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The Poet Tasters

The Geraldine Pascall Prize for Australian Critic of the Year has been awarded on 25 occasions, each time by a panel of eminent critics, often themselves past winners. It has gone to critics known for their reviewing of fiction (7), film (5), music (3, including once shared), theatre (2), art (2), architecture (1), food and wine (1) and to reviewers-at-large (3). The first award went to David Malouf before it was decided that the prize should be specialised for criticism. Not once has it gone to a critic known principally for poetry reviewing.

If this is anything to go by, ‘literary critic’ in Australia means ‘reader of novels’. In an unprompted spray at Australian book reviewing in The Conversation last year, for example, we find John Dale commenting that a good review ‘gives readers a taste of the prose and the narrative so that they can decide whether to buy the book’. It might also indicate that while film reviewers no doubt reach many more people, and probably more directly influence public taste, there is a certain shimmer to writing about novels. No matter how naked the commercialism that pushes some novels into the light of public comment and others into obscurity, the novel review is yet a core activity of the contemporary belletrist. And if so much novel reviewing is really a haughty kind of product advice, we should not attribute this only to a flaw in the character of the critics. There is just about enough of a literary fiction market to incite professional aspirations, which means that their interpretations are subjected to the demands of editors and a broad readership, leading to habits of reading and writing that can produce the sincere belief that good contemporary fiction exists on a continuum between David Foster Wallace and Joyce Carol Oates.

The poetry critic is a different creature, evolved within a different ecosystem, whose resemblance to most critics of fiction is not much closer than honeyeaters to chickens. Most obviously, there is no commercial sphere against which ‘literary’ poetry defines itself, however much handwringing there might be about accessibility. The most celebrated or popular Australian poetry volume will struggle to sell 1000 copies. It takes manic tenacity or global fame to make a career by writing poems. The total revenue of all Australian poetry volumes in any given year would struggle to match the advance for a mid-list novelist. The art form subsists in an economy of university posts, writing courses, postgraduate scholarships, literary prizes, government grants, fellowships, philanthropy and, above all, self-funding. Concerns about commercialism might be rare, but a lingering sense of hobbyism can afflict the vocation. Just about anyone who has decided that poetry is their thing, and who has enough private means and persistence, can be confident of edging their way into a scene like Australia’s. Even long-established poets can be nagged by the feeling that the aesthetic communities from which they gain recognition only reflect back the effort they put in; miss a few readings, take a break from publishing, leave an editorial post and you and your work might disappear.

This is where the poetry critic presumably plays an important role. With her wide reading and long memory, she can pull up the latest warehouse dweller passing off Forbesean informality as her own insouciance, or remind us of that volume from the late 1980s which did everything that the eco-poet claims as her own post-human innovation. The problem with this picture is that virtually all poetry critics are also poets. Providing context and shaping narratives are not activities that stand outside the positioning of individuals and groups in the scene of writing. Of the 27 people who published three or more reviews of Australian poetry collections in an Australian periodical (print and online) in 2013, only two are not themselves active poets: Peter Craven and Martin Duwell. Craven, of course, is exceptional – a generalist who takes the time to write about poetry – and Duwell is an even rarer creature: an academic, editor and publisher who has devoted much of his long career to reviewing contemporary Australian poetry without having a stake in it as a poet or master-theorist. Steadfastly even-handed, he publishes monthly reviews on his own website in addition to those completed for a range of journals.

So perhaps the reason that there have been no Pascall Prize-winning poetry critics is that, Duwell aside, the entity ‘Australian poetry critic’ does not really exist. It might not occur to anyone to nominate good poetry critics because they are perceived to be poets writing criticism, reminding us that the term ‘critic’, like ‘motorist’, can be a misleading abstraction. We drive to work to do work; we articulate our experiences of art to contest the trajectory of aesthetic purpose. This is one of the refreshing qualities of Australian poetry criticism: there can be no pretence to an external vantage, so the tension between subjective and objective claims, alliances and evaluation, must play out in the codes and procedures of the review.

The field of Australian poetry is small yet intricately interdependent. Barely noticeable from the heights of mainstream commentary on movies, classical music, novels, theatre, bands and so forth, once you descend and adjust to its scale you are witness to a highly dynamic system (in the sense of the fluidity of elements, not necessarily their velocity). To apprehend the logic of Australian poetry criticism one must appreciate the significance of the fact that poets themselves constitute just about every aspect of their world: they are the writers, the publishers, the editors, the event organisers, the critics, the audiences, the anthologists, the scholars, and sometimes even the printers and distributors. This might sound like any sub-culture, but it would be odd to characterise a form that has historically grounded literary categories as a sub-genre. On the other hand, it is fair to say that committed poets have the indifference of metalheads to people who don’t ‘get’ what they are doing. If you are a full participant in constituting your community, the non-interest of others is irrelevant, and economic sanction carries no threat in a non-market.

Separating out acts of criticism from the various roles that poets play will only falsify the object, making any attempt to ‘watch’ poetry criticism complicated. Also, particular critical acts form part of patterns of alliance and aesthetic creed. These are entirely obvious to those involved but obscure to the uninitiated. Instead of looking to exemplary cases, then, Critic Watch resolved to survey the entire output of Australian poetry criticism in a calendar year.

