Martin Langford, preface from ‘Harbour City Poems’
From: Preface to Harbour City Poems
This is an anthology of poems which are either about Sydney, or which have their origin in the life of the city. As cities develop, they become imaginative sites as well as physical ones.
One of the things that a collection such as this inevitably does is to suggest changes in the way in which Sydney has been perceived. To begin with, it was little more than a name: ‘Port Jackson’, `Botany Bay’. These were scary names, but they could also be used to display bravado, as in the song, Botany Bay. A few people, such as Erasmus Darwin, projected visions of Augustan order on to the new colony, but for the convicts and settlers on the ground, the experience was more likely to produce the less visionary responses of resistance or humour.
Once the initial interest in Sydney as an exotic destination had subsided, there was a period when it either did not speak to the imagination, or did not find the poets who could imagine it. It was, after all, just one more scratchy settlement on the margins of empire. The Victorian imagination seems mainly to have responded to the grandest of their cities, and no doubt Sydney was very far from that. The thing that intrigued contemporary imaginations about Australia was the life of the bush, and its cities thus became the inadequate case by comparison. Banjo Paterson's prescription for city life was that one should move to the country. The solution for the young Lawson, the firebrand author of The Faces in the Street, was that one should have a revolution.
These were powerful tropes at the time, and the ordinary pleasures a Mary Richmond might discover in the harbour can seem subversive by comparison - unliterary, and insufficiently captive to received opinion: even though, in the next century, the life of such pleasures would elicit an extended meditation on physical beauty. Even poets who believed in what a city might offer, such as Christopher Brennan, could not find enough of what they liked in Sydney. Whatever Sydney was, in, say, 1910, it wasn’t the Paris of Mallarmé, with whom Brennan corresponded. This view of the city as the inadequate place has persisted to the present: from Elizabeth Riddell’s Suburban Sonnet to Coral Hull’s Liverpool. It is not unique to Sydney: it is a world-wide phenomenon. But it is noticeable, even with a supposedly glamourous city such as this, how stubborn the sense of the dystopian is, and
how strangely difficult it has been for the pleasures to be acceptable.