A review is more like a conversation than an overview from an Academy, and conversations often start with a salient point leading on to judgement. I suggest readers of David Malouf’s new collection should turn straight to page twenty-five and encounter a spray of short poems, titled ‘Seven Last Words of the Emperor Hadrian’. This is prefaced by the Silver Age Emperor’s own verse, the legendary address to his soul, which begins with the playfully sonorous words ‘animula vagula blandula’ and, in a most un-Latinate way, adds a half-refrain, ‘pallidula rigida nudula’. If all of us, including Byron, who have attempted to put Hadrian’s words into our own languages were to be brought together, we’d stretch out to Macbeth’s crack of doom. No one has done it, to my knowledge, as brilliantly as Malouf does in his not-over-extended fantasy.

Each of the seven poems is a version of a direct translation of Hadrian’s one Latin verse, but each, like one of Brahms’s variations in his set based on Paganini’s twenty-fourth caprice, finds a new tone without resorting to egregious anachronisms or perverse salients. Consider the third:

Little lightfoot

spirit, house

mate, bedfellow, where are you off

to now? Cat got

your tongue? Lost your shirt, caught

your death? Well, the last laugh

is on you. Is on us.

This captures Hadrian’s patrician light-heartedness while preserving that lyrical darkness peculiar to the classical writers, so much more intense than any Christian dark night of the soul. Malouf hints at this with the ‘Seven Last Words’ of his title. What can any mortal do in the face of death but joke about it. But the joke must be of featherweight seriousness. None of Malouf’s interventions on the sparse Latin is vulgar or merely modern. ‘Cat got your tongue’ belongs to the Roman elegists as well as it does to ours. And what sort of laugh is the Emperor’s – the most powerful man on earth, but getting ready to die? Each of the elaborations is a witty development, but each stays well within the Emperor’s orbit. Malouf knows the Italian peninsula better than most, but his versions of Hadrian are not in any way proprietary – this is the human condition, and you won’t get any closer by visiting Castel St Angelo. There could be no better key signature to the whole book than these Hadrianic sound bites.

Malouf has always been a wary celebrator of human love. He has the poet’s fondness for finding the shows and remains of passion better worth writing about than its raptures. Such a note is struck right at the start of this collection. ‘Revolving Days’ is so regretful, so charmed to be looking back, not just at a love affair but at the clothes and pleasures of the past. Knotting his tie in the mirror, the poet can assure the lover that he won’t do anything so uncomfortable as to contact him directly. He is, he emphasises, ‘writing this for you’, but not to you.

There are a number of gently reflective pieces of a similar sort, but there is also one, entitled ‘Like Yesterday’, which brings to mind a previous savage Malouf, erotic and unaccommodating of euphemism – the Malouf of that unflinching celebration of carnality and its semi-comical symbolism, ‘The Crab Feast’. This time the poet’s companion, ‘stickying his mouth with mute hosannas’, watches with him as a fish is ‘wrangled ashore’. The consequences of this are not spelled out, but for the writer it is a case of

my heart midair, still

thumping, a fish unsheathing

its lightning flash, suspended

on a breath. Alive. Speechless. Hooked. Ecstatic.

The prevailing mood here and elsewhere is Latinate again, the sharpness of love returning on scents and breaths, but always on something or somebody palpable:

at ease after the roads

you’ve travelled and with just

a trace on your skin,

in the scent you give off, of what

you bring me, the light

you’ll pour into my mouth.

Malouf’s technical facility is assured, yet difficult to account for. He seldom rhymes, follows no stanza-shape out of the pattern books, and, at its least attractive, his verse is short-strawed and jagged. There is much reaching for lyrical afflatus too soon after having established a scene. However, the variety of subject matter is wide: retold myths, histories of styles and temperaments, and acute evocations of those unexpected glimpses of strangeness you receive along Australia’s straggling urban cantonments. Another interesting section is a prose rumination, with intense short chorales for relief, purporting to be a letter from Mozart to his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. As a perpetrator myself of this sort of presumptuous Audenesque monologue, I feel entitled to pronounce the effort not worthwhile. The prose parts lack anything sufficiently singular to escape the sensation of listening to an exemplary Schools Broadcasting feature (no audacity such as Caliban’s soliloquy in ‘The Sea and the Mirror’), and the lyrical interpolations seem no more than marking time. There is one good notion, when Mozart apologises to the librettist of ‘Don Giovanni’ for having darkened the Italian meridional warmth and lightness of his verses with his own implacable Germanic seriousness.

The translations from Rimbaud and Horace are skilful and never overdone. In total, Typewriter Music is as fastidious as any of Malouf’s admired prose works, but can afford to be more sprightly and irresponsible. There is no worrying about the destiny of the nation and no peroration on its historical emblems. The muses of poetry insist on their right to be scatological and irreverent, and Malouf has been happy to compose under their aegis.

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  • Book Title Typewriter Music
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The cover illustration of Peter Porter’s selection of essays shows a mosaic from the Basilica di S. Marco, Venezia, in which Noah leans out from the wall of the Ark and releases the questing dove. The last words of the selection go:

This is what I have been trying to unearth in my talk – the possible replacing what is not possible, the Poetry we make from our inadequacy – inadequacy not just of our own minds but of the place we live in, the language we have developed and the moral truthfulness we espouse. Poetry has such opportunities for failure it must always be preferable to philosophy or religion. It is simply that much more human.