How many beans are in the jar? How many reviews of volumes of Australian poetry appeared in Australian journals, newspapers and magazines in 2013? Surprisingly many: 247 reviews covering 159 volumes authored or edited by 142 poets (66 women and 76 men), by 134 reviewers (62 women and 72 men).

PeriodicalNo. of ReviewsPoetry Reviews Editor in 2013 (general editor listed if reviews editor not clear.)
Cordite72Kent MacCarter and Lisa Gorton
Australian Book Review24*Peter Rose
The Australian24Stephen Romei
Rochford Street Review23Mark Roberts and Linda Adair
Sotto19Donna Ward
Mascara15Michelle Cahill
Sydney Morning Herald / The Age13Susan Wyndham (SMH) Jason Steger (The Age)
Southerly / Southerly long paddock12Toby Fitch
Australian Poetry Review11Martin Duwell
Rabbit8Corey Wakeling
Sydney Review of Books7James Ley
Overland5Jeff Sparrow
Quadrant5Les Murray
foam:e3Angela Gardner and Jonathan Hadwen
Australian Poetry Journal2∞Bronwyn Lea
Meanjin1Zora Sanders
Public Service News1N/A
The Sunday Age1N/A
Westerly1Delys Bird
Total247

* This includes the December-January issue 2013-14, but not 2012-13.
∞ The second volume of APJ was published in 2014, and so has not been included

These are all the print and online reviews with a formal editorial process of some description. That is to say, reviews that are not self-published, though the small size of many of these little magazines means that this is not a very solid criterion. Critic Watch made an exception for Duwell’s Australian Poetry Review. It follows a strict schedule, adopts a formal register, and comes from a well-established critic. The material on his site is no different in substance to other periodicals where editors sometimes publish their own reviews. Working from Sydney libraries, Critic Watch’s reach was somewhat limited. The relevant editors at the Courier Mail, Canberra Times, West Australian, Advertiser, Mercury and NT News were contacted, but none were forthcoming. (If any periodicals have been missed, or mistakes or miscounts made, please get in touch, and the figures will be corrected with acknowledgement.)

Cordite is Australian poetry’s central digestive tract, publishing over six reviews a month. In it can be found just about every kind of critic reading just about every kind of poet at just about every level of competence. The Australian Book Review and the Australian do a reasonable job of covering major releases and a few other volumes that catch their respective editor’s eyes. They have something of a stable of reviewers, and so a more consistent, if predictable tone. The Fairfax papers do less well.  Beyond these, we find a diverse array of periodicals centred on different groups which, together, ensure that most published titles receive at least two reviews, and established names can expect at least four or five. If you contrast this with fiction that has a comparable readership you would almost certainly find a fraction of the number. Australian poetry is not big, but it is industrious and produces its own internal momentum.

It is interesting to look at some further breakdowns. Here are reviews by publishers whose titles were reviewed four or more times:

PublisherNumber of reviews
Giramondo42
Puncher & Wattman27
UQP24
Walleah Press16
Fremantle AC Press14
John Leonard Press9
Whitmore Press8
5 Islands Press7
Grand Parade Poets7
Pitt Street Poetry7
Black Pepper6
Ginninderra Press6
Shearsman6
UWA6
Carcenet5
Hunter5
Island Press5
Picador5
Spinifex5
Brandl & Schlesinger4
Vagabond4

These are the most prolific reviewers along with their main platform:

ReviewerNumber of reviewsMain Journal
Martin Duwell14APR and ABR
Ali Jane Smith7The Australian
Anthony Lynch7ABR
Mark Roberts7Rochford
Geoff Page7The Australian
Peter Kenneally7ABR and The Australian
Bonny Cassidy6various
Michael Farrell6various
Ali Alizadeh4Overland
Angela Gardner4foam:e
Cassandra Atherton4ABR
David McCooey4various
Kate Middleton4various
Robbie Coburn4Rochford

 

And this is the league table for poetry volumes by number of reviews in 2013:

PoetVolumeNumber of Reviews
Lisa GortonHotel Hyperion (Giramondo)9
Jennifer MaidenLiquid Nitrogen (Giramondo)8
Geoff Page1953 (UQP)7
Alan WearnePrepare the Cabin for Landing (Giramondo)6
Chris Wallace-CrabbeNew and Selected Poems (Carcenet)5
Luke DaviesFour Plots for Magnets (Pitt Street)5
Brook EmeryCollusion (John Leonard)4
Laurie DugganThe Collected Blue Hills (Puncher & Wattman)4
MTC CroninThe World Last Night (UQP)4
Rachael BriggsFree Logic (UQP)4
Rosemary DobsonRosemary Dobson: Collected Poems (UQP)4
Stephen EdgarEldershaw (Black Pepper)4

By the logic of the numbers, Lisa Gorton’s Hotel Hyperion was the noteworthy release of 2013; but this is probably misleading. Poetry reviews can take a long time to emerge, so a calendar year is an arbitrary parameter. Fiona Hile’s Novelties, for example, does not appear here and her publisher, Hunter, is well down the list, and yet this collection won the NSW Premier’s Award, for which neither Gorton nor Maiden were shortlisted. The numbers provide a sense of the scale and the institutional hubs, but reveal little about the nature of the criticism. So Critic Watch did what it had to do, and undertook to read all 247 reviews to see what was happening on the inside.

