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Review – The Best Australian Poems 2009 | Black Inc.

Best of Australian Poems 2009Reading 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.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Tara Mokhtari is a Persian-Australian poet and screenwriter based in New York. She is the author of The Bloomsbury Introduction to Creative Writing and Anxiety Soup.

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  1. Tara, I really appreciate your honest review. Although I can’t comment on the anthology because I haven’t yet read it, I have to say I get quite frustrated when anthologies are called ‘the best australian poems’ or the ‘best australian stories’. What they really should be called is the ‘the best australian poems acording to the editor’, because really, that’s what it’s all about. It’s about the editors taste, and throwing in a few well-known names to help promote the book.

  2. I enjoyed this book a great deal. There are some valid points made in this review, Tara, but this silly tit for tat between the two sides in Australian Literary publishing is becoming so childish and obvious it is embarrassing. It is also doing untold damage to Australian Literature. I look forward to a time when an Overland review of a Morrie Schwartz or Black Inc book recieves a fair and balanced positive review in Overland and a MUP publication recieves one in The Monthly. Both sides need to stop firing bullets at each other and behave like grownups. It is Australian literature that is suffering and in particular Australian writers.

  3. Great review Tara. I totally agree, I have copies of both Best Australian Poems and Best Australian Poetry, one I have read and one I have only started to read, I don’t know which is which as they are both the same.

    It appears obligatory to introduce an anthology by claiming that it is dangerous and cutting edge, I’ve found more danger in a Scooby Doo episode, I’ve been more intrigued wondering how Velma will get her glasses back.

    Years after Bukowski the only reference made to him by these stuffy, dusty, pretentious ‘intellectuals’ is to write that only Bukowski could pull off that style of writing and that we don’t need any more imitators. Give us more poems about birds and water, or go to extremes and write about water birds, but don’t try to copy Bukowski’s style, after all it was vernacular and who the fuck writes in the vernacular.

    My own poetic licence is due to expire soon and I don’t think I’ll be renewing it. I have read so much contemporary crap, either in these anthologies, or poetry magazines, all stuck in the same staid formula or, as you say, with too much lower case, &’s and (((parenthesis))) that I fear I am losing my mind. Yet, in darkened corners of the blogosphere are some of the best poets around, but you won’t read them anywhere other than a personal blog because they are too intimidated to submit their work lest a shrivelled up professor of 18th century literature tells them that it is no good.

  4. Tara, please keep analysing, go deeper, because much of what you are saying is the great unsaid in Australian poetry at the moment. This is a time when radical has become staid, but the staid is tenured – we can’t seem to get rid of it – in fact, with the world of creative writing courses and their tie-in journals (which enable a ‘publishing history’ to be generated for participants), we’re institutionalising such writing for the foreseeable future. The students in these courses know the right kind of writing that will get them in…to a tenured position down the track.

    There are so many cliches in poetry right now. If I read again of the ‘beat of an angel’s wings’ or a derivation there of, I am going to have to become a stockbroker. I can’t stand lower case in poems. I can’t stand the way we have become trapped in seemingly free verse, long sentence couplets. What an irony. Why are we sticking to such forms whether they impact on the poem or not? Why are we hiding behind convention? Why do all the poems look the same? Why is our poetry saying nothing?

    The problems go on: why are many journals of poetry truly terrible? Has anyone noticed the proliferation of the navel-gazing “I” who – ironically – gives nothing of himself and who, geez, I can’t give a hoot about anyway?

    This isn’t poetry, this is whimpering. While normally fearful of mob rule, something in me wants to take modern Australian poetry to the next Federal election as a candidate to see what happens, because much of this activity is publicly funded…

  5. Very much appreciate your honest review, Tara. I too despair at the conservatism of Australian poetry as displayed through anthologies like these, where there is a meekness of spirit and intellect, and a limp gesture towards “radical” forms that were passe two or three decades ago. Of course, Australian poetry is not alone in suffering these problems, but the self-congratulations that passes for editorial comment in such anthologies is sorely misplaced. Most of our poets are, sadly, very far from world-class.

  6. I should probably clarify that I AM a Creative Writing PhD Candidate, I teach C.W at VU as well. I see a great deal of value in a creative writing degree. I also love research and textual analysis.

    I’m not exactly sure which tit for tat argument it is I’ve suddenly engaged myself in, because other than “that blog” Pam Brown wrote last year, nobody’s really said anything argumentative about Aussie poetry in a long while.

