John won the SA Festival Award for Non-fiction for his book Satura: Selected Poetry and Prose (1988). His last book of poetry, Seventy Seven, was published in 1990.
A book about John’s life, entitled A portrait of John Bray: Law, letters, life was published by Wakefield Press in 1997. John Bray – Collected Poems 1962-1991, published by Queensland University Press, was launched at Writers’ Week in Adelaide in March 2000.
Friendly Street Reader No. 20 (Wakefield Press & Friendly Street Poets, 1996) was dedicated to John Bray and its cover features his sketched portrait. The editors of the Reader, Judy Dally and Geoff Kemp, comment about John’s importance to Friendly Street Poets in their preface to the Reader as follows:
“In commemorating twenty years of Friendly Street Poets, this anthology is appropriately a small tribute to the late John Bray. He was there from the beginning, and his incisive, ironic humanism, and personal decency, dignified the social and artistic life of Friendly Street.
As a mark of recognition and gratitude, the Friendly Street Executive has decided to award an annual cash prize in memory of Dr John Bray. The ‘Satura Prize’ takes its name from the title of one of John’s books: it will be the personal favourite of a commissioned selector, who will choose the winning poem from those published in a given year’s Friendly Street Reader.”
These poems are reproduced courtesy of the State Library of South Australia.
The Stone Garden of Ryoan-Ji
Raked gravel in a yard with fifteen rocks,
Dispersed erratically in five rough blocks,
And so contrived that from no place the eye
Can all fifteen entire at once descry.
What do they mean? The brochure will expound:
Islands in sea of hills from level ground.
The Chinese say a tigress with her young:
But that’s a folk-tale I shall leave unsung.
Then metaphysics proffers information.
I can’t say that I praise the explanation.
The Yin, the Yang, the Many and the One,
A feature film in everlasting run.
Infinity, no ending and no start,
Puzzles the mind and strikes appalled the heart.
Yet the scene speaks of timeless unity,
And gazes back the gazer’s scrutiny.
Uneasily I watched. Suspicion grew
The Wordsworth-Buddha world-view might be true.
But I reject Nirvana and repel
The pantheistic Circe’s dizzying spell.
I do not crave for leaves or scales or wings.
I like the singularity of things.
Look at the turtle lifting from the creek,
Complacent in his carapace and beak.
He wants no pants, T-shirt or hairy head,
Nor I to be a shell-clapped quadruped,
Content within his turtlehood to be,
As I, confined in my humanity.
This is my arm, my thought, my heart, my sense,
Not props in some illusionist pretence.
I am myself, for better or for worse,
Not of one substance with the universe,
Inside a cosmic blender merged and swirled.
To-night we set sail with the Floating World.
From Friendly Street No. 8 and Tuesday Night Live
Tobacco: A Valedictory
America to Europe, these: the cocoa bean,
Potatoes, turkeys, pox and nicotine.
The first three make us more diversely fed.
The fourth plants time bombs in the marriage bed.
The bad-mouthed filth I sing, the leaf that turns to
sneeze and cloud and jet and puff;
Cigars, cheroots and cigarillos, pipes, cigarettes, hookahs
King James ascribed its provenance to Hell.
Victorian ladies banned it for its smell.
And now, we’re told, it will erode or coat
The heart, the lungs, the arteries, the throat.
Some poets, though, promote it. Witness the shocking
Words that Kipling spoke.
‘A woman is only a woman but a good cigar is a smoke.’
I have renounced it at the doctor’s threat.
Still I pay homage to the cigarette.
It seemed to give assurance, ease and poise.
It filled the awkward hands of graceless boys.
The camaraderie of the match I cite,
The introduction of the proffered light.
Turf, Marlboro, Sterling, Capstans, I confess.
Camels and Country Life gave me delight,
Sobranjes, Stuyvesants and Black and White,
Virginians tight-packed, Gaulois in acrid shreds,
Indonesians tanged with clove,
The shared last butt, the first long waking drag after a
night of love.
From Friendly Street No. 9 and Tuesday Night Live
Never look back. Maintain a frontal stare.
So uplifters and scoutmasters declare
And those recalcitrants they discommend
Who look behind and come to no good end.
Lot’s wife by one short backward inclination
Incurred an everlasting salination.
(She must have unbecomingly gone first
For him to see how she became accursed.)
And Orpheus, despite his granted plea,
Looked back and lost half-saved Eurydice,
Then, Ovid says, took up with sodomists
And so got ripped to bits by feminists.
And yet at eighty-one I will look back.
Ahead there’s just a dwindling cul-de-sac.
From Friendly Street No. 19