Anthologies and the visibility of the poem
Martin Langford 4 March 2017
One of the impulses behind putting the anthology together was the sense that it was becoming increasingly difficult for good poetry to become visible. Some of the problems are well-known, and don’t need much re-statement. Australia is a big country: it can be difficult enough to establish a readership in one’s immediate networks, but almost impossible to do so beyond them. Even if one’s networks have some capacity to move across regions (as, for instance, in tertiary education) the distribution of the book still seems to suffer – even in this internet age – from geographical constraints. Outside of a small number of stores in the biggest cities, very few shops stock good poetry lists. So: you have your launch, you mount a Facebook campaign which soon becomes tiring, and you obtain a small number of reviews in the limited number of paper- and e-journals that have reviewers willing to write them. Then what? If it’s published in Adelaide, how do people in Brisbane or Perth get to hear about it? – particularly if they miss the reviews? The regional constraints are compounded by the brevity of its visibility: if potentially interested readers don’t hear about the book in the year or so after publication, it is unlikely they ever will.
Surely, you say, there must be mechanisms by which good work reaches the public eye? The readers at publishing houses must act as some sort of filter. And what about the prizes: aren’t they an indication of quality? Well, yes. But they are also a fair old lottery, variably dependent on the personal and imaginative alignments of the people who happen to be judges that year. What about the editors of the magazines and journals? Yes – they provide a space – working as they do everywhere along the continuum from shrewd and insightful to narrowly partisan or out of their depth. For all the insufficiencies of the above, however – and they are mostly a function of poetry’s limited resources – all of the above have a net positive impact on the work of making good work available. The problem is, there just aren’t enough of them: the publishers operate without promotion budgets; the media is in transition and hasn’t yet found a reliable space for literary responses in the public domain; the work that keeps the art-form going is overwhelmingly performed as an adjunct to the day job. So some of the work makes some inroads, and some of it acquires a small audience – though even with relatively ‘well-known’ pieces, it will not be commensurate with the quality of the work. But too much remains trapped in its networks, overlooked in its little window of opportunity after publication – or subject to the flukes of bad luck. Even for people who are involved professionally, it can be just about impossible to keep track of what is being published.
Starting, then, with a sense that there was a lot more good poetry out there than was reaching the public eye, we set out to provide – amongst other things – a platform of visibility. We don’t claim to have done so with any finality. We know we’ve missed work, and that what we do have is only one way of looking at the material we reviewed. All we can say as editors is that we read a lot of material, and that our choices seem stronger for the discussions we held. Each of us – as one might only expect – has come away with regrets about poets and poems that weren’t included: they began as soon as the copy was sent to be typeset. But we have provided some visibility for a number of poets who might otherwise have gone under the radar, and for some poems by well-known poets that had not received the attention they deserved.
One of the surprises of putting the anthology together lay in the realisation of just how many poets were capable of putting really first-rate work together – from all sorts of different poetics, backgrounds and points of view. One implication of this is that the credibility of simple narratives about poetry (that it is definitely one thing or another, for instance); has just about completely disappeared: critically problematic, they at least served as ways of accessing the material. We think this is a new situation. One of the understandings that gave so much vehemence to the arguments of the seventies and eighties was that the belief – perfectly understandable for the time – that there was a governing narrative to be fought for. This makes sense if everyone is only contemplating half-a-dozen poets on either side. Half-a-dozen represents a good number for an entrance-path. But what if there are a couple of dozen, or more? That starts to look more like a maze – or a barricade. I can’t imagine we’ve finished yet with simplifying narratives. In the meantime, however, there is a new problem for the reader of poetry: there are too many good poets for the simplifications which used to serve as starting points for exploration.
So where does one begin?
Presumably, one starts by following one’s nose – and then by following it again. Anthologies, from now on, can really only operate as suggestion-lists. A collection such as this cannot provide a narrative so much as a list of possibilities which may or may not prove fruitful. If readers wish to pursue the suggestions, they will usually be able to do so without much difficulty. In some cases, however, books will be hard to obtain, and a few books, unfortunately, will be close to impossible to get hold of.
The job of staying abreast of an art-form – probably of any contemporary art-form, but certainly poetry – will only become more difficult if, as seems quite possible, an ever greater number of practitioners pursue their art at the satisfying level that is so frequently on display here.
If we have contributed to making some of the poetry more visible, then we will have achieved one of our most important aims. We cannot imagine, however, how people will attempt to do so in twenty-five years time – and wonder, in fact, whether it will still be possible.