Breaking Down the Barriers

The “Special Issue” is an interesting concept. It has a twofold message. First, that it is out of the ordinary, and second, that it is a significant event. The relationship between Britain and Australia is a specific one, though one that has fundamentally changed, and will continue to do so over coming years. As Australia moves towards a republic, and the inevitable displacement of the Queen as its head of state, there is a consciousness both in Britain and in Australia that “difference'” is increasing. But this is an odd way of looking at things, since difference was always there. And the question of a paternal relationship vis à vis the colonial and the centre is one that was, at least in theory, ended by Federation, if not before.

Some years ago I co-edited a special double issue of the American journal, Poetry. The dynamic was different, as one would expect. The relationship of the US with the English language has similarities to Australia’s relationship with English. The question of national language and identity is one that has been worked over time and time again. Australian poetry was presented on that occasion as having certain historical and cultural elements in common with the American, but also as another grouping of poetic voices in an international context. With this special issue of Poetry Review, these factors are also evident, but the centre-fringe binary is far more obvious and present – it’s the uneasy and complex relationship between the “old country” and “new country”.

In Australia, the question of cultural sovereignty, of the “vernacular republic”, to use Les Murray’s expression, of Macquarie English, informs much of the literature of white national identity. What increasingly makes Australian poetry different from canonical British poetry? There are the different building blocks, the different environment and social concerns, and so on, but more than that, the way language itself is changing and consequently altering the way Australians think about themselves with respect to the rest of the world. As with the States, the importance and relevance of non-English language cultures is an evolving focus. The recognition that there are “unofficial” literatures, that Australia’s voices are multicultural and not so easily pigeon-holed, is paramount. Of prime importance is the relationship between settler or invader cultures, and indigenous cultures. The framing of these relationships is especially complex given that gradations of rights of presence give rise to other forms of racism and exclusion. For example, the Hansonite voice of anti-Asianism being linked with anti-Aboriginal sentiment. Lyn McCredden’s excellent piece here explores the growth of an Aboriginal English-language poetry of protest and community and humour, of relationships to “the land” and white culture specifically.

The question of isolation is being turned on its head in Australian society. Apart from increasingly efficient transport, communications – especially the global village of the internet – we are asking, from what, indeed, is one being isolated? More pollution than we have, ideas that belong to different geographies and histories? There is a growing sense that presence in the now is as relevant and productive as living in a state of mind elsewhere. In recent times I’ve been developing a theory of “international regionalism” – a global interaction while retaining and protecting regional identity. I think much of the work contained in this issue supports this world view. Australia as national concept is there – even external views of Australia – but it’s also there in an international context. This is not a culture looking for security, but one confident to embrace and explore other literatures and cultures without minimising the worth of its own. But it’s also increasingly aware of its own failings – of racism, of gender inequality, of the need to stand alone and yet still be an active player in world affairs.

Further, there is the question of the environment. Paradoxically both robust and vulnerable, the Australian environment has been severely affected by European farming practices, logging and mining. Glen Phillips in an article on landscape and contemporary Australian poetry examines some of the ways Australian poets deal with this legacy. There are voices of criticism; there are also voices of celebration. All are part of the picture. And there are the voices of the urban landscape – most of Australia’s population is concentrated in its capital cities. Rod Mengham’s deft consideration of some aspects of the poetry of John Forbes, Gig Ryan, and John Tranter – poets whose work arises out of the great metropolises of Sydney and Melbourne, as well as an often ironic relationship with the Western tradition – is to be savoured.

In his inimitable ironic style, John Tranter captures much of this Australian take on internationalism in an article on his internet journal Jacket. It is evident too in many of the poems. Peter Porter is an interesting focal point, in that he is still perceived as an Australian poet in cultural exile. But I think the time of exile has passed, and he, at least to my generation, is an Australian poet who has made a life abroad. And why not – he can only enrich the culture he has physically left by feeding it information about the one he has chosen to live in.

It is especially pleasing to see something of a cross-generational representation of Australian poetry in this special issue. There’s Frank Kermode’s choice of AD Hope, one of the few Australian poets of his generation to be known outside Australia. And Judith Rodriguez writing on Hope’s near-contemporaries, the brilliant Judith Wright and Gwen Harwood. Plus two fine poems from the great senior poet still writing in Australia, Dorothy Hewett. Equally pleasing is the breaking down of barriers. Australian poetry has been fraught with division, especially in the 70s and 80s, but I see that split as gradually passing. The camp of Les Murray and the camp of Tranter-Adamson, or what Murray might once have referred to as the “Balmain poets”, are less decided now. People like Peter Minter, Alison Croggon, Coral Hull, Tracy Ryan and Louis Armand belong to no “camp”, and have wide-ranging influences and “allegiances”. They might read Philip Larkin and Lyn Hejinian on the same evening. French or Korean poetry in translation or the original, linguistically innovative or canonical four-line stanzas: all are in the mix. This issue features two prose poems from Croggon and Hull. Form is active and negotiable right across the board of Australian poetry. I have long seen Les Murray as an innovative user of language. John Tranter himself might be bemused when told he was head of a camp. His efforts through the medium of the internet have done much to break down barriers and divisions. And he’s always been a Sydney poet willing to visit Melbourne!

Finally, it is worth noting the increasing availability of Australian poetry in Britain. Apart from editions of Peter Porter, Les Murray, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Judith Wright, Gwen Harwood, Dorothy Hewett, Dorothy Porter, and myself, there has recently been publication of Robert Gray and John Tranter, with editions due from Bloodaxe of Tracy Ryan, Kevin Hart, and a multiple volume that will include Gig Ryan, John Forbes, and John Scott. Arc also have a healthy Australian list pencilled in for the next few years, as well as the anthology Landbridge. But in addition to the publication of Australian poets in Britain, it is my hope that more titles of contemporary British poets will become available in Australia. And of those poets who would not normally find circulation, since they are not published by major companies. The co-publication of JH Prynne’s Poems by Bloodaxe, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, and Folio (Salt), is just one such example. May there be more cultural exchange between the nations, without the prejudices and discomfort of the past. Each has something to offer the other.