Diamonds bite back: a response to Robert Wood

Australian poetry tends to enjoy a scrap, whether or not there’s an actual point at stake – cf. what Ali Alizadeh called the ‘abundantly unnecessary poetry wars’ – but even so Robert Wood seems to have raised eyebrows for more substantial reasons in a bizarre piece published in the Los Angeles Review of Books last week.

Briefly, Wood manages to turn a review of Kent MacCarter’s recently released collection California Sweet, published by Five Islands Press, into a jeremiad bemoaning an apparent crisis of opportunity instigated by his own experience of rejection from ‘a nationally prominent, poetry-specific publishing house.’ Inauspicious, but it gets worse. From the sweeping and fatuous claim that ‘individual poems and reviews of poetry books are no longer in Australian newspapers’ – instantly corrected on twitter by The Australian’s poetry editor Jaya Savige – we move on to an old-fashioned cultural cringe:

But I do not know of any Australian poetry press that is a hot ticket in global, literary markets.

Nor do I, but I think it would be bloody foolish to look for one, or for any other ‘hot ticket’ poetry press in late capital, beyond whoever publishes Rupi Kaur. Wood claims to know of a vast community of readers ‘hungry’ for poetry – part of a weirdly cobbled together folk aesthetic he seems to cultivate – but bluntly, I doubt it. The institutions of poetry, literature, and the humanities generally, are globally imperilled because the forms of value they symbolise are radically antithetical to the principles of the neoliberal market. That much is obvious, and it’s not even necessarily a bad thing – poetry thrives in crisis. That is, unless, you’re trying to make an easy buck out of it. But again, it’s also obvious that poetry has pretty much always been a shit way to make money, unless you were flattering someone powerful with it.

In any case, this vein gives way to the similarly odd implication that Giramondo and UQP are the only Australian publishers with serious commitments to poetry. Don’t get me wrong, they’re great, but they’re part of a wide and diverse topography of publishers, presses, and journals, for more detail on which see Kent MacCarter’s extensive discussion in this very magazine.

Next up we’ve got the fact that Wood erects an uncomplicatedly false stylistic binary between Giramondo and UQP. The former does publish experimental poets like Michael Farrell and Corey Wakeling, but it also has lyricists like Judith Beveridge and Jennifer Maiden, and a great deal more culturally and theoretically diverse work besides. UQP does publish voice poets, but it also publishes Sam Wagan Watson and MTC Cronin, not to mention John Tranter. Naturally, no survey or summary of Australian poetry could ever be anything like complete, but it’s yet to be seen that Wood is even trying to be accurate here.

These errors and elisions are underwritten by a more important philosophical distortion. Wood’s account of the work and business of poetry is organised by a baseball allegory, presumably intended as a crutch for his American audience. But his addiction to his own metaphor enacts another kind of flattening, polarising poets and journals into ‘minor’ and ‘major’ leagues, and reducing poetry itself to an essentially competitive theatre-sport. Of course poetry is competitive, in that getting published is competitive, but it’s also a lot of other much more interesting things.

Wood’s bizarre canon narrative implies something like a literary equivalent of a Hall of Fame or a World series, like a bad parody of Harold Bloom (there are good ones), a process which shoehorns the complexity, and the chaos, of writing poetry in, around, and against Australia into a conceptual simplicity and linearity that just doesn’t exist. The attempt to situate this apparent logic within contexts of global publishing is even more haphazard, firstly in that he mourns the impossibility of an Australian reaching an international readership, shortly after mentioning Kinsella, who is already an internationally respected poet and scholar.

The idea of literature as having anything like a stable or coherent organising principle within one national ecology – to the limited extent that those exist – let alone between two or three, or within the global sphere of weltliteratur as first imagined by Goethe, is an antiquated fiction. Even the resuscitation of world literary studies occasioned by Pascale Casanova’s World Republic of Letters (1999) emphasised literary production as a form of symbolic conflict between nation-states, and even that more cynical view, wildly at odds with Wood’s nostalgic imaginary, was decisively punctured by Emily Apter’s Against World Literature (2013).

