Monday, 26 January 2009

big hits, high tide and green grass

‘What is an anti-nationalist doing compiling an historical anthology of Australian poetry?’ This is the question with which John Kinsella begins his introduction to the new Penguin Anthology of Australian Poetry, and it’s a question he mostly fails to answer. It’s not a bad anthology as far as these things go, though it certainly doesn’t overcome Robert Graves’ and Laura Riding’s arguments against the fashion. The book certainly isn’t served well by either the designers or the sub-editor. The cover really has to be one of the worst I’ve seen. It’s hard to see how anyone could have thought it a ‘selling point’. What is this cheap (seemingly empty) bag doing, dumped on a beach. Is it somehow symbolic of the volume’s content (a washed-up culture?!). The layout within could have been worse though some of the poets are scrunched up uncomfortably close to their neighbours. The grouping of poets by century is also rather odd (is someone born in 1799 really an ‘eighteenth-century poet’?). It would perhaps have been best to keep all the introductory materials together with the general overview at the front of the book rather than use it to divide the ‘centuries’. The way the poems are interrupted by these disquisitions seems to indicate that the book was envisioned as a school text (as so many general anthologies are these days). This seems partly in conflict with Kinsella’s desire to produce a Jerome Rothenberg like tome where the relative quality of poems is subordinated to a grand scheme: a kind of anthropological approach to poetry that might not lend itself so well to teaching.

I’ve made my thoughts about nineteenth and early twentieth-century Australian poetry clear before now. It seems to me another instance of the editor hesitating between the pragmatic (if I don’t include this material it won’t become a school text) and the idealistic (the Rothenberg job). It’s history that is partly used to justify these inclusions. If the authors aren’t that interesting in themselves nonetheless they represent a kind of ‘voice of Australia’ (though ‘Australia’ as such didn’t exist for most of this period and, in any case, it was not an America: it was less an ideal than a brute fact). For an ‘anti-nationalist’ this might seem a strange position to operate from.

So, the nineteenth century. Pretty thin gruel overall, though you could certainly argue for CJ Dennis (I imagine Pound and Eliot would have liked this poet had they read him), and there are always arguments for Charles Harpur and Christopher Brennan. The early twentieth century produced oddities like Furnley Maurice who often began poems well (try the line ‘The lanes are full of young men swallowing beer’) before collapsing into doggerel. Maurice had obviously read the early modernists but had made the mistake of figuring modernity as content rather than form.

The Rothenberg effect means that poems of very different provenance written for very different audiences are allowed to sit together. This can be a profitable exercise and, at times, an amusing one. My own poem, a translation of an early twentieth-century Italian sophisticate appears next to a piece by Geoff Goodfellow, a self-proclaimed ‘working-class poet’. It can also be a less than useful practice. The anthology has one of the better selections of Aboriginal poetry in English (plus several pieces in translation and a couple untranslated) and for this it is to be commended. However, among these are one or two pieces included for their overt politic rather than for any other merit. This is surely an unnecessary act of reverse discrimination when there are very good poets like Lionel Fogarty or, for that matter David Unaipon to hand who are every bit as ‘political’? I’d argue too for Sam Wagan Watson who isn’t included here.

So who are the ‘heroes’ of this new anthology? Kinsella disavows any attempt to suggest relative importance by representation yet it can hardly suggest otherwise. Those poets afforded three or more poems, it turns out, are an unsurprising list: Kenneth Slessor, Judith Wright, Les Murray &c. For better or worse it’s more a kind of critical consensus (amidst this it’s nice to sense the editor’s undisguised awe of John Forbes). So how does the book justify itself? It is refreshing in some respects, though it’s a pity that for various ideological reasons poets like Alan Wearne and Robert Adamson refused the editor permission. Why did the poets not cooperate? Did they sense that they might become mere materials for someone else’s argument (isn’t this true of every anthology?). It’s a sad fact of general anthologies that they tend to exist as though those omitted need never have existed (I won’t win any friends for saying this even if I’ve been left out of any number of anthologies myself). In my own case, as an ‘expat’, I didn’t really feel I had much choice. Australia forgets its poets with alarming rapidity unless, like Les Murray, they hog the feature pages of the dailies (i.e. become ‘celebrities’).

Let the debate continue!


david lumsden said...

Ah Frank Wilmot - but of course the nom-de-plume Furnley Maurice is so much more 'poetic' isn't it? - that Frank or Furnley who once described the farmer's life as 'A life of fevered effort, of wool and tortured love' (poem: 'The Agricultural Show, Flemington, Victoria') ... I suppose some of the openings are OK ... 'Melbourne and Memory' starts out

The juggernauting trams and the prolonged
Crash of the Cafeteria at noon

but the 'proem' (!) to 'Melbourne Odes' starts:

I made a town of wizard wiles,
Holy and magic things,
I dressed my heart in a mail of love
To soften envy's stings.

