David Mason

There’s an old Irish saying: ‘If you want praise, die. If you want blame, marry.’ I could add from personal experience, ‘If you really want blame, edit a poetry anthology.’ While poetry is relatively popular, it often seems that more people write it than read it. As a result, poets can be desperate for affirmation and recognition, managing their careers more jealously than investment bankers. What too often gets lost in all the log-rolling and back-scratching is the poetry. We turn to anthologies for help, hoping to find in small, palatable doses good poets we can choose to read in depth. We find anthologies representing nations or geographical regions, literary periods, ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations, forms, categories like postmodernism, post-colonialism, eco-poetry, and themes like love or madness.

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The Jaguar by Sarah Holland-Batt

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June 2022, no. 443

I first encountered Sarah Holland-Batt’s poem ‘The Gift’ in The New Yorker. It begins, ‘In the garden my father sits in his wheelchair / garlanded by summer hibiscus / like a saint in a seventeenth-century cartouche’ – an unremarkable opening, I thought, to a poem of personal anecdote, a genre too ubiquitous among our contemporaries. Rereading the poem in the context of her third collection, The Jaguar, I became acclimated to her style and manner, and admired the alertness of its verbal performance. If the new book remains a personal memoir, narrating the devastating illness and death of her father, it is also charged throughout with a strong writer’s intelligence and vulnerability. ‘I will carry the gift of his death endlessly,’ she writes, ‘every day I will know it opening in me.’

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In 2016, New York Times correspondent Damien Cave moved his young family to Sydney to establish a foreign bureau for the newspaper. As he writes in his new book, Into the Rip, the experience has been transformational, teaching him among other things that ‘None of us is trapped within the nation we come from or the values we picked up along the way’. Despite political and economic alliances, Australia and the United States are not clones of each other, and in many ways Australia proves ‘the healthier model’ for a society. Cave learned these life lessons, he reports, through ‘the combination of fear, nature and community spirit’.

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In my thirty years as an academic, the greatest joy and puzzlement I had was in teaching poetry. I agree with T.S. Eliot that ‘genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood’. Our best teaching often involves what we do not fully understand. The scholar D.S. Carne-Ross once argued that, upon hearing poetry spoken in an unfamiliar language, you can tell it is poetry, the language of poetry, which is other than what I do in writing this review. Anyone faced with the problem of teaching poetry in an academic setting will realise that part of the problem is the academic setting itself. Poetry has thrived for millennia everywhere on earth without the benefit of professors, classrooms, and theories of reading. How, then, might we teach it?

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Dusk when the people in the trees / stand out against the dark – // but it isn’t dark, only a deep gradation / of the light –

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African American Poetry is an ambitious and wide-ranging collection of Black poetry. Edited by Kevin Young, a fellow poet and poetry editor of The New Yorker, the collection spans contemporary writers such as the Pulitzer Prize-winner Jericho Brown to literary giants such as Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Derek Walcott. As David Mason writes, 'It needs to be said and said again just how profoundly American this poetry is, how it enriches culture and should not be ignored among the more conventionally canonised.' 

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The Library of America has published massive anthologies of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American poetry that include work from multiple racial and ethnic backgrounds, so why now another large book devoted exclusively to African Americans? Because it needs to be said and said again just how profoundly American this poetry is, how it enriches culture and should not be ignored among the more conventionally canonised. The fact that this book appeared in 2020, the year when Black Lives Matter protests went global, only underlines its importance as a historical marker. Poetry by Black Americans is not only unignorable but central to American literary life. Reading African American Poetry: 250 years of struggle and song may change your way of reading poetry, particularly modern poetry. It is that rare thing among anthologies, a moving book, enlivened by fire and soul.

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Dearly by Margaret Atwood

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March 2021, no. 429

Margaret Atwood began as a poet and transformed herself into a factory, producing work of great energy and range. Since her first collection, Double Persephone, appeared in 1961, she has published more than sixty books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. She is a librettist, a maker of eBooks, graphic novels, and television scripts, and, with the serialisations of The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace, a beloved global phenomenon. Much of this work builds on genre fiction bones: the gothic romance, the dystopian novel, and speculative fiction. But now it has become difficult to see her poetry as anything more than an adjunct to her prose, attracting attention less because of its merits as poetry than because it is an Atwood production.

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