Is Contemporary Australian Poetry Contemporary Australian Poetry?

1 March 2017

I would summarise the editorship of the CAP anthology as bureaucratic. The editors of this conveniently broad volume of contemporary Australian poems choose to preface the anthology by marking a perceived achievement of critical mass in practice, emerging after a continually ‘dismissive’ ‘public narrative’ about poetry in this country. Comments are made about Australia’s ability to compete with other English-language contexts now: ‘anyone who seeks to explore the perspectives or music available in English will also have to consider the perspectives and music which have originated here’. Comments are made about the ‘weighting of curricula and the selection of research-topics’ now that Australian poetry is perceived to have ‘thirty or more’ poets ‘capable of the sustained production of highly accomplished work’. The editors speak of a ‘proliferation of quality’ and somewhat of national history, but not of aesthetics, politics, or literary history.

As a poet and a critic, I enjoy the tone of recrimination brought to bear on connected institutions that might have ignored poetry in the past. Perhaps the target audience for such remarks is an active poet or critic like me. However, I do fear that some of these remarks may sound like a churlish schoolteacher to some readers, especially to the audience on behalf of whom such comments apparently hope to address: the general reader. The anthology’s four editors fashion an introduction petitioning for adequate attention to a marginalised form. What the form constitutes in the contemporary, and what it constitutes of the contemporary, remains largely untheorised in this call for attention. The editors do energetically remark upon ‘quality’, with some persistence. ‘(S)ustained production’ by thirty poets, however, becomes the central concern in a discussion of bureaucratic questions about education and distribution of poetry, and ultimately how Australia might be registered in a global literary economy. Notably, poems and practices do not gain the protection of ‘quality’; poets’ tenure and productivity are instead the driving concerns of the editors’ pedagogical and readerly advice.

The editors of the anthology propose a remedial anthological task: to fix the perceived lack of a general view of Australian poetry over the last twenty-five years. In the editors’ words: ‘there was nowhere where one could obtain an overall sense of the achievement of the last twenty-five years’. Their interpretation of the lively 70s and 80s is of a time of ‘poetry wars’, ergo insinuating that anthologies of the time were never sufficiently general enough. Although hefty, CAP is uncannily light. The publisher somehow defies the laws of physics. Surely a technologically advanced form of paper was involved in the pressing of this book. Creative writing students will not be daunted by bringing it to class. Regarding the creative writing classroom, some uncertain commentary about the environment as an influencer of contemporary style appears early in the introduction. Namely, the editors propose that creative writing programs have meant ‘a partial professionalisation of the art form which has, at times, led to a new kind of academic poetry in which what passes for avant-gardism has become the “established” mode’. Indeed, this anthology shows the influence of creative writing programs and other institutional bodies concerned with contemporary poetry in Australia, given that all four editors have established roles in these sectors, a vast majority of poets teaching writing in Australia appear in the anthology, and numerous former creative writing students populate the pages also. How much of the editors’ statement about style applies to this pronounced emphasis within the anthology is unclear, however. Since CAP’s scope is enormous, probability suggests that such poetry does appear. Who are the candidates of this critique, then?

Considering that this statement about creative writing environments is one of the rare statements about style that appears in the introduction, we can infer some disapproval of the effects creative writing programs have had on poetic style in the contemporary. But, when thinking about established creative writing academics, such a style comment is not borne out. For example, Jill Jones could be described as an ambient minimalist, or Paul Hetherington an imagist with lyrical elements. ‘(A)vant-gardism’ would create as much friction as felicity if attached to either. Regarded poets who have done creative writing postdoctoral degrees within the time period of the anthology’s selection, such as Cameron Lowe at the University of Melbourne, also don’t evidence the style the editors mention here. Unfortunately, this short moment of critique receives no further development. This absence is a lost opportunity considering that the concept of quality so central to the anthology’s orientation lacks the elucidation it needs to resonate with readerly expectations about style. Since the editors either teach or belong to professional institutions, we can also presume that professionalisation is seen by them to have a positive influence on contemporary formations of the literary. What precisely these conflicting relations to the profession and institutions of writing in CAP’s formulation say about the situation of contemporary poetry is unknown to me, and no doubt to others like me who have never belonged to institutions such as Australian Poetry Ltd. or taught creative writing. So, those same creative writing students bringing the anthology to class may have a complicated reaction to the volume’s introductory statements and the contradictions they have with the editorship more generally.

