Australian Poetry Since 1788

Australian Poetry since 1788

edited by Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray

UNSW Press, $69.95 hb, 1090 pp, 9781747232638

Stumbling round the house absent-mindedly or in the off-hours, I wonder where the economy-sized fish tank came from; or the dictionary of some unexpectedly eloquent Oceanian language; or the errant slab of copper sulphate (did some friend or enemy leave it?). Then I remember that it’s the new Australian poetry anthology I am reviewing, the thick end of 1100 large pages – is it the format called royal? or republican?! – and I am in for another round of sleeplessness. It is even possible that, in the United States, I have read and written about the book mostly on Australian time.

Of course, I know anthologies aren’t for reading straight through, any more than cars are for test-driving or cosmetics are for lab mice, but what else can you do? The thickness is alarming, but the fear gradually abates, as your marker moves forward and you grow stronger from hefting and toting the book around.

In fact, all nonsense and whimsy aside, Australian Poetry Since 1788 is a compelling book and a quite exemplary anthology. I wish the poetry a large domestic and a long overdue international readership in the rest of Anglophonia. Australians have been kept – or have kept themselves – to themselves for too long. An anthology is a shop window, and there are some 180 styles on view here. I don’t have the background to comment on individual omissions and inclusions, but let me just say that here you will find David and Elizabeth Campbell; Kevin Hart and William Hart-Smith; the Joneses Emma and Evan; Harley Matthews and Jack Mathieu; the Porter ménage of Dorothy, Hal, and Peter; Philip Neilsen and John Shaw Neilson; Adam Gordon and Lisa Gorton; Bruce Beaver and Barcroft Boake.

I approve and endorse all the formal decisions taken by the editors, who have dealt fairly, generously, interestingly, and inwardly with the material (with which, and in which, as they say, they have lived for upwards of fifty years: this is their third anthology together). An anthology edited by poets, rather than academics (they get to have their say on reputations later – why should they be present at the christening as well?), is increasingly a fine thing and a good start.

Despite its length, there is actually a just proportionality and progress to the book; true, there are thirty-five poets born in the 1940s – the decade of both the editors – almost as many as the decades before (fourteen) and after (twenty-three) put together, and very nearly a fifth of the total, but probably that’s to be expected, and more disturbing would have been something like the opposite: a blind spot or immunity to one’s direct contemporaries. Though ranging across time, an anthology almost inevitably remains of its own time; as one curious instance of this, the first reference to computers (from Gwen Harwood) is less than half the way into the book.

‘In ethno-socio-biographical terms, the array of Australian poets is quite astounding – perhaps unrivalled anywhere for now.’

A general introduction is kept very short (two pages); there are correspondingly detailed – and often brilliantly lively – biographical notes on each individual poet, so that even if someone is represented with just one or two poems, he or she is firmly and incontrovertibly there; and there is an unusually hospitable approach to long poems. Fifty- or hundred-line poems are ten-a-penny here (they are only a page or two in this large format), but also included are John Farrell’s wowingly macabre foundation myth ‘My Sundowner’, at over five hundred lines; twenty-two of the twenty-seven sections of the sumptuous and sexy Aboriginal ‘Goulburn Island Cycle’; all eight pages of Les Murray’s dazzling lyrical celebration of backed-up traffic, family outings, delighted dogs, and tremendous water-skiers called ‘Buladelah-Taree Song Cycle’, and so on and so forth.

Not that short poems and light verse are neglected: there are Harold Stewart’s couplet versions of haiku, and saucy limericks by Slessor and others, the four-line anthem to ‘Stringy-bark and Green-hide’, Robert Gray’s ‘16 Short Poems’ (there is no falsely modest nonsense about the editors excluding themselves; they were poets before they were editors, and they are here as poets as well as editors; each selects from the work of the other; each gets twenty pages, which is plenty, but not at all excessive; fair play to them). There is Jennifer Compton’s winningly persistent ‘Electric Fan (from Rome)’:

The obedient fan
turns his blind face
to me – with interest.
The obedient fan
turns his blind face
to me – with interest.

