On Australian poetry now: a response to David Campbell

One way to read poetry in Australia is to see it as being in a constant state of conflict. For the most part, this is a cold war where poets argue with poets in very poetic ways – the outcry about Geoff Page’s Southerly blog probably counts as the outer limit of this activity, which manifests more often in email exchanges, reviews that are compliment sandwiches or gossipy asides. Sometimes this breaks out into the open, as we saw when John Kinsella took out a restraining order against Robert Adamson and Anthony Lawrence and which the Sydney Morning Herald covered in 2006.

Recently, however, there has been fuel on the fire. This has oriented itself around the newly released Puncher & Wattman Anthology of Contemporary Australian Poetry. Following a review by Louis Nowra in the Australian, this past weekend saw the publication of a polemic by David Campbell in the same newspaper. There is an obvious politicisation of poetry and it seems like the editors are having their say on this matter as well. Campbell repeated many of Nowra’s criticisms including that much of the volume was ‘little better than minced prose’. In addition to Nowra’s position, Campbell attacked the volume on behalf of ‘bush poets’ who write ‘traditional rhyming verse’. He lamented the fact that they had been ‘airbrushed’ from history by their exclusion from the anthology. One might be tempted to argue what ‘traditional’ or ‘free verse’ or ‘bush poetry’ mean for Campbell, but what was striking in his piece was its closing paragraph:

Perhaps, if the ‘ruling majority’ showed more respect for traditional verse, something that can already attract hundreds of people at a time to festivals across Australia, it may just help to spark renewed interest in poetry and make us less like ‘beggars fighting over the contents of a dumpster’.

In this paragraph, Campbell’s target becomes clear. It is the ‘ruling majority’ (more a spectral presence than a named set of actors beyond the anthology’s editors); their major crime, the promotion of ‘free verse’. I do not quite know what free-verse poetry is for Campbell because he does not offer a definition. But I agree with him that we need a proper debate. This is not only to ‘spark renewed interest in poetry’, but also to keep raising consciousness in terms of reference that make sense. What might lie hidden in all this is that poetry is part of a battle for national identity, something that anthologies prompt and which people beyond poetry are interested in as well.


And, on that question of identity, one cannot immediately assume that to express an attachment to the country need take the form of a bush ballad, that traditional verse is the only authentic mode of expression. Where would we be, after all, without Indigenous song poems that are the tradition of this continent? Or indeed the work of Les Murray or Kinsella, whose many poems do not all belong to the ‘traditional verse’ Campbell suggests? This is to say nothing of the Anthology’s great many poems set in the bush that are formally experimental. I say this as someone who is probably among Campbell’s targets because I do not easily conform to the traditions as he describes it. This is despite the pleasure I gain from the yarns I listen to in Witchcliffe (in regional Western Australia) and a reading diet that includes many traditional verse icons from Banjo Paterson to Henry Lawson. This is in addition to Aboriginal people in my family, a father from the white rural working classes, and places and community groups I belong to in country Australia. Speaking from this position, I would defend the formal inventiveness common to much contemporary poetry. After all, it can also express attachment to rural places. Why can’t we enjoy all the camps of poetry rather than decry the lack that seems to exist?

I would also suggest that the aim of the Puncher & Wattman’s Anthology is not completeness and, like Campbell, Corey Wakeling ably highlighted the absence of several avant-garde or experimental poets in his review in Cordite. One would also notice a lack of slam, spoken word, tabi. From this, one must assume that the anthology is a slice of the pie with a contemporary designation. Its opposition is not ‘the traditional’ like Campbell claims, and I do not think the absence of certain poets is intended to cause ‘irritation’, but rather that no anthology can be encyclopaedic. Choices must be made and, as Campbell himself notes, the introduction does say it will be a ‘critical review’.

What might be more telling is the following sentence from Campbell: ‘I find this blinkered attitude frustrating because I’m caught in the middle.’ If one is in the middle build a bridge, be a point of connection rather than dismiss it: see the anthology for what it is, which is a very good attempt at what counts as contemporary poetry. This is something I detailed in my review in Westerly. In that way, I am not represented in the volume and I am a poet who belongs to no camp as well, but what I appreciate about Puncher & Wattman and Campbell is the care they have shown to our field. What might be necessary is not so much an anthology that attended to all the different sides of the conflict but a way of creating a poetic culture that allowed it to flourish with a sense of proportion and direction. Perhaps then we might get the hundreds of people watching a dumpster fire that is warming as well as illuminating.


Image: Shack at Pine Ridge / Sacha Fernandez

Robert Wood

Robert Wood is chair of PEN Perth. He has previously been an Overland intern.

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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  1. I’m afraid I can’t agree with you here, Robert. I don’t see much ‘care’ on David Campbell’s side. His review was one of the shoddiest pieces of literary journalism I have come across in a long while. It was simply a poor intervention in the tiresome ‘culture wars’, so beloved by The Australian. (BTW, ‘Paterson’ has one ‘t’.)

  2. Glad to see some criticism of the Campbell review. But does it even deserve engagement? So patently out of touch with the contemporary, the review seemed to be aimed at those who don’t read poetry and consider bush poetry to be synonymous with the nation’s poetic history as such. So, as David McCooey says above, shoddy literary journalism.

    Here, I want to address your mischaracterisation of my article on the anthology in this piece, which, I want to add, was an essay and not a review. I don’t say this to be pedantic; I only say it to point out the intentions of my article: essay the question of contemporaneity in the context of Contemporary Australian Poetry. The intentions of that piece of writing was not to review the anthology, in other words, in the sense of evaluating it for the potential reader.

    Indeed, the piece of writing I put together about the anthology redressed the absence of certain literary ecologies that have substantial influence upon contemporary poetics in this national context. As such, my essay sought to direct the attention away from individual exclusions, which can always be defended, to my mind, but instead toward the bigger questions of what contemporary poetics is.

    In fact, my essay’s most controversial claim might figure it quite differently to the way you have characterised it here and elsewhere. That is, I claimed that certain practices in contemporary poetry today, especially the small press realm and examples such as PiO’s Collective Effort Press, can never be well-anthologised by anthologies such as this, antagonistic as such literary ecologies are to national anthologisation as such. So, the editors didn’t really exclude PiO, for example, but rather the ecology in which PiO features prominently has always been marginal to this kind of nation-centric anthology. I think that members of that scene, at least in my limited impressions of it, are fairly indifferent to such anthologies and generally don’t read them. Probably PiO turned them down their invitation to contribute anyway. These are the kinds of literary dynamics that interest me, not exclusions of individuals as such.

    So, I somewhat resent my essay being put on the other end of the spectrum to Campbell’s irrelevant conservative-reader-baiting as another example of critical writing about individual exclusions! But I’m sure you didn’t forcefully intend to erect that dialectic here 😉 I just wanted to use the footnote area of your piece here to clarify some matters. Thanks for keeping the conversation going, in any case.

    1. no i wasn’t asked to submit
      nor did i now it was being put together
      it seem tho that some critics / commentators
      give the editors the benefit of the doubt regarding my participation
      by suggesting an out i.e. he may have knocked them back
      considering the result (retrospectively)
      i would have been glad to.
      i think it true tho, Corey that it is
      the very nature of these anthologies that my/our exclusion is re-enforced.
      i was asked by southerly to review it
      which i did over a year ago, but it seems someone at southerly got sick and there was no one there to replace them so it still hasn’t appeared, pity*!
      love + anarchy

  3. I spent some time over the weekend looking at the award winning poetry that Campbell claims should be included in an anthology of contemporary poetry.

    I’d have to say on balance, most of the award winning pieces just don’t cut the mustard in terms of craft.

    Now to be fair, there’s only so much you can do with the restricted rhyme/rhythm schemes and the shortage of full rhymes in the English language.

    I saw a great deal of passion, and great self expression. But essentially Paterson, Lawson and others from the late 1800’s are far from being knocked off their pedestal.

