Escape artist

Maria Takolander Reviews The Deep North: A Selection of Poems (with a note by Paul Kane) (New York: George Braziller, 2013) by Bronwyn Lea. This review appeared in Cordite.org.au
(20 December 2013).

by maria takolander

The Deep North: A Selection of Poems by Bronwyn Lea (with a note by Paul Kane). New York: George Braziller, 2013.

It is a tribute to the quality and readability of Bronwyn Lea’s poetry that a selection of her work forms the second volume in the new George Braziller series (edited by Paul Kane), which aims to introduce contemporary Australian poets to American readers. True to lyric poetry, Lea’s poems are musical in their composition, and they can be intimate in their subject matter. However, Lea’s work is never just about crafting agreeable verse, and it is never just about her personal experience. What makes Lea’s poetry so striking and meaningful is its acknowledgement of a wider and worldly context: historical, geographical, biological, political. In fact, Lea’s poetry might be said to enact an ironic rejection of the claustrophobic potential of autobiographical verse by continually fleeing from it to something else. This might be typical of contemporary post-Romantic poetry generally, though in Lea’s poetry—highlighting the importance of gender to the work—that flight is often symbolised by the rejection of the trappings of romantic love for a liberating movement into ‘a vantage point … a vista’ (as we read in ‘Driving into Distance’). This makes Lea’s work reminiscent of Emily Dickinson’s restless verse, with Dickinson’s presence apparent in the exquisite poem ‘Insufficient Knowledge.’  Continue reading

The cambridge companion to creative writing: so much depends upon the line

Extract from chapter in Cambridge Companion to Creative Writing

“The line,” as James Logenbach contends, “is what distinguishes our experience of poetry as poetry”. Whenever we see, or more importantly hear, language arranged in lines we know we are entering the gallery of the poem. White space and silence frame the poem and alert us to its language. Consider the difference between William Carlos William’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” set as prose – “so much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens” – and the same words set in lines.

Cambridge_University_Press“The line,” as James Longenbach contends, “is what distinguishes our experience of poetry as poetry”. Whenever we see, or more importantly hear, language arranged in lines we know we are entering the gallery of the poem. White space and silence frame the poem and alert us to its language. Consider the difference between William Carlos William’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” set as prose – “so much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens” – and the same words set in lines:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

 glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

As prose, the sentence moves swiftly so that its essential meaning can be easily grasped. But set in lines, language slows down: each word in the poem is clarified, intensified, and raised in stature. The words are experienced not only as signifiers but as objects in themselves. At a reduced pace meaning opens up and multiplies. The portmanteau “wheelbarrow”, for instance, is cleaved so that we are encouraged to contemplate the word “barrow”, which can refer to not only a cart but also, perhaps, to a burial mound. This is not to argue that “burial mound” is the preferred reading in this particular poem, but rather to show how a word, when isolated, can be unmoored from its strict context so that its alternative meanings might come into play.

In prose, a sentence has a single beginning and an end, but set in lines beginnings and endings are abundant. Each line in a poem refracts into additional beginnings and endings inside the sentence, which grants not only heightened significance through emphasis – the start and end of a line are always hotspots – but lines also offers a sense of equivalence in which words and phrases can be weighed, or balanced, against other words and phrases. Michael Dransfield’s “Pas de deaux for Lovers” offers an excellent example. The poem opens with a statement that “Morning ought not/to be complex” but the sun, the poet observes, has been “cast at dawn into the long/furrow of history”. The poet appears to be weighing this ideal of detachment against a dawning attachment to a lover:

To wake
and go
would be so simple.

Yet

how the
first light
makes gold her hair

We can imagine the poet looking down as he completes the image in the next stanza: “upon my arm.” The poem spins on the word “yet” which stands in isolation at the heart of the poem as a single-word line (and stanza). An otherwise small and almost insignificant word, “yet” is granted primacy of placement and as such it demands to be taken as central to the poem’s meaning. It punches above its weight and undoes both the argument and the poet, who is helpless against his growing emotion for his lover: “Day,” he concludes, “is so deep already with involvement.”

the end of the line

Determining where a line ends – or breaks – is the art of the poet. “There is at our disposal,” as Denise Levertov argues, “no tool of the poetic craft more important, none that yield more subtle and precise effects, than the line break if it is properly understood”. Essentially there are two types of line breaks: “end-stopped” in which the line ends with a clear and natural pause created by punctuation; and “enjambed” in which the phrase, clause, or sentence continues across a line-break to decrease the pause and speed up the rhythm and flow of the thought.

