Martin Langford et. al, ‘Contemporary Australian Poetry’ reviewed in ABR
Unruly energies: Two general surveys of Australian poetry – Review by John Hawke in the Australian Book Review, March 2017
According to The Magic Pudding, Bunyip Bluegum’s erudition is established through his ability to ‘converse on a great variety of subjects, having read all the best Australian poets’, a questionable achievement in Norman Lindsay’s day. A glance through the Annals of Australian Literature reveals the paucity of quality Australian poetry volumes published through most of the twentieth century, with selection shaped by the tastes of powerfully controlling editors, especially Douglas Stewart. Even in 1966, Max Harris’s survey essay on ‘Conflicts in Australian Intellectual Life’ – in which he inveighs against the academic gatekeeping of critics such as A.D. Hope, James McAuley, and Vincent Buckley in the post-‘Ern Malley’ era – notes the limited opportunities for publication by emerging ‘younger non-intellectual’ poets. This situation changed dramatically for the generation of poets who appeared in the 1970s, with generous subsidies and the emergence of a range of independent and commercial publishing opportunities for poetry volumes: poets of this generation – whilst splitting the spoils along the lines of painstakingly demarcated coteries – responded to this opportunity by producing oeuvres often staggeringly more voluminous than those of the poets who preceded them (Kenneth Slessor’s 100 Poems would these days barely constitute a single publication).
As the editors of Contemporary Australian Poetry (edited by Martin Langford et al., Puncher & Wattmann, $49.95 hb, 690 pp, 9781922186935) explain in their cogently instructive Introduction, the assurances of this fruitful period were at least threatened, if not ineradicably altered, by the abandonment of poetry publishing by major presses in the mid-1990s, when a return to the deserts of earlier in the century seemed likely. That this didn’t happen was due to the energies of mostly unpaid volunteers in a cottage industry of independent publishing: previously regional presses such as Five Islands Press and Fremantle Arts Centre Press suddenly became more central, and they were joined by the collective efforts of supportive publishers like Giramondo and Puncher & Wattmann, who discovered that, with small government subsidies and limited print-runs, poetry publishing could indeed be made economically viable (though payment for the poet’s labour was restricted).
The result, over the twenty years surveyed in this valuable anthology, has been an unprecedented proliferation of Australian poetry books – too many, in fact, for even the most assiduous enthusiast to properly evaluate. This is partly a problem of distribution (these books have been mainly available via print on-demand), with most bookshops stocking only the scantiest selection of titles. But it is also the result of sheer productivity, not only by individual established poets, but with new presses launching a plethora of first books by poets whose work often hasn’t passed through publication in major literary journals – which had previously served as a kind of informal qualitative vetting process. These poetries also demonstrate a range of styles – formalist, Modernist, postmodern, avant-garde – never before witnessed in Australian literature (and at a time when mainstream ‘literary’ fiction has mostly reverted to a steady state of Wintonesque naturalism). The rate of production has swiftly moved beyond the capacities of our reviewing culture (though specialist journals such as Cordite do their best to keep up), while academic gatekeepers in this area of research – of the kind Harris railed against – appear thin on the ground.
This exposes the field to various forms of charlatanry, as evidenced in recent plagiarism controversies, with so many squeaky wheels competing for a fast-evaporating sniff of grease. Literary awards seem of limited assistance in this task of evaluation, with the multitude of state and national prizes yielding varying shortlists, depending on the allegiances of their judges.
The responsibilities of representation faced by the editors of each of these books are therefore heroic, if not impossible, and in both cases they deserve the highest congratulation for their efforts to provide a wide-ranging diversity of selection. Yet while these anthologies establish without question that we have a multitude of quality poets, what about the poems themselves: which are the specific works that most demand attention? In earlier, more approachable anthologies, such as those of Harry Heseltine and David Campbell, there was agreement on canonical works; the reader could comfortably expect to find the usual key poems by established figures such as Robert FitzGerald, Slessor, and Judith Wright.
The task of establishing a canon in Contemporary Australian Poetry is obviated by the time-limitations of the selection: this means that we receive only the finely matured later styles of elders such as David Malouf and Peter Porter. Les Murray’s representation includes three of his best poems of the 1990s – ‘The Tin Wash Dish’, ‘It Allows a Portrait in Line Scan at Fifteen’, and ‘The Last Hellos’ – rather than more famous earlier poems (at least two of which are represented in semi-parodic homages by younger poets). Robert Gray’s ‘In Departing Light’, an uncharacteristically emotive work by this most objectively unsentimental craftsman, now seems established as an anthology piece, and there is good reason to accept that Gray’s more recent poetry is indeed his best.
