Is Contemporary Australian Poetry Contemporary Australian Poetry?

1 March 2017

What impressions of style are gained from this anthology? Due to the temporal suppleness involved in the meaning of the contemporary, along with a bureaucratic view of what constitutes it, Australian contemporary poetry’s central vein would appear to be conventional, post-war, Anglophone narrative poetry. A lyrical vein associates with the narrative poetry preference, but can equally be associated with conventional mid-twentieth century British poetry. Such is the kind of poetry written by John Betjeman or Louis MacNeice, or its psychological, lyrical escalation in the work of Ted Hughes or Philip Larkin. In his review in Cordite Poetry Review of John Kinsella’s The turnrow Anthology of Contemporary Australian Poetry (2014), Paul Hetherington claims not lyric nor narrative but imagism as a central mode of Australia’s notable contemporary poets (2014, np.). As true as it might be of selections made in Kinsella’s anthology, imagism wouldn’t be said to dominate as a form in CAP. This anthology’s selections involve more personal and personalising works of narrative and lyric.

As a view of poetry’s contemporary, arriving at this contiguity with British poetry is ironic considering that Australia’s mid-century moment was defined at once by Malley and the Aboriginal cultural renaissance, concerted departures from the Commonwealth’s gravitational pull. Considering too that crucial contemporary poems such as Robert Adamson’s ‘Via Negativa: The Divine Dark’ or Peter Minter’s ‘Knitcap Sutras’ are so much more sensuously involved in lyric than the sober preferences of conventional mid-century British poetry, such broader emphases seem at odds with the literary ecologies existing in contemporary Australian poetry and their critical reception. That is, although readers of Australian poetry might have Adamson’s or Minter’s approaches stand out in their imagination of established late modern or contemporary Australian poetries, works such as these are outweighed by conventional narrative verse in this anthology. Such a contrary emphasis may be a radical turn that CAP promotes under the heading of ‘quality’ – a turn towards story and lyric memoir. But it is unclear how intentional this representation is. However, looking at the Best Australian Poems series, edited in the past by Sarah Holland-Batt or Lisa Gorton, say, or selections made in Australia’s most diversely edited poetry journal, Cordite Poetry Review, a reader may not see the same trends working so influentially.

Contemporary Australian poetry’s preoccupation with landscape would be the primary exception to resemblance with conventional mid-century British poetry, and receives ample attention in CAP. This preoccupation is unique to Australian poetry, and ties it at once to the relevance of pastoral questions about land and subjectivity, the centrality of Aboriginal ontological and epistemological positions regarding Country, and the cultural heritage of invasion, settlement, land rights, environmentalism, and national identity to poetic projects in their relation to cultural history. For critic Paul Kane, such work is best represented by Philip Hodgins, who gains strong presentation in CAP. Of those anthologised, Fogarty, Stuart Cooke, Louise Crisp, Kate Middleton, and Kinsella, among others, convey more innovative poetic perspectives regarding the possibilities of landscape.

Moreover, the anthology offers special and concerted attention to subjects of Indigenous history, politics, narrative, and experience. Non-Indigenous along with Indigenous authors engage with this central aspect of Australian cultural expression, a welcome departure from the endowment of sole responsibility to Indigenous voices as the lone narrators of Australia’s traumatic histories and informed futures. Sarah Holland-Batt’s ‘An Illustrated History of Settlement’ rethinks the eye / I of colonial imagery, for example, and A Frances Johnson’s persona in ‘Poison Cake, Benalla’ characterises the self as ‘one more swallower of time’, engaging the problem of cultural memory of Australia’s history of massacre as a contemporary responsibility. Moreover, significant Aboriginal poets are the subject of reference by other poets in the anthology also, suggesting that the status of Indigenous practitioners is critical to Australian poetic horizons and part of its lexicon. More could have been made of experiments in poetic form by Aboriginal poets, however, whose careers have shifted what the literary means in this country. For example, Fogarty’s more syntactically innovative work, whose cultural perspectives also happen to be more ambitious, is elided in favour of work more obvious in form and content. Ali Cobby Eckermann’s singular poetic testimony and character imagination is strongly exhibited for its contemporaneity, however. Cobby Eckermann’s ‘Intervention Pay Back’ shows a poetic rethinking of ethical questions of the politics of the Northern Territory Intervention, speaking back to its policies through an imaginative verbal palette of embodied character in dialogue. This anthological element conveys the centrality of Indigenous expression to contemporary poetry as part of a larger polyvalent tradition.

Regarding the form contemporary poetry takes in this country, inclusions of its strains diverging from the mid-century, conventional free verse get mostly marginal representation: two half-pages for Toby Fitch, without evidence of his central practice of pattern poetry; half a page for Justin Clemens, without his palindromes or his performative misanthropy; half a page for Rachael Briggs, without her polysemous courtly economies or her impossible conundrums; less than a page for Astrid Lorange, without much evidence of her preoccupation with procedures of desire; one page for Lachlan Brown, usually more complexly concerned with the suburbs than the presented work; one page for the imagism of Brendan Ryan; two pages for Ouyang Yu’s decades-long projects in autobiographical abstractions; and two pages for polylingual Javant Biarujia. These are poets who represent departures from the mid-century canonical Anglophone directions, and who, crucially, signal the singularity of poetic currents in Australian poetry. But, work by a dozen or more poets who have hardly published a poem in the last five years gain as much or more emphasis than these recognised examples. The inclusion of poetry by the likes of Lorange, Biarujia, or Briggs should be celebrated, of course, even if such singularities are marginal in the anthology. Moreover, unprecedented is the inclusion of Nick Whittock’s poetry, work offering contemporary myth anchored in cricket lore and data. I say unprecedented because his work has seemed impossible for Australian editors to anthologise heretofore. Experimental poet Chris Mann has also been poorly represented in the past. Interestingly, Mann appears in Kinsella’s turnrow, but not in CAP. One day there might be an anthology including them both.

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