A Storehouse of Poems: Contemporary Australian Poetry
Contemporary Australian Poetry
by by Martin Langford, Judith Beveridge, Judy Johnston and David Musgrave (editors)
Puncher & Wattmann
xxviii and 658pp
Published August, 2016
Since the continuities in poetry are at least as profound as its discontinuities — its palace revolutions — it is always difficult to periodise poetic history. It may be one of the barely intentioned achievements of Contemporary Australian Poetry that, in selecting poems published between 1990 and 2015, it successfully establishes 1990-2015 as a workable, quarter-century period.
Extending quarter-centuries backwards produces divisions of Australian poetry into 1915-1940, 1940-1965 and 1965-1990. This seems far superior to the notion of successive quarter centuries of the twentieth century. It certainly makes more sense of the preceding period, 1965-1990, usually characterised by the ‘poetry wars’. If we begin in 1965 rather than 1968 or 1975, we are able to integrate clearly related though earlier changes into the more spectacular conflicts. Nineteen sixty-five is roughly the moment at which free verse overtakes the formal, structured verse of the previous period and shakes off the tag of being the primrose path of talentless poseurs. Poets like Bruce Beaver who straddled this period, and these differing conceptions of poetry, often found this transition difficult but looked to Robert Lowell’s Life Studies as a model. Indeed the shift to American models rather than British ones begins earlier than the ‘Generation of ‘68’ and is an important experience for poets like Bruce Dawe, Beaver, Vincent Buckley and a host of others.
And marking out the two even earlier periods as 1915-1940 and 1940-1965 makes a lot of sense as well. The first is a between-two-wars period dominated by Slessor whose poetry is pretty well completed (with a couple of exceptions) by the beginning of the second world war. The second — the cold war period — is the time of Stewart’s Red Page but also of the rise of such ‘academic’ poets as A.D. Hope, Buckley and James McAuley.
Since Contemporary Australian Poetry is such a large (658 page) and inclusive (239 poets) book and because it appears just after the end of its nominated period, it gives the impression of being a definitive statement rather than a provisional sampling. This impression is enhanced by its having four very well-qualified editors to reduce the risk of any flights of subjectivity. It also neatly trumps its rivals — Brennan and Minter’s Calyx: 30 Contemporary Poets, John Kinsella’s Landbridge: Contemporary Australian Poetry and Felicity Plunkett’s Thirty Australian Poets — by making them seem provisional soundings taken while the period was in process.
Continuities being what they are, much of what has occurred in the last twenty-five years, has its origins in the previous period. Although the vertiginous growth of the internet dates from its introduction in Australia in 1990 (neatly aligned with this ‘period’) the decade before had established the necessary familiarity with the computer, with composing on screens rather than on paper for example. Although electronic journals like John Tranter’s Jacket (begun in 1997) and Cordite, with their power to make the dissemination of poems and the exposure to overseas poetries infinitely easier, are a phenomenon entirely of the period beginning in 1990 they could be said to be the progressive culmination of a search for new ways of producing poetry that can be seen in the humble roneo machine and Gestetner as well as the slightly more professional possibilities described by John Tranter in the introduction to his The New Australian Poetry (1979). There is nothing like changing the methods of dissemination to shake up the regime of poetry publishing.
It should also be pointed out that the writing schools which have such a profound influence on almost all aspects of poetry in this current period — discovery, encouragement, editing, publication, publicity and, eventually professional careers as teachers — were well underway in university departments in the previous period. The same can be said of the complex schemes of grants and prizes which seem to be so much part of the writing life of a contemporary Australian poet. They, too, had their origins in the previous quarter century and it testifies to their importance that almost all of the brief biographies of the poets of Contemporary Australian Poetry are made up of a list of prizes and awards won.
Just as the seeds of the poetry of the internet age are to be found in the period 1965-1990, so too are many of the themes and practices of the poets of Contemporary Australian Poetry. Although the conflicts between the poets of John Tranter’s The New Australian Poetry and those represented (to speak very crudely) by poets like Les Murray, Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray dominate the period it was also a time of the rise of feminist and black writing in English poetries (Kate Jennings’ anthology, Mother I’m Rooted, appeared in 1975). There were also, though rather less forcefully, examples of regional and eco-poetries.
