This book can read at times as though it were Les Murray’s revenge on Australian poetry. Of course, no anthology will please all of the people all of the time, but this one does not so much seem to represent any consistent view of what significant poems have been written in this country as Murray’s own projections about the kinds of poetry which ought to have been written here. The New Oxford Book of Australian Verse is quirky and opinionated, very ambitious in the ground it wants to cover, and yet ultimately hamstrung in its assemblage. It amounts to a quixotic attempt to see Australian poetry as a massively unified body of work, and Murray has played fast and loose with the material that was before him in order to reveal this unity.
My own view is that he has tried to do too many things at once, by way of both inclusion and exclusion, for the book to remain coherent in its own terms and credible as an anthology of Australian poetry from its beginnings to the present day. There are in fact three books struggling to get out of this one, two of which should have been edited by Murray, the third by someone else. The first is an anthology of Aboriginal songs in translation, the second an anthology of vernacular poetry, ballads, folksongs, broadsides, and the like. Murray is deeply read in both these areas, and I think it is clear that he would have liked to include more material from either category had he not felt compelled to represent the work of contemporary and near contemporary poets.