The young PhD was applying for a ‘Theory for Practising Writers’ teaching position in a Creative Writing degree.
He had devised a three year course, the first year of readings, lectures, tutorials and essays which though extending as far back antiquity would really take off circa 1848 … with various strands of Western (and even Eastern) thought and literature, culminating in the final lecture of the year, which would be on Eliot’s The Waste Land.
‘The Waste Land?’ queried one of the interviewers, himself a poet, editor, publisher and teacher, ‘The Waste Land? But that’s a bit way out, isn’t it?’
Yes, this did happen and the question was not asked by some Georgian crackpot from 80 years ago. This is still a spirit-of-thinking that although not completely swamping this country’s poetry unfortunately flourishes. This very true tale follows me around most days, it is an enemy, just around the corner that propels me constantly onto my front foot, as reader, poet, teacher, critic/reviewer and editor.
Australian Poetry still has to suffer this and other kinds of inanity, ranging from daggy subeditorial puns (‘Bad or Verse’) that often headline the few reviews poetry is lucky enough to snare, to confessions from ABC Radio interviewers that they don’t actually read the stuff (it happened recently to Luke Davies on Ramona’s Book Klub) to the occasional wince-making piece of ignorant, opinionated Murdoch broadsheet bile, of which a recent effort entitled Only greatness, not popular appeal, can restore poetry as the nation’s memory will attest. (Pardon me, but doesn’t that title ring more like some weird kind of Chinese Cultural Revolution wall poster?) And beyond all this there is the sheer mustn’t-be-too-way-out mustiness which backs so much of our writing attempts. I ought to know, I had to plough through a huge amount of the stuff to finally arrive at a solid enough short list from which these Cordite poems were chosen.
An editor’s task should be exhilarating of course, and if I hadn’t have thought it possessed this potential I would not have said ‘Yes’ to Cordite when approached. The attendant risks of course are very often those of ego, an editor’s true, but particularly of those you reject. How well I recall when as poetry editor of Meanjin under Judith Brett folk would send accompanying letters to the actual editor beginning Dear Sir … Well, since they didn’t bother to check we couldn’t be expected to publish could we? Mind you since a woman was now editor there were a number of female writers who sent in the kind of verse that assumed that Meanjin was now the flagship of sisterhood, mid 80s style. When one contributor received a note from me suggesting that her work might be shown to better effect as a sonnet I received a furious reply lecturing me as to how the sonnet was a patriarchal verse form, this amusing both the editor and myself.
The first review of the very recent Lehmann and Gray Australian Poetry Since 1788 that I will fully trust will be by someone who has read this volume, every word of it from cover to cover. Something of 1090 pages surely deserves that amount of (let’s call it) devoted work for its assessment. So far there have been on-the-run reviews, a certain amount of interesting publicity (thankfully little verging on mere ‘puff’) and a degree of controversy, particularly through the agency of Peter Minter’s doubtless sincere attack on the particular absence of certain contemporary indigenous poets. Well meaning though this complaint might be it can really only be fully assessed by that critic mentioned above, that one reading the book cover-to-cover. It is my belief that in the end he or she (and let us hope there are a few hes or shes) will have to decide wether this is a volume centred on history or on art (well at least the editors’ vision of art).
I trust to the fact that Lehmann and Grey were as sincere in their judgements as Peter Minter was in his condemnation: they knew the risks involved as editors and ran with them. Some of their absences annoyed me, some inclusions annoyed me, some inclusions I cheered, some exclusions made me extremely delighted. Doubtless it could equally be said that many of the contemporary indigenous poets (and others) were excluded for the same reason that a whole slew of poets that I admire, from Ken Bolton to Peter Skrzynecki via Kenneth McKenzie, Pam Brown, Joanne Burns, Rae Jones, and yes Peter Minter etc etc were excluded: because the editors didn’t regard their work highly enough, that it didn’t engage them, that their poems lacked what on earth it was you were supposed to have.
I know what it’s like on both sides of that divide. Up till circa forty I was excluded from far more ‘grand survey’ anthologies than included, the editors of which (whom of course I forgive) included Robert Kenny, Tom Shapcott, Rodney Hall, Geoffrey Dutton, Vincent Buckley, Les Murray, Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Grey (in their previous existence) and (though I better check on this) Dame Leonie Kramer! Even later, as a sonneteer I was rejected from an Australian Sonnet Anthology! On the divide’s other side, with my Meanjin stint, with my editing of UQP’s The Best Australian Poetry 2009 and now as guest of this journal I too know what it’s like to give actions to my belief that ‘This certainly passes muster, this probably does, this possibly does and this one certainly does not.’ In the end (and here Cordite’s demand for anonymity of contributors sure assists) it surely must come down to an editor demanding ‘Does this work? Am I engaged?’
