‘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!