A REVIEW OF THE RECENT AUSTRALIAN POETRY ANTHOLOGIES
Confession as preamble
I've been sitting on what I intended to be a review of the recent swag of Australian poetry anthologies for two months or so! I've accumulated notes, discussed the topic with fellow poets & readers (including a frolic on Facebook), yet I've clearly dragged the chain, feeling more daunted by the day. It wasnt going to be an exhaustive review, more a kind of 'thoughts arising' on the subject. But even skirting these anthologies' rationales -- and I should clarify that I principally had in mind The Penguin Anthology of Australian Poetry, edited by John Kinsella (2009) & The Puncher & Wattmann Anthology of Australian Poetry, edited by John Leonard (2009), although David McCooey's post-1950 poetry selection within the humungus Macquarie Pen Anthology of Australian Literature (general editor, Nicholas Jose,A & U, 2009) & the genre anthologies, if that isnt a loaded or misleading term (Martin Langford's Harbour City Poems : Sydney in Verse, 1788-2008 (P&W, '09) ; Jenny Harrison & Kate Waterhouse's Motherlode : Australian Women's Poetry, 1986-2008 (P&W,'09); Michael Farrell & Jill Jones', Out of the Box : Contemporary Australian Gay & Lesbian Poets (P&W,'09)), are obviously apropos -- I'm reminded, forcibly, that the anthologies' historical & cultural references are not, or only superficially, mine. I should say, 'reminded of this yet again', --in the course of which I'm confronted with the perennial problems of identity & representation. Oh dear! Angst & ennui! I tire myself out & probably bore silly all my chums of the dinky-di!
It's clear that anything & everything I think & say about Australian poetry is skewed by an ultimate foreignness. This wasnt always the case although some may have long suspected it, for example, Tom Shapcott, back in '75/'76, when he was compiling the Contemporary American & Australian Poetry anthology (UQP, '76). It was a collection I felt I should have been in but even more, a connection I believed I could countersign! (If that doesnt ring with 'entitlement' nothing does! And I say that now with no little embarrassment, notwithstanding the reality of my involvement, as colleague & editor, with American poetry at that time.) Shapcott said he wondered about my longer term affiliation to Australian poetry. I evidently convinced him that I qualified. I showed my gratitude by curating a symposium on the anthology in Meanjin Quarterly, for which I was then poetry editor. It was probably put to me that since the opinions of my four contributors (messers Tranter, Reid, Faust & Duncan) were more or less critical, I ought to invite someone else, Peter Porter for instance, to provide balance. Balance, of course, isnt a word in a radical's lexicon. I fancy the fall-out from that episode hung around me for quite a while. At that time I abstracted the literary or poetic values I held from any set of social relationships it might seem I inhabited. I suppose this is the form absolute commitment to one's beliefs might take, but it's also the stuff of elitism & social alienation...
Even though it's been 44 years since I emigrated to Australia, I couldnt swear the customary allegiance. Today I would say I am an English visitor in Australia, albeit since 1989 with a certificate of Australian citizenship, who retains his British passport; a dual citizen with the classic divided loyalties. My commuting since 1987, Melbourne to Dorset & back, returned a home to me that I'd all but lost (except in vivid dreams). 'Internationalism' saved my bacon hitherto : Melbourne as a city in the world, and the world calling the shots. 1987 was my first trip back to the UK since 1975, the year I'd attended the inaugural Cambridge Poetry Festival (reading there with fellow poets published by Grosseteste Books), reconnected with family, colleagues & friends, and flirted with the tenuous possibility of remaining in England. For some of the '70s & '80s in Melbourne I was an exile, soothed somewhat by a philosophy of belatedness. But a 'turn' in the mid '80s provided for both a break with radical politics & avant-garde art & literature, & a re-embrace of a traditional & sacramental life. This still pertains, but now the sacrament has an English accent and is in need of regular succour! Yet I pulled out of a collection with Salt a few years ago --a publisher situated in England, with Australian interests close to its heart. Strategically what could have been better? Writing about it in Island magazine, I offered that I was afraid the selection of poems didnt represent me & that they wouldnt survive their (necessary) encounter with the world. Plainly I no longer had the courage of my own convictions. The longer the project took to materialize, the more I agonised. Pulling the rug ("to save us both embarrassment," as I emailed Chris Hamilton-Emery) was the solution. Though offered collections since then by Australian publishers or invited to be in anthologies, the best I can think to do is decline. I'd feel a fraud & counterfeit otherwise. (I should declare, though, that I'm in Raffaella Torresan's illustrated anthology Literary Creatures : A book of animals in alphabet, Hybrid Publishers, '09 --perhaps because I'd rather 'talk to the animals'! And my CD selection, My Life in Theatre, with River Road Press, '09, partially avoids the questions that a book would present me with --it's in the listener's ear & not a reader's eye after all, so I can represent myself...)
