There are hits and misses in an am­bi­tious new an­thol­ogy of con­tem­po­rary Aus­tralian po­etry, ar­gues Louis Nowra

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Po­ets used to be like rock stars. Their verse was re­cited, re­mem­bered and re­garded as the pin­na­cle of a writer’s achieve­ment. Now a real rock star in Bob Dy­lan has won the No­bel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture with lyrics that are to po­etry as a clay pot is to a golden bowl. Po­ets now seek suc­cour in the du­bi­ous sanc­tu­ary of academia and strug­gle for a dwin­dling read­ing au­di­ence, like beg­gars fight­ing over the con­tents of a dump­ster.

There are a few in­trepid small presses that con­tinue to pub­lish Aus­tralian po­etry, such as Puncher & Wattmann, which has now pub­lished a hefty an­thol­ogy of con­tem­po­rary Aus­tralian po­etry edited by four po­ets, Martin Lang­ford, Ju­dith Bev­eridge, Judy John­son and David Mus­grave.

The an­thol­ogy cov­ers the past 25 years. The edi­tors’ stated aim is to prove the past quar­ter­century has been an ex­cit­ing pe­riod for our po­etry. They also spec­u­late that prose writ­ten dur­ing this time has not been as good.

All po­etry an­tholo­gies these days are a po­lit­i­cal act. Ge­of­frey Lehmann and Robert Gray’s Aus­tralian Po­etry Since 1788 (2011) was at­tacked be­cause it didn’t in­clude enough in­dige­nous, fe­male and eth­nic writers. It was even sav­aged be­cause Lehmann had the nerve to be po­etry edi­tor of the con­ser­va­tive mag­a­zine Quad­rant.

The edi­tors of Con­tem­po­rary Aus­tralian Po­etry are keenly aware of this and, given the fact aca­demics can put an an­thol­ogy on a univer­sity syl­labus, are suit­ably anx­ious to ap­pear ide­o­log­i­cally cor­rect. They have in­cor­po­rated ‘‘marginalised voices’’, a ‘‘full range of sex­u­al­i­ties’’, mi­grant voices and ‘‘po­ets of di­verse eth­nic her­itage’’ who try ‘‘to per­ceive and ar­tic­u­late the land as an en­tity in its own right’’ (what­ever that means).

Some of the strong­est an­tholo­gies over the years have gen­er­ally had one or two edi­tors. This pro­vides an opin­ion­ated per­spec­tive, one that in­vites the reader to en­gage with or dis­pute choices, know­ing the in­di­vid­ual tastes of the edi­tor. Four edi­tors seem less a per­sonal ap­proach than that of a com­mit­tee that has cast its net wide to in­clude 240 po­ets and more than 500 po­ems.

There’s a tra­di­tion that edi­tors refuse to in­clude their own po­etry in an an­thol­ogy, but the gang of four make a brave choice in de­cid­ing to in­clude five pages each of their own po­ems, which for two of them is overly gen­er­ous, given that bet­ter po­ets have some­times only two pages to im­press.

And there is a real snag with the 25-year time frame. Older po­ets, some now dead, are al­lowed one or two po­ems, but the prob­lem is these pieces are from the end of their ca­reers and are not their best. So for Bruce Beaver, Vi­vian Smith, and the great Gwen Har­wood, the reader has to make do with some lesser works that don’t hint at their real achieve­ments, though the con­fronting Bruce Dawe po­ems deal­ing with his beloved wife’s death are an anom­aly in this re­spect.

Of course any an­thol­ogy in­volves aes­thetic choices that can be ques­tioned, but I won­der if the edi­tors’ se­lec­tions of verse by MTC Cronin and John Tran­ter are their best ones, es­pe­cially the lat­ter, whose work can some­times seem like a toss-off but has re­mark­able depths.

Then there are those de­ci­sions about po­ets who have been given much too much space. Martin Har­ri­son’s po­etry, for ex­am­ple, can be list­less and so dull at times as to be so­porific. Dorothy Porter’s work seems more hum­drum than when it was orig­i­nally pub­lished, and Alan Wearne’s gar­ru­lous satires have worn badly (bland ex­tracts don’t help his cause).

A num­ber of pages are de­voted to John Kin­sella, a poet whose work di­vides readers. Many of his po­ems have a sketchy qual­ity, as if he hasn’t thought them through closely enough. This can re­sult in un­tidy end­ings, as if he is try­ing to crassly sum up the poem’s mean­ing.

But when the edi­tors get it right, the an­thol­ogy sparkles. The vol­ume be­gins with Robert Adam­son and the open­ing lines of Creon’s Dream: ‘‘The old hull’s spine shoots out of the mud-flat, / a black crooked fin­ger point­ing back to the house.’’ Here in a nut­shell is Adam­son’s use of pre­cise de­scrip­tion, orig­i­nal way of look­ing at the world and a brood­ing sense of drama un­fold­ing in na­ture. He has the en­vi­able abil­ity of com­bin­ing de­tail in a seem­ing dis­cur­sive nar­ra­tive that at times achieves a sense of the tran­scen­den­tal.

Some se­lec­tions re­con­firm the sig­nif­i­cance of po­ets such Philip Salom and An­thony Lawrence, their po­etry hav­ing gained in depth and tech­ni­cal con­fi­dence. Gig Ryan’s se­lec­tion shows off her char­ac­ter­is­tic mix of caus­tic flip­pancy that tries to veil in­tense emo­tional pain. The choice of Les Mur­ray’s verse is par­tic­u­larly acute. Cor­niche, The Tin Wash Dish, The Last Hel­los: all have a sense of un­speak­able dread, whether of poverty, of death or the daily rigours of life. It’s no won­der Mur­ray has to be­lieve in a God, or else he would drown in an ex­is­ten­tial dark­ness.

