Australian Poetry

It is usually true to say that poetry is difficult and criticism easy. In the present case, I am not sure that this is quite so true. What can any critic sensibly say about the present batch of books which range from Bruce Dawe ‘s Collected Poems 1954–1978, Sometimes Gladness, to reprints of minor colonial verse and includes the gentle nature mysticism of John Anderson’s The Blue Gum Smokes a long Cigar, reverently illustrated by Ned Johnson and produced by Rigmarole of the Hours, and the ambitious regionalism of the two books of Hunter Valley Poets, IV and V, edited by Norman Talbot?

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Where We Are by Alison Flett & ecliptical by Hazel Smith

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August 2022, no. 445

Hazel Smith’s ecliptical features an image of a Sieglinde Karl-Spence work of art, ‘Becoming’, a pair of ‘winged feet woven with allocasuarina needles’. It is a striking image, evocative of Mercury, with one foot resting on the other, as if the right foot’s instep is itchy. The idea of ‘itchy feet’ is something that ties ecliptical to Alison Flett’s Where We Are. Flett and Smith are both migrants to Australia; their poetry is sensitive to its site of writing, and to international and interpersonal connections.

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languish by Marion May Campbell & And to Ecstasy by Marjon Mossammaparast

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August 2022, no. 445

The title of Marion May Campbell’s third poetry collection, languish, conjures ideas of laziness, daydream, failure to make progress, ennui, lack of enthusiasm, anhedonia. Campbell’s poetry is concerned with the excitement of language, but also its debasement. Several reviewers have commented on the work’s intertextuality (Campbell often employs compositional strategies such as parody, allusion, calque). Always the audience or reader is integral to shaping the text. For Campbell, importantly, the unsaid or unquestioned are as important as collaged lyric or contemporary language trace, as seen in these lines from the first poem in the collection, ‘speechless’:

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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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Pattern and Voice edited by John and Dorothy Colmer

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July 1983, no. 52

John and Dorothy Colmer have produced Pattern and Voice (Macmillan, $10.95 pb, 234 pp), an anthology of verse which will be of interest to all teachers and students of poetry. It has a blend of classic and contemporary poetry and includes many Australian poets.

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In an increasingly secular age, The Lines of the Hand is an unusual book. Almost half of the poems it contains are direct communications with an evident and accessible God, while others are celebrations of Creation.

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Umberto Eco once described the text as a ‘lazy machine asking the reader to do some of its work’; to contribute, in other words, to the production of meaning. Poetry has a particular reputation for being demanding, but Tracy Ryan’s tenth poetry collection, Rose Interior, isn’t challenging in the way that Eco envisages. It is less about engaging readers in the masculinist energy of the ‘machine’ and ‘work’ than about inviting them into a feminine world of domestic spaces and quotidian phenomena ...

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Ann-Marie Priest’s My Tongue Is My Own, published by La Trobe University Press and reviewed in our June issue, is the first authorised biography of the Australian poet Gwen Harwood (1920–1995). Unsurprisingly, this was not the first attempt to record the life of one of Australia’s most loved and admired poets. In an exclusive feature for ABR, John Harwood reflects on the conflicting motives behind his literary executorship of his mother’s estate – an estate holding the secrets to an at-times fractious marriage between two opposing temperaments.

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Acanthus by Claire Potter & Glass Flowers by Diane Fahey

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June 2022, no. 443

Virginia Woolf, in her seminal essay on modern fiction (1919), might have been describing Claire Potter’s method in her fabulous and highly original new collection: Acanthus.  These poems seem to break apart consciousness before it becomes encoded, crystalised, as syntax. As a consequence, they have an uncanny and richly compelling ability to lead you away from the dimension in which you think you have entered the poem, in its opening lines, into something entirely different by the time you have reached the end. Somewhere between the beginning and the end something can be depended on to have shifted – mood, pace, imaginative compass bearing, subject plane.

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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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