The first Australian poet whose path I crossed was Judith Wright. My mother was a teacher of English Literature, and Wright was de rigueur on high school and university literature courses during the seventies. “Bullocky”, “South of My Days”, and “Metho Drinker” were as familiar to me as “Ode to a Nightingale” and Milton’s “When I Consider How My Light is Spent”. The formal nature of Wright’s verse made it acceptable to sit on the syllabus with the “greats” of English poetry. But she did of course, in tone and theme, deal with particularly Australian notions. This was what separated her from earlier poets such as the Henry Kendall of “Bell Birds” etc, who not only imitated English verse techniques, but retained a very English way of seeing landscape. Though it should be noted it is not as cut and dried as this, because the concepts of Australianness that evolved gradually in Australian verse can actually be found in the poetry of Kendall, Harpur and their contemporaries.
In this period of the so-called Australian cultural cringe when Australians were coming to grips with what it meant to be Australian both socially and artistically, the acceptability of an accomplished poet like Wright speaks of the evolution of a poetic voice that is recognisably Australian but internationally “respectable”. Of course the same kind of acceptability and respectability had been assumed with previous Australian poets such as Kenneth Slessor, A.D. Hope and James McAuley, who had in varying degrees obtained overseas recognition and thus validity in the eyes of those teaching English Literature. This is not to say Australian poetry had not long before this been part of the curriculum, but it had been as a kind of extension of nationalistic sentiment rather than purely on literary grounds. It was with pride in being Australian (read: a white, homogeneous society with an entirely separate “native” population as an appendage) that we read poets, or heard them perform, such as Adam Lindsay Gordon, Banjo Paterson and the jingoistic rhymes of “The Boree Log”.
Occasionally a gem of a poem such as Shaw Neilson’s “The Orange Tree” would sneak in via an anthology, but its symbolist leanings (entirely unintentional of course) were at this stage an aberration rather than something to be expected. Harking back to Judith Wright, it is worth considering that the Wright of this period (and I am talking now mid to late seventies) was “disowning” poems such as “Bullocky” and “South of My Days” because of their apparently patronising tone toward the indigenous people of Australia, and the white nationalistic sentiment that might be able to draw this out of the poems.
This is not to say that the seventies were actually retrograde in terms of social, artistic and cultural expression generally. In fact it was the most vital period of all in Australian poetry. However, there was a huge gap between what was happening “on the ground” and what was being taught in the schools. As John Tranter discussed in his Introduction to The New Australian Poetry in 1979, there were a group of poets associated with “a wave of poetry readings, eunderground’ magazines” who held “a generally expressed antagonism to the established mainstream of the time, which they saw as too conservative. The readings attracted a large and varied audience, and the magazines, being cheap and open to almost anything in the way of new poetry, were an ideal breeding-ground for ideas, argument and experiment.” Tranter gave this group the collective title of the “Generation of ’68”, a concept to which I will return, in both a positive and a negative sense, shortly.
The point I am trying to make is that what was being received at the coalface, by which I mean your school student or average reader outside the cliques of poetry, was a very different picture of where Australian poetry was than was actually so. This is the case with any poetry in any country, but probably more marked in a (post-)colonial society such as Australia’s, due to the inability to shake free of the defining poetics of the “centre”. To add a Tranter, a Murray, a Harwood, or any other of the Australian poets active during this period, was to displace a member of the Australian (English-influenced) academy’s canon. Of course these poets were added, but only slowly, and usually only with those poems that best accommodated this notion of the English poetic.
What interests me, however, regarding the inclusion of Australian poetry on the syllabus, was that a profound change occurred between the early part of the seventies and the end of that decade, by which time I was reading many Australian poets as diverse as Robert Adamson, Michael Dransfield and Rosemary Dobson. One also became aware that there had been significant movements in Australian verse throughout the century, and that we’d even had our own celebrated scandal regarding modernism and its threat to the central English canon as Australia perceived it, in the Ern Malley affair. From the point of view of the young student and poet, this was both a revelation and a moment of excitement. In a sense, a book that changed it all was Alexander Craig’s Twelve Poets, which even included a West Australian poet, Randolph Stow, who seemed to manage not only to have formal control over his poems, but to introduce elements of modernism, a European aesthetic and an entirely Australian voice with a painterly eye into the process. It was the place I first read Les Murray, Francis Webb, Gwen Harwood and Michael Dransfield.