I was once a ‘by-fellow’ at a Cambridge college, which meant that I received casual rates for teaching. By-fellows, however, are eligible for free lunches and dinners. Lunch, which attracted a variety of the college’s fellows, could be lively, but dinner was generally glum. The company was mostly asocial single men who had rationalised their routines so as to ensure maximum academic output. Presiding was a legal philosopher who had perfected this art. He ran ten miles a day, wrote books about the ethics of capital punishment and torture, and survived on a diet of unseasoned popcorn until his one meal at dinner: three large bowls of mixed boiled vegetables, each piled about twenty centimetres high. In a loud American voice, he would harangue the table with his views – that Britain was a third-world country because his train had been cancelled, for example. The topics were boring, but it was hypnotising to watch those vegetable mountains disappear. It took him 40 minutes, the last usually polished off in the Senior Common Room.

Reading 247 poetry reviews took longer than 40 minutes. Cordite alone absorbed a fortnight. I thought that the exercise would provide a fine-grained sense of the character of contemporary Australian poetry, an understanding of aesthetic trends, lines of influence and power dynamics. Thinking back, it appears as so many vegetable mountains. It was nutritious – I discovered many poets and some excellent critics – but it became attritional. Not that this is necessarily a fault of the reviews. Watching an entire test match from the perspective of a camera trained on the slips might be a more fitting analogy.

Judged by its best practitioners, Australian poetry reviewing is of a higher standard than other areas of cultural criticism. It is has become commonplace to separate reviewing and criticism, but the distinction does not hold up when you read the Australian poetry world engaging with itself. Duwell’s review-essay on John Kinsella’s The Jaguar’s Dream (Australian Poetry Review, August) runs to nearly 6000 words and is a sustained meditation on the nature of verse translation. It includes the reviewer’s own literalistic translations of Hölderlin to help us understand how Kinsella approaches his task. Reviewing Lisa Jacobson’s verse novel, The Sunlit Zone (Cordite, February), Jessica Wilkinson shows us the prosodic texture of six other verse novels, both foreign – Anne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband (2001) and Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate (1986) – and the ‘colloquial poetics’ of local efforts by Alan Wearne, Peter Porter, Les Murray and Pi O, before coming to the first excerpt from Jacobson. Bev Braune’s essay on Kate Lilley’s Ladylike (Cordite, April) glosses Sartre’s notion of ‘bad faith’, looks into the etymology of ‘podasey’, and cross-references literature on psychoanalysis and gender. Yet it isn’t an academic article – she still allows herself a spontaneous subjective response, such as the observation that Lilley’s work can read like ‘academic exercises’. It takes the effort of an ‘academic’ response for this to be meaningful rather than a philistine’s swipe.

Good poet-critics have the capacity to describe succinctly the ways in which syntax, technique and form combine to shape the appearance of the poetic voice, as when Gig Ryan comments of Chris Andrews’s Lime Green Chair:

A resigned tone, anchored by reluctant maturity, is partly formed from the persistent hendecasyllabic lines, and the grammar of present tense slipping into past and conditionals, with spiralling, diffident, qualifying phrases.
(Australian Book Review, March).

Ryan’s technical precision gives her adjectives real substance. The same goes for register and aesthetic, as when she comments of Pam Brown’s Home by Dark:

Brown’s commitment to a spontaneous self-narrating post-modernism slugs it out in creative tension with political commitment’s desire to be understood.
(Australian Book Review, July-August)

These comments accompany excerpts from the poetry, so we are not expected to trust in an assumed omni-competence.

The necessity for citation saves the criticism from those structural pressures that prevent honesty. Easy praise for, say, predictable free-verse lyric hangs itself on the citations. One reviewer cites the following lines from Judy Johnson’s Stone Scar Air Water:

Husked between seasons in this cinnamon air
I watch the sales of skiffs
on the birdbath lake
dip beaks to tinselled water and realise
my heart’s adrift

and comments: ‘the scoured beauty of these poems and their implied weaving of self and world, is distilled’ (Australian Book Review, October). ‘Weaving of self and world’? Here is the self, there is the world; the pun on ‘adrift’ only confirms the projection of the human ego. ‘Scoured beauty’? Perhaps, if this means an antiseptic middle-class worldview, but it’s like describing a sunburnt tourist as elegant.

Contrast that with this reading of famous lines from Robert Gray:

Down the slopes move, as a nude descends a staircase

slender white gum trees

It is unforgettable because it makes the mind work between stillness and movement. It is a downward stepping, pictured step-by-step and all at once. The image captures not only the look of the landscape from a train window when the movement of the train can make the land appear to move; it also captures the way in which memory holds a run of time in a single image.
(Sydney Review of Books, March)

The aptness of the response activates that movement between reader, poetic viewer and the landscape, of the sort only wished for by the previous reviewer.

