Ryan Scott Reviews The Best Australian Poetry 2009 and The Best Australian Poems 2009

19 April 2010

The Best Australian Poetry 2009 edited by Alan Wearne
University of Queensland Press, 2009

The Best Australian Poems 2009 edited by Robert Adamson
Black Inc., 2009

If we seek a division in Australian poetry, we will not find it represented among the poems in these two anthologies. Wearne puts it adroitly in his introduction when he says about the Poetry Wars, ‘for all the legendary brouhaha it may have all happened at one party (and perhaps that's how the eventual movie will see it). If some of us played for different teams (and still may) remember the operative words are 'play' and 'teams'. We are still all part of some all purpose Australian poetry experiment …' That he doesn't take these divisions so seriously is heartening. It is a perspective which pervades Adamson's anthology too. My strongest impression of both books was of the interplay between different poetic forms. Whether it was their intention or not, the editors show that formal verse and free verse are poles along the same poetic continuum, and Australian poets work between these poles and don't take distinct sides.

Yet both anthologies are as different, personal and unique as the works within. Adamson's is the broader selection, over twice as long as Wearne's, and almost twice as long as Rose's anthology from last year. For this reason, Adamson assembled a less consistent selection of poems. In his introduction he admits he wanted ‘[the] book to be a fairly inclusive survey of the 'best' poetry written in Australia'. The result is a politically sound representation, generous and accommodating. However, the variety of voices can be a little overwhelming. Wearne's selection felt more personal in part because its size lends it a cohesion, without sacrificing diversity.

Among the more structurally formal poems in Wearne's anthology is 'Constitutional Law' by Jimmy Andrews, a poem which marries rhyme and metre to natural language. Andrews makes use of triplets of verbs, such as ‘judges, legislates or executes', ‘make, interpret and apply' and ‘create, decipher and administer' to reinforce the political ‘Cerebus' he is inveighing against. Even if the theme is a bit overstated, this poem shows that an effective piece is one which goes beyond treating form as an end in itself and employs it as part of its message.

Thomas Shapcott's 'Sestina' also demonstrates the artistic union of form and content with natural language. A sestina can, at first glance, be the most artificial of forms. Couplets and quatrains at least follow rhythms and rhyme found in the language. In contrast, a sestina follows an externally applied pattern of repeating and rearranging the last word of each line. When done well, as in Shapcott's piece, the form demonstrates how structure can heighten language. The verses spiral out from the repeated words. There is also the harmony of the form and subject matter. Shapcott is writing about family traits, in this instance a flair for carpentry, and how the talent skipped his father but is evident in him. All the while the same six words, ‘dad', ‘father', ‘learn', ‘abandon', ‘genes' and ‘shadows', are mixed around and recombined in different order like DNA. It is structure through rearrangement, biological and literary.

Drifting toward the other end of the continuum in Wearne's anthology are poems where the form was more subdued and the poetry emerged from the ideas and images. Ali Alizadeh in his poem 'The Suspect' shows how identities can be cages without relinquishing a sense of self. A forthright voice, the poet compares how he was characterised in Iran with his characterisation in Australia. The events swing back and forth on the phrases ‘Over here' and ‘Over there', which like a musical motif reoccur through the lines and build the defiant tone. Furthermore, the poem finds an expressive potential between metred language and straight prose.

John Kinsella's poem 'Canto of the Moths' finds this poet in an uncommonly delicate mood. The beauty of the poem comes from the slow building of the imagery, the juxtaposition of the struggling moths, sand and children's toys:

Their wings heavy with rain,
dust is running off like sludge.
The terrace of sand a desert

of the drowning and drowned.
Plastic buckets and shovels,
rakes and rubber balls,

From these lines emerges a hesitancy to the poem, which ties the work to the land without claiming it. Only the last stanza, which finds Kinsella in a more familiar, overtly political tone, spoils the tenderness of lines above. This tenderness could be just as political for its openness. As with Alizadeh's piece, Kinsella, through the simple control of his lines, finds a soft sombre music in unrhymed verse.

As in all anthologies some poems worked better than others. However, as a whole, Wearne has assembled a group of poems which, regardless of how representative they are, are above all a pleasure to read. The one criticism I have with the book, and it is a minor one, is the inclusion of the poets' comments at the back. Perhaps, this issue will be one of those dividing points between poets and readers. The poets want to ensure their work is understood whereas a reader wants the poems to stand on their own.

Adamson's selection certainly affords this reading experience, with no notes provided about the poems or the poets. He has also stretched the poetry continuum further with works ranging from the more traditional to those which sit on the border of prose. He should also be commended for including many lesser known poets and previously unpublished works. As with Wearne's anthology, the more interesting pieces are those which tend toward neither pole but manage to combine both, sometimes swinging between the extremes in a single piece. However, the range is the anthology's strength as well as its weakness.