Admirers of Porter’s poetry, of whom I am one, will be surprised by neither of these facts. On the one hand, that poetry has a powerful impulsion towards retrieval and celebration – all those painters and paintings re-housed, those musicians re-harmonised – while, on the other, the rueful, baleful ways of the best-known hominid are treated as though Porter were a dark Mrs Beeton, bringing all the bad news about maladroitness in the world’s housekeeping. Saving from the Wreck sports eleven papers or lectures whose titles range from ‘Poetry and Madness’ through ‘The Couplet’s Last Stand’ to ‘Recording Angels and Answering Machines’. Consistently, Porter sounds like neither of the latter creatures – itself a refreshing change from much critical or theoretical writing – but like what he really is, namely someone for whom vivacious, complex and incident-packed conversation is a natural and necessary thing. As he has often mentioned, his first love is music, and he deals with it here as a matter of course; but poetry as art, as calling and as predicament is the main business of the book, and Porter handles it with both zeal and zest. John Lucas, in his introduction, invokes the name of Randall Jarrell, and Porter’s prose does indeed have the heft, brio, and sometimes the mordancy of that singular performer.

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    The cover illustration of Peter Porter’s selection of essays shows a mosaic from the Basilica di S. Marco, Venezia, in which Noah leans out from the wall of the Ark and releases the questing dove. The last words of the selection go ...

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I should make it clear at the start of these discursive memories that I knew Ted Hughes only slightly and Sylvia Plath hardly at all. But I lived in fairly close proximity to their ascent to fame in the 1950s and 1960s and knew much more closely some of the personalities intimately involved in the crisis in the lives of these two remarkable poets. Then, after Sylvia’s death in early 1963, I watched across successive decades the curious progress of each writer’s reputation and, more importantly, the establishing of their respective canons. Even today the Collected Works of each are not settled matters – Plath because we shall never know exactly what was suppressed or edited to fit the desires of the estate of her heirs (she died intestate, which automatically made Hughes her legal executor since, though separated, they had not divorced); and Hughes as he was an inveterate censor of his own work, and many of his major productions appeared finally in forms simplified from his original intentions. I don’t object to this last fact: every writer is entitled to shape his utterance into the fashion he would like the public to receive it. Nor will I be writing any criticism of Hughes’s intimate relations with his wife. I have always believed that marriages are opaque to all but their participants.

What matters most is the double bequest to posterity of these writers’ works, especially their poetry. Here I feel justified in using the adjective I chose above – ‘remarkable’, though I believe it applies to Plath’s writing more completely than to Hughes’s. There are certain proprieties to be observed: I surmise that Plath’s standing is at least as high as Hughes’s, most notably outside Britain. Nevertheless, she continues to be an icon of feminist hostility to Hughes in particular and to masculine artists in general. If this hostility concerns itself with the part the Hughes estate played in controlling the posthumous publication of her output, then it is justified, but if it stems from a more general distaste, it is unpleasantly reductive. One circumstance which all Plath’s admirers must take into consideration is her self-consciously rivalrous attitude to his poetry throughout their period of living and working together, when he was much better known than she was, and even more vehemently so after their separation when she wrote her most powerful poems. One further decorum in judging the aftermath of her death is concerned with Hughes’s stated reasons for suppressing some of the material she left behind: namely that everything he did was designed to protect their children from the psychic storm of their parents’ tragedy. I offer one further proviso at the beginning of my essay: although I would like to be concerned chiefly with the poetry each produced, the likely difficulty of obtaining permission to quote from it will force me back on to a more autobiographical position – to what I observed or heard about at the time, and the conclusions I drew from this.

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Tuesday, 19 March 2019 09:39

2019 Peter Porter Poetry Prize winners

Andy Kissane and Belle Ling are the joint winners of the 2019 Peter Porter Poetry Prize, worth a total of $8,500. The winners were named at a ceremony at fortyfivedownstairs in Melbourne on March 18. 

Andy Kissane's winning poem is titled 'Searching the Dead', and Belle Ling's winning poem is titled '63 Temple Street, Mong Kok'.

This year’s judges – Judith Bishop, John Kawke, Paul Kane – shortlisted five poems from almost 900 entries, from 28 countries. The shortlisted poets were John Foulcher (ACT), Ross Gillett (Vic.), Andy Kissane (NSW), Belle Ling (QLD/Hong Kong), and Mark Tredinnick (NSW). 

Porter Prize judge Judith Bishop (representing the judges) commented:

'Andy Kissane’s "Searching the Dead" recounts a moment in Australian history – our soldiers’ involvement in the Vietnam War – that has not been captured before in this way. This dense, strongly physical and evocative poem grips the reader’s mind and body, and that imprint remains long after reading.'

'In Belle Ling’s "63 Temple St, Mong Kok", other voices are rendered equally as vividly as the speaker’s own. Together they create the generous and gentle texture of this exceptionally resonant work.'

About Andy Kissane

Andy KissaneAndy Kissane has published a novel, a book of short stories, The Swarm, and four books of poetry. Awards for his poetry include the Fish International Poetry Prize, the Australian Poetry Journal’s Poem of the Year and the Tom Collins Poetry Prize. Radiance (Puncher & Wattmann, 2014) was shortlisted for the Victorian and Western Australian Premier’s Prizes for Poetry and the Adelaide Festival Awards. He recently co-edited a book of criticism on Australian poetry, Feeding the Ghost. His fifth poetry collection, The Tomb of the Unknown Artist is due in 2019. He teaches English and lives in Sydney. http://andykissane.com

About Belle Ling

Belle Ling NEW 2019Belle Ling is a PhD student in Creative Writing at The University of Queensland, Australia. Her poetry manuscript, Rabbit-Light, was awarded Highly Commended in the 2018 Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize. Her first poetry collection, A Seed and a Plant, was shortlisted for The HKU International Poetry Prize 2010. Her poem, ‘That Space’, was placed second in the ESL category of the International Poetry Competition organized by the Oxford Brookes University in October 2016. She was awarded a Merit Scholarship at the New York State Summer Writers Institute in 2017.

