Is Contemporary Australian Poetry Contemporary Australian Poetry?

1 March 2017

I agree completely with the assessment of the editors of CAP that Australian poetry at present is a ‘major national achievement’. The anthology should be celebrated for bringing the country’s mostly active poets so comprehensively into view. For me, this is the broadest anthology of Australian poets available to represent the contemporary so far, mostly given its size, though perhaps not the broadest view of Australia’s poetry. Poets living in Australia will find this to be the most inclusive compilation of them. Inclusivity of this kind is a feat and another positive achievement of a bureaucratic approach to anthologisation. As a ‘critical review’, emphasis is granted to tenure, institutional importance, historical content, accessible topics, autobiography, and story. Clive James exemplifies such a view of Australian letters: a veteran figure obsessed with early twentieth-century history, poetically unparticular, requiring little lexical or syntactic attention, and occupying the much sought-after public sphere (though, admittedly, of a now endangered television-centric past). Such a poet still enjoys much international attention as an emissary of an Anglophile Australia and as an amusing public figure with cultural currency. James provides a kind of aspirational profile for Australian creative writers. Many born after the 1970s may not be so aware of James’s public presence, but I gather that there is an international audience for his work.

If the anthology brings attention to its two-hundred poets by sharing the spirits of Forbes, Harwood or Peter Porter with the celebrity of James, then perhaps the remedial task the editors propose for this anthology is achieved. Poems of the 1990s by Australian poetry’s most recognisable historical poets mingle with a massive range of topic and story-based poems by the majority of Australia’s book-publishing poets living today or passing away in the last twenty-five years. In this way, the anthology provides the most general view of Australian poets working today. If preference for mid-century-styled narrative poetry and lyric gives a hazy vantage from which to distinguish real Australian contemporary practices in language, at least the reader can visit other work by poets included. Although some poems have already bleached in the sun of attention, given the prevalence of other directions in intervals throughout the anthology, the field may even be, as the editors say, ‘luminous’. Who knows what the next Clive James might look like, rising out of this spangling pasture.

Meanwhile, there is a crease to leap.

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