There are stirrings in the poetry culture of Australia that will have ramifications concerning what is read and how it is read into the next century. As major literary journals struggle against funding cuts, seek to validate their existence, and contemplate their relevance, a genuinely vibrant, informed, and active poetry subculture is emerging. With a few exceptions, it carries the mantle of or at least a familiarity with internationalism with ease – being of the generation of email and the internet – and is not so easily pigeon-holed by the slow and previously definitive process of anthologising. The canon, if not cracking, is mutating. It is a far more flexible and even fluid entity, and the pace of communications means that it has to be. This doesn’t invalidate the meditative voice, but rather makes it more available.
As the small press revolution of the late ’60s and early ’70s allowed for the representation of many “new” modes of poetry, that is, allowed them to be circulated and talked about, read against the lists of the established publishers with their eye on school curricula and the various notions of cultural appropriateness, so too, do the internet and desk-top publishing work in this way. And it’s not only in terms of what is published, but how available the material is and what an audience is willing to read. It is accepted that reading material now comes in a variety of forms, rather than merely as the perfect bound codex. A quick look at a few of the new literary journals that have appeared in Australia gives you a good idea of the flexibility that has entered the “market place”. I use this expression hesitantly, because in some sense the internet has deflated profit-driven economics, though as things advance, I’m sure the “market place” mechanisms will begin to function.
The journals Heat (edited by Ivor Indyk), Cordite (edited by Peter Minter and Adrian Wiggins) and Tinfish (edited by Susan Schultz), are interesting examples. All pursue an internationalism – the first two based in Sydney, with Tinfish being published through the University of Hawaii, though carrying a notable Australian content. Heat has just published its third issue and includes a healthy mix of overseas authors with home-grown talent. Design is a strong point. The “book” as aesthetic object is integral to its claim of relevance, of contemporaryness. Poetry is read against and amongst articles, prose fiction, and reviews. Cordite in its first issue carried primarily Australian material, though it is looking to increase overseas content. It is a poetry tabloid that aims to be innovative in content while also cheap and available. Tinfish, appearing both in hard copy and on the internet, is a US journal that is happy to recognise Australian poetry as vibrant and relevant to poetry readers anywhere (internationalism works both ways . . . ). If worst came to worst, and its funding were cut, it would still exist on the internet. Each of these journals is willing to tackle the idea of audience as a thing-in-itself. Readership should not be taken for granted. People don’t have to read poetry. Poetry can be rewarding and often a “total” and “necessary” experience, but it is not sacred, despite the propaganda (though I think it is good for poets, at least, to think this is the case!). Readers (and listeners) need to be given the choice, to be given the chance, and convinced.
The batch of recent releases I have sitting on my desk at the moment is in some ways a testament to the desire for variation in the said market place. From the meditative and steady poems of Judith Beveridge’s Accidental Grace through to the insistent “power” poetry of Bobbi Sykes’s Eclipse, from the irony and roving eye of Adam Aitken’s In One House to the confrontational and almost aggressive flexing of John Mateer’s Anachronism. What interests me in these poets, and the other half-a-dozen titles, as a whole, is that they resist pigeon-holing. Though I constantly hear that Beveridge’s poems are of the formalist school, that they are of a heritage only compatible with the anthologising of Robert Gray and Geoffrey Lehmann, I find myself saying that it is really poetry of itself. Whichever age or environment Beveridge had written in, one would have expected a patient, almost hesitant concern for craft. This does not mean that she writes purely in traditional verse forms (another myth) – much of her work is free verse – but that she is obviously a poet for whom spontaneity is an experience or an impression rather than a methodology. Take the poem “Incense”, a characteristically deft, image-rich meditation: it is in fact the irregular verse form, the fragmentation, that gives it movement. Beveridge captures the moment, so to speak, but is not caught in it:
In a confetti of ash and petalsI hunt out your memory.
In each decimal spark
in the moods beyond surveillance
I close my eyes to the tips
of infant roses,
to the smoke of burning leaves
uncurling like vines in an orchard
where light is the light of hillsides
in yellowy May.
But in the betrayal of falling suns,
the thin stems eaten by red tips
on an insect timescale,
stars drop and burn
tips grow amber with decay.
In a long red chamber
you are inner oils already burnt.
