Is Contemporary Australian Poetry Contemporary Australian Poetry?

1 March 2017

Omar Sakr and Ann Vickery are the only poets with debut collections published after 2014 to have work included in CAP. A commendable idea, under-utilised. Ellen Van Neerven, Joel Ephraims, Autumn Royal, Tim Wright, Jeremy Balius, Zoe Dzunko, Claire Nashar, Emily Stewart, Alison Whittaker, Aden Rolfe, Derek Motion, Matthew Hall, Bella Li and Natalie Harkin, among others, many of whom already contributing important poems to Australian poetry in some form of collection since before 2014, could have appeared had the editors been more concerned with the twenty-first century contemporary. Glancing at this list of names representing a very active, heterogeneous, and lively contemporary forum of poetic practices, one sees a radically different view of contemporary Australia and contemporary writing. But, formally, more glaring omissions involve poetries integrating typographical, procedural, visual, or long-form textual contingencies. Notably, some also belong to the post-2014 debut set. Some clearly do not. Work by Wright, Nashar, Harkin, ПO, Benjamin Frater, Mez Breeze, Cornelis Vleeskens, D J Huppatz, Aden Rolfe, A J Carruthers, Richard Tipping, Pete Spence, Eddie Paterson and Amanda Stewart make up key omissions in this area. In CAP, such significant contemporary practices are basically absent. But editors of anthologies in this country have been ignoring for some time unconventional language strategies to received views of lyric and narrative. The editors of this volume are not necessarily to blame for this tendency to ignore such strategies, but simply continuing its tradition. Amelia Dale’s and Carruthers’s Stale Objects Press, ПO’s Collective Effort Press and Unusual Work magazine, Mark Young’s otoliths, Spence’s various magazines released through Donnithorne Street Press, and Marty Hiatt and John Hand’s bulky news press, along with the vast majority of the poetry they publish, are examples of textual contexts lying outside the scope of the anthology.

Viewing these two spheres of practice as existing outside of CAP’s image of the contemporary helps us take stock of the operations of cultural capital in the anthology which drive selection. Analysing the practices these names convoke, I want to suggest that the anthological approach lacks a strong registration of contemporary textual modes, such as visual poetic strategies, distributed and altered authorship, multimedia, occasional, incidental, or site-specific textual works, adaption of internet-based exchange, collaborative poetries, new forms of poetic serialization or serial logic, post-Beat orientations, neo-Dada orientations, and satire. By contrast, CAP favours ‘careers’, narrative, big subject matter, and, sometimes, heavily anthologised poems. But, the anthology has drawn attention to other innovative forms of practice fomented explicitly in Australia. Consider Martin Harrison’s contributions, who also happened to see Malley as a catastrophe for the Australian modernist project. Harrison’s work trucks with ecological questions, but also an orientation towards place orientated by respect for Indigenous environmental thinking as well as phenomenological possibilities raised by the visual arts. His feelings about the catastrophe for modernism made by Malley was expressed by Harrison in a paper he gave at the Poetry and the Contemporary symposium in Melbourne in 2011, with alternatives to post-Malley trajectories theorised as an extension of ideas of locality and poetic perspective found in his book, Who Wants to Create Australia? (2004). Harrison’s poetry, like his treatise on Australian poetry, develops expression not out of fragmentation and decentring in the Australian context, but as an empowered consequence of local literary and material ecologies. In this way, Harrison’s anti-Malley line was legible. Thoughtfully, a large inclusion of Harrison’s best work is displayed in this anthology, reviewing his specifically environmental and ekphrastic poetic horizons. Consider how Harrison imagines a swarm of bees on a hive in ‘Stopping For A Walk In Reserved Land Near Murra Murra’: ‘yet still clustering, still forming itself / from Spring’s exile / and the struggle of poisoned virgin grubs— // till it steadies its larval magic / into an Earth-Mother drone / of particles, dynamos, ancestral flight.’