    The works were cliched in language(sometimes archaic) and theme. I feel as if a lot of these poets have ossified. They have found a form that challenges them just enough and and audience that appreciates them. I see no forward momentum. No effort to extend themselves. No Ballad of Jundamurra ( but perhaps that’s better left to Paul Kelly)- no awareness of paternalistic attitudes to Aboriginal people. Occasionally you get plain speaking English laced with slang, but to be honest even that sounds forced. It was earnest work, overly so, to anyone with an ear for poetry written in the last 100 years.

    It’s like singing like Johnny Horton and expecting to get the adulation of Troy Cassar Daley.

    On that note I think that the true successors of the great Bush Balladeers can be found in Australian country music or the works of more literary “bush” poets like Judith Wright.

    Perhaps it’s in the performance though and you could make similar criticisms of some Spoken word pieces, the difference there I feel being that Spoken word poetry is moving, and changing and its top practitioners tend to push themselves to develop their craft.

    You want to be in an anthology of contemporary poetry, write like a poet, which means eschewing the restrictive and limiting Bush Poet label and stretching yourself. Doing something worth noticing.

  4. Those tiresome undeclared poetry wars again.

    Problem with undeclared wars being that they can never be brought to an end.

  5. Doggerel in excelsis

    Alas, I’m shoddy! Woe is me!
    I’m truly mortified!
    How could this ever come to be?
    I’ll run away and hide!

    No, bugger it, I’ll take a stand
    and, just to make things worse,
    I’ll horrify poor Overland
    by using rhyming verse.

    you picking up that beat?
    Take cover then, for here they come —
    they’re called iambic feet.

    And these things down the end right here
    are known as perfect rhymes,
    though rather foreign to the ear
    in such enlightened times.

    “Oh tosh, dear boy, that’s so passé,
    it’s hardly de rigeur,
    and not what poets do today.
    You’re such an amateur!”

    I sure ain’t philosophical,
    like Schrodinger’s old cat.
    It pisses me right ophical
    bamboozling folk like that!

    But hey, I’ll try to build a bridge
    across this great divide,
    a mighty span that’s ridgy-didge
    to reach the other side.

    I’ll batter down those free verse doors
    with crowbar, pick and axe,
    by murdering some metaphors
    and splitting syn from tax.

    I’ll sprinkle foreign words about
    and weep Homeric tears,
    with pickled stanza sauerkraut
    and lingual chandeliers.

    I’ll show I’m hip and pretty smart
    with # (LOL!),
    and not some ancient boring fart
    who’s got one foot in hell.

    I’ll spread my words across the page
    at random here
    and there
    and let the reader try to gauge
    if they could be


    I’ll play with words like “persiflage”,
    “chiasmus”, “hegemon”,
    urbane syllabic camouflage
    to buff my lexicon.

    It’s gonna be a lot of fun
    to mince up all that prose…
    obsidian scarred by the sun/
    saffron nighthawks a discordant guitar bathing tessellated serenity in…who knows?

    And yet, at night, in dreams I’ll hear
    the beating of that drum,
    still coming through so loud and clear…

  6. There was movement at the station, for the word had got around
    That the colt from old Regret had passed away

    (Needs stuffing – ABP (three teas please!)

  7. discourse on poetry is much like listening to your partner talking about having sex when really you’d rather just be having sex

  8. Perhaps the above stanzas show that rhyming verse does have its uses. Persiflage, for example? But now it’s time to comment in a non-rhyming format.

    To begin with, I appreciate the fact that Robert has responded to the article and not simply dismissed it cynically as (to use Jake’s term) “poetry wars”. As an aside, Jake, I’m not a huge Paterson fan, and might borrow your misquoted short version. Paterson wasn’t as interesting as Lawson, or as multi-talented as Dennis, who was a poetic genius we haven’t seen the like of since. But, to get back to Robert, a few clarifications are needed. Firstly, as quoted in my article, Louis Nowra said that “some” of the poems (as opposed to Robert’s “much of the volume”) were “little better than minced prose”, while others were “crippled by jerky rhythms, clumsy vocabulary and a tin ear”. I could have taken that quote and cast a critical eye over what was in the anthology…in other words, written a review of its contents, which is perhaps what David might have expected. But I was more interested in what was omitted, so I used Nowra’s reference to Stephen Edgar as an introduction to the words of Clive James and an insight into the world of traditional verse which had been airbrushed out of existence.

    Secondly, with regard to the “ruling majority” (the term used by James), rather than it being Robert’s “spectral presence”, I would refer again to James with his criticism of the committees “…stacked with poets who couldn’t write in a set form to save their lives, and with critics and academics who believe that the whole idea of a set form is obsolete.” Not exactly “spectral”, to my way of thinking. And note that Martin Langford, one of the editors, wrote: “Having recently had to read pretty much everything we have produced over the past 25 years…” Who are “we” in this case, if not the “ruling majority”?

    And thirdly, I certainly do not assume that “…to express an attachment to the country need take the form of a bush ballad, that traditional verse is the only authentic mode of expression.” I simply expressed anger and dismay that such an apparently comprehensive anthology couldn’t find space for even one contemporary example of the genre. That’s what prompted the article. Would Sean, who took the time (which I also appreciate) to have a look at some examples from the ABPA website, seriously suggest that not even one poem from the anthology could have been dropped to make way for a traditional entry? I note his judgment that those he read “just don’t cut the mustard in terms of craft”, and would be interested to see him expand on this. Take “A Man Alone”, for example, the latest poem of mine to be posted. Exactly how does it fail to “cut the mustard in terms of craft”?

    Despite the critical comments that have been made here, there is, judging by the emails I’ve received from people who contacted me through my website, a fair degree of support out there for what I wrote. Here are some typical quotes:

    “Thank you for writing so clearly about the sad lack of appreciation of real poetry in this day and age.”

    “None of my friends like poetry – too much trying to be clever work and not enough words that inspire.”

    “I read your challenging article in last Saturday’s Weekend Australian Review and thought that at last someone is attempting to initiate a much needed discussion on the publishing of poetry in Australia and the taste and bias of its gatekeepers.”

    “By and large I feel meaningful and well presented poetry is a lost cause.”

    “I am also appalled at the lack of recognition and balance in most of our well-known literary magazines – to the point of discontinuing my subscriptions to them. I even posted a comment on award winners in one high profile competition that you ‘need a PhD in obscurity’ to understand them.”

    Yes, such comments are not new. This is a debate that’s been around for a long time, but that doesn’t mean we toss the issue aside with a cheap shot at “tiresome culture wars, so beloved by The Australian”. So much for genuine engagement in the matter at hand. It’s hardly revolutionary to say that poetry in general is really struggling, and Nowra’s “dumpster” reference seems apt. What are we going to do about it?

    Despite Corey’s dismissive tone, he is actually quite correct in saying that “the review seemed to be aimed at those who don’t read poetry”. Precisely. Mostly, it was. I would have thought that one of our aims should be to communicate beyond the small bubble of fellow poets and those who read poetry regularly as a special interest. Otherwise it simply becomes navel-gazing, an endless and ever-diminishing exercise in mutual admiration. There are plenty of people “out there” who used to enjoy poetry, or who could enjoy poetry, if it actually spoke to them in their everyday lives. How many of them are going to buy a book like “Contemporary Australian Poetry”?

    Imagine stopping 10 people in the street, opening up the anthology at a random page, and asking for an opinion. I reckon that 9 times out of 10 the response would be along the lines of my correspondent’s words: “Sorry, I don’t have a PhD in obscurity!” If people want to write for the 1 out of 10, that’s fine, go for it. But I’m more interested in trying to communicate with the other 9. Just a little more opportunity for a better balance of styles, that’s all I’m after.