Even staying within the country, how could an archival poem deconstructing colonial horrors written by Natalie Harkin, say, have enough in common with the experimental hyper-textualism of AJ Carruthers to make it possible, let alone intellectually fruitful, to compare them as somehow competitive texts? To wit I can’t find a single context in which this wouldn’t enact semantic violence on the nuances of both, or of any other interesting poets.

Since 2015 when it evolved into a press, Cordite has published some conspicuous first collections by new and/or emerging poets – slippery categories at the best of times – which might support Wood’s description of it as a ‘feeder league’, but in the same period it has brought out volumes by John Hawke, Jeanine Leane, Matthew Hall, Lindsay Tuggle, Tony Birch, Pascalle Burton, Natalie Harkin and so on and so on. None of whom can be easily described as ‘minor’ anything. More to the point, if Cordite does have a single raison d’être, for my money it would be an energetic commitment to stylistic, political, cultural and generational eclecticism and multiplicity.

I’ll end the hatchet-job with Wood’s discussion of Kent MacCarter and his book, which bleeds awkwardly out of the baseball metaphor – the coach, you see. Wood implies that MacCarter’s ‘mixed’ poetic production emanates from his other activities, again, ignoring the many poets, Ezra Pound obviously but also Kinsella, who have been excellent editors, too. The discussion of the actual poetry, when it arrives, does simultaneous disservice to about six different models of critical praxis in one paragraph, censuring California Sweet for failing to give a decisive verdict on capitalism in one breath, and for preferring the multisyllabic over ‘clearly expressed vernacular’ in the next. There aren’t any quotes. Wood engages with the entire collection in one piecemeal list, often only engaging with the title of individual poems. I haven’t read California Sweet, and from this review can tell, Wood might not have either.

There is a deep resonance to Wood’s arguments but it’s not the one he intends. His errors and assumptions iterate a common fallacy that hovers over literary activity, a nostalgia for kinds of order we no longer expect to find anywhere else. Given the powerful affects of reading and writing, particularly poetry, you expect to encounter this as a natural intellectual barrier when teaching undergraduates. But Wood has a PhD in poetics, and is currently occupying a research fellowship at Columbia, and therefore, as far as I’m concerned, doesn’t get a pass for not bothering to know what the hell he’s talking about.

It’s a natural vanity to want poetry or writing to be a knowable, solid entity with reliable, inherent rules and topographies, for there to be a ‘way’ of doing it well or badly, for there to be consistent stakeholders, power centres and gatekeepers, in philosophical terms, for it to have an essence. It doesn’t, and the fact that it doesn’t need the illusion of one is probably the most generative and democratic thing about it. In any case, searching for an essential principle or rule in the writing of others is a guaranteed way of writing bad poetry yourself, or bad criticism.


Jonathan Dunk

Jonathan Dunk is the co-editor of Overland and a widely published poet and scholar. He lives on Wurundjeri country.

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  1. It’s disingenuous to link Wood’s “crisis of opportunity” with his “experience of rejection” and not mention the reason for his rejection – that the press was “not taking on any new work whatsoever”.

    And sure, I’ve heard that The Australian has great literary pages, but I can’t bring myself to read them because they can be found inside … ummm … The Australian. It shows the desperation in the Australian literary scene that so many people overlook this paper’s vicious right-wing political crusades in order to find some actual space to publish or get reviewed in.

      1. re reading The Australian (newspaper), sure it’s funded at very great expense by Rupert Murdoch to float right wing puff pieces and attack leftist world views, which is one way of looking at it, and there is also the thinking of keeping your enemy close to you so you know what is going on on the other side of the political divide, so to speak, too, your enemy’s enemy is your friend, so you keep up to date on ways of thinking about the world as well as friends and enemies etc., and oh, too, that my enemy should review a book, publish a poem etc., all sorts of critical come-ons co-exist with that tabloid form

  2. I assumed that that’s how stuffs poetic we’re said and done in California, then checked, and no, so walked away perplexed.

