Poetic insight into our interior lives
one of the editors of the anthology, believes the quality of Australian poetry is at an all-time high — but we need to take notice Australia has not always given a receptive ear to poetry, with the exception perhaps of the ballad writers, who it was felt at the time did say things Australians wanted to hear, in a way we wanted to hear them. In our earlier history, this indifference was understandable: for the pioneers, the task was survival. Art and science were luxuries that could come later.
Besides, it takes time to develop a tradition. Poetry, for some reason, is one of the slower arts to become established.
The US had been settled for hundreds of years before its poetry got off the ground. A young country, anxious about its self-esteem, measures itself against more established lands with suits that will be competitive: sport, agriculture, military prowess.
If, as in our case, the parent happens to have a rich literary tradition, then the ex-colony is likely to set that hand aside when it comes to constructing its identity. At least, that is, until it is in a better position to claim it as an asset.
The parent can reinforce this, with the disingenuous part it plays in maintaining the status quo. As long as its editors compile the anthologies and its critics award the praise, then the relative positions of the two cultures will be an unacknowledged element in their judgments.
This is essentially the situation that has pertained so far.
Eventually, however, as a society matures, it will have to consider its relationship with its more thoughtful attainments as well. It doesn’t have much choice about this: they are essential components of a culture.
Any culture that actually produces anything has to be restless and unpredictable — and strong enough to be permanently wary about its conclusions. We accept this in science or in history. Over the past century or so, it has become a key aspect of poetry as well.
The exploratory element in poetry — as in all literature — has always been there, but its more typical functions, in say 1900, were either to tell a story, or to feed our prejudices in a way we found pleasing because of its rhymes, or its vehemence, or perhaps the clumsy but triumphant joke at the end.
Newspapers of the time might print half-adozen poems in every issue, but only a minuscule number would still be of interest. Many of the functions of such poems have been usurped by other media. We have talkback radio for our prejudices, and — though poets do experiment with narrative from time to time — novels and movies and podcasts for our stories.
One thing poetry still does uniquely well, however, is to explore our understandings: to ask the questions that are left hanging when the story ends. If science tries to understand the world in terms that are as ‘‘objective’’ as possible — cross-referenced against experiment and other established findings — then poetry increasingly applies those findings to our lives by giving them their emotional weight.
These responses may be shaped by our imaginative lives, but evidence-based conclusions are ubiquitous in contemporary verse. To take a few examples from the anthology: how the ‘‘atomic’’ view of the world invests David Brooks’s Dust; how a psychologist’s finding about the formation of mental images informs Bronwyn Lea’s thinking about the conceptualisation of love in Driving into Distances; how Maria Takolander’s meditation on the movements of her unborn baby (in Foetal Movement) is inconceivable without modern technology.
Australian poets are very good at exploring our shifting understandings, and at registering their impact on our interior lives. They are as good, at least, as our prose writers. Having recently had to read pretty much everything we have produced over the past 25 years, I and my co-editors came to the conclusion there were perhaps 30 poets writing with a seriously high level of skill and insight: with both distinctive and individual perspectives, and the craftsmanship to realise them. We have never had so many poets writing at this level before. If this is a story the media has missed, it is not alone. The universities have not got hold of it either. It is a big story, and will play out over the coming decades.
The point here, however, is that the poets have been fulfilling the role we would expect them to in a creative culture. They are one of its cutting edges — the edge that weighs its understandings verbally.
Now it is the society’s turn. Somehow, we remain trapped in a view of poetry that is more suited to a pioneering age — to an age of unforgiving necessities. In some ways, that is easier: we never like to be disrupted into the present. But we can’t seriously lay claim to being a mature and creative culture unless we are prepared to engage with the understandings that the most thoughtful minds in that culture produce.
In many areas, we are enthusiastic about the new. With poetry, however, our responses seem frozen: an inappropriate reflex left over from some earlier cultural need. Creative cultures explore all the possibilities — even their blind spots.
It is time Australia stopped repeating itself and looked around — particularly when the work is already there.
Samuel Wagan Watson