Some months ago I wrote a brief critical review of Black Inc.’s Best Australian poems. Remember – the post that was met with a surprising amount of confusion, discussion etc? Well I left writing this follow-up review of the rival The Best Australian Poetry 2009, edited by Alan Wearne, published by UQP, so long, the 2010 editions must be due out pretty soon. My main points about the Black Inc. anthology were essentially as follows:
1. Let’s not patronise our poets by marketing anthologies as ‘Best Australian’ poesy when: (a) it’s compiled at the discretion of one subjective editor – in last year’s case for Black Inc. that subject was ‘nature’, more specifically ‘birds and water’ as I put it; and (b) there’s no accompanying manifesto defining what ‘good’ poetry is, let alone what the ‘best’ poetry is.
2. The subjectiveness of ‘best’ aside, what does the anthology define ‘Australian’ to be? In the case of Black Inc.’s 2009 collection, are we to take ‘Australian’ to mean specifically the landscape of the Australian country? Isn’t that rather limiting insofar as everything poetry is capable of doing? What about the culture of Australian cities? What about the migrant experience (excuse the cliche)? What about poverty, politics, drugs, sex and rock’n’roll (and this cliche)? Are all these things not to be included in an anthology marketed and coveted as a collection of the Best Australian Poems? Or are these things un-Australian? If so, give me the Best un-Australian Poems any day.
I know these collections are widely valued and accepted, as are Best Australian Essays and Best Australian Stories etc. I didn’t know how unpopular my criticism of marketing books this way would be before I wrote that last review. The trouble is, given the relative unpopularity of poetry, for many readers, this is the one and only collection of poetry they will buy all year, so either it needs to live up to its reputation, or something needs to change. My arguments against the Black Inc. anthology, as I wrote in my initial review, and as I’ve summarised here, may seem cosmetic or semantic at first glance, but the implications – that all the poetry on blogs, websites, in journals and wherever else, is being summed up and presented to Australian readers in such a superficial way – might just be worth talking about.
But this is meant to be a follow up review of UQP’s Best Australian Poetry, not a re-rant.
So, remember how I said that the most obvious poet MIA in the Black Inc. anthology was Ali Alizadeh? Well imagine my delight at opening up UQP’s Best Australian Poetry to find that, because it’s arranged in alphabetical order, editor of Black Inc.’s BAP 2009 Robert Adamson was first off the bat with his ‘Brush Turkey in the Cold Room’, and it’s directly followed by Ali Alizadeh’s ‘The Suspect’.
My favourite section of Adamson’s poem is the third stanza:
he’s a classic cast the net on the other side
sort of bloke – he shovels flakes of ice
into his catch, then lights up a rollie, at 50
he’s still strong as a White Ox – ‘We spend our life
waiting – lines, fish, love, and money andin no order,
whatever comes up first’ – he repeats every time he drinks
Water? Check. Bird? Check. The gruff protagonist, Dutch, is painted beautifully here as is the setting of the Fisherman’s Co-op in the first and final stanzas. Never mind those pesky Imagists who said a poem should not attempt to paint a picture (because a painter can do a much better job). The universality of Dutch’s sentiment in the section above instils a sense of knowing and inclusiveness. Even if you’ve never been fishing, you get his meaning. All in all, an enjoyable read that left a little lingering smile on my face.
But I wasn’t smiling for long. There, in the sunshine of a South Melbourne cafe window, over my espresso, from Alizadeh’s opening couplets:
Over there, in the Other land, I was
gharb-zadeh, Farsi to the effect of west-
smitten. Over here, in ‘Our’ land, I am
Muslim immigrant, nomenclature with grave
allusions: unemployment, anger, and
unpredictable police attention. Over there
I was an ‘apostate’, principal’s term for
the boy who failed Koran studies and wrote
an essay on Leonardo da Vinci. Over here
dainty high school girl rejected this thick
accented adolescent for being too hairy
and a ‘Muslim rapist’. Over there utterly guilty …
Not only is my smile long-gone, tears are already streaming and my heart aches. I get to the end and I’m fully immersed in this poem.
When I come ‘round and remember my coffee and the sunshine, I’m thinking: I just read a Best Australian poem. This is what good poetry should do. Emily Dickinson said that poetry should ‘take the top of your head off’, and that exactly what Alizadeh’s poem did to me.
Is my view of what makes good poetry subjective? Yes. Does all poetry have to shake you up somehow? Many would argue against this. But I have to wonder why we tend to hold poetry to such a low standard. We’re very frank about which music we love and hate. We can identify what makes a book good or bad. But when a 600-word review on a collection of poems that was largely unsatisfying to the reviewer emerges – shock! Horror!
But I digress. Although I’m an Iranian-Australian, my personal experience is very different from the one communicated in Alizadeh’s ‘The Suspect’. What affected me were the formal techniques like the enjambment between couplets leading the reader between Eastern and Western cultures, the sound techniques evoking the sense of being subjected to hatred, and the impactful vernacular borrowed from newspaper headlines such as ‘Muslim Rapist’. I felt every word. The Imagists also talked about achieving an emotional, intellectual and intuitive complex simultaneously through poetry – ‘The Suspect’ does just that.
And what of the rest of UQP’s Best Australian Poems 2009? It is, compared to Black Inc.’s 2009 anthology, a much more balanced collection of diverse subjects, themes and classic and contemporary poetic forms.
The inclusion of haiku sets, one about a youthful first date at a show by Graham Nunn entitled ‘Haiku’, and the other a tribute to Matsuo Basho by Rosemary Dobson entitled ‘Poems a Long Way after Basho’. The self-conscious titling of these poems intrigued me. I believe that haiku is the sashimi of poetic formality. It’s a delicacy, it’s raw and it’s perfectly satisfying. The traditional seventeen on (loosely translated as syllable in English), the cutting word and the nature reference combine to achieve that intellectual/intuitive complex that inspired Imagists like Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell. It’s always interesting to read contemporary interpretations of the haiku form. Dobson tends towards very long lines and broad themes, such as the line ‘Old, I strive for wisdom’, which opens her second sonnet. Contrastingly, Nunn opts for very short lines and enjambment: ‘letting my tongue / deeper into / the strawberry sundae.’ Although I remain unsure as to why the haiku necessarily seems like the best choice for many contemporary poets, they inspired me to pull out my battered copy of Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, and for that I am grateful.
On the contemporary side of things, a natural favourite for me was Kate Lilley’s ‘Pet’, a short free-verse narrative about a strikingly passive student’s lesbian affair with her seductively crazy teacher. ‘When I stop having sex with her / she calls me a bourgeois bitch and joins a gun club’. I adore how much characterisation and situational nuance is crammed into this literal description of cause and effect. I also admired Sarah French’s evocative verses on childhood, orphanage dynamics, trauma and the abundant resilience of the speaker in her poem ‘Wards of the State of Western Australia’. Geoffrey Lehemann’s ‘Travels in Peru’ spans sixteen pages of sensual narrative in 25 parts. The poem reads like a chapter of a larger verse novel, the observant speaker characterised by moments of utter vulnerability and exhaustion.
Although there are a few expected overlaps of poets included in both UQP’s The Best Australian Poetry 2009 and Black Inc.’s equivalent, UQP’s editor Alan Wearne has selected poems I believe may be less commercially appealing easy-reads, but which seem to be fairly representative of topics and issues concerning poets in Australia. Although the premise is the same for both publications, and that premise has some detrimental effects on Australian poetry, this Best Australian Poetry is overall a more courageous and genuine collection, according to this (‘shunned’ … go on, quote me literally, let my joke discredit my argument, you know you want to) poet.