  3. was greek to me too, particularly the oedipal bit, knowing the author had worked at cordite – with touches of bloom’s anxiety of influence as well

  4. Robert Wood is an old and close friend and I write as a partisan.

    Jonathan Dunk is like the last kid picked for the cool kid’s team at lunchtime footy. With the male editors of several major literary platforms having already knocked Wood about on their social media feeds, Dunk takes it upon himself to tackle Wood down one more time and rub some more dirt in his eyes. If we freeze the frame on a few moments of Dunk’s tackle we can notice a few things about the way it has been constructed to show his big mates that he knows how to make the loser look losier.

    1) The apophatic, knowing reference to his own rhetoric: ‘I’ll end the hatchet-job with Wood’s discussion…’. This wink lets them know that he knows that he’s bullying but that’s ok because it’s open season on the loser. Of course, he hasn’t extended the same rhetorical license to Wood. He incorrectly claims that Wood’s piece was published in the Los Angeles Review of Books when it was published on LARB’s blog site BLARB.

    2) The pointless digression on world literature: ‘The idea of literature as having anything like a stable or coherent organising principle within one national ecology – to the limited extent that those exist – let alone between two or three, or within the global sphere of weltliteratur[sic] as first imagined by Goethe, is an antiquated fiction….’. Not content with the clothesline tackle of Wood’s baseball analogy, he then shirtfronts him with his knowledge of one of the trendy subjects in contemporary literary academia.

    3) The attempt to make out like the target of his bullying is actually the powerful one: ‘But Wood has a PhD in poetics, and is currently occupying a research fellowship at Columbia, and therefore, as far as I’m concerned, doesn’t get a pass for not bothering to know what the hell he’s talking about.’ Perhaps Dunk, who has a named PhD scholarship feels abundantly secure about his prospects, but as a freelance writer with a PhD in Australian poetics (a PhD in Australian poetics…) who managed to win a small amount of Australian government money to conduct some research at Columbia, Wood is not exactly as John Howard would have him. It makes the openness with which he writes his freeform blog piece – one that has the nerve not only to make some generalisations about ozpo, but openly to criticize one of its major players, a star winger (and his former boss) no less – all the more brave, if a bit foolhardy.

    Wood has copped some pretty bad tackles this last week for a short hasty blog post. I’m sure he regrets aspects of it. For my money, though, this episode hasn’t been a scrap but a pile on.

    1. I’m glad that your comment was at the end Ben because as I kept reading, I was thinking of what I was going to say, but you sir have summed it up perfectly.

    2. Hello Ben, I removed the term ‘blog’ from Jonathan’s piece – for a publication to be running a blog in 2018 makes it sound like they’ve just entered the millennium. We don’t make the distinction at Overland, and I don’t recognise it for any other publications – because if a publication is willing to publish something, what difference does it make? (And frankly, the use of ‘blog’, unless personal, reveals the backwardness of digital literary discourse.)

      Of course, I should’ve known that the great literary men had already weighed into this debate, therefore making the response I published redundant(?) I didn’t realise that in public there are only a limited number of responses allowed.

      And if I was going to call someone a cunt, I wouldn’t asterisk it out: what are we supposed to be protecting the reader from – the distance to their smelling salts?

    3. Further, the notion that Wood is somehow an underdog is actually offensive. He’s well off, he’s had a career well supported in funding and grants (over 300k last time I checked) – some of which from Aboriginal organisations – he’s had fellowships, he’s been published basically everywhere, if he’s not liked in Australian poetry it’s not a conspiracy, it’s his own behaviour.

      1. Adding my first comment here because it didn’t seem to make it through moderation:

        Ben, this response doesn’t signify you or Wood. If you take ire at the satirical tone of this response; I assume you’ve also criticised the smarm which has dripped from the majority of Wood’s writing? You’ve told me once that you respected my article on decoloniality and education. Did you criticise Wood’s response to it, where he dismissed the political impetus behind my demands for responsible treatment of Aboriginal voices by saying that decolonility is about allies? Wood has had many opportunities to do better than he did in this article. Jonathan was asked to write this piece by people on the other side of the many bridges Wood has burnt. Critique his work all you want, but don’t critique the fact that Wood needs to be called out for many issues, this just being the most easily disputable with basic facts.

        The kind of depoliticised self interest which Wood advocates for is not the hill you want to die on.