Gray’s remarkable new poem ‘The Latter Days’ is certainly the most outstanding piece in The Best Australian Poems 2016 (edited by Sarah Holland-Batt, Black Inc., $24.99 pb, 206 pp, 9781863958875). It draws on classical references in its revisitation of the family history explored in his autobiographical prose work, The Land I Came Through Last (2008): this stunningly achieved extended poem would easily substitute for any of those selected for the survey volume. While it is irksome to enumerate, it is worth noting that the twelve pages granted to Gray in Contemporary Australian Poetry position him as the leading figure of this period: John Tranter, by contrast, receives only four – this is possibly indicative of the anthologists’ position in relation to the ‘poetry wars’ of preceding decades.
It would seem unnecessary to identify the usual exclusions in a book which is so conscientiously inclusive, though these can certainly be found. While there is a deliberate attempt to feature previously overlooked poets with a focus on linguistic experimentation – such as the work of Javant Biarujia and Chris Edwards – this field is only narrowly explored: Amanda Stewart is an obvious omission, as is π . O., whose book-length poem Fitzroy (2015) is widely regarded as a landmark recent work. Poetries that emphasise sound (including spoken word and dialect) and visual elements (including those emerging from digital technologies) are mostly unrepresented.
There is also a kind of generational exclusion, which may arise simply from the ages of the editors: two of the highest-selling poetry volumes of recent years have been by younger poets, Benjamin Frater and Maxine Beneba Clarke – as a teacher I know that my students have found and enthusiastically read these bookswithout any prompting – but the editors may not have encountered them. Writers in their twenties, such as Oscar Schwartz, have been exploring a poetics of ‘new sincerity’ (following the American Tao Lin): this work is widely available in internationally networked online forums which are unlikely to have been consulted. And my more general feeling is that the new generation of poetry readers, accustomed to a culture dominated by techniques of sampling and collage, are more open to a disjunctive poetics of procedures and juxtaposition than is available here: again, it is younger poets such as Matthew Hall, Marty Hiatt, Claire Potter, and Corey Wakeling who miss out – but their work is available in other, more specifically targeted anthologies, such as last year’s Active Aesthetics.
The selection is instead dominated by poetry of natural description, familial recollection, and elegy, and it is impossible not to marvel at the attentiveness to observed details of experience, and the search for a pattern of language adequate for its transformation, evident in so many accomplished poems. Yet, and perhaps for this reason, some of the most striking works here are those in a less familiar vein: Fiona Hile’s ‘Francis Bacon was a Master Empiricist’ provides a bracingly corrosive counterview; David Brooks’s heightened rhetoric channels Lorca’s Poet in New York (1940) in the polemical ‘Pater Noster’; John Jenkins offers a surrealistic dream-vision of Robert Menzies; Jordie Albiston’s ‘Falling’ is a raw and compelling extended work; while Susan Hampton’s oblique notations stand out for their scrupulously antilyrical tone. John A. Scott’s excavations of the mythologies of European High Modernism in ‘Sketches from Montparnasse’ are also atypically exotic, and resonate with Jessica L. Wilkinson’s similar staging of the Nijinsky myth in ‘FAUNE et JEUX’, another of the outstanding poems in the Holland-Batt collection. The late Bruce Beaver flashes by in a page, but his tightly scanned ‘Aubade’ has a musical energy that eclipses many of the more flatly declarative poems that surround it.
Both anthologies are assiduous in their attempts to represent Australia’s multicultural heritage. Contemporary Australian Poetry includes a number of poems on transnational and immigrant themes, though these are often only one-offs: Ali Alizadeh provides a finely chiselled explication of Australian migrant experience, while Asian Australia (the subject of a separate Puncher & Wattmann anthology) is represented by such well established poets as Adam Aitken and Ouyang You. The most striking political poems here are those by recent Indigenous poets building on the achievements of earlier figures such as Kevin Gilbert: Lionel Fogarty’s ‘Million to One Biami Spoken’ and Ali Cobby Eckermann’s ‘Intervention Pay Back’ are amongst the strongest works in the book (the latter curiously followed alphabetically by Quadrant poet Hal Colebatch).
In general, though, the more unruly linguistic energies of many of these poets are restrained by selection: Robert Adamson is mainly a chronicler of the Hawkesbury landscape; Pam Brown and Jill Jones are chosen for their Williams-like documentation of quotidian experience; and the multitudinous range of John Kinsella’s works are reduced here to a few representative pages. But this is an understandable editorial emphasis, and it is likely that in the future a more complete representation of the variousness of the current scene will require a range of specialised anthologies: these two general surveys provide an excellent and ambitious foundation on which such projects might be based.
John Hawke is a poet, anthologist, and senior lecturer at Monash University.