Uncertainty regularly forms part of the critical presentation. Pondering whether clichés and numerical disagreement in Ouyang Yu’s poetry are intentional, Jal Nicholl is compelled to see that ‘there is no culturally normative standard in play by which to judge’ (Cordite, February). When Ali Jane Smith tries to find her bearings in Corey Wakeling’s Goad Omen, she starts by trying to decode the sum of references and referents, but gets nowhere: ‘I step back, take a breath, stop looking at the brushstrokes and consider the overall effect.’ She then allows herself to take in the range of linguistic effects without trying to piece them together like a jigsaw, giving her ‘pleasure in synchronic play … The treatment of language as a construction material’ (Southerly, August). This will be too vague to satisfy those attuned to Wakeling’s aesthetic, but at least the critic shows a willingness to educate herself in public view.

Even more encouraging is the practice of citing and contending with other reviews and critics. In a poised discussion of Rosemary Dobson’s collected poems (Cordite, March), Bonny Cassidy begins by disagreeing with David McCooey’s contention that Dobson is preoccupied with material things, seeing instead a preponderance of abstractions, before allowing herself to reach an agreement with him when reading the poet’s late work. In a review of Michael Brennan’s Autoethnographic (Mascara, June), Tamryn Bennett focuses her reading of the poem’s climate of catastrophe with reference to the assumption of other critics that this is necessarily a ‘dystopia’. Interpretation is a community effort, even if judgement is singular. Perhaps the poetry community as a whole should be awarded a Pascall Prize?

For all this, the boiled-vegetable impression remained. There were many intelligent and thorough reviews, but something about the experience did not add up. For one, the aesthetic parameters of Australian poetry criticism are decidedly Eurocentric. I don’t use the term to suggest a limitation of individuals. The poetic education and tastes of those in the poetry community are structurally Eurocentric. It seems all Australian poets took the same two courses at university: ‘British and Irish poetry from Wordsworth to Heaney’ and ‘Modern American poetry from Whitman to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E’. A handful also took a course on French symbolism. When Australian poet critics say ‘poetry’ they mean a particular verse tradition and a sequence of aesthetic developments. Confining ourselves to English-language poetry, you could count on one hand references in all 2013 reviews to poets from the Caribbean, South and South-East Asia, African and Pacific nations (including New Zealand), which have produced poets such as Chris Okigbo, Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Arun Kolatkar, Lorna Goodison, J. P. Clark, Okot p’Bitek, Grace Nichols, Arun Ramanujan, Derek Walcott, Jeremy Cronin, J. K. Baxter and Arthur Yap – not to mention non-white poets in white-majority societies, such as Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, Jayne Cortez, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Marlene Nourbese Philip and, yes, Oodgeroo Noonuccal and Lionel Fogarty. Critic Watch would like to cite examples, but you can’t cite an absence.

Ironically, this Eurocentrism extends to the consideration of ‘multicultural’ poetry. It seems the challenge multiculturalism presents for Australia’s poetry critics is not to contend with other poetic traditions, lineages, traditions, forms, styles, meanings and values, but to acknowledge an ‘identity’, which gains its definition in being set against the mainstream. The desire to display liberal openness only deepens the impression of a closed circuitry. This is not to make a moral judgement; reviewers are not required to steep themselves in the work of non-European and non-white US poets if it is of no interest to them. It just seems remarkable that an aesthetic community in contemporary ‘globalised’ Australia is not interested.

My mother said
not to put my identity in the dryer
but I did
and it came up
fluffy and gorgeous.
(Jackson, ‘My mother said’)

More remarkable is the general lack of references to other Australian poets, both past and present. This is not true of the more convincing and usually longer-standing critics, who will give a sense of where a particular poet’s aesthetic stands in relation to previous local efforts. Michael Farrell, for instance, weaves a discussion of Christopher Brennan’s Mallarmé-inspired Musicopoematographoscope through a review-essay of Chris Edward’s People of Earth, a work which includes variations on Mallarmé. When he comments, ‘I make these connections in order to make clear both an Australian and international context for Edwards’ work’ (Rabbit, June), the italics indict the critical environment. Such a local context is not provided in reviews of Toby Fitch’s Rawshock by Nicola Themistes (Cordite, April) and Fiona Hile (Mascara, June), a collection with clear debts to Mallarmé. This is not to single out these two. The effect writ large is the occlusion of the peculiar patterns of Australian poets responding to foreign work. It is as if all poets individually approach the larder of famous European and US poets, each with their individually formed palette.

This is not a matter of namechecking, but making apparent the relative aesthetic positions of practising poets. Why should Mallarmé and French surrealists give Fitch, a young Sydney-based poet, aesthetic impetus at this point in time? The collection was published by Puncher & Wattman, launched in Melbourne and Sydney by Gig Ryan and David Brooks respectively, endorsed by Robert Adamson and Judith Beveridge, reviewed by Peter Kenneally and Geoff Page, as well as Hile and Themistes, and it won the Grace Leven prize. These are denizens of the scene, so it seems the material resonated where it counts. Does Fitch continue in a tradition that includes Brennan, Tranter and Edwards (who designed the cover of Rawshock)? Does his success, say, indicate a broader turning away from the influence of post-war American poets among younger Australian experimentalists? Or is this a more singular turn?

