Introduction to Landbridge: Contemporary Australian Poetry

Australian poetry is rapidly finding a place in the context of an international poetics. It is considered by many Australians and non-Australians to be vital and unique, and one of the “growth areas” of English-language poetry. This anthology has come together out of a desire to identify the diversity and energy of Australian poetry, and to show how the development of individual voices into the next century will contribute to a collective poetics.

I have no interest in restating the history of Australian poetry, as is done in many anthologies. The notion of appending Aboriginal oral traditions to just over two hundred years of post-settlement poetries to create some kind of nation-making canon has more to do with the politics of power, conquest, and unease than to do with identifying a particular poetic voice. I find such canon-making appropriative and artificial. It tends to be exclusive and consequently dismissive. Australian poetry, from the point of view of this anthology, is a geographic and psychological entity rather than a purely historical one. If the poet is from Australia, lives in Australia, or perceives him or herself to be part of Australia, however they might envision it, then they are worthy of consideration for inclusion.

From this starting point I have looked to those poets who are likely to develop and expand their oeuvres into the next century, who are likely to contribute to the language in some energetic way, given favourable conditions. I have no specific inclination toward the experimental or the formal, and in fact am most interested where the two meet. I often find the experimental where it’s not supposed to exist, and the strong formalist tendencies in the reputedly avant-garde. So the binary is upset, even irrelevant from the outset.

The reader will find many of the established “names” writing Australian poetry today – including Les Murray, Peter Porter, John Tranter, Dorothy Hewett, Fay Zwicky, Robert Gray, Gig Ryan, Kevin Hart, and Robert Adamson – in this anthology, as well the names of those who’ve made relatively recent appearances but have already shown that they will contribute to the evolution of an Australian language and poetics over the coming years – Alison Croggon, Peter Minter, Margie Cronin, Tracy Ryan, and many others. The anthologiser’s guide to gender, ethncity, and class, has been rejected for the linguist’s guide to multiple and varied language usage – one usually finds that flexibility on this level allows for a less forced and more accurate reading of variety in these other “categories”.

I have looked for language that is alive and vital, that adds something new to our reading experience, that escapes from the trap of telling the reader how a text should be read. This isn’t a collection of identities, but of poems. The text wins hands down for me. Above and beyond everything else, each poet included has been given basically the same amount of space and been offered the opportunity to make a statement of intent and include a biographical note. This is intended to assist in moving with the poet’s “project” and to take the place of the canon-making pronouncements of the anthologist. I hope this volume, through the poets and their words, will dictate its own boundaries and determine its own fields of influence, or otherwise.

My intention has been to retain the integrity of regional identity and create lines of communication between regions, on a global scale – create an atmosphere of international regionalism. I want “this” Australia to be read in an international context. I am interested in poets who represent aspects of the variable Australian voice. Whatever this might be, it’s not fixed nor representative – diverse cultures merge to make it a growing and interactive language. As a consequence of the progressive nature of this anthology, it is with regret that some significant voices of recent years aren’t included, such as those of Gwen Harwood and Philip Hodgins, whose deaths have meant a great loss for poetry in general. I have decided to include only those poets actively writing at the time of compilation. The late John Forbes, whose witty metaphysical poems (I note this term becoming increasingly associated with his work) have astounded more than one generation, and whose voice is undoubtedly one of the most unique in late twentieth-century English language poetry, has been included as he was still alive while the volume was being compiled. We were able to discuss his selection personally, and this book is dedicated to his memory.

For me, the most significant voice to emerge in the latter years of this century is that of the Murri poet Lionel Fogarty. Fogarty has managed to use English as a weapon against its own colonising potential. He has created a positive hybrid that undoes the claim of linguistic centrality, and registers the primacy of the oral tradition. It is an integral part of the song cycle’s development. In many ways his project of reclamation and autonomy, strongly political in nature, and dynamically active on the language level (if the two are even separable), has led me to see the necessity of an anthology that is active and operates outside the usual canonical guidelines.

As part of the regional integrity aspect of the selection I’ve looked across Australia rather than purely on the Eastern seaboard. In the end, however, I only included those poets I felt would also have appeal outside “their” places. The book as a whole is interactive, something like a gallery space in which each work enhances our reading of another.