One undeniable difference between the two periods, though, is the rise of what I would call text-based poems where poems are derived from manipulations of existing texts. In Australia it begins with the publication in 1991 of John Tranter’s examination of the possibilities of an early text generating program ‘Breakdown’ and has gone on to be a major feature of his poetry in the current period (although, in his case, the poems usually finish up sounding like John Tranter poems). A number of the poets in this anthology work this way but generally, as in the case of the poems by Tranter which have been selected, they are represented here by slightly more conventional poems. It may be my age but I’ve rarely found these complex textual productions engaging (with the exception of Tranter’s work), though I can see how satisfying the creative process that produces them might be for the poets themselves. I suspect that the editors of this anthology feel rather the same way when they speak of the larger class of poems of non- or limited-referentiality of which these text-based poems are a part:
If one believes that a poem is principally an exemplum in an argument about poetics, then one might also believe it is possible to take charge of the terms of acceptance — and through them, an art-form. If, however, one believes that a poem is the result of a unique interaction between its poetics and the world beyond it, then the idea of managing a readership with the right set of criteria becomes absurd. It is in the light of this latter understanding that this anthology has been constructed.
Sad to say, one of the desiderata of this period is to be found in the preceding period as well: the lack of a good Australian critical tradition. As the editors say in their introduction, ‘compared to the number of commentators, there are too many authors’. Since during the ‘poetry wars’ it was quite possible for half of what one read to make no sense at all, being derived from an unfamiliar imported poetics, it put a lot of pressure on Australian poetry’s critical establishment, impoverished at the best of times. Though individual critics, such as Jim Tulip, stood outside the conflicts and attempted to make sense of the new works that continually turned up, too much criticism was the work of poets themselves, already wedded to one camp or another. I don’t think this situation has improved at all in the last quarter century and may have been exacerbated by the fact that as writing schools have grown in number, so have conventional literature courses declined. Although conventional literature courses don’t necessarily contribute much to the understanding of one’s contemporary writing, they did attract engaged, intelligent students from whom a cohort of critics might have emerged. My (possibly prejudiced) idea here is simply that poets shouldn’t be the only people expected (or trusted) to be judges of the worth of other poets’ work.
If Contemporary Australian Poetry with its size and inclusiveness is the defining work of the poetry of this period it raises the question of how successfully it meets the requirements of this task. Its making (like that of any other anthology) poses a lot of problems. Editors of general anthologies have to make two fairly tricky judgements: whom to include and omit, and how many poems one poet is represented by in comparison to another. Since, judging by the editors’ introduction, the impetus behind this anthology is as much celebrative as it is forensic —
Australian poetry is a much richer scene than almost anyone – including some members of the poetry community – believe it to be . . . . . Is there as much good prose, for instance, as there is good poetry? Possibly. While we have no doubt that there is a great deal of very good contemporary prose, we would need to be convinced that there is more good prose than there is good poetry. If, however, one considers the attention poetry receives – in the media, in conferences, curricula and writers’ festivals – and compares it to that given to prose, there is clearly a serious injustice: a scarcely-articulated and unwarranted bias that does pervasive damage to Australia’s sense of what it is, and what it has achieved.
— it seems that the answer to the first question is: As many as possible, since a celebration of richness necessarily involves including as many poets as possible.
And yet, even in such a generous feast, there are omissions. I don’t think any of these are as scandalous as Grey and Lehmann’s omission of Michael Dransfield from their Australian Poetry Since 1788 anthology, but they should be registered nevertheless. One might have thought that, with so many slots for poets available, the editors were reducing the pressure on their responsibility to make an aesthetic judgement about individual poets. Everyone, you feel, was invited. But a look at the list of possible inclusions shows a surprising number of omissions. One could choose twenty without any great strain: Peter Bakowski, Aidan Coleman, Nathan Curnow, Joel Deane, Benjamin Frater, Carolyn Gerrish, Angela Gardner, Geoff Goodfellow, Jeff Guess, Coral Hull, Lisa Jacobsen, Alan Jeffries, Cassie Lewis, Kate Llewellyn, Π. Ο., K.F. Pearson, Nigel Roberts, Noel Rowe, Peter Skryzynecki, Hugh Tolhurst. And it wouldn’t be difficult to double that number. It’s a chastening perspective.
Had I been one of the editors I might have gone into bat for a few of these at the expense of some of the inclusions: I certainly would have fought hard for Nathan Curnow, a subtler and more complex poet than appears on the surface. And the omission of Π. Ο. takes a certain eccentric verve out of the anthology: there are passages of migrant argot in 24 Hours that distort notions of poetic language far more satisfyingly than any of the included poems. Of course, it’s possible that all these poets I have listed were invited and refused.
