Neither rhyme nor reason
More respect for traditional rhyming verse? David Campbell thinks it’s long overdue
The recent anthology Contemporary Australian Poetry, published by Puncher & Wattmann), purports to be “both a survey, and a critical review, of Australian poetry between 1990 and the present”. It’s not. In fact, it’s not even close. How can it be when the four editors completely omitted a genre of Australian verse that has enjoyed a great deal of popularity during this period?
I read through the list of 239 poets represented in the book with mounting irritation. Not only have the editors failed to include a single poet from the scores who have contributed to this particular field, but there isn’t even a reference to its existence. It’s as if all the poets and their books, and the hundreds of published award-winning poems, have been completely airbrushed from history.
What genre am I talking about? Traditional rhyming verse, often misleadingly referred to as “bush poetry”. I say “misleadingly” because although some bush verse is centred on rural and/ or historical issues, a lot of it tackles all of the contemporary themes that preoccupy writers of any persuasion.
It’s a poetic style grounded in metre, rhyme and clear communication, paying tribute to the days when poetry was a popular public entertainment; when the likes of Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson and CJ Dennis wrote poems that were memorised and recited within family circles. Paterson and Lawson fought a poetic duel in the pages of The Bulletin; Dennis wrote daily satirical pieces for Melbourne’s The Herald. A pocket edition of Dennis’s The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke was a prized possession in World War I trenches.
But, as Louis Nowra wrote in his review of this new anthology: “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.”
And where might the blame for the decline of interest in Australian poetry lie? Nowra offers one clue when he refers to some poems in the book being “little better than minced prose”, while others are “crippled by jerky rhythms, clumsy vocabulary and a tin ear”.
Then he continues: “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.”
Hallelujah! Edgar doesn’t, as far as I know, regard himself as part of the bush poetry scene, yet the techniques he uses in some of his work are the same. So, in the thicket of free verse that fills most of Contemporary Australian Poetry, his masterful juggling certainly “leaps out at the reader” for clarity and rhythmic elegance. Take, for example, the opening lines of The Red Sea:
“Lulled in a nook of North West Bay, / The water swells against the sand, / Hardly more liquid than Venetian glass, / In which clear surface, just a little way / From shore, some four or five petite yachts pass / With languid ease, apparently unmanned, / Adrift along the day.’’
But what recognition does Edgar receive for his liking of metre and rhyme? For an answer to that, let’s turn to Clive James in Poetry Notebook 2006-2014. James observes that Edgar has been relatively unrewarded with prizes and grants because “the committees are stacked with poets who couldn’t write in a set form to save their lives, and with critics and academics who believe that the whole idea of a set form is obsolete”.
Furthermore, “the ruling majority of people concerned with poetry in Australia think free verse is a requirement of liberty, and anything constructed to a pattern must be leaving something essential out”.
Precisely, and it’s a prejudice that is on display in Contemporary Australian Poetry. In blunt terms, the “ruling majority” either ignores bush poetry completely or dismisses it contemptuously as outdated “doggerel” unworthy of serious consideration. So here’s a question for the four editors: did you deliberately omit bush poetry for this reason, or were you simply unaware of its existence? If it was the former then surely there would have been some reference to this decision in the introduction, but there isn’t. So presumably it was the latter, a case of sheer ignorance.
Which is a sad commentary on the state of Australian poetry, throwing into stark relief the comment by one of the editors, Martin Langford, in an article published in these pages: “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.”
Really? How accurate is that comment when “pretty much everything” apparently didn’t include contacting the Australian Bush Poets Association for information. The ABPA website (abpa.org.au) contains details of dozens of books and CDs and, published in full, almost 300 award-winning poems from 2008 to the present day. To go back further, the website of Winton’s Bronze Swagman Award lists all of its first prize winners from 1972 onwards. An annual anthology of selected entries from the competition is also published.
Speaking of anthologies, the editors could have had a look at the two collections of awardwinning bush verse published by Melbourne Books in 2012 and 2013, the second of which I edited. Represented in all of these places — the anthologies and both websites — are three men who particularly influenced my writing, namely Ron Stevens, Graham Fredriksen and Ellis Campbell (no relation).
But that’s only three names among the many men and women who might have been considered. In the 2013 Melbourne Books anthology, for example, the first poem is Mal Beveridge’s Mistress of My Seasons — New England Autumn, which begins: When Autumn in its languid rush paints trees and ferns with idle brush and gifts the golden hues to sight with ambers all in cooling light; ere Winter’s frosty tongue and tail will lick and whip late summer’s sail, then lovers will, as lovers do, entwine their love in one, as two.
“Doggerel”? Hardly. Yet not given a chance. I find this blinkered attitude frustrating because I’m caught in the middle. Although I enjoy writing free verse and have had some success with it, I also take great pleasure in tackling traditional verse, as do many others across Australia. I relish the challenge of working within a formal structure, of trying to make the lines flow in a clearly comprehensible fashion while faced with the constraints of metre and rhyme. It’s difficult to do, but can be successful, both in print and at poetry readings. (In either of those contexts I’ll happily challenge any committed free-verse writer poemfor-poem!)
Perhaps, if the “ruling majority” showed more respect for traditional verse, something that can already attract hundreds of people at a time to festivals across Australia, it may just help to spark renewed interest in poetry and make us less like “beggars fighting over the contents of a dumpster”. is an award-winning writer and poet based in Victoria.