And this was 1934 ! Same year as...

Closed car - closed in glass -
At the curb,
Unapplied and empty:
A thing among others
Over which clouds pass and the
         alteraton of lighting,
An overstatement
Hardly an exterior.
Moving in traffic
This thing is less strange -
Tho the face, still within it,
Between glasses - place, over which
                      time passes - a false light.

(George Oppen, 'Discrete Series').

John Tranter said...

I haven't seen the book yet, though Laurie's comments seem to echo those of Andrew Riemer in the Sydney Morning Herald. (Time changes all things.) But the cover... what's wrong with the cover?

Laurie said "The cover really has to be one of the worst I’ve seen. It’s hard to see how anyone could have thought it a ‘selling point’. What is this cheap (seemingly empty) bag doing, dumped on a beach. Is it somehow symbolic of the volume’s content (a washed-up culture?!)."

I think it's fine. The colours and the type work well together; the red, white and blue plastic bag echoes the colours of the Australian flag -- it even looks like a crazy flag -- while most Australians know that this kind of bag was for decades called a "Vietnamese Suitcase" because the many Vietnamese who fled Vietnam after the war came to to Australia, because of the wars Australia and the US fought there, and they could only afford cheap plastic bags for their belongings, so it points to Australia's recent war, immigration and multi-cultural experiences. Good.

Also the beach is the archetypical Australian landscape, and features as the arena where the British landed and dispossessed the aboriginal inhabitants.

Also "The Beach" is the title of a strange end-of-the-world movie made from Neville Shutes's novel of the same name and set in Melbourne, Australia. "They chose Melbourne as the place to shoot a movie about the end of the world," star Ava Gardner said in 1954. "They chose the right place!"

(Also the beach was the landscape where Captain Cook, Australia's main discoverer, was murdered in Hawai'i.)

The design also echoes, of course, the cover of Donald Allen's "The New American Poetry" in both its incarnations, in 1960 and in its reprint by UCal PRess.

So it's a great, attractive and culturally rich design. What's the problem?

John Tranter

(Rival Penguin Anthologist!!)

Laurie Duggan said...

Well John, I dunno. It may be a designer's opinion that the cover is more than adequate but on viewing it I felt my heart sink. Also I wouldn't say that the book was in direct competition with the one you and Philip Mead edited. Yours was much more the modernist take, giving enough examples of many of the poets' work for lineages to be traced, whereas this one aims to fill the gap left by something like the old Heseltine anthology (to which the editor refers) and so goes back over the colonial material.

david lumsden said...

The cover didn't make my heart sink, but the association that sprang to mind was "The Reject Shop" (a chain of outlets where I believe such bags are available) - not the happiest connotation perhaps for an anthology.

John said...

Whoops... Neville Shute's novel was called "On the Beach", not "The Beach"; my mistake. (Or "my bad", as teenagers now say.) I also got my dates wrong:

"On the Beach is a post-apocalyptic end-of-the-world novel written by British-Australian author Nevil Shute after he had immigrated to Australia. It was published in 1957.

"The novel was adapted for the screenplay of a 1959 film featuring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, and Fred Astaire, and a 2000 television film starring Armand Assante and Rachel Ward. BBC Radio 4 broadcast a full cast audio dramatisation in two hour-long episodes as part of their Classic Serial strand in November 2008.[1] (Wikipedia)"

(Correction to my correction: Wikipedia means "migrated to Australia", not "immigrated to Australia").

Laurie's right: the Kinsella Penguin anthology is a replacement for the Heseltine one, now long in the tooth.

-- John Tranter

Laurie Duggan said...

That was my take on it too David.

michaelf said...

i think the bag looks like some odd kind of sea creature that washed up on the beach - which is true enough of poetry in languages other than indigenous ones.. it signifies - to me - pomo, recycling, diaspora, globalism ..

i hope someone can make a better fist of reviewing it than riemer with his tired questions ..

Anonymous said...

Maybe the bag represents all those cheap, second hand, poetic styles direct from the NY School that washed up on our shores courtesy of Gen 68.

Pale imitations of the real thing, yet no less
irrelevant to the younger generation of australian poets, and the poetry readership in general

For me j. t. lost any credibility as an anthologist after i read the interview with him in Meanjin. In that interview he admits to was given an ultimatum by some poets he wanted to include- publish my friends or you can't publish me.

No prizes for guessing what what big j.t. did.

Hence confirming what everyone suspected anyway - that gen 68 was a closed circle, corrupt to the core.
Any anthologist worthy of his salt would have rejected such a suggestion out of hand and included work on its merit.

Laurie Duggan said...

Ah, it's Mr or Ms Anon again. What a pleasure it is to have you aboard - a real, live, Generation of 68 basher. But oh dear, it was such a long time ago. Have you thought of counselling?

Anonymous said...

