Poetry: Australian Poetry Since 1788

Australian Poetry Since 1788
Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray (eds)
UNSW Press

That my previous review for Overland received a number of rather vehement comments, some bordering on insulting, is rather perplexing. This was, after all, a mostly considered and cautious (albeit partially critical) review of what I found to be a basically adequate, if not brilliant, publication. I am therefore already bracing myself for the sort of commentary that I’ll probably be receiving for what will be the harshest and least pleasant review I’ve yet written.

Why set out to be so unforgiving about what is, ultimately, just an anthology, i.e. a subjective selection made by two mere, imperfect mortals? Since anthologies reflect, as is commonly assumed, the tastes of individual anthologists, shouldn’t one respect these anthologists’ freedom to make their selections according to their tastes and leave it at that? In an age when just about everyone with any literary ambition has edited an anthology of their own – including this reviewer – wouldn’t it be best to simply publish one’s own anthology, comprising one’s own favourite works, instead of criticising another’s selection? Furthermore, isn’t it rather predictable that a writer excluded from an anthology – as is the case here – should go on to write a damning review of that very anthology?

These questions and the like have prevented me from reviewing Australian Poetry Since 1788 (or any other anthology, for that matter) until now. But the obnoxiously grovelling tone of some of the critical responses (eg this review by John Clare or this one by Peter Pierce) to what is, very clearly, the most conservative and narrow-minded anthology of Australian poetry in my living memory have compelled me to forgo my reservations and add my voice to the few, such as Overland Poetry Editor Peter Minter and poet John Tranter, who have felt it necessary to question the validity of this publication.

Australian Poetry Since 1788 is not only a collection of some of the more timid and uninteresting poetry produced in this country since British invasion, it also propagates ideological notions that are comprehensively trite and reactionary; and the fact that so many of our progressive poets and cultural commentators have desisted from critiquing this book, with some even endorsing it, is disheartening. Is it disappointing, for example, that a sincere champion of centre-leftist values and Green politics such as Philip Adams has had no problem featuring this anthology on his ABC Radio National program and praising its editors, one of whom is the co-author of this piece of Global Warming scepticism in the Rightwing journal Quadrant. Furthermore, why has it been of no concern to Adams, as a defender of the rights and dignity of Indigenous Australians, that this anthology has unapologetically excluded our Indigenous poetic heritage by concerning itself only with Australian poetry ‘since 1788,’ and by admitting only two modern Aboriginal poets among its 170 writers?

I shall return to politics later, and would first like to focus on the anthology’s aesthetic and literary attributes. The editors’ – rather predictable conservative aesthetes’ – introductory claim that their selection was made ‘objectively’ according to the works’ ‘use of techniques of poetry’ is easily repudiated by the many, many pages of frankly terrible poetry – some indistinguishable from doggerel – included in the book, some by authors whose work elsewhere is generally of a higher standard than what is presented in Australian Poetry Since 1788. John Shaw Neilson, for example, is rightfully seen as one of Australia’s major Federation period poets; but the selection of his work presented in this anthology, including the following, frankly pointless limerick, leaves a lot to be desired:

A charming young lady named Brewster
Trimmed her hat with the head of a rooster.
When they asked, Can it crow?
She smiled and said, No –
It can’t do that now, but it used to.

Whether or not successful as trivial light verse, this poem is not an exemplar of the editors’ much-vaunted ‘use of techniques of poetry’ – among other things, rhyming ‘Brewster’ with ‘rooster’ is rather lazy as the former is simply the latter plus letter B, and hardly the sign of a virtuosic aesthetics. Nor is there much that can be praised about the awkwardly handled simile in the last stanza of Vivian Smith’s ‘Tasmania’. One would’ve expected that our editors, the self-identified connoisseurs of classical prosody that they are, would have desisted from including a poem in which ‘the hills [are] breathing like a horse’s flank’.

The association between hills and a horse’s flank is semantically very weak – one does not ride, breed or race a hill; hills don’t canter, trot or gallop; they don’t have manes or fetlocks, etc – and visually clumsy and unintentionally absurd. (One could safely assume that absurdism was not a poetics practiced by the poem’s author and conservative Quadrant literary editor.) The situation gets more problematic in the poem’s next line in which the assimilated ‘horse’s flank’ (standing in, however incredibly, for ‘hills’) is said to have ‘grasses combed and [is] clean of the last snow’. I am no expert in anything remotely equestrian, but might I enquire if horses do indeed grow grass on their hide while standing still long enough for snow to cover them?