It is useful comparing Beveridge’s acute observation of the complexities and almost mathematical precisions and infinitudes of nature with that found in Coral Hull’s William’s Mongrels. Hull’s voice is in many ways the opposite of Beveridge’s – it is confrontational, charged, unrelenting. But the two poets share this ability to see the dots in a pointillist painting both as individual entities and as part of a greater picture. Rather than opposed poetics, there is much in common on this level. I believe that the politics of divisiveness will not be tolerated by a reader who is actually exposed to both poetries, and in such a way that each work is read in its own terms.
It is the externalised aspect of Beveridge’s eye that allows her to weave rich images, but it also leads to a kind of culturally specific reading. We know she is the outsider, and in a poem like “The Tea Vendor” – we sense a tinge of the Other at work in the persona’s relationship with the “exotic”: “but now his* eyes are a teaspoon each* of Darjeeling . . . “. Nothing like this occurs in the poems found in Adam Aitken’s In One House – not just because he is able to move between cultures, but because irony provides a safe distance for scrutiny.
The New Australian Poetry, edited and introduced by John Tranter, was published by Makar Press in in 1979. It was in this work that Tranter immortalised the collective “Generation of ’68”, indicating some kind of connection between a diverse group of poets who began to respond to the political and social climate and the New American Poetry of the late ’60s and early ’70s in an energetic and “new” way. Without entering into the politics and characteristics of that grouping of poets, and its assumed or imagined opposition, suffice it to say that in the same way that Tranter correctly recognised a new direction in Australian poetry and poetics, so now we might do the same.
If the late ’60s and ’70s are seen as being a particularly active time for the publication and development of poetry in Australia, the ’90s must be considered so as well. Maybe not in such a dramatic way – the ideological friction between the flagship poetry journals and their followers of that period (Poetry Australia and New Poetry) isn’t there, and Australia has to some extent reconciled itself to the assimilation of poetries outside the English literary canon – but nonetheless in just as profound a way. The newer Australian poets – and this is not a generation thing as such, since many of these poets are from very different generations and relate to the present moment in different ways – are far more international in their outlook and generally more accepting of diversity. There are of course differences: those preferring the more formal approach to prosody and theme, and those inspired by avant-gardists such as the American Language poets, and even poets who might (almost!) consciously call themselves post-Generation of ’68 poets; but there is still a belief that it is healthy for different poetries to coexist.
In the United States at the moment there is a conflict developing between the so-called “New Formalists”, who are vigorously promoting “a return to rhyme, metre, and meaning” in poetry, and the “post-Language Poets” who are in favour of a detached voice operating through the codes of language. If this sounds a little like the conflict between the traditionalists, the promoters of sense and meaning, the value of the lyric, and the American-inspired free verse writers of the late ’60s, then it should. But the “revolution” has been had. Modernism (and post-modernism) has caught up with Australia, the troubling aspect of the ghost of Ern Malley has been shed, and is in fact regularly invoked as mentor and inspiration. The bIte noire of Australian Modernism in literature has become its cause célébre. In the 1991 Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry edited by John Tranter and Philip Mead, he even rated 15 pages. Canonised at last.
In the recent anthologies The New Oxford Book of Australian Verse edited by Les Murray, and The Oxford Book of Modern Australian Verse edited by Peter Porter, the blurbs mention representing the emerging writers of this period. Journals are consistently and consciously carrying the work of the newer Australian poets. Fremantle Arts Centre Press is due to put out an anthology in 1998, edited by myself, that represents poets likely to influence a new generation of writers and readers.
Apart from an obvious millennial impetus, and the multiculturalism of the ’80s, one must also look to the energy and enthusiasm of small presses and people like Judith Rodriguez at Penguin, who have actively pursued the representation of new poetry. Five Islands Press, for example, with its Scarp/Five Islands New Poets Series, edited by Ron Pretty, has allowed poets who would be unlikely to find mainstream publication due to a lack of a track record, and the highly competitive nature of poetry publishing, to be read, reviewed, and talked about. This series only requires a handful of poems to have been previously published in journals, and its books are no more than 30 or 40 pages long. A recent volume, Peter Boyle’s Coming Home From The World, shared the NSW Premier’s Award and the NBC Poetry Award. It is interesting that this first publication was by a poet in his forties, whereas others are by people like Peter Minter, Adrian Wiggins, and Karen Attard who are in their twenties and thirties. But they are read together, and people think of them as being of the new poetry.