As we’ve seen, the interplay between the line and the sentence creates a dynamic unique to poetry. Sometimes, in the case of end-stopped lines, the line and the sentence correspond exactly, as in the opening lines of “Under One Small Star” by Wislawa Szymborska:

My apologies to chance for calling it necessity.
My apologies to necessity if I’m mistaken, after all.
Please, don’t be angry, happiness, that I take you as my due.
May my dead be patient with the way my memories fade.

The structure of the line is simple and clearly marked out for the ear by punctuation. The directness of the line accords a sense of formality to the poem that proceeds as a list of transgressions so human we would absolve the poet immediately, if we could. Szymborska achieves audible interest, however, in the middle of the poem and again at the end, as seen here, by extending the sentence beyond a single line:

Don’t bear me ill will, speech, that I borrow weighty words,
then labour heavily so that they may seem light.

Here, the end-stopped lines maintain balance and form, but the smaller pause of a comma contrasts with the longer pause (and breath) signalled by the full-stop to achieve a graceful fluency and increased flow.

But more commonly in contemporary poems – and as seen in the Williams and Dransfield poems above – a poet will aim for a more dramatic line-break by using enjambment. In Sharon Olds’s heavily enjambed poem, “I Go Back to May 1937”, the poet imagines her parents “standing at the formal gates of their colleges” in the late May sunlight:

I see my father strolling out
under the ochre sandstone arch, the
red tiles glinting like bent
plates of blood behind his head, I
see my mother with a few light books at her hip
standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks with the
wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its
sword-tips black in the May air …

Olds’s trademark narrative energy moves not just horizontally with the line but plunges down the page, her lines breaking on prepositions, articles, adjectives, and pronouns, forcing the reader to leap ahead, dizzily, for the noun or the verb. Sometimes the ride through an Olds poem is so violent it feels as if the poet has taken a pen in her fist and torn it down the page. Such heavily enjambed lines invigorate with their wilful incursion into the sentence, even if their liveliness comes at the cost of being harder for the ear to hear the structure.

Enjambment offers the additional quality of allowing the poet to spin meaning on its head. Working in a highly condensed form, poets often celebrate the possibility of generating multiple meanings from a single statement. In Robert Hass’s “Meditation at Lagunitas”, for example, the poet offers the idea that desire is full, amplified, but this meaning holds only for a moment before it is shattered in the next line:

Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances.

When the syntax resolves we discover that we haven’t so much misread the first line but that the bittersweet enjambment has allowed two separate meanings to run concurrently.

the length of the line

Short lines, as seen in the Williams and Dransfield poems above, frequently can be found in contemporary free verse, where the poet determines line length based on a desire for equivalence, hesitation, emphasis, and other strategic effects. But sometimes a poet wants a more fulsome line: lines we can carry around in our bodies in the hope that we may summon them at a later date for the wisdom, consolation, wittiness, or joy they offer. Shakespeare’s “To be, or not to be: that is the question”, for instance; Emily Dickinson’s “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant – “; or Elizabeth Bishop’s “The art of losing isn’t hard to master”.

The success of these lines, and countless others, may have something to do with the way we think. In their article, “The Neural Lyre: Poetic Meter, the Brain, and Time”, Frederick Turner and Ernst Pöppel make a case for a remarkable congruency between poetry and the human nervous system. After examining a sample of metrical poetry from about eighty different cultures – from Africa to North and South America, Asia, and Oceania – they found a predominance of lines that take on average about three second to articulate. For Turner and Pöppel, this is no accident: a “the three-second period,” they argue, “roughly speaking, is the length of the human present moment”. In English a line of iambic pentameter corresponds most consistently – though not exclusively – with the three-second duration of our experience of the present moment. Which may account for tremendous popularity the ten-syllable line has had with poets through the ages.

Poets have used other parts of the body – the lungs in particular – to determine the length of their lines. Walt Whitman famously took his line to the end the human breath, which in turn inspired Allen Ginsberg to conduct his own experiments with the line as a unit of breath. Each line in “Howl”, for example, is designed be read in one breath:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical
naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix …

Ginsberg’s line pulls the reader to its natural end. The lines are ecstatic to read, especially aloud, as the poet, like a puppeteer, pulls the strings on the reader’s body. Similarly, in his seminal essay, “Projective Verse”, Charles Olson formalised the idea of a “breath-line” – in so doing, he hoped to connect the poem again to the human body.

This extract is from a chapter, “Poetry and Poetics”, by Bronwyn Lea in Cambridge Companion to Creative Writing. Ed. David Morely and Philip Neilsen. Cambridge UP, 2012: 67-86.