The second (and, given the number of inclusions, more pressing) area where editorial judgements are involved is in the selection of poems. Given the logistics of publishing, there is an upper limit to the number of pages available even in so generously conceived book as this one. There are so many poets that each can be accorded only, at most, a page or two in which to make an appearance. Just as languages are systems which seem to have a mean level of complexity so that a morphologically simple language may counterbalance that by very complex and idiomatic use of prepositions so the act of making anthologies seems to require of its editors about the same degree of editorial judgement wherever it is applied. In this anthology, with its generous inclusiveness, where there is no great stress on the choice of poets (though, as I have said, there is more than one might think) there is going to be, comparatively, a lot of stress on the choice of poems, especially as many poets are going to be represented by a single poem.
And, of course, some poets must get longer in the spotlight than others: no one can claim that there are not great discrepancies in talent and achievement among the poets here. Before I look specifically at a number of choices it might be worth entertaining for a moment the question of whether this is an anthology (a ‘survey and a critical review’ as its editors call it) of poets or of poems. Anthologies of poets set cut off dates either for the poet’s birth or for the period of their flourishing and then go about making selections which will represent the poet and, through this, represent the period or the movement or whatever the editors are interested in. Usually the poets are ordered by age so as to make the historical perspective clearer. An anthology of poems, on the other hand, would have less interest in the authors and might well be chosen blind (ie without reference to the author). It is a complex issue since this anthology has a touch of both methods about it.
Obviously the more poems a poet is allotted, the easier the choice must be. In Contemporary Australian Poetry those with the most exposure (in terms of pages rather than the number of poems) are Robert Gray (eleven and a half pages), Jennifer Harrison and Philip Salom (eight pages) and Robert Adamson, Les Murray, Stephen Edgar, Martin Harrison, Judy Johnson, Anthony Lawrence, Jan Owen (seven and a half pages each). This isn’t though a simple judgement about the superior quality of these poets for two reasons. The first is that some poets write poetry that occupies a lot of space and which cannot be excerpted from (Ken Taylor’s ‘At Valentines’, significantly dated 1966, which puts it at the very beginning of the previous period, is an example). The poetry of others simply has a breezier, demotic tone that inevitably makes for long poems. The second is that many important poets are long past the peak of their achievements by the time the twenty-five years of this anthology begin (Bruce Dawe, Gwen Harwood or Peter Porter, for example) and so they will be lightly represented in a way that doesn’t reflect their genius but might reflect their contribution to the poetry of the time under consideration.
It’s easy to speak generally about these decisions but some poem-focussed criticism may be useful here. I have divided the poets up according to the decade of their birth and (omitting Vera Newsom who was born before the first world war and is the only inclusion from such a distant decade) taken the work of one or two poets born in each decade whose work I know well and looked to see how they have been represented in this anthology.
First: Peter Porter, a poet born at the end of the twenties. He published seven books in the period of the anthology, pretty much at the rate of one every two years, beginning with The Chair of Babel in 1992. His six poems occupy four and a half pages and seem to be chosen so as to represent three facets of Porter with two poems each. First we see Porter as the sardonic cultural critic of the contemporary in ‘The Golden Age of Criticism’ and ‘The Western Canoe’; next two autobiographical poems, one ‘Fifty Years On’ about his arrival in London, ‘I gave up hope / to follow a more formal entropy’ and the other ‘My Father Was a Businessman’ a piece of family history; and, finally, two poems about the psychic trauma of his wife’s suicide.
They are all good Porter poems and, in the context of this anthology, crackle like the magnificent things they are. I might have chosen individual poems differently: I might, for example, have preferred ‘Ex Libris Senator Pococurante’ to ‘The Golden Age of Criticism’ and it’s hard for me not to prefer ‘Deuterothanatos’ to ‘Holding On’ on the grounds that it’s a more moving and surprising poem – though one could understand the counterargument that it is a fraction more calculating in its effects. I might have preferred ‘A Honeymoon in 1922’ or ‘Hermetically Sealed or What the Shutter Saw’ in the category of family history over ‘My Father Was a Businessman’ but they would all be minor differences. Importantly Porter is never misrepresented by the selections made by these editors although, if one wanted to be really demanding, one could point out that his substantial dossier of poems devoted entirely to European culture is omitted entirely: no ‘Scordatura’ or ‘Verdi’s Villa, Santa Agata’ or ‘The Rose Garden on the Aventine’ and so on.
