Foreword: The Best Australian Poetry 2009
Guest editor: Alan Wearne
Series editors: Bronwyn Lea and Martin Duwell
The guest editor of this year’s Best Australian Poetry selection is probably best known for his huge verse novel, The Lovemakers, and for his recent collection of short poems largely inspired by local popular songs. He is, as I have said elsewhere, a master of the infinite complexity of Australian social life. He is endlessly inquisitive (in a way that used to be expected of novelists) about the details of an individual’s public and inner life, where the character derives from and how it expresses itself in details. The Lovemakers was not only a study of individuals but also of entrepreneurialism in business (and its counterpart, the drug trade), of Australian sport, and of the legal system, to name only the most important. The earlier verse novel, The Nightmarkets, looked at the relationships between people, especially in political life, but, just as big business was counterbalanced by the drug trade in The Lovemakers, so the sex trade counterbalanced politics in The Nightmarkets. The ambition, the extraordinary sensitivity to telling detail in an individual’s life, and a command of the complex, larger structures in which these lives are lived, mean that Wearne’s work always makes me think of Dickens, the Dickens of Bleak House, Little Dorrit and Dombey and Son. I think I am right in saying that this is the first time he has been involved in editing – in the sense of making a selection of poems. He is better known, perhaps, as a teacher of writing; but teaching and editing are not dissimilar processes.
It is an overused commonplace that poetry is double-faced in that it can look inwards towards itself, its own material – language – and its own craft, and, at the same time, look outwards to the social world. Some of the collections in our series have clearly favoured the latter view, sometimes emphasising the drama of lives, sometimes the process of living. Alan Wearne’s selection is one which might be considered rich in portraiture, indeed it might almost seem as though its function was to remind us that there are many radically different ways in which poems can portray lives. And when Wearne writes, in his introduction, of the surprises in the poems that he read for this volume, one cannot help but think that often this resulted from an expert being introduced to new possible ways of doing what he does habitually.
At one end of the spectrum are poems like John West’s ‘Chelsea Women’ and John Carey’s ‘Fidel’s Children’ which work by aggregating quick sketches into a portrait of a larger whole. Each poet’s feeling for the extraordinariness of the lives they capture dominates their poem and it is difficult not to feel that the individual lives are more significant than the social structure in which they occur, though to deal with questions like this – something poetry is perfectly entitled to do – is to enter a very conflicted corner of intellectual questioning. At the other end, so to speak, are poems which portray their writer in a way that we are used to in lyric poetry. The haiku series of Rosemary Dobson and Graham Nunn describe the self by rendering impressions. The poems by Kelly Pilgrim-Byrne and Katherine Heneghan portray the poet’s self by focusing on something tangentially but importantly relevant. Peter Steele’s ‘Mending Gloves at Anglesea’ is also a gentle self-portrait facing the large question of poetry’s function in the world of power and deciding that, though lightweights ‘in the contest for chief lout’, poets have their own function. Geoffrey Lehmann describes his marvellous, extended poem of travels in Peru as a contribution to the new and ‘suspect’ genre of Baedeker poems but, like all good travel literature, it, too, is a portrait of the self, made slightly ridiculous, slightly insignificant but hyper-sensitive in an alien environment, in the way of much good travel writing.
Other poems are straightforward portraits. In Ali Alizadeh’s cleverly titled ‘The Suspect’, in Kate Lilley’s ‘Pet’ and L.K. Holt’s ‘Menis’ we are given clear studies and suffer the important frustration of all readers in not knowing what the author’s relationship to the portrait is. And then there is Maria Takolander’s ‘Witch’, which seems to be a portrait of a hypothetical person constructed out of a set of prejudices, and Geoff Page’s ‘Dining with the Pure Merinos’, which is a generalised, witty and not too cruel portrait of an entire class.
The act of looking at this volume as a kind of anatomy of portraiture draws attention to those poems which are overtly about the issues of the portrait. Peter Porter’s ‘We Do Not Write What We Are’ focuses on the question of poetry as self-portrait, wondering which self – the self of dreams or the self of the ordinary daylight world – appears in poems. Geoff Goodfellow’s ‘Finding Myself’, which seems, initially, to be a poem about the self recovering from very serious surgery, finishes with an image of the razor scraping away all that separates him from being a clone of his father. In this respect, purely accidentally, Tom Shapcott’s ‘Sestina’ places itself at the centre of the stage since it worries – in that obsessive way that sestinas do — about how much our prized individuality is a result of a determinist genetic heritage; as the poem says:
We do not start with a blank sheet, our genes
See to that. There is an itch somewhere in the shadows.
It would not be possible to write about Australian poetry in this year without visiting the sad fact of the death of Dorothy Porter. Her passing, late last year, at such an early age has taken from the community of Australian writers and readers one of our most loved poets. Remarkably, and almost uniquely for an Australian poet, her death attracted obituaries in overseas newspapers. She is most admired, at the moment, for a series of verse narratives beginning with Akhenaten and climaxing in The Monkey’s Mask. Good as these are, I suspect that they draw attention away from books like Driving too Fast and, especially, Crete – which remains my favourite of all her works. She was, pre-eminently, a poet of passion and, though the verse novels dealt with this theme in larger contexts, I can’t help feeling that its natural mode is the explosive lyric. She was a master – or mistress – of such poetry. Poems like ‘Why I Love Your Body’ and ‘My At-last Lover’ are hard to forget, genuine contributions to poetry’s most fully stocked, and hence most competitive, shelf. I love her comment, in an interview, about poetry and the -isms which bedevil intellectual life: ‘I don’t hold an ideological brief when I explore love or passion, I just go in and see what happens’.
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