Another important factor to consider when looking at why one should state that there is a “new poetry” emerging is the energy and publication of women’s poetry. By women’s poetry I don’t mean women writing in inherited patriarchal modes, but rather poets who are redefining how poetry can be read, and actually widening the scope of the poetic. Gig Ryan, most often seen as of the previous generation, but really part of a cross-over group of poets, was instrumental in establishing grounds for such work in an Australian context. Poets such as Catherine Bateson, Alison Croggon, Melissa Curran, and M.T.C. Cronin, Karen Attard, and Tracy Ryan, are all working with voices and prosodies that are energetic and new.
A book which I think will have a strong influence on Australian poetry in the coming years is the New and Selected Poems of Lionel Fogarty, the Murri poet from Queensland. Fogarty’s work is linguistically exciting as well as politically charged. His cadences and use of song are genuinely new in English-language poetry. He uses hybridity of language as a tool for change – there is nothing expedient or defeatist about it. His poetry defines and defends a spiritual territory though remains “real” in its observations of the political forces it opposes and which oppose it. The Koori poet Lisa Bellear has something of the same in her work, though is more blatant and less involved at this stage with the use of song and orality.
As with the emerging poets of the late ’60s and ’70s this new energy comes with the emergence (and collapse) of literary journals and reading venues. Apart from the already-mentioned Heat and Cordite, journals such as Salt, Siglo, The Famous Reporter, Imago, and Ulitarra are working to be representative and also stimulate interest in poetry. I’d hazard a guess that as things are particularly difficult in the mainstream poetry publishing world in Australia at present, we’ll see more small-scale desktop publishing, and also an increase in the number of chapbooks that find their way into the market, or are distributed through reading venues and so on. It is also interesting to note that the more established journals, such as Westerly, Island, Southerly, and Meanjin, have undergone facelifts over recent years. Facelifts mean that someone is sensing a change in the atmosphere!
As I’ve suggested, internationalism is the key to all of this. Since my first days of publishing poetry in the early ’80s I have looked overseas for journal publication, as well as in Australia. My contemporaries at first found this a little strange. Now, it’s not so uncommon, and as I said earlier the all-important increasing access to the World Wide Web means that people are speaking and publishing more in international spaces. The idea of preserving one’s regional identity and conversing with other regional identities is challenging and appealing. This is what makes internationalism a positive, rather than a stagnant pool of sameness and regularity. It is a linking of diversities – creating room for dialogue. It is interesting that anthologisers and journal editors seem to be more aware now that the Australian poetry community goes beyond the Eastern seaboard and that poets with distinct voices are to be found right across the map.
When one defines a “new poetry”, or a new anything for that matter, qualification is asked for. Who’s in, and who’s not. I’d like to think the “new” is a state of mind and any poets who wish to enter it can. There is an active core of enthusiasts that includes publishers like Black Pepper, editors of literary journals, and poets like Anthony Lawrence, Peter Rose, Tracy Ryan and myself, but there are many others who haven’t consciously considered themselves as part of anything. There are times when poets like John Forbes, Robert Adamson, and J.S. Harry are as new as anything around. And John Tranter, though in many ways seen as epitomising at least one side of the conflict between poets in the ’70s, is always new and has always been international. They move in and out of this “newer poetry”. But so do more apparently formal poets such as Sarah Day and Anthony Lawrence. To be new doesn’t simply mean reading avant-gardists from the USA, England, and France, and adopting their practices. It means feeling part of something that defines the possibilities of the future, as well as representing the present. An awareness that something different is taking place is often marked by a feeling of confrontation – that something has shifted. In most cases I feel change is subtle and a gradual process, but some poets step outside this process and “announce” presence.
As I have indicated, many would consider the poetry of Coral Hull to be extremely confronting. Of course on one level (a major one!), this is Hull’s intention. She is not happy with things as they are, and sees poetry as the most direct of political acts. There is a programme revolving around cause and effect. The immediacy of her poems is such that the occasional flatness and relentlessness of her rhythms do not subvert the intended catharsis for the reader. It is not merely a process of reading, but of experiencing Hull’s verse. And as a consequence, if one is not swayed by Hull’s argument and rhetoric, one is at least aware that deeply moral concerns have been voiced.