    I feel strongly that saying what we really think about what’s being published is the only thing that will revive our poetry scene. I get tired of poetry editors pandering to the Best-Of trends when the Best-Ofs are looking to the poetry editors to find out what’s fresh anyway… It makes no sense to me.

    Not many journals actually integrate their poetry sections with the other material they publish, there’s a feeling that not many people even read the poetry sections and that they’re kind of there because they have to be. And the prize at the end is a tally of how many poems each journal got in this year’s Best-Of. How insipid is that?

    Nobody (including my lazy self) is instigating a poetry collection that actually has direction/purpose or a manifesto attached to it that shows the poets involved are writing with intention rather than being complacent or surrendering to what is deemed publishable. This would make things interesting again, this would inspire reactionary collections, this would spark conversation and debate.

  7. hey tara,

    happy to see any review of poetry get an outing.
    not sure that i agree with you and as this was my first year being included in any ‘best of’ thought that you might have forgotten to fully embrace one aspect of any publication containing a disparate grouping of poets – that aspect being the editor’s take.
    you know, selection of work for journals, awards, anthologies is based on one person (sometimes two or three for awards) subjectively viewing the work available and deciding very subjectively what works for them.

    it seems that bob is getting the gig again for black inc, so something must be working for them, maybe sales are up.

    i’m all for risk taking,(have a read of my selections for the latest issue of foam:e and decide for yourself) – but if it is poetry under selection, than it had better impact like poetry when ‘whoever’ is selecting it. i’m also a fan of the notion of a broad church for poetry. having done some years of hard time as a judge in a regional open poetry award, it was always only the ten or so poems that had an impact when first reading that ended up still on the pile at the end…some of them were traditional, some not, but they were all really the best of the bunch. at the end of the day, subjective reality wins out. did i long for the ‘great’ poems to be in the pile, did i wish the next martin johnston was in the pile, yeah – but the pile, that’s what is there to select from – so tara, show me the money luv, put together a fantastic anthology and get it published and then sell it to me, please…

    and yes, i do think that poetry selection for awards and other things deemed relevant in oz poetry is still leaning towards the conservative but it has always been that way.

    i just keep reading and writing and i hope to do justice to my own work, i’m not trying to change the world with poetry, just making my art.

  8. Nice review, I’m interested to hear any more thoughts (not having read the 2009 anthologies yet) on why people think the ocean ‘&’ nature based thematics are A) present and B) a concern? Is it simply too much of them? Or not enough of something else?

    And I’d also like to pose the question whether new or contemporary poetry (whatever that may be) is ‘the best’ and does something old, or even passe, automatically fail to qualify as worthy writing?

    And how many years has it been since major publishers were involved with consistent innovation anyway, I think we need to, and often do, look elsewhere, to the small presses

  9. Yeah, what Louise said.

    Plus, nothing wrong with water and birds. The ABC POOL is currently doing a birdlands and river project (poetry and stories). These are themes that humans relate to for obvious reasons. Good poetry is good poetry, it doesn’t need to be experimental in form. If it is read aloud the paper format is irrelevant anyway. Communication is key.

    • There’s nothing wrong birds and water to break up a much more dynamic selection of poems, to break tension. There’s SO MUCH MORE going on in the world it seems neglectful, complacent, and passionless to focus a Best Of antho on birds. A bird antho, sure, why not. Not a Best Of antho.

      I almost didn’t hate any of the poems, and I pointed out the ones I consider to be good. I also didn’t say poetry needs to be experimental. In fact, I said a good poem doesn’t draw attention to its form. I’m also pretty sure I said good poetry needs to be communicative.

  10. your review, all for daring make clear what you do and do not like, has received comment. is it productive for you?

    do you really consider /using/ things, like birds for example, as inspiration for your poems? isn’t a source of inspiration beyond your control? anything can inspire you, try letting yourself, it might be liberating.

    what kind of work might you include in best un-australian poems? can’t a poem work without being australian or un-australian? just a poem?

    and isn’t /best/ just as good as any other word? poet waller is right to comment that it is always at the [subjective] discretion of editor adamson, who happens to include birds in the title of one of his books, even. it’s a useful word for something which is more like a competition than a lucky dip – poets send work and hope it gets chosen. best? australian? un-australian? give me poems.

    how is alphabetical order a cop-out? have you yet drafted a more suitable contents page?

    thank you for being brave enough to make explicit your preferences. you would not expect everyone to share your opinion. exchange can be productive. what comes across in your review – for any number of reasons – is the seedlings of a chain reaction leading to something like a flailing of the arms. read widely, read anything, relax, beware inspiration.

    is it conservative to write about nature [sometimes, maybe], everyday life [i am convinced to have seen it in the work of card carrying experimentalists] and australian quirkiness [can’t this be found both in the gutter and on a silver platter]? can’t outlandish themes be treated conservatively? please, more rigour!

    punctuation is not going to make a poem better or worse or increase its chances of publication, surely. there is quality anywhere. and perhaps somewhere in australia right now there is a poet whose rhyming couplets and quatrains would make a mockery of and even surpass today’s innovative experimentalists. possible. is this nation still so young that pigeon-holing is rife [.][?]