Southerly review of poetry

Petra White reviews Flight Animals (UQP, 2001) by Bronwyn Lea. This extract first appeared in Southerly, 69.3 2009: 225-33.

by petra white


The Other Way Out
is Bronwyn Lea’s second book of poems; the first, Flight Animals, appeared in 2001 to much acclaim. Flight Animals established Lea’s particular quality of lightness and wit, which at times permits a grandeur (‘Even the bells of San Blas cannot wake him’). The titles and poems of both books speak of restlessness, a need to escape. But The Other Way Out may also be a Way In. It is a quote from TS Eliot’s The Cocktail Party: ‘There is another way out, if you have the courage’. Many of the poems establish a sense of reaching an impasse: there is a quality of absoluteness, in poems such as ‘Who is he’:

Who is he walking towards me
his spine straight as if the wind
means nothing. His eyes
what can I say. One look grants me…

The character, the ‘he’ in this poem, is not specific; we know nothing about him, he is just ‘love’, or every new lover, who ‘floats my will away’ (a lovely erotic phrase). It is unclear why loss is so sure. Is it simply that one has to be prepared for it? There is a sense of self-teaching in this poem, a stealing against the inevitable: ‘if you will risk, as I do, loving / what you will surely lose.’

This inclination towards the absolute is a strong feature of many of the poems in this book. ‘Ordinary Grace’ pivots on an abrupt dichotomy — ‘there is no language / of the holy I think’ — and turns from this to the ‘amorous prattle’ of galahs ‘flashing their pink undersides as I sink / into the green & watery / vernacular of the natural world’. The ‘holy’ has nothing to offer poetry: the poet belongs in the ‘vernacular of the natural world’. The holy enters this poem only as a counter to the vernacular: there is no sense of what the holy actually is, or what it is doing there. It is there to help the poem make a statement. And the surprise of the galahs and the loveliness of the ‘green and watery vernacular’ fortunately succeed in upstaging it.

Yet, perhaps these more severe poems are a key to the toughness and resoluteness that forms the spine of — and takes different forms in — many of Lea’s poems, the best of which combine a formal sense of the absolute with something fresh and original, rather than generalising. ‘Palinode’, with its intimate opening lines ‘I have written before how I loved him / but I have never written how I disliked him too’, is a witty and self-effacing confessional tale of a bad relationship. ‘Seferis’, like ‘Ordinary Grace’, has a lesson: ‘I hate knowing / my life will not be long enough’. But it comes in the context of other complex realisations:

There is a sense that if
the slightest crack opened up in this faultless
scene all things would spill out beyond
the four points of the horizon & leave me
naked, alone & begging for alms. I hate knowing
my life will not be long enough.

The rhythm of this is urgent and compelling, and balances contemplation of the immediate, the infinite and mortality. In a similar vein, ‘The Bodhisattva’s Hand’ is a subtle study:

The hand calls us into the moment
in which the infinite crosses over into gladness
and we gaze at something singular and joined.
Accept the gift which is not transcendence
but your heart beating at its apprehension.
Here is your life: unlock your fist and begin.

Another grand statement, but also an arresting one. Still, I mostly prefer Lea’s lighter poems. I think of her as a poet whose topic is lightness — with wisdom. In her best poems a sense of absurdity and improbability works well to manhandle the still-present notion of resignation, or acknowledgement of ephemerality and soonish death. ‘A Place’ is a wonderful short poem:

There is a place I like to go
that is behind language.

I like to go there and wobble
like a melon on a table

or a spoon that doesn’t care
if it is chosen or not.

This ‘domestic poem’, using objects fit for a still life, incorporates a philosophical position. Which self is which? Perhaps this is about ways in and out of the self.

Petra White reviews The Other Way Out (Giramondo, 2008) by  Bronwyn Lea. This extract first appeared in Southerly, 69.3 2009: 225-33.

 

Foreword: The Best Australian Poetry 2009

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.

Guest Editor: Alan Wearne

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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The Best Australian Poetry forewords
Australian Poetry Journal forewords

Silence that rings

Lyn McCredden reviews The Other Way Out (Giramondo, 2008) by Bronwyn Lea. This first appeared in Australian Book Review (March, 2009): 47.

by Lyn McCredden

These are witty, sometimes boisterous and meditative poems. There is a consistency of craft but an intriguing variety, and perhaps even contradictoriness, to their desires. Each poem is a little box of longing: for courage, for calmness, for love, for transcendence. Equally, the poems are often pleas for the self to abandon desire in its grasping forms, ‘to be whittled down to a twig & grow again into a tree’.

‘Two Ways Out’, the eponymous poem, lays out the map of the book: the human, desiring machine who must choose between opposing impulses: the ascetic and the rococo, two distinct paths by which to escape ‘the insufferable / medium of a par-boiled heart’. The poem, as with the volume, leaves you understanding something of both poetic journeys. Sometimes the two collide or are enmeshed in each other, in the figure of the poet who craves transcendence but who is impatient, who hasn’t ‘time to wait for grace’.