In a recent discussion with George Steiner, I made the claim that an accurate rendering of the Australian environment in all its variations (and climates) meant some fragmentation was necessary to give an “authentic” picture. He replied that while indeed this would give a picture, there is much more to a poem than simply illuminating or framing an observation: it must have moral intent. A poem could not be merely a vignette, but must have a sense of completeness about it. Hull, at her best, fulfils Steiner’s requirements as regards the “good poem”. However, it is in fact the moral roundedness of her poems that I find problematic. Despite personally empathising with their standpoints, I find Hull’s poems at their most impressive when she is fragmentary. This is not only a visual thing, but also one of rhythm. When her senses are a little more “deranged” than usual, there is an ambiguity and vitality that suggest possible alternative readings.
Hull’s use of the slash, enjambment and irregular line endings contribute to the rhetorical stance she often takes. She is very much in control of her voice, though I believe generally were she to play a few variations she would both qualify and emphasise her themes more dramatically. Hers is a dramatic voice. However, sometimes the drama is too burdened with stage directions. What I mean here is that one knows which way the poem is going to go. The exceptions to the rule, such as “Pornography”, when they take a change of direction that is almost unexpected, tend to become decidedly polemical, as if to stress the point that was originally intended.
Another poem that I find intriguing is “Praying Mantis”, because it effectively links an external observation – that is, her father finding a praying mantis while working “digging in the front garden” – and something quite disturbing happening behind the scenes. One asks the question, are we disturbed because of the association made between two parallel incidents, or because they are in their own right malignant?
In the poem, “In Brewarrina Nothing Is Sacred”, we see many of Hull’s themes and concerns at work. Within the overall structure of the poem there are wonderful colloquial asides; she has a good ear for common speech, for example: “& bet & bitch about the * weather & whether it will rain or not”. In that wonderful sound and sense way, HullÕs patented slash works dynamically in this piece. It forms that hiatus in repartee that gives a sense of genuinely being in on the conversation. It has an edginess, an immediacy, and a familiarity about it. It is the familiarity, actually, that can be a problem. The issues that Hull is exploring in this poem are extremely sensitive. In examining racial relations in a small country town, there is an “expected” dynamic between the white voice of the father whose point of view is presented and played against. If this father-figure had been a respected authoritative voice, then it would have seemed as if the speaker were colluding with his dismissive analysis of things are they “are”. But Hull skilfully avoids this. What she has over any other poet writing in Australia today is not so much the ability but the willingness to see things as they present themselves. This is rather ironic considering that much of the opposition to her verse has been that it is too moralistic in its presentation; that it doesn’t allow for alternative readings (the “preaching/proselytising” problem).
In terms of talking about a newer Australian poetry, what Hull offers is a voice that is not anti-canonical – because it actually doesn’t in any way work with or against the English canon – but takes as its point of departure what Veronica Brady has called the Isness of being. That is, the picture that presents itself to her, and the experience that evolves out of that picture, constitute the stuff of her poems. This makes her a uniquely Australian voice. She is more at home with the Australian environment than any poet I know, other than indigenous poets such as Lionel Fogarty.
Another thing that I find striking about Hull is her ability to make dramatically “feminist” statements without thesis. Hull is all about praxis! This is not to demean the process of theorising, but rather to qualify its opposite: the poems in William’s Mongrels. In “Separation Landscape”, a poem addressed to a violent partner, Hull is able to say “i will admit i smelt the chest of your * faded black sloppy joe/ in the same * way i smelt my dogÕs collar after * he died”, while still protesting that partner’s violence. This duality is extremely characteristic of Hull; she has that uncanny ability to make a moral statement and still recognise the other side of the “argument”. What is at issue here is the fact that the relationship between “victim” and “oppressor” is more complex than it may appear on the surface. This of course has importance for any feminist theorising on the subject.
Other reviewers have noted that Hull seems to have almost “total childhood recall”. Her ability to deal with the detail of issues like that in “Separation Landscape” may very well arise out of this, the relationship between persecutor and persecuted being so relevant to a child’s experience. Two significant poems in this context are “Sharpies” and “Toys”.
