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,
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.