No amount of 'post-colonial' critiquing & redefining of the Australian situation & condition attracts me or assuages my disinclination to accept the tag for myself. At the same time I do feel I am a Melbournean without identifying as Australian.This is much the same, I think, as my dear maman being Alexandrian without identifying as Egyptian or at least, less & less, after the ousting of the monarchy & the ascendancy of the new nationalist order : her family's cultural viability depended upon the multi-ethnic cosmopolitanism necessarily jettisoned by the revolution & that revolution's enrollment in the anti-Western side of the Cold War argument... I was never entirely sure whether my mother was anguished or profoundly amused that her papers, upon departing Alexandria for the UK, were marked "stateless". I wonder if some of that rubbed off on me... Additionally, although my father may have presented as a typical Englishman, he apparently hankered after a reconnection with his Huguenot mother's South African home (where he was conceived), who'd been robbed of it by an English settler husband's dispatch of her to England while he (my grandfather) remained with a bigamous consort... My parents were happy where they lived when they were, dispirited & displaced when they werent --Mum referring to Alexandria or the fantasy of a French life (on the wing of an Alexandrian Lycee Francaise upbringing); Dad desiring greener fields, briefly experienced on European & West Country holidays, but staying put to dig his Hampshire then Dorset garden, dutifully sacrificing himself on Esso BP's altar for the family's provision...
I enjoy the memory of my connection with pre-nationalist Egypt, having lived several pre-school years in Alexandria & Suez (it's an Egypt of the mind, sustained by literature) but mostly & crucially identify with England. I am, therefore, an English man in Australia, & a Melbournean whose qualities I carry with me in England! Declining to be an Australian (poet) is one thing; having next to no credibility as a writer in England is another, yet I feel 'unfinished business' on many levels with the Old Dart! It's the expat's double-bind, I guess. But an obvious contradiction to all of this is the greater affinity I've felt for Australian sport (cricket, tennis, rugby, swimming) than English; frankly, the games I follow are better expressed in & by Australia than England! And because I've lived here so long, I have a 'local' connection with contemporary Australian art. Flicking through a recent issue of Meanjin Quarterly devoted to 'the British question', I've found the phrase "British roots, Australian fruits" which might explain some of the anomaly, though I'm well aware how anachronistic, even reactionary, that can be read today. I havent said much about my earlier American connections, but suffice to say they continue, --Whitman, Pound, Williams, the Beats, Black Mountain, San Francisco, New York, Deep Image et al, & whole worlds of literary fiction, art, music-- & have expanded in the same way as my appreciation of the British & Australians (thus old & new formalists, & numerous independents).
Regarding the "New"
It was the 'new' part of the term "New Australian Poetry" with which I identified in the late '60s. (I believe I coined the term in an article, Towards a New Australian Poetry, commissioned for Meanjin Quarterly; written in '69, published in 1970 when I was back in England.) My 'new' was inspired by Donald Allen's New American Poetry, 1945-60 & later by Penguin's 'New Writing' series of anthologies (British, American, German, French et al) rather than Al Alvarez's The New Poetry, with its dramatic Jackson Pollock cover (which disappointed me when I read it in 1966; it seemed like the old poetry to me then, a dichotomy, I hasten to say, I'd finally rescinded by the late '80s, early '90s).
In 1969, Ken Taylor & I had been asked by John Hooker at Penguin Books to edit an Australian New Writing, but after much consideration we declined, certain that inevitable compromises would distort if not destroy the project. (Charles Buckmaster, around 1970-71, took up a similar commission, but nothing came of that either.) Taylor's acquaintance John Gill, whom he'd met in New York in 1965 whilst on a Harkness Fellowship to Columbia University, edited with Earl Birney the magazine New : American & Canadian Poetry (Trumansburg, New York). They published Ken Taylor & then myself there, and suggested that Ken start an Australian wing of the magazine. But this idea was jumped by Melbourne's ''mini-mag explosion" (as the Monash academic Dennis Douglas described it) of '68, '69...