In examining the map of Hull’s poetics, it is impossible to ignore the “suburban”. Hull takes to suburbs the same critical eye she uses when writing of nature; things are explored up close. For example, in the poem “Liverpool”, a kind of ars poetica in terms of this stream of Hull’s work, we find such wonderfully acute and unrelenting observations as
the flannelette shirts & indian skirts/ panel vans,old holdens & V8s/ & cigarette packets pushed up
beneath the sleeves/ peter jackson’s, winfield 25s
& a marijuana earring & what are you smilin’ at?/
& why doesn’t anybody write poetry about us?/
aggressive – traffic mongers – tow trucks – insurance
– pink slips, green slips/ slip over in the factory o
fracture your neck – claim compo, pension, sore back
-pay rego/ pay your own way into revesby workers,
into parents without partners/
& if they overtake
you in the peak hour rush on the hume hwy/ on the
canterbury road thru milperra/ then get out – walk
over – punch ’em thru the window – kick in the
mudguard – it’s aluminium/
Hull is able to make her critical commentaries and exploit irony to the full because she is of the place. She never becomes satirical, but nonetheless takes to her inheritance with a hard edge. Alongside the constant compilation of negatives there is a parallel sense of triumph and overcoming; an anti-deterministic voice that allows for an out. The constant desire of a defeated environment to pull ambition down is rejected. Toward the last lines of “Liverpool” there is a kind of prophetic utterance. In her non-showy way, Hull is a visionary both of the city and of the bush, without becoming their proselytiser. She doesn’t see herself as a shaman, but rather as someone working from the inside out:
abusers & losers i’m telling you straight,’cos I’m a westie’: you gotta be rich to live in
sydney – you gotta be smart to go to uni – & you
gotta be famous to be in the movies/
In terms of my thesis of the newer Australian poetry, Hull is a kind of wild card, insofar as she owes no obvious allegiance to the Australian poets who have preceded her. She in no way imitates or mimics, nor even alludes to the creation of an Australian popular canon during the seventies and eighties.
On the other hand, Adam Aitken is very much a poet who works from a consciousness of something called “contemporary Australian poetry”. In some senses this is rather ironic, as his material and way of seeing are almost entirely outside the poetics he has absorbed. What he actually has in common with an earlier generation of Australian, predominantly male poets, is tone. Maybe this is what the back cover blurbs on In One House are pointing out: “Adam Aitken is from a new generation who have learned from the innovative poets of the last fifteen years . . . ” (publisher’s blurb?); “With the hip technique of John Forbes and a sensuous passion to define his subject, every line he writes is infused with meaning.” (Robert Adamson). There is an obvious handing on of the baton here. Of course by legitimising the “next generation”, one is validating and verifying the presence of the previous one. If there is “influence”, then there is at least implied presence. This is very much the stuff of the canon, of course. The anthologised become the anthologists; that kind of thing. Having said this, I am not implying that the results are negative; in this case they are not. Aitken draws on the added element of a Thai background in such a way that his observations are inclusive of viewpoints other than the traditionally European Australian ones. He is an urban poet, but takes his voice into a vast array of landscapes and tableaux. His ability is not so much in creating a mise-en-scène (although he attempts it on many an occasion) as in observing cross-cultural tensions and frictions. But as the book’s title suggests, there is a kind of internationalism at work, an optimism that underlies the at times acute irony – irony such as:
James Bond flies into Phuket, which he pronouncesFukit and this announces the demise
of the colonial era.
. . .
American linguists in a helicopter, dropping
ration packs of Chicklets and brand new grammar.
(“Saigon the Movie”)
Irony in Aitken’s work acts as signifier. It seems to be what allows him to approach sensitive topics with safety. In poems such as “Fable”, “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness”, and “Indochine”, there is a distance between voice and material. However, when considered as a whole, Aitken’s work does much towards raising an awareness outside the lineage of a Settler “voice”, and consequently allows him to engage convincingly with a wide range of material and ideas.
In considering the place of these innovative poets in the schema of the “Newer Australian Poetry” I’d point again to their internationalism. In Hull it is an unconscious force – the colloquial language, the specificity of place and interaction with experience suggest hers is a regional poetry. And of course it is. But it is part of a global poetry insofar as it owes allegiance to the “need to be said”, to speak the unspoken, and is not bound to a national inheritance, and is finding success outside Australia. Aitken’s poetry is often “international” in locale, and in its interweaving of Australian vernacular with idiomatic American and “colonial” English. But more than that, it speaks to communities whose experiences intercept and interact with each other.
Adam Aitken, In One House (Angus & Robertson, in association with Paper Bark Press, 1996)
Judith Beveridge, Accidental Grace (University of Queensland Press, 1996)
Coral Hull, William’s Mongrels (from the Wild Life, Penguin, 1996)
John Mateer, Anachronism (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1997)
Bobbi Sykes, Eclipse (University of Queensland Press, 1996)