One of the poets in the Twelve Poets anthology that had a profound effect on not only myself but a whole generation of senior high school students was Michael Dransfield. Dransfield is also seminal to an understanding of the “Generation of ’68” and the politics that emerged as a consequence of the Poetry Australia-New Poetry dichotomy. At this stage it is worth briefly noting that on one side of the equation poets such as Les Murray, Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray were “pitted” against the new wave of modernist poets (read here those influenced by the non-formalists poets of the United States, particularly in the 1960s, the New York school being the main centre of attention, possibly Frank O’Hara through to John Ashbery). These modernist poets included John Tranter, Robert Adamson, Jennifer Maiden, J.S. Harry, John Forbes, Laurie Duggan and Alan Wearne (there is a decade of variation in the ages here, but they have influences as well as the energy of the period in common, as much as any general aesthetic).
It is imperative to understand that despite the plethora of small magazines that arose at variance with the established literary journals, such as Poetry Australia, Southerly, Meanjin, Westerly, etc, there was no common manifesto of defiance. If any were penned, it was much after the fact. But still, there was the feeling that the new influences of American culture, particularly popular music and the art of consumerism (pro and anti) formed a loose confederacy against the English-orientated poetic canon. In much the same way that the American L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets would identify themselves as a collection of poets with certain linguistic interests and methodologies in common, in association with a particular kind of political outlook, so this new generation of Australian poets drew energy from the potential of the individual to influence policy. The Vietnam moratorium marches, a rising social consciousness regarding Aboriginal rights, environmental considerations and so on, became part of their dialogue. This was to become more pronounced in the early 1980s.
What is fascinating is that this represents a kind of reclaiming of the poet as public figure whose job it is not only to comment on the self or on the position of the self regarding nature (that is, using the lyrical “I”), but as a kind of mouthpiece for contemporary culture and the aspirations of the individual per society. This is not to say there had not always been a poetry of protest in Australian verse there most decidedly had been, whether one looks at the polemics of the socialist left from the latter part of the nineteenth century through to the present day or at the tirades of an early twentieth-century poet like Baylebridge.
Michael Dransfield and Richard Tipping were the first poets of this new era who incorporated a social persona, that one came across at school through the Twelve Poets. A poet like Vincent Buckley, also included in that volume, also made and was making strong political statements while retaining the lyrical edge that made his work readable and recognisably poetic. However to someone at 15, 16 and 17, he seemed of another era. Whereas the youthful Dransfield, in this book shown in a photograph dressed as a monk, and the “cool” Tipping with his dark glasses and biographical note pointing out that he edited a journal named Mock, were altogether more believable. And because one knew that only “good” poetry was taught alongside the greats of the English canon, we felt safe in enjoying their poems.
This set us searching for more material in public and university libraries. A poem like “Endsight” became something of an anthem with its dedication reading “for Union Carbide, A.D. Hope & Sir P. Hasluck Askin Clutha etc.”. And its final lines invoking “the works of the Official Poets, whose genteel / iambics chide industrialists / for making life extinct.” To the older, more established poet writing in the late 1970s and early 1980s, this would have seemed in many ways old hat. These issues had been raised and explored by numerous poets, and the Australian poetic had absorbed this and was moving elsewhere. However, one must put the horse before the cart (to use that particularly cruel image) and realise that if we are talking about a new generation of poets that emerges during the eighties and nineties, these were the first broadly available utterances of the new Australia.
The early eighties represented a time of consolidation for both the poets of the new wave and those who had been working within more formal and traditional modes. John Tranter’s Selected Poems had been published by Hale & Iremonger, bringing together an extremely diverse and stimulating collection of poetry that had been influenced not only by the American writing with which he was politically associated, but also the poetries and poetics of a broad swathe of English and European writers. Throughout the eighties Tranter would increase his range of investigation and experimentation across the landscape of international poetry, whether it be the bizarre and historically interesting form the “trenter”, or the “haibun”, a fascinating verse-prose form from the Japanese. Of course, an American poet like John Ashbery, accepted as a major influence by Tranter himself, has also moved across such vistas.
