“I’m going through a transitional period . . . ”
Australian poetry in the last few decades has been notorious (at least in the minds of Australian critics and fiction writers) for being self-serving, fraught with factionalism, and plagued by a miasma of personality clashes. Furthermore, what actually constitutes an “Australian poetry” has come into question. There are many fine writers here from various traditions, and writing in many languages other than English. These are as valid and as influential as those from the “English Tradition”.
It’s interesting to consider how we as poets have been influenced by European, Chinese and other poetries in translation; or by American models. The poets of the 60s, 70s and 80s paved the way for the non-English tradition here. They’ve created a varied anthology to select from. It’s almost valid now to write “Language Poetry”, or work as a concrete poet, or even incoporate other medias, and, of course, “performance poetry” has a strong following at reading venues across the country. Pi O’s massive 24 Hours will be a testament to years on the reading scene.
I am skeptical about talking of movements in Australian poetry. So many divisions have been artificially applied, or retrospectively qualified . There is no equivalent to the Futurists, or the Surrealists, and so on, though all European (and American) movements have their followers and subgroups here. Recently I wrote a brief article on Language Poetry, stating that it was an American movement that could not really be equated with the work of those Australian poets who are influenced by, or use, its techniques. Some Australian avant-garde-identified poets wrote to me saying they’d been “doing it” for years. But that doesn’t make this something new; rather something imitative. The same applies to those writers who call for a return to “poems with meaning”, to admire and imitate the traditional canon. It’s fine, but it doesn’t amount to being a group or movement. Such calls have been heard since “day one”.
This all shows a healthy, desirable debate about what constitutes a poem, what meaning poetry has in our time. One could doubtlessly list groupings of poets with common interests, create some kind of map of the Australian poetry-scape that would indicate directions in contemporary poetic thought and response to the Australian condition.
Yet it’s usually those poets who manage to lift themselves outside of these groupings, or define groupings through attracting imitators, who become those voices best identified with the generative side of the age. They possess a desire to explore language and notions of meaning outside the acceptable. Poets like John Tranter, John Forbes, Gig Ryan, and Robert Adamson, who in many ways exemplify a whole period of poetry, have really established their own voices that have made them enduring poets. The same can be said of J.S. Harry, Jennifer Maiden, and John A. Scott. All inventive, “hybrided voices”, with a consciousness of the canon, but a desire to reinvent it.
It’s not by chance I group these poets together. They are of the era of factionalism (with Ryan being on the cusp) in Aus Poetry. It would be assumed, to counter this, I’d place Les Murray, Geoffery Lehmann, Rosemary Dobson, Robert Gray, and possibly Kevin Hart on the “other side of the fence” – those poets who apparently represent a more lyrical, meditative (“religious”?), conservative (“traditional”?) poetics. In between the two we’d have Gwen Harwood. Peter Porter forms a “school” of his own (European, Augustan, and “urban-e”), while Dorothy Hewett exists outside all of these, though obviously associated with the new romantic traditions of Adamson and his “followers”. The point is, I don’t think even these contrived groupings are relevant now. One can admire any particular association of poets one desires without having to be an “adherent”. There seems to be a need, as part of creating a literary identity, to create lines of influence in a nation’s literature.
The influence of anthologies on the shape of Australian poetry has of course been significant. Shapcott’s Australian Poetry Now redefined what was “allowable” in anthologies. Experimental and vibrant, it welcomed many new readers and practitioners. Likewise Kate Jennings’s Mother I’m Rooted; despite its containing much that would rate poorly on the scale of “literary” poetry, it redefined what was readable as poetry, showed that there existed many voices & subject matters outside the patriarchal “tradition”.
Anthologies are of course a regular, expected part of the poetic landscape, with many variations on the canon (and against the canon) out or coming out at any one time. Of interest in recent years have been the dichotomies between the clear expression of the Lehmann/Gray volumes and the post-modernist touches of Tranter/Mead, both worthy of particular attention, and influential in schools. It’s great to see more women’s writing in general anthologies, though a natural level of inclusion is still to come: there’s still a sense of obligation or tokenism in contents pages. The “academy” still needs to broaden its reading outside the inherited, patriarchal way of seeing that comes with English Lit, an ostensibly male tradition. The Oxford Book of Australian Women’s Verse (ed. Susan Lever) will be a welcome addition to The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets (ed. Kate Llewellyn and Susan Hampton).
Aboriginal poets too are inventing almost a new language to communicate between cultures: Lionel Fogarty, for instance. His New and Selected was recently awarded the inaugural Poetry Book Club Award for best volume of poetry in the quarter: much deserved. I met him when we were both on a panel at last year’s Melbourne Writer’s Festival, and he was mercurial. His influences are many, but he is entirely unique. He will influence many in turn.
Then there’s the east-west state dichotomy. Many poets here complain of this schism. ThereÕs undeniably a belief in Sydney and Melbourne that those outside are poor country cousins, but it’s something of the old English-Australian cultural cringe to let it affect the way you work; I feel it’s the responsibility of the writer to overcome this. And the publisher: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, for example, has placed many W.A. writers on the national stage and helped bridge this “factional” gap. And the Five Island Press New Poets series is bridging all sorts of gaps: cultural, social, gender, and regional. Perhaps the growth of pluralism in Australian poetry means that it is successfully negotiating its “transitional period”, that personality-based factionalsim is a thing of the past.