Idiosyncrasy and the Craft of Poetry: On Les Murray’s The New Oxford Book Of Australian Verse and Peter Porter’s The Oxford Book Modern Australian Poetry

In terms of Australian poetry and its place in the English-language poetry canon, Australia is a fiercely protectionist place. And protectionism has been a strong part of its social and economic history as well. I find it interesting, as an advocate of deregulation, not only within the English-speaking world but between all national and idiolectical poetries, that the first question one feels one must ask when reviewing anthologies of national verse is: in what way are they representative of the poetry that has been or is being written in that country? But also – and this is especially relevant in the case of Les Murray’s The New Oxford Book Of Australian Verse – how representative of a culture, per se, are they? Les Murray is a well known cultural sovereigntist, but at no time does he see the “island” of Australian poetry existing without connection to the rest of the world. Murray is a widely-read poet here in England, one who has developed his own readership while retaining his particular vernacular. And Peter Porter, editor of The Oxford Book Of Modern Australian Verse, is an expatriate Australian, who is as much at home among English poets as he is among Australians. In many ways, this combination is ideally suited to painting a portrait of Australian poetry that is as readable in England or elsewhere as it is “back home”. The point would largely be irrelevant if these were anthologies published only in Australia, but they have been released here in the UK as well by Oxford.

The resistance within Australia to outside evaluations of Australian culture/s is profound. A telling example, if a minor one, can be found in the reaction by a subscriber to an Australian literature studies list on the internet who asked, on the death of a prominent overseas author, “What has this to do with Australian literature?” It has to do with the need to consolidate a literature in its own terms, to throw off the colonialist shackles and create an “identity”. The fringe becoming its own centre. What I like about these anthologies is that neither of them “cringes” in the face of “European” culture (ie perceptually the dominant parental “culture”), but neither of them sets itself up as overtly self-conscious tub-thumping. In a sense, given Porter’s position in English poetry, this would be impossible, but some may find it surprising given Murray’s supposed jingoistic view of Australia. But like much else with Murray, such perceptions have more to do with portrayal by the media than with the actual beliefs of the man. Murray may be self-conscious in terms of cultural rivalries within Australia, and also rivalries between states of mind symbolised by the Athenian and Boeotian divide of European and New World cultures, but at the heart of the issue is the sheer pleasure he gains from participating in and experiencing the vernacular.

Central to Murray’s work is this notion of the Athenian and the Boeotian (terms that arose directly out of a “dialogue” with Peter Porter). Briefly, Athens symbolises the new, the crass, the commercial. It is the abstracting part of the brain (the “forebrain”), the producer of Rationality, while Boeotia is that part of the brain that is imagination, dream and inspiration; it is the place of ritualism and ancestral inheritance (the “poem”).1 Murray examines history as a struggle between these two forces or states of mind. Peter Porter, who had come to symbolise the “exodus” to the place of “enlightenment” and rationality – the Old World – in his poem “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Hesiod”, drew an analogy between Hesiod and Les Murray; he said, “Yes, Australians are Boeotians.” Porter was referring to Murray’s 1972 poem “The Boeotian Count”.

Given the background, given that one publisher is publishing two anthologies – be it covering different time scales, though still considerably overlapping – it is worth examining the selection and editorial rationale against such a backdrop, especially from an English poetry reader’s perspective. But to impose this “Athenian”/”Boeotian” binary on a comparative survey of these anthologies invites problems – the temptation is certainly there, but it is one that should be carried out with caution and circumspection. Both men are more generous than such a divide would allow.

Well, there is the rural tone in the Murray anthology, there is definitely a Boeotian way of looking at things, but there’s plenty of the city. Though there’s not a lot of “high culture”. From transliterated Aboriginal song cycles, to popular rhymes, to poems of the “city” and poems of the “bush”, Murray captures the spirit of free expression that he values so highly in the Australian idiom. It is a personable and “friendly” anthology. Porter is also “broadminded” – we find plenty of the country, but also the urban and “cities of the world” tone. Porter’s criteria seem to have been the best that the best of the time can offer. Apart from the omission of the odd poet I would have felt inclined to include – particularly Harry Hooton – Porter has managed to capture much of the “new” and outward-looking spirit of Australian verse from Robert Fitzgerald and AD Hope, writing in the middle of the century (from August 1945 to be exact) through to Tracy Ryan and Judith Bishop, very recent poets. What is particularly exciting is that it is not a stagnant, retrospective anthology. It suggests and almost pleads for progress. One is left not with the feeling of, “this is what we’ve/they’ve managed to do”, but of “it’s a substantial accomplishment, and much more is possible”.