A few years ago I wrote an article for the Australian Book Review entitled “Pulp Factions”, in which I argued that the factionalism of Australian poetry was of little interest to the present generation of Australian writers. The divide between the so-called Generation of ’68 and the “Lehmann, Murray, Gray” camp, the animosities between the poetry “scenes” of Sydney and Melbourne, have been well documented elsewhere, and their signatures presented in a number of anthologies. Suffice it to say, that wonderful poets come from both sides of the “divide/s”, and that such animosities arose for concrete reasons, but they are of relatively little concern in the scheme of things. New rivalries and divides will appear and have appeared. Philosophical differences and questions of style and form abound, but these are endemic in any time. Difference is healthy as long as it generates debate. Many of the poets included in here were of those “wars”, but many aren’t. I’d like to collect them under a new banner: Australian poets exploring Australian languages.

The internet has already become the most significant medium for the internationalisation of Australian poetry. In running the “Poetry etc” international poetry email discussion list, I’ve noted the enthusiasm with which poets and critics from other cultures have responded to the geographic, demographic, and cultural particularities of Australian poetic voices. There is a fascination with the variety and breadth, the fact that it’s not all “wheat, sheep, and kangaroos” or “Sydney”. Not that people don’t look for those aspects too! But thereÍs an admiration for Australian poetry’s flexibility and fluidity. It is seen as a growth area.

The net has overcome such obvious problems as the difficulty of achieving overseas publication, and the expense of overseas communication. For all isolated cultures it has been a boon. Obviously access isn’t universal, but it is increasing. It’s worth mentioning the excellent Australian literature site OzLit and that hypertextual growth area that does so much for creating an international space through which Australians might move with poets from elsewhere: John Tranter’s web magazine, Jacket.

The culture of the literary journal is of particular interest to me, and quite a few of the poems selected in this anthology were first seen in literary journals, with a number coming from the journal I edit, Salt. Australia has had a fairly dynamic literary magazine culture, but one extremely vulnerable to the vagaries of federal and state government funding. The “big” journals such as Meanjin, Southerly, Westerly, Island, and Overland have been solid and reliable despite their funding ups and downs, while newer journals such as Siglo, Heat, and Cordite have maintained an atmosphere of cultural integrity and artistic potential. Above and beyond everything else, a literary journal culture is integral to the vitality of poetry and language itself. These are the testing grounds and places for juxtaposition and comparison. The crucibles of the word.

One of the most commonly imposed divisions, not only within Australian poetry but within Australian society in general, is that between the country and the city, the rural and the urban. The Boeotian-Athenian playoff that’s been going on in Australian criticism, using the Porter-Murray model, since the ’70s, has got a little long-in-the-tooth, and I’m sure both poets would be frustrated by the reductive nature of the model as it is haphazardly applied by critics in various circumstances. The idea that Murray represents one school of thought and Porter another has been a division of convenience. I have no interest in this. Murray is obviously a poet concerned with the rural, but he is also a linguist and deploys the language of science and mechanics frequently in his verse. Porter, urbane sophisticate, is richly versed in the pastoral inheritance. Critics use polarities to divide and conquer. It’s the poets’ voices we are listening to here.

In many ways, it is possible to read Australian poetry through and against the landscape, rural and pastoral models. I’m using “pastoral” here in the sense of the urban construct of the rural myth – as opposed to a specifically rural poetry. The Australian “bush” identity is as much a construct of the city as it is of bush balladeers and sing-alongs around the campfire under the Southern Cross. It is at the core of our national identity, the propaganda that has so effectively excluded outside interaction and marginalised indigenous peoples. As “British” and “Irish”-ness become Australianness in the poetry of Harpur and Kendall – the Australian landscape comes into its own – we recognise the moves toward an eventual consolidation of national identity.