The other poets born in this decade have small selections but they are generally well-chosen: Gwen Harwood has one of her marvellous late poems, ‘Herongate’ and, presumably to balance it, ‘The Owl and the Pussycat Baudelaire Rock’ and Dimitris Tsaloumas has three characteristically stony poems that well represent his English language output.
I’ve chosen David Malouf among the twenty poets born in the 1930s. His five poems are a reasonably generous selection given that in the period of this anthology he published only two books, Typewriter Music and Earth Hour. They include ‘Seven Last Words of the Emperor Hadrian’, a set of variations on Hadrian’s famous poem, which, you fear, may be fated to be an anthology piece for future generations, as well as poems of love, friendship, intimations of death together with ‘Retrospect’, a complex piece revolving around a youthful friendship. This seems a perfectly adequate compression of late Malouf into five and a half pages and one wouldn’t want to lose any of these poems though one would like to have had a lot more included – ‘Revolving Days’ and ‘Aquarius’, for example.
Other poets with birth dates in the thirties also have interesting and completely defensible selections. Bruce Dawe has two fine poems about his first wife (though none of his comic pieces of social comment), and Philip Hammial has four representative pieces from his enormous output in this period (fifteen volumes). Again, although ‘Lingua Franca’ is a poem about anger, it is really one of his list poems. I might have chosen one or two of his poems that are actually driven by anger (‘Wig Hat On’, for example) as well as something from his catalogue of poems about Athens State or his family rather than the one which is included, ‘Babel’. Since the introduction to Hammial’s selected poems, Asylum Nerves, is by Martin Langford, one of the editors of this anthology, one feels one can trust the selection, though somehow Hammial seems a slightly tamer, less interestingly eccentric figure here.
Among the poets born in the 1940s, one might single out Jennifer Maiden and Laurie Duggan. Both get about five pages but the effect of the selections is quite different. Jennifer Maiden is perhaps, easier to represent as long as one can ensure examples of the circling meditations that she does so well (here ‘Dracula on the Monaro’ — though I might have included ‘Missing Elvis I’) and something from her regularly appearing political poems (which usually begin with ‘x woke up in y’). ‘The Meat Vote’ is a good example of this kind of poem though I myself would have preferred one of the George Jeffreys poems. Again, nothing more than a matter of taste.
Laurie Duggan is quite a different case. I get very little sense here of what it is that makes Duggan a really major poet of the period. ‘August 7th’ is a diary/meditation sort of poem, done in the relaxed style that recalls Ken Bolton or Pam Brown. And ‘Tilt’ (which occupies two of Duggan’s pages) is a set of imagined captions for photographs. A single piece from Allotments is the only example of the Blue Hills/Allotments style that I think is Duggan’s major achievement: I’m not sure that, if I had not read Duggan before, any of the poems here would send me scurrying to his books.
Even more concerning is the representation of Alan Wearne though here the poet may be complicit in his own fate. At his best he has the best eye and ear for the Australian urban experience that I know and an exquisitely delicate touch when needed. But he also has a mode of relishing the grotesqueries of Australian speech and the two poems here make him sound like no more than a contemporary C.J. Dennis on speed. I would have replaced ‘Bound For Botany Bay’ by ‘A Portrait of Three Young High School Teachers’ and looked for an even more extensive representation. His contribution to the last twenty-five years is, if perhaps eccentric, important in its reclaiming the possibility of a social focus for poetry but I don’t think anyone reading the two poems included would suspect this or be tempted to read farther in Wearneland.
More than fifty of the poets are born in the 1950s, the largest number for any decade. John Forbes, dead eight years into the period of this anthology, remains a dominant figure and his five poems represent him well from the eminently anthologisable ‘Love Poem’ to ‘On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme’, one of his unpredictable philosophical meditations. I would have tried to make space for ‘On Tiepolo’s Banquet of Cleopatra’ or ‘Ode to Karl Marx’ or ‘Sydney Harbour Considered as a Matisse’ or ‘Panto’ or, in fact, almost anything from his last book, Damaged Glamour. I suspect the editors felt the same way but were, here more than anywhere, suffering under constraints of space. Anthony Lawrence, born at the other end of the decade, is, I suspect, an easier poet to represent since his characteristic ability to get an intense reality (long-line fishing or exporting live sheep) or an intense experience of reality into intense, but never melodramatic, poetry is present on almost every page he writes. The five poems here are thus broadly representative although they do omit a small but interesting corner of his work where he turns his poetry inward to consider his own writing and that of other poets he admires: a poem, in other words, like ’Cattle Egret’ or ‘Sightings’.
