Vivian Smith

This new book of Vivian Smith’s is really quite a surprise. If it were the case of any other poet approaching his eighties you might think of it as rather a grab bag, knocked together out of odds and ends. It is made up of an imaginary biography of ‘Ern Malley’; another set of sonnets, ‘Diary Without Dates' ...

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It is now thirty years since James McAuley died, and more has been written about him in that time than about any other Australian poet. Poets are not usually of great biographical importance unless they are also caught up in historical and political events, or are a kind of phenomenon like Byron or Rimbaud. McAuley was not a man of action, but he was associated with a number of events which were significant in Australian development and culture; and a large, some would say inordinate, part of his life and energy went into politics and polemics. He became something of a public figure, and, as he himself recognised, the lives of such figures quickly become public property. Any book about him is bound to be of interest.

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There are not many ways, I imagine, in which Vivian Smith puts one in mind of Walt Whitman, but one which occurs to me is that Smith’s successive volumes, at least since Tide Country (1982), have been, like Leaves of Grass (1855), a work in progress, in which previous poems reappear, sometimes in modified form, and new work is added, so that the whole corpus is re-presented in different ways over time. Along the Line is the latest, and welcome, incarnation of Smith’s oeuvre. 

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In his 155-page essay on Australian poetry in The Oxford History of Australian Literature, Vivian Smith modestly makes only one passing reference to his own work, noting that he, with a number of other modern poets, had been influenced by university education.

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I have never met Vivian Smith but respect him awfully. The remarkable thing about his editing of this new anthology of Australian poetry is that his own work is not in it. This is unprecedented among recent anthologies, and may of course be a printing error. Even that excellent poet of Buddhist leanings, Robert Gray, was unable to achieve such perfect nirvana some years back in his Younger Australian Poets. I think Vivian Smith could at least have included here his very fine poems ‘The Names’, which appeared in the most recent Mattara Award anthology.

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The Most Beautiful World is somewhat of a conundrum at first look. I spent a long time trying to penetrate the surface of this latest book of poetry by Rodney Hall. I had just been reading his exciting, original, and well-sustained novel Just Relations, I guess I was looking for the same excitement here. It didn’t arrive on schedule.

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