One of those stand-out pieces is Ali Cobby Eckerman's 'Intervention Pay Back'. Cobby Eckerman finds the lyricism in the idioms of Central Australia. The lines spiral out from clipped clauses, words and ideas repeated, expanded on, lines filled with breath and space. All the while she captures one family's plight during the intervention. Cobby Eckerman's poem fixes in our minds another shameful episode in the nation's history and never dowses the events in sentiment:

and from there night time when we all asleep     all together
on the grass patch     dog and cat and kids     my wife and
me     them kids they ask really good questions about the olden
days     about today     them real ninti them kids     they gunna
be right

Beyond the politics, the poem manages that rare feat of being startling and new while claiming its place within the tradition of poetic language. It confirms the artistic potential in an Australian dialect while enriching the English language as a whole.

Martin Harrison's poem 'Word', which opens the anthology, is written in memory of Dorothy Porter. This poem should put to rest any arguments that unrhymed verse can't be as melodious and rhythmical as rhyme:

Warm river-wind offers its rocking-horse rhythm
to the tired barge and its ancient melody
and the melody of film and o so subtle detection
in which briefly suddenly one voice's glimmer is lost
how old how birdlike she made it how ancient
the light tracery of clip and scene…

It would be quite easy to strip this poem down to its parts, expose the undercarriage of technique, the alliteration in the first and third lines and the controlled prosody. Such an approach is unnecessary when the poetry is self-evident in the reading. True, neither theme nor style is startlingly new; but sometimes, it's enough to have a poet remind us of the timelessness of grief.

Much of the strength of these poems is how these poets expressed the subject matter. There are striking poems about the landscape, birds, travel and relationships. I was especially taken by Judith Beveridge's 'Rain'. I admit to a personal bias here. Rain, or most precipitation, tends to make me feel creative. I've filled notebooks on the subject of showers, drizzle, downpours as well as hail and snow, but never as purely joyous as this:

   Rain bubble-wrapping the windows. Rain
falling as though someone ran a blade down the spines
   of fish setting those tiny backbones free…

Beveridge nails what is sensual about her subject. She recasts what is a nuisance as something seemingly magical, finding in each droplet some new and startling images, so that this transparent element becomes a vivid pallet.

Some of the rhymed poems in the anthology were also able to find the creative tension between the constraints of rhyme and meter and expression. Peter Porter's 'After Schiller' is more traditional in that its metre is more consistent and its subject matter graver. Porter is not 'making it new' per se. However, he demonstrates that rhyme can continue to be as thematically serious as free verse. Wearne's 'Dysfunction, North Carlton Style or The Widow of Noosa' uses rhyme for more comic effect. He descends into suburban decadence, neatly twisting the language of his subjects to both satirise them and, I think, to show the language's poetic potential. He charts the rise and fall of a middle-class couple, Ali and Bob, who flirt at the edges of the bohemian lifestyle. The piece, long and unashamedly entertaining, crackles with lines such as:

Their pleasuring rated A plus (and I kid not).
When the urge turned to threesomes though Ali got stoned.
It sort of worked once but most times it did not,
such acts seemed mechanical, non-comfort-zoned.

The anthology also includes the more common type of rhymed verse, the song lyric, though only two songs by Paul Kelly are included. It does seem strange that when the talk within poetry is of inclusion so few lyrics are represented. Partly, this reflects the mediocrity of great many song lyrics. Kelly is one of those rare exceptions who can reach people without grandstanding and whose lyrics, like all good poetry, imply their own music. But he's not the only exception. Perhaps future anthologies will include more of this oldest of poetic forms.

One poem which implies this music, though in a fractured and frenetic kind, is Π.O.'s ' ''Mo' McCackie 1892-1953', the only poem to feature in both anthologies. The poem is a furious textual collage that contains a savage and comic rhythm, jumping from facts, to quotes, to clichés. The poem is consciously experimental and appears to have fun with it – high brow masquerading as low brow masquerading as high brow:

)))))) 'Where are ya, Dad?!'
You've been listening to
another episode of McCackie's Mansion [applause]
starring Roy Rene [applause] as 'Mo' McCackie [more]
from the sound studios of 2GB
13 Coffin Street
                      Fawlty ~ Towers

'Oh, you dirty Mug!'

With such an exciting range of work in Adamson' anthology, it happens that there are poems that didn't stand up to comparison. This is not a criticism of the writing rather a sense that the idea of poetry has been overextended. One example is Anthony Lawrence's 'Leonard Cohen in Concert, Hunter Valley, January 2009.' The piece is undeniably evocative of the event, yet this is all it is – a description, prose without cadence and without any exploration of the language or imagery of the other pieces cited. Equally perplexing was the inclusion of Kent MacCarter's 'Twenty Five Unbroken Bottles of Champ', which can be justified on iconoclastic grounds but the poem lacks the lyricism and imagination of many of the other pieces.

One can overstate the relationship between formal poetry and free verse. It is just one way to approach these two anthologies – one which I found useful when considering the question of an 'Australian' voice, which in the final assessment is multifaceted. This doesn't mean that this voice is grouped into diametrically opposed sides. Rather, poets confidently glide from one end of the continuum to the other.

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About Ryan Scott

Ryan Scott lives in the Czech Republic. His poems have appeared in journals and on websites from Australia, USA, UK and Switzerland.

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