Things don’t improve when our editors decide to present the work of more recent Australian poets. Jamie Grant’s ‘Getting a Girl into Bed’ is yet another unfunny attempt at light verse, one with an abundantly inappropriate, and inappropriately sexualised and sexist, conceit – correlating a parent’s undressing of their child before bath and bed to ‘any Lothario / struggling to undress a girl / with her contrivance / (disguised as coy resistance)’ – a comparison which collapses as a result of a rather obvious logical fallacy in the poem’s second stanza:

It was easier for Don Juan
to get a girl into bed
putting false ideas in her head
than to cross the bear-strewn,
doll-and-toy-cluttered path

to lure a child to sleep

Yes, it was easy for Don Juan to seduce women; in fact that’s the very thing he’s famous for. If the logic of this conceit is to be followed, and since it was very easy for Don Juan to seduce women, then it would follow that it would be relatively easy for a parent to lure their child to sleep – which is precisely what the poem is arguing against in its first stanza. Such a blatant mistake in ‘use of the techniques of poetry’ – not to mention distasteful (and hopefully inadvertent) erotic connotations in a poem about children – would or at least should be unacceptable in any undergraduate poetry workshop, let alone in an anthology that prides itself in bearing, according to its editors’ lofty introduction, ‘the marks of poetry’.

So if this anthology mostly fails in exhibiting Australian poets’ masterful ‘use of technique’– or, more precisely, its editors are not quite up to the task of locating sufficient examples of Australian poetry that display such a mastery, which is a shame, considering that so much Australian poetry is in fact quite brilliant – then what precisely is the raison d’être of this 1090 page-long tome? Although, as is to be expected in an anthology of such size, a number of good poems have accidentally slipped past the editors into publication – such as Lesbia Harford’s ‘Machinist Talking’ or her ‘Periodicity’, Kate Jennings’ ‘Assassin’, Gig Ryan’s ‘Heroic Money,’ etc – the bulk of the book is so literarily ineffective and badly written that it can’t but harm the conventional traditionalist argument apropos of the value of form over content.

It is precisely due to the formal weaknesses of many of the poems included in Australian Poetry Since 1788 that one has no choice but to pay attention to and interrogate the book’s content. And it is here that the editors reveal themselves as ultra-conservative ideologues as well as inept arbiters of literary worth and poetic quality. Lehmann and Gray’s selections and omissions are so obviously driven by an anti-progressive agenda that, once again, the fact that so few commentators of the Left have taken issue with this anthology is regrettable.

As mentioned before, the editors’ poor selection of work by some of Australia’s best poets misrepresents many a poet’s true skills as an artist. Furthermore, the editors have selected, rather deviously, poems that mostly serve the editors’ own ideological and political objectives. Although in the book’s introduction they state, rather high-mindedly, that they have considered work by poets from all political and religious persuasions – ‘we have been affected by the work of communist and Catholic’ – the editors’ decisions are clearly guided by a dogmatically conservative agenda.

One of Australia’s foremost writers of the Left, Dorothy Hewett, for example, has been represented here with her poem ‘The Hidden Journey’ in which the poet (very much to the approval of our conservative editors) denounces Soviet Communism; all of her other poems, however, have been excluded, including her many powerful denunciations of Bourgeois monogamy, as well as her ‘I am Spain’, a poem in which Hewett declares her heartfelt allegiance to Spanish socialists. In a similar vein, the only poem by the radical avant-gardist Ania Walwicz included in the anthology is ‘travelling,’ a poem that is, according to the editors’ notes, largely bereft of the ‘socio-political intent’ present in ‘much of Walwicz’s [other] poetry’.

Selections such as the above indicate that the key objective of the editors, far from the unrealised task of celebrating ‘the techniques of poetry,’ may have been much more ideological and tendentious: to present – or even shape – an image of Australian poetry as a cultural milieu devoid of ‘socio-political intent’. Theirs is a properly conservative approach: behind the guise of applauding ‘the marks of poetry,’ they have endeavoured to deprive Australian poetry of open commitments to subversive, dissident or revolutionary cultural production. And I suggest it is within this context that one is to understand the editors’ countless, frankly embarrassing omissions.

That so many of Australia’s most skilled, most influential, most internationally acclaimed, and most interesting past and present poets have been left out of this anthology – far too many to even attempt to list here – is not, in my view, particularly worrying. All of these poets are, as one would expect, included in other, much more credible, anthologies of Australian poetry, and their exclusion from this publication will not deter any poetry reader worthy of the name from finding out about these poets’ terrific writings.

