‘anthologies and the poetic stock market’ | APJ 2.1 (May 2012)

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APj 2.1-001 Rev. of Australian Poetry Since 1788 (2012) | Ed. Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray UNSW Press, 1090 pp.

by Jaya Savige; first published Australian Poetry Journal 2.1 (May 2012) pp. 84-89.

THE VIVID CUT-AWAY illustrations of an unborn child made by the Renaissance professor of anatomy, Julius Casserius of Padua, are said to have held sway over western obstetrics for more than a century. They also happen to have inspired one of the finest ekphrastic poems in Australian literature, A.D. Hope’s “On an Engraving by Casserius”, a 140-line humanist rhapsody on science, art, life and death. “More than all maps made in that century / Which set true bearings for each cape and star,” Hope marvels, “this reaches towards the central mystery / Of whence our being draws and what we are.”

Hope’s poem is one of more than a thousand collected in this azure doorstop of an anthology, edited by two of the elder statesmen of Australian poetry, Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray. This marks the third occasion that Lehmann and Gray have teamed up as editors, after The Younger Australian Poets (1983) and Australian Poetry in the Twentieth-Century (1991), though this is by far their most ambitious project. At nearly 1100 pages and featuring some 170 poets, it should almost come with its own bookrest, sturdy federation-blue spine notwithstanding. As the largest historical survey of Australian poetry to date, it too promises to be more than just another map by which we might “set true bearings for each cape and star” in our poetic firmament, and to reach instead “towards the central mystery / Of whence our being draws and what we are.”

From whence, then does our being draw, and what can be inferred from this anthology about “what we are”? Much is made of Australian poetry’s preoccupation with the landscape and its many species of distinctive humour, and vast swathes of both are found here. But what emerges from this volume as our poetic tradition’s most abiding quality is its deeply compelling elegiac note; the elegy is of course an aspect of all poetic traditions, but is arguably our strongest suit, given so many of our most substantial poems are in this mode. The tradition is epitomised of course by Kenneth Slessor’s “Five Bells”, and includes Judith Wright’s “South of My Days”, John Manifold’s “The Tomb of Lt. John Learmouth, A.I.F”, Vincent Buckley’s imperious “Stroke”perhaps the best “hospital” poem we have – Eric Rolls’ “Four Poems for Joan”, Francis Webb’s “A Death at Winson Green”, Peter Porter’s “An Exequy”, Robert Gray’s “In departing light”, Anthony Lawrence’s “The Law of Bleak Averages”and Jordie Albiston’s “The Fall”, to name some of our indispensable major poems that deal with the myriad permutations of loss and remembrance, each of which reminds us “how sorrows lift and pleasures cauterize” (Gig Ryan, When I consider).

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Hope’s “Casserius” is one of those capacious works that covers such a great deal of intellectual turf that it speaks to myriad strong poems that come later, and it is these sorts of correspondences between poems, within and across generations, that provide further clues as to what endures, and indeed, “what we are”. Thus, at a hop from Hope we are with Gwen Harwood’s “Bone Scan”: “Still in my flesh I see / the God who goes with me, / glowing with radioactive / isotopes”; in a skip, in the same diagnostic-cum-metaphysical vein, we come to Rhyll McMaster’s “The Shell”, a wonderful find, hitherto unpublished: “Her platelets desiccated and curled like dropped contact lenses // But where was her mere self / the intrinsic insubstantial that life ventures?”.

Further thematic confluences abound. Dog lovers, for instance, will be pleased to find, in the last tenth of the anthology alone, Judith Beveridge’s “Dog Divinations”, Philip Hodgins’ “Shooting the Dogs”and “Two Dogs”, Mike Ladd’s “Last Thoughts of a Famous Dog”, Greg McLaren’s “Greyhounds at dusk”, and Petra White’s “Woman and Dog”. Cricket fans will appreciate Thomas E. Spencer’s cricket classic “How McDougal Topped the Score” and Philip Neilsen’s “Les A. Murray versus John Tranter at the Sydney Cricket Ground”. Taken together, however, even these are far outnumbered by poems that concern Europe in some way; Australian poets have never ceased turning for inspiration to those “stories carried here, from the Northern Hemisphere” (as Joseph Furphy put it). Our shifting view of Europe might be charted across generations, from Ada Cambridge’s “A Dream of Venice” to Peter Porter’s “Bad Dreams in Venice”, Dorothy Hewett’s “The Hidden Journey”(set in Stalinist Russia), John Forbes’s “Europe: a guide for Ken Searle”,Ian McBryde’s “Stalingrad Briefing, 1943”, and Jennifer Compton’s “La Romana”, to name but a few. Then there is the diverse array of Australian poets who were in fact born in Europe, Dimitri Tsaloumas, Peter Skryznecki, Alan Gould, Ania Walwicz and the remarkable Alex Skovron among them.