This idea of 'new' melded with a sense or imperative of 'now' --it was urgent & actual, resonating the uniqueness of the time & place... The world of the New was both intensely local & promiscuously international. Its sources were as inter-disciplinary as literary. Fondness for the appellation 'experimental' had more to do with accommodating & shaping the floods of new concepts & forms of expression flowing through the as-perceived Sleepy Hollow than any Poundian renovation of Tradition. Naturally, practice makes perfect : we learnt on the job, but without "the license from the English Department" as per Ken Taylor's brag. We were, as I've written before, the illiterati!
Of course, Pound's perspectives were important, so too Williams' & Olson's. For our Melbourne generation, the American take on almost everything hitherto pronounced upon by the British was an opportunity for what today's lingo calls the post-colonial. American literary perspectives & practice were preferred to the British, and provided the means for an independent Aussie articulation, --independent but seeking equivalence.
It might be of interest to note that at the very time I was possessed by Olson, whom I saw as expressing the very opposite of the academic attitude & epitomising the 'new', John Gill railed against him as its apotheosis! He held up the new vernacular Americans, as the true poets of the democratic idiom, against the high falutin' Black Mountain academicians. (Echoes of Williams' criticism of Eliot!) I was astonished. Black Mountain, New York, San Francisco were on the street in Oz & not in the academy! Similarly surprised when I returned to the UK, in 1969/70, to find our 'underground' exemplars taught in some universities!
In retrospect, I realize that the 'new' of my young time was situational (new in one place, passe in another) & its absolutes only temporary. I wonder, though, if one can say that the ambitions of the New, which transcended the conventional categories in every respect, were diverted by the temptation of respectability (grants, status) &, paradoxically, education, back into the mainstream? However, 'mainstream' itself changes &/or is redefined. I would like to believe that writers of my generation, whether from experimental or traditional roots, now have a nuanced sense of 'mainstream'. Our experience would surely have taught that it is the statement of deep rapprochement and not one side of an eternal mutual exclusivity. It is also what the 'canon' might now be --where history's products rest within their tested differences, the propositional best of an era's diverse bunch... During the same period, erstwhile stuffy institutions came to embrace the openness we might ourselves have once advanced & benefited from. For a start, 'Creative writing' on the higher education syllabus, --but if poetry & fiction were solely a product of study instead of also a political & emotional necessity's expression --if these factors didnt both comprise our practice's equation-- the entire game would be lost! New poets, in the sense of theoretical & expressive innovators, were now, more often than not, the products of universities. Astonishing, really, to the '60s generation, that formal study might relate itself to the formerly radically independent modes of thought & practice, so much so that the avant-garde's viability is currently vouchsafed by the academy!
Regarding my abandonment of 'career', it's the business of it, the 'publish or perish', the industry which most put me off, especially when elevated from a necessary evil to the essence of the enterprise. Back in the '70s, when my late friend, the English poet John Riley, approvingly quoted Anna Akhmatova's contention that Literature was a dung hill on top of which the poet crowed, I didnt quite get it. And though by now I do understand both Akhmatova's & Riley's positions, I dont want to appear precious about it all. Mine's more a love/hate relationship than a complete disavowal. Best to say, I'm an amateur who's deadly serious about a vocation & its practice but cavalier about the profession --who'd rather sit in the shade of a tree, munching a crust of bread & cheese, vino or ale in my hand, with my head in a book, writing or reading, than attend a festival or conference, or would work forever on a poem rather than seeking to publish or perform it!
# A stampede of anthologies? An avalanche? An armchair? A hedge-fund?
# There was a time when locals would envy Scribners' annual Best American & wish we had something similar. Eventually we did --we have two Best Australian (the Black Inc & the UQP) anthologies in addition to the Newcastle Prize. Evidently we dont do things by halves! Six Aussie anthologies --seven if one includes the little Shoestring Press (UK) compilation edited by Adrian Caesar --and another, the Gray/Lehmann, in the wings! One could be forgiven for thinking a new bout of national definition is occurring; present territories being staked out, the future up for grabs! ('Ruddist' perhaps? All the swish & swagger of the new broom, the new deal, but when the dust has cleared it's more or less how it always was?!)
