Po­ems from the heart of the favoured few

The Quad­rant Book of Po­etry 2000-2010

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - John Tran­ter John Tran­ter

Edited by Les Mur­ray Quad­rant Books, 244pp, $44.95 (HB)

Athat fol­low. Mur­ray’s in­tro­duc­tion is only a page long but man­ages to project a harsh spot­light on to sev­eral per­ceived en­e­mies. The tone shows through in the vo­cab­u­lary: bat­tler, po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness, de­fied, nig­gardly, bul­ly­ing, soured, ev­er­last­ing com­bat, ob­ses­sive, aca­demic, class-de­fen­sive­ness, turn-off, tri­umphs, stern, squeezed out, plu­ral­ist free­dom, scorned, sab­o­tage, fear, rel­e­ga­tion, crit­i­cal, refuge, but only if they write well, brave, ex­cel­lence, sent to Coven­try, wars, fir­ing lines, ig­no­rance, class war­fare.

Mur­ray’s re­sent­ment is abun­dant but his praise is al­most as un­help­ful: ‘‘ Brave writ­ers of the ex­cel­lence of Hal Cole­batch and Peter Ko­can, long sent to Coven­try by the po­etry wars of the last cen­tury, fight their cor­ners in pre­cise me­tre.’’ Surely a war can’t send you to Coven­try, only a group of peo­ple can. Surely it doesn’t take much brav­ery to write a few an­gry po­ems — who hasn’t? Per­haps ‘‘ grumpy’’ would be a bet­ter word than ‘‘ brave’’.

And though many of their po­ems are en­joy­able to read and hold some real hu­man in­ter­est, the claim for pre­cise me­tre is silly. If this line is even loosely iambic pen­tame­ter (the rest of the poem is), I’ll eat my hat: ‘‘ The Spar­tans re­mem­bered the Per­sian Wars.’’

Quad­rant was founded in 1956 by James McAu­ley as a bul­wark against in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nism and was sup­ported fi­nan­cially by the CIA for some years. Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment sub­sidy took over that burden early in the piece, in 1961, and has con­tin­ued since, but it’s not enough for Mur­ray. Here’s how he nips the hand that feeds him: Quad­rant, he says, ‘‘ de­fied the nig­gardly mea­sure of gov­ern­ment sub­sidy which came its way’’.

De­fied? What about say­ing thanks? Quad­rant is not a lit­er­ary mag­a­zine, like, say, Aus­tralian Book Re­view: po­ems, re­views and sto­ries make up only a part of its con­tents. But by my rough cal­cu­la­tion Quad­rant has asked for and re­ceived more than $1 mil­lion in lit­er­ary sub­sidy since it be­gan. And this largesse didn’t just ‘‘ come its way’’ — Quad­rant’s ed­i­tors have been tire­less in ask­ing for these tax­pay­ers’ dol­lars for more than a half-cen­tury, and so they should.

Lit­er­a­ture Board fund­ing to Quad­rant was cut in 2009 from $50,000 to $35,000 for 2010, then raised to $40,000 for each of last year and this year. In 2009 the di­rec­tor of the Lit­er­a­ture Board, Su­san Hayes, said the board had had con­cerns about Quad­rant be­cause its fic­tion and po­etry seemed to come re­peat­edly from the same small field of writ­ers.

So who are the po­ets in Quad­rant? Most of the con­trib­u­tors are sel­dom met with else­where, and are rep­re­sented by one or two po­ems, of­ten in the style of news­pa­per verse of long ago. While sim­ple heart­felt po­ems from the com­mon peo­ple are a wel­come sight, should they be paid for in tax­pay­ers’ dol­lars? I think so, but some would dis­agree.

This book’s in­dex of po­ets also re­veals that a hand­ful of authors fea­ture of­ten in Quad- S with most po­etry an­tholo­gies, the im­pres­sion given by Les Mur­ray’s in­tro­duc­tion to this large col­lec­tion is quite un­like the im­pres­sion given by the po­ems rant. Per­haps they make up the ‘‘ small field of writ­ers’’ the Lit­er­a­ture Board was re­fer­ring to: Cole­batch, Jen­nifer Compton, Suzanne Edgar, Jamie Grant, Ash­lley Mor­gan-Shae, Pas­cale Petit and a few oth­ers. Along with the bet­ter­known Ge­off Page, Alan Gould, Mur­ray and Peter Skrzy­necki, they are the dom­i­nat­ing voices in the col­lec­tion. I hope it is not un­kind to sug­gest they are not per­haps the most out­stand­ing po­ets in Aus­tralia, though they are tal­ented and do stand out in this com­pany.

