Australian Poetry

The introduction to this collection(Horns of Dilemma, Papyrus Publishing, $14.95 pb, 108 pp), and the poems themselves, make it clear that Helene Brophy is a woman of much compassion and experience in the humane realms of feminism, teaching and social work, as well as in the more personal spheres of serious injury, illness and death.

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Every so often you come across a book of poetry which is just plain friendly, a book without tensions or terrors or angst to seize you – but which is consistently good poetry throughout. Seeing Things is such a book. It is so accessible in its straightforward diction and low-key tone that reading it is to feel very much spoken to, acknowledged. This is not a poetry foregrounding language or form so much as a series of poems which almost coalesce during reading into an intimate reportage of the quotidian. Intimate in the sense of almost being there, sharing the observations. It is language as transparency. From ‘Painting Session’ referring to the poet’s two-year-old daughter:

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This is Caroline Caddy’s sixth collection of poetry. It comes to us after her well-received Antarctica, which the publicists mention in terms of her interest in ‘hinterlands and extreme land­scapes’. Working Temple is not so much about that, it seems to me, as the sensual encounter one might have with exotic puzzles and puzzlement. It is a collection that almost advances a notion of experience as a temple within which the signs of that experience are worked and worked again.

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In Tracy Ryan’s poems there are no safe houses, the walls of domesticity keep falling in and she is the clear-eyed tightrope walker negotiating a perilous foothold. Her lines zigzag across the page:

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Salt: Volume 10 edited by John Kinsella

by
September 1997, no. 194

When a poet reviews a poetry magazine, it can be like walking out over a virtual minefield. I have a few more books to write before they take me out, so let me say straight away, I come in peace. These are cynical times, so maybe nobody will be taken in by this tone. After all, Salt is published and edited by John Kinsella, a highly successful poet who has established himself in record time. Let’s face it, this is poetry as strategy. As Hilary McPhee pointed out, the literary community in this country can be particularly vicious, and if anyone tries to hose that down they are having themselves on – the response McPhee got in relation to what she actually said proves the point really. It doesn’t have to be bland and polite though. There has been a lot of talk about the careerist approach to poetry lately. Ramona Koval noted at the first National Poetry Festival in Melbourne recently that some American poets have taken on this ‘professionalisation’ of poetry even down to their ‘Brooks Brothers suits and leather satchels’. Fay Zwicky replied, ‘I think careerism in poetry is contrary to how a poem comes into existence in the first place.’

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This is not another ‘slim volume’ of poetry; no way would it fit in a coat pocket. Ten years in the writing, weighing in at 740 pages, it is a brick of a book – well-bound paperback, heavy covers, designed to last. The poet had full say over not only the content, but the design, typesetting and production, resulting in a book unlike any produced under the nervous economic dictates of mainstream publishers. Six turned this manuscript down. Unsurprised, p.O. published it himself.

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These six poetry titles represent the third series of New Poets to be published by Five Islands Press. Each title runs to exactly thirty two pages – no more, no less. It is, in a sense, a mini-collection, or a semi-collection, midway between a reading and a book. The series as a whole is therefore like a showcase of new talent – you applaud some of the poems, and get impatient with others, much as you do with the poets themselves. This is a good thing – it presents poetry as the provisional affair it really is, most of the time, for poet and reader alike.

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When I started publishing my poems back in the early 1970s, I did so amidst a concern that Australian poetry was being Americanised: Coca-Cola, the pizza parlour, and the rock and rollers’ preoccupation with that thing called ‘lurve’ had swept all that was pure and true into the trashcan of history, and we with our Olsons, O’Haras, and Berrigans were unwitting accomplices to this annulling of our own birthright. My defence at the time would have been, ‘well, we’re taking aboard all that’s repulsive in American culture: their military and economic theses, their particular variety of consumerism, and no-one is protesting much about this – so why do they get so upset when we pick up on something of value from that culture?’ American artists themselves had absorbed things from other cultures without anyone there worrying about it. A great deal of the motivation behind the ‘New York School’ came from the French surrealists, though in translation surrealism had its more harebrained ideological aspects removed painlessly. In fact this ‘translation’ was a model of cultural appropriation, showing what a sea-change (and a change of tongue) can do to some seemingly immutable items.

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Is Robert Adamson Waving to Hart Crane, or drowning? He is certainly calling for help. In 1930, Hart Crane turned his back on Eliot’s The Waste Land and built The Bridge, a poem ‘to launch into praise’, to span across despair towards some brighter shore. But Adamson does not like what he finds on the other side, ‘No sonnet will survive / the fax on fire’, he warns.

The Clean Dark, the 1990 volume that won several national awards, was Adamson at his most meditative, gliding through his riverscapes like a boat at high tide. This time, Adamson is having an argument; with poetry, with other poets, and even with himself. His verse is peppered with questions, with question marks, and exclamation points. He is a shape changer, who breaks down his lines into new forms from poem to poem, and erases his own syntax as he goes along.

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A few years ago I found myself grouped with some other poets and given a label: ‘Generation of ‘68’. Like most tags it became after a while more a source of irritation than anything else. The description had been given by John Tranter to the inmates of his 1979 anthology, The New Australian Poetry, but before long had become a term of collective abuse as such labels tend to. One of the identified failings of this group of writers was their propensity for ‘game-playing’. So when Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray included poems by one of the ‘sixty-eighters’ in their anthology, The Younger Australian Poets, they prefaced Tranter’s pieces saying they had chosen things which, unlike most of his work, were not purely ‘language-game’ poems.

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