Nei­ther rhyme nor rea­son

More re­spect for tra­di­tional rhyming verse? David Camp­bell thinks it’s long over­due

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - David Camp­bell

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.

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