There are convict ballads and songs, some simple, some more sophisticated (I love the line ‘we were all associated round the old keg of rum’); pages and pages where, as much as tales of titanic labour, or skullduggery, or heroism, or stupidity, rising anapaestic rhythm settles in your acoustic brain.

‘Australian poetry has come not so much into its own as into everyone else’s own.’

‘Banjo’ Paterson’s heartbreaking ‘Waltzing Matilda’ is here, as is the anonymous ‘Wild Colonial Boy’; there is both ‘The Captain of the Push’ and its parody – or possibly original – version, ‘The Bastard from the Bush’. The great literary hoax ‘Ern Malley’ (‘I am still / The black swan of trespass on alien waters’ – doesn’t it sound like a confession?) figures, as does a goodly portion of C.J. Dennis’s wonderful skit on Romeo and Juliet, affectionately known as ‘The Bloke’. There is Vicki Raymond’s sonnet ‘On Seeing the First Flasher’ and Bruce Dawe’s lament ‘At Shagger’s Funeral’. There is Kenneth Slessor’s ‘Country Towns’ and Dawe’s ‘Provincial City’ (‘Saturday night, in the main street kerb, / the angle-parked cars are full of watchers, / their feet on invisible accelerators, / going nowhere fast’). There is Jamie Grant’s ‘Social Behaviour of Minted Peas’ and Les Murray’s ‘The Broadbean Sermon’. There are poems of flood and poems of drought, Harley Matthews’s and Leon Gellert’s poems of Gallipoli and Eric Rolls’s poems of World War II in New Guinea; Ada Cambridge dreams of Venice, and Dorothy Hewett has complex memories of the USSR; there is J.S. Harry’s ‘Page for a Lorikeet’, Caroline Caddy’s ‘Squid’, and David Campbell’s peculiar and lovely, macaronic ‘Le Wombat’. C.J. Dennis celebrates ‘One of those great lords of language gone for ever from Outback’, while Robert Adamson (same difference?) recollects his brothers ‘biting the heads off words’. Elizabeth Riddell and Barry Humphries both have poems about Patrick White (I was almost surprised there weren’t more). Rhyll McMaster writes about her mother’s stroke (‘Her brain is stripped / to its inessentials. / She’s disposed of the gears’), Robert Gray – in ‘In Departing Light’, one of the outstanding poems in the collection – tenderly details his mother’s dementia, Anthony Lawrence describes his bipolar disorder, Francis Webb his schizophrenia. There is Charles Harpur’s ‘A vagrant mass / Of sunshine, falling into some void place’ and Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s – corroborative, dissenting? – ‘We just don’t live in a hard intellectual glare’. David Malouf has ‘Brisbane ladies, rather / the worse for war’, and Anthony Lawrence on things going ‘prickly pear-shaped’. And the best (comic) rhyme? Probably a toss-up between Barry Humphries’ ‘misery/ patisserie’ and Alan Wearne’s ‘Werribee / aromatherapy’.