On the other hand, readers may be surprised to discover that, according to the editors, there has not been in our history a single male Aboriginal poet writing in English worthy of inclusion in our poetic canon (not Jack Davis, Kevin Gilbert, Lionel Fogarty or young indigenous poet Samuel Wagan Watson, for instance) – the selection of Aboriginal song cycles translated into English notwithstanding. As Peter Goldsworthy writes in “A Statistician to His Love”, “there is understanding / to be sucked from all such hard / and bony facts”. Neither does our tradition appear to feature any Asian-Australian voices (one might think of Ouyang Yu, profiled last year in Time magazine, Miriam Wei Wei Lo, Adam Aitken or Ali Alizadeh). Perhaps just as notably, there has not been a poet born in Queensland since 1949; yet there have been thirty born in New South Wales and Victoria in that same period. Can that really be the case? One could be forgiven for thinking we were still in the nineteenth century, when it took weeks for the mail to arrive from the deep north (and even then, there were no guarantees). While Europe, cricket and man’s best friend may well feature among the central preoccupations of the Australian poetic tradition, it is at this stage that the reader might twig to the truism that anthologies say just as much about their editors’ formulations “of whence our being draws and what we are” – with all their attendant predelictions and blindspots.

Each of the poets is introduced by a dossier containing biographical essentials, anecdotal colour and critical assessment. These pieces are mostly informative, insightful and entertaining, though at times the criticism bears a hauteur reminiscent of wine connoisseurship: “There is a consistent decency and understatement and imaginative range of sympathies in his work, which is most impressive in its totality”, the editors remark of their contemporary, Geoff Page; “although he has not lost all of his early aggression” they note of another, he “at times glows with an attractive mellowness”. Elsewhere though, the tone is lumpish and garrulous; one can imagine a more sophisticated way of indicating Judith Wright’s abstemiousness, for instance, than by recalling how she once served reheated meat pies to a group of guests (presumably including one of the editors), while remarking “Well, it’s the company that counts, not the food”.

The selection from the nineteenth century is fairly standard, though the editors have put their own stamp on the period, with usual suspects Baron Field and John Dunmore Lang getting the boot in favour of Barnett Levy’s “Botany Bay Courtship”. But although the title of the volume states that the selection dates to 1788, the vast bulk of the anthology, more than 800 pages worth, is taken from the twentieth century, and it is there the interest lies.

From the early twentieth century, it is pleasing to see a generous selection of poems by Lesbia Harford, whose strikingly modern voice rings out like a tine in the first decades of the twentieth century. We climbed that hill, Harford’s discursive account of a stroll with a contrary friend, is a welcome inclusion, one of the first truly reflective, phenomenological poems in our tradition: “I prefer / Inchoate beauty, for my part aver / Plurality essential, am content / To find a gain in difference, in a while / Admit there’s gain in union.” Harford must be considered with Kenneth Slessor as one of our first great modern poets, even if her achievement is not as substantial.

The selection is most heavily weighted towards the “baby boom” generation, with fifty of the poets (just under a third) born in the fifteen years following WWII. Here, our poetic voice diversifies remarkably; Nigel Roberts, a poet born during the war, foreshadows the sort of irrepressible wit and stylistic adventurism that was to come. Attentive readers will recognise in the dense argot of late twentieth century suburban Melbourne captured by π.o. (Pi-O) (“Eye finish wit / da Hhorses — tha gamboling / ROO-in mi!”) the echoes of the vernacular in C.J. Dennis’ classic A Sentimental Bloke (“‘Wot’s in a name?’ she sez. ’Struth, I dunno. / Billo is just as good as Romeo”). And speaking of Romeo, John Forbes’ “Love Poem”, set before a TV during the first Gulf War, might just be our best love poem since Wright’s “The Company of Lovers”.