Part of the plea­sure of the col­lec­tion is to come upon po­ems that en­gage the reader with their vi­tal­ity and vivid­ness. Sa­muel Wa­gan Wat­son’s delightful Care­free is one, with its young boys play­ing around a jetty, ‘‘and us in bare feet all the time / three kids in stone­fish-in­fested mud / play­ing rus­sian roulette — /one good pair of run­ning shoes be­tween us.’’

Chris Wal­lace-Crabbe has been an un­der­rated poet for a long time. His per­sona can some­times hide be­hind a be­mused at­ti­tude, but at his best he’s ca­pa­ble of delightful and evoca­tive lines such as, ‘‘my mother came in on tip­toe / to give me a good­night kiss / be­tween sand­man and night­mare’’.

Mered­ith Wat­ti­son’s verse oc­ca­sion­ally loses fo­cus, but when it’s tight she’s a fine writer whose ex­quis­ite im­age ‘‘Gar­ru­lous as wa­ter run­ning over my hands’’ is ex­actly right. Jean Kent’s Es­cap­ing Do­mes­tic Sci­ence im­presses with its com­plex and emo­tional nar­ra­tive, and Ju­dith Ro­driguez’s ca­su­ally in­ter­locked po­ems Say­ings of my Mother, The Sis­ters and Motherin-Law (‘‘Be­com­ing a mother-in-law, / to put on all at once the halo / of a Queen Mother flower- bor­der hat, / a com­pet­i­tive smile and def­er­en­tial / back-seat tasters in mu­sic’’) have a rue­ful­ness that comes only with age.

Some po­ets have one poem that one wishes was the source for more. Kevin Hart is a frus­trat­ing poet. His ‘‘voice’’ can be muted and dense, as if he’s keep­ing in­ti­macy at bay. There­fore The Dress­maker comes as an at­trac­tive rev­e­la­tion. In it he re­mem­bers how one sul­try Bris­bane day he stayed at home from school, sup­pos­edly sick, watch­ing his mother sewing, ‘‘… pins in mother’s mouth, her neck / Bent to the Singer’s nee­dle, hands feed­ing / Bright cloth to the ma­chine’’. One wishes he’d write more per­sonal stuff like this.

The edi­tors ac­knowl­edge that al­most all of these po­ems are free verse. It’s ob­vi­ous some po­ets can be tech­ni­cally ac­com­plished us­ing it, but there are some po­ems that are lit­tle bet­ter than minced prose, and oth­ers are crip­pled by jerky rhythms, clumsy vo­cab­u­lary and a tin ear.

So it’s no sur­prise — and a relief — when the po­etry of Stephen Edgar leaps out at the reader. His el­e­gant verses have a tech­ni­cal bril­liance, matched by the way he mas­ter­fully jug­gles rhyme, rhythm, me­tre and mean­ing. There’s a touch of the smart alec to him with his know­ing ref­er­ences to lit­er­ary clas­sics (who’d want to read Daniel Deronda just to un­der­stand the ref­er­ence?), but he so of­ten hits the right note, as in Inar­tic­u­late: But still among your clothes for a lit­tle while In some few fully hu­man scents will is­sue The scent of you in the scent you would ap­ply, And in your purse, im­printed on a tis­sue, Your red lips wait­ing in a folded smile.

The folded smile is a tri­umph. Edgar is like a suave dude who ar­rives at a party wear­ing a tuxedo and car­ry­ing an ex­pen­sive bot­tle of claret, only to dis­cover the other guests are bo­gans in board shorts and thongs, suck­ing on tin­nies.

Free verse is not the only thing that de­fines this col­lec­tion. Na­ture po­ems dom­i­nate to a de­gree that made me feel I was read­ing an an­thol­ogy from the 19th cen­tury. There are count­less generic moons, seas, trees, flow­ers, shad­ows, night, fruit, clouds and, of course, an­gels. One of the most fas­ci­nat­ing tropes that de­fines these se­lec­tions is that of birds. There are hun­dreds of men­tions of generic birds and bird song, and so many ref­er­ences to spe­cific species that I gave up count­ing af­ter 40 (mag­pies, pigeons, pel­i­cans, ibis, ea­gles, swans, corel­las, plovers, ravens right through to wrens). It’s like an avian spot­ter’s wet dream. Is this ob­ses­sion with birds some­thing typ­i­cally Aus­tralian?

What truly as­ton­ishes me is that most of these po­ets live and work in the city, many of them as cre­ative writ­ing teach­ers (who, in turn, per­pet­u­ate the cy­cle of po­ets who can only make a living work­ing in academia). It’s as if they per­versely turn their back on their ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment, pre­tend­ing it doesn’t ex­ist in their daily lives, yet it’s been 90 years since the bril­liant Ken­neth Slessor wrote his mar­vel­lous po­ems about the city.

Thank good­ness for Pam Brown. Her po­ems have a ro­bust en­ergy that the ma­jor­ity of the na­ture po­ems lack. It’s as if the city is in thrall to a dif­fer­ent rhythm and her short lines have a bounce to them. Word­less is a wry and in­trigu­ing de­scrip­tion of her tak­ing a train from Syd­ney Cen­tral Sta­tion and then a bus home. It’s a se­ries of sharp ob­ser­va­tions, with the jour­ney it­self tak­ing on an epic qual­ity, end­ing with the lines: ‘‘en­ter the house / hug you, / my syn­thetic coat/ squeaks.’’ It’s as if Odysseus has ar­rived back in Ithaca.

There’s no sur­prise Aus­tralian po­ets seem afraid or wary of the sub­ject of love and sex. It’s


Les Mur­ray

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