    Speaking of balance, and seeing we’re on this forum, let’s look at Overland. In an echo of the last quoted email, I dropped my subscription this year because I still have last year’s four issues sitting beside me, unopened until yesterday. Which says something about my enthusiasm for the task. But yesterday I did open them, one after the other, and read the poetry sections. As expected, there wasn’t a hint of metre and rhyme to be found. (And I can’t even begin to imagine what the 9 out of 10 would have made of what appeared on pages 88 and 89 of Issue 224.)

    Now it may well be argued that Overland’s target audience isn’t interested in anything “so patently out of touch with the contemporary” (sorry, Corey, to have been instrumental in dragging you down to my plebeian poetic spectrum, but I’m sure you can rise above it again), but would it hurt to try and widen that target audience just a little? “Award Winning Australian Writing 2017” (Melbourne Books), for example, will include six traditional poems (including my “A Man Alone”) in company with its non-rhyming award winners, which potentially opens the volume to a wider audience. Perhaps Overland is so flush with subscriptions that it doesn’t need to broaden its reader base and can afford to devote valuable space to…well, whatever it is that appears on pages 88 and 89 of Issue 224, but that seems unlikely. And if the argument is that nobody submits traditional verse, it might be worth asking why.

    It’s frustrating to see the extent to which the opinions expressed above bear out James’ view that (again referring to Edgar) “…in Australia the idea is firmly entrenched that any self-imposed formal requirement must be an inhibition to expression.” He argues that it has reached the status of an “orthodoxy” in which: “On the whole, by those who edit the anthologies and staff the prize committees, an apprehensible form is thought to be a hangover from the old imperialism; and all too many of the poets think the same.” That’s your “ruling majority”, and all I’m trying to do is broaden its horizons a little. If that results in what I write being disparaged by David as “one of the shoddiest pieces of literary journalism I have come across”, then so be it. But at least a mere mathematician with a fondness for Charles Lutwidge Dodgson and formal structures (but no PhD) is having a go!

    I’ll conclude by returning to James: “There is a place for free forms: they no longer have to justify themselves. There should be a place for regular forms too, but they now have to justify themselves every time.” As this debate is proving yet again. My original article was a justification, but it shouldn’t have been necessary. It wouldn’t have been written if the mainstream poetry world demonstrated a little more generosity. About now, assuming anyone has read this far, somebody will probably be jumping up and down and shouting: “Does this idiot expect us to dumb down our poetry to his level?”…and the answer is no, despite the insult, that’s not what I’m saying. Keep writing whatever floats your boat. All I’m proposing is that when you’re editing a magazine like Overland, or an anthology like “Contemporary Australian Poetry”, or judging some sort of prize, or sitting on a festival committee, don’t automatically look down your nose at some traditional verse that speaks plainly to its audience. Give it some consideration and respect, as Melbourne Books is doing. Is that too much to ask? Or doesn’t the old Aussie concept of a “fair go” apply to poetry?

    1. Speak plainly to audiences in rhyming bush verse, you recommend. I have enjoyed roaming paradox country with you, but where are we now?


      Is it not tradition’s fate to designate what has past, rather than what is present.


      In order to tackle those who don’t read poetry, you need something more electric than bush verse, in my experience. I’ve found that Billy Bragg and Linton Kwesi Johnson seem to excite some. But, Lawson works pretty well, actually, although his urban poem ‘Faces in the Street’ seems to get the attention of my students who dislike poetry.

      However, this year, most electrifying for students was Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s ‘Assmilation – No!’. Oodgeroo was a master of rhyme, but you’ll be disappointed to hear that this poem is a work of free verse.

      1. (All of my examples are concessions, of course. None are contemporary!)


        Contemporary poetics asks contemporary bush poetry some questions:

        What was the last multimedia poem that you read/viewed?

        What is the most influential pdf bush work of the last five years?

        What hip hop lyrics have influenced your poetics?

        Name an example of found poetry that has been integrated into bush poetry?

        Have you ever made an installation out of one of your bush poems?

        What citations from the Misty Poets corpus have you made in your poetry?

        What was the last cultural artefact that you detourned in your poetic community?

        Have you ever made an experimental garden out of a bush poem?

        When was the last time contemporary political rally chants were integrated into a bush poem?

        How does contemporary bush poetry regard the Ern Malley debate?

        Robert Adamson’s adulation of Bob Dylan and openness to poetry in American music suggests a porous relationship between contemporary lyricism and the twentieth century American songbook. Where does bush poetry stand regarding Bob Dylan and his recent achievement of the Nobel Prize for Literature?

        Jennifer Rankin and JS Harry are Australian poets who both imagined human-animal becoming in their poetry. What is bush poetry’s stance in relation to human-animal becoming?

        What forms does bush poetry favour in twenty-first century concrete or pattern poetry? All sorts of poetic techniques find their way into concrete or visual poetry. I am interested to know what bush poetry’s inputs, or “pathways”, might be.

        How can a Tranter terminal be utilised in the rhyme schemes of contemporary bush poetry?

        What are the feelings of the bush in regards to bush poetry? Does it speak to it?

        Does bush poetry use the Spenserian stanza in any notable way? If not, why has bush poetry chosen to ignore this important historical poetic form?

        Does bush poetry use haibun (俳文) in any notable way? If not, why has bush poetry chosen to ignore this important historical poetic form?

        Does bush poetry use the sapphic in any notable way? If not, why has bush poetry chosen to ignore this important historical poetic form?

        What new rhymes or forms has contemporary bush poetry invented?

        Is Jimmy Woodser still at the pub?

        What novel materials or contexts has contemporary bush poetry been written in or for? For example, has bush poetry been made into DNA, written on cricket scoresheets, or performed for “no audience”?

        What does bush poetry think about the beach? Is it on the beach, embarking, or receding?

        Did bush poetry ever make a rejoinder to that Simpsons episode from the 90s, “Bart Vs. Australia”? If so, does it authenticate or repudiate stereotypes found within the episode?

        How is post-internet bush poetry different from its predecessors?

        If traditional bush poetry has a particular set of constraints, what are the constraints of pop bush poetry?


        If these questions sound absurd, maybe you’re not asking the questions that contemporary audiences are asking.

        1. And, in the spirit of Ern Malley, contemporary bush poetry replies:

          Bush poetry’s an artefact,
          it’s meta-art concerned
          with sapphic hip hop lyrics tracked
          through pdf lines burned
          on installations, villanelles,
          some haibun, and a wok,
          plus sundry Dylan citadels,
          and Jimmy Woodser’s clock.

          It’s multimediated now
          by Groening rally chants,
          a Tranter terminal (and how!),
          and Misty Poet rants.
          Its DNA’s Spenserian,
          iambic to the core,
          and even quite Shakespearean —
          now who could ask for more?

          It’s on the beach, a tidal wave
          of concrete near a creek
          beside a porous, lyric grave
          at Kalamunda’s peak.
          Post-internet it resonates,
          while neither lost nor found,
          and sometimes even obfuscates
          a verbal battleground.

  9. I admire your enthusiasm for your own cause, David. That said, I was more suggesting you are flogging a dead horse, because, like it or not, the ballad tradition you advocate, once in the ascendant, is now totally out of sync with contemporary poetics, both in terms of reading and textual conventions, so, nowise contemporary, which was the only brief of the Puncher and Wattman anthology, flawed as it may be for different readers, dependent upon ideology.

  10. Corey seems to suggest that there is some sort of contradiction between rhyming bush verse and speaking plainly to modern-day audiences, perhaps because he is still hung up on that misleading word “bush”. “Where are we now?” he asks, if tradition’s fate is to deal with the past rather than the present. And Jake insists that I’m flogging a dead horse because the ballad tradition is totally out of sync with contemporary poetics.

    OK, so let’s tackle head-on the idea that traditional verse can’t speak plainly to modern-day audiences in a way that resonates. In today’s Fairfax press there is an article about an Afghanistan veteran who, suffering from PTSD, died of a suspected accidental drug overdose a month ago. His parents are calling for a Royal Commission into a “broken” Department of Veterans’ Affairs. This is one more tragic chapter in a story that is far from new, and below is a poem I wrote a few years ago. It speaks plainly enough, and public readings have made it abundantly clear that it hits audiences hard.