This brings us to observe a general tendency to approach each poetry volume as a singular instance of itself. More often than not, reviews follow this formula:

1. Introduce the volume, the poet and their previous publications.

2. Describe the poet’s overall aesthetic with reference to European and / or North American antecedents.

3. Quote approvingly from two or three choice poems with some technical commentary.

4. Express reservations about one or two poems.

5. Affirm, nevertheless, the worthiness of the volume as a whole.

Encountering this again and again is what really wore down Critic Watch. When all poets are taken on their own merits, all poets seem to have merit. Particularly numbing is the rhythm of the compliment sandwich – four or so paragraphs of positive commentary, then a passing criticism, quickly rescued by affirmation. Here is a selection of such moments:

While Cronin’s compositional practices allow her to range across styles and subject matter, some of the more satiric pieces might have benefited from further development or even exclusion. That said, The World Last Night is an impressive collection …
(Melissa Ashley Australian Poetry Journal, May)

Occasionally, Available Light suffers from obscurity, from too-private references to particular photographs, literary biography, or pieces of music. In a poem like “metaphor strayed”, you are left wondering just where it has strayed … Overall, though, this collection is intriguing and refreshing.
(Mike Ladd, Australian Book Review, February)

At times, particularly where Kinsella is thoughtful and conceptual rather than playful and visceral, the lack of speaking subject brings a slippage of energy. The lines can lack the power to leap the synaptic and sematic [sic] gaps, to drive us forward over the inevitable flagging of working memory. Such lapses are rare, however, and are perhaps the inevitable cost of a mind that distils so much into single phrases.
(Aaron Mannion, Cordite March)

Sometimes Lilley appears a little too subtle … And while at times there seems to be an underlying constraint among Lilley’s carefully chosen words in the sensual and humorous poems, no one could disagree with the success of the subtlety of the following from the wonderfully titled …
(Bev Braune, Cordite, April)

Perhaps Davidson’s reach is overextended, and the collection’s ambitious structure and range are inadequately supported by the substance of individual poems. The key sequence ‘Religion: Road’ lacks an overall coherence; it should have given the collection a thematic and imagistic focus but loses its way among diffuse references. Its flaws notwithstanding, Beast Language announces a new voice and way of seeing in Australian poetry.
(Kim Cheng Boey, Cordite, April)

If pressed to find fault with Autoethnographic, it is that the poignancy of Brennan’s observations are, at times, undercut by predicable [sic] lineation and prosaic page composition. Still, his observations are acutely detailed, engaging and sanguine
(Tamryn Bennett, Mascara, June)

Occasional mannerisms annoy — as do some throw-away lines justified only by rhyme. In general his verse has a naturalness and rightness of tone, happily comprehending (as no unity prescribed by critical preconception can) lyric and rhetoric …
(Robert Conquest, Quadrant, June)

If the book was all of this standard it would be a truly remarkable collection. It’s a pity, then, that her taste for the striking image is not always fully under control. Some of the poems, it has to be said, are marred by a sense of strain in the language, a profusion of images that are sometimes pulling in different directions … I don’t want to overstate these issues, or leave the reader with the impression that this is an overly flawed book. On balance, there are more admirable things here … than problems.
(Ron Pretty, Sotto, September)

Some poems are downright annoying. I acknowledge that this sense of irritation comes from a conservative need for the poem to make sense, trying to squeeze meaning out of it, when this is not the primary concern … The energy in Detroit is fabulous fun. It adds to the distinctive niche Hammial has carved for himself.
(Mark O’Flynn, Southerly, January)

It’s likely to be a matter of taste as to whether some of these pieces would be stronger if they were pared back, or if the delight is in the rococo abundance of some play and imagery. Powell is not afraid of using a ten-Bob word, in most cases bringing it off … When these poems work they achieve the transformation Powell is seeking.
(Ali Jane Smith, The Australian, March)

The compliment sandwich inverts good critical practice. If criticisms are not patiently explained, we have to take reviewers on trust at precisely the point where their motives are most susceptible to compromise. Also, when reviews are long on praise and short on criticism it weakens the praise. There is no sense that it has been won from a determinedly critical disposition.

No one believes that most Australian poetry volumes are a couple of edits or a tempered excess away from being a perfect version of themselves, but this is what, en masse, the reviews tell us. A biddable reader will have the impression that all debutants are ones to watch; that, three volumes in, all poets have consolidated their style; and that after five or more volumes they are accomplished and take their place in the nation’s poetic story. The quantum of praise does not add up.

The obvious and probably accurate conclusion is that few poets writing about fellow poets in a smallish scene will want to offend, and fewer will want to harm their own careers and networks. Also, familiarity means that most poets can see where others are coming from, even if their own aesthetic programs are diametrically opposed. Reviewers frequently display familiarity with the poet’s personal character, particularly reviews of established and well-loved figures, like Chris Wallace-Crabbe and Laurie Duggan. David Musgrave’s review of Alan Wearne’s Prepare the Cabin for Landing opens: ‘If I were selecting a Modern Australian Poetry XI, Wearney, like his near-namesake in another kind of XI, would be one of the automatic choices’, and continues to refer to the poet by his nickname (Sydney Review of Books, March). Reviewing the same book, Peter Keneally imagines a ‘Wearne grimace’ when he defines satire using an internet source (Australian Book Review, February).

