Australian Poetry

Belated recognition of Australian prose poetry

by Paul Hetherington and Cassandra Atherton
October 2020, no. 425

Until recently, Australian prose poetry hasn’t attracted much attention – we’re not sure why. Having written prose poetry for years, we’re both fascinated by the form, which can be loosely defined as poems written in paragraphs and sentences rather than in stanzas and lines.

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In his description of the verse novel as ‘the awkward child of successful parents, destined to disappoint both of them’, Michael Symmons Roberts emphasises the form’s sometimes disjunctive use of literary techniques commonly associated with poetry and prose fiction. While the verse novel has gained popularity since the 1980s, many of its features may be traced to epic poems such The Epic of Gilgamesh and Homer’s The Iliad, and the long narrative poems of the Romantic and Victorian periods. The form was established by Alexander Pushkin’s nineteenth-century verse novel Eugene Onegin, which was divided into stanzas; however, the definition and key features of the verse novel are still hotly debated.

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In all of his books, Laurie Duggan has tended to avoid the ‘well-formed poem’. His poems are not of the kind that unroll like carpets: replete with interconnected images, sonic patterning, argument. A large part of his poetic approach emerges from an attempt to not speak over what is already there, or, as he writes in one poem, to ‘not neutralise / the effect of atmosphere’. This might be described as permitting the incidental, letting things in, but it’s also – Duggan being a self-described minimalist – much to do with omission. The model his oeuvre provides is one that prioritises listening (and looking) over speaking, and in that sense it is anti-bardic. ‘The poem’ as a discrete object is often, and almost entirely within this collection, given over to the series, allowing Duggan to retain qualities of the short lyric while building long-form structures whose rhythms become apparent over years or, in the case of ‘Blue Hills’, over decades.

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Mount Parnassus remains a proscribed destination for the moment, but Aidan Coleman’s Mount Sumptuous (Wakefield Press, $22.95 pb, 56 pp) provides an attractive local alternative. Following on from the poems of love and recovery in Asymmetry (2012), this collection marks the poet’s reawakened appetite for the sublimities and subterfuges of suburban Australia, from cricket pitches ‘lit like billiard tables’ and Blue Light Discos to the flammable wares of Best & Less and the implacable red brick of ‘all-meat / towns’. As these poems and their pseudo-pedagogical endnotes show, Coleman is a keen philologist of the language of commerce. The title’s ‘sumptuous’ (from the Latin sumptus for ‘expense’) keys us in to the vital ambivalence of a poetry, which on the one hand honours the rituals of everyday consumption (‘lounging / book in hand, Tim Tams / … tea a given’), and on the other speaks to the exploitative logic of consumer capitalism (‘Take the juiceless fruits / of day labour and a white / goods salesman’s leaden chicanery’).

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‘The constant loss of breath is the legacy.’ So wrote poet Ali Cobby Eckermann in 2015 for the anthology The Intervention. The eponymous Intervention of 2007 in the Northern Territory was, in the long history of this continent, the first time that the federal government had deployed the army against its own citizenry. As I write this review, in the United States police are using tear gas, traditionally reserved for warfare, against those protesting the worth of black life, while the president flirts with the idea of calling in the military. Some of us gasp in shock. Some, in suffocation.

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A Gathered Distance by Mark Tredinnick & The Mirror Hurlers by Ross Gillett

by
June–July 2020, no. 422

For Mark Tredinnick, best known so far as a nature poet employing distinctive and often ingenious imagery, A Gathered Distance is a brave book – even a risky one. It’s essentially the diary of a family breakup or, more accurately, its immediate aftermath. As with most poetry in the confessional genre, the poet is explicit about some people and reticent about others.

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If I were to make gauche generalisations about the poetics of MTC Cronin, Jordie Albiston, and Michael Farrell, I might respectively write conceptual, technical, and experimental. But these established poets – each in their fifties, highly regarded – display fluency with all these descriptors, especially in their latest books.

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There is probably no book in a poet’s career more important than his or her first Selected Poems. It is here that poets have the opportunity to display the best of their work in all its variety over several decades. Individual collections are a mere step on the way. Collecteds tend to be posthumous and of interest mainly to scholars, reference libraries, and a cluster of devotees.

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Peter Boyle’s Enfolded in the Wings of a Great Darkness (Vagabond Press, $25 pb, 82 pp) is a book-length elegiac poem dedicated to his partner, the anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose (1946–2018). Unlike other works lamenting the illness and loss of a spouse, Boyle’s collection largely avoids representing the day-to-day demands of suffering from (or caring for someone suffering from) an incurable disease. Instead, Boyle’s poetry sequence offers a more metaphysical approach to the uncertainty and grief that he and his partner faced.

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A Kinder Sea by Felicity Plunkett

by
April 2020, no. 420

Felicity Plunkett has being doing good works in the poetry sphere for some time now. She has edited for UQP a recent series of new and established poets; she reviews a wide variety of poetry in newspapers and magazines, as well as writing evocatively, in this journal, about influential figures in popular Australian poetics like Nick Cave and Gurrumul Yunupingu. Valuably, she has also made practical contributions to poetry teaching in the secondary English curriculum. Now she has published a second volume of her own poetry, a varied collection of highly accomplished poems.

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