Further information

The Peter Porter Poetry Prize is one of Australia’s most prestigious poetry awards. For more information about the Peter Porter Poetry Prize or to read the 2018 shortlisted poems please visit the ABR website.

Andy Kissane's and Belle Ling's winning poems are published in the March 2019 issue of ABR.

pdfClick here to download the media release

Subscribe to ABR Online to gain access to this issue online, plus the ABR archive.

Click here for more information about past winners.

ABR gratefully acknowledges the support of Morag Fraser AM and Ivan Durrant.

Friday, 22 February 2019 15:00

News from the Editor's Desk - March 2019

News from the Editors Desk

Fellowship Twenty

Felicity Plunkett Felicity Plunkett Felicity Plunkett is the 2019 ABR Patrons’ Fellow. This Fellowship is worth $10,000. Felicity will contribute a number of articles and review essays over the course of the next year.

A frequent contributor to the magazine since 2010 and a past Fellow (2015), Felicity Plunkett – poet, critic, teacher, editor – was chosen from a large field, and here we thank everyone who applied in this round. We especially thank the ABR Patrons who make this program – and so much else – possible.

We look forward to advertising the twenty-first Fellowship – the ABR Indigenous Fellowship – shortly.

Read the media release about this announcement here: ABR Media Release

Behrouz Boochani

Behrouz Boochani FXB342840 Hi resBehrouz Boochani from Iran, on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, on Tuesday 11 April, 2017 (photograph by Alex Ellinghausen © Fairfax Media, MEAA)

Though often convivial, not all awards ceremonies are stirring, but the 2019 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards – held at the MPavilion on January 31 – was very different. Behrouz Boochani’s extraordinary book No Friend But the Mountains (published by Picador, translated by Omid Tofighian) was named the Victorian Prize for Literature, having already won the Prize for NonFiction. Boochani, who remains on Manus Island where he has been incarcerated since 2013, recorded a video message and then spoke live to the audience via an iPhone. He spoke with great dignity and feeling.

Congratulations to the organisers and the Victorian government for not excluding Behrouz Boochani from these prizes, which – on this occasion – transcended the merely festive and monetary. (Boochani had earlier been excluded from the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards because he is neither an Australian citizen nor a permanent resident.)

At the ceremony, Omid Tofighian read a new poem by Behrouz Boochani (again, translated by Tofighian), which we are thrilled to publish in the March issue.

Felicity Plunkett reviewed No Friend But the Mountains in the October 2018 issue.

Peter Porter Poetry Prize Shortlist

Peter PorterPeter Porter

This year’s judges – Judith Bishop, John Hawke, Paul Kane – have shortlisted five poems in the Peter Porter Poetry Prize, which is worth a total of $8,500. The poets are John Foulcher (ACT), Ross Gillett (Victoria), Andy Kissane (NSW), Belle Ling (Queensland/Hong Kong), and Mark Tredinnick (NSW). The poems commence on page 39.

This year’s Porter Prize ceremony will be held at fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, on Monday, March 18 (6 pm). Reservations are essential for this free event: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. After readings from the work of Peter Porter, the shortlisted poets will introduce and read their poems. Then a special guest will name the overall winner, who will receive $5,000.

MWF on the move

The Melbourne Writers’ Festival (first presented in 1986) was based at the Malthouse Theatre from 1990 to 2008. Many people with fond memories of those congenial auditoria and the main foyer – always packed with authors and publishers and readers – have been hoping that MWF would find a more gemütlich home than Federation Square.

Happily, this year MWF will move to the State Library of Victoria (SLV), that dynamic cultural complex in the heart of town. The creation of new public spaces as part of SLV’s $88 million Vision 2020 redevelopment will make it possible for the Library and adjacent venues to accommodate a festival with this popular writers’ festival.

SLV CEO Kate Torney commented: ‘The Library is thrilled to be partnering with MWF to become the new home of Australia’s favourite literary festival. The partnership will bring new audiences to our magnificent Library, which is being transformed to meet the changing needs of our visitors.’

The Festival will run from August 30 to September 9.

Calibres galore

When the Calibre Essay Prize closed in mid-January, there were more than 450 entries – far more than in previous years. That’s almost two million words of essayism. Judging is underway but will take longer than expected. Hence, the winning essay will appear in the May issue – not April.

Hearty thanks to everyone who entered the Calibre Prize.

2019 Stella Prize Longlist

The 2019 Stella Prize longlist features books by twelve women, from a variety of publishers. Allen & Unwin figures prominently, with Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee, Little Gods by Jenny Ackland, and Bluebottle by Belinda Castles. Three-year-old publisher Brow Books is favoured too, with Pink Mountain on Locust Island by Jamie Marina Lau and Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin. Axiomatic has already won the 2018 Melbourne Prize for Literature Best Writing Award and was shortlisted for the 2019 Victorian Premiers’ Literary Award.

The other longlisted titles are Stephanie Bishop’s Man Out of Time (Hachette), Enza Gandolfo’s The Bridge (Scribe), Chloe Hooper’s The Arsonist (Penguin Random House), Gail Jones’s The Death of Noah Glass (Text Publishing), Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip (University of Queensland Press), and The Erratics by Vicki Laveau-Harvie (Finch Publishing).

The winner will be named at a ceremony in Melbourne on April 9.