    4. Thank you for declaring your personal interest – because from any perspective resembling the analytic rigor you aspire to in Critic Watch, the above is embarrassing, heavily rhetorical, barely substantiated bullshit. Bullshit without a single defense of the position, the frequent errors, and the self-centering gestures I’ve criticized.

      The ‘pile on’ you evoke is presumably the measured factual corrections of people like Jaya and Toby on social media? Or is it the restraint of people like Nathaniel O’Reilly and Alison Croggon, who didn’t criticize Wood because of something like ECR fool’s license.

      That’s a great deal more leeway than you’ve shown here, and you, Wood, and most critics have shown elsewhere. Critics, like you, Wood and me should be prepared to defend their arguments without this kind of puerile theatre, as I am. Mine stand up.

      The reference to worldlit was – obviously – germane to the terms and contexts of Wood’s argument. I’m not sure that it is trendy anymore actually, but you might know better than I do, I believe your PhD is from Cambridge mate?

      I eagerly await your response, I’m happy to debate in nuanced terms with or without sporting metaphors. I didn’t just slip into this piece, I was invited and I thought about the text in front of me, the arguments it made, and the contexts it invoked. I was paid for it, and I take responsibility for it. That’s criticism. Talk shit get hit.

      And if it’s any of your business the bequest of my APA equivalent scholarship requires me to advertise it on published work.

  5. Ben, in the unlikely event you decide to leave this half baked screed up I’ll engage with the substance of your argument, such as it is, later. I’m at a NAIDOC event.

    For now I’ll just add that I was invited to write this. I think plenty of more established people wanted to, but thought it would be unseemly.

    And for the record the version I wrote mentioned the blog. I’m sure Jacinda will be happy to corroborate this.

  6. Hi everyone,

    Thank you for your replies, which are all understandable. I owe some apologies. First to Jonathan: whatever my misgivings about your piece, I’m sorry, my reply was uncalled for. I apologise especially for the reference to the title of your PhD name and to your use of scholarly references. Though I maintain that your piece is unfair to Robert’s blog essay, I support unstinting public criticism, and hope this does not deter you.

    Second, to Jacinda: I should have checked in with you before publishing such strong criticism; these things shouldn’t be left to impulse allowing assumptions to run unchecked.

    Third to Robert/Robbie: when you I saw you being rounded on I should have taken the opportunity to to mediate, not to ratchet things up.

    For the record, and what I should have written earlier: I think the many harsh and in some cases personal criticisms Robert has received for his BLARB piece this last week have overlooked its rhetorical premise as a blog post, and the overtly mischievous use of a conceit. Form and rhetorical license should be acknowledged and incorporated into any reckoning with the substance of a critical piece. That does not excuse omissions and factual inaccuracies. As it is, the blog post has been treated as though it presented itself in form and rhetoric as a definitive account/overview of Australian poetry.

  7. Hi Ben, I can see things have gotten heated here, but I’m going to add a few of my own comments to this anyway. Hopefully they’re taken in the spirit of your good work on Critic Watch.

    I don’t think a few subtweets amount to much of a piling on. Dunk’s humorously grumpy op ed, criticising Wood’s writing for what it is, is probably a more appropriate formal response than any so far. I also have trouble believing that Wood is somehow the “unco kid” here. That’s a tad concocted. He has published more literary criticism in more venues than pretty much anyone in Australia over the last 3 years, and so he has a bit to answer for, or at least a larger responsibility to offer more nuanced criticism.

    Yes, we shouldn’t be afraid of negative public debate of poets’ works, as you’ve advocated in the past and now, but it goes both ways—critics shouldn’t be immune either. And judging by the backlash, people want to see it done better, more thoroughly, particularly when it’s making large claims on an international stage. To suggest there is some mischievous conceit behind Wood’s “blog” (= semantics) is giving it too much credit. His formless article is clearly fabricating the idea that there is a downturn in Australian poetry publishing—which is fake news—all so that he can publicly turn on the publishers and former bosses who have rejected or fallen out with him, thereby washing himself of them (this, supposedly in a review of someone else’s book).