What Tranter would find fascinating about American poetics is its ability in the truest postmodernist sense to incorporate a huge variety of cultural, technological, social and linguistic influences into the machine of the poem. By extension one could look to the French theorists such as Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida for an approach to raw material and its appropriation by a culture for a stimulus here. However, in Tranter’s case, and that of other poets of his era, such as Laurie Duggan, Alan Wearne, John Forbes and Gig Ryan, this comes more via modern American poets than from the actual theorists themselves. And via the television (as icon). I recall John Tranter once saying that one could describe a particular aspect of poetry and postmodernism by looking at the advertisement on television for Rank Arena: “Deep Image . . . Deep Image . . . Deep Image . . . ” gradually fading away.
Where a poet such as Les Murray will use the material at hand in a rural setting or via a European cultural inheritance (both positively and negatively) to develop an image, Tranter and the other poets I have mentioned will claim those things immediately at hand to them. It has been argued that this dichotomy is largely one made of a rural and urban divide. That, in the words of Les Murray, the “Athenian” and “Boeotian” divide is relevant to the condition of Australian poetry. While in John Tranter’s Selected Poems, a poem with a title such as “Rimbaud and the Modernist Heresy” goes a long way toward defining this popularly and commercially fetishized, charisma-driven culture, we find a poem such as “Bulahdelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle” in Les Murray’s book Ethnic Radio, and later in his Selected, The Vernacular Republic, going some way toward defining a sense of place in a pastoral world that is being affected by post-pastoral notions of occupation.
For Murray, the landscape of culture is grounded in the land and inheritance is something extremely physical, whereas for Tranter it is something that might exist or not in the one-and-a-half hours of a piece of film noir (and while watching this one might also be affected by the advert on a distant radio played by a Col Joye lover sitting by his pool). There is an element of the absurd in this, but Tranter’s poetry is laconically designed to cater for such tastes. The word “laconic” might also be suited to Murray’s colloquialisms, but it is usually associated with the perceived inability of the urbanites to comprehend those from the rural environment.
The interaction between these two poets and the “schools” they represent (I would argue these are merely fabricated and totally artificial) are infinitely more complex than this, but it gives some idea of the perceived split in ways of seeing in Australian poetry. That is, those who work in more traditional forms and are concerned with sculpting the image as a thing in itself are associated with Australia’s pastoral inheritance, and those willing to innovate and incorporate a vast variety of cultural, technological and literary influences are associated with the urban. John Forbes argues that it is nostalgia that makes us look to the centre (read: the bush) for national identity, as opposed to the city, where most of us in Australia live. This is probably the prime debate of mid-nineties Australian poetics, certainly among male poets.
One of the significant shifts since Tranter’s The New Australian Poetry (1979), and one with which, as a student, I was entirely unfamiliar until I reach university, was the development of a feminine and/or feminist poetics. That is not to say a poetry of women working within a male hierarchy, nor necessarily a poetry that is a mere extension of a poetic mode of expression that is ostensibly male. That is, the English poetry of the centre which schools were so concerned about setting up as a measure of what is good and what is not. In the seventies, important volumes such as Kate Jennings’s anthology Mother I’m Rooted came onto the market in an attempt to expose something outside this central male tradition, by working against expectations of what makes a poem valid. Though much of this poetry has persisted (and will persist) little outside the confines of the anthology, the principle behind the work has had marked ramifications. The way one reads a poem is significantly affected by what one thinks a poem should do.
While there has always been a core of important Australian women poets, certainly in the twentieth century, the feeling by women poets that they must write in a particular way or not at all has been dispelled with the coming of second-wave (and “third-wave”?) feminism, whether they would call it that or not. From the point of view of 1996, as a reader of this generation, one is not so conscious of the concerns of what constitutes a “good” poem as, say, one would have been in the 1950s, 60s or even 70s. “Good” is a variable that is highly dependent on context, and may have hidden presuppositions behind it. One looks to the words “effective” and “relevant”. A poet like Jean Kent is considered to work in the formal tradition. Her voice is recognisably “female” however, it could be argued that this has no effect on the actual process of composition (that is, linguistically) despite “feminine” sentiments. On the other hand, a poet such as Wendy Jenkins writes with a knowledge of the potential to alter language linguistically to represent a new feminist aesthetic. There is a sense in which these divisions are not really relevant to an anthology of the contemporary writing from an outside readerÕs point of view, but they are important in terms of the way an individual piece is composed, from the point of view of the particular poets.