    • oh my, far / too / many questions there for me to answer on my own. perhaps others can [share their thoughts]?

      As for your first question, yes, I find it very productive to kick off a conversation like this!

    • Ok, let me try…

      Yes, all my poems are considered. I generally write in my head 8 different ways for days or weeks at a time before it goes down on paper. Often I make myself write about something that isn’t naturally inspiring because I feel strongly that it needs a voice. I get my students to start every class with stream-of-consciousness writing, because it’s a great filter for all the “stuff” your brain. The poems I write that are flat out inspiration are my least favourite in the end, because they often seem pointless and indulgent. Without fail, the hardest poems to write are the most rewarding, so, I think an inspiration-consideration combo is the way to go. For me.

      “Best” is the title given to the anthology by Black Inc. “Best” is not ‘as good’ as any other word. It means: Best. And yes, of course it’s at the discernment of the editor, so why not call it “J.A’s favourite poems of 2009”? Well, because it wont sell. If you’re going to prize an annual anthology as the Best-Of, in my opinion, you need to at least balance out the natural bias involved in making such a selection by having a panel of editors from different backgrounds. That’s how competitions work, too.

      Alphabetical order is a cop-out because the presentation of the poems in a deliberate order impacts the reading of the work.

      It is conservative to hardly include any political poetry, for instance. Everyday life is great to write about, but there wasn’t anything from ‘in the gutter’. Also conservative.

      Punctuation makes as much difference to the impact of a poem as using the exact word to deliver your meaning. It’s lazy and careless to assume punctuation doesn’t impact the sound, communication, physicality of a poem. Just ask TTO. I don’t have a problem with alternate usages of punctuation if it’s consistent and there’s an obvious reason for it and it enhances the poem.

  11. Hi Tara,

    I agree with the idea of the having a panel to select the best poems across the year, that’d be very interesting.

    And perhaps an even greater widening of the net ie: sources to draw the ‘best’ work from, though the bigger the panel, and the bigger the net, the bigger the job (maybe not a bad thing at all?)

  12. what if there were a non-obvious reason for punctuation.

    birds write about nature & why shouldn’t australians.

    • Hi Koraly! What would be fascinating, I think, is if the Editors of a wide range of publications (print/online etc) were brought together and presented what they considered to be the ‘best’ work they’d published over the year.

      Imagine the arguments! Or, if all editors were equally grown-up, the discussion. Could result in something amazing. Can’t see it happening, from a financial & personality standpoint, but I thought it an interesting idea

  13. as far as i know the black inc anthology sources from submission as well as elsewhere – so it would be very likely that many submissions were sent in for consideration.

    what is wrong with a process like that?

    i imagine any editor will select the ‘best’ work as they see it – i don’t see why the selection process should be some kind of democratic love in process. why should it?

    reducing subjectivity – so what?, select the nearly the best as being a bit more objective…and what about that is fair or better?

    did anyone who is having this discussion actually send something in for consideration?

    this reminds me of a kids soccer mum (during my years as a soccer mum myself with an ‘a’ team player) who wanted to change the rules because the same boys just kept being selected to play in the ‘a’ games, and her son was not feeling good about it. maybe he needed to find another activity that was more suited to his skills. would soccer be better for having all the kids get to be in the ‘a’ team,
    even if they were not ‘a’ team material, would poetry? who gets to decide?

    i think bob did a really good job, and i am very proud to be in the collection. if that counts for anything.

    • Really? So… You feel you’re in the a-team of Australian poetry, and everyone who didn’t write a poem about water and birds (like you did) should find something else to do with their time?

      I’m not sure you’ve taken my point about the problem with a tiny struggling industry coveting an anthology that is titled “Best”, when it’s actually a reflection of just one editor’s preferences. But your comment sure does exemplify it.

    • Hi Louise, it sure does. Subs direct and from the big journals as well as a few, which I think is an impressive step, online publishing spaces too – Cordite for one I’m fairly sure. But I do think it can look in even more places than that.

