Present in Absence

It might seem ironic to say that Palgrave probably had as much of an effect in defining an Australian poetics as the bush ballad. It qualified a poetic heritage, subscribed to Australian notions of popularism while retaining artistic integrity, while presenting a “canon” to define oneself against. Palgrave was what some of us might have “come from”, and was definitely what we all increasingly were not. I like to think of Palgrave’s original omission of Donne and Blake as being analogous to the absence not only of Australia but of the southern hemisphere from most so-called “world anthologies”.

Between the absence of these two great poets from the first edition, and the omission of Australia from internationalist anthologies, the link may seem tenuous, but the politics of absence remain the same. An anthology is as much about what is not included as what is. If a poet disagrees with an editorial policy in general, his or her absence may even be desirable and denote a negating relevance or importance. The absence of Australia from world anthologies reflects this, to my mind – an inability to recognise a very different, multi-voiced poetics that ranges from a possible fifty thousand years of Aboriginal song cycles, through to a vibrant dynamic between vernacular Australian English and the languages of a multi-cultural society – one that includes the largest Greek population outside Greece, strong Chinese and Vietnamese communities, Italians, Croatians, Serbians, Lebanese and numerous other nationalities.

In Donne’s wonderful poem “Present in Absence”, we see the quality of a love “Beyond time, place, and mortality.” It’s often the unseen, or maybe the uncollected, that holds a special part of the mind for its own. I find myself reading anthologies in this way. I see what’s not there and I treasure its memory, supplanting or palimpsesting another text, creating a place for it in my mind’s eye. And one could argue, with Donne-ish wit, that absence relieves one of the burdens of having to engage with the imperfections of physical contact. Memories and creations in the mind’s eye can so easily iron out imperfections.

I’ve no doubt there’ll be an effort to rectify this editorial oversight in future “world poetry” anthologies – largely the dictate of American university publishers – of deleting Australia, and indeed the whole Southern hemisphere (similar pieces to mine are probably being written in New Zealand, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Africa, and so on . . . ) but this begs the question: maybe we don’t want to be part of it? Australia has a strong contingent of “internationalist” poets whose presence is felt on the internet, in overseas journals, and in book publications throughout the world. It is also not uncommon to find the work of other nations’ poets in its literary journals, on its poetry radio features, in the press generally. The Adelaide Festival, for example, is well known among overseas poets as one of the major reading venues in the world.

Maybe this so called “young nation” – at least fifty thousand years of Aboriginal occupation easily forgotten – has grown up faster than the rest of the world, particularly than the super-powers of the English language. It doesn’t need to be included to participate. It is present in absence.