How soon is now?
Published in last Saturday's Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, Andrew Riemer’s review of The Best Australian Poems 2013 is a blink-and-miss-it generalisation about the way language is locally shaped.
Firstly, I must declare that I am one of the poets represented in the anthology. I don’t wish to review Riemer’s review; but it seems impossible to point out its critical shortcomings without doing so. A cropped and functional summary of the Black Inc Best Australian series of 2013, his review is about all that could be expected from the bizarre editorial decision to address three anthologies in one go. The unfortunate product, however, is an unexamined statement about poetry here and now.
Riemer’s main point is that the anthology’s “poems are isolated utterances, remote, in a way, from notions of literary or poetic traditions.” While he carefully explains that this is an observation rather than a tacit criticism, Riemer rehearses a tired view of the abstraction of language: apart from an aging, male generation of lyric poets, we are amidst a “zeitgeist” of linguistic play in which “few seek to disclose an individual perspective on the world”. It’s not that Riemer is wrong in his observation of “isolated utterance”—just forty years late. It makes you feel as if the National Gallery of Australia had only just bought Blue Poles.
Seriously, when are we going to accept that poetry, like painting and music, may represent “patterns of utterance” rather than figurative lines? Riemer seems to suggest that poems that “do not yield sense in conventional discursive or grammatical terms” are so radical that they escape “literary or poetic tradition”.
What about the established traditions of postmodern poetry? It’s a pretty stunning oversight by the Herald’s chief book reviewer. Riemer does not offer any examples until the final words of his review; as such, we have to question whether abstraction is, in fact, the most significant binding quality of Lisa Gorton’s purposeful editorial selection in this anthology. And if Riemer is inadvertently identifying a local Language poetry tradition, as he seems to be, then there are many facets of such a tradition—good and bad—that may be illustrated by this anthology. A longer, more singularly focused review would have allowed him to do so.
I don’t disagree with Riemer’s concern—albeit a cliché—about poems that “seem to cultivate obscurity for its own sake”; but the question of language and local voices deserves deeper consideration. The poetry represented by this anthology is no more “isolated” or “remote” than any other nationally-defined scene, if it’s partly driven by the influence of transnational tradition.
Furthermore, if criticism ignores the relationship between poetry written in Australia and correlative literary traditions in the modern English-speaking world, it has little hope of properly considering how contemporary local poetry comprises its own multifaceted tradition, ancient and modern, streaming in through various linguistic, political and cultural forces. This is particularly urgent with regard to the rather astonishing conclu-sion to Riemer’s review.
Sadly, the single quotation that Riemer chooses to evidence his reading not only reiterates its oversight, but either ignorantly or diligently avoids acknowledging what might be significant about postcolonial poetry that breaks English “meaning”:
Bravery captors medal heroism circulate mission leftovers
Bravery tracks the saddle that throws sad off backs as
Honour full bloods across country's rescues …
Reproducing these lines from Lionel Fogarty’s poem “Induct True Legendary Thrills Bravery”, Riemer does so “anonymously, in accordance with the editor's reluctance to name names”. Fogarty delivers truly radical poetry and a powerful Indigenous aesthetic; the meaning of his poetry and its treatment of English as “meaningless” are inextricably bound together.
Tim Wright’s review of Fogarty’s latest collection provides a very good recent discussion of this duality. It’s impossible that Riemer would not himself have noticed Fogarty’s name at the bottom of the poem or read his biographical note, and therefore reconsidered or at the very least extended his presentation of “the opening lines of a vivid, unsettling but, in the strictest sense of the term, meaningless poem”. To close the review without doing so is disingenuous at best—troublingly deceptive at worst.
If, as the byline of Riemer’s review suggests, this anthology offers “glimpses of the spiritual state of the nation”, someone had better let Riemer know that Fogarty’s “meaningless” poetry attempts to offer more than a glimpse: it rallies to make poetry a social and spiritual event.
With a deeper review, Riemer might have considered what meaninglessness can mean; how the tone and line of this voice relates to others in the anthology; whether or not he feels that its treatment of grammatical sense is successful in addressing the poem’s heavily political imagery and content; and so on. As a senior critic he has both the privilege and skill to explore this discussion with a weekend newspaper audience.
I intend to consider some of the complex questions raised by Wright’s review of Fogarty, in a forthcoming post. Meanwhile, perhaps it’s time that literary editors and critics stopped treating this anthology series with all the weight of a re-gifted Christmas g-string.