This is a society that in the last decade has gone through significant periods of retrospection, multiculturalism, confronting if not resolving the relationship between post-settlement (or invasion) communities (all of which are immigrant!) and Australia’s original inhabitants. Contemporary Australian anthologies and journals reflect this in the homogenizing of very disparate elements within Australian literature. This is not to deny their particular influences, but to give the impression that Australian society is multi-faceted and capable of containing a complex variety of world views and practices. I find it fascinating to look at recent “mainstream” Aboriginal poetry (that is, poetry published by established publishing houses) which moves from an amalgam of the sixties and seventies protest voices of Jack Davis, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Kevin Gilbert, Bobbi Sykes and others, to the still decidedly “protest” voices of Mudrooroo and Lionel Fogarty, which have consciously incorporated an evolving poetics in conjunction with political imperatives. It should be noted that what is generally referred to as Australian poetry usually means white Australian poetry, and there is not a great deal of rapprochement on the literary level any more than there is on the social and political, despite what certain critics would like us to believe. Whether whites should anyway be making attempts at such rapprochement while the social and political divides remain largely unaddressed is questionable (these attempts often become token in the process).
In many ways, the eras I have been discussing have a varied influence on the new generation of Australian poets. In my own case, the influences of the formal/traditional school are as profound as those of the new wave; I am a reader of Les Murray and of John Tranter, of Gwen Harwood and Gig Ryan, and so on. In fact, it’s not the names that are relevant as much as a general poetic ambience from which I might draw and as I will show, I believe this to be the case for many of the poets of the eighties and nineties included within this volume. That is not to say that the poets and the movements and anthologies of the sixties and seventies were not highly influential, but rather that they are merely one aspect of a broader process of formation. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the postmodernist ethos of borrowing and adapting has allowed for a broad base from which to draw material and an almost unlimited thematic spectrum. In a sense, there is decolonization through reterritorialization.
Where the energies of the sixties and seventies are particularly relevant, however, regardless of the influence of particular poets on individuals, is in the broadening of the school syllabus and popular canon. The incorporation of contemporary Australian poetry, which was largely a result of the enthusiasm and successes of this previous generation of poets, has stimulated and invited individual writers to participate in defining an Australian poetics where in many cases they would once have felt no kinship with what was expected of them as practitioners. In my own poetry, as I have said, I absorb influences from the diverse schools of thought on Australian poetry and also look to influences from poetry, science, and culture generally from numerous overseas sources. I work often within a pastoral mode (or maybe anti-pastoral), but one that is recognizably influenced by the “urban”. To think that one can be sitting in the middle of the Australian outback attached to the Hubble telescope via the World Wide Web! Or processing the latest dialogue on the Buffalo University Poetics List. The absurdities of artificial theoretical divisions become obvious.
The poet Anthony Lawrence, included in this selection, is a similar case. He owes his influences to both pastoral and urban poetries, and reads across an immensely diverse range of poetries, be they Irish, American, English, Australian, or anything else that crosses his path. But there are divisions that should be recognized here. For like the “Australian formalists” rejecting the new wave, so Lawrence rejects the influences of some American and European avant-gardists. On the other hand, the European surrealists and post-surrealists, particularly, are of great interest to Lawrence, and he will at times write with a surrealist bent himself. What one imagines he is skeptical of is the process of theorising the methodology.
A poet who has changed and developed with the times is Robert Adamson. Intensely interested in poetic theory, though firmly grounded in the lyrical tradition, he is a poet who moves across generations. His songs from the Hawkesbury River are complex and harmonic. Heavily influenced by the tradition of Hart Crane, the work of Robert Duncan, and the American Black Mountain School, in particular Charles Olson, he has moved in recent times towards an investigation of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry. But Adamson is eclectic, and it is the spirit of poetry he is so passionate about, and he is willing to look in diverse and even opposing places for inspiration.