It is hard to imagine, for example, that any serious reader or student of modern Indigenous Australian poetry would abstain from exploring the works of Jack Davis, Kevin Gilbert, Lisa Bellear, Lionel Fogarty, Charmaine Papertalk-Green, Peter Minter, Samuel Wagan Watson, Ali Cobby Eckermann, Yvette Holt, Anita Heiss and many others simply due to two conservative white editors who, either due to their ideological agenda or due to their inability to appreciate good poetry, have chosen to exclude all but two Aboriginal writers from their anthology. Nor will anyone with any understanding of the work of female Australian poets stop at these editors’ laughably limited selection to not seek out and appreciate Bellear, Papertalk-Green, Cobby Eckermann, Holt, Heiss, Vicki Viidikas, Jennifer Rankin, Tatjana Lukic, Pam Brown, Antigone Kefala, Fay Zwicky, Jill Jones, joanne burns, jeltje, Kate Lilley, Anna Couani, Felicity Plunkett, Claire Potter, M.T.C. Cronin, Amanda Stewart, Kate Fagan, Maria Takolander, Judith Bishop, Michelle Cahill, Kate Middleton, Miriam Wei Wei Lo, Libby Hart, Danijela Kambaskovic-Sawers and Coral Hull, among many, many others.

The above list represents only a sample of poets whose absence makes this anthology bereft of any claim to being even remotely representative of this country’s poetic voices. (And mine is a very inadequate list which ignores such prominent figures in the history of Australian poetry as Thomas Shapcott, Michael Dransfield and Charles Buckmaster.) This anthology is something of a ‘colossal wreck’, to borrow a phrase from Shelley, an unrepentantly Leftist poet who knew his ‘the techniques of poetry’; who may have been left out of an anthology of Romanic poetry had such an anthology been edited by the likes of Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray. Australian poets and their readers, however few in numbers, deserve much better than Australian Poetry Since 1788.

Ali Alizadeh

Ali Alizadeh's latest books are Towards the End and Marx and Art. He's a Senior Lecturer in Literary Studies at Monash University.

More by Ali Alizadeh ›

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  1. I have read negative reviews only of what is likely to become known as The Anthology, which says more about me than the anthology; paradoxically, these reviews (and comments on the reviews) of its infamy are making the anthology more famous than it ought be, and it may yet be the circuit breaker or divider of what came before the anthology in Australian poetry, and what comes after, a sort of Volume 2 if you like.

    With the focus of many of the reviews, like this one, on questions of representation (inclusions and exclusions, politically motivated or not), much of the good poetry / poets in the anthology get unfairly overlooked (though how good and bad is deemed I know not, as poems pigeonholed by such categories can and do suffer comic and tragic reversals).

    Which leads me to conclude that it is the paratext to the anthology which is the important thing, not the anthology itself, a sort of sorting out of the poetry system unable to be achieved by any poetry war.

    1. Thanks, Dennis. I see what you mean; all publicity is good publicity. That said, I just couldn’t stomach all the sycophantic, or at best indecisive, reviews of the book in the mainstream media. And you’re also right to say that the good poets in an anthology get overlooked in a review such as mine; but, unfortunately, their good work is, in this case, overshadowed by the shortcomings I’ve mentioned. This anthology — and, inevitably, my review of it — don’t do justice to the good poets that have been included in it.

  2. So if you are a global warming ‘sceptic’ you have no right to edit an anthology of Australian poetry? – it is the innocence of this bigotry – the utter hypocracy of which the author seems unaware – that is most telling. Lehmann’s scepticism re global warming has absolutely nothing to do with his ability to edit an anthology of Oz poetry. Alizadeh apparantly expects Oz poetry to exclude all those who contravene his PC leftist views. Poetry written in the western tradition by indigenous writers is not actually aboriginal poetry – in fact it serves to further break down traditional tribal aboriginal society. Song language which is different from normal spoken language and is mostly required to be kept secret is the closest thing we have to indigenous poetry – although some may argue that it has more to do with religion than it does with poetry. Lisa Bellear’s poetry was awful and we were only subjected to it because she was an indigenous poet – ditto Anita Heiss. This partisan reviewer is really squarking about ideology – ‘inclusiveness’ – not technique or excellence. Apparantly Australian poetry anthologies should include an equal representation of all the groups within our society rather than concentrate on excellence (that old right wing bogey)- it is this concentration on ‘inclusiveness’ that has barred so many previous anthologies to all but the politically correct and thus banished dissent and free speech from the Australian literary canon.

    1. @Patrick: That contemporary poetry by indigenous people is “not actually aboriginal poetry” and that “actually aboriginal poetry” comes in a form that “is mostly required to be kept secret” forms the neatest act of cultural erasure I’ve read.

    2. The presumptions made in this comment are breathtaking, really, but what astounds me most is not only that you presume to define what is or is not ‘Indigenous poetry’ while simultaneously rejecting the work of actual Indigenous poets, but that you restrict any ‘legitimate’ Indigenous artistic/literary tradition to being necessarily pre-colonial, static by implication, denying existing Indigenous artists and writers their artistic integrity *by definition* – not to mention denying them the right to self-determination. Cultural erasure and then some.