In ethno-socio-biographical terms, the array of Australian poets is quite astounding – perhaps unrivalled anywhere for now. What the new American poet laureate, Philip Levine, once called ‘stupid jobs’ are here in wonderful profusion: Bellerive ‘sold brooms from door to door without much success’, while Roland Robinson ‘was a horse-trainer, jockey, fencer, dam builder, factory worker, railway fettler, cleaner, art school model, ballet dancer, dance critic’, and ‘caught crocodiles and snakes for a menagerie’. One poet is of English and Icelandic background, and there are others whose first language was Greek or Polish, or who were Hungarian and dreamed in German; one born of Irish parents in Buenos Aires and another who remained ‘a real Corkonian in his speech’; one failed English grammar while another ‘came second in the State competition’; many had next to no formal schooling, others were dux and prefect of their expensive select schools; there were solitaries and symposiarchs; communists and Catholics; sports buffs and Sportmuffel; larrikins and unrepentant members of the squattocracy; some died having put together manuscripts to send halfway round the world to England, others lost their jobs when they popped a love poem into an envelope instead of a business letter; many grew up in houses without books, others were novelists, journalists, memoirists, publishers, edited anthologies, edited each other, founded Penguin Australia, founded the magazine in front of you; one was professor of Zulu in London, another went to Paraguay to join a utopian socialist community called New Australia; the early work of one was destroyed by a mouse plague, another was blackballed for an acrostic that read ‘FUCK ALL EDITORS’ (a sonnet, eh, thinks the reviewer, with his best po-face on). One was advised to leave school and go into shoe repairing, another ended his days as ambassador to France; a friend’s obituary of one was turned down, another’s death made front page news; one’s body lay unclaimed (all his life he had known only poverty and poetry, it was said), another was buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.

From lively folksy balladry on one side and a slightly anxious, etiolated literariness on the other (‘even though there be / some notes that unto other lyres belong,’ writes Henry Kendall), Australian poetry has come not so much into its own as into everyone else’s own. (Hence my previous paragraph’s revelling in the historic variety of Australian poets’ lives and work; nowadays, one way or another, most poems are literary, and most poets teach.) American and British, Aboriginal, and Oriental influences reach in and balance out.

There are the usual, mutually opposed strivings to keep standards high and to carry on a live communication with a readership; one consequence of the latter is that Australia seems to have many more verse novels than other countries. An unease, almost an embarrassment, about language, and a stern desire to name and describe specifically Australian realities, continue to fight each other. The ballads and the two Aboriginal song cycles were a revelation to me. Those pages are certainly the most highly flavoured here. And otherwise? Eric Rolls’s ‘Bamboo’ (‘But I sing of the quality of bamboo’) is sly and wonderful; Douglas Stewart’s brilliant ‘Two Englishmen’ is as good an anatomisation of the hapless auld enemy as I have read: ‘But in their own small island crowded thickly, / Each with his pride of self and race and caste, / They could not help but be a little prickly / And in their wisdom they evolved at last / This simple code to save them from destruction –  / One did not speak without an introduction.’

Robert Gray stands out to me, for having devised a calmly luxuriant manner of reminiscing: ‘He often drank alone / at the RSL club, and had been known to wear a carefully-considered tie / to get drunk in the sandhills, watching the sea.’ Gig Ryan’s ‘If I Had a Gun’ is memorably ferocious, but still, in its way, in the line of Geoff Page’s paean to Australian womanhood, ‘Grit’. I was impressed by Emma Lew’s spaciously dissociated lines: ‘Rounded forms of crockery gleam in the great hall / The Führer’s pockets are always filled with chocolates.’

Philip Hodgins is a real loss (he died in 1995, just thirty-six years old), but before that he was an immense gain: his hard, sad, often violent poems are both plain-spoken and intense: ‘There wasn’t much else we could do / that final day on the farm. / We couldn’t take them with us into town, / no one round the district needed them / and the new people had their own. / It was one of those things’ (from ‘Shooting the Dogs’).

Michael Hofmann

Michael Hofmann

Michael Hofmann was born in Germany and moved to England in 1961. Educated at Oxford and Cambridge, he has worked as a freelance writer, translator, and critic since 1983. Nights in the Iron Hotel, his first book of poems, appeared in 1984. He is an influential and award-winning translator of writers such as Franz Kafka, Joseph Roth, and Herta Müller. In 2008 he was Poet in Residence in Queensland. Michael Hofmann's Selected Poems appeared with FSG and Faber; his Gottfried Benn translations, Impromptus, are due out in 2013.

(Photograph by Thomas Andermatten)

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