    You’re an astute critic yourself—surely you can see the issues with this approach to writing, issues which have accumulated across a number of Wood’s articles and reached a tipping point with this one (the loose playing with the facts, the elisions and spurious generalisations that lead to curiously revisionist, appropriative, and often self-serving arguments). Or is your friendship obscuring your view of this?

    In the interests of public debate, you were one of three judges who awarded him a Sydney Review of Books Emerging Critics Fellowship … I’m sorry to bring that up. There is just such a great emphasis on awards, titles, fellowships and status these days, and even in your comments here … but it all means nothing at the end of the day if one can’t write for writing’s sake.

  8. Hi Toby,

    Thank you for writing in you even and clear way.

    On your last point first: as the judge’s report made clear (, there was a transparent process for dealing with conflicts of interest. If you would like more specific details, I’ll be happy to talk them over with you, or you can contact Shannon Burns and/or Michelle Cahill. There were a number of applicants where conflicts of interest arose. Here is not the place to go through the minutiae of the process.

    One of the regrets I have about my response is that I my longstanding friendship with Wood made my own attempt at adopting a humorously grumpy rhetoric an epic fail. My intent was to defend a friend (as a friend) from what I felt was an unfairly harsh treatment that was out of proportion with the style, purview and purpose of Wood’s BLARB piece — one that took risks that should be acknowledged, even as it is critiqued. I took an aggressive rather than a mediating approach, and that was absolutely the wrong thing to do. I spoke to Jonathan on the phone last night and apologised in person as well as in these below the line comments.

    There are a couple of things to say by way of clarification, though. If Jonathan’s critique were directed at Wood’s corpus of criticism as a whole, then your defence would be valid. Close reading a single piece that conspicuously displays its loose rhetoric and style on a forum designed for short provocative pieces, one that a number of influential people had already dumped on (and I’m not sure of you’re aware of the extent of it, you were not upmost in my mind when I wrote that line), seemed to be piling on the pain without any further clarification of the issues at stake or a sense of why this, of all pieces, should be regarded as a tipping point.

    As for my own views of the weaknesses of that BLARB post: yes, here are bad omissions, factual inaccuracies, and a too-easy narrative about ‘decline’. I conveyed my thoughts about these to Wood via a message soon after he published it. The stretched conceit, by all accounts didn’t work, but it seemed to advertise its flippancy. What has followed, though, has involved some quite casual and damning ad hominem denunciations, the force of which quite surprised me and, as a friend, I felt that pain directly. That shaped the nature of my own intervention, for the worse, but we can’t always cleanse our public behaviour of emotions.

  9. I’d like to recognise the thoughtful responses from a number of people since the publication of ‘Diamonds in the Rough’. This has been on social media from Jaya Savige to Toby Fitch to Sam Cooney, and many others besides. It has also been in private messages that have ranged from the rightly critical to the blindly supportive. Perhaps most importantly, I want to thank Jonathan Dunk for his extensive review and to Jacinda Woodhead who edited it. I found myself agreeing with a lot of what had been said, particularly in Dunk’s analysis. I welcomed all these perspectives and have learned a lot. I am grateful for that.

    In my time, I have written a lot of bad criticism – incorrect, polemical, hasty, muddled, and unkind – and a lot of it on contemporary Australian poetry. This has not often been done well, but it has always come from a deep affection for this field and its people. I also write from a position of privilege when it comes to class, education, funding, experience, and lifestyle. There is no argument there, and, I have always tried to own that and be an ally.

    At this stage, I would like to apologise, both to a community made up of individuals and also to Kent MacCarter. I failed to convey how much respect I have for Kent as a publisher, poet, and person. That is bad criticism on my behalf and Kent deserves better. I will leave it up to others to write on Australian poetry, ‘California Sweet’, and Cordite in the future. That is a collective task that continues to matter.

    I hope this discussion not only highlights my many and varied shortcomings in that review and elsewhere. I also hope it can help poetry as a whole. In that way, if anyone wants to contribute a poetics essay to BLARB on any aspect of contemporary Australian poetry, get in touch. This not only goes for Toby, Jonathan, Evelyn and others who have commented here, but everyone else out there who writes poetics. I will connect you with my editor. I hope I can make that space available to others. Thanks for reading.