    Mothers and Sons

    © David Campbell, 2012

    I have walked with my son down that long, lonely road
    to the place where he lies in his grave;
    for the rest of my days I will carry that load,
    and will grieve for the life that he gave.

    For he died, not in battle, with courage and pride,
    as a soldier Australia might mourn,
    but alone and forgotten, a gun by his side,
    in the light of a grey winter’s dawn.

    And I wonder, in hindsight, just what we can do
    as we watch all our sons go to war,
    for I found, on returning, he no longer knew
    what my love for him meant any more.

    He was sullen and bitter, and tended to curse,
    with a drink that was always close by;
    when the booze took control it got very much worse,
    and I dreaded the look in his eye.

    For he wasn’t there with me, but far, far away,
    where the horrors he saw killed his soul,
    as he fought with the demons that haunted each day,
    and the spectre of death took its toll.

    For it cast a long shadow, and gave him no peace,
    like a cancer it crippled his mind,
    and I heard him each night as he cried for release,
    as he pleaded to leave it behind.

    But his words came to nothing, they vanished like mist
    in a valley that’s warmed by the sun,
    and the man that I knew simply ceased to exist
    in a battle that couldn’t be won.

    He was lost in the gunfire, the heat and the dust,
    with the mortar’s dull roar in his ear,
    always doubting, uncertain of who he could trust
    on a killing ground governed by fear.

    For a suicide bomber could be a young boy,
    or a woman just wandering past
    with an innocent thing like a soft, cuddly toy,
    that might butcher them all with its blast.

    And he looked in the eyes of those mothers and sons
    in the hope that he might understand
    what the future would hold when the hammer of guns
    didn’t echo in that savage land.

    All he saw was a mirror of what he might be,
    and a body that could have been mine,
    in the bloodshed surrounding the quest to be free,
    as his men put their lives on the line.

    But the worst of it all, he would say in a voice
    that was ravaged by anguish and pain,
    was the knowledge each moment could bring the wrong choice,
    and their sacrifice might be in vain.

    So I watched as the trauma took over his life,
    as the drink and the drugs broke his heart,
    for he lost his two children and once-loving wife
    when the world he had known fell apart.

    The support that he needed was simply not there,
    for despite all the promises made,
    it’s the sick and the injured who can’t find the care
    in the ongoing price to be paid.

    It’s a road that so many have followed before
    when the ghosts of the past will not die,
    and it’s we who remember these victims of war…
    all the mothers who weep where they lie.

  11. You are the one hung up on the word “bush”. Indeed, I myself was wondering where Barron Field, Henry Kendall, Charles Harpur, and Mary Gilmore fit in this so-called “erased history”, given that their place in the Australian literary canon and their influence upon the modernity that would come is well-established; and they are not bush poets, not in the way Paterson was, or A.L. Gordon was at times. These are poets with both traditional and untraditional uses of rhyme – Gilmore for example used free verse at times – and none have had their place in history undermined by the contemporary turn away from rhyme.

    So, the idea that a trajectory does not exist between poets in history who rhymed and those who came after who did not is simply ridiculous. Indeed, those who would imitate hackneyed rhyme schemes and poetic forms in 2017 without any singularity of their own, too, do not honour the history of formal innovation in poetic history. Stephen Edgar, to use an example of yours, uses rhyme far more singularly than the example of your own poetry you give above. Then there is Les Murray. Are you not satisfied with the international prestige this sometimes-rhyming poet has? Again, both poets are prestigiously situated in the anthology. I expect some of your friends would charge Edgar with being too obscure, and complain that they have to use the dictionary to enjoy Murray. Obscurity and lexical difficulty have been used to demonise poetry in the past, and yet, paradoxically, it seems to structure the very history of literature in English.

    Let’s interrogate how the poem you have submitted just now speaks plainly. It is not a bush poem, it is in an elegiac ballad-like structure. The reasons you have illustrated for its plainness are chiefly non-poetic. 1. It is a poem based on a true story. 2. The poem uses numerous cultural cliches which root the reader in familiar emotional and narrative territory. These scenes are story-like, in other words, nothing like the imagism and realism of war poetry, for example. 3. The story itself is a cliche. Tragic as the true story is, you might have chosen the many more complex cases of PTSD to tackle in the poem, but you have chosen an example which fits with the familiar cliche narratives well-known in biography, news media, and war cinema contexts of the twentieth century. 4. Character relations and personalities are flattened into character types. The gender relations of the characters here are stereotypical and don’t ask the reader to inquire very far into psychology, personality, or figuration. 5. The vocabulary is limited. There are no words found in this poem not found in the newspaper.

    Now, the poetic reasons this poem can be plainly read: 1. The metre used is nursery rhyme-simple. 2. A non-reader would doubtful struggle with any of the words in the poem. You don’t have to have read or heard Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Paterson, Allen Ginsberg or Lionel Fogarty to understand any of the words here. 3. The content of the poem is topical, not imaginative. 4. The poem does not ask you to pay attention to the poem; the poem asks you to pay attention to the story and the emotion. 5. The poem is sentimental, again, quite unlike WWI poetry. If there is something which plainly speaks to audiences across media it is sentimentalism. Your poetry is ready for reality TV.

    This anatomy of your poem doesn’t seek to undermine it. It seeks to show how well-conceived your poem is for your purposes: to be readable to any English-speaking audience and offer a digestible sentiment. I think to achieve in your poem the ten points I’ve laid out here takes particular craft. But, when you’ve stood up from the potter’s table, I wonder to myself, “why did he spend so many hours making something that strives so hard to fit that mould sitting there in the garage corner?” Simplicity is as bad a defense for style as complexity is. All these words do is describe.

    Finally, do you really think your hero Paterson sought to speak plainly? My impression of Paterson is of a colonial epic poet, an exaggerator, a Steven Spielberg of verse who tried to mythologise the colonial experience of frontier life with big (linguistic and dramatic) production values. Such poetry relies on a certain credulity in regards to nation, landscape, masculinity, and frontier colonialism to enjoy it, and works through a mythic, not plain, language. As a teenager, I certainly did not find Paterson speaking plainly to me, fun as he was to read.

    Just to put my own cards on the table. I was brought to poetry because I loved the artful use of language. As a poet and critic today, that relation to poetry has become much more complex, but the love of language was formative. I’m sure I’m not alone. So, do you really believe people who love language want stories appropriated from the newspaper in journalese with nursery-rhyme metre and rhyme? It would be the first time in history a poetic audience was formed through such isomorphism, as far as I understand. At least public poet Alfred Lord Tennyson invented innovative forms, had a unique mastery of language, and had a philosophically interrogative approach to the topical issues of his day. Ultimately, you are demanding that readers stomach a series of fallacies about tradition and plain speech, demanding readers appreciate atavistic approaches to language in the name of a contemporary which eludes you. Mainstream 19C poets such as Tennyson had so much more integrity and imagination than those such as you whose notions of poetry are formed predominantly out of nostalgia. Is this fight with Contemporary Australian Poetry’s editors, or Sylvia Plath, or Michael Dransfield, or Christopher Brennan? Where do we start? Tennyson is a great example because he was a public poet in a time when the interest in poetry was waning. He utilised difficult and controversial philosophies of his day to question his own faith (Darwin’s evolutionary theory), probed literary history and re-staged it (Arthurian legend), and developed new sonic ideas for poetic recital. 19C colonial poetry is hardly your own tradition, anyway, predating your birth. So, I suspect that there is more to this nostalgia than simply the decline in rhyming poetry in the twenty-first century.

    By the way, why did you make note of your poem’s copyright? Just curious.