In a sense, this attitude is in keeping with what I would see as the defining characteristic of the new generation. It is as if the “Generation of ’68” had broadened to include those they rejected, as if Dransfield’s lines from “Endsight” had been played out. The establishment, rather than hierarchizing and appropriating that deemed suitable, has in fact received a dose of its own medicine. It is a fast moving world, and poetry reflects this. Not to say, of course, that those still, timeless moments aren’t still there. And maybe they’re written in spite of the age’s pace. Adamson is full of them. John Tranter has always had poise, though this is more of a controlled gesture, like knowing exactly when to make the appropriate witty retort. John Forbes thrives on being in the cultural “fast lane” but always at a polite distance behind the “madding crowd” so he can make his deft and often cutting commentaries. Forbes complies with the dictum that the satirist must work from within, but realizes that “within” is a fairly loosely defined entity. He plays variations on the cultural specific.
These “still” moments, however, are obviously most clearly defined in the use of image. Robert Gray has exemplified the “imagist” school within contemporary Australian poetry. There is a great sense of the visual, of the meditative moment in his verse. His work is popular on school syllabuses. It is most often associated with the formalist tradition, and along with Les Murray, Jamie Grant, and Geoffrey Lehmann, is seen as a spokesman for the non-postmodern in Australian verse. It is easier to define what they are against than what they are for. The nonreferential poem is clearly questioned, and a sense of “form” clearly desirable. But once again, despite recent anthologies, new poets have a sense of a previous generation trying to define their interests for them when the old arguments are no longer seen as relevant. Women’s poetry is still perceived to be seen by the non-postmodern poets as either an appendage to the Australian poetic, or else a part of it, as long as the poets resist calling themselves feminists and do not see the gender issue as being a central point in the writing of poetry rather than seen as something that exists both as part of and simultaneously something quite separate from the tradition. It is a complex argument, and one that is currently defining its terms of discourse. It becomes a question of form versus content.
Among this selection of poets, three of those who value the “image” as a thing in itself, Tracy Ryan, Sarah Day, and Jill Jones, are interesting. Jones has elements of the postmodern and possibly the “surreal” in her work, though can create the meditative image with ease. All poets work comfortably within more traditional structures. Sarah Day is generally seen as being the most “formal” of these three, but this is probably as much to do with her “Englishness” and occasionally “non-Australian” way of seeing as with any political stance. However, one can sense the influence of the English canon profoundly in her works. Jones and Ryan tend towards the American. Ryan, in particular, questions the relevance of the traditional modes of expression regarding her feminist aesthetic, though works within a generally familiar linguistic framework. Her innovations are more within the juxtaposition of notion and image, with influences including Sylvia Plath, Margaret Atwood, and Adrienne Rich. And nevertheless writers like John Donne, George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins also. Along with Kevin Hart she is a writer whose concerns are spiritual as well as temporal.
It is interesting to consider that the poet within Australia that Ryan and others often cite of being of particular interest is Jennifer Strauss, whose strong taut lines get to the point, without fuss, though are rhythmic and consciously poetic; and the immense range, technical control, and powerful renderings of the human condition by Judith Wright and Gwen Harwood. The latter’s poem “Barn Owl”, in the sense that it is a “confession” and approaches the question of the inherent power of and desire for destruction, has been noted as a profound influence. This is interesting in that as a “woman poet” (in terms of how the “centre” views such things) one would expect a poem like “In The Park” to be more influential “She sits in the park. Her clothes are out of date. / Two children whine and bicker, tug her skirt. A third draws aimless patterns in the dirt . . . ” because of traditional expectations on the level of subject matter. But of course, the newer poets are resisting the gender associations of material for the making of imagery. Which does not mean such things aren’t relevant, or won’t be used, but that they should not be expected as a matter of course.