# In the late '70s, John Tranter invited me to be in the New Australian Poetry anthology he was editing for Martin Duwell's Makar Press (Brisbane). I accepted but was shocked that a poet like Ken Taylor, possibly the same kind of elder sibling for the 'new' Melbourne poets as Bruce Beaver in Sydney, hadnt been considered. After all, poets like Charles Buckmaster, John Jenkins & Garrie Hutchinson from the same Melbourne scene, & a little later on Robert Kenny, were represented, each of whom owed something to Taylor or were better understood in relation to him. Additionally I felt Walter Billeter's work was part of Jenkins', Kenny's & my own explication, & that Clive Faust, who'd come to us via Cid Corman's American/Japanese circuit, was an important ally. I also proposed that Ken Bolton & Anna Couani deserved guernseys. John accepted most of this; but Bolton & Couani were too recent to be included he felt. Some years later, having drinks with Michael Ondaatje in Carlton in the company of Judith Rodriguez, Tom Shapcott, Jenny Strauss & others, I described for the visitor's benefit, how what he'd extolled as an excellent anthology had come about. Judith Rodriguez took me to task : it wasnt my place to have second-guessed Tranter, she argued, far less to use one's own invitation as a bargaining chip. But, I did, & had. At that time I felt representation was a political issue, and considered I was arguing for poetics which would otherwise be ignored or demeaned. I thought too that I was supporting poets who'd fallen under the radar. I assumed every poet had a duty to advocate in this way. I thought this constituted 'the discussion'. Not to be in an anthology was always one's final card, and the making of another or counter anthology always an option. This paragraph could lead me into an analysis of "the poetry wars" of the 1970s & '80s, --friction within the avant-garde, opposition to it from without, ameliorations, divergences -- but though instructive it would be a distraction here. Another time... Suffice to say, principal ought always have been the point & not personality; years later there was poetical rapprochement (the Mead/Tranter Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry, for example, which revised & resituated the original New Australian Poetry as part of a continuum, Slessor to Kinsella, largely transcending the Generation of '68/Younger Australian Poets divide) &, hopefully, personal injury recognized & repaired. But even so, contemporary pluralism doesnt nullify difference & opposition even though radicals & conservatives occasionally seek to discredit it. These days I wouldnt want to influence an editor unless consulted but neither am I seeking publication...
# Whilst particular absences are notable in one compilation (for example, & as they come, no Buckmaster, Maiden, Bolton, Brown, Duggan, Jill Jones, Cronin, Farrell or Bishop in Leonard), they're usually rectified in one or more of the others. But some arent in any at all. No Nigel Roberts (though he deservedly scores in Harbour City Poems), Tim Thorne, Eric Beach, Grant Caldwell, Myron Lysenko, Lauren Williams, Shelton Lea (which sounds like a school reeled off like that); no Mal Morgan, Ian McBryde, Jennifer Compton, Selwyn Pritchard, Robyn Rowland, Peter Bakowski, Andy Kissane, Jane Williams, Joel Deane, Louise Crisp, John West; no John Anderson, Ken Taylor; no Gary Catalano. (The women here are all in Motherlode.) Invidious to call a roll in this way, for this salon de refusers could contain as many poets & more again as were published in the anthologies... And I'm well aware that I'm looking out of Melbourne eyes : assuredly lists could be compiled reflecting the perspective of every city/state of the commonwealth. It might be argued that patterns of omission are the more interesting to consider, in which the contradiction of po-mo unmade & lyrical well-made, though that's only one broad brush beginning to debate, appears to identify John Leonard's with the mutually-exclusive point of view.
# Where the canonical anthology is concerned, I think it's probably editorially risky to consider young first bookers. It's not those particular poets' fault that equally talented first timers are excluded. It's for the editors to justify. But when, in the case of the Leonard anthology, every debutante published by the John Leonard Press appears ahead of a list which could include Chris Andrews, Judith Bishop, Nathan Shepherdson, Greg McLaren, Lisa Gorton, Ali Cobby Eckermann, Carol Jenkins, David McCooey, Angela Gardner,Tina Giannoukos, Kate Middleton, Mal McKimmie, to name some at random, one must wonder how & why. Indeed, every John Leonard Press author appears in his Puncher & Wattmann anthology, so where space is, apparently, a consideration, --in Leonard's own words, "a judgement of preferences given limited space", --a larger conflict of interest might be argued! (I should say, though, that several of those poets were included in pre-JLP era compilations. I guess it's just 'not a good look' in this time of 'perception' politics.) By the same token, Kinsella omits most of the JLP authors whilst his own Salt press is the publisher of a very large number in the Penguin. Regrettable, to say the least, if the editors felt their credibility as publishers was at stake!