      1. At the expense of repeating myself, Patrick, my point was that this anthology does NOT concentrate on excellence; it instead concentrates on mostly mediocre, embarrassingly unfunny light verse and the like. Lisa Bellear was, at any rate, a great poet. Check out, for example, her powerful’Poor Pretty Polly’ (available online.)

  3. It’s hard to see how criticising an anthology which has, on the one hand, been so rapturously received in most quarters, and on the other that has so rigorously ignored (for example) almost all modern Indigenous poetry, is “banishing dissent”. An anthology is judged, rightly, on its selection, since that is what an anthology is. Leaving out writers as uncontroversially significant as Jack Davis, Michael Dransfield (!) or Vicki Viidikas altogether must give pause, even before you get to the question of what has been selected of the work of the poets who are included, and worse, how often how it’s misleadingly contextualised (the creation of context being another crucial aspect of anthologising). Of course there are many significant poems in there, but Ali is correct to note the careful filleting of a crucial tradition of Australian thinking out of the selection (the selection from Dorothy Hewett only being among the most marked). The insistence that poetry is apolitical, a contextless aesthetic object, is the predictable cover for the overt reactionary politics this anthology expresses. (As Ali points out, this idea of aesthetic pleasure is contradicted by the ordinariness of the some of the poems that are included.) It also removes much of the intellectual vitality and passion that makes Australian poetry notable.

    Peter Minter is hardly going too far to label the book a vanity project, and even more correct to call it on its skewed representation of Indigenous poetry. With Ali I think it’s the most depressing portrayal of Australian poetry I’ve seen in my lifetime.

    1. Many thanks, Alison. Your input here is much appreciated. I should, I think, write reviews of things I actually like — reading and reviewing this anthology, despite some good poems in it, was, overall, far from enjoyable. Your review of Ian Hamilton Finaly was, on the other hand, terrific — I’m getting that book.

      1. Hi Ali – it’s much more enjoyable (though also difficult) to write about work that excites you, but this kind of review is equally important. Must admit that your review made me feel I should pick up some responsibilities there, although my past experiences of doing that have been about as pleasant as yours! Poets tend to resent deep and long. Enjoy the Finlay.

  4. Alizedah clearly thinks that Lehmann should not be praised (but vilified?)because he wrote a piece on global warming scepticism for Quadrant. Alizedah, unashamedly, gives us a link to the very article – to highlight the crime he thinks has so much significance. This is ignorant bigotry -prejudice and utter hypocracy – but also represents the kind of ‘dissent’ that Alizedah would banish (and did so) in his own perfect anthology.
    It is also an indicator of the extent to which free speech is under threat in this country right now. ‘the careful filleting of a crucial tradition of Australian thinking’ is what has gone on in far too many anthologies of Australian poetry – the Penguin Book of Australian Womens writing ‘ for example – The Penguin Book of Gay Writers – I don’t think you’ll find a poem on global warming scepticism in Tranter’s anthology either – . There will be nothing about the trajedy that has been playing out in isolated aboriginal communities. I have not seen one ‘rapturous’ reception for this anthology – it has been absolutely vilified by the overwhelming majority of the gatekeepers of Oz poetry – the ones who have lived their lives around Oz Council taxpayer funded grants. This is the first anthology of Oz poetry that I know of that has not been funded by the state, that at least should provide a different perspective.

    1. I cannot take you seriously as a commentator Mr McCauley as you fail to even spell the reviewer’s name correctly. Some basic courtesy and care for fellow authors would be welcome.

    2. Patrick
      who are these Gatekeepers of Australian poetry – the tax-payer-funded ones, the border-patrol, checking the papers of poets and refusing entry. I can imagine them out there beside their fires, but their faces are blurred. Are they real or apparitional? And what is the password?
      What’s the deal?

      1. … in the pubs they often wear leather and have the loudest war cry – they always get gigs at writers festivals – they are young and often beautiful – they usually travel from festival to festival – are camp followers of groups touring towns were dead poets once lived – they all know the who you know – bouncing code off each other – there is a family – they live mainly in Sydney – near the giant tits of the Oz Council and other ABC arts administrators – its all about the networking and the code – either that or a good root.

  5. Mainstream reception – Ali pointed to a couple – was indeed very favourable. This anthology had way more publicity than any others I can think of, with tons of pre-publicity as well as reviews. If that’s being marginalised, bring it on. What global warming has to do with anything, aside from illustrating the ideological predilections of one of the editors (pertinent, I would have thought, in a review that discusses the anthology’s political persuasion) beats me. But at least you are agreeing that the anthology is political, which the editors manifestly disavow.

