In her poem ‘The Eucalypt and the National Character’, Judith Wright wrote of ‘she’, whose hardy formlessness symbolises the agility at the heart of the Australian character:
She, on the other hand, follows a delicate bent of her own. Worn by such aeons, dried by such winds, she has learned to be flexible, spare, flesh close to the bone. Ready for any catastrophe, every extreme, she leaves herself plenty of margin […] Everything bends whip-supple, pivoting, loose, […] She is artist enough to manage a graceful asymmetry
Opposed to ‘graceful asymmetry’ are those who misread ‘informality’ as a mess of disorder, indifference and vulgarity. Form in poetry has always been a moral or ethical problem, a political gesture. Wright, for instance, was resisting settler guilt and the cultural cringe – ‘we’re half afraid of bad form’ – her lithe eucalypt breaking into flower after waiting grimly for months, blooming, finally, ‘when the weather is right’.
The right form can emerge at the right place at the right time, if you have the nerve to catch it (rather than chop it down!). Not seeing the wood for the trees, critics of innovation and experimentation in Australian poetry often confuse asymmetry with banal fluidity, unable to appreciate how tolerance and adaptability can emerge from total engagement and ‘the toughest care’ of situated, human yearning in all its modes.
The Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize for New and Emerging Poets has always honoured Wright’s insight by looking out for that whip-supple flowering of fragile strength that makes a really good new poem so distinctive. This year has been no exception. As I’ve said in previous reports, I’m always happy when – after many weeks of reading many hundreds of entries – those small, bright-gold pieces fall into my hands. Each one is singularly graceful and asymmetrical, but so right and beautiful in its own way that it completely stands on its own terms.
Every year, as I turn the small treasures over and over, I ask myself what it means to be an ‘emerging poet’. Time and again, the shortlisted poems exhibit a kind of utopian rupture that refuses the status quo in writing primed or adroit. This is certainly the case for our new shortlisted poets – Chris Armstrong, Alexia Derbas, Kia Groom, Melody Paloma, Omar Sakr and Ben Walter. There are no claims for totality, just an urgency that synthesises the senses with spiritual pliability and political intuition. Humane, resistant, unrelaxed. Or perhaps relaxed.
Melody Paloma’s winning poem ‘Hyper-reactive’ is all these. I was first struck by the sharpness and density of her lines, the sudden entry – ‘rip through traffic lights in Brunswick / to the sound of night lions / sugar strings – teeth to tongue’ – like Gig Ryan meets Jorie Graham via the New York School, the real made aphoristic, the unreal totally sensible. Every line in ‘Hyper-reactive’ is a complete thought. Together they accumulate and crystalise in a work of art that, like a painting or sculpture, reveals moments as if they are truly timeless. Informal form becomes a horizon of possibility. I was quietly blown away by Paloma’s poem – its simplicity, accuracy and optimism, and congratulate her on winning the prize this year.
Both runner-up poems are equally fantastic. Chris Armstrong’s ‘Exile’ and Kia Groom’s ‘Be Were’ limn the extremities of substance and duration. Armstrong hikes on the boundaries of language, self and nature, contesting the uncertainty of human sentience in a cosmos that is alive to but essentially indifferent to our existence. Groom’s poem takes that uncertainty further, dissolving the fringes of the human and the creaturely to reshape form itself in a moment of carnal desire, power and violence. In both poems, poetic language is liberatory and transfiguring.
Indeed, every one of the shortlisted poems can be celebrated for its emancipatory, transformative reach. As with Wright’s eucalypt, we can be grateful for all their graceful asymmetries, and so much more.