This is also evident in the updating of the original Murray anthology of 1986 – there is a breadth of possibility, especially in the language usage of poems which deal with familiar themes found throughout the book. But Murray’s book is more about a cultural feeling than specific developments in craft. In many ways Murray’s volume is concerned with poetry as specifically culturally reflective, and Porter’s concern is for the state of poetic craft in Australian poetry – though the picture is somewhat more complex than this.

Murray may go out of his way to choose unusual pieces from poets, or what he terms a poet’s “Strange poem”, as opposed to the poet’s most “accomplished” piece that is frequently anthologised, that is seen as representative of good and Australian poetry. He writes in his brief foreword, “Australian readers will notice that I have tended to steer clear of standard anthology pieces, and have been sparing with the established classics.” This is not to say some of the “great” Australian poems aren’t there, but rather that Murray’s view of the poetry anthology is more representative than canonical. He qualifies by saying, “These latter [that is, the established classics] did present problems, as some of them are so obviously their authors’ best work and so clearly part of the nation’s essential heritage, that to omit them, even for the sake of freshness, would have been merely perverse.” The key here is “the nation’s essential heritage”, for it is the cultural sovereignty of Australia that concerns Murray. His is, above and beyond all else, a book about the evolution of an Australian vernacular.

One of the features of this anthology which was much talked about when its first edition came out in 1986 was that it included translations of Aboriginal song texts and contemporary English-language Aboriginal poetry, the latter beginning with David Unaipon’s “Song of Hungarrda”. As an extension of this, I think it would have been interesting to counterpoint these renditions against contemporary Aboriginal poets who make use of the song cycle, such as Lionel Fogarty or Mudrooroo. The second-last poet featured is the Aboriginal poet Charmaine Papertalk-Green, but it is with a poem that does not counterpoint the presentation of “translation”. The irony is strong though:

Wanna Be White

My man took off yesterday

with a waagin

He left me and the kids

to be something in this world

said he sick of being

black, poor and laughed at

Said he wanted to be white

have better clothes, a flash car

and eat fancy

He said me and the kids

would give him a bad name

because we are black too

So he left with a waagin

One of the important aspects of the Porter anthology is the inclusion of Fogarty. He uses the colonising language superbly against itself:

Tonight overturned hells

brang surface innocent olds

Tonight my people don’t wait

for successions of society

But yell, sing souls to

our endless dreaming

Today my people have a Murri

Thirtieth century culture

but with care safe and snarls

Today my people feel precious as

human beings burials and birth

Mankind demands imperative love

for all, And my people never

wants to escalating barbarous century.

For now Today up home they free:

Tonight they will learn to fight consciences.

Getting away from the process of anthologising, and examining the poems instead, it seems fair enough to say that it is hard to find a poem in either anthology that isn’t interesting or competent. And in many cases, the poems are good and even stunning. I find it a pleasure to discover those “strange” or not usually anthologised poems that Murray talks about in his introduction. From John Shaw Neilsen one might expect to find “The Orange Tree” and “Crane” but instead we are offered “May”, Schoolgirls Hastening”, and “To the Red Lory”. Though many would argue that “May” is indeed one of Neilsen’s finest:


Shyly the silver-hatted mushrooms make

Soft entrance through,

And undelivered lovers, half awake,

Hear noises in the dew.

Yellow in all the earth and in the skies,

The world would seem

Faint as a widow mourning with soft eyes

And falling into a dream.

Up the long hill I see the slow plough leave

Furrows of brown;

Dim is the day and beautiful; I grieve

To see the sun go down.

But there are suns a many for mine eyes

Day after Day:

Delightsome in grave greenery they rise,

Red oranges in May.