  6. ‘It is also an indicator of the extent to which free speech is under threat in this country right now.’
    And there it is, the woe-is-me victimology that defines contemporary conservatism. In mass circulation tabloids, in Australia’s only national newspaper, on radio shows broadcast to millions, the same lament: oh noes, we’re being silenced!
    It’s an extraordinary phenomenon: the Australian Right telling asylum seekers and welfare recipients to stop feeling sorry for themselves even as their own political program consists of a never-ended pity party about how downtrodden they are.
    Free speech is under threat cos Ali dislikes climate sceptics! Cry me a frickin river.

    1. Thanks, Jeff. I wonder how conservatives would feel if they were actually being silenced. (As opposed to being found guilty of defamation once in a blue moon.) Pretty pleased, I’d say, since that would be the realisation of all their paranoid delusions of grandeur, the fulfilment of the fantasy of them having something controversial and worthy of censorship to say. But, then again, they’d probably be the ones doing the silencing of others; I reckon all these declamations of a threat to free speech are in fact complaints made by those who yearn for the power to threaten others’ free speech.

  7. Aboriginal/indigenous ‘integrity’ requires authenticity – that is – that it be written within the culture it claims to represent. It should be written in an aboriginal language, for example, and then translated if necessary. As it needs to take into account all the lores, rites and traditions of that society, most of the authentic aboriginal/indigenous poetry would have been created (not written)long long before 1788. Modern poetry written in the western taditions by aboriginal people is Australian poetry – written by an aboriginal poet – it is not ‘indigenous/aboriginal poetry’ anymore than my poetry is Irish poetry.

    ‘Cultural erasure” seems to be a Minter word which is being used as a threat against those who disagree with his project to ‘create’ a new aboriginal literary canon of poetry written by aboriginal people in the western tradition. I prefer to view this poetry as poetry written around the aboriginal/indigenous cause – in the same sort of genre as the Australian poetry written around the causes of ‘equality’ and ‘working class rights’ by Judith Wright, Henry Lawson and many others. It is the poetry that will define the genre, not the poet. If you try to do it the other way around – then you are by definition, being ‘racist’

  8. There you go again, assuming that contemporary Indigenous writers are not ‘authentic’ enough – not only denying them the ability, in your view, to accurately represent their heritage in the artistic form of their choosing, but to define the nature of their existence in the first place. It’s like you take any articulation of Indigenous identity post-1788 as a personal insult. I don’t even.

    1. Patrick does none of those things. Moreover he makes a telling point in his last sentence – to make a poetic judgement based on the racial heritage of the poet, rather than on the poem itself, is obviously racist.

      1. On the contrary, he does all of these things, in both of his above comments. Moreover, he reduces Indigeneity to a static stereotype based on a European perception of difference, completely denying the realities of contemporary Indigenous experiences.

        I’m not even going to bother with those Bolt-esque constructions of racism because I don’t have time to write another thesis.

      2. You’re right, TimT. To make a poetic judgement based on the racial heritage of the poet, other than on the poem itself, would indeed be racist. And that’s partly my issue with this anthology: the editors have made their poetic judgement, it seems, based on racial heritage of the poets: out of the 170 poets included, 168 (or possibly 167, to the best of my understanding) are of a white European racial heritage. Would you consider that “obviously racist”?

        1. No – I wouldn’t necessarily consider it racist. Sorry, I don’t have the book and was just reflecting on a side issue that arose in the comments. I am reading the review and comments with interest though.

        2. Ali, not obviously, but, if you take part of the definition of racism as the neglect by a dominant part of a society for the art which represents a minority in that society. Yes, to ignore, fail to address, refuse to address, the other; to misrepresent or under-represent that other; to speak for the other and to institutionalise and valorise certain representations that suit the dominant view; to disallow minorities to opt out of official definitions; to reduce pluralities to singularities; all of these are strategies that racism feeds on.

  9. I didn’t understand when I read the opening to this review (but I do now after some of the comments here), why the reviewer wrote that he was bracing himself in anticipation of a negative reception. Bloody ‘ell.

  10. Thank you Tim – I thought this important point might have become lost in the natter. It is very important and also applies to those who would seek to create such a genre of poetry based on these same ‘racist’ principles. One can only wonder at what is being taught in ‘Indigeneous Ecopolitics” or ‘Transnational Indigeneous Poetics’ or even ‘Aboriginal Poetics’. Recently this seperatist and exclusive club have produced Anita Heiss’ ‘Am I Black Enough for You’ – which they have also made it illegal for whitefellas to truthfully answer. This, Jeff Sparrow, is ‘censorship’ and is a fatal restriction on ‘free speech’ – will this then be the legacy that this new ‘Aboriginal Poetics’ bequests Australian literature?

