Peter Skrzynecki Old / New World Poetry
About the Poet Peter Skrzynecki
Peter Skrzynecki (pronounced sher-neski) is an Australian poet and author of Polish-Ukrainian descent. He was born in Germany in 1945 and migrated to Australia with his Polish parents in 1949. After a four week sea voyage, Skrzynecki’s family arrived in Sydney on 11th November 1949. They lived in a migrant camp in Bathurst for two weeks before being moved to the Parkes Migrant Centre, NSW. In 1951 the family moved to the working class Sydney suburb of Regents Park where a home had been purchased at 10 Mary Street. Peter’s father, Feliks Skrzynecki, worked as a labourer for the Water Board and his mother Kornelia found work as a domestic in Strathfield. In 1956 Skrzynecki began school at St Patrick’s College, Strathfield, where he completed his Leaving Certificate in 1963.
After a year at Sydney University in 1964, he completed a Primary Teacher Training Course at Sydney Teachers’ College in 1965-66 and began teaching in small schools in 1967. In 1968 he recommenced his university studies at the University of New England where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in 1975. Post Graduate studies include a Master of Arts from the University of Sydney in 1984 and a Master of Letters from the University of New England in 1986. From 1987 he started teaching at the University of Western Sydney as a Senior Lecturer.
About the Volume Old/New World: New and Selected Poems
Year 12, VCE Mainstream English students for 2017, Area of Study 1, Unit 3: Reading and Creating Texts, taken from VCAA’s List 1, will study Peter Skrzynecki’s new volume of poetry entitled Old/New World. This volume contains over 180 poems selected from eight collections published between 1970 and 2000 and the 2006 collection, Blood Plums. The book’s strength is its bringing together of old and new poems in a single collection, allowing the reader to become immersed in Skrzynecki’s poetry and to gauge his development as a poet over many years of writing practice.
Skrzynecki’s Style of Poetry
Skrzynecki mainly writes three kinds of poems, all in a similarly distinctive, almost prosaic style:
- the family poem, in which he often displays a deft ability to portray character through description;
- the immigrant experience, which ranges between the new and old worlds and often has a documentary quality; and
- the landscape poem, which is often idyllic, with a poetic persona not that dissimilar to a boy wandering and meditating in a garden or countryside.
Surprisingly, the poems that focus on family and the poems that observe people, primarily, stand out in this book, rather than specific accounts of the immigrant experience, although this theme is rarely absent from his work.
Skrzynecki’s Poetry Rhythm & Imagery
Skrzynecki’s poetry has a delicate rhythm, which suits (or emerges from) his frequently plain diction, which often takes the form of naming things, usually in a garden or a landscape. There are few fireworks in his writing and his understated, occasionally beautiful images appear all the more striking as a consequence.
Notable examples include the description of the road in A Year at Kunghur (p.189), which is “like a ribbon of dust mended/ with patches of bitumen”, or the moving Elegy for Roland Robinson (p.193), where the desolate cry of a spur-winged plover leads to the conclusion:
that when the cry of such a bird
is lodged in the heart
that moment is the start
Poems from The Immigrant Chronicle
Poems from Peter’s collection called The Immigrant Chronicle first published in 1975 are some of my favourite poems in his new volume, which I studied and taught in relation to Standard HSC English in NSW under the Concepts of ‘Journeys’ and ‘Belonging’. In these poems Peter chronicles his own family’s experiences as well as other immigrant’s experiences in 1951. In Immigrants at Central Station (p.34) Peter reminisces about his family’s immigrant journey and the promise of a new life as immigrants wait with fear and anxiety on Central Station in Sydney to board a train to a new future that they have no control over. He uses personification in the second stanza as: “Time waited anxiously with us” and a metaphor to describe the choking emotions of the travellers: “The air was crowded with a dampness that slowly sank into our thoughts”.
Belonging in Feliks Skrzynecki
In many poems Peter belongs to his new home in Australia where he has grown up but his father Felik’s bond is still with his past which becomes a barrier to his belonging. It becomes apparent to Peter that his mother and father find assimilating in their new environment and culture more difficult as they get older. As such, Feliks never really ‘belongs’ in Australia. This is evident in the poem Feliks Skrzynecki (p.36). Feliks recreates his life with his garden, his work and his Polish friends but continues to latch onto the past. Reminiscing about pre-war Poland reminds him of his youth and happier, uncomplicated times before the trauma of war and the destruction of everything he knew. As Peter grows, school represents the growing chasm between Feliks and himself. It is another area where he and Feliks are divided by experience and adds depth of meaning to the battle that ends up occurring between Peter and his father.
Themes in the New Collection
The poems in this new and selected edition represent lived experiences from an often-nostalgic perspective, as demonstrated in The Wind in the Pines (p.228). Past and present, old and new are embedded structures in the majority of these poems, as the poet revisits landscapes (predominantly Australian) remembering significant places and phases of his life. Birds are often the subject of Skrzynecki’s poems and this collection is alive with ravaging lorikeets, fearless seabirds, mythological bellbirds, sparrows, swans, apostlebirds, finches and black cockatoos. Animals, fish and reptiles also feature.
Skrzynecki’s character portraits capture and express the little details of everyday life that make his subjects live on the page. Feliks Skrzynecki, the poet’s father, later revealed not to be his biological father, ‘loved his garden like an only child’; we see him sweeping paths, holding the broom with his cement-darkened hands and cracked fingers, smoking on the back steps, watching the stars.
The theme of old and new worlds encompasses the poems of migration, the elegies, the character poems and is used in the poem Leukaemia (p.199) to signify hope:
[waiting] for a new world
to take over your body
so the old can be defeated,
Old/New World is peopled with a lifetime of poems, chronicling the forging of new lives in new countries and the adjustments to be made when old familiar worlds are changed forever by trauma or grief. The journey is not merely one of physical travel, but of spiritual quest and emotional travail punctuated by moments of joy and nostalgic remembering.