Lucy Dougan and David McCooey, two fine, quieter poets born in the 1960s get only a few poems to make any kind of impression: three and two respectively. As a result it is not possible to speak in any way of a representative selection. Dougan’s poems come from Memory Shell and White Clay but the poems of The Guardians are far stronger and, since the book was published in 2015, it falls within the ambit of the anthology although it is always possible that the vicissitudes of the editing process meant that it was too late for its poems to be included. With The Guardians, Dougan stands out as a poet of odd angles of vision and poems like ‘The Foxes’ or ‘The Old House’ — or, indeed many others — would have given new readers more sense of what makes her poetry stand out than do the poems here.
David McCooey is represented by a ‘philosophical’ poem, ‘What Light Is’ and a love poem, ‘For Maria’. The post-operative poems of Star Struck are too late for the anthology (it was published in 2016) but I miss both his poems about film from earlier books and his wry comical/philosophical pieces (such as ‘Questions in Philosophy’ or ‘French With Tears’. There isn’t much you can do with two poems, of course, and as so often in this anthology, a poet gets no chance to stake a claim to a unique perspective.
And the move towards slighter representation increases as we move to those poets born in the seventies and eighties. None of them are, as yet, overwhelming figures and few receive more than a couple of pages. Of the 38 poets from this decade (there are a few throughout the anthology for which the birth date is not given and I’ve been unable to find it in their books), twenty-four get a single poem. For those born in the eighties more than half are represented by a single poem. Simon West (from the seventies) and Sarah Holland-Batt from the eighties both get three poems and they seem (to me at least) both representative poems and ones which give some insight into the different ways in which the two of them are strong and distinctive poets. Overall, what these two reveal about the editors, when it comes to the choice of poems, might be said for the other poets I have looked at. These are eminently trustworthy editors and though some poets are strangely represented, generally they come up with defensible selections.
Anthologies are, however, not only resources whose responsibility is to act as storehouses of poems for future readers’ convenience. They are also books to be read and the experience of reading them can be complex and involve readers’ reactions that aren’t really part of the planning. I’ve said elsewhere that there is a good argument for approaching an anthology rather as one might an individual poem where whatever we can intuit about authorial practices and intentions will be balanced against what we bring to it as readers. And, just as poems exist in a context of other poems, so anthologies exist in a context of other anthologies.
The three anthologies which one would want to line up next to this one are probably John Kinsella’s Landbridge: Contemporary Australian Poetry (1999), Michael Brennan and Peter Minter’s Calyx: 30 Contemporary Australian Poets (2000) and Felicity Plunkett’s Thirty Australian Poets (2011). The existence of these three alone shows that anthologising is a recurrent interest and thus Contemporary Australian Poetry should be seen not as a single, almost unrepeatable event (although its size and comprehensiveness make it distinctive) but as part of Australian poetry’s continuous attempts to make sense of itself. Looked at, sixteen or seventeen years on, both Landbridge and Calyx seem eminently successful reflections of their time. And, of course, the anthologising gene extends far back. No single anthology can represent the fractured poetics of the previous period (which might be suspended between John Tranter’s New Australian Poetry and Grey and Lehmann’s The Younger Australian Poets, with Applestealers and Australian Poetry Now as provisional formations, slightly earlier in the period) but both Vincent Buckley and Peter Porter produced anthologies of modern Australian poetry in that period.
Viewed as a reading experience, one of the first things you notice about Contemporary Australian Poetry is that, as with Calyx and Landbridge, the poets are placed in alphabetical order. There are good reasons for this and most of them revolve around the difficulty of any alternative system of ordering. If the poets are arranged by birth date — the other common method — no account is taken of the different periods in which they flourished and, more importantly, perhaps, it adds an historical, developmental dimension to what is intended to be a snapshot of a twenty-five year period. I tried to overcome this in my reading of the book by reading it twice: first in the order in which it appears and secondly in a reshuffled order according to the birthdate of the poet – where known. Although it is a purely subjective response, I think the latter proved to be a slightly more enriching experience.