    1. Thanks for that extensive analysis, Corey. I’ll start at the end. The copyright note was there because that’s how the poem was stored in my files when I’d sent it to someone else a while ago, and I left it to emphasise that the poem was written in 2012 and wasn’t a specific response to today’s newspaper article.

      Now, to go back to the beginning, you seem determined to make this more complicated than it is. I am simply trying to put forward a case (albeit very inadequately in your opinion) for more recognition to be given to contemporary traditional verse in a poetic landscape which is currently very dismissive. I have not talked about an “erased history” that included the likes of Kendall, Gilmore and Harpur, merely about those bush poets who wrote in the anthology’s time-frame (1990-2016), whose work seemed to have been “airbrushed from history”. Nor did I suggest that there is no trajectory between those who rhymed in the past and those who don’t now. I also write non-rhyming verse, and owe a huge debt in both forms to developments over the last 100 years. Particularly to someone like Les Murray.

      If you check the article you’ll see that I described bush poetry as “a poetic style grounded in metre, rhyme, and clear communication, paying tribute to the days when poetry was a popular public entertainment.” You are entitled to your opinion that the modern-day practitioners are merely imitating hackneyed rhyme schemes “without any singularity of their own” and therefore not honouring the history, but I beg to differ. In its adherence to good metre and rhyme it is very much seen by those who write it as preserving a great tradition, something quite obviously appreciated by those who emailed me their support.

      And now to my poem. It is not based on a true story, nor did I claim that it was. It’s complete fiction, written five years ago, as I made clear. Otherwise, I pretty much agree with everything you’ve written. Because, as you say, it’s designed “to be readable to any English-speaking audience and offer a digestible sentiment”. Call it cliché if you like, or stereotyped, but that’s what makes it immediately recognisable to an audience. If I’m going to read, as I regularly do, in front of people for whom poetry is a rare event (i.e. not in a poetry group or a university lecture) I’m not going to present something that requires detailed analysis in order to create an even basic level of understanding. They’ll just walk out. So yes, the language and metre are simple, and the poem asks you to “pay attention to the story and the emotion”. When I stand up from the traditional potter’s table I ask a different question…have I, obeying the basic rules of metre and rhyme, conveyed something that can resonate immediately with anyone who has a reasonable understanding of the English language?

      I could also add that drawing attention to the poem rather than its message can lead to a distracting focus on the ingenuity of the poet. Which is fine in some contexts, but perhaps not all?

      Your comments about Paterson are interesting. He’s not my hero, as I pointed out in an earlier post…CJ Dennis is. Paterson did, unlike Lawson, seek to mythologise the experience of frontier life. I suppose his language could be described as mythic, even florid in places, but it is also instantly recognisable, written at a time when the oral transmission of verse was common and the ballad form made for easy memorisation.

      I also gravitate to poetry because I enjoy playing with words…but there is a time and a place for the different ways of doing it. And I do “really believe people who love language want stories appropriated from the newspaper in journalese with nursery-rhyme metre and rhyme”. Why? Because Dennis did it brilliantly (the first time in history?) when he worked for the Herald (as I pointed out in the article), Michael Leunig sometimes does it to accompany his cartoons, and many other topical “written-on-the-day” poems of mine have…well, let’s just say they’ve proved quite popular on a major non-poetry forum. You can refer to it as “demanding readers appreciate atavistic approaches to language in the name of a contemporary which eludes you” if you like, but I merely think of it as offering an alternative to straight prose, something that can highlight an issue in dramatic fashion or, if satirical, bring humour to bear quite effectively.

      Finally, my argument is firstly with the editors, but also, by extension, with the broader mainstream poetry world as described so witheringly by Clive James. I notice that you haven’t taken issue with what he wrote and wonder why. Why, for example, has nobody so far disputed his contention that “the committees are stacked with poets who couldn’t write in a set form to save their lives”? I suppose the answer will be “Oh, what’s the point? Leave it languishing in the garage corner!” But still, I wonder…

  12. Why don’t I dispute Clive James’s claim that ““the committees are stacked with poets who couldn’t write in a set form to save their lives, and with critics and academics who believe that the whole idea of a set form is obsolete”? Because Clive James is wrong, basically. The statement is preposterous. He’s also wrong about Edgar’s history of grants and awards, which you note before the quote, and I’m sure Edgar himself would disagree with him. Austlit database lists 15 awards or shortlistings, and one major grant. Ready to admit that this grievance about the neglect of formal poetry is a fantasy yet? And a fantasy that both misconstrues the uses of traditional form in Australian poetry, and those who would modernise or trouble it? Sure, your circle might have been neglected in the anthology. But form and tradition hasn’t been.

    Along with the strong representation of poets who’ve built their careers on traditional forms have in the anthology, including James himself, there are so many contemporary poets who use formal constraints in their work in Australia it’s useless me trying to list their names here. Perhaps these poets of different fealty to and trouble for tradition wonder about more than simply “obeying the basic rules”.

    Anyway, James’s debate hearkens to old grievances more relevant to 1967 than 2017. In fact, today, you’ll find that unorthodox poets are more inclined to use the sestina than mainstream lyric poets. Conversely, some of Australia’s most conservative poets write with no interest in poetic artifice like rhyme and metre. Have a read. You’ll see.

    Could it be that this ideology of grievance deployed for more than a hundred years against forms of modernism in poetry is itself social and cultural capital for those who resent the contemporary?

    Why is it sometimes that those with more money, awards, and cultural support, like Clive James, moan so much about the state of play in a field in which they dominate? There’s something fascist about this. The fact that other people are interested in doing things in ways that aren’t complementary to that person’s career seems to get on the nerves of these men of great influence. Perhaps they resent the fact that a career of wheedling to tradition didn’t establish them in a tradition of their own. James suspects what we know: he won’t be remembered by future readers of poetry, because he’s basically a simulacral apparition of other styles lacquered with false charm and the unsteady weight of celebrity. Talentless with words, James appends his name to histories and events in facsimile forms which I think serve to reassure the scared that tradition’s still there. Why do you think he talks about Australian history so much? People sussed him out ages ago. Why are we still taking his advice?

    1. OK, you think Clive is wrong. Fair enough, so presumably there should be a reasonable amount of evidence around to contradict the “fantasy” that the set form is considered obsolete. But, as I’ve already pointed out, there’s a complete absence of set form, even in the guise of individual “singularity”, in all of Overland’s issues last year. And “Contemporary Australian Poetry”? There are no bush poets, obviously, but you insist that “form and tradition” haven’t been neglected. So where is it? I don’t doubt that there are plenty of poets who have “built their careers on traditional forms”, but I’m hard-pressed to find signs of that in the anthology. Including Edgar, I reckon there are only 10 poets who display at least some hint of set form in the book. That’s 10 out of 239. Feel free to come up with your own figure, but it seems very obvious that the editors largely decided to steer clear of set form, singular or otherwise. After all, they do state in the Introduction that there are “something like thirty or more” poets writing high quality poetry and: “Most, though not all, will be writing a free verse exhibiting a sustained capacity to control every nuance of tone and meaning.” That, to me, suggests that they don’t exactly consider metre and rhyme to be leading the charge. Which is the point I’ve been trying to make all along.

      As for the Austlit database’s 15 awards or shortlistings for Stephen Edgar, that’s just a meaningless number. Were all those awards for structured poetry? I’ve never subscribed to Austlit and don’t know how it gathers its data, but it also says that Clive James has 9 awards, you have 2…and I have 27. Not worth a hill of beans, those statistics.

      You’re clearly not a fan of Clive James, but that appears to derive more from resentment at his success than anything else. I mean, “wheedling to tradition”? Really? And I had to laugh at “talentless with words” in conjunction with “simulacral apparition of other styles lacquered with false charm and the unsteady weight of celebrity”. Here’s back at you from his essay on Gianfranco Contini in “Cultural Amnesia”: “Decent prose has a rhythmic pulse which, if it comes in the first instance as a gift, must be schooled to attain reliability, and there is no way to school it except to take in the rhythmic resources of the language as they have already been discovered by the poets over the course of centuries.” Yeah, a real hack is James.