In varying degrees this is applicable to the poetry of Diane Fahey, Jennifer Compton, and Caroline Caddy, an American by birth but who has lived for decades in Australia. Caddy’s lines are precisely placed on the field of the page, and her imagery interacts in a most interesting way with her meticulous use of form. It’s a technique that was very popular in the sixties and seventies but Caddy has persisted with it and taken it further, to the point where one of her books, Conquistadores (Penguin, 1991) was reproduced as a facsimile of her manuscript typeface.
Katherine Gallagher happily considers herself “a product of the womenÕs movement”, but not in any necessarily limiting sense. Her work is traditionally formal, at least in terms of line length, rhythm and stanza patterning. (Gallagher is also interesting in that like Peter Porter and David Curzon, she writes from outside of Australia like Porter, from the United Kingdom, whereas Curzon is based in the States. However, Gallagher retains strong connections with Australia and frequently revisits it, while Porter has just edited the Oxford Book of Modern Australian Poetry.)
What I am trying to define, and what is rightfully resisting definition here, is a more fluid and complex poetics than has previously existed, at least in the public eye. The rules are changing.
A poet who has remained unique and yet paralleled the movements in Australian poetry over the last few decades is Dorothy Hewett. As her recently published Collected Poems has revealed, her earliest poems, published in the 1940s, were quite experimental, and more reflective of the modernist inheritance than her later phase of socialist realist verse that preceded the way she now writes, a poetry that ranges from personal experience to political critique without constraint. Hewett was profoundly influenced by the Americans Robert Lowell and John Berryman; she still deeply admires Lowell’s Life Studies and found John Berryman’s Dream Songs an “enormously liberating” experience. Coming from Western Australia, Hewett descended on the diverse cultural world of Sydney during the early seventies, and soon found a kindred spirit in the poet Robert Adamson. Stimulated by Adamson’s incredibly eclectic tastes and driving energy, she produced a number of books such as Greenhouse and Rapunzel in Suburbia that introduced an entirely new voice into Australian poetry. While sometimes accused of being self-mythologizing, Hewett resisted contemporary critical velleities to forge on in her own direction, having laboured for too long in earlier days under the constraints of “Party” dictates to have anyone stipulate what she might write.
Hewett, also a successfully innovative playwright and novelist, has, possibly more than any other poet, defined the possibility of being an individual outside the politics of division in Australia. The poets writing in the mid-1990s probably have more in common with this modus operandi than with any other of the established figures.
The influence of regionalism is fast gaining respectability. There has long been a sense of particular place in Australian poetry (such as in Judith Wright and David Campbell), but it has only been in recent years that this has been more systematically represented. Local presses with national and international outlooks, such as Wakefield Press in Adelaide, South Australia, and Fremantle Arts Centre Press in Western Australia, have sought to bring regional writers to wider audiences. I use the word “regional” here in the Frostian sense of the local being representative of the greater world in microcosm. In this sense of course the greatest regional poet would be Les Murray and his focussing on Bunyah, New South Wales, as a paradigm for the world in general. The same applies to Robert Adamson and the Hawkesbury River region in New South Wales. It is worth noting that Les Murray considers that the voice of country-folk is consistently misunderstood and often suppressed by the city-orientated State and national governments, the media, financial institutions, and the general cultural dictates of the urban centres. He seeks to give voice to what he considers a disempowered minority. Australian critics often play this aspect of Murray off against the “international” (particularly European, and especially concerning art, literature, and music) and urban interests of Peter Porter. Porter is seen as the self-imposed exile (he left Brisbane for London in the fifties and has only returned to Australia for brief stints) and Murray as the “homeboy”. A case of the “centre” and the “fringe”?
