Books: The Meaning of Recognition — The Miraculous Vineyard of Australian Poetry |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

The Miraculous Vineyard of Australian Poetry

Poetry and glamour don’t usually mix, but Australian poetry is starting to look like a special case. True, there is not yet much of a chance that Les Murray and Peter Porter will be asked to pose for photo spreads like Cate Blanchett and Nicole Kidman. But in the rest of the English-speaking world there is now a general agreement among the literary tipsters that poetry is something the Aussies do with an extra zing: the way they do food, wine, bush hats, satyromaniacal cricketers, telegenic crocodile-wrestlers and insatiable media tycoons. The general agreement, admittedly, is still a bit simple-minded, but it is steadily moving up-scale. If it ever catches up with the abundant reality, however, the word ‘miracle’ will have to come into play, and for once it will almost fit. Australian poetry is a thing for awe, for dropping to the knees and giving thanks. Pinch me if you see what I see. Whence came this abundance?

Before we trace the abundance to its historical origins, we should be aware of its true scope, which is even more extensive than we might think. Take a look at Best Australian Poems 2003, edited by Peter Craven. It’s the first volume of a new series that from now on will come out annually. There are forty poets represented in it, nearly all of them with something substantial. (‘Substantial’ meaning that you can’t ignore it, even when you don’t like it.) If you already know something about the Australian literary world, you will recognize the names of David Malouf, Les Murray, John Tranter, Fay Zwicky, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Peter Porter, Bruce Dawe, Alan Wearne, Peter Rose, Thomas Shapcott, Geoffrey Lehmann, Geoff Page, Dorothy Porter, John Kinsella, Bruce Beaver and probably several others. But then there are names that are only now making their first impact; and then, a long way back, trailing along with his fractured Globite portmanteau spilling manuscripts, there is Clive James, who is very glad to be included. For a long time I have worked offshore, but now I have been brought home, and am mighty proud to be included in this number, because the number is select, even though it is dauntingly large. Mere quantity, of course, is no proof of fertility. We must not forget the Soviet cultural commissar who boasted that his district had 167 registered writers, all members of the Writers’ Union. ‘A hundred years ago, there was only one.’ The one he meant was Tolstoy.

But the poets in Craven’s anthology all have a claim to the title, and you could make another anthology from the poets he has left out. (They would probably like to make a rissole out of him. I imagine the boiling fat has already started to fly.) Rivalry, and indeed outright bitchery, has always been inseparable from the Australian poetic scene, which, even as it booms like the Sydney Olympics, continues to work rather like world championship ice-dancing: agreement on technical merit is sometimes possible, but there is rarely much agreement about artistic impression. Also the judges, to go on with the metaphor, tend to do a bit of skating themselves. Most of our best poets have been among our best critics, and vice versa. Individualists who cling together only to get a fair share of the blankets, the poets are a family in which incest is functional, even when one of the results is casual murder. Poetry pays peanuts even when on a government subsidy, but the stakes are high: higher than ever, now that Australia no longer need look to overseas opinion for validation. For admiration, yes: but an extramural certificate we no longer need. Glory begins at home, and glory is the pay-off. (You’ve never really been flattered until you’ve been quoted.) Everyone would like a reputation. Speaking as the kind of poet who has usually had to do without one, I have to say that I am childishly pleased that a place has finally been found for me. My own sustaining belief has always been that poems matter more than poets; that no poet should write anything unless he feels an inner need; and that a life’s-work should be the accumulated moments of necessary expression. In other words, it shouldn’t be a career. My recently published book of collected poems, called The Book of My Enemy, has more than four hundred pages of work in it. They were written at a rate of fewer than ten pages a year, and there is not a line among them that I wrote to help keep up my reputation, because I didn’t have one. I’m glad to say that the book has already run through five printings in Britain alone, and been treated with respect by the critics even when they obviously thought it strange that a transplanted Aussie talk-show host should be driven to verse, instead of driven to the studio in the back of a large car with Margarita Pracatan at the wheel.

But having ploughed a lonely furrow, I am gratified to discover that it has led back to such a flourishing vineyard. Come to think of it, that might be the best metaphor of the lot. There is such a variety of wines, and not all of them are owned by Penfolds. You’ve got your Murray Hermitage, your Kinsella’s Retreat, your Beaver Creek, your Shapcott’s Landing ... It even works by areas. Down there in Hobart, beyond the sweep of Craven’s purview, there is Stephen Edgar, for my money the most subtle vintage now on the market. I chanced upon my first bottle of Edgar Special Blend Grand Reserve only last year, and since then I’ve been drinking almost nothing else. Exquisite in the nose, and shattering in the follow-through.

Poetry, like the Internet, can make a connection from remote places. Stephen Edgar knew Gwen Harwood when she was alive and well in Hobart. Ever on the lookout for mother figures, I have always found it satisfactory that women should have been so important to Australian poetry. In the post-war boomlet before the boom, Harwood and Judith Wright were essential names, up there with A.D. Hope and James McAuley in the combined effort that prepared the way for the Poetic Nation. I thought Wright lapsed into the abstract in her later years, whereas Harwood always produced the full rich, considered, resonant artefact. If our rhythmic eloquence started with the Bush Balladeers, it smelled a lot less of horses after the women joined in. The days are over, thank God, when a full history of Australian poetry could be written. It has come too far: there is too much to it. But if there were such a thing as a full history, the housewife poets would have an assured place. They had time only to write what was essential. They never had one eye on their reputations: they always had both eyes on the Hill’s Hoist. Harwood practically dug her own potatoes. Now that it’s boom time, the danger is that every otherwise unemployable Australian youth will want a career as a poet, and produce unnecessary poems to stake his claim. But I started out as an otherwise unemployable Australian youth myself, so I can’t whinge, and a few other poets of my generation would be wise not to do so either. There’s another focal point for glamour, of course: the Generation. I can already see the movie that will be made after our lot have moved on. Some Heath Ledger of the future will play Les Murray, striding towards the breakers with his surfboard under his arm ... It will be nonsense, but the movie-makers will be looking back on an enchanted time, and they will be right.

Weekend Australian, 6–7 March 2004


Beyond its obvious purpose of barking for my own act, the above piece had an ulterior motive, which was to help make a fashionable talking point of the Australian poetry boom. Joe McCarthy taught us a valuable lesson in PR. One day he would say there were 167 communists in Government service, and the next day he would say that there were 293. Thus he changed the question of whether there were any to a question of how many. By talking about whether the Australian poetry boom was international or merely national, I hoped to get the idea of an Australian poetry boom, of whatever kind, into the general cultural discussion. I hope my manoeuvre had some effect, but the awkward truth is that Australian poetry, regarded as a commercial proposition, still rates as a field in which the publishers take a loss, and even the best poets must wonder whether they wouldn’t be better off chalking their work on a brick wall. The only independent Australian publishing house for poetry, the excellent Duffy & Snellgrove, has since gone out of business. The void will leave the serious poets trying to sell themselves to the major publishers, who are bound to be at least as impressed by media glamour as by real achievement. Australians are great book-buyers per capita, but the total market even for prose is small, and when you consider that the market for poetry is necessarily a lot smaller, you are looking at a very slim return on the dollar. What to do about that is an abiding question. Nor are there many outlets among the magazines and upmarket newspapers. As a result, the jostling for position among the poets is much more fierce than I dared to make out. In the long view of history, I am convinced, ours will look like a golden age, but for those of us actually there it looks more like the first week at Ballarat. Who stole my shovel? You’re digging on my claim, you mongrel. And where did you get those canvas pants?