Felicity Plunkett (ed.): Thirty Australian Poets

St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2011, 285pp.

The significant poetic productions from the declining months of last year seem to have been anthologies. Not only is there this intriguing collection of thirty poets – all born after 1968 – edited by Felicity Plunkett but there is also an anthology, interestingly different but covering similar ground, edited by John Leonard called Young Poets: An Australian Anthology. And, as well as these, there is Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray’s daunting Australian Poetry Since 1788. Though, generally, I avoid reviewing anthologies I will try to cover both the Leonard and the Gray and Lehmann in later months on this site.

Anthologies are weird and fascinating reading experiences. In many ways they are rather like poems themselves. They have an intention (to encapsulate a national poetry, to show what interesting things newcomers are doing, to raise the profile of poems the anthologist likes and diminish the reputation of those that he or she doesn’t, etc) but the possible meanings of the work often overtake its intention. Like poems they have a personal stamp but they also have a context – the context of other anthologies. Like poems they have complex and important internal structures: are they to be arranged chronologically and if so should it be by date of birth of the poet or by the period in which the poet floruit. This is a more important consideration than it seems: Kenneth Slessor and R.D. FitzGerald were born within a year of each other but the former, precocious, is really a poet of the twenties and the latter a poet of the thirties.

The intention behind Felicity Plunkett’s Thirty Australian Poets is, I think, to showcase (an unfortunate but useful word) the work of poets who have risen to prominence recently and perhaps, also, to give critics like myself, who have a dim and fragmented perception that a poetic renaissance (largely led by women poets) is taking place, the chance to see the group in toto and make some decisions about what is happening. And some evaluations, too. In this respect it is a very cool and clean anthology, eschewing subjective judgements at every point where it can. The poets are organised in alphabetical order by surname so that it is not a judgement of the quality of their work but merely the result of an alphabetical accident that the poems of Ali Alizadeh are placed first and those of Petra White last. (Alizadeh’s Iranian origins prompt me to make the point that the divans of the classical Persian poets – Hafez, Sa’adi, et al – are organised in the same, neutral, way whereby the poems are placed in alphabetical order according to their final, rhyming words. A Western equivalent might involve something like organising a collected poems not chronologically but according to the poem’s first letter so that the Index of First Lines became, in effect, the contents page. It’s an intriguing rethinking and one that it might be interesting to try with a Collected Auden or Graves, say.)

Similarly there is no weighting of representation whereby we know that the anthologist considers one poet to be more significant than another because the former gets more pages allocated than the latter. Here everybody gets about five pages. I like this because, when I am doing my thinking about the quality of these poets and the nature of what is happening in Australian poetry, I don’t have to enter into a debate with the anthologist. Many anthologists are inclined to be opinionated and the reader’s fight with them (on the subject of individual choices and omissions, both of poets and poems) can obscure the wider issues. Felicity Plunkett is as anonymous as an anthologist can be and brings to mind (another “showbiz” analogy, I’m afraid) those award hosts who have the good grace to get off the stage quickly and let the real stars of whatever show it is get on with the job. In fact it’s not entirely coincidental that images of award nights keep sliding into my prose here. There is a slight sense about Thirty Poets of a public performance where everybody – in alphabetical order – gets their five minutes to show what they can do before being replaced by the next act. There is nothing wrong with this. If you wanted to know what was happening in, say, Australian stand-up comedy, then giving thirty comedians five minutes to do their thing in front of an audience might be a lot better than a show put together from what some entrepreneur thinks are “the best stand-up comedians in Australia” carefully organised (according to the structures of comedy whereby some acts work well as warm-ups for others) to emphasise particular performers.

In keeping with the anthology’s general tone of a calm dispassionateness and an overall lack of indulging whims or vendettas, there isn’t too much that one could object to in the choice of the thirty poets. There is a strong argument for including Graeme Miles whose first book (reviewed on this site) was an interesting and challenging one and one could make a case for Adrian Wiggins and perhaps Brett Dionysius, Liam Ferney and some others. Certainly they wouldn’t look out of place (or tone) in this anthology, especially if they replaced some of the weaker selections. And there are others who might have had some sort of claim. But, all in all, this seems as good a presentation of a generation as one could ask for. We aren’t told whether the editor or the poets actually chose the poems but I suspect it was the latter in collaboration with the former and the selections involve a mixture of published and new work. The poems chosen do seem, in the case of the poets whose work I know well, to give a good sense of a poet at his or her best. But the format does have a slight levelling quality. In the case of those poets whose published work is probably uneven (I’m deliberately avoiding names here, rather than being vague or coy) five pages of poetry can make you think they are stronger than they are. Those poets who are marked by their ability to write very different but equally strong poems end up being reduced slightly in a volume like this. If one read the books of these thirty poets I think one would feel that the poets’ abilities and achievements were much more varied than Thirty Poets alone suggests. And then there is the issue of the way a poet’s work is “set” in the arbitrary, alphabetical context of other poets’ work. To name names, for once, at the end of reading this book, I felt that, yes, Elizabeth Campbell, Emma Jones, Bronwyn Lea and Nick Riemer were terrific poets, absolutely individual voices doing their own thing. But I wouldn’t necessarily have expected this based on a previous knowledge of these poets’ work. I did plan to read the book in reverse as an experiment to determine how much of this reaction was really a response to the setting of the poet’s work, but time and deadlines caught up with me!