      And here’s Peter Goldsworthy writing about his ability as a poet in The Australian under the heading “James’s translation of Dante is simply divine”: “James has impressive credentials for the job; you might call them a perfect skill-set. He is a poet of great technical dexterity, his writings range effortlessly across the registers from the vernacular to the philosophical to the comic, and his erudition can surely channel a 13-century consciousness better than most.” Not much talent in evidence there, eh?

      Or there’s Robert Conquest in Quadrant under the heading “The Extraordinary Verse of Clive James”: “His daring and accomplished poetic persona has ranged so widely—from lyric to satiric, from sentimental to phallic—and taken on so many challenges, that in him we find what amounts to a personal dialect, within which various modes flourish.” Conquest concludes his article with the observation that, if poetry was a competition, “James would certainly be well up among the front-runners”.

      There are two critics at least who don’t appear to have “sussed him out ages ago”. Anyway, until shown otherwise, I’m happy to take his advice, and I’ve also got a sneaking suspicion that his writing will be remembered long after ours has vanished into the dustbin of history.

  13. So, to sum up here from me, David, and going back to your overly sentimental ballad on the issue of post traumatic stress disorder, I now realise you don’t still, and didn’t know what you don’t know in respect of a contemporary poetry you’ve criticized, open forms which often utilise a sense of play with and against different text types and genres, are generally more abstract and less dependent on emotion than the verse you prefer, where line structures are more paratactic than hypotactic, meaning high importance is placed on language use, particularly enjambment in its often indecisive or ambiguous linking of words within and across line and page, also, the visual layout of a ‘page’ can be stressed, these being some key contemporary techniques as I understand them, unlike the closed ballad forms you prefer, which are static and emotion filled in comparison, because driven by the more closed limits of imagery, rhythm, sound, and end-stopped lines generally, rhyme included.

    1. Thanks, Jake, you’re undoubtedly right. And I’m sure Corey will agree with you. (I seem to be one-out on this forum.) And the things I don’t know (which are infinite) will remain unknown until somebody explains them to me in terms that make sense. So explain them…give me some specific examples from the anthology, as I assume you’re going to say that they illustrate “set form”.

      But before you do that, here’s a clarification, because there’s something you’re not understanding. I have never said I prefer “closed ballad forms”. I simply, on occasion, enjoy the disciplinary challenge they offer…the requirement to keep lines flowing as naturally as possible (i.e. enjambment) within the constraints of metre and rhyme, while not letting those constraints dominate (unless it’s a humorous poem, in which case the metre and rhyme can be played up for all they’re worth). And they provide a very effective platform for performance when the audience is the general public.

      But, depending on mood, I’ll also very happily leave the set form behind and embark on something totally unstructured. Now whether, in doing that, I’m using line structures that are “more paratactic than hypotactic” I haven’t got a clue as I’ve never come across those terms before. Do you have to know the words in order to utilise the techniques? Anyway, I’ve copped quite a few awards for free verse over the years, so must be doing something that the judges like…including using the visual layout of a page. In fact, I tried to do it on this forum in the “Doggerel in excelsis” poem but everything automatically aligns left here, which is not particularly useful for a poetry site. So it may be that I know more than you think I do, but just not in the same way that you know it.

      Just as I suspect that some who are following this thread underestimate the strength of traditional verse and how difficult it can be to write. Sean gave the impression earlier that it was a bit of a doddle, a comfortable (perhaps “overly sentimental” in your view?) rut into which bush poetry has settled. But nobody here has been particularly eager to strut their metred/rhyming stuff, despite the three poems I’ve tossed up. For what it’s worth, I’ve written many special rhyming pieces over the years for all sorts of work and social occasions, and sometimes people reply in kind. The results are almost always woeful. Anyway, just to balance the ledger a little, and maybe get the creative juices flowing out there, here’s some free-range, organic, unsentimental, magniloquent (and maybe even parasitically paratactic?) persiflage:

      herpetological verse

      the sleek prose of the anaconda coils
      convulses in a paroxysm of intensity

      i am trapped in its embrace/held breathless
      by a muscled rippling majesty that crushes

      life from brittle poetic bones/snake-words
      slither on the page mocking pretensions

      of serpentine grandeur/a viper spits inky
      alliterative poison at vague vapid versifiers

      pythonesque aphorisms abound flowing
      as a kaleidoscope of scintillating brilliance

      over the rock of ignorance/in a reed basket
      of metaphors the truth sways cobra-like

      entranced by fluting pipes of onomatopoeia/
      razored fangs ooze adjectival venom striking

      abject terror into neophytes/puff adders
      inflate the prosaic to a coruscating luminosity

      of precocious insight encapsulated maximally
      in an explosion of verbiage/the black mamba

      preys on defenceless punctuation striking time/
      after time/after time/after time/after time/after

      injecting lethal paralysing neurotoxin until
      the hapless victim’s fluttering heart reaches a full

      stop. Cleopatra’s asp sucks on the teat of history.
      Classical allusions course freely through Platonic

      arteries singing siren songs of Schadenfreude.
      I would leach the poison from my soul but

      it is too late. I am a gecko in a nest of vipers.

      1. David, your original argument (in the “shoddy” article) was that there is an under-representation of certain types of verse in the anthology. All well and good. But this discussion space seems to have shifted to why you personally “enjoy” writing in accentual syllabic forms, which is kind of boring because you don’t articulate why such forms are vital to your conception of a contemporary poetic.

        Who are the poets, or maybe individual poems, that you feel should be represented in the anthology? I’m really interested to know this, because if they’re crucial to an understanding of what constitutes contemporary Australian poetry, I’d very much like to read them (as, I imagine, would the editors of the anthology).

        So who are the poets (and poems) you feel are most obviously lacking in the anthology? And why would that work make the anthology stronger?

        Best wishes,


        1. Good question, Cam. I referred readers to three bush poets who fit the anthology’s time-frame in my original article: Graham Fredriksen, Ron Stevens, and Ellis Campbell (no relation). So let’s stay with them. As I also pointed out, examples of their work can be found on the poetry page of the ABPA website (http://www.abpa.org.au/award-winning-poetry.html).

          Unfortunately, there’s only one of Graham’s, “The Only War We Had (Beachhead Vietnam)”, which can be found in the 2008 list. Graham, a prolific writer of traditional verse, died in an accident on his property at Kilcoy in Queensland in 2010. As editor, I featured five of Graham’s poems in “Award Winning Bush Verse and Stories 2013” (Melbourne Books).

          Ellis, who died aged 88 in 2015, was also prolific, but a very different writer. He came to poetry late in life, having worked as a shearer, timber-cutter, farm-hand, horse-breaker and rabbit-trapper…a background he used in some, but by no means all, of his verse. There are several of his poems listed, but have a look at “The Rabbit Trapper” in the 2010 section.

          Ron, a former commander in the Royal Australian Navy, is now in his nineties after four decades of writing poetry. He also has quite a few poems on the list, but, for something different again, check out “Distant Dialogue” in 2008.

          And why are these forms vital to “my conception of a contemporary poetic”? Several reasons. Because the style represents a direct link to the likes of Lawson, Paterson and Dennis and the poetic foundations they established, and some of it (such as “The Rabbit Trapper”) provides first-hand insight into a vanished way of life. Because these forms were my starting point with poetry, and they both instruct and underpin my approach to free verse. Because, with the advantages offered by metre and rhyme, they are particularly adaptable for humorous effect, something noticeably in short supply in “Contemporary Australian Poetry” (lighten up a bit, people!). And, above all, because they communicate, they tell stories in simple language (too simple, obviously, for those commenting here) that doesn’t need a dictionary and hours of analysis to be understood.