# Every reason then to have Younger Poets anthologies, however arbitrary the qualification age, or Introductions --anthologies of every sort --'genre' as opposed to the 'canonical' or even to oppose it. Academic imprimatur can be the kiss of death, and with the best will in the world, the majors are all tinged with it. Interestingly, the blurb for the (125-poets, 175 poems) Motherlode anthology includes a canonical accent : "Judith Wright, Gwen Harwood, Dorothy Hewett, and Oodgeroo Noonuccal appear alongside the major poets of today, including Judith Beveridge, Jan Owen, MTC Cronin, JS Harry, joanne burns and Tracy Ryan..." But there's no consensus on that claim in the majors, thus the rationale for the women's anthology! No joke of course : the motivations for Kate Jennings' mid-'70s anthology are probably as relevant today as then, although Jenny Harrison & Kate Waterhouse concentrate upon the sub-divisions of their female & feminist narrative and bridle at the mainstream only in passing in their lucid introduction.
# Kerry Scuffins' poem, Bear's air, in Motherlode, is as tender a poem as one would want to read of a very particular experience, one which is only incidental in the poetry of purportedly larger thematic & expressive schemes (the whole point of genre let alone gender specificity). When 'woman' is the paradigm, every incident speaks the reams now available to it. With all respect to the poem's original publication, in this anthology it becomes memorable. Inflation's slain by the small words, the little rhymes of the infinite world of mother & child, for which the toy bear is both witness to & alter-ego of the naturally suffering mother. Scuffins' poem is memorable because it isnt exasperation's reportage; something else happens --"she looks into the eyes of Bear. // She touches noses / with Bear. / She puts her head on the head of Bear / and sighs, and tiredly, dog-gedly, / breathes Bear's air."
# It's often said that context is all --so how distinguish the poems in Out of the Box, remembering that it's subtitled Gay & Lesbian Poets & not poems, implying that the G & L status is crucial to the work? Could it solely be a matter of the content --poems about relationships, lovers; poems of the momentary, of what remorselessly passing time makes ephemeral --the poetry that dares to speak its name, as it were? How distinguish poets in this context from any other they may inhabit? I remember Paul Knobel, when visiting Collected Works from Sydney, maybe 20 years ago, challenging me on the absence of a Gay poetry section in the bookshop. The first thought in my head was, What would we do with the American section then? I was thinking specifically of numerous poets who are better (& self) identified with the school of New York, say, more than their sexual preference; ditto San Francisco Renaissance poets, the Beats & etc --& so many others who're only defined as Gay by their biography rather than poetry. At the same time, the hilarious flippancy & the mercuriality of tone & image, which is a hallmark of much New York poetry, obviously corresponds to what one would generally assume today as a Gay style, one which now actually transcends sexual distinction. An answer, maybe, in Jill Jones' comment that "Words operate in relationships, grammars, that readers make meanings from" --therefore the availability of the Gay & Lesbian meaning, & this anthology's suit for its relevance. Among poets in Out of the Box one would not encounter elsewhere are Terry Jaensch (especially his poem Mouse), Nandi Channa (King Brown), Stephen Williams (Cathedrals in their middle age), Maria Zajkowski (Colour), Kerry Leves, Denis Gallagher... One strength of Out of the Box (& it's the smallest of the anthologies) is the variety of the poems and the dispersal of the several poems per poet throughout the collection --it's made to be read rather than consulted. Although I'm not sure that a Pam Brown or David Malouf or Peter Rose or Martin Harrison or Dipti Saravanamutu or even Javant Biarujia poem differs in this context from elsewhere, even spread throughout the collection they do represent their authors & the anthology with unusual frisson! Much to savour in this anthology; Chris Edwards, joanne burns, Angela Gardner, Susan Hawthorne amongst others... Harrison's Aubade, beginning "If an extremely blue, misty, angular winter early morning / left its traces, its minnows and shimmers, in your eyes", ably extends grammar to hold a thought/conceit without strain. It's an elegant & mellifluous composition that denies the usual mushiness of romantic poems & speaks for the best of the anthology.
# The academic (traditional or avant-garde) imprimatur should be as incidental as popularity, one factor among several reckonings. In the '70s, the Melbourne/Sydney avant-garde discussion, in which I participated, mocked poetry's 'subject-matter domination', valorising 'the poem itself'. It probably needed to given the erstwhile conventional concentration upon 'communication' wherein 'themes' were 'effectively' expressed. But the wheels of practice & fashion turn, so direct or plain speaking returns. And even the conventional dichotomies dissolve, thus today there's a concurrence of realists & surrealists, Language poets & New Formalists, & all their hybrids. So it is and will always be, again & again & again! The moral? No more dogmas! Everything & nothing; everything or nothing!