As I said at the beginning, anthologies are, in a way, like poems. The aleatoriness of the procedures of arrangement means that these hundred and forty-odd poems are not naturally sociable with each other and one of the pleasures of anthology reading is to trace unexpected motifs as though this were the work of a single mind. There is a lot that is hermeneutically interesting about this procedure and both Felicity Plunkett (in her Preface) and David McCooey (in his Introduction) do this to some extent. The idea behind this sort of reading is that, like poems, anthologies reveal patterns that might well come from somewhere else.

This reference to McCooey’s introduction leads me to the most difficult of questions which it would shame a reviewer to ignore: What are the features of this generation of Australian poets? I’m so old that the issue of the challenge posed by the “academic” poets of the fifties (Hope, McAuley, Buckley et al) to the “Bulletin” poets (Wright, Campbell et al) is not merely an historical one. I have thought long and hard about these issues of poetic generations, their ruptures, influences, internal relationships and continuities. Most descriptions of poetic periods are very impressionistic and would not satisfy a professional historian let alone a scientist. Chris Wallace-Crabbe memorably spoke of “the habit of irony” when dealing with the poetry of the fifties and I spoke of the need to “make it new” as the imperative behind the “generation of ‘68” but these were very gestural statements. Accepting, though, that it is probably impossible to give a completely accurate account of thirty poets, I’ll describe a few, equally subjective, impressions I have at the conclusion of this book.

Firstly, it is rather a shock – though it shouldn’t be – to see how professional these poets are. If the generation before were often the product of Creative Writing courses taught by poets who had managed to get jobs in universities and often looked out of place alongside the (declining) establishment of literary scholars, these people seem to be teachers themselves, almost always with doctorates. And they often teach something more demanding than Creative Writing. Judith Bishop (whose “It Begins Where You Stand” was lovely to re-encounter) describes herself as a professional linguist; Michael Brennan works in the Faculty of Policy Studies, Chuo University; Claire Potter “spent five years studying and teaching in Paris”; David Prater and Jaya Savige are both doctoral students, the former in Karlskrona, Sweden, the latter at Cambridge (Emma Jones has a Cambridge doctoral degree in literature). I might be confusing two elements here – professionalism and multilinguality – but I think they are closely related (John Mateer, Ali Alizadeh and Danijela Kambaskovic-Sawers seem to have had multilingual upbringings). At one level this professionalism seems entirely admirable. But of course there is a darker side and my second impression of this anthology relates to this. There isn’t much madness in Thirty Poets. Those working in a surreal tradition (like Louis Armand or David Prater) work in the thoroughly familiar (dare I say acceptable and professionalised?) tradition of reworking and rebuilding existing texts. The complexities of the poems of, say, Maria Takolander or LK Holt, seem interesting and challenging complexities rather than confronting ones. Other poems have a lot of emotional intensity and weirdness (Bronwyn Lea’s “Born Again”, which readers have a habit of remembering, stands out here) but it isn’t something that is going to change your ideas of what poetry can do. This response was provoked by coming across, very late in the book, Samuel Wagan-Watson’s “Night Racing” (“night racing through the suburbs / of white stucco dreaming . . .”) and realising that there was nothing else in the anthology remotely like this (though angry, aggressive poetry is not usually something I prize). It reminded me of my reading of Benjamin Frater’s 6am in the Universe (reviewed on this site). That is “mad” poetry though with a perfectly coherent aesthetics/metaphysics behind it. Should he have been included? He would have been the youngest poet in the anthology and his voice would certainly have stood out. But it would also have skewed a reader’s response to what this generation is like. It isn’t like the poetry of Benjamin Frater.

David McCooey makes the good point that the work of these poets “shows a profound knowledge of poetic precedence” and I want to explore this a bit. It is a useful idea because it brings the textual manipulators in out of the rain and under the umbrella where the (generally) lyrical and meditative poets are camped. I would approach this issue from a technological angle: this is the first generation of Australian poets writing under the aegis of Google. Whereas previous generations might have been addicted to particular forms – the villanelle and then the pantoum – now we find centos; there is one by Kate Fagan in Thirty Poets. To write a cento is perversely difficult enough but to read it respectably – almost impossible in the pre-google age – is simplicity itself nowadays. And it isn’t only a matter of locating and relating to poetic precedences. What would once have been the result of a monstrous, obsessive erudition, an interest in the most arcane byways of some subject (which, for some reason, is often a feature of the make-up of a poet’s mind), is now easily available at the writing desk. In a sense we are all erudite now and can “get up” things unimaginable to much cleverer people (like Hope, Buckley or McAuley). In The Best Australian Poetry, 2009, Liam Ferney, introduced his complicated poem (which blended the Australian High Court with a host of popular culture references) with the off-hand comment, “You can google the rest. I did”. That registers an important moment. Thinking this through further, though, leads me to see it as a possible positive that someone who was, himself, very erudite, John Forbes, would have approved of. Erudition itself is not going to be as impressive as it once was and poems will be forced to work for themselves rather than rely on some wonderful piece of arcane knowledge inside them. And apart from Google there are the combinative powers of the personal computer. Everone knows how John Tranter exploited the capacities of the Breakdown programme and while it must have taken Laurie Duggan hours of painstaking work to assemble his set of anagrams of the names of Australian poets in the 1970s, children could now do this effortlessly as a party game.