          That’s the message coming through loud and clear from those sending me emails, those who complain about too much “clever work and not enough words that inspire”. My “Mothers and Sons”, dismissed here as a sentimental cliché, nevertheless cuts through in presentations. Is there something wrong with that? There is a potential audience out there who couldn’t give a stuff about “open forms which often utilise a sense of play with and against different text types and genres”…they simply want to be entertained and/or informed. They want to enjoy poetry. And I’m not saying that free verse can’t do that, only that traditional verse has, if given a fair chance and encouraged, a valid role to play without (which James points out) having to be justified all the time…as I’m still bloody well having to do!

          1. Thanks, David. I’ll check out the work you suggest, although I must admit bush poetry isn’t really my go.

            An observation, since this is what confused me in your article and the subsequent discussion generated here. You appear to be conflating metrical form and rhyme with, for want of a better term, ‘simplicity’ of expression. Yet obviously, there’s no direct correlation between metrical form and simplicity, or obscurity for that matter.

            So in your clarification here, your concern seems to me less to do with form than easily transmittable content (“stories in simple language”, as you put it). This is why I find your critique of the anthology problematic.



      2. Takin’ the piss eh, Dave? An’ puttin’ it back in agin, I note, as the tagmosis prosody piece you wrote in response to my paratactic prompting is far more Malley-like than your previous attempt, where you simply listed all the Malley stuff you Googled without concomitant thought going into the expression, and why it’s better is because you were thinking more against your own automatic writing (but nowise surreal) poetic self, somewhat akin to McCauley and Stewart, so there is hope for you yet, and as for your sledges, they’re rich coming from someone described early in this comment thread as a perpetrator of “shoddy journalism”, evidenced here by the lack of any literary credentials, critical and/or creative, for doing justice to an assessment of the contemporary poetry anthology in question. So, who hired you to do the hatchet job you came up with in The Australian Review piece you confected? What was your brief? Did you send the piece in unsolicited? When you began writing did you see three heads, gapless and gapped, or just your own ego spinning on the vanity closet? Which is to state, that as for your whine that you posted all those vanity pieces of your own on site and no-one reciprocated with so much as a ballad, well, no-one asked you to post the stuff, and if those postings of yours prove anything, they further refute any critical/creative competency you may have possessed for reviewing said anthology, because all you came up with for an argument was the neglect of redneck ballads and the appraisal and mention of a duo of major redneck poets. So mock on, mock on, volta, crusoe, the sledge has withered from the lack, and nosegays sting …

        1. Hmmm, Jakey old son, not bad, not bad at all. You show some promise in the piss-taking stakes. I particularly enjoyed “tagmosis prosody piece” and “ego spinning on the vanity closet”. There is hope for you yet, so keep practising. Incidentally, I’m still waiting for you to give me some specific examples from the anthology which explain “open forms which often utilise a sense of play with and against different text types and genres”.

          1. Don’t know, haven’t read the anthology, maybe that anthology doesn’t contain contemporary/experimental poems, but can’t say what I don’t know.

  14. I am glad to see that this article has fostered a lively and learned debate. It is good to see poets who are passionate and articulate about their craft contributing ideas to a public forum. Needless to say, I am looking forward to seeing what comes out of this, including new poems and new poetics. Thanks everyone for reading and commenting, and by all means, continue the discussion here or elsewhere.

  15. This blue is always good fun.
    It doesn’t really matter at which point you jump in, just sway left and jab right, everything makes sense in the end…. except why it started.
    I don’t think even Corey’s’ Himalayan intellect or ninja vocabularisation, ( I made it up Corey , but it’s ok mate, I’m at the cutting edge, sometimes there’s accidents), would be able to pinpoint or articulate the first odd angry shot. It seems that poeming types like bashing each other up more than freeing the words that demand release.
    The battles aren’t purely sectarian either. I have witnessed the blood bath of two devout , no , Ordained ! bush poets , going hammer and tong over the syllable count of FIRE. I also well remember the day an irate 3rd year from Flinders Uni poured a near full coopers over the rainbow laced Docs of a post graduate intent on punctuating a Sturt Desert Pea made from Haikus.
    What I mostly remember though is the joy and wonder I felt the first time I stood in Bukowski’s’ room while he lay sick in bed or being on that FernTree gully train, with me ead on Rosie’s breast. Or thinking that I might too wear purple today – in the mercy seat –and not go gentle – as if the argument of trees was done.
    I cry with them all and laugh at myself. I thank all who try for their endeavour, for it is the attempt that I find most inspiring ; the happenstance of masterpiece is the reward for perseverance.

    If I was to pick a tag team partner from this particular ruckus, it would be Sean Wright “……..write like a poet……do something worth noticing “

    1. G’day Matt, good to hear your inimitable voice again. Where have you been? Yep, I’m still jabbing away, but from a slightly different direction over here. Remember that discussion about Les Murray’s “Cockspur Bush”? Anyway, how about posting some of your poetry? I reckon it’d go down a treat. Maybe “This Goodbye”, “The Lonely Tree”, or “By Humble Word”? Just a thought.

      Love that “ninja vocabularisation”!

  16. What on earth is this all about? Really?
    Earlier today I read David’s The Military Mind. I rather enjoyed it. I thought it pertinent to a number of issues in contemporary discussions on the effects of war. Now I discover that it’s an over sentimental ballad! And I discover that a fierce war is being waged by poets in Australia who seem to be having all kinds of hissy fits about matters beyond my ken. I’d like to read and enjoy poetry by Australians but clearly I am so bleakly ignorant I am unable to understand it and should stop reading (and buying) it immediately.
    So it’s off to pre- dinner drinks for me and you lot can go bag your heads!

  17. Hi Cam, this is actually a response to your August 25 comment, but there was no “reply” button at the end, so I’m putting it here. You’re quite correct in saying that there’s not necessarily a direct correlation between traditional rhyming verse and simplicity, but, with the “bush” poetry group I’m arguing on behalf of here, there almost universally is. When you look at those three poems I’ve suggested you’ll find nothing particularly complex in terms of structure or content, but why should the context in which they were written (poetry competitions with specific guidelines about subject-matter, metre and rhyme) rule them out of contention? They all have something worthwhile to say in a form that mightn’t have much appeal on this site, but they are examples drawn from a sizeable, very active, historically significant community that flourished within the book’s time-frame. And one which, if allocated even a small amount of space, might have given some balance, some added perspective, to what has been written in the last 25 years. But the anthology editors didn’t even acknowledge its existence. As Clive James says, one form doesn’t need justifying, but the other constantly does. That’s where my article came from.

    I’m talking about both form and content and trying to get people to step outside what might be called the “paratactic bubble” for a while. Maybe one way of doing that is simply to say: “Read (or re-read) William Turner’s comment from yesterday and note the level of frustration.” That’s the sort of thing I hear all the time at presentations. It comes through in the emails I’ve received. It’s a perspective that shouldn’t be ignored, but it seems to me that the anthology editors, for whatever reason, did.