Melbourne University Publishing


Melbourne University Press – under the leadership of Louise Adler – has an unrivalled capacity to generate publicity. The University of Melbourne’s decision to (in the words of new Vice-Chancellor Duncan Maskell) ‘refocus MUP and a high-quality scholarly press’ and to reduce its commercial publishing led to a lot of lively debate. In response to the changes, Ms Adler (CEO since 2003) resigned, as did five board members, including Bob Carr and Gillian Triggs. There has been much commentary, some of it indignant and partisan.

Writing for Australian Book Review, Dominic Kelly – political historian and commentator – approaches the controversy from a different angle. His article aims to fill in some of the gaps in the recent coverage and to provoke a broader discussion of the role and purpose of university presses within the Australian publishing industry. Dr Kelly voices the frustrations of many academics about the direction of MUP and the quality of its titles over the past decade. He also seeks to correct the view propagated by a number of journalists and commentators that criticism of MUP from within academia is motivated by snobbery.

To read Dominic Kelly's commentary, click here

Vale Andrew McGahan

Andrew McGahan (photograph via Allen & Unwin)Andrew McGahan (photograph via Allen & Unwin)ABR was saddened by the recent death of author Andrew McGahan from pancreatic cancer in February aged fifty-two. McGahan was the author of six novels including the Vogel-winning Praise (1992), Wonders of a Godless World (2009), and The White Earth (2004) which won the 2005 Miles Franklin Award. McGahan was also the author of four young adult novels in the Ship Kings series including Ship Kings (2013) and The Coming of the Whirlpool (2011)

James Bradley reviewed The White Earth for ABR, describing it as ‘possessed of a resonance and symbolic complexity that exceeds anything he has done before’. His review was republished in the January-February 2019 issue as our From the Archive feature. In a statement on the Allen and Unwin website, publisher Annette Barlow said ‘I know that Australia’s literary community and readers will join me in mourning the loss of Andrew. I will remember him for his fierce and intense intelligence, his kindness and generosity, his fascination with the natural world and his bravery in facing his diagnosis. He truly was the best of men.’  

Allen and Unwin will publish McGahan’s final, posthumous novel The Rich Man’s House in September 2019.

Newcastle Writers Festival

The 2019 Newcastle Writers Festival runs from 5–7 April, and the full program is now available. Guests include Heather Morris, author of the bestselling The Tattooist of Auschwitz; acclaimed journalist and author Clementine Ford, who will discuss her recent work Boys Will Be Boys; and the award-winning Australian artist Ben Quilty. The festival will also feature a series of writing workshops and masterclasses, book launches, literary trivia, and much more.

For more information on the Newcastle Writers Festival, visit their website.

Daisy Utemorrah Award

In this prize-happy country, some of the worthiest (if not most lucrative) literary awards are for unpublished manuscripts. There is a new one from Magabala Books: the Daisy Utemorrah Award for an outstanding fiction manuscript in the junior and Young Adult categories (including graphic novels). It honours the late Ngarinyin Wunambal elder and author Daisy Utemorrah. Entrants must be Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander persons. The winner will receive $15,000 and, better still, a publishing contract with Magabala Books. Applications close on April 30.

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    ABR News: Felicity Plunkett named the ABR Patrons' Fellow 2019; a new poem by Behrouz Boochani; the Peter Porter Poetry Prize shortlist announced; the Melbourne Writers' Festival moves; Calibres galore; the 2019 Stella Prize shortlist announced; the Melbourne University Publishing furore; and more ...

Wednesday, 25 July 2018 01:25

News from the Editor's Desk - August 2018

News from the Editors Desk

Supporting the ABC

ABR, like many writers and media organisations around the country, worries about the future of independent journalism, especially in this trumpacious age, often so hostile to reason and open commentary. We share many Australians’ concerns about the health and viability of the ABC. The threats are myriad and sustained. Funding cuts (by all regimes), political interference, and daily taunts from News Corp have weakened the organisation. Recently, the Liberal Party’s Federal Council voted to privatise the organisation. This would surely spell the beginning of the end for the national broadcaster.

Auntie is far from perfect (which media organisation is?). Many of us grimace through those comedic Wednesdays; local drama is scarce; and ABC Classic FM is but a shadow of itself: populist, unedifying, and maddeningly nice. But consider what the ABC has contributed to our culture, our educational system, our democracy since 1928, and try to imagine an Australia without Four Corners, Q&A, Background Briefing, Rear Vision, the 7.30 Report, AM and PM, not to mention Geraldine Doogue, Fran Kelly, and good old Jim Maxwell, to name but a few.

We take things for granted in the Lucky Country, but can we really be sure that the ABC will be around in 2028 to celebrate its centenary – searching, unfettered, well resourced? More and more people think not and have begun to lobby government. Major rallies have taken place around the country. In this issue,

Ranald Macdonald (a spokesman for ABC Friends) writes about the present threat. Elsewhere, one hundred writers, artists, commentators, and public figures have signed ABR’s Open Letter supporting the ABC.

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Jolley Prize

The ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize, now in its eighth year, is worth a total of $12,500. This year we received about 1,200 entries from thirty-five countries. The judges – Patrick Allington, Michelle Cahill, and Beejay Silcox – longlisted fourteen stories (all of which are listed on our website) before shortlisting three of them: ‘Vasco’ by Claire Aman (NSW), ‘Between the Mountain and the Sea’ by Sharmini Aphrodite (Singapore); and ‘Ruins’ by Madelaine Lucas (NSW/USA). They appear in this issue.