A final subjective impression concerns the sexes. If this is the Age of the Professionals, I had also expected it to be, poetically, an Age of the Woman. My sense from reading the new books emerging over the last ten years was that a fairly high percentage of the good ones were by women. Publishers like the excellent Giramondo Press seem to make a policy of publishing women poets. Picking up Thirty Poets and knowing that in today’s world an anthology without any particular axe to grind would have to aim at equal gender representation, I expected to find quite a number of make-weight male poets. This isn’t what happened. For some reason, perhaps to do with the levelling quality I spoke of earlier, the poetry of the women doesn’t seem dominant at all. Related to that is the fact that, of those poets I would have omitted if I had been editor, more than half are women and the poets that I listed previously as ones who might have been included in an anthology like this without raising any eyebrows are all male! Thinking about this, I have come to the conclusion that it is “the age of the woman poet” but that the anthology doesn’t entirely reflect this. In other words I trust the subjective impression I have from reading all the individual books over the years above the impression I have from this anthology.

I said that anthologies have contexts, just as poems do. To put it another way, anthologies are aware of their predecessors. Thirty Poets alludes immediately to one of these, John Tranter’s The New Australian Poetry, by choosing the date 1968 as the earliest cut-off birth date for its poets. That’s an elegant and generous gesture, I think, although there is a big difference between a birth date and the date at which a group of writers make an impact. The poets of the “generation of ‘68” were generally born after the Second World War. But Thirty Poets also seems to be the younger sibling of an anthology published in 2000, Michael Brennan and Peter Minter’s Calyx. I think Thirty Poets is, as an anthology, a far superior book exactly because it does reflect a single generation. Calyx’s virtue was that it anthologised interesting poets but they came from what appear, now, to be two quite separate generations. I also want to make connection when I read Thirty Poets with an anthology from 1968, Rodney Hall and Tom Shapcott’s New Impulses in Australian Poetry (also published by the University of Queensland Press). That anthology had a very strong sense of a generation (it turned out to be the one between the Bulletin poets and the ’68 poets). It too was organised alphabetically though it was much more “interventionist” than Thirty Poets in that it varied the number of poems by contributors and included highly interpretive introductory notes to each poet by the editors. In retrospect (and, probably, at the time) the faultlines within that generation were fairly clear. There were Brisbane poets (Hall, Shapcott, Malouf, Rowbotham, Croyston, Green and perhaps Harwood), Melbourne “university” poets (Buckley, Jones, Wallace-Crabbe, Simpson, Taylor and perhaps Dawe), Sydney poets (Lehmann and Murray) and a number who could either be seen as “unaligned” or loosely connected to one of these groups (Beaver, Smith, Stow). I mention this to ask whether the same (or similar) lines can be drawn in Thirty Poets. There are Sydney University poets here, there is a Melbourne group published by the John Leonard Press and so on. If they can’t be confidently drawn now, will they become clearer a few years on. Living in the Google/Amazon/Internet age means that groupings are likely to be matters of sympathy rather than proximity (let alone class or gender, those subgroups beloved of sociologists). All poetic texts are available, as influences, to everyone and so there are less likely to be poetic “gateways” in the form of elder poets lending books or supervising reading groups.

A final two points about this excellent book. By encapsulating a generation it turns the older poets (who were born before 1968) into a generation as well. This is something that I don’t think they were before and they might not like being now. That dividing line means that major poets like Anthony Lawrence, Judith Beveridge, Peter Boyle, MTC Cronin, Adam Aitken, Emma Lew and a host of others (these were literally the first names that came into my head) have become isolated into a kind of group. I don’t think this is a bad thing because their work is different to that of these thirty poets and seeing them as a generation might encourage us to attempt a more complex description before looking for continuities between them and the poets of this anthology.

Tom Shapcott edited Australian Poetry Now in 1969. In many ways it has the fewest continuities with Thirty Poets being a bit of a grab-bag. But, for me, it was a very exciting anthology introducing (or allowing the authors themselves to introduce) a host of poets I had never heard of. It caught the idea that a poetic renaissance was occurring by not predefining the nature of that rebirth at the editorial level. So in many ways it is crude. It has a hoax poet (Gwen Harwood’s Timothy Kline) and a lot of poets who didn’t sustain significant careers. But more than Thirty Poets it conveyed a sense of a lot of new (and often weird) things happening. If Thirty Poets recalls New Impulses in Australian Poetry then it is possible that there is room for an anthology that recalls some aspects of Australian Poetry Now, publishing people who are young, have not produced a book and who have appeared only in journals or online.