    In between the extremes poets can write complex structured verse and “simple-language” free verse, and what I’m after is decent breathing space for the full spectrum. But at the moment it’s pretty heavily weighted one way in the mainstream poetry world, and that doesn’t seem to be working too well if we’re “like beggars fighting over the contents of a dumpster”. When you step outside the “bubble” you might realise that some of the comments that have been made here in this debate are not exactly helpful to the casual reader. To illustrate that, there is an added dimension to what William Turner wrote, but to understand it you need to see the poem he’s talking about, so here it is (first published in “Award Winning Australian Writing 2016”):

    The Military Mind

    Come sit with me a moment and hear the military mind
    explain a surge; not a rush, a flood, a storm, or a torrent,

    just a surge into enemy territory where Hellfire missiles
    are neutralising targets as a doctor might use a scalpel

    to excise diseased flesh from a wound. So neat, precise,
    yet so dismissive of the carelessly incinerated bodies

    of non-operative personnel and the gut-torn weeping
    as the village women mourn their collaterally damaged

    children. But they were merely soft targets, unlucky
    victims of incontinent ordnance before a strategic

    redeployment. Now come sit with me a moment and
    see the military mind suffer post traumatic stress

    disorder in a drunken rage characterised by a fist
    smashing my head against the bedroom wall, thus

    breaking my nose, fracturing my cheekbone and
    knocking out two of my front teeth. Black eyes

    and shattered bones are the everyday fallout of the
    aftermath, the catastrophic destruction and injury

    beyond that intended or expected by the military
    mind. For I, too, am collateral damage, a soft target

    in the hidden war waged on quiet suburban fronts
    against Hellfire nights and neutralised days. There

    is no such thing as a surgical strike on the military
    mind. And finally, come sit with me a moment and

    comfort a teenage daughter driven from her home
    by an abusive father into a sordid life in a derelict

    squat of galvanized iron windows, syringes in dank
    corners, and a stained mattress on a damp earthen

    floor. Here, hold her bandaged wrist and imagine
    the razor blade slicing pale flesh, blood surging

    from the raw wound; not a rush, a flood, a storm,
    or a torrent, just a surge of that deep red life force

    channelling down her fingers into the dark, moist
    soil. Mourn with me in my gut-torn weeping for

    a lost childhood destroyed by incontinent human
    ordnance. Even the military mind cannot create

    a euphemism for the number of targets ultimately

  18. Imagine if this was a contemporary art debate. Contemporary painters in a colonial style, with a perfectly big membership, lots of prizes to win, lots of their own places to publish and exhibit in town fairs etc., complaining that they can’t get into the annual Australian contemporary art exhibition. But it isn’t like that. Contemporary painters in a colonial style seem less aggrieved than their counterparts in poetry. David Campbell’s thin argument becomes tissue-thin when you transfer his arguments to other media.

    What is it about poetry that such old-fashioned debates continue to surface.

    1. Great analogy, Will. I’m absolutely delighted to know that you’re so au fait with the bush poetry scene, so I’m sure you won’t mind answering a few questions.

      1. “Lots of prizes to win”: given that you’re obviously well acquainted with the vast amounts of money that governments, tertiary institutions, corporate sponsors, and literary magazines (like this one) devote to supporting and promoting traditional verse, where, on the list of major poetry awards below, would you locate the most lucrative award for bush verse?

      Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry: $30,000
      Victorian Premier’s Award for Poetry: $25,000
      Newcastle Poetry Prize: $15,000
      University of Canberra Poetry prize: $15,000
      Josephine Ulrick Poetry Prize: $10,000
      Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize: $6000
      Ron Pretty Poetry Prize: $5000
      Peter Porter Poetry Prize: $5000
      Bruce Dawe Poetry Prize: $2500
      Blake Poetry Prize: $2000
      Gwen Harwood Poetry Prize: $2000

      2. Can you name that award? (Hint: I just judged it.)

      3. Some prizes (e.g. the Kenneth Slessor Prize) are for books of poetry. How many book prizes are available for bush poetry and what are they worth?

      4. Who is the reigning Australian champion for written bush verse and how much did he win?

      5. “Lots of their own places to publish”: name them (I’d like to start a bidding war for my next book.)

      Over to you. And, as an added incentive, for a perfect 5 out of 5 you’ll receive a personally autographed copy of one of my sentimental clichés.

  19. Id answer your questions but I don’t think the money thing matters. It’s all a drop in the national ocean when you add up those numbers. Your questions is more about emphasis and category in the country’s bigger poetry context anyway right so my point was if as you say poetry could move out of the minority if it only opened up to a public that already loves bush poetry so much. I thought yeah, well isn’t it at every country music festival and county fairs and aren’t their reading groups and stuff. I thought yeah, David Campbell’s right, there is a big interest. Why isn’t that interest enough. You’re oral poets right so a big live performance is no less important than an anthology, and since you said that you’d got 27 awards in your career that suggests a big audience and maybe a book or two attached to those awards etcetera etcetera. I hope that deals with your points 1 and 2. Maybe you’ll deal with my bigger points about conteproary art, complaining in art circles and progress. Point 3 you’ve got wrong or don’t see where you’ve got your categories wrong. If you’re so right that contemporary bush poetry is so important to contemporary poetry then if a good book came out in those forms then it’d get the Kenneth Slessor award. I guess people like Les Murray judge awards like that sometimes so you’d expect as rhyming poets they support examples like that. So you’re point 3 doesn’t make sense. Since I was comparing your gripes with contemporary art I was thinking how there are so many places that bush poetry gets exhibited and published but sure it doesn’t necessarily get big art awards but nor does colonial-style painting unless it’s been really creatively rendered or made more contemporary. Light verse don’t they call it, well the light verse version of painting gets sold on street corners and in night markets and appears in your cafe’s loft and gets printed in your school’s fete brochure etcetera etcetera. It’s everywhere just like commercial art but commercial art isn’t going to win the Archibald. Or it does, actually always does, but with the pretensions of being contemporary art. There you go, that’s a solution for you, dress your light verse up as contemporary, like you kinda did in those poems you keep posting here, really milking that attention aren’t ya, and you might win Ozpo’s Archibald.

    I was just thinking how your supporters might read your long defense here. Realised how much of it needs resentment to justify it, and them. I guess this is my big problem with the things you said. The oxymorons of tradition revivalists pleading for more attention from a contemporary field of work they refuse to acknowledge. When they do acknowledge it all they’re willing to concede is they don’t understand, which is the fault of others anyway. So I thought how your resentment is inevitable. Of course you’re pissed off about support. The category of the contemporary being contemporary will never acknowledge you the revivalists. You’re tradition. And when someone does something newish with those traditions you like or set form in general as you call it, like Les Murray has I guess or others who get into national anthologies or whatever, that person’s no longer a purist like you are David Campbell anyway. They’re not light enough or public enough or follow the rules enough. There’s the irony I guess. What I mean is you’re no longer a contemporary bush poet if you don’t resent free verse’s popularity or if you do something post-1889, you are by nature a style subtracted from the contemporary. Besides Clive James who I haven’t read I can’t imagine other poets using set forms get too vexed about being a minority. Making it makes them standout probably. Anyway I guess we all need to find someone to blame for our obscurity from public view. But then I wonder is an anthology like this a public anyway. Maybe you just need to create your own audience and spend less time complaining about not getting attention from others. Or keep posting your poems in a comments feed even.

  20. Yes, this an ambush. Galloping rhythms, who would have thought it, bush poets are driven to write all their ‘award winning ballads’, spurred on by an economic bottom line, the thought of all the money that comes with writing ‘award winning poems’. Go on, David, admit too that you wrote your Weekend Australian Review article out of a personal grievance, the failure of the Puncher and Wattman editors to include your own ‘award winning poems’ in their anthology. Why else would you plaster this site with all your own ‘prize winning poems’, if not overcompensation for their slight, their oversight, and you own personal lack? Tell us that.

    1. Ah, damn it Jakey, you’ve sussed me out. And here’s me thinking I was being so subtle! Clearly we overly sentimental redneck balladeers should heed the prevailing mood and shut up, go back to our little corner, and be content with our lot…along, of course, with all the anonymous Jakes and Wills of this world who would never, ever aspire to winning thousands of dollars in a poetry competition. Money? Pfffft!

      I mean, who cares about preserving and honouring a traditional style that helped to lay the foundations for poetry in Australia? Pfffft again! Let it wither on the vine. And now, instead of posting another award-winning poem (“I used to be Anointed, but now I’m just Anon”), I’ll hie me away to the dungeon for a spot of scourging.


    I thought it was only on sport’s sites where
    confirmation bias and blinkers reign,
    but here the same prejudices appear.
    I thought it was only on sport’s sites where
    one’s first impulse is to demean and jeer
    and humility’s impossible to feign.
    I thought it was only on sport’s sites where
    confirmation bias and blinkers reign…


    it’s created

    by human beings
    . after all

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