Jolley shortlistClaire Aman (photograph by Ravi Watt-Nersesian), Sharmini Aphrodite (photograph by Varkur), and Madelaine Lucas


The judges commended three other stories: ‘Joan Mercer’s Fertile Head’ by S.J. Finn (Victoria); ‘Hardflip’ by Mirandi Riwoe (Queensland); and ‘Break Character’ by Chloe Wilson (Victoria). These stories will be published online in coming months.

The judges said this of the overall field: ‘We were privileged to read this teeming, diverse mass of unpublished short fiction from around the world. A number of stories, from the realist to the absurd, captured our attention with their conceptual ambition and original conceits. But the stories that sustained our interest created worlds that felt complete; offered genuine representations of different peoples, places and cultures; celebrated the human spirit, warts and all; were bold and funny, with language that sang; made us think and rethink; and offered endings that shook, surprised or satisfied us.’ (Their remarks on the shortlisted stories will follow in September, with the name of the winner.)

If you are in Melbourne on Monday, 20 August, join us at fortyfivedownstairs (CBD) for the Jolley Prize ceremony – always enjoyable, if tense-making for the authors (only the judges know the winner until he or she is named on the night). This is a free event and all are welcome, but bookings are essential, as this is a popular occasion: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Complete our readers survey

Australian Book Review is a fast-changing and responsive cultural magazine with a growing international profile. The magazine now offers many more features and programs than it did ten years ago – and there are more changes to come.

We love hearing from readers as to what they like about Australian Book Review – whom they enjoy reading; what they would like to see more (or less) of; what concerns them most as engaged readers and citizens. We look forward to hearing from readers of all kinds (ABR subscribers, non-subscribers, website browsers, social media followers, devotees, occasional readers) as to how they rate the magazine and how they think we can improve it. The survey takes about five minutes to complete. Feel free to skip any questions that don’t interest you.

The survey is totally anonymous – unless you want to be in the running for one of two five-year complimentary subscriptions to ABR Online (in which case we will need your name and email address). Click here to take the reader survey.

Consider this

Stephen Spender once said of a certain antipodean upstart who had just appeared in the vaunted Penguin Modern Poets series: ‘Who is Peter Porter?’ This was in 1962. Although the Brisbane-born poet was in his early thirties and already a prolific poet, he was relatively new to London – where he would continue to live until his death in 2010 – and he was still audibly and complicatedly Australian.

No one ever said of Porter’s great influence, ‘Who is W.H. Auden?’ – certainly not Stephen Spender, who remained captivated by his brilliant contemporary for the rest of his life. Auden, born in 1907, seems to have been famous from the outset. Celebrated while still at Oxford, he was cited in his fellow students’ essays. Grudgingly, F.R. Leavis said, ‘the undergraduate notability became a world figure overnight’. Faber published Auden’s first volume of poems when he was twenty-two, soon after T.S. Eliot had published a play of his in Criterion.

Auden, one of the great disapprovers, objected to lives of artists (‘I do not believe that knowledge of their private lives sheds any significant light upon their works’), but in his case there have been many biographers, including Humphrey Carpenter, Richard Davenport-Hines, and Peter Porter’s Queensland contemporary Charles Osborne. We also have Auden’s silly table-talk, his verbal frothings, his inimitable essays and aphorisms. Peter Porter, reviewing the Davenport-Hines, described Auden as ‘the greatest English (as distinct from English-speaking) poet since Tennyson’.

WH AudenW.H. Auden (Wikimedia Commons)Auden – unwise in love perhaps – was cannier in his executorial choice. Edward Mendelson was in his twenties when Auden tapped him to be his literary executor. Mendelson, now professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, has written extensively about Auden ever since. Key works include the six-volume The Compete Works of W.H. Auden: Prose and those indispensable commentaries, Early Auden (1981) and Later Auden (1999). Mendelson is not done yet. Early Auden, Later Auden: A critical biography (Princeton University Press [Footprint], $84.99 hb), his latest study, revises and augments those previous editions. Seumas Perry, a professor of English at Oxford University, reviews it brilliantly in LRB (10 May 2018).

Perry, who is beginning a life of Auden, is fascinated by his corrugated face, which Auden himself likened to ‘a wedding cake left out in the rain’. (Perry notes that only a poet, only someone ‘rather sad’, would think of leaving a wedding cake out in the rain.) Auden’s visage – possibly the result of a medical condition called Touraine-Solente-Golé syndrome, not to mention a phenomenal addiction to Player’s cigarettes and Benzedrine – attracted the attention of famous sculptors, photographers, and painters. David Hockney, who drew him, quipped, ‘I kept thinking, if his face looks like this, what must his balls look like.’


Meanwhile, Morag Fraser – former editor of Eureka Street, where she often published him – is writing the biography of Peter Porter, whose phenomenal archive now rests in the National Library of Australia. In a country with a sorry dearth of poets’ biographies, what a book this promises to be.

Admirers of Morag Fraser’s artful journalism should not miss her exceptional review of Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ (recently performed by the MSO), which appears in the ABR Arts section of our website.

Porter Prize

Entries are now open for the 2019 Peter Porter Poetry Prize. This is the fifteenth time we have offered the Porter Prize. Past winners have included Stephen Edgar, Tracy Ryan, Judith Beveridge, and Michael Farrell (who has a poem in this issue).

The Porter Prize is worth a total of $8,500, and here we thank Morag Fraser and all our ABR Patrons for their support. The winner will receive $5,000; the runner-up, $2,000; the three other shortlisted poets will each receive $500. All five shortlisted poems will appear in the March 2019 issue of ABR.