Certain poems weren’t merely rejected of course, they were disqualified; and here are a number of criteria which would result in automatic disqualification with first off the use of clichés and clichéd terms. There might be an excuse in using such sarcastically or ironically, in modifying a clichéd phrase or sending it up, but in the batch received I saw no such examples. There are no excuses for using them, clichés are lazy English, and if there’s one thing poetry should never be it’s lazy. Moreover, as Australian writers let us have as little ‘truck’ as possible with certain Americanisms: all those ‘bros’ and all those ‘dudes’, whose use is as regressive as the forelock-tugging towards the British Monarchy still employed by sections of our wider community. Of course ‘mate’ and its somewhat more sinister derivation ‘maaaate’ may be a bit dreary, a bit arch, but at least it is ours. You can’t exactly legislate against lazy English and lazy Australian English, though someone in the position of poetry editor can at least be a de facto law-maker.
Another disqualification involves the ‘centring’ of poems. Plenty of poets take a great deal of alternating pain and delight in laying out their work, in the use of fonts, spacings, the complete typographical gamut. Being something this poet cannot do I thus find myself envious, applauding and above all supportive of these never lazy poets who think so intricately about their work’s shape and design. But when someone just presses a button on a machine and the result is ‘centred’, well no matter how quirky, no matter how pretty, this editor ditches the result.
Poems with any hint of scatology were also ditched. I have a strong aversion to this area in writing and thus relished my editorial chance to pass this prejudice onto the world. The misplaced demotic too captured my ire. For example we have a piece of plainly written English, written perhaps as she might be spoken, though with nothing of the colloquial, the dialect, the creole; and then from out of who knows the writer decides to use ‘gonna’ and ‘wanna’. They might not be serious though in disqualifying I sure am.
Sometimes I really wonder if those purporting to be poets actually read their pieces aloud to themselves during, let alone after composition. Sometimes I even more than wonder if some of those who do read aloud ever listen to themselves, or in doing this imagine someone else doing the reading or listening. All poetry on the page invites recitation (if not exactly ‘performance’) which is where of course we have it so much over prose; though with plenty of the work received you wouldn’t reckon on it. More than once I got the impression of someone going into the bush, a backyard, their study with a lap top (my god, a lap top!) and sitting under a tree, in a pergola, at their desk and tapping a splurge onto a screen about nature or relationships. Well nature, relationships or what have you, there’s far too much tapping splurge onto screens (says he who has always used keyboards as the machine of last resort)! And don’t tell him that we are better off ‘digital’: when a true test of a poem is its being read aloud…like hell we are!
If there is one thing that unites the poems I’ve chosen it is that I believe their authors composed them through the agency of reading aloud. Okay, I’m sure that keyboards played their parts but I cannot imagine ‘the lap top splurge’ being part of their composition. But then as I have indicated I have an aversion to that mode of composition and if this selection I have chosen presents certain of my positive prejudices, so be it. After I had made my choice I realised I had a number of other prejudices bustling their way to the fore. I love poems about people being alive, that’s right alive, and let’s face it in poetry plenty (most?) of the dead are more alive than much of the living. I love poems that go-for-broke re language, syntax, lay-out; I also love poems that relish economy and refinement. Of course I love those poems that I immediately grasp (if you get me laughing for example you may already be over the line); I also love those poems that are very way out (recall ‘way out’?) that are going to annoy those kind of folk I too would want to annoy. Was there a watchword? Risk, risk and risk again (the editor’s as well as the poets’).
Choosing those in particular who engaged, challenged and who could quite possibly annoy me, I thought of those great words of Dmitri Shostakovich to Sophia Gubaidulina sometime in the 1950s: ‘I want you to continue down your mistaken path.’ Is there anything truer a teacher or an editor can say to an emerging poet? And look at whom he was backing: someone who today would be amongst the very greatest living composers and most probably the greatest living female one. Those still recoiling at the ‘way out’ will never appreciate such an attitude.