    1. Gosh, with all this oppressive censorship, how will we learn the perspective of middle-aged white men? Where, oh where, will these precious voices be allowed to speak? Will we ever hear their quavering tones amongst all the Indigenous people dominating talk back radio, writing columns for the Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun and the Australian, and appearing week in, week out on the television shows?
      Truly, it’s a veritable gulag for white people, here in Australia.

  11. Thanks for this review Ali. When I first saw the list of poets included in the anthology (some of that pre-publicity that Alison mentions) I assumed that Lionel Fogarty had refused to be included in it rather than been excluded – the preposterous title alone seemed like reason enough to not want to be associated with it. I also thought at the time it would be ‘just another anthology’ – another of the five or six that have appeared in the past three years.

    But it seems that (though I don’t know), as with Dransfield and many others, he was excluded. This is, of course, already a political decicision, whatever Lehmann and Gray say, vaguely (as they said to justify Dransfield’s exclusion), about ‘literary reasons’.

    What would happen if there was a retrospective of Australian cinema that excluded Warwick Thornton and Tracy Moffatt, or the same of painting that excluded Papunya school painters? It’d be scandalous and no one would put up with it. But for some reason here it slips past, and the book starts popping up on pedestals in bookshop windows as if it actually had some genuine claim to doing what it says it does.

    Unlike most of those other anthologies which made their particular scope clear, Lehmann and Gray disregard any measure of honest partiality and attempt here to ‘represent’ 224 years of poetry. This is – as Peter said in his talk – complete hubris. Along with this, as he shows clearly in that talk and Ali reiterates in this review, the exclusion of almost all contemporary Aboriginal poetry from the anthology does amount to an erasure and it is alarming in its implications. I hope critiques such as this one continue to appear; the tenor of some of the comments here reminds me that they need to.

    1. Thanks Tim. I like your analogy of a retrospective of Australian cinema without Thornton and Moffatt. To exclude Dransfield for ‘literary reasons’ without actually giving those reasons is Newspeech. It would be great if the esteemed editors of the anthology were to enlighten us all as to what these ‘literary reasons’ might be.

  12. When will people ever realise that the only way to have true representation in any anthology is to have true representation of editorship.

    The readership also needs to be considered – Ali, you once told me, in defence, if I recall correctly, of purportedly left-leaning poems which are not overtly political, that ‘people like poetry they can put their own voice to’…under your theory, I suppose this collection makes it clear who the target market is from the outset.

    1. Thanks Maxine. I think you’re absolutely right; and part of the problem, for me, is precisely the sort of readership publications like this try to bring into being — in the case of this anthology, i feel the ideal readers would be rather unengaged, and easily impressed by a poet’s (rather clumsy, in the cases mentioned in my review) use of some fairly ordinary poetic techniques.

  13. I agree with most of that Ali. A good review, especially on the composition of the contributors.

    But people. Please stop feeding the troll. Having trampled on his precious rights as a hetero man when I was editing the magazine I know he is a persistent foe. I dared to publish a piece that suggested there were a number of closeted men running around the AFL. He was outraged! (see what I did there?) As a result I ended up being defamed and lied about in Quadrant. So watch it Jeff and Ali (or maybe that’s what you’re after).

    I note that he still can’t spell hypocrisy though. That spell as house boy at Quadrant’s editorial office hasn’t done him any good at all it seems.

    1. O dear Ian, ten years have passed and still no AFL players have come out – seems I was right after all. Apologies for the spelling, I do agree its important – it only gives passage to the easily distracted. Nope never tell lies and certainly did not defame you. I was hoping for a genuine discussion about some of these very important issues but clearly that is not possible – nearly happened though.

  14. Thanks for the review Ali. At the risk of again being called a Minter sycophant by one of the commentators here (apropos of nothing I could understand) it’s nice to read a review that challenges one to think. Incidentally, does any contemporary music written by people with an indigenous background rate…or should it all have been composed prior to European arrival? Frank Yamma, perhaps.

  15. oar in:

    as editing is presumably (like any other) a task that “engages the whole [person]” (wordsworth) i should imagine lehmann’s position on global warming, etc, is totally relevant to the quality & credibility of what he does in the “aesthetic” realm. so thanks, ali, for bringing up the link.

    also, re don juan, i think interesting research could be done on the use of literary parallels to describe domestic life in oz poetry. i recall a lehmann poem which uses some structuring principles from ginsberg’s “howl” to talk about picking his kids up in a tarago, etc. & there are surely many, many more poems of this kind.

    1. thanks, Sam. btw, i didn’t include the link to discredit Lehmann or anything like that, just to point out that P. Adams having a good old yarn with Lehmann on his show is somewhat puzzling. (and am i right to think that Adams actually launched this anthlogy?! i hope not.) As for a poem about kids mocking ‘Howl’, well, what can i say. goes well over my head.

