Martin Langford, ‘Harbour City Poems’ in the Sydney Morning Herald

From convicts to culture: poems that define our city

Malcolm Brown reviews Martin Langford's Harbour City Poems in the Sydney Morning Herald May 19, 2009

A new anthology captures the beauty and the grime over the years, writes Malcolm Brown

Martin Langford’s anthology of Sydney poetry, Harbour City Poems, is not before time. No city, no matter how humble or wretched its beginnings, could fail to acquire character in the 230-odd years since the first tentative steps onto the shores of Port Jackson— not with the convict era, the poverty-ridden slums, the war, the characters, the political dramas, the crime and the cultural triumphs.

To put together something identifying that character would be impossible. There was an attempt in 1992, Sydney’s Poems, to commemorate the city’s 150th anniversary, edited by Robert Gray and Vivian Smith. But Langford, starting with the convict ditty 'Farewell To Old England For Ever', is going for a more substantial presentation, riding as he does a worldwide wave of nostalgia for cities.

“The phenomenon of anthologies devoted to cities is a pretty recent one, and only seems to apply to some cities, starting with the obvious ones — London, Paris, New York,” he says. “I still don’t quite know what it means that Sydney presents itself as a candidate, nor whether it’s the city or the poets. Maybe a bit of both.”

In his book, launched this week, Langford presents the outpourings of poets such as Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson, to a boat person setting out from Vietnam for a hoped- for better future. There is melancholy, such as in Lawson’s 'Faces In The Street':

In sallow, sunken faces that are
drifting through the street
Drifting on, drifting on,
To the scrape of restless feet;
I can sorrow for the owners of the faces in the street.

Or Elizabeth Riddell’s Suburban Song:

Now all the dogs with folded paws
Stare at the lowering sky.
This is the hour when women hear
Their lives go ticking by.

But Sydney has so many aspects. There is the physical beauty, centred mainly on the harbour, as Mary Richmond says in 'Sydney Harbour (New Year’s Eve 1897':

The jewelled city glitters through the night,
The jewelled boats glide softly through the gloom;
On the either hand dark isles and headlands loom…

Below the surface is the enchantment of the Old World, as Dorothea Mackellar describes in 'Dusk In The Domain':

So I saw them
As I went through:
Seven slum children from

So much reflects the soul of the poet, as Kenneth Slessor says when he describes prostitution in 'William Street': “You find it ugly, I find it lovely. There is so much of Sydney’s soul that is hidden, as David Campbell found with the Aboriginal rock paintings, celebrated in 'Ku-ring-gai Rock Carvings'. The range of poetry is not rooted in tradition, hence Les Murray’s portrayal of Sydney from the Gladesville Bridge. And there is nothing comforting about J. S. Harry’s poem 'Picking The Nits', about the Vietnam veterans’ welcome home march in 1987.

Some of the portrayals, such as Coral Hull’s 'Liverpool' and Paul Dawson’s 'Thanks For The Poems, Pauline Hanson', focus on the ugliness. Peter Boyle’s South-West Line contains the reminiscences of a Vietnamese migrant who came to Australia by boat.
The 70 poets in this volume do not present a complete canvas. Who could? But they present a substantial portion of it.

Harbour City Poems, edited by Martin Langford, published by Puncher & Wattmann in association with the Poets Union Inc, will be launched on Thursday as part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

Malcolm Brown

Read the full review in The Sydney Morning Herald

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