      As we all know, I imagine, all editorial process is subjective, that’s the reality. Increasing the amount of subjective editors per anthology may broaden the scope. Or it may muddy things and achieve little, who knows?

  14. Louise, I didn’t submit to the anthology. You can’t possibly agree that it is suitable to call an anthology ‘the best’ when it is based on the editor’s taste? From what I understand of Tara’s review the anthology failed to publish a diverse range of voices and themes, which may be okay if you are producing anthology on these themes, but promoting the anthology as ‘the best in Australia’ is, to me, a misrepresentation of the poetry being written in Australia at present. For example, is there any political poetry in the anthology? Are there poets from different multicultural backgrounds? Those are the sorts of questions I’d be asking. Australia is so much more than birds and water, and this anthology doesn’t sound like it even scratches the surface of what Australian poetry is.

  15. tara, my poem was not about water and birds, but i guess it did have those elements mentioned, one in a title and the other in location…my poem was about a painter missing his son in a wilderness landscape, where he was painting…

    i guess this discussion is apples and oranges innit?

    so yeah, for me in 2009, i made it into bob’s ‘a’ team along with 100 plus other poets and now you want to set up a committee to select, what if that does a worse job.

    i do believe in inclusiveness, which is why, i will mention again that the black inc anthology called ‘best’ calls for submissions each year – how much more inclusive is that. perhaps another editor would draw together other poets, but some of the same poems would surely get selected again, and some of the same poems would be not selected again.

    not everything is subject to political correctness as it operates (or should operate) in elements of social justice – i hear elements of ‘twitter and bisted’ in that call for it to be made about art. as far as i can see, access is the only thing in art that should be politically correct, content surely never has been or will be.

  16. Thanks for this Tara. Seems like you’ve touched a raw nerve or two. The politics of who gets to be the ‘best’ is one that could do with further investigation, and indeed why we need to have a ‘best’ anyway. The analogy that someone drew between a kids soccer team and a poetry anthology was illuminating. One immediately thinks of league tables, strategies for winning and so on, when in fact the reason for the getting together of poets for poetry or children for soccer is something else entirely. Recently, I read a poetry judge’s explanation of her choice for a winner of an Australian poetry competition. After a long peroration about narrative arcs and semantic swerves (one immediately thinks of David Beckham) she said that she chose the winner because it suited her mood that day.
    ‘Shunned poet’ sounds like a good title to me. Especially if you use it ironically. Otherwise your alternative is to be included in the ‘best’,in the first eleven, and be able to congratulate yourself in some way. If you’d been asked would you have accepted? If you had, I’d have had to write this post instead on behalf of shunned poets everywhere.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Stephen.
      Yes, the competitiveness that infiltrates the popular poetic mediums in this country (from Slams to Best-Ofs)in this country is disconcerting to me.
      I have never, nor will I ever submit my own poetry to a Best-Of anthology. If one of my poems was scouted, of course I’d accept any publishing opportunity, but I certainly wouldn’t be able to assume it must be because my poem is The Best.

  17. It’s a courageous thing to do – criticise an anthology such as this especially in the early stages of a career. There’s a club, I guess for everything, but in Australia where the arts are so undervalued and therefore underfunded and the population small, the opportunities to join the club are limited. Perhaps why so few dare be too critical.

    How ironic that Captcha requested the words ‘the silenced’.

  18. we all run the risk of being shunned and unscouted – no kinsella there either, shunned

  19. “There’s SO MUCH MORE going on in the world it seems neglectful, complacent, and passionless to focus a Best Of antho on birds.”

    Hear, hear. Somebody shoot me if I ever write a bird poem.

  20. Trish, funny you should mention that. I’m kind of (pleasantly) shocked this conversation is still alive. It’s not as though I said I hated the publication – I even pointed out things I liked about it. All the other reviews on this book are perfectly polite and encouraging, so I didn’t expect many people to agree with my point of view. I suppose I could have not said what I really think in favour of some laboured pandering to the coveted annual anthology, but I suspect I wouldn’t have had so many emails from folks saying they’re now curious enough to buy the book. Nor would this healthy honest exchange of ideas have occurred. In a round-about way I reckon I’ve been quite supportive!

  21. Trish, the point you’ve made goes to the very heart of the reviews written in Australia. Many reviews are written by newer writers, so does that mean we must sugar-coat them because we’re fearful of burning bridges? You could also take this a step further and say emerging writers should ‘shut-up’ grunt it and bear it, kiss butts of important people in the hope of making it. Well, I guess that’s why me, you and Tara are writing for Overland and not some other sugar-coating publication. 🙂

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