The alphabetical system does have the advantage of producing pleasing juxtapositions and shocks. Jane Gibian’s complex work, ‘Sound Piece’ comes next to a piece by Kevin Gilbert which is also about sound — ‘With our digeridoos / in the heart of night / we piped to our God our song . . .’ John A. Scott’s Euro-centred ‘Sketches from Montparnasse’ sits next to Thomas Shapcott’s sestina, ‘Australian Horizons’, very much about Australianness experienced in Europe. And there is something suggestive and intriguing about reading Peter Steele’s ‘All the Latest’ where the history of the world, usually violent, is compressed to a nightmare anthology of images in the light of the following poem, Kathleen Stewart’s ‘How I Got Away’. If the random juxtaposition of poems in this system can be enlightening, the same can’t be said for the overall structure of the book which, you know beforehand, will begin with the work of Robert Adamson and finish with that of Fay Zwicky, where Gig Ryan will be eternally sandwiched between Brendan Ryan and Tracy Ryan.
Reading in order of birthdate does have its own predictabilities, of course, and there is something insulting about the way younger poets always finish up at the end of the book like an appendix (there is something rather wonderful about the anthology in the order it is published ending with Fay Zwicky’s moving poem about young men). But reading a poet like Adam Aitken as approximately the one hundred and thirtieth poet rather than the second puts his work in a much more congenial perspective. And Clive James looks more at home alongside Aileen Kelly and Peter Steele than he does between Duncan Hose’s ‘Amsterdammel’ and two poems of Carol Jenkins.
This order also highlights themes that are related to a poet’s age. Vera Newsom kicks off this reading with two poems about age (understandably) and a plea that only with age does judgement come: ‘Now only, when breath comes short, can we assess / the clarity of air . . .’ which would be a nice way of reminding the younger poets of the anthology that their inevitable objections should be withheld for a decade or two. At the same time it makes sense of the plethora of poems about aged, dying or Alzheimers-stricken parents to see them congregating as inevitable experiences of those born in the fifties and sixties and whose parents were born twenty or thirty years before. Neither reading entirely dispelled the impression that this is a slightly livelier period than this anthology can convey but, on balance, I prefer to read by birthdate rather than alphabetical order.
I have not commented extensively on the editors’ introduction to Contemporary Australian Poetry, largely because they cannily leave to the reader the responsibility of making generalisations about the poetry of the last quarter century. They do, however, sketch in a kind of macro-argument about the interaction between Australian history, identity and contemporary poetry. They describe Australia as, for historical reasons to do with convictism, the settler experience of an other ‘home’, and so on, a land of scepticism: scepticism of grand theories, of social distinctions, of language itself. One might say, in this spirit, that an Australian ought to be expected to be very sceptical about large generalisations of this type but I, at any rate, find it compelling, partly because my long-held hope for poetry is that it should always be an investigator of both popularly-held and intellectually-agreed-upon propositions. The empiricist in me wants it to be a continuing hostile investigation, exactly the sort of thing that activists, in whatever areas they are active, are leery of. It is, at least, a crude way of uniting a love for both the traditional lyric approach with a love for the various poetries that have set their faces against expressions of the ‘lyrical ego’. For the traditional lyric, often seen as indulgently simplistic is, at its best, a defiant assertion of the individual over the various overarching simplicities of the state or of grand narratives. At any rate, the editors, after a brief discussion of the period after 1788 come up with a very attractive model of Australian poetry and its role:
Taken together, such factors have produced a kind of ‘natural’ post-modern country – one that arrived at the groundlessness of post-modernism through cultural and geographic circumstance, rather than through the more painstaking process of wrestling with traditions and assumptions others wished to keep. Combine this with the sort of arguments that are current everywhere, anyhow – about the constructed nature of the self, for instance, or the provisionality of the narrative – and one can see how our sense of the strangeness of the world has had relatively little to impede it. Irrespective of the degree of post-modern practice in one’s style, a suspicion of assumption is common to a great deal of Australian poetry.
As I say, I find this convincing, though I may be doing no more than reflecting my own hopeful prejudices. But the world of the period 1990-2015 is full of people who subscribe to one crazy grand narrative or another, who can ‘meet’ electronically via the internet, and who can form around any available lie or grand assumption what an earlier reviewer (discussing the isolated fools who were convinced they had personally sighted Lord Lucan), called ‘a community of cranks the size of Katmandu’. There is a bleak comfort in feeling that in the next quarter century when these narratives look likely to play themselves out violently, poetries like that of Australia might be fighting – with refreshing scepticism – on the side of the angels.