  16. So, finally, if we are to follow the logic – all future anthologies of Australian poetry MUST have a certain percentage of ‘Indigenous’ poetry. We could even make a law that enforces this. I guess you could work out how much by the relative size of the population – if the quality of the work is to be ignored in favour of race – that would give indigenous poets about five percent. Then of course you would have to include all the other races who have identified as being Australian, a fair go too – so those of Chinese heritage/Vietnamese/Indian/Tuvalu etc – then there is the gender issue – then sexuality – and what about the disabled poets
    . The mathematics of inclusion would almost certainly defeat the quality of the poetry.

      1. I’ve gotta say I don’t think your criticism quite stands up, at least in relation to that limerick Ali – the colloquial rhyme in the last line (Brewster/useter) is quite surprising and pleasing. Also the hint of the Australian accent in ‘crow/no’. As for ‘Brewster/Rooster’ being a conventional and lazy rhyme because ‘the former is simply the latter plus letter B’ – well, you could describe almost any rhyme in that way:

        I wandered lonely as a cloud
        That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
        When all at once I saw a crowd,
        A host, of golden daffodils;

        ‘Crowd’ is just ‘cloud’ with an ‘r’ instead of an ‘l’, ‘daffodills’ is just ‘hills’ with the ‘h’ replaced by the two-syllable prefix ‘daffo-‘, and so on. I mean that’s the point of rhymes! They’re words with the same end sounds.

        It may or may not be worthy of inclusion – it is at the very least of some interest as a reflection on Australian society at the time – I’m just not convinced by your criticism on that front.

  17. Hi Ali, I first heard about this anthology last week from a poet friend of mine who went to the symposium you held last month. I really wanted to come along but was unwell. Anyway, I think your review is honest. I haven’t read the anthology. I am disturbed by Patrick’s comment

    ‘Apparently Australian poetry anthologies should include an equal representation of all the groups within our society rather than concentrate on excellence’

    Which leads me to my issue: it’s the title. Titles like ‘best Australian short stories’ or titles like this one. If you are going to choose a title like that, I believe you have a responsibility to the reader to deliver on the promise of the title.

    So back to Patrick’s comments, yes, I do think if you are going to choose a title like that you do need to take a snapshot of what has shaped Australian poetry since 1788, taking in the diversity of Australia. The names you mentioned Ali, particularly Ali Cobby Eckermann, should have been included.

    But it is a big ask to deliver on a title such as this. It’s like creating an anthology titled ‘the poetry of the world since 1788’. It’s broad, and you would need a larger panel of poets choosing the poems based on their contribution to Australian poetry.

    Well done for speaking your mind, Ali

    1. thanks, Koraly. great point — if instead of ‘Australisn Poetry Since …’ the anthology had been called, say, Geoff and Bob’s Favourite Funny Aussie Poem Thingies, or something like that, i for one wouldn’t have bothered paying any attention to it, let alone reviewing it. and i really do hope future anthologies of contemporary Australian poetry will include A. Cobby Eckermann; just finished reading her amazing new narrative verse.

  18. Thanks Ali for an interesting debate, and I hope I can add a few stray thoughts. Certainly, I agree that the very idea of Australian Poetry Since 1788 seems a bit ridiculously meglomaniacal and not very useful, and only slightly less ambitious than (or, as arbitrary as) Best Poetry of the Known Universe, from the Big Bang to Maximum Entropy. Perhaps there could have been a set of smaller books, each covering successive eras in our history, which might have made more sense and provided a sharper and more rigorous focus.
    Unlike putting together a purely personal or manifesto-like collection, to edit a truly comprehensive and definitive anthology, combining both quality and variety across the broadest sweep of time, requires editors to be true to their readers, to historical fairness and accuracy, and the art form they seek to serve. And this, in turn, demands a wide-ranging grasp of the entire field, considerable reading and research, plus an open mind and more than a fair shake of humility. It can’t be a whimsical or ad hoc project, or easily thrown together in a mood of arrogant assertion. Nor can it be badly skewed towards any particular clique or current, individual taste or prejudices, or to a narrowly partisan, ideological or political agenda, whether explicit or hidden… It might be difficult to be objective enough for the task, but that is the challenge.
    In my opinion, there are both pluses and minuses with Australian Poetry Since 1788. Firstly, agreed, there are clearly deficiencies in the representation of work from contemporary indigenous poets, and this is a grave flaw. Secondly, there is a tone throughout – in the notes on poets and poems, as well as work selected – of the magisterial, and knowing far better than thou; that is, of authority. Yet the selection has enough dubious inclusions and certainly glaring omissions – and attendant lack of consistent rationale for them – as to deem the entire enterprise eccentric, even wilfully perverse, rather than authoritative. If there were world enough and time, one wouldn’t mind a few weaker inclusions, as judgements will always differ. And the sprinkling of younger poets also seems ok, as one must take an informed punt on the future. But the omissions are hard to forgive: total absence of David Brooks, Peter Boyle, Kate Lilley, Peter Minter, Ian Mudie, Anna Couani, Grant Caldwell, Michael Dransfield, Chris Mansell, Richard Tipping, Charles Buckmaster, Pam Browne, joanne burns, Ken Bolton, Cath Keneally, Kris Hemensley, Tom Shapcott, Ken Taylor, Robyn Rowland, Susan Hawthorne, Pete Spence, Javant Biarujia, Rae Jones, Philip Hammial, Garrie Hutchinson, Rudi Krausmann, Tim Thorne, Jennifer Strauss, Lynn Hard, Vicki Viidikas, Ali himself, many others … the list goes on and on. The omission of so many fine poets is simply deplorable, and makes any pretentions to inclusiveness, fairness and balance a joke.
    On the other hand, there are things to like here. For example, the presence of some terrific poets who are all too often left out of anthologies, including Nigel Roberts, Alex Selenitsch, Alan Riddell, John Anderson and others.
    There have been several high-profile anthologies published in Australia over the past decade, but none of them, in my opinion, have got the balance entirely right, or have been truly inclusive, fair or comprehensive, and certainly none have been anything like definitive. Sadly, there seems – at least for the foreseeable future – insufficient will and generosity for such a thing to exist. Short of grabbing some scissors and glue, taking all these anthologies apart, selecting some pages, adding new ones, and sticking the result into a new set of covers… we will just have to be patient and wait. But thanks for a lively debate!