# The canonical is central to both the Kinsella & the Leonard no matter either editor's provisos. Given my own reservations about the 'Australian' definition, I suppose I should be sympathetic to Kinsella's escape-clause that as an anti-nationalist he's an unlikely compiler of an Australian anthology. Naturally he's a coloniser too, albeit in the name of the transgressive & subversive. Although his redefinition of Australia doesnt do much more than add black, green & red stars to the national constellation, it's probably worthwhile. Not being (not being allowed, --after all it is the Penguin anthology & the widest readership is presumed) a fully fledged experimental anthology (in which his interesting but dubious notion that 'Australian' poetry is historically 'experimental', conflating with the formally experimental), it has a bitsy feel (a bit of this, a bit of that, & with some obvious exceptions, a little bit from everyone). Its success would be as the necessary complement to any standard anthology, providing the antithetical coda. The fashion of the day might describe it as an Eco-Poetical anthology...
# John Leonard's anthology probably began life as one thing (an update of his 1998 AustralianVerse : An Oxford Anthology, but with another publisher now since OUP abandoned the field) and became something else as it responded to the influence of a decade of new poets & new poetry. The two Johns concur that contemporary poetry is booming & may well represent the brightest it's ever been. Leonard calls the period from 1998 to the present, "unusually rich"; furthermore, " the number of poets writing original and high-quality work is larger than at any time in this country's history." Kinsella chimes, "It will probably strike readers of this anthology that it is unusual for so many contemporary writers to be represented in an historical anthology. I have done this because I feel that the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have proven and are proving to be fertile periods for poetry."
# Comments in their introductions suggest that both editors plot their poetry as parallel to the national history & responsive to the country's geophysical stereotypes. Apart from more or less passing remarks, neither editor really describes or analyses the aesthetical/poetical distinctions & directions of their anthology --not because they cant but wont. For Kinsella I suppose it's largely due to his sense of poetry's political imperative (at least, the transferability &, in his eye, the impossibility of distinguishing such categories). For Leonard it's as though the beans arent his to spill --either the 'delight', which he'd say is always the arbiter of a poem's worth, is for the reader to explicate, or it's all been done to excess previously. He explains, "I will refrain from giving a version of the usual story of the evolution of Australian poetry in terms of influence, movements in poetics, and sheer personal alliances. A reader can easily search for this elsewhere. The ghost of its scaffolding is discernible here, but my instinct is not to trammel the poems. Poems can interestingly outgrow their first labels." I wish our editor had provided & discussed an example of this tantalising statement --such poetical analysis would hardly be 'trammeling' but a demonstration of the very reading he urges in his introduction. In short, I'd love to know how our editors understand the (language) 'riches' of their selections. (Repeating the tale of free verse's historical ascendancy over the metrical, albeit allowing for free verse's ever greater complexity &, indeed, for the new career of formal composition during the post-modern, is the barest beginning, and left at that might thoroughly mislead an innocent reader as to the nature of the art & craft!)
# Because, in the Macquarie, David McCooey is placing (I almost write 'insinuating') poetry into the entire Australian literary frame, one that's politically responsive to the current historical register (as no better displayed than in the holus-bolus inclusion of what had been the self-contained & previously published volume of indigenous literature, edited by Anita Heiss & Peter Minter), the poetry (which includes examples of comedians' Barry Humphreys, John Clark & Michael Leunig, as well as a song by Nick Cave) might be expected to represent more than its intrinsic effects. And although the largest poem in his selection is by his own slim volume's publisher, John Kinsella, --a sprawling spiel, a signature aspect of his writing but not a patch, I'd hazard, on his W.A. situated & elegant magical-realisms that achieve all he'd ever want to bang on about --McCooey's selection doesnt follow his champ's 'experimental' (didactic & oppositional) line. For all the cultural-studies predilection, McCooey honours both po-mo & trad, equally aware of lyric & gravitas, irony & humour. He's an ammeliorist. Couldnt help feeling, though, how much like filler the poetry appeared, & the category itself so fragile in the Big Mac, heavied by the tome's portentious seeming prose!
