Reading The Best Australian Poems 2009 has proven to be a challenge for this shunned poet. Not only for my belief that somebody in this country needs to initiate a Best Un-Australian Poems annual collection, but also because at least 60 of the 108 poems are about rain, or the sea, or other large bodies of water in motion, and the most overwhelming impact the whole book had on me was the constant need to urinate. Black Inc. should really have titled this year’s book Wateriest Australian Poems.
The other common theme referred to in the introduction is ‘birds’. This alleviates much of the rejection anxiety for poets like this one, who finds birds a bit creepy and would never consider using them as inspiration for a poem.
The usual suspects are in there. π.O.’s ‘Mo McCacky’ makes into both the Black Inc. anthology and UQP’s The Best Australian Poetry 2009. I suspect π.O. is partially to blame for popularising alternate usages of punctuation, but I can’t hold it against him because the sound technique in this poem is so striking: no surprises there. Judith Beveridge, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Clive James, and, of course, Les Murray all hold their usual place in Black Inc.’s poetic heart. It makes me wonder how badly excluding these poets would impact book sales.
In his introduction, editor Robert Adamson writes of Australian poetry soaring to new heights by ignoring fashions and taking risks – an ideal theory to be sure. However, I found little evidence of risk-taking, fashion-unconscious poetry in this anthology. Stylistically, a lush abundance of hyphens accessorise every second or third page of poetry. Long-line couplets are in this season. Rhyme and regular meter are out. And for the young and young-at-heart, ampersands, lowercase (within the poem, for the title, e.e. cummings style), parentheses that are empty or lead nowhere, and exaggerated spacing in place of traditional line-breaks are all the rage.
It all reminds me of that poem by Charles Bukowski, ‘A Note On Modern Poesy’, in which he criticises the poetical fashions of the à la mode poets. I’m surprised that some 20 years later, the business of ampersands and lowercase personal pronouns are still the way to get noticed by Best Of anthologists. The most naturally appropriate of these ampersands poems is Laurie Duggan’s ‘Letter To John Forbes’. Since about a tenth of the poets within the Black Inc. publication use these &s and is, I wondered if they’re all subconsciously writing to Forbes, or spiting Bukowski. I find these poems difficult to digest – the style stopped being avant-garde and experimental around the time text messaging emerged.
All in all, of the established must-have poets, I’m unconvinced that their ‘best’ work of 2009 was selected. I did enjoy Kevin Hart’s ‘Dark Bird’ for its deathliness. I was intrigued by John Tranter’s poetic response to John Ashbery’s ‘Clepsydra’, simply because I love John Ashbery. Fiona Wright’s formal technique is beautiful in her poem ‘Kinglake’. I admired the narrative strength of Abi Cobby Eckermann’s ‘Intervention Payback’.
The presentation of the poets in alphabetical order seemed like an editorial cop-out, although I am relieved the poems were permitted to stand on their own, sans insipid blurbs on what they were meant to be about à la UQP’s The Best Australian Poetry 2009.
The most obvious poet missing-in-action in The Best Australian Poems 2009 for me was Ali Alizadeh (who thankfully was included in the UQP publication). It seems to me that there is not much room for poetry that incites emotionality, controversy, passion, or debate. The selection is largely conservative, with inclusions of much nature poetry, poems on everyday life, and general Australian quirkiness. Which begs the question: what is the ‘best poetry’? Are these poems somehow representative of a blanket ‘Australian’ style, or subject? Is this how Black Inc. justify titling the book The Best Australian Poems? To me, the best poetry is communicative and earth-shattering. It does not draw attention to its form; it uses form to strike directly at the truth of its subject. It is confronting and inspires a reaction.
Herein lies my desire for somebody to initiate a Best Un-Australian Poems anthology. But I’ll leave that for another article.