In the regional town where I live almost no one reads wonderful contemporary Australian poets such as Jennifer Maiden, Ali Cobby Eckermann, or even Les Murray for that matter. Mention poetry and, at a pinch, the local punters might recall the bloke named after the bluegrass instrument. Or perhaps TS Eliot, who probably still looms as a ghoul-like figure laying waste to their school years with his grave tone and dark suit.
That’s a shame, of course, for apart from the purely sensory pleasures poetry affords us — the feel of words on the tongue, the pattern of sound and rhythm in our ears — it places us in an unusually transparent relationship to the very language with which our culture is made.
This is partly to do with a simple fact of poetry’s modus operandi, that of lines which terminate through the poet’s intervention rather than because they have come to the right hand side of the page. Thus the very act of composition can often seem more deliberate and revealing than in prose.
The work of the much lauded South Australian writer Peter Goldsworthy is a case in point. For although his novels and short stories have been widely read, studied and much loved over many decades, it is perhaps in the personal interrogations of his lean poems that we see him grappling with the problems of self-expression in the most potent manner.
On the one hand there is his unabashed joy in living and the buoyant humour that comes from it. On the other, there is the tension between what he feels he is and isn’t allowed to say. This second problem, a complex motif of our era and recently a serious debating point in our political sphere under the former Abbott government, looms as both a strength and a sticking point in The Rise of the Goldsworthy’s first collection of new verse this century.
In this context the first poem in the collection, Australia, is worth looking at closely. Essentially a lighthearted spoof, the title nevertheless promises national commentary of one sort or another, as well as having the traction of lineage. Thus it begins with the aerial perspective of AD Hope’s poem of the same name. This time, however, we are looking not just at Australia but at the whole planet, as if from space.
The poem begins: ‘‘Our Earthern Dish is seven parts water, / one part China, and a tiny bit japanned’’, before listing the joys of the earth The Rise of the Machines and Other Love Poems By Peter Goldsworthy Pitt Street Poetry, 64pp, $28