The judges on this occasion are Judith Bishop (who has won the Prize twice, the only person to do so, yet), Paul Kane, and John Hawke, ABR’s Poetry Editor. Entries close on December 3. For more information about the Porter Prize, including entry guidelines and terms and conditions, please visit our Porter Prize page.

ABR in Perth

The WA presence in ABR has increased markedly in recent years, coinciding with welcome funding from the WA government. Peter Rose – Editor of ABR – will be in Perth in mid-August. He is keen to meet as many reviewers and arts journalists as possible. If you would like to arrange a meeting, contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Rose will be based at the Centre for Stories on Thursday, 16 August, before ducking off to review WASO’s concert performance of Tristan und Isolde, with Stuart Skelton and Eva-Maria Westbroek.

Changes at ABR

Dilan Gunawardana left ABR at the end of July. Dilan joined us in 2016 as the ABR Editorial Intern and became Deputy Editor (Digital) in 2017. His stamp is all over our website. A popular contributor to ABR Arts, Dilan will continue to write for the magazine.

Jack CallilJack CallilThanks to everyone who recently applied for the 2018–19 ABR Editorial Internship. Jack Callil has now joined the staff as Assistant Editor. Jack is not the only editor in his family. His great-aunt, Carmen Callil, founder of Virago Press and long-time managing director of Chatto & Windus, is one of the most illustrious publishers Australia has produced. Carmen (who was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2017) is our Publisher of the Month.

Birthday largesse

To celebrate our fortieth birthday and to spread the word about the magazine, we’re partnering with some of Australia’s major bookshops and offering free copies of the magazine to customers who purchase books worth $40 or more. This month our partner is the excellent Avenue Bookstore. Staff there have 500 copies to give away in their three outlets: Albert Park, Elsternwick, and Richmond. Buy the book, then read the review. Be quick though.

ABR salutes the work of our fantastic independent bookshops. More promotions of this kind will follow.

John Bell is Back as the Miser

John Bell in Bell Shakespeare's 2019 production of The Miser John Bell in Bell Shakespeare's 2019 production of The Miser


Bell Shakespeare has announced the first of its 2019 productions: Molière’s comedy The Miser, which marks the return of the company’s founder John Bell in the titular role. Bell stepped away from the company in 2015, having created it in 1990. Bell will play the tyrannical penny-pincher Harpagon, a bourgeois deviant prepared to sacrifice everything, whether it be his children or his dignity, to come out on top.

Australian playwright Justin Fleming has been assigned as translator of the Bell Shakespeare adaption, who has worked previously on other well-known Molière satires such as Tartuffe and The Misanthrope. Directing The Miser will be Peter Evans, Artistic Director of Bell Shakespeare, who said the decision to bring back John Bell as Harpagon was ‘too tantalising to resist’. ‘Having the opportunity to invite back our Founding Director to Bell Shakespeare, in a role that will have you laughing in the aisles, if not a little scandalised by the naughtiness of Justin Fleming’s translation, is a pleasure.’

Tickets to The Miser are exclusively available to Bell Shakespeare Members now; they will go on sale to the general public in November 2018. 

The Miser will play at Sydney Opera House from 2 March–6 April 2019; Canberra Theatre Centre from 11–20 April 2019; and Arts Centre Melbourne from 25 April–12 May 2019.

Geoffrey Rush Pulls Out of Twelfth Night

 Geoffrey RushPromotional image of Geoffrey Rush as King Lear


Actor Geoffrey Rush has announced that due to medical advice he is withdrawing from the Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Twelfth Night, where he was set to play the role of Malvolio. ‘I do so with the greatest regret,’ Rush said in a statement. ‘I know that I would not be able to provide the necessary creative spirit and the professional stamina required for the project.’

Brett Sheehy, Artistic Director and CEO of Melbourne Theatre Company, said the company is seeking a replacement.

Twelfth Night will be performed at Melbourne Theatre Company from 12 to 29 December 2018.

Brisbane Writer Wins Drama Award

Brisbane playwright David Megarrity has won the Queensland Premier’s Drama Award 2018–19 for his play The Holidays. Selected from over ninety entries, Megarrity’s delicate, family-oriented play was chosen ahead of fellow finalists Hannah Belansky for‘don’t ask what the bird look like’, and Anna Yen for Slow Boat.

‘David Megarrity’s The Holidays is a disarming meditation on mortality and father son relationships,’ said Queensland Theatre Artistic Director Sam Strong. ‘It’s a delicious combination of high-tech ambition and low-fi theatricality. David Megarrity, speaking of his winning work, said, ‘This visual theatre piece combines live performers, projection, audience participation and music to explore the impact of dementia, as experienced by one family, focussing on the connections between son, father and grandfather – told through the eyes of a young person.’

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    Supporting the ABC; Jolley Prize; W.H. Auden; Morag Fraser's upcoming biography of Peter Porter; The Peter Porter Poetry Prize; ABR in Perth; Free copies of ABR in select bookstores; Dilan Gunawardana leaves ABR; Jack Callil is the new Assistant Editor ...

In an essay on the poetry of George Crabbe, Peter Porter wrote, ‘It is a great pleasure to me, a man for the littoral any day, to read Crabbe’s description of the East Anglian coast.’ Happily, there is by now a substantial and various array of writings about Porter’s work, and I would like simply to add that his being, metaphorically, ‘a man for the littoral’, with all its interfusions, is one of his distinguishing qualities, and something to rejoice in. Coastlands, and marshes, are essential to his intellect and to his imagination. He may never have had one foot in Eden, but he did rejoice in a plurality of territories.

