In an age when the news is relentlessly bad, it is tempting to think that we can turn to poetry as either a flight from the pathological politics of our time, or a higher commentary on it. As the poets in this year’s Victorian States of Poetry Anthology show, poetry’s relationship with the news of the day is more complex than that.
Chris Wallace-Crabbe, now in his mid eighties, continues his (thankfully long) ‘late period’, with work that takes in both the long view and the intensity of the here and now. This work is concerned with a form of lyricism, but one in which dreams are prey to some harsher reality, some ‘rough beast’ that will arrive ‘to trash our ghosts / and blow the very legs / off our indolence’. Poems such as ‘Creature’ and ‘Heidi-Ho’ show Wallace-Crabbe’s tragi-comic vision is especially important for the troubled times in which we live. Now that ageism is finally becoming as unacceptable as the other isms, Wallace-Crabbe’s poems powerfully show us the importance of attending to elder voices.
Gig Ryan, in her different way, is also concerned with collapsing the historical and the contemporary. Ryan’s poems are more obviously elliptical in their expression, but they are no less powerful for that. By bringing together the abstracted world of Greek myth with the suburban imaginary (‘bundled rubbish a corpse on the nature-strip’), Ryan makes our world all the stranger. If the uncanny is the disquieting interplay between the familiar and the unfamiliar, Ryan is master of an uncanny poetics, one in which the ‘melodrama’ of psychology and sociology is played out in an inimitable idiolect.
Brendan Ryan is deeply concerned with the contemporary world, especially the bucolic setting in which he grew up, but he too makes the apparently familiar impressively strange. But as ‘Driving to Debating’ shows, Ryan’s imagistic aesthetic can also both deal with the bad news of the day, and see its long perspective:
George Pell is refusing to leave Roma
where girls were once named after their fathers
who could, if so desired, sell them at fourteen
Ryan’s poetry commands our attention because it is often affecting, but also because it works the real into our most important abstractions, such as ‘a justice that dare not be spoken of’.
In the three poems by Lisa Gorton, we see an extraordinary attention to detail, to the weight of the real, and to language as an act of style. When Gorton quotes a Victorian – in the temporal rather than geographical sense – definition of botany as ‘the science of beauty’, she could be talking about her own work, which is both considered and mysterious, exacting and playful. What makes Gorton’s recent work all the more commanding is the way it uses the historical record itself as a source of the uncanny, and a source of understanding ourselves.
Bella Li’s sequence, ‘Confessions’, with its profound use of the visual, also shows how the historical record can be refashioned. ‘Confessions’, another project concerned with uncanny effects, remixes the highly stylised language of confession (from Augustine to Proust) with the visual language of the eighteenth-century natural historian Albertus Seba and Étienne-Louis Boullée’s monumental designs for his proposed cenotaph to honour Sir Isaac Newton. In doing so, she seems to seek a wholly new language for what we recognise as poetry.
In the previous States of Poetry anthology that I edited, I wrote in my introduction that I focused on work ‘attracted to openness, energy, catholic interest, and wit.’ I stand by that description for this year’s anthology, but this year I am also struck by how each of the poets demands attention because of his or her style. Such stylisation is evidence of an act of intense attention, and to seeing the poem as something intensely wrought. In the age of fake – as well as bad – news, this too can be a political act. Paradoxically, the very factitiousness of the poem makes it the genuine article.