Poetry

The prospect of reviewing a ‘Survival Manual for Live Poets’ was daunting enough, but became positively intimidating when I came across its author’s views on critics. Critics, he says, are like leeches and there’s only one way to deal with leeches: ‘take a small stick and insert it into the ... anus of the leech, pulling the leech back over the stick like a condom, impaling it, inside-out, like a shiskabab, ready to heat’.

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Collected Poems by Charles Buckmaster

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August 1989, no. 113

All poets have two chances of being remembered. A few, the strongest of their age, compose a handful of poems that resist time and indifference. Many more never attain anything like poetic strength, yet their works are preserved because they embody a particular style or period. It is still too early to judge where Charles Buckmaster will be placed in the ranks of Australian literature. Already, though, the process of canonisation has started, and at the very least Buckmaster is likely to be read as an exemplary figure of Australian poetry in the 1960s.

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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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The presence of the Irish ambassador and the muscatel was accounted for by the first theme of the week, which was that of W.B. Yeats and his influence. It is not surprising that a great many Celtic accents could be heard off stage as well as on. Indeed, the previous night saw a private dinner held by the W.B. Yeats Society of W.A. (one of only four Yeats societies in the world) whose only club rule seemed to be that some of Yeats’s poems should be read and suitably appreciated.

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In the The Automatic Oracle, Peter Porter’s second book since his Collected Poems (1983), this writer is at the height of his powers as a versatile, intelligent, and provocative voice of our times. He is a resistance fighter against false prophecies by disc jockeys, bureaucrats, businessmen, lawyers, academics, politicians and others. Such utterances must be scrutinised or ridiculed because they muddy the language itself, the sources of all oracular wisdom and the hero of this book.

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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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Australian Women Poets edited by Susan Hampton and Kate Llewellyn

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September 1986, no. 84

In a paper entitled ‘Anthologies and Orthodoxies’ given recently at the Australian Literature Conference in Townsville, Jennifer Strauss, herself a poet as well as an academic, analysed the contents of six recent poetry anthologies, including this new Penguin collection. She came up with the same revealing statistics as editors Susan Hampton and Kate Llewellyn had discovered from a larger sample of fifteen collections: the average of female authors represented was only seventeen per cent. Obviously one of the orthodoxies enshrined in anthologies is in need of critical scrutiny if we are. unwilling to accept the implication that there are either fewer or less talented women writing poetry than there are men.

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This book can read at times as though it were Les Murray’s revenge on Australian poetry. Of course, no anthology will please all of the people all of the time, but this one does not so much seem to represent any consistent view of what significant poems have been written in this country as Murray’s own projections about the kinds of poetry which ought to have been written here. The New Oxford Book of Australian Verse is quirky and opinionated, very ambitious in the ground it wants to cover, and yet ultimately hamstrung in its assemblage. It amounts to a quixotic attempt to see Australian poetry as a massively unified body of work, and Murray has played fast and loose with the material that was before him in order to reveal this unity.

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The Amorous Cannibal by Chris Wallace-Crabbe

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May 1986, no. 80

As artists get older, they are supposed to mature, and commentators begin to look for the demarcations of their three periods, a nice bequest from Beethoven. One vitiating side effect of this is to misplace freshness in their art. Judging the vital middle period works, and bowing before the sublimity of the late, the critic bestows a nostalgic glance over his shoulder to the early output – ah, what freshness, what morning glory there! It may be true of Beethoven, but the experience of most of us lesser creatures is more often the opposite. We start a bit grey and elderly: only later, after much experience, do we throw off ponderousness, embrace wit and light-spiritedness and appear verdant for the public gaze. I hope Chris Wallace-Crabbe will not object to my including him in this (to me) honourable company: those who write, after thirty years on the job, with twice the élan they had at the beginning.

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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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