The work of the poet David Campbell has been used to emphasise this transition, and inheritance. But as I’ve suggested, this is also a process of exclusion. Assimilating and absorbing landscape is the signifier for an Australian poetic, as it is for its art and culture generally. It’s not surprising that the language of landscape should underlie much of our verse. And it is present in the work of many of the poets included here – Mudrooroo, Murray, McMaster, Hewett, Adamson, and so on. Even when not referring to it directly, the Australian poet is most often conscious of its overwhelming presence. John Forbes, however, argued that Australians, having a nostalgic vision of their independence and wealth coming from the wool on the sheep’s back, forget the great contribution made by the “city” to the Australian identity. But I’d argue that he and poets like Peter Porter and Gig Ryan are urban pastoralists whose poetry is deeply informed by this signature, even if they work against it. Once again, what specifically interests me is the crossover territory between different kinds of poetry. Between the rural and urban are the fringes, and the fringes produce the most interesting hybrid languages.

So, whereas anthologies tend to be retrospective or attempt to capture the identity of a particular theme or time, it is actually my aim in this volume to look the future, to look towards these hybridising zones. There is a millennial fervour to capture the essence of modernity and to package it neatly – the conceptual rubicon formed by the year 2000 will prove to be exactly that. The effects of 2000 are, I’d guess, more to do with approaching it than passing it. This anthology is not so much prompted by a potential new poetics accompanying a new millennium as much as by the inherent movement in poetry regardless. And this movement need not be “progressive”, nor on a broad scale. It might be personal or cumulative, it might be a return to the traditional or an engagement with an avant-garde.

This is not to say that the demographics of poetries haven’t changed with the times, because they have. The internet in particular has not only increased the potential of the “amateur” poet to participate as poet in a “public” space, but also the potential to collaborate and interact. The defusing of the “lyrical I” throughout the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, particularly in American poetry, has reinforced a tendency to a polymorphous “voice”. Poets have become conscious of how central they are, as individuals, to the pulse of the language they use. Some reject the need to move away from the “I”, and have dug in against linguistically innovative verse such as that of the American Language poets, asserting that the emotive authority of the self is at the core of what it is that constitutes poetry, and that all attempts to move away from this are misguided.

On the other hand, the elevation of language to a thing-in-itself, providing its own terms of reference, being simultaneously the signifier and signified, has become a distinctly political process. And in the same way that the Language poets “grew” out of a reaction to a society that engendered the Vietnam war and Watergate, linguistically innovative poetries in many languages and places have associated themselves with a movement away from the empowering, and consequently oppressive politics of self – the freedoms of the individual being best asserted through an analysis of what constitutes the ego I.

Australian poetry in the late twentieth century – at least that available in the mainstream press and in literary journals – has tended to skirt these issues. Innovation has mainly come within the traditions of the “lyrical I” poem – working within or against the lyrical and/or narrative structure. ThereÍs an important epistemological difference to be made here. A poet like Robert Adamson with his radical poem of the early ’70s – The Rumour – was working within the conventions of normal poetic expression. The concepts he examined may have been radical but the deployment of language wasn’t. The words worked in a specific linear way. They didn’t define themselves, or generate their own meanings – at least on a macro level. One could say the same of the John Tranter’s “Red Movie”, a revolutionary work in the Australian context in its systematic defamiliarisation of the object. Like much of Tranter’s work it is concerned with the social politics of the material. It examines the processes of visual, verbal, and ultimately cultural fetishisation. Innovation has always been part of a developing poetics, but it hasn’t been until more recent years that signs of what we might call the “linguistically innovative” – a term I originally acquired from translation texts though claimed by a number of anthologists and critics – have become more common in both Adamson and Tranter’s work, and among Australian poets on a broad scale. An increasing number of poets have begun to focus on language itself, and its means of production – Wendy Jenkins and Peter Minter are strong representatives of this tendency. The historic links, in an Australian context, are possibly Anna Wickham through Christopher Brennan, Harry Hooton, and Francis Webb.

All in all, I’ve tried to make this the poets’ anthology. It’s not a definitive statement, and there are many other poets I’d like to have included. I haven’t highlighted any individual poems, not because there aren’t stunning pieces that leap off the pages in here, but that there are so many and each poem succeeds in its own technical terms – I feel these are all well crafted pieces. Finally, what’s made this a particularly exciting volume from my point of view is that many of the poets took up the offer to submit new, uncollected poetry for consideration. In many cases, poets are represented by one or more “fresh” poems, in addition to the tried and tested pieces, stressing the forward-looking nature of the project as a whole.