A long time ago - i don't think so.

40 years is a veritable blink in time when it comes to poetry. And let's face it, you and the rest of them continue to dine out on your membership - when it suits you.

What you and your disgraced anthologist mate don't realise is that poetry doesn't live in anthologies. It doesn't live in your precious bound volumes, fully supported by the australia council which you, (particularly you) made an art out of

It lives in people - in readers.

With the risk of stating the blindingly obvious the work of the generation of 68 hasn't aged well - it's readership has shrunk so far that i recently heard they held the 40th anniversary reading in a telephone booth - and even then there were empty seats.

Dransfield is the only poet in that group who continues to attract new readers- especially among younger poets and younger people in general.

I know how uncomfortable that makes all you gen 68'ers feel- but there you go - it's fact.

So when you bang on about your daring precious poetry experiments. Your wondrous ground breaking work remember one thing - it means fuck all- cuz no wants to read it no matter how you package it or what cover you put on the front of it.

It's irrelevant to younger poets. They've already made up their minds - and they don't need another anthology stuffed with "worthy" poetry to make it up for them.

Laurie Duggan said...

Firstly, I'd remind Anonymous that at least I put my name to what I say. And I do mean it that you should seek counselling. Surely if you hate all that 'Gen of 68' stuff so much you must be a masochist to read my blog. Secondly, and more to the point, whatever you make of it the 'gen of 68' thing certainly was a marketers idea of something going on in poetry. A lot of the people in the first Tranter anthology never did actually meet or even correspond. Conspiracy theorists like yourself imagine that it was a big plot, but some of us didn't even like each other. The individual tastes of some of us may also be far wider that you could imagine. Now, I have to say, unless you are prepared to put a name to your responses I've just about had enough of giving space to your oddball rants.

michaelf said...

dear anon

what do younger poets like?

Laurie Duggan said...

Hmm, yes Michael. I certainly couldn't say, though I know it wouldn't be 'Gen of 68' and nothing else. In fact with the writing schools probably most students aren't being brainwashed by the 68-ers; they're far more likely to be picking up styles promulgated by the American writing schools like Iowa and diving head-first into the 'new lyric'. In all but one or two places the model would be either lyrical psychobiography or 'performance poetry' rather than any reflexive stuff. It's weird that Mr Anon (for it is surely a 'he') thinks that young writers have been destroyed by 'Tranter Modernism'. They have far more varied resources available to them (and far more places to publish) than I ever had for the first few years of my own 'career'. There have also been plenty of anthologies that completely bypass the '68' thing and, more importantly, these are often the ones that are prescribed school texts (I'm thinking here of John Leonard's books, though there are others. My work doesn't appear in any of these).

sam langer said...

'imagination, or the plastic bag'

(-coleridge living in NY circa 1950s?)

Paul said...

I would be fascinated to know why the legend and our finest living poet Robert Admason didn't participate. There's a story there isn't there (and it's not all about ideology or poetry is it.) I must get to the bottom of this rift. I know Pam Brown is not a big fan of Mr Adamson. Perhaps it is something fundamental to do with lyricism and the soul versus language poetry and cynicism or maybe just an incident back when you were all drinking. It will make a fascinating chapter in my biography of contemporary Australian Poetry, "The Weaker Things Persist." (from the quote by Bob Adamson)

Laurie Duggan said...

From what I remember, Bob and a few others refused to have their work included in the anthology. I don't know that there was any big ideological thing going on here though. And the 'language' versus 'romantic' thing just doesn't work e.g. Bob asked for a poem of mine for the Black Inc 'Best Poems' 2009 anthology. Sure, we've had disagreements over the years but I mostly like his work and presumably he likes mine. So much of this stuff is now water under the bridge I'd say.

Paul said...

But its fascinating to us historians of literature, Laurie. I think it's important for future generations of Australian poets for the true story of the lives of your generation is told. I found a fascinating article in the SMH all about it. It would make a wonderful book, full of passion, I love Bob's line about going under the Antarctic, sounds like a caution against cynicism to me. I hoping one of the University presses will pick up the book. Thanks for your insights.

John Tranter said...

"I found a fascinating article in the SMH all about it." Oh God, you open the paper, read a piece of journalism, and believe it?? Journalists are paid to seek out and exaggerate conflict in any event. So a couple of poets having a mild disagreement about Robert Duncan's poetry in a pub turns into "Poetry Bloodbath! Feral Writers Savage Each Other in Front of Women and Children!! Read All About it!!"

Laurie Duggan said...

Yes John, and there were some shockers, weren't there. I remember being contacted by a journalist around the time the Sydney Poets' Union was being set up. I sensed that she was going to produce a 'reds under the beds' piece, which was utterly ridiculous. Journalists love it for the poets to be like bad-tempered clowns, and they love to manufacture wars out of disagreements. Life is too short for this sort of thing.