David McKee Wright is a curious figure in Australian poetry – and in New Zealand poetry, for that matter. As editor of the Bulletin’s Red Page from 1916 to 1926, he was a well-liked and -respected figure in his own time (1869–1928), but he has seriously faded since. He is thinly represented in a number of anthologies, both here and in New Zealand, and was omitted altogether from Robert Gray and Geoffrey Lehmann’s anthology Australian Poetry Since 1788 (2011).
There has been something of a fashion in recent years to dismiss what might loosely be called ‘rural’ poetry because the vast majority of Australians live in cities near the coast. Nevertheless, ‘rural’ poetry keeps appearing, and not just in the works of Les Murray. A considerable number of Australian poets are only one generation away from the land (even John Tranter was born in Cooma), and their childhood memories can often be a rich resource. Admittedly, there are not many actually working it; the reasons for this are often at the core of their poetry. A few perhaps are inclined to be nostalgic (even sentimental) but there is also, as Craig Sherborne has observed, an ‘anti-pastoral strain in Australian poetry’. Among the more recent exponents of this tradition are the late Philip Hodgins, John Kinsella (in his wheat belt poems) and, to judge from A Paddock in His Head, the Victorian poet Brendan Ryan.
Geoff Page’s latest poetry collection is a wide-ranging survey of some of the issues affecting contemporary Australian life. Underpinning Page’s poems of cafés, apartments, classical music, outback murders and domestic violence is a meditation on approaching mortality and the very idea of belief. In Page’s previous collection, Darker and Lighter (2001), the troubling nature of belief was hinted at in ‘Credo’: ‘The dark-night-of-the-soul-agnostic / prefers the right to doubt. / The world’s too much beset by those / who know what they’re about.’ Five years later, Page’s reflections on belief and the loss thereof return like echoes from a bell. In the fine poem ‘At Tosolini’s’, Page contrasts the diners’ penchant for coffee with the sound of bells ringing at a nearby church: ‘The sound of bells in autumn air / has long since been a thing / that we can never quite believe / and yet we don’t despair.’ Page’s use of the inclusive pronoun ‘we’ assumes much, and perhaps speaks for those who no longer believe.
The American poet William Carlos Williams often admitted how much he owed to the ‘little magazines’ that first published him. As they lapsed in and out of existence, he regarded them all as essentially the one publication and was grateful for the lifeblood they gave his (at first unpopular) writing. It is to be hoped that Australian literary magazines of various political shades and aesthetic proclivities, from Quadrant to Overland, are doing something similar. Indeed, when so much else is in flux in the publishing world, it is amazing how enduring Australia’s top literary magazines have been, despite their often small subscription lists. Even Island magazine, which is something of a junior compared to Meanjin, Southerly, and Westerly, has been around for twenty-seven years. Space: New Writing, on the other hand, has just appeared in its third number. To judge from the best material in the current issues of both magazines, Australian literary culture is not being ill-served here. If not everything is of equal interest (how could it be?), there is plenty of satisfaction to be had in both.
In his foreword to this reference work, Andrew Motion says that such books ‘exist to provoke argument’. In their preface, editors Willhardt and Parker suggest that ‘to compile such a volume as this may seem absurd; to do so successfully may be impossible’. Forewarned is forearmed, it would seem.
Despite all this, the book is useful – about the only adjective to which a reference work should reasonably aspire. Of course, it may also seek to construct an honour roll for posterity or update the canon. Or it might simply be part of a continuing battle for ‘cultural space’. In many ways, reference works like this are the counterpart of anthologies, which are also reviewed in terms of ‘who’s in and who’s out’.
It is a truism that poets don’t need to write their autobiography. Roland Barthes, with his ‘death of the author’, may have thought otherwise but in Barbara Giles’ new book, Poems: Seven Ages, published in her eighty-seventh year, there is no mistaking the autobiographical core.
Though neither the title nor the blurb suggests it, Poems: Seven Ages is really a ‘selected’. Giles has gone back over her four earlier books, chosen what she (or perhaps her editor, Judith Rodriguez) thinks are the best poems and arranged them in chronological order according to subject, rather than date of composition or publication. Thus we have sections corresponding with her childhood in England, her earlier married life, her mid-life preoccupations, and the poems on women’s ageing from which she has been most anthologised.
Australian involvement in World War I has in recent years attained a high profile in books, film and television. The trend has been to demythologise the legends of heroism and courage associated with war, and the theme often adopted is the rapid and brutal transformation from naivety to understanding of how baseless the myth was. Although this might be considered well covered ground, Geoff Page in his first novel, Benton’s Conviction, has returned to the war setting. However, because he concentrates on an aspect which hitherto has not been fully explored, and sustains the work with deft prose, Page has succeeded in producing a novel of originality and consistent interest.