Australian Poetry

Without the support of a recognisably unified literary tradition, the Australian poet has had to come to terms with the diverse elements of an increasingly heterogeneous culture. Australia is, was, and ever shall be, someone else’s country, a homeland so fundamentally altered as a concept as to be no longer comfortably recognisable as ‘Home’. Paradoxically, if anything has drawn Australian poets together, it has been a strong attachment to the physical environment, the strange and often harsh beauty of an ancient land but one no longer a comfortingly European possession. As far as forms, genres, literary concepts are concerned, writers have had to draw on their own particular sense of a cultural past that has been, for the most part, European in origin. With the passing of time, a growing disharmony has arisen between the natural rhythms of the land and its hapless European inheritors. This alienation has announced itself often enough in poems of nostalgia, loss, and lovelessness.

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In 1956, A Book of Australian Verse, edited by Judith Wright, was published by Oxford University Press. Her choice of her own poems included ‘Bullocky’ and a couple of others, the over-anthologising of which, at the expense of her other work, was later understandably to provoke her exasperation.

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Anyone who has had the experience of trying to translate a poem across even a fairly low-density language barrier (say German or French into English) will have tasted the near despair of finding oneself in danger of killing that in the creature that one most wanted to save. Sometimes it feels like cutting down the tree and whittling from the wood a mere mock replica of it  – the sap goes, the leaves in all their lively beauty disappear, and at best there’s an artifact which cleverly reproduces the mere outlines of what was once brimming with life.

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What do we do, where do we go to get beyond the routines of the self and the paradoxical alienation it produces in both ourselves and in others? Is it possible to break down the shell of separation and deal with others from a perspective that is neither ‘self- or need-observed’? These are the questions that occupy Bruce Beaver in many of the poems in this collection, and one that he traces through an engaging variety of forms and themes.

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When I visited Bruce and Brenda Beaver in their Manly flat it was a sparkling day. The water of the Harbour was glittering, and the pines on the foreshore were stirring only slightly in the breeze. But, however soothing the weather, I was nervous. For me, Bruce Beaver is huge, a poet of the first order, and his extraordinarily difficult life, the periods of debilitating sickness and the various almost mythic stories that attach themselves to his history, all added up to make me feel very nervous indeed.

And his wife, Brenda had made it very clear that my being able to come to see him was a privilege. She protects him fiercely, with constant courage, and if I hadn’t read Bruce Beaver’s superb love poems to this woman, I would have been even more nervous when my companion and I knocked on their door.

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Dispossessed by Philip Hodgins

by
April 1994, no. 159

With unsentimental compassion and irony, Dispossessed tackles the weighty topic of the rural crisis. In a sense the title of Phillip Hodgins’s verse novella gives too much away, casting a deliberate shadow over all that follows. Yet the manner in which Hodgins spins his yam is constantly engaging.


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Despite the protestations of my close friends I choose to regard myself as a normal person. Only at certain times of the year do I realise how tenuous are my links with the mundane world.

One of these trou­blesome occasions is when I prepare my income tax form.

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Well I’m damned! Ern Malley of all people! It’s been fifty years since I last laid eyes on him. Seeing him again recalls my vanished youth as nothing else could. Angry Penguins, Cecily Crozier’s valiant Comment magazine, the ‘social realists’ upbraiding everyone like so many Marxist Savonarolas, the Jindyworobakians quarrelling with the ‘cosmopolitans’, the Contemporary Arts Society quarrelling with itself – stirring times! But Ern was the epicentre of our cultural storm in a teacup.

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This is a powerful and accomplished anthology. The fiction, poems, and autobiographies of thirty-seven women writers offer a collection where the individual pieces coalesce into much more than the sum of the parts.

The editors have chosen writing from a field of over 350 manuscripts, seeking that which challenges and revises dominant versions of national identity.

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In Boundary Conditions, Jennifer Strauss, taking her title from the Eisenhart poem of that name, points to the centrality of Gwen Harwood’s concern with ‘those littoral regions where the boundary terms that define themselves on either side of us also overlap and interact'. It is here, she claims, that ‘our most intense experiences, for better or worse, occur, and it is here that she correctly and perceptively locates Gwen Harwood’s major preoccupations as well as her recurrent images and settings.

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