  10. Thank you for your admirably collegiate responses Ben & Robert.

    We all know that the terms of criticism make personal attacks and personal responses easier than they should be, when our object is overwhelmingly otherwise.

    I’ve written some dodgy criticism myself, and I’m aware of how the structures and pressures of production can incentivise it.

    I hope we all continue to write about Australian poetry, as I’m sure we share the belief that an active critical discourse contributes to its breadth and vitality.

  11. Shortest poetry war/skirmish I can recall – maybe the local discourse has come of age? – or is it that what transpired here was always a/n (un)necessary internecine settling of bad blood? Feel for the innocent party in all this still.

  12. Some quote from charles bernstein reflecting the general narrative trend of this comment thread towards recantations says:

    “I was wrong, I apologize, I recant. I altogether abandon the false opinion that National Poetry Month is not good for poetry and for poets. I abjure, curse, and detest the aforesaid error and apostasy. And I now freely and openly attest to the virtues of National Poetry Month in throwing a national spotlight on poetry, so crucial to keeping verse alive in the twenty-first century. I was wrong, I apologize, I recant. I altogether abandon the false opinion that only elitist and obscure poetry should be praised. I abjure, curse, detest, and renounce the aforesaid error and aversion. And I now freely and openly attest that the best way to get general readers to start to read poetry is to present them with broadly appealing work, with strong emotional content and a clear narrative line. I altogether abandon the false opinion that official verse culture, through prestigious prizes awarded for merit and reviews in nationally circulated publications selected for major importance, and including the appointments of the poets laureate, does not represent the best and the finest, the most profound and significant, the richest and the most rewarding, poetry of our nation. And now that I myself, in my person and through my work, have ascended into this Exalted Company, and joined the rarified and incorrigible company of official verse culture, I do here cast stones and sticks and call an abomination and curse and scorn and repudiate any who would not cherish and adore both the process and product of that official verse culture that has embraced, with trepidation and embarrassment, and with noses tightly pinched and earmuffs in place, my unworthy ascent. I altogether abandon the false opinion that advocacy or partisan positioning has any place in poetry and poetics. Poetry and poetics should be reserved for those who look beyond the contentions of the present into the eternal verities, the truths beyond this world that never change, as represented in the Books of the Accessible Poets. I further stipulate that I recant, categorically, that poetry is an activity of the intellect and herewith and hereby declare and proclaim that true poetry is an affair of the heart and only the heart. I altogether abandon the false doctrine of midrashic antinomianism and bent studies, which I have promulgated in writings, lectures, and teaching, with its base and cowardly insistence on ethical, dialogic, and situational values rather than fixed and immutable moral laws. I loved language more than truth, discourse more than reality, and so allowed to spread, in myself and others, an intellectual virus that uproots the plain sense of the word.”

  13. Yeah, right

    If only this occasion were so worthy


    Resist the orbits of attention

    Be Shelley. Or be Ozymandias

  14. Riddles of a sphinx?

    Au contraire. Further proof that there is no criticism except from those capable of it, and how you can only be critical of that which you truly love.

  15. Oh, well, can’t wait, may not be back this way again, so I’ll mount my defense here now …

    It wasn’t as though I was suggesting anyone place a jar in Tennessee or anything Romantic like that when I wrote my first critical proposition (‘that there is no criticism except from those capable of it’) which though, is exactly what the commenter quoting Charles Bernstein does, so showing how Bernstein was/is capable of criticism, and that commenter not, and similarly with the second commenter, who quotes uncritically and ineptly a poet’s poem he (I take the commenter to be male) loves, Shelley’s Ozymandias, so demonstrating my second proposition, ‘that you can only be critical of that which you truly love’.

    Which was all there was to that comment as a whole from my way of thinking, though I do acknowledge that there are privileged critics and critical inequalities operating all the time in poetic discourses (as elsewhere), just as there are critics who continue to pursue democratic pedagogies.

    All of which demonstrates again that famed golfing truism: you drive for show and putt for dough.

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