With a hallmark ruefulness, Porter would joke that the principal use of poetry was to supply novelists and filmmakers with titles for what they produced: but he was himself a constant crosser of borders between prose and poetry, music and verse, the most sumptuous of visual works in Western civilisation and poems which might revere, chasten or ironise them. He could mount a commanding array of insights while offering in the same breath a disarming modesty about their power. If ever there was a case of someone writing poems to see what happened, Peter Porter was the man – ‘for the littoral any day’.

‘The model for art remains that of metamorphosis: imaginations, great events, are all transformation scenes.’ This was Porter’s project, and it was besides his passion. He usually wrote poetry as, in my experience, he always spoke – rapidly, as if somehow to offer the trace of what was escaping, while the curiosity of what was emerging became apparent. In a zestfully mordant early poem, ‘Farewell to Theophrastus’, he reports that ‘Overdoing It’s lost a carnation but has / two rosebuds in his right lapel; / he offers the table the name of an hotel / in Amalfi and spends a minute on his knees / retrieving the Chairman’s pen top’. This is like Swift singing – a startling spectacle, but one which wins assent through the blend of farce and calculation with which it is carried off. Porter wrote, later, ‘Satire I hold to be only another version of pastoral, a way poets have of managing to relish what they dislike. They have cause to bless their enemies for existing.’ This too is to be ‘a man for the littoral’, and it means that no day need be wasted.

Like the Auden who was one of his exemplars, Porter could exult in a variety of modes, each of which had a mutable face. A handful of his poems’ titles insinuates a repertoire: ‘A Great Reckoning in a Little Room’, ‘The Lion of Antonello da Messina’, ‘The Pines of Rome’, ‘The Cocks of Campagnatico’, ‘Mutant Proverbs’, ‘Leafing Through the Latin Dictionary’, ‘Whereof We Cannot Speak’, ‘At the Reunion of the Answers’. Variously, the demeanour could be that of applauder, of busker, of bear-leader, of someone being put to silence eloquently, of wary enquirer, of a hailer of love in the presence of death, of a commander whose troops are prone, unpredictably, to desert him, and then to return.

‘No poet can be great,’ he wrote, ‘who is not memorable, unmistakeable and a virtuoso.’ He did not establish a priority between these endowments, but he certainly did not think that to be a virtuoso was to be an also ran. He had from first to last a certain innocence, an openness, about a new poem’s coming to be. The poem could not be wrenched from the realm of the unknown: it could only be had where surprise and expertise were both allowed their due. The many expressions of surprise in the poems are not ornamental or strategic: they are, as we say, telling.

Peter PorterPeter PorterLike many poets, and in spite of a brightly polished scepticism, Peter Porter had a number of talismanic predecessors. Pope was emphatically of their company, and so was Browning. Porter wrote that, ‘In his copious and generous output, Browning satisfies the unquenchable haranguer which is in each of us. We are born, we talk and we die. But chiefly we talk, and when we meet a good talker we listen. Browning is the talker non pareil.’ Any acquaintance of Peter Porter’s will smile instinctively at this, because his own diurnal talking was itself a part of his own ‘copious and generous output’.

Beyond that, though, the whole of his poetry may be seen as a deliberate talking-through of his way in the world. A rending poem after his first wife’s death is called ‘Talking to You Afterwards’, and some modification of that title could be used of the poems late and early. Answering questions after a poetry reading in Australia some years ago, he said when asked whether he had an ideal reader, ‘Yes, and it’s me’. He meant by this that if the poem could not evade strictures which rose in his own mind, then it lost credibility. But even though he was sometimes charged with writing esoterically, he was disinclined, whether by temperament or by choice, to write poems which stood clear of the ruck of affairs, or which aspired to do so. If you missed the talking-through, you missed an important dimension of the poem.

Porter, who delighted to bestow and to modify characterisations in his poems, called Browning ‘The Father of Us All’, in that he ‘changed the coordinates by which poetry is recognized ... The chief gain was poetry’s escape from a ghetto of appropriateness. The poet ate further down the table from the salt, but he ate more voraciously.’ Porter saw this as a common indebtedness to Browning, but that way of putting it applies with special force to his own work. Many excellent poets work most happily within particular thickets in their own cultures: Peter Porter wanted a forest, and his poems keep on expanding its borders.

‘The Father of Us All’, himself a man for the littoral, might well be pleased with the degree to which Porter embraced the new opportunities. No doubt his deep and lasting fidelity to music taught him much about intellectual decorum and its range of possibilities, but his poetry still escaped the ‘ghetto of appropriateness’ with a zest of its own. Once again, titles give the cue: ‘Syrup of Figs Will Cast Out Fear’, ‘Who Gets the Pope’s Nose?’, ‘Inspector Christopher Smart Calls’, ‘In the Giving Vein’, ‘Exit, Pursued by a Bear’, ‘What I Have Written I Have Written’, ‘The Pantoum of the Opera’. Juan Ramón Jiménez advises, in a notebook: ‘If they give you lined paper, write the other way’, which applies very well to Porter, provided it is remembered that ‘the other way’ thereupon becomes a new way, with both new opportunities and new requirements.

‘The poet ate further down the table from the salt, but he ate more voraciously.’ Nobody reading through the Porter ensemble could doubt the voracity. When it came to poetical reputation, he regretted that he was not nearer the salt, but where political affairs were at issue, the whole disposition of the table was up, at best, for critique. I am writing as it happens on the day of the British elections, which is also Porter’s funeral-day. In a letter written shortly after the elections of 1997, he wrote,

It struck me suddenly the other day that I suffer from the paranoia of not being political. If I were political I would see ways of changing things for the better – as it is, I can concentrate only on the appallingness of ruling classes and what might be called the transferable iniquity whereby their opposing Tribunes and Radical Replacements are forced to copy the sins of their office.