All the 2013 reviews of Prepare the Cabin for Landing were by men, middle-aged and older – see also Geoff Page (Australian, February), Martin Duwell (Australian Poetry Review, March) and Peter Craven (Age, March) – except for one, by Fiona Scotney (Cordite, August). Where the former cheer on Wearne’s Australiana and anti-PC satires (though Page a little less so), the younger Scotney recoils from what she finds to be an ‘outmoded’ and ‘targeted’ use of Australian slang. It sounds to her more like ‘adolescent bitterness and cynicism’. Scotney’s grasp of the satirical mode here is questionable, but she is currently writing a doctorate on the ’68 generation, so it is not uninformed. Her review shows what can happen when the circuit of familiarity is broken.

Are these tics just another manifestation of the perennial problem of nepotism in provincial literary cultures? It is probably pointless to worry too much about nepotism when it is unavoidable. I have been told by several poets that launch speeches can be published as reviews without acknowledgement, which is obviously unacceptable. Presumably, though, editors are ok with this, suggesting that Critic Watch’s expectations do not meet with those in this aesthetic environment. A launch speech might be honest, rigorous, even objective in tone, but the brief undermines the authenticity of evaluative claims. But maybe this is the crux of the matter. It could well be that evaluative claims are not especially important in Australian poetry reviews. Their core purpose is to be expository – a poetry scene producing a reflection of itself rather than a contested field of judgements and value claims.

Martin Duwell explicitly conceives of his reviews as non-evaluative. In an interview with Jacket2 in 2010, he characterised his practice as ‘descriptive / forensic’, commenting:

I really resent criticism which is basically evaluative because, deep down, it’s gatekeeping. It thinks that the function of writing about literature is a matter of standing guard and deciding who is allowed in and what sort of riff-raff is to be kept out. I know that I’m shifting notions of nationality around in a very dubious way here, but this seems un-Australian to me. It seems like the kind of thing I would expect to occur in, say, England (though I admit that my notions of that country’s class system are probably based on little more than Australian prejudice).

Duwell’s reviews are not without evaluative claims, such as ‘the narrative, “Eldershaw”, is a brilliant piece of “uncanny” fiction’ (Australian Poetry Review, June), or ‘Fatherlands and Bacchanalia are, like many poets’ early books, uneven and full of poetic directions which don’t ultimately exploit their author’s strengths’ (Australian Poetry Review, December). It is clear enough, though, that these comments do not constitute the basic purpose of his reviews, which seek always to answer the question of what the poetry before him is up to. An ‘evaluative’ review would presumably follow an argumentative formula like this: given a, b, c, d and e this poetry is good / bad / derivative / original or whatever.

Duwell’s thoughts on reviewing, developed in the course of a career of dedicated practice, deserve the greatest respect. When universalised, though – and these comments correspond to the overall tenor of the reviews – it has the effect of dirempting judgement into opinion and description. Diremption is a term often used by Hegel, and attained particular prominence in the work of the English philosopher Gillian Rose. It describes the movement by which elements joined within an overall unity are rent into two entirely separate substances. Duwell is right to be suspicious of opinionated criticism, but description without opinion pretends to be a pseudo-science. This hardly describes Duwell’s work, though. It raises the question of the form of appearance that judgement takes.

Anyone who speaks regularly to Australian poets will know that this is an environment thick with judgements; a contested domain, full of manoeuvring and bitchiness. Whether or not the reviews ought to be evaluative, value judgements, often extreme and unsupported, play a role in constituting every aspect of the field. Reading through 247 reviews, one hears only faint rumbles, such as when Cassandra Atherton praises the Australian Poetry Journal for avoiding the ‘the poetry gangland to which some other contemporary Australian journals belong’ (Australian Book Review, April), or when Ali Alizadeh speaks of ‘abundantly unnecessary “poetry wars”’ (Overland, June). It is also evident in the tendency to praise the poet under review in contradistinction to some notorious group of unnamed poets, usually the ‘academic / theoretical / experimental’ crowd or the ‘naïve / immediate / lyric’ one, depending on the reviewer’s alliances. The reviewing does not represent these contests, but is an instrument in them, something which is hidden from the uninitiated.

One is far more likely to encounter direct conflict on blogs and social media. Take, for instance, a skirmish on the Southerly blog in November last year. Geoff Page made a light-hearted yet provocative post titled ‘Obscurity in Poetry –  A Spectrum’, which he worked up from a talk at a poetry ‘salon’ in Sydney. Page lists eight types of obscurity, riffing no doubt on William Empson’s ambiguities. Seven of these are legitimate forms of obscurity, and really describe conventional aspects of modern poetic composition. This exposition turns out to be the set up for an ambush on the ‘wilful obscurity’ practiced by ‘a significant group of contemporary (mainly young) Australian poets’. This is obscurity for the sake of shock, which plays ‘self-indulgently with the polysemic nature of language’.