# At random : open the Leonard & let the eye fall upon whatever it finds there. Page 140 : Geoffrey Lehmann's The Two Travellers. (I'm thinking it's what a disinterested reader would do : open a book & flick. I dont mean disinterested; I mean an interested reader, without axe to grind.) I like it! Immediate Laurentian asociations (that river-side taverna in the first part of Aaron's Rod, perhaps) arise-- but that's me -- impressions & sensations of young men's joi-de-vivre offset by nostalgia & mystery. The rhyming couplets are a delight. Several stories implied, as in the closing lines : "A parsley field and church shone in the sun, / The girl was there. We diced and my friend won." --the apposition of the girl & the friends' dicing may or not be consequential. I'm impressed by the poem being no more than the telling of a story in almost guileless couplets --no breast-beating or tub-thumping --simply a poem. And this day that is a great pleasure to me! It was written in 1972. I dont remember reading it then, & if I had probably wouldnt have appreciated it. What can I say : I inhabited a set of angles then which no longer dominate! Thank God for long reading lives & the chance for second bites & opinions!
# Caught by Lehmann I look for him in the other anthologies. Suddenly he's everywhere! That is to say, suddenly I'm aware of his centrality! In the Kinsella, his Pear Days in Queensland, probably botanically, agriculturally & historically accurate, is a tour de force : bourgeoning like creation myth, enveloping one like a Weird Tales fantasy. I wonder again about a DHL connection ('gentian violet' in the first stanza); his repetition of "pear" throughout the poem is rousing & hypnotic. It also recalls to me Ken Taylor's At Valentines (part 1) for the way a poem might insist its particulars --an oral gambit, I suppose, but so disposed as to transform the lists of items into richly layered narrative. In the Sydney anthology, Lehmann's to be found again with another big hit. Also from '72, Elegy for Jan is memorable as elegy & also litmus of an early '60s city of the young. And in the Macquarie, 13 long playing haiku, with its obvious reference to Stevens' Blackbird, is a musical tour from Debussy & Ravel to John Lee Hooker & Lou Reed; poignant, comic, deft & direct.
# Open the Kinsella at random : p.331, Jill Jones' The 7.17 Silver Machine, & in particular, "(...)we are racing time and track work / as the splayed out, the curved and embryonic lurch / towards dark Sydney - the dome, the nipple / the snow white breasts of midnight / waiting till we step down in the light " --not quite as speedy as a jump-cut Farrell or Gig Ryan but pretty fast &, like Ryan, atmospheric & beautiful!
# Something which has bugged me for a while is the status accorded the Ern Malley phenomenon. To wit : Why does the 'Ern Malley' confabulation of James McAuley & Harold Stewart have its own moniker without also bearing the names of its authors? Did proponents of new & innovative poetry understand the 'Ern Malley' hoax as a victory for their own poetic principals or was it a joke at the expense of the perpetrators, a bit of anti-conservative pay-back? And for how long can the joke remain funny? If the McAuley & Stewart 'Malley' poems stand up, why is there no attention paid to the original Apocalyptic & Surrealist poets of the '40s, even from the standpoint of historical representation? Judith Wright's negative judgements in her '50s Oxford appear to have become the orthodoxy. Even the Jindyworabaks seem to have had a better run, as evidenced by John Kinsella's remarks & inclusions in his anthology. It's long been time for serious reassessment, especially since the '60s & '70s' restoration of surrealism & etc as legitimate practice in Oz.
# Only one poet is in everything; Dorothy Porter. No more fitting memorial for a beloved late colleague. Many others are in the Big Three (several additionally in one or more of the Genres). Were it not for their much publicised spat with Kinsella (leading to withdrawal from the Penguin), Robert Adamson & Anthony Lawrence would have joined that company which includes Adam Aitken, Jordi Albiston, Bruce Beaver, Judy Beveridge, Vincent Buckley, Bruce Dawe, Sarah Day, Rosemary Dobson, Michael Dransfield, Jack Davis, Stephen Edgar, John Forbes, Peter Goldsworthy, Alan Gould, Robert Gray, J S Harry, Kevin Hart, Gwen Harwood, Dorothy Hewett, Philip Hodgins, A D Hope, Martin Johnston, John Kinsella, Geoffrey Lehmann, Emma Lew, Roger MacDonald, James McAuley, 'Ern Malley', David Malouf, Les Murray, Oodgeroo, Geoff Page, Peter Porter, Peter Rose, Gig Ryan, Philip Salom, John Scott, Tom Shapcott, Vivien Smith, Jennifer Strauss, John Tranter, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Ania Walwicz, Francis Webb, Judith Wright, Fay Zwicky.