Despite some people’s claim to its centrality, the Sydney-Melbourne axis in Australian poetry might well be an overblown case of regionalism. Except that we might argue that unless the outer fringes of both cities are included, they might not have an overwhelming sense of what it is to be “versed in country things”! Ironies aside, the point is that despite these cities being the centres of population in Australia, there are rich and diverse poetries that operate quite independently of their influences. Even the distinctions between the two “great cities” are blurred. Sydney is generally portrayed as being lively, hip, multicultural and postmodern, much more willing to absorb outside influences (at least from other city-based cultures) than Melbourne, which is generally portrayed as being old-world and academic, and conservative. Just a demographic consideration of which poets lie where upsets these contrived divisions. For example, Melbourne is the home of Alan Wearne, Laurie Duggan, Gig Ryan, and even, at the moment, John Forbes, as well as many of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E-influenced and performance-influenced (John Cage, etc) avant-gardists such as Chris Mann. Chris Wallace-Crabbe and R.A. Simpson have long-established Melbourne reputations though are read widely in a larger Australian context. (Chris Wallace-Crabbe publishes with Oxford in England, as Peter Porter does.) Peter Rose is of a younger generation of Melbourne poets and is both urbane and witty. His influences are classical, he has an immense knowledge of European art and literature; his books The House Of Vitriol and The Catullan Rag were almost “surprises” in a time (the early nineties) when younger poets were not generally working from these influences. It is no overstatement to suggest that his influence is already considerable.
In a sense John Tranter epitomises what is commonly called the “Sydney poem”: it is a slick, witty piece of work in many ways reminiscent of the New York school of poets. However, as I have mentioned before, Tranter’s influences are much more diverse than this, and rather than defining a particular school, his commentaries concern a mode of perception. Sydney, in a sense, is both symbol and metaphor in his poems. But Robert Gray, the meditative imagist, is also firmly entrenched in the Sydney identity, and in many ways no two poets could be less alike.
More recent poets are generally considered to be Australian. rather than of a particular region within Australia, even when the are published by regional presses or write out of a specific area. This is not to say the sense of place has become one vast blur, but rather that there is a common “language” that makes the immense variety of Australian poetries recognizably Australian. With the influences of feminism, non-heterosexual perspectives (as in the detective-verse-novel The Monkey’s Mask by Dorothy Porter, a recent bestseller in Australian poetry), Aboriginality, environmentalism, contemporary theory, and a willingness by the “reader” to explore interactions between Australian cultures and outside cultures, particularly those of South-East Asia and the Pacific Rim, the question of ethnicity (and for this a so-called “Sydney” poet like Adam Aitken is an interesting case in point), there is a much broader sense of what constitutes the so called “Australian voice” or poem.
As I have suggested, this anthology reflects the diversity of contemporary Australian poetry. The senior poets whom I have mentioned as being among the major figures of the sixties and seventies have mostly continued to be influential and flexible. In a sense, they are also part of the new generation I speak of. Then there is a poet like Peter Boyle who in age terms belongs to John Forbes’s generation but has only recently published his first (and tremendously successful) volume of poetry, Coming Home from the World. His is a rich and refreshingly “new” poetry. There is a broad selection from across Australia, be it Andrew Sant from Tasmania, Shane McCauley from Western Australia, Martin Harrison from New South Wales, or Peter Goldsworthy from South Australia.
Goldsworthy’s tight, clever poems belong as much to a European mode of seeing as to an Australian, though firmly anchored with an Australian sense of wit. The poet Geoff Page, who lives in Canberra, is another whose range is immense and who mixes an array of subject matter with extensive formal control. He is able to take the apparently commonplace and render it with respect and poignancy. He also works with much “greater” themes, and has numerous books to his credit. The poet Mike Ladd can similarly take the everyday unnoticed (as in his first book Picture’s Edge) and give it potency.
Another poet particularly adept at investing the “commonplace” with meaning is Dennis Haskell. Despite having only published two volumes, he has actually been publishing in journals since the early seventies, and is an established and respected figure in Australian literature. Haskell doesn’t believe in fireworks and goes quietly about the task of writing poetry. Strongly influenced by John Keats (on whom he has published a study) and Yeats, Haskell enjoys immense formal control but always remains understated.
It should be noted that the subtle, contemplative and balanced verse of Kevin Hart, the mythological and decisive work of Fay Zwicky, an individual voice, both occupy important places in Australian literature, and are both read with interest by many newer poets. A previous generation of anthologists and poets who are still actively writing includes Rodney Hall, Thomas Shapcott and Judith Rodriguez, the last of whom edits the poetry list for Penguin (Australia) and is a major encourager of new and unusual poets (such as Coral Hull).
Though there are necessarily many poets who are not represented here, I hope that the selection put together by Joseph Parisi and myself will go some way toward giving a picture of at least part of a contemporary Australian poetics.