So far so typical: criticise some unnamed poets in opposition to those of whom you approve. If Page had left it at that, the post would no doubt have been another blank fired in the phony war. On this occasion, however, he decided to chance a reading of one of the wilful obscurantists:

What satisfactions are to be had from a stanza such as ‘pane or the dew at the dawn; / cold cold was your glance & careless your. / eyes in a violet abyss there / gathers the soul of; / kiss as the winds take the north / a stormy embrace he shall / frost from your indolent face & / gentle & sweet as / the south, kiss in the.’? (from ‘sweet shell awakes / fullerton edit’ in open sesame by Michael Farrell, p.113)

The stanza is a strange blend of poetasting diction (‘the dew at dawn’, ‘gentle & sweet’, etc) along with inversions of word order and truncations of syntax (‘cold cold was your glance’ and ‘kiss in the.’) The intention could be ironic or even satirical. It could be a sincere attempt at lyricism, even a love poem, but it’s hard to be sure.

This is a curious piece of practical criticism. The leading question ensures that we enter the excerpt with incredulity, but then he can’t help showing us that he’s got the chops. Reaching for a word that sent Critic Watch to the dictionary, he hears the ring of clichéd formulations. He also notices truncations of syntax. I can’t see inversions; reordering perhaps. It seems to me more like an assembly of fragments, organised by playing on the different rhythms of line, punctuation, and the continually curtailed motion of the syntax. Page then makes a show of being confused, as though the poem would be rescued from obscurity if he could determine its generic category. (The final line of the poem, not cited – ‘spans of strife raptures of love’ – suggests that paradox is important here.)

If I can google ‘poetasting’, Page can google ‘fullerton’. He would, as Bonny Cassidy points out in one of the comments, discover the Australian poet and suffragette Mary Fullerton. In her work can be found the kind of figures and lexicon that Farrell draws on (see, for example, ‘The Butterfly’). It could well be that the title gives us the clue to the poem’s compositional method, putting it squarely into Page’s third category ‘Obscurity of cultural reference’.

Beneath the post, it was war (!), with a number of well-known poets taking aim. A couple of trolls aside, the comments thread developed into a compelling fight:

Page’s notion of what an Australian avant-garde could be is itself jaundiced and ageing …

it doesn’t take Sherlockian deduction to smell the beef of irrational and contemptuous reactionary criticism …

I think the hope that disruption of realist legibility would somehow produce progressive political disruption has now been disproven by history, so I find it silly to conflate technical questions about poetic method with identity politics or left / right ideological questions …

And so forth. Critic Watch recommends the final post, ‘Eight Clarities’ by ‘obscurator’, which provides an aesthetic and ideological antidote to Page’s list.

Some mustard for these boiled vegetables! The stakes of contemporary Australian poetry suddenly become visible, revealing divisions that ghost the official critical discourse. Hilariously, though, the editors decided that this was too much, and redacted Page’s reading of ‘sweet shell awakes / fullerton edit’, inserting the following comment:

[A paragraph at this point of this piece has been withdrawn, with the agreement of the author, owing to the unexpected intensity of the controversy it has generated.’ – Southerly]

Conflict, argh! Turn it off!

Perhaps a calendar year is too narrow a parameter for a critical community that stews rather than boils. It may only reveal that 2013 was a placid year for Australian poetry (a plagiarism scandal or two aside). If it is representative, however, it seems that the criticism of poetry is falling short of its civic responsibility. We see the profile of a community turned inwards which can forget that there might be a broader readership curious to know about what is going on. I have seen other blog skirmishes which make the one on Southerly look decorous. It is hard not to see these as spill-overs from an otherwise repressed critical discourse. It seems assumed when these erupt that the critical arguments from which they emerge are taking place in the open. In fact, you have to know the poets to know where to look. I only heard about the Southerly episode because Michael Farrell is a friend.

Maybe it is presumptuous to walk in and expect that someone will explain things to you. But this is not the point – opportunities are being missed. The review form compels critics to go through the rigours of making subjectively universal claims, which can mobilise a dialectic of factions rather than have them reflect some broader static ‘culture war’. This is not a call for an antagonistic criticism. The best reviews in 2013 were not angry or opinionated (though these were a refreshing change); they pushed description of the material to the point of disclosing its value. (Perhaps this also characterises Duwell’s approach?)

Critic Watch came across no better instance of this than Bonny Cassidy’s review of Lisa Gorton’s Hotel Hyperion (Mascara, December). Taking cues from Gorton’s scholarly work, Cassidy sets out to investigate whether the collection operates by mapping a master-image onto various, possibly contradictory ideas; namely, the development of a series of crystalline images into a ‘lyric essay’ on memory. She works her way through the collection, noticing various thematic and stylistic unities. She shows with technical precision how repetition, reiteration, variation, use of the long line, and parataxis work together to produce a cool glinting prosodic surface, even where lineation might first appear loose:

Frequently, line breaks hang on words that might conventionally be considered weak hinges: ‘of their’ and ‘vaulting of’, for instance. However, Gorton’s reasoning of these breaks is formally precise, bringing attention not so much to the end-word as to the one hung beneath

A lengthy reading of an ekphrastic poem on Mantegna’s The Triumph of Caesar allows Cassidy to summarise the motions of perspective in the collection as a whole. The poetry is now alive before us and Cassidy moves to weighing its quality. She doesn’t find the Mantegna poem in itself ‘particularly challenging’, seeing that its role is determined by its place within the intricate structure of the collection as a whole. And this integrated interlocking structure raises questions as to whether the icy prosody might not freeze its reader, or even shut her out:

If Gorton’s poetic design locks out something, it might be the aberrant image, the unanswered question. Yearning for a flaw in its gorgeous glass layers, I feel the reader’s experience may be constrained by the poet’s fixed fidelity to one idea, so fully explored … One wonders whether her mapping and remapping of this book’s idea has erased the possibility of contradiction.