Here we find the delicacy, whimsy, and mystery of the best Neilsen poems. It is a lyric that paces itself, is neat without being overly tight, and has just that touch of awkwardness that conjures the characteristic “naive” vision.

It seems strange reading an anthology of modern Australian poetry and finding no Kenneth Slessor – considered by many, despite the claims of Ern Malley, to be Australia’s most influential early Modernist poet. “Five Bells”, one classic which is found in the Murray anthology, doesn’t fit into the post-1945 approach of Porter’s The Oxford Book Of Modern Australian Verse. But recent innovators in verse are to be found in force in the Porter volume. You’ll find good work from John Tranter, John Forbes, Jennifer Maiden, and Robert Adamson. There is also fine work, from the flipside of the coin, from Robert Gray, Geoffery Lehmann, and Fay Zwicky. Something that becomes obvious from Porter’s selection is how artificial the divisions are between different faces of Modernism. The post-imagist Gray and the post-modern Tranter may differ fundamentally in tone and content, but when read against the hybrid work of Francis Webb and even Bruce Beaver it is clear the work shares a common ancestry. And Jennifer Maiden is a poet who refuses almost all labels:


Kelly sharpened is powerful, asexual and yawns,

curls up on tartan cushions with pick-me-up arms,

viewed by no one but cat, video, grandmother.

She is cranky with Nan’s tabby. He is sleek

and haughtily whores, meanwhile demanding all

the messy food and closeness they can muster.

She ate last night and will not eat this week.

Her body lives off itself like anger.

It was too dumb, too soft, too tall.

She bites her mouth because it’s still a stranger.

Most of the “newer” poets who have gained recognition in recent years are there, with particularly good material from Peter Rose, Gig Ryan, and Philip Hodgins.

A poet well represented in both anthologies is the almost archetypal poet Michael Dransfield, who after a reasonably public life of excess died in 1973 at the age of twenty-four, having produced a substantial body of work. Much of this work has been rejected as being rough or trivial, but certain pieces have become decidedly canonised. Dransfield epitomised, in many people’s minds, the “freedoms” and concerns of his era. His poems were often overtly political – both socially and culturally, both caught in the moment and conscious of a poetic inheritance (particularly Swinburne, Keats, and Tennyson) – and personal. He was seen as Australia’s almost legitimate poEete maudit, that romantic we just had to have. But Dransfield did write some important verse. “Fix”, which is found in both anthologies, may not be one of his major poems, but in the context of a “modernising” Australian poetic, and in terms of the process of mythologising the poet as “sufferer” – its “anthemic” quality – it was and is an important one:


It is waking in the night,

after the theatres and before the milkman,

alerted by some signal from the golden drug tapeworm

that eats your flesh and drinks your peace;

you reach for your needle and busy yourself

preparing the utopia substance in a blackened

spoon held in candle flame

by now your thumb and finger are leathery

being so often burned this way

it hurts much less than withdrawal and the hand

is needed for little else now anyway.

Then cordon off the arm with a belt,

probe for a vein, send the dream transfusion out

on a voyage among your body machinery. Hits you like sleep –

sweet, illusory, fast, with a semblance of forever.

For a while the fires die down in you,

until you die down in the fires.

Once you have become a drug addict

you will never want to be anything else.

Both anthologies are accomplished in their own terms, and each reads well against the other. If the competence of the Porter anthology strikes through, the breadth and variety of the Murray anthology are equally satisfying. Together, they bring a collective sense of timelessness and change, of movement and permanence. The first poem collected by Murray is a translation of “Lalai (Dreamtime)” recounted by Sam Woolagoodjah, with the opening lines “Dreamtime,/ The first ones lives, those of long ago”; while the second is “The Kangaroo” by Barron Field, written in 1819, which ends with the lines: “Be still the glory of this land,/ Happiest work of finest hand!” The disjunction between the two pieces characterises Australian poetry, or as Richard Whately writes in the early days of the colony:

There is a place in distant seas

Full of Contrarieties:

There, beasts have mallards’ bills and legs,

Have spurs like cocks, like hens lay eggs.

1 See Lawrence Bourke’s A Vivid Steady State, NSW University Press, Sydney, 1992, for more on this.