Another poet whose poetic sensibilities do not fit contiguously with post-Malley paradigms of heightened artifice, suburban invention, and the cultural problematics of place – although distant correlations could be made – is J S Harry. Harry develops nonhuman questions of consciousness, traverses singular poetic perspective, and imagines surprising realities. Harry opens ‘A Sunlit Morning, Labor Day, Late Twentieth Century’ with: ‘Zed is the letter / for the sound the blowfly makes / when it finds his friend the magpie / lying on the grass’. Harry’s work seems embedded in place in a way that values Australian environmental experience, particularly in regards to fauna and insect life. Together, Harry and Harrison affirm particularly Australian directions for a poetics of place and of subjectivity, leaping from novel foundations catalysed by Australian experience. Both poets died in the last couple years and they sit beside each other in the anthology.

Other divergences from the main stream of mid-century-styled works are mostly constituted by poets established, again, prior to the millennium. To Harry and Harrison we might add Stephen Edgar, who is an accomplished formalist and neo-classicist; Louise Crisp, whose recent work is ecopoetic; or, Jordie Albiston, who is a long-form poet-historian. These three examples – among a number who diverge from the mid-century conventional verse trend and gain special emphasis in the anthology – established their careers in the 1980s and 1990s.

The work of these poets deserves this emphasis. But, a trend is forming. A pronounced sense of obligation to a range of remarkable but also less remarkable poets established by the 1990s seems to motivate the bureaucratic choices of poetry in CAP overall.

The representation of the contemporary carries less of its signature in cases of republishing work by ultra-conservative poets, much of whose material comes from journal Quadrant. A stable of regular contributors to Keith Windschuttle’s journal are included in the anthology, some of whom having public profiles espousing ultra-conservative ideology. Ideology of course does not necessarily determine the form a poem takes, nor the consequences of language art, as the figure of Malley most pronouncedly shows. However, in the case of CAP’s choices from this journal, nostalgia evidently dominates, a literal-minded relation between meaning and expression is manifest, and Australiana is the cultural dominant overall.

I discuss journals and presses to bring into view the literary ecologies the anthology does and does not engage with, with the Quadrant context being another influential one, given how many poems appeared there first. Reviewing the original place of publication, I discover that Quadrant has been figured as a central journal for Australian poetry in the view of this anthology’s editors. Clive James would be the most prominent figure of the regular submitters to Quadrant, although, ironically, James’s inclusions in the anthology were not first published there. But, like some weird herald of the anthology’s compilation in a nostalgic mode, two of James’s poems – ‘Fires Burning, Fires Burning’ and ‘Meteor IV at Cowes, 1913’ – combine historical dramatisation and funereal meditation. Besides Quadrant, Cordite Poetry Review appears to be a key venue for work published after 2010, and the Best Australian Poems series by publisher Black Inc. sensibly mined for poems.

Certain unprecedented elements of this anthology make it unique, contributing impressive examples of ‘critical review’. Jennifer Harrison’s imaginative long poem, Colombine, gains a lengthy excerpt, the kind of emphasis rarely given to her work. It should be said that the poem dramatises Colombine, not Columbine, as it is spelt in the anthology, though. Some of the most culturally probing and exciting of Michael Farrell’s work gets weighty inclusion, with recognised poems such as ‘Beautiful Mother’. Kate Lilley gets an uncommon five pages, including her most innovative work, such as ‘Cleft’ from her book, Ladylike (2012), with a section employing hundreds of adverbs to build a sound-poem-like abstract melodrama. Risky poems by Maria Takolander show welcome editorial audacity and will provoke strong responses from readers. The spread of Sam Wagan Watson’s poems covers his many registers, from anthemic monologue, to imagism, and to epigrammatic lyric. This sensitivity to a poet’s variety appeals to me as a reader of Watson’s work. Selections such are these are diverse and surprising, presenting a field not anthologised in this way before.

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