Camus, in a notebook, wrote, ‘I am not made for politics, since I am incapable of desiring the death of my opponent’. Porter, a constant scrutiniser of mortality’s ways, might not have desired the death of the powerful, but he thought that the least that should be given them was a hell of a good talking to, though he did not suppose that they would do much listening.

Donald Hall remarks that ‘Poetry weds the unweddable and embodies the conditions we live under: nest of pleasure, twigs of dread.’ It might be a coda to Porter’s

For a poet his hope and his benison will usually be his energy. What he has to say is often possessed by gloom, but he becomes of the party of hope if he pronounces it with energy and art. How he does so is a great and unexplained mystery.

Far more pages of his poetry than not bear witness to the attempt implied here, though the mystery, to me at least, remains as great as ever. Porter used to quote the exchange between Mozart and a (presumably unthinking) enquirer, who asked him why he wrote so much. Mozart replied, ‘Because it fatigues me less than not writing.’ That says a good deal about Porter at the desk, whose hankerings were always beyond the present poem or the next, and included the hope to understand ‘the mystery’.

‘All the poetry I love’, he said, ‘is potential energy come to rest.’ This lapidary phrasing, which for Porter could point to Herbert as to Rochester, to Shakespeare the sane and Smart the mad, to Pope and to Auden, is of a piece with his constant rethinking of the relationship between poetry and music. Dennis O’Driscoll’s view that ‘poetry is music set to words’ would have been his own, though he would instinctively have nuanced the proposition, saying perhaps (as he did) that poets ‘are musicians by other means’. Porter also wrote, ‘I consider Pope to be the most musical poet in English, though he may not have cared for a note of formal music ... music teaches us to relate words by their adjacency or their sympathy and not merely by overt meaning. It further reminds us that syntax is the most important element in poetry, the poetical equivalent of harmonic construction.’

There would be plenty of blinking at that last sentence from various schools of poetry – some hedgeschools, some around Harvard Yard – about which Porter was so thoroughly informed: but for my money it is exactly right. The mind is more than intellection but is nothing without it, and so it goes with poetry and syntax, without whose good offices the potential energy can never come to rest. Thinking of Rochester and of Martial, he remarks that ‘Classicism means keeping technique in the foreground’, and he had strong allegiances in that direction, whether in the most or the least quippish of his poetry. He was accustomed to say that music was his first love, and as such it had things to show to later loves, including poetry. (One night, in Melbourne, in a small, well-fuelled company, he proclaimed that we should all go down on our knees and thank God for creating Mozart: but the idea did not quite catch on.)

‘A man for the littoral’: I have tried to suggest a few of the ways in which Porter bore out this wittily conceived condition or agenda. His transactions with the mind, its words and the world in its custody were versatile, pluriform and constantly open to revision. In another early poem, ‘Waking Home on St Cecilia’s Day’, unhappiness exacts its tribute, but ‘There is a practice of music which befriends / The ear – useless, impartial as rain on desert – // And conjures the listener for a time to be happy, / Making from this love of limits what he can, / Saddled with Eden’s gift, living in the reins / Of music’s huge light irresponsibility.’ The conjuration went on occurring, and so did its fruits. I last spoke to Peter Porter, by phone, a couple of weeks before his death. The conversation ended with my being drawn to say, ‘You’ve been a very easy man to love, Peter.’ So he was: and so he is.


All quotations from Peter Porter’s prose are taken from Saving from the Wreck: Essays on poetry (2001).

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  • Custom Article Title 'Littoral Truth: Peter Porter (1929-2010)' by Peter Steele
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Peter Porter's posthumous collection of poems, Chorale at the Crossing, is preoccupied, understandably, with death – but death was a central preoccupation of his work from the beginning. How could it not be? He lost his mother at the age of nine.

Porter's two Collected Poems (1983 and 1999) were – are – stupendous, exuberant treasure-houses of riches, but death is the dark stitching. Death and sex – two stitchings. No three: death, sex, and cats. Four: death, sex, cats, and European High Art. And since this list is beginning to sound like Eric Idle in the Spanish Inquisition, I might round it out: death, sex, cats, and Pythonesqe humour. Porter was a very funny writer – as an irreverent satirist and aphorist, certainly, but also as an absurdist. There are jokes curled through even his most cryptic poems.

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  • Custom Article Title Peter Goldsworthy reviews 'Chorale at the Crossing' by Peter Porter
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  • Biblio Picador, $24.99 pb, 67 pp, 9781509801695

It’s the voice, isn’t it, of a master, so unmistakably in command of a music that is inseparable from the personal modesty that is its signature, which belies all grandeur and refuses to take credit for the gift but has it nonetheless in abundance. When Craig Sherborne read the last poem in this Selected Poems, ‘After Schiller’, at the Melbourne memorial service for Peter Porter, it was self-evident. It came with a shock of recognition – almost a surprise – that we were in the hands of a great poet; that one of the highest gifts a human being could possess had passed from us with the death of this man in April 2010.

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  • Custom Article Title Peter Craven reviews 'The Rest on the Flight: Selected Poems' by Peter Porter
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    It’s the voice, isn’t it, of a master, so unmistakably in command of a music that is inseparable from the personal modesty that is its signature, which belies all grandeur and refuses to take credit for the gift but has it nonetheless in abundance. When Craig Sherborne read the last poem in this Selected Poems ...

  • Book Title The Rest on the Flight: Selected Poems
  • Book Author Peter Porter
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  • Biblio Allen & Unwin, $39.99 hb, 440 pp, 9781742374642