Judgement is not a matter of good or bad; nor are these comments couched with reassurances about its worthiness. It could be that what is most gorgeous about this work is also what is most disturbing: a poetry that does not admit contradiction in a world in which contradiction is sedimented in social experience.

Last July, Gorton launched Cassidy’s second collection, Final Theory. Wrapping up her talk, she picked out these lines:

I search the rear window
for a final perspective —

but end in only an idea, diffused
into a ranging sheet of light.

Reviews compiled and collated by Madeleine L. Kelly.

Correction: The first table originally listed Lisa Gorton as the sole reviews editor at Cordite and David McCooey as the reviews editor at the ABR. These have been amended to Kent MacCarter and Lisa Gorton, and Peter Rose following advice.

Read ‘The Poet Tasters’ correspondence.

References

Ali Alizadeh, ‘Unsettling Received Notions,’ Overland (June 2013).
Cassandra Atherton ‘Chiaroscuro in Australian Poetry,’ Australian Book Review (April 2013).
Melissa Ashley, ‘From Microcosms to Cosmologies,’ Australian Poetry Journal (May 2013).
Kim Cheng Boey, ‘Review Short: Toby Davidson’s Beast Language,’ Cordite (April 2013).
Tamryn Bennett, ‘Tamryn Bennett reviews Autoethnographic by Michael Brennan,’ Mascara (June 2013).
Bev Braune, ‘Bev Braune Reviews Kate Lilley,’ Cordite (April 2013).
Robert Conquest, ‘The Extraordinary Verse of Clive James,’ Quadrant (June 2013).
Bonny Cassidy, ‘Bonny Cassidy Reviews Rosemary Dobson,’ Cordite (March 2013).
Bonny Cassidy, ‘Bonny Cassidy reviews Hotel Hyperion by Lisa Gorton,’ Mascara (December 2013).
Peter Craven, ‘Taking Wing on a Flight of Fancy,’ The Age (23 March 2013).
Martin Duwell, ‘Alan Wearne: Prepare the Cabin for Landing,’ Australian Poetry Review (March 2013).
Martin Duwell, ‘Stephen Edgar: Eldershaw,’ Australian Poetry Review (June 2013).
Martin Duwell, ‘John Kinsella: The Jaguar’s Dream,’ Australian Poetry Review (August 2013).
Martin Duwell, ‘B.R. Dionysius: Weranga,’ Australian Poetry Review (December 2013).
Michael Farrell, open sesame, (Giramondo, 2012).
Michael Farrell, ‘A Review of: Chris Edwards, People of Earth,’ Rabbit (June 2013).
Lisa Gorton, ‘Precarious Images,’ Sydney Review of Books (March 2013).
Lisa Gorton, ‘Clutching, Following, Wondering, Gazing: Lisa Gorton Launches Final Theory by Bonny Cassidy,’ Rochford Street Review (September 2014).
Fiona Hile, ‘Fiona Hile reviews Rawshock by Toby Fitch,’ Mascara (June 2013).
Jackson, Lemon Oil (Mulla Mulla Press, 2014).
Mike Ladd, ‘Diving with Sharks,’ Australian Book Review (February 2013).
Peter Keneally, ‘Boomers,’ Australian Book Review (February 2013).
Rose Lucas, ‘All This Striving,’ Australian Book Review (October 2013).
Aaron Mannion, ‘Review Short: John Kinsella’s The Jaguar’s Dream,’ Cordite (March 2013).
David Musgrave, ‘Fasten Your Seatbelts,’ Sydney Review of Books (March 2013).
Jal Nicholl, ‘Jal Nicholl Reviews Ouyang Yu,’ Cordite (February 2013).
Mark O’Flynn, ‘Reviews,’ Southerly (January 2013).
Geoff Page, ‘From Nugan and to Men on the Land: The Vivid Poetry of Unsentimental Blokes,’ The Australian (16 February 2013).
Geoff Page, ‘Obscurity in Poetry — A Spectrum,’ Southerly (November 2014; cached version accessed through Bing, 13/12/2014).
Ron Pretty, ‘Moving On by Bob Morrow and Beside Rivers by Susan Adams,’ Sotto (September 2013).
Gig Ryan, ‘Teasing Wordplay,’ Australian Book Review (March 2013).
Gig Ryan, ‘The Gleaner,’ Australian Book Review (July-August 2013).
Fiona Scotney, ‘Review Short: Alan Wearne’s Prepare the Cabin for Landing,’ Cordite (August 2013).
Ali Jane Smith, ‘Lasting Souvenirs of the Roads Travelled,’ The Australian (16 March 2013).
Ali Jane Smith, ‘Reviews’, Southerly (August 2013).
Nicola Themistes, ‘Review Short: Toby Fitch’s Rawshock,’ Cordite, (April 2013).
Jessica Wilkinson, ‘Jessica Wilkinson Reviews Lisa Jacobson,’ Cordite (February 2013).