In two or more : Lisa Bellear, Ken Bolton, Kevin Brophy, Pam Brown, Luke Davies, Laurie Duggan, Lionel Fogarty, Rodney Hall, Jill Jones, Jennifer Maiden, Mudrooroo, Ouyang Yu, Jennifer Rankin, Tracy Ryan, Craig Sherbourne, R A Simpson, Peter Sryznecki, Peter Steele, Roberta Sykes, Andrew Taylor, Alan Wearne, John Blight, Peter Boyle, Caroline Caddy, Alison Croggon, Jane Gibbian, Kevin Gilbert, Jennifer Harrison, Bill Hart-Smith, Coral Hull, John Jenkins, Bronwyn Lea, John Mateer, Pi O, Elizabeth Riddell, Judith Rodriguez, Alex Skovron, Dimitris Tsaloumas, Vicki Viidikas.
And numerous one-offs including Muk Muk Burke, Barry Hill, Catherine Bateson, Elizabeth Campbell, Julian Croft, Lidija Cvetkovic, Rebecca Edwards, Anne Elder, Brook Emery, Diane Fahey, Claire Gaskin, Barbara Giles, Martin Harrison, Jill Hellyer, Sophie Holland-Batt, L K Holt, Yvette Holt, Emma Jones, Evan Jones, Peter Kirkpatrick, Tony Lintermans, Kathryn Lomer, Paul Magee, Philip Martin, Geraldine Mckenzie, Graeme Miles, David Musgrave, Mark O'Connor, Marcella Pollain, Dipti Saravanamatu, Morgan Yasbincek, Simon West, Petra White, John Watson, Ali Alizadeh, Javant Biarujia, Judith Bishop, Merlinda Bobis, Charles Buckmaster, Michael Brennan, David Brooks, MTC Cronin, JH Duke, Geoofrey Dutton, Michael Farell, Geoff Goodfellow, Philip Hammial, Dennis Haskell, Anita Heiss, Paul Hetherington, Antigone Kefala, SK Kelen, Mike Ladd, Kate Lilley, Kate Llewellyn, Miriam Wei-Wei Lo, Rhyl McMaster, Chris Mansell, Miles Merrill, Peter Minter, Phillip Neilsen, Grace Perry, Glen Phillips, Andrew Sant, Jaya Savige, Randolph Stow, Harold Stewart, Norman Talbot, Richard Tipping.
# Recurring poems include Slessor's Five Bells, & Beach Burial, Peter Porter's An Exequy, Beveridge's The Domesticity of Giraffes, Croggon's The Elwood Organic Fruit and Vegetable Shop, Strauss's Tending the Graves, Murray's The Quality of Sprawl, Forbes' Love Poem, & Speed : A Pastoral... Classics major & minor. If poems rather than poets were school texts (and I think they should be) these might lead the way...
# Based on the Big Three & the Twos, convergence of taste seems more the stamp of the anthologies than divergence, but for all that there are numerous memorable poems. Add to the previously named the likes of Zwicky's Makasser, 1956, Lucy Holt's Waking : for Kafka, Wagan-Watson's Skeleton Dance, Albiston's The Fall, Pi O's Yoori, Gray's In Departing Light, Salom's The Composer Shostakovich Orders His Funeral, Adamson's The Language of Oysters, Dobson's Folding the Sheets, Gig Ryan's Swoons, Sherbourne's Strapper, Cronin's The Floor, The Thing, Kinsella's Drowning in Wheat, Bishop's Rabbit, Robert Harris's They Assume... Again, far too many to mention... Duggan's, Buckley's, Owen's, Gaskin's... Unfair to have begun...
# All in all, happy days for so many contemporary Australian poets represented in this swag of anthologies. I congratulate them & share in their pleasure. I almost wish that I could join them!
I'm grateful to Jan Owen who has informed me that she is included in 3 of the 6 recent Australian anthologies; 4 of 7 if one includes Take Five (edited by Adrian Caesar, Shoestring Press,UK) which I havent discussed. Somehow in my long trails of paper with biro tabulations her name must have fallen off ! Belatedly, & for the record, she features in Kinsella/Penguin, Leonard/P & W, Harrison & Waterhouse/Motherload. So she ought to have been in my "two or more" majors. I do apologise for this carelessness; in my head she was never an omission!
Thursday, 18th November,'10]