Poetry

Without the slightest hint of irony, Jewel Kilcher, the young Alaskan poet and singer whose first volume of free verse, A Night without Armor, was published to popular acclaim a year or two ago, quotes Dylan Thomas in her preface: ‘A good poem is a contribution to reality.’ Thomas, thankfully, was right, and although we might argue, as poets often do, about the shape reality might take, it remains true to this day that good poetry contributes more to what we know, as individuals and as communities, and helps provide the ground for knowing what our realities can become.

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Although her work is often surprisingly varied, there is no doubt that when you read a Gwen Harwood poem you enter a highly distinctive poetic world. If it comes from her first twenty-five years of productivity, there is a good chance that you will be in a landscape of psychic melodrama. Everything will be liminal. The setting will be a sunset, the late sun will be flaring a dangerous gold on some intertidal stretch, the protagonist will have awoken from a menacing dream or, pace Kröte, be moving backwards and forwards across the threshold of one. The history of her poetry may be the way this scene increases in intensity as the voices that communicate in dreams increasingly come from figures in Harwood’s own past.

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Many see John Tranter as an important, if slightly peripheral, figure in contemporary Australian poetry. He is well known for his long involvement in the Sydney poetry scene, as well as for his role as an editor, particularly for his editing, with Philip Mead, of the Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry (1991) and, more recently, of the internet poetry journal Jacket.

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Producing a new Selected Poems is always an opportunity for poets to re-evaluate the shape of the history of their work, just as it gives readers another extended exposure to the poems themselves. In the case of Robert Adamson, Mulberry Leaves: New and aelected poems, 1970–2001 is not the first opportunity: there are two earlier Selecteds. The first (Angus & Robertson, 1978) was probably too early and, instead of selecting, rewrites and reorders, so that all Adamson’s work seems to be directed to Cross the Border, surely his least successful book. The second (UQP, 1990) is a much more formidable volume and an extensive enough collection to adequately represent the things going on in the first twenty years of the career.

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What is the comparative of prolific? John Kinsella, in this latest extension of his ‘counter-pastoral’ project, manages a tricky balancing act between the extreme givens of the bush and the fashions of art gallery and English Department. A belligerent posturing is implicit in Kinsella’s term, while there is only so far a poet can be anti-Georgics or extra-Georgics or post-Georgics before the game becomes exhausted or obvious. Nevertheless, ‘counter-pastoral’ is an extended essay that takes the pastoral concerns and illusoriness of ancient and eighteenth-century Europe and tests them against our own realities: environmental degradation, both random and systematic destruction of nature by humans, and a seeming indifference on the part of many Australians to doing anything about them.

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Martin Harrison reviews 'Blackout' by John Tranter

Martin Harrison
Sunday, 01 October 2000

Blackout is a poem written (deliberately, I think) in transition – or even perhaps in transit. Structured such that it lacks a singular, personal voice, it could be read as a response to the question: What is a poem in the era of digital media? Or more particularly, more precisely –Where does such a poem start? What’s its language, how does it end? Blackout, for example, is left unfinished: after the ninth section it just breaks off with a colophon indicating that there could be more words one day, or perhaps not. It’s left unfinished too in the sense of being a work which never resolves into a coherent narrative or even a coherent thought-structure. The polyphony of the text is left jagged and juxtapositional, much in the manner of block music. Or more likely in the manner of a downloaded text where many voices have criss-crossed in a many-timed, interactive way.

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David McCooey reviews 'The Kangaroo Farm' by Martin Harrison

David McCooey
Sunday, 01 February 1998

Martin Harrison’s attentive poetry must be read attentively: the snaking semi narratives move through the landscape as rivers finding their way. The tonal shifts and mixed modes are fundamental to this collection’s many middle-sized poems that are often (even more than in his previous book, The Distribution of Voice) both verse essay and lyric, as Kevin Hart has noted. Not that all this in itself makes for good poetry; there are times when the verbal constructions are a little too odd, a little too free with metaphorical bravura. Why is it that ‘The gift of tongues and sight is platypus’? Other poems play with their referents like a fisher with a fish. Even syntactically straightforward similes such as ‘Mirrored clouds spike themselves with sharp, green shoots / in paddies marked out like holding tanks or Versailles’ lakes’ take a bit of thinking over.

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The publisher’s promotional material which was included with the review copy of Philip Salom’s new poetry collection, The Rome Air Naked, indicated the book would be launched ‘with an innovative exhibition which will use computer technology to extend the written work into an aural, visual and multimedia presentation’. After reading the author’s introduction and then dipping into the poems for the first time, I only wished I could be there, to listen to, and participate in, the promised performance which will combine visual image and sound, animating the poetry, allowing it to breathe off the printed page, to dance freely in space.

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Peter Steele reviews 'Crete' by Dorothy Porter

Peter Steele
Monday, 01 April 1996

‘Byron!’, said Max Beerbohm ‘– he would be all forgotten today if he had lived to be a florid old gentleman with iron-grey whiskers, writing very long, very able letters to The Times about the Repeal of the Com Laws.’ As we know, things turned out otherwise, and Byron lives on, in the hallowed phrase, as flash as a rat with a gold tooth.

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Jenny Digby reviews 'The Monkey’s Mask' by Dorothy Porter

Jenny Digby
Saturday, 01 October 1994

Dorothy Porter has been called an audacious poet. She has been called a sexy read. Doug Anderson described her as ‘One of our most exuberant and perceptive purveyors of passion.’ With the publication of her latest book, The Monkey’s Mask, Porter’s reputation stands firm.

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