Poetry

The immediate virtues of this book are not difficult to see: Andrew Taylor is a skilled poet who understands the workings of syntax and rhythm, and who knows how to shape his poems into unified patterns with an apparent minimum of fuss. The poems tend to have a regular and easy pace; their fluency is considerable. Taylor writes with a genuine confidence and a literary awareness which is for the most part sophisticated and supple. His diction is uniform and he is careful not to overreach himself. There is no visible strain in the whole performance.

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Given the Howard government’s recent proposal to include the compulsory study of selected aspects of Australian history for secondary school students, perhaps it is time for more educators to follow the lead of Nicholas Jose and others in urging that Australian literature occupy a more prominent place in the school curriculum. Literature – and poetry in particular – does not have the political buzz that history possesses (especially since the recent ‘history wars’ have worked their way into public discourse), but there is a need for some healthy consciousness-raising about the flourishing state of Australian writing, which is often better understood beyond our shores than it is at home.

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The invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany in 1941 caused massive destruction over a huge area. The number of deaths is uncertain, though a figure of around twenty-seven million is now widely accepted. The lives of many more millions were affected – as soldiers, as workers in war-related industries, as civilians in besieged and occupied territories, as refugees – and the experience of hardship and self-sacrifice in what is widely referred to in Russia as the ‘Great Patriotic War’ or the ‘Great Fatherland War’ continues to dominate the Russian historical narrative.

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Precise observation is considered a prerequisite for poetry, but there are limits as to what a surfeit of detail can bring to a poem, or even to an entire volume. Three new poetry collections, each different in tone and subject matter, deploy close observation to varying degrees of success across poems that scrutinise domestic tension, interspecies dynamics, landscape, and everyday grace.

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Hear the way these poets use moonlight. According to a delicious detail in Jill Jones’s thirteenth full-length collection, Wild Curious Air (Recent Work Press, $19.95, 76 pp), ‘The moon’s light takes just over a second to reach our faces.’ In the context of meaning, note the length of the sound in the word ‘faces’. Jones affectingly contrasts this second with the light that left a star, centuries ago: ‘Always a past touches us, as this hot January forgets us.’

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In 1795, Friedrich Schiller wrote: ‘So long as we were mere children of nature, we were both happy and perfect; we have become free, and have lost both.’ For Schiller, it was the poet’s task to ‘lead mankind … onward’ to a reunification with nature, and thereby with the self. Central to Romantic thought, reimaginings like Schiller’s of Christian allegory, in which (European) humans’ division from a utopian natural world suggests the biblical fall, strike a chord in our own time of unfolding environmental catastrophe. Against such an unfolding, three new Australian books of poetry explore the contemporary relationship of subject to place.

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What is it about English language poetry that has proved so resistant to the lure of the prose poem? The French, it appears, held no such qualms, finding themselves besotted with the form ever since Aloysius Bertrand and Charles Baudelaire began dispensing with line breaks and stanzas. Of course, the very existence of English-language works like Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (1914) or William Carlos Williams’s Kora in Hell (1920) could be used to argue otherwise, but such endeavours were considered too eccentric at the time to impart a lasting legacy. Perhaps if T.S. Eliot, whose antipathy towards the prose poem is well known, had given us a major cycle along the lines of Saint-John Perse’s Anabasis (1924), a work he admired and translated, things might have turned out differently.

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Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Robert Adamson is the fact that he is still alive. One of the ‘Generation of  ’68’ and an instrumental figure in the New Australian Poetry (as announced by John Tranter’s 1979 anthology), Adamson has continued to write and adapt while also bearing witness to the premature deaths of many of that visionary company. As Adamson’s friend and fellow poet Michael Dransfield (1948–73) once put it, ‘to be a poet in Australia / is the ultimate commitment’ and ‘the ultimate commitment / is survival’. The poems in this volume attest to the grace and burden of being one of Australian poetry’s great survivors – of the countercultural mythology of the ‘drug-poet’, alcoholism, and the brutalities of the prison system (recounted firsthand in his 2004 memoir, Inside Out). ‘The show’s to escape / death’, Adamson observes of the Jesus bird (sometimes called a lilytrotter), a lithe performer and canny survivalist that affords this most ornithologically minded of authors a telling self-image.

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There has as yet been no comprehensive critical study of the poets associated with the ‘Generation of ’68’, of whom Martin Johnston was perhaps the most naturally gifted and certainly the most intellectually expansive representative. This is because the project of these poets, to fully incorporate the stylistic innovations of modernist poetics and its development in postwar American models within local practice, is still ongoing. If we examine only those poets gathered in the 1979 New Australian Poetry anthology – in which Johnston’s lengthy experiment in parataxis, ‘The Blood Aquarium’, appears as a signature work – we find major authors even today in the process of developing their practice.

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The haunting of Gwen Harwood

Stephanie Trigg
19 November 2020

What is the relation between poet and critic? No, not a topic for yet another tedious and oppositional debate at a writers’ festival. Rather, a question about the nature of oppositions, and the possibility of disrupting, or even suspending them, in the varied and delicate acts of literary criticism. Let me frame my question even more precisely: who is the ‘Gwen Harwood’ to whom I refer when I write about the poetry of a women who in recent years has become increasingly public, celebrated and accessible?

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