CAP frames contemporary Australian poetry not by the presentation of textual or ideational events, but by the ‘careers’ of ‘poets’. For the most part big topics, of narrative quality, decide selections by which to represent those careers. The passing of fathers recurs, for example. Pages 432 to 435 sit Les Murray’s narrative poem ‘The Last Hellos’ next to David Musgrave’s lyric ‘The Dead’. Two fine elegiac works. Musgrave’s angular death vignette is very different from Murray’s easily comprehended dramatic monologue. But Murray’s poem from 1995 is famous, some might say over-anthologised. However, in a contemporary literary environment where very few works of poetry get repeat dissemination or discussion, this ‘career and topic’ approach to selection is a logical way to engage both the present community of practitioners and a reader new to poetry.

From this, a specific orientation regarding ‘career and topic’ can be gleaned. Ideologically, the anthology’s approach echoes the view of one generously exhibited poet, Alan Gould. In 2013, Gould wrote an article recommending that the compilation of poetry be based upon the ‘revelation of career’, hoping for a poetic discourse based upon a ‘poet’s whole-and-essence’ (99). Presumably, a critical mass of public opinion engaged with the poet’s ars poetica would reveal such perspicuity of biographical essences. Moreover, Gould’s view of a career’s ‘revelation’ presumes that poetic achievement involves embracing an accepted subjectivity of Poet as a matter of promotion into ranks of a ‘revelatory’ set. The editors of CAP emphasise the narrative and thematic consequences of such compilatory preferences. Readers are encouraged to find an intimacy with poets as autobiographers of life’s milestones and grief. Indeed, the second most common type of poem in the anthology – the historical narrative poem – is commonly combined with an autobiographical relation to the historical scenario in question, which sometimes synthesises the autobiographical lyric or narrative elegy with the historical narrative form.

CAP’s approach agrees with Gould’s model insofar as it praises long careers and emphasises literary biographical self-reference and content, with less apparent interest in contemporary expression or contemporary Australia. Roughly, critical influence or significance, and readership, could be construed as less significant to the editors here than time of service, frequency of anthologisation, and memoir quality of works by relation to career, although there are many exceptions. Due recognition to long service and literary biography was likely the motivation here, and to the ‘sustained production’ idea mentioned earlier. In fact, long service includes posthumous works, with poets who passed away a decade or more before this publication of contemporary work; John Forbes, Dorothy Hewett, Kevin Gilbert and Gwen Harwood. Historically, they amount to key indicators of twentieth century Australian poetry. But their inclusion raises questions one would not expect to ask an anthology of the contemporary. We wonder, for example, why the editors did not include Judith Wright as well as Gwen Harwood, Jack Davis as well as Kevin Gilbert, or Oodgeroo Noonuccal as well as Dorothy Hewett. The poems of these figures are as indispensable to a view of Australian poetry post-1990 and the lead up to it as the posthumous cluster included. All wrote poems after 1990. Just like the figures included, these poets’ oeuvres were established and anthologised in pre-90s contexts. The editors likely are not saying that the work of Wright or Davis make up a less contemporary view of poetry than the inclusions that they have made. But, the question naturally arises to the Australian poetry reader.

Presently active poets, too, are represented here by poems from before the millennium. This preference suggests that, for the editors, the contemporary very much took place in the last decade of the twentieth century, with work since the important Calyx anthology (2000) as yet unequally influential. Consider ‘Dressmaker’ by Diane Fahey, a poem which was first published the year of my birth (1985) and was later collected in her book Turning the Hourglass (1990). Fahey published widely in 2015 and 2016. No poems from the twenty-first century by this poet appear in the anthology. Murray, arguably Australia’s best-known poet, also lacks representation of work from the twenty-first century, and yet he has won four national prizes for books published since 2000. Some Murray selections in CAP are canonical, not contemporary, and, indeed, already widely anthologised. In other words, CAP nominates as contemporary Australian poetry poems that are in reality not contemporary works by Murray.

Fahey and Murray are not outliers, but metonyms for the construction of this anthology. Numerous living poets with long careers have also been better represented in the anthology for their twentieth-century work than their twenty-first century work. On this matter, in the introduction, the editors argue that recent work by established poets did not merit inclusion. Unfortunately, no further discussion illuminates what constitutes that merit. A very interesting case might have been made for this. But, unfortunately, we cannot enjoy such elucidation nor easily draw our own conclusions, given that such poets are often diversely represented whilst lesser-known poems as well as well-known poems of the past are on display.

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