Australian Poetry

Geoffrey Dutton will not concentrate. Information relevant to his subject reminds him of other titbits, as in this cascade of irrelevancies:

McKee Wright deserves the credit for having first published Slessor, and he published a remarkable number of women poets. However, some of his favourites amongst the latter might have been better left in obscurity. Marie E.J. Pitt, for example, in the issue for 10 July 1919:

Oh, take me, take me, little wind that blows
Ere the young moon
Blossoms in heaven like a mystic rose,
And the stars swoon
Down languorous aisles of Night’s enchanted noon!

(‘Noon’ for ‘midnight’, incidentally, is the old usage sanctified by Tennyson: ‘Night hath climbed her peak of highest noon.’)

For a biography of Slessor, Dutton should have made the first comma a full stop, unless the point was to let us know that Dutton knows his Tennyson.

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This is John A. Scott’s sixth collection of poems since 1975. The volume is slim but not thin. Each poem encompasses its observation, reflection, or moment from which departures are measured, as the positives and negatives of ‘delicious solitude’ are weighed. Amid urban blues, bar-speak, team games and the distorting foci of others’ projections, the ‘predicate adjective alone’ evokes either dignity, pathos, or something in between. Scott considers the prospects.

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Michael Sariban has provided us with a new and memorable collection of poetry. In 1984, the Queensland Community Press produced At the Institute for Total Recall, which met with an enthusiastic response.

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I have never met Vivian Smith but respect him awfully. The remarkable thing about his editing of this new anthology of Australian poetry is that his own work is not in it. This is unprecedented among recent anthologies, and may of course be a printing error. Even that excellent poet of Buddhist leanings, Robert Gray, was unable to achieve such perfect nirvana some years back in his Younger Australian Poets. I think Vivian Smith could at least have included here his very fine poems ‘The Names’, which appeared in the most recent Mattara Award anthology.

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Illustrations are almost mandatory for certain types of books, technical manuals, travel books. Illustrated poetry is not unheard of, but neither is it a common phenomenon in Australia, the normal perception being that poetry is a discrete and competent medium. Nevertheless, there are times when pictorial complementation has been thought desirable. Such a book is O’Connor and Coleman’s Poetry in Pictures: The Great Barrier Reef, which collects some of O’Connor’s reef poems and matches them up with some superb photographs of the birds and marine forms described. The result is a handsome book of the sort you might buy at a reef resort for a Thinking Friend back home.

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Written in Japanese, this is an introduction to Australian people through Australian poetry. Yasuko Claremont is a long-time Japanese resident in Australia who studied Australian literature at Sydney University. Finding unacceptable the image, widely-propagated among the Japanese, of ‘jolly Australians who do not work as hard as the Japanese,’ she wrote this book to help the Japanese ‘get to the heart of the Australians,’ which, she thinks, can be done effectively through reading Australian poems in the language of the Australians.

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Headlands by Bruce Beaver

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May 1986, no. 80

The jacket painting on Bruce Beaver’s highly wrought little book of prose poems is Lloyd Rees’ ‘The Coast near Klama’. It’s an elevated view of virgin green and dun coloured headland, the ochres rising through. Sea swirls into an oysterish bay. There is one distant figure looking down on another distant figure in a rock pool below. The sky, as with so many Rees skies, is egg-shelly yellow near the horizon, a glowing compliment to the taste we form and hold of earth.

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This book signals a dramatic shift in the poetry of Robert Harris. His three previous books – Localities (1973), Translations from the Albatross (1976), The Abandoned (1979) – were born out of an intense and self-propelling passion for the glitter and the glow of words, the power they have to transform reality through a kind of internal poetic combustion. This was a poetry laden with abstraction and with quasi­surrealist imagery, heavily influenced by the French symbolists, by American poets like Robert Duncan, and in particular by the Australian poet Robert Adamson. Some of it stands up pretty well, though there was always the tendency for the verse to veer out of control, overblown and unfocused in the headiness of its phrasing.

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Anthologists face more than one dilemma of choice, beside that of personal preference. Is it better to show more of fewer poets, and give a true picture of their qualities and scope, to range widely across the landscape of the art, or reach a compromise between these methods? There are excellent anthologies in each genre.

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The Way It Is by Michael Sharkey

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May 1985, no. 70

On page 87 of Michael Sharkey’s The Way It Is, there is a photograph of the poet reading the National Farmer (a weekly rural newspaper), which shows what happens when you lock up the well-read in a small rural town. Armidale mightn’t Pontus or Bandusia, and you don’t have to have crossed Augustus or have been befriended by Maecenas to get there, but once you are, it certainly changes your idea of ‘the way it is’. Drought, rain, frost, journeys, and drunkenness, obsession with the weather in general, and an almanac of solar and lunar occurrences becomes the raw material of your verse – as it was for those other rural exiles in the Tang dynasty, Li Po and Tu Fu.

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