There is such an abundance of poetic nourishment here that one can return to it as to a watering hole for months, probably years, and be sustained. Of this there is no question. But while the book’s sheer heft is one of its strengths, it is also the cause of its major weakness. Blessed with the kind of space befitting an anthology of English poetry since Chaucer, Lehmann and Grey seem to have fallen into the trap of the all-you-can-eat buffet: having generously and enthusiastically over-heaped the reader’s plate with their favourite recommendations, they have prevented her from sampling a great many of the other true delights the Australian poetry smorgasbord has to offer.

There is surely no need, for instance, to gorge on fourteen poems by the hobbyist of “naïve” verse known as “Bellerive” (Joseph Tishler), or sixteen poems by the ‘Jindyworoback’ Roland Robinson, only to leave no room whatsoever for poets of the calibre of, say, Rodney Hall (whose poems, in the words of Gwen Harwood “hold us at once with the force of music”), Thomas Shapcott or Michael Dransfield. It would have been nice to have seen Samuel Wagan Watson, or the majorly talented Sarah Holland-Batt, to name two of our best younger poets not included (both from Queensland). This to name a mere five of the scores of truly deserving poets not represented here. Such oscillation between overabundance and stinginess reveals the extent to which Lehmann and Grey remain welded to their prejudices (most of which will remain a mystery to those uninitiated in the political skirmishes – poetic “bloodsport” as David McCooey has called it – of decades past), and as prone to blindspots, as any anthologist – despite their claims of objectivity in their general introduction (which at fewer than two full pages is pointedly brief for a project of this size).

That the editors have been unable to rise above the fray of personal and politically-minded prejudice belies their appeal to impartiality, and is a shame. This reader found himself yearning for the frankness of David Campbell’s introduction to Modern Australian Poetry (1970), which nipped the problem in the bud in memorable fashion: “In this book, in the way of an early Governor, I have made large grants to my favourite poets. This has […] led no doubt to injustices. Time and the reviews are sure to prove me wrong.”

Something of the restraint shown by Les Murray, in The New Oxford Book of Australian Verse (1986), would have done this anthology wonders. Murray frugally opted to limit each poet’s swag to three poems each, to avoid what he called “the recent preoccupation with grading and weighting the representation of individual poets in accordance with some idea of relative importance”. Murray’s shrewdness revealed a deeper understanding of the editor’s responsibilities than is shown here. Anthologies are by definition samplers. As the critic Martin Duwell has noted, they are for most of us “the first place where we meet the poems that become important to us throughout our lives”. If a reader enjoys a particular poet on offer, she will then seek out more of that poet’s work.

In stark contrast to the Oxford anthology, this one stands as the ultimate “grading and weighting” exercise in Australian poetry of recent years. Lehmann is a prominent Sydney tax counsel, and there is a discernable whiff of accountancy among these pages. As such it inevitably makes certain claims about the respective importance of our poets, implied by the real estate allotted to their work. According to the editors, then, our most significant poets are Les Murray and Kenneth Slessor (who each occupy twenty pages or more), followed by one of the editors, Robert Gray (19), then the other, Geoffrey Lehmann who with Gwen Harwood (16) round out our top five poets (each of the editors occupying far more space than Judith Wright or Peter Porter). Welcome to the wild ride of the poetic stockmarket, where some stocks are over- and others undervalued. The debate among poetry readers as to which is which is sure to continue long into the night.

Of course, while anthologies are important repositories, and can even be the arks without which some deserving works wouldn’t survive, the arm of posterity will not be bent. Readers of the future will determine what endures, and for reasons entirely their own. Books like these are inevitably bound to their historical occasion and bear their editors’ personal stamp, however objective they aim or claim to be; as such, they are paradoxically prevented from fulfilling their ostensible promise as arbiters of future literary esteem. That is a matter for unborn children. Or, as Hope puts it in “On an Engraving by Casserius”:

…old certainties that lit our way

Shrink to poor guesses, dwindle to a myth.

Today’s truths teach us how we were beguiled;

Tomorrow’s how blind our vision of today.

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