I was once an emerging poet. Judging the Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize for New and Emerging Poets has reminded me of what that meant, how it felt to be sparkling with eager hope while stumbling around in the dark, somewhat fearful of the Poetry Furies – their testing glare and rejection slips, their unattainable approbation. An emerging poet is by definition also a little self-assured, poised at the edge of the literary abyss with one finger raised to the Furies and both eyes fast on the main prize.
Of course, if these things are true then we are always emerging, writers and readers alike. And if that sounds rather too zen, there is a grain of truth, I think, in the idea that any new poem or work of fiction or music or art, whether by a newcomer or an old hand, hovers somewhere between certainty and uncertainty, between eternity and oblivion. As writers we will always be guests, hosted by those we have never met and most likely never will. As readers we are hosts to the human optimism and overwhelming frailty of our kin, cupping the reservoir of our species like precious water in our hands.
With the announcement of the opening of the 2012 Judith Wright Prize we are inaugurating the new Overland Emerging Poets Series, in which I hope to call attention to the most compelling new and emerging Australian poets. As a beginning, over the next few weeks I’ll be posting to my Overland blog the runners-up and commended poems from the 2011 prize – works by Patrick Jones, Sam Langer, Rebecca Kylie Law, Ella O’Keefe, Astrid Lorange, Fiona Hile, Stephen Nichols, Andrew Slattery, Banjo James, Molly Murn and Aden Rolfe. I’ll be interviewing them as well. This group of poets is eclectically representative of a diverse set of literary and aesthetic interests and influences. They each brandish a special attention to language, image and thought, and a marked awareness of their time and the length of its shadows. They want to be poets.
From next year I’ll select a single ‘new and emerging’ poem each month from the pool of subscriber submissions, introducing to Overland readers what I hope will become a vigorous and delightful ‘anthology’ of new voices first heard at the moment of their incipient leap. The rules of the game are that the poet must be ‘unpublished’ – in the sense that they have not yet had a volume of poems published as a book by a publishing house – and must also be a subscriber to Overland. That’s it really, apart from the need to dazzle with impressive allegory, terminal caesurae and apostrophic poise.
Such a project marks a new chapter in Overland’s decades-long commitment to progressive thought, culture and creative practice. The Overland Emerging Poets Series will refresh conversations about contemporary Australian poetry and its most interesting and exciting frontiers. It will also stake a claim for the ongoing centrality to Australian poetry of innovation and experimentation.
I should say that whenever I take a break from guillotining neo-colonialists, I idly despair at the conservatism, malaise and loafish negligence that impairs astute and insightful discussion of innovative Australian poetry. For instance, in recent years some have parochially confused the manifold traditions of the lyric with conventions that congealed in Australia circa 1950. Equally distracting is the lazy and, at times, wilfully misleading elision of traditions of innovation under anxiously exploited buzzwords such as ‘postmodernism’ and ‘Language Poetry’. Not unlike Tony Abbott’s petrifying idée fixe, ‘the carbon tax’, ‘postmodernism’ and ‘Language Poetry’ are too frequently hoisted by poetry paladins to manipulate poor sods into believing that a wrecking-ball of bogus intellectualism is carving its way through Australia’s otherwise unpolluted economy of poetic authenticity. Like Abbott, they presume that their audience can know no better. And yet, from Harvard to the hallowed halls of any local community college, ‘postmodernism’ is typically understood to mean only a cultural milieu that properly got legs around the middle of the twentieth century before falling over itself around the end of the Cold War, and Language Poetry is known as a North American subset of literary postmodernism that peaked in the mid to late 1980s. There is an unfortunate and facile strain of anti-intellectualism in Australian poetry commentary that misuses ‘postmodernism’ and ‘Language Poetry’ to dismiss progressive traditions of Australian literary innovation and experimentation, the wider variety of their modes and their deeper, more thrilling historical antecedents.
The fact is that traditions in innovation run deep. Remember, for instance, Milton’s robust defence in the preface to Paradise Lost, in which he indelibly censures rhyme and heralds a revolutionary (and ancient) blank verse:
The measure is English heroic verse without rhyme, as that of Homer in Greek and of Virgil in Latin, rhyme being no necessary adjunct or true ornament of poem or good verse, in longer works especially, but the invention of a barbarous age, to set of wretched matter and lame meter … [My] neglect then of rhyme so little is to be taken for a defect, though it may seem so perhaps to vulgar readers, that it rather is to be esteemed an example set, the first in English, of ancient liberty recovered to heroic poem from the troublesome and modern bondage of rhyming.
Milton is giving the finger to a Fury shaped as John Dryden, arch defender of rhyme and the heroic couplet. From Australia we can extrapolate both forward and back to see the great wealth in Milton’s ancient liberties – ‘the first in English’ – but by no means the last.
Indeed, I would declare those who whine about spectres of ‘postmodernism’ and chew the bone of poetry’s demise forget that without the great and ever unfolding liberation of the imagination poetry would wither and die. Innovation and experimentation are the very lifeblood of poetry, and have been for centuries – if not millennia. And here I’ve only mentioned the poetry of the West!
So, Bon Voyage Overland Emerging Poets – do not go gentle into that good night. Live long and prosper.