  19. Thanks for your thoughtful response, John, and for the additional names of the poets who should’ve been included (my own semi-list was very deficient) and of course your good self should have represented by more than one poem. I agree with you that a problem here, as with so many other anthologies, is, exactly as you’ve put it, the fact that an anthology can be “a whimsical or ad hoc project, or easily thrown together in a mood of arrogant assertion.” Sadly, with contemporary cultural and publishing trends being what they are, i can’t picture an alternative to that. Would, say, Australia Council or another body with sufficiently deep pockets fund a very diverse team of 10-20 poetry experts to take no less than a decade to work full-time and do the research and consultation necessary to produce anything remotely definitive? Maybe there are other ways of going about something like this, but i think doing an anthology well requires a lot more work than most editors are either willing or financially able to put in. (Although somehow I doubt money was a concern for the editors of Australian Poetry Since 1788.)

    1. Thanks for the review, Ali. I agree that “Geoff and Bob’s Bumper Book of Aussie Poems” would have been relatively non-problematic. Thus, I think one of the big problems here is the whole idea of ‘definitive’. Surely, it’s the one thing that cannot be done and, one could argue, nor should it. I take nearly all the caveats raised by all, and even sundry, on this comments list – those I agree with and even some of those I don’t. It’s not that anthologies should not be made – I’ve co-made more than one myself – but the geneaological, nationalistic and definitive obsessions that seem to accompany Australian poetry anthologising need to be cleared out of the way, at least for a good while. It seems to have something to do with our obsession with borders, and who’s in and who shouldn’t be in. I’d prefer to see something, well, actually interesting or even eccentric, or less hierarchical, or fully contesting and able to be contested, because sometimes that needs to happen as well.

      1. Hi Jill. There’s definitely a sense of border control with this anthology; in fact, if I’m not mistaken, somewhere in the media this anthology was reported as, precisely, the arbiter of “who’s in and who’s out”. More anthologies focussing on something other than nationality — e.g. sexuality, as in Out of the Box — would be great.

  20. Ali, if the former (Brewster)was simply the latter (rooster)plus letter B, it would be ‘Booster’
    . I think it’s a beautiful limerick and it makes me laugh every time I read it, which, after reading this lengthy conversation, I think is a necessity.

  21. As usual, I enter the conversation after everyone has left. I don’t much care whether the anthology is good or bad. I don’t care which side of correct anyone is on. But I do know a good line when I see one, and ‘the hills [are] breathing like a horse’s flank’ is a good line, Ali. It’s about as ‘semantically weak’ as Burns’ ‘My love is like a red, red rose’ or Dransfield’s ‘like affectionate cement’. The soft hills of Australia do have a look of muscle under skin; and the image of the hills combed of snow is beautifully apposite. You mightn’t like the selection; you might claim that including another horsey poem reinforces limiting stereotypes of Australian poetry; you might argue that better poems were omitted, but don’t bring your nit-picking, lit 101 phoniness to bear on another poet’s good work just to try to support a petulant editorial tantrum. Poetry has a hard enough time being taken seriously without this sort of unnecessary bitchiness.

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