Nu­mer­ous po­etry an­tholo­gies have ap­peared in the decade 2001 to 2010 cov­ered by this book, yet hardly any of the po­ets in them ap­pear in this an­thol­ogy. Many of our best po­ets, young and old, are sim­ply not here. Why is that, I won­der.

This di­vide lies along­side the ob­vi­ous left­right di­chotomy, but as­lant and in an­other di­men­sion, as it were. I hardly imag­ine that any politi­cian in the past half-cen­tury has cared much about the po­ems in Quad­rant one way or the other. The two most re­cent ed­i­tors of the mag­a­zine were in­tense leftists in their youth and drifted to the Right as they ma­tured. Maybe the ex­pla­na­tion for the un­even qual­ity of this col­lec­tion lies some­where in that spin­ning tan­gle of ex­treme and con­flicted al­le­giances.

Most of the po­ems take pains to speak clearly and, de­spite Mal­larme’s dic­tum that ‘‘ Too pre­cise a mean­ing/ erases your mys­te­ri­ous lit­er­a­ture’’, there’s noth­ing wrong with that. But is di­rect speech what peo­ple ask of po­etry?

John Press, in his book The Che­quer’d Shade, makes a telling point about ob­scu­rity in verse v pop­u­lar­ity. He notes (and proves am­ply) that all the po­ets we re­gard as ma­jor to­day were ac­cused of pre­ten­tious­ness and ob­scu­rity early in their ca­reers. That is, when young, they didn’t care at­tacked the sta­tus quo.

It seems a rad­i­cally ex­per­i­men­tal turn of mind is nat­u­ral to great artists, es­pe­cially in their youth, and gives them the abil­ity to avoid stale ideas and de­velop new ways of cre­at­ing art that later gen­er­a­tions ac­cept. He ad­duces the ca­reers of Cal­li­machus, Shake­speare, all the ro­man­tics, Hop­kins, T. S. Eliot, Pound, Dy­lan Thomas and many oth­ers.

His ar­gu­ments are per­sua­sive and sen­si­ble, and he cov­ers ev­ery as­pect of ob­scu­rity in verse in de­tail.

We think of Wordsworth as a fa­mous and rea­son­able old man, but when he was young his po­etry, and that of his friends, was seen as ec­cen­tric and was at­tacked by many crit­ics. Wordsworth wrote that ev­ery au­thor ‘‘ as far as he is great and at the same time orig­i­nal, has had the task of cre­at­ing the taste by which he is to be en­joyed’’. This is an ob­vi­ous point, when you think about it, and re­verses the usual em­pha­sis on crit­ics and re­view­ers as taste-mak­ers.

The corol­lary to Press’s ar­gu­ment is that po­ets who court the ap­proval of their own time are al­ready out of date, and care more for cur­rent pop­u­lar­ity and sta­tus than for fu­ture renown. Sen­si­ble peo­ple!

A prime ex­am­ple is Alexan­der Pope’s bete noir Col­ley Cib­ber, the suc­cess­ful and pop­u­lar play­wright and ac­tor-man­ager who was ap­pointed poet lau­re­ate in 1730 de­spite his ev­i­dent lack of po­etic tal­ent. His verse is now gen­er­ally out of print. More re­cent po­ets lau­re­ate in­clude Al­fred Austin, Robert Bridges, John Mase­field, John Bet­je­man and An­drew Mo­tion. On the other side of the At­lantic there’s Robin­son Jef­fers, E. E. Cum­mings, Sara Teas­dale, Edna Mil­lay — pop­u­lar roost­ers one day, feather dusters the next.

Then there is the con­trary ex­am­ple of John Ash­bery, ex­co­ri­ated for ob­scu­rity un­til his mid­dle age. His au­di­ence has at last caught up with him and he now has in­ter­na­tional fame. His work is widely liked by young read­ers and he was re­cently voted poet lau­re­ate of the MTV chan­nel on the in­ter­net. Some­how I can’t see that hap­pen­ing to any of the po­ets in this large, var­ied but un­even an­thol­ogy.

to be pop­u­lar and

Les Mur­ray is widely con­sid­ered Aus­tralia’s great­est poet

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