Poetry

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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In my thirty years as an academic, the greatest joy and puzzlement I had was in teaching poetry. I agree with T.S. Eliot that ‘genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood’. Our best teaching often involves what we do not fully understand. The scholar D.S. Carne-Ross once argued that, upon hearing poetry spoken in an unfamiliar language, you can tell it is poetry, the language of poetry, which is other than what I do in writing this review. Anyone faced with the problem of teaching poetry in an academic setting will realise that part of the problem is the academic setting itself. Poetry has thrived for millennia everywhere on earth without the benefit of professors, classrooms, and theories of reading. How, then, might we teach it?

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I was surprised by the title of Melbourne-based Anne Elvey’s recent collection, Obligations of Voice (Recent Work Press, $19.95 pb, 89 pp). Though quite a mouthful, it’s bravely deliberate; Elvey wants you to slowly voice and feel the syllables. Several poems centre on the mouth or lips for political, theological, even surrealist ends. The poem ‘Afternoon Tea, Seaford Beach Café’ begins with the line ‘A woman stands’. Floating in the right margin is the phrase ‘at the back of a throat’. These fragments coalesce to describe the woman’s mouth or the mouth she’s lodged in. Breathing and ‘charcoal’ gums are collaged with the ‘Dark // corrugations’ and the landscape of the sea. The last line surprises by changing tack: ‘A skiff // bounces on a swell.’ This clipped linguistic dexterity, with a flash of painterly movement, characterises Elvey’s nuance and facility.

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To those who have followed Alex Skovron’s poetry since The Rearrangement (1988), it’s not a surprise to learn that he has been the general editor of an encyclopedia, a book editor, a lover of classical music and chess, an occasional translator of Dante and Borges, and the author of six well-spaced poetry collections, a stylish novella, and a collection of short stories. He can often seem the very embodiment of the European/Jewish/Melburnian intellectual (despite an adolescence spent in Sydney).

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Sarah Holland-Batt’s Fishing for Lightning is a book about Australian poetry. As such, it is a rare, and welcome, bird in the literary ecology of our country. It is welcome because poetry, like any other art form, requires a supportive culture that educates and promulgates. Not that Holland-Batt, herself one of our leading poets, is ‘merely’ didactic, or a shill for the muses. Holland-Batt, who is also an academic, writes with great authority and insight, and she is a fine stylist, penning essays that are packed with humour and playfulness. These essays cater for all kinds of audiences, from newcomers to poetry experts, which is no small feat.

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In the epigraph to this collection, a quote from Jean-Paul Sartre on Edmund Husserl suggests that we are entering a poetic that challenges the possibility of conscious knowledge; consciousness is itself a maelstrom that extrudes the intruder and has ‘no inside’. What follows is both a refutation and embracement of this assertion in chatoyant language that is as thoughtful and melodic as it is powerful. The reader is obliged to work hard to navigate the narrative, and I have rarely read poetry where the search for meaning has been felt so deeply.

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What We Carry: Poetry on childbearing edited by Ella Kurz, Simone King, and Claire Delahunty

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September 2021, no. 435

On her explosive, feminist début album Dry (1992), a young P.J. Harvey sang ‘Look at these my childbearing hips’, proudly proclaiming women’s strength and physicality. The word ‘childbearing’ conjures strong feelings and images for many of us – whether of childbirth, sleep deprivation, devotion, or a whole new way of life. It signifies much more than childbirth itself and is a fitting choice for the subtitle of this anthology, Poetry on childbearing. This emotionally powerful collection covers an expansive range of experiences: infertility, conception, pregnancy, birth, and life with a baby (or not).

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The Gleaner Song by by Song Lin, translated by Dong Li & Vociferate | 詠 by Emily Sun

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September 2021, no. 435

The Chinese poet is so often a wanderer and an exile. The tradition goes back to Qu Yuan (c.340–278 BCE), author of ‘Encountering Sorrow’, the honest official who was banished from court and drowned himself in a river, and it continues to our time. During the Sino–Japanese war (1937–45) a group of patriotic early Chinese modernists were displaced from their Beijing universities to an improvised campus in the south-west, where they read avant-garde Western poetry.

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Sydney-based poet and editor Toby Fitch has spent much of the last decade traversing the field of radical French modernist poets, especially Arthur Rimbaud and Guillaume Apollinaire. That engagement ignited Fitch’s imagination. He began inverting, recombining, mistranslating, and mimicking their techniques in his own poetry. In his new collection, Sydney Spleen, he has made a sophisticated, fresh move that enhances his signature playfulness and tongue-in-cheek poetic antics.

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Fish Work by Caitlin Maling & Earth Dwellers by Kristen Lang

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October 2021, no. 436

New collections from Caitlin Maling and Kristen Lang are situated in vastly different landscapes but pursue similar ideas about the natural world’s fragility and the imminent environmental catastrophe. Maling’s Fish Work, as its title suggests, is primarily interested in marine life and the scientists studying it at Lizard Island Research Station on the Great Barrier Reef, while Lang’s Earth Dwellers explores mountains, caves, and coastlines in Tasmania and Nepal, examining the myriad complexities of ancient ecosystems. Maling’s and Lang’s new books, their fourth collections, urge readers to attend to the work of millennia that has produced these distinctive ecosystems and, in doing so, to appreciate the urgency of protecting them.

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