First, we are presented with attentiveness and an openness to the world; these qualities inform some of the quieter poems. ‘These Gifts’ records the way ‘the day has charmed you / with ephemera before you can object’. The fear of ‘Women of a Certain Age’ is stilled, but only momentarily, by an imagined world, ‘a new hospitable household’. In ‘Crows’, the desire is the search for ‘How to be / faithful to  the  crow-stepped  branch,  how to write / crow-scent in a human score’.

In such poems, we read the rich lyrical traces of Romantic attentiveness to the natural world, experienced as balm and nurse; but often it is with a very contemporary twist, a shaft of anti-Romantic and often humorous realism. ‘Crows’, for example, is a wonderful revelry on the dawn chorus of birds which ends with ‘the aural world giving / feedback,  shrieking like a microphone / too close to a speaker / & exploding into applause’. Ecstasy and discord enmeshed; the Romantic and the modern.

The second section of the volume, pop-culturally entitled ‘Where Is the Love?’, reflects modernity, but often through subtle contrasts. Individual poems may be set  historically, such as ‘The Nightgown’ with its distilled picture of ‘the Japanese woman in her desire’ who ‘commits to a life of dreaming / whether the lover appears or he doesn’t’. But the next poem, ‘Born Again’, is a tough and deliberate contrast, a revelation of modern desire: the divorced couple, the hatred still simmering, the bloody battle of the genders. Yet, in this raw evocation of modern love, there is the surprise of realisation in the observing wife, touched by grace and a vision of intimacy she imagines but has never experienced.

Love, or rather lost or broken love, permeates this section. The poems are never simply nostalgic or sentimental. ‘Routine Love Poem’, for example, could hardly be described thus. It is hard-nosed but with a deep draught of terror running through it. It is a confrontational poem, but also one which measures what is lacking, what might have been, in some better world beyond the repetitive, mechanical ‘they make & remake the coffee / they make and remake the bed’.

This is a wonderful, culminating evocation of the whole volume’s philosophy: inclined to the ascetic, but equally to action, involvement, making.

The volume’s final section, ‘The Way into Stone’, brings the reader to another way of negotiating desire, with its Buddhist-inflected meditations. Here we are led to think back on that earlier choice between ascetic and rococo paths. The bell and the stone deliver their quiet, post-human calm, ‘alert to the silence that rings’. But we find here, too, a number of exhortations to courage, the decision to take ‘A breath, a step, a word’ and to make a beginning. The human starting point is seen constantly to be ‘insufficient knowledge’. But from such a place humans begin with hope, perhaps enabled by ignorance of the pain that awaits  them. So we read of ‘The  Isurumuniya Lovers’ from Anuradhapura, fifth century CE, who experience ‘the sweet flood between us’, enjoying each other absolutely ‘in staggered silence till the future came / to blind us with its mirror’, another version of the fall.

The final poem of the collection, ‘The Bodhisattva’s Hand’, is a fine meditation on peace, but also on action and courage infused with that peace. Gazing on the ancient sculpture, the poet observer depicts ‘this figure peaceful as a stick of green bamboo’, and tells us: ‘The hand calls us into the moment / in which the infinite crosses over into gladness / & we gaze at something singular & joined.’ This is a wonderful, culminating evocation of the whole volume’s philosophy: inclined to the ascetic, but equally to action, involvement, making. In fact, both inclinations, shared by many poets, are bound together in a dialogue: silence and words, peace and desiring, transcendence from this  world and being steeped in the world. So the final wisdom, earned by the accumulative power of the poetry and convincing, is in doubleness of ‘Accept the gift which is not transcendence // but your heart beating at its apprehension. / Here  is  your  life: unlock your fist & begin’. In this exhortation, we are taken back to the poetry of T.S. Eliot, cited on the opening page of the volume, especially perhaps to Eliot’s Four Quartets, with its own poetic movement between meditation and action.

Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.

Lyn McCredden reviews The Other Way Out (Giramondo, 2008) by Bronwyn Lea. This first appeared in Australian Book Review (March, 2009): 47.

Fine connections in touching lines

Geoff Page reviews The Other Way Out (Giramondo, 2008). This first appeared in The Canberra Times (13 December 2008): 16.

by Geoff Page

It’s been seven years since Bronwyn Lea’s remarkable first book of poetry, Flight Animals. Now, at last, we have its successor, The Other Way Out: New Poems. The initial collection was marked by a consistent level of technical excellence and an impressive variety of form and tone. The second, luckily, lives up to the very high standard Lea created for herself. Perhaps that is why she has waited so long.

The new book falls into three parts: the first dealing mainly with issues of life and death, the second revisiting an intense love affair and the third meditating, among other subjects, on Eastern religions and the architecture and art they have given rise to. The poems in all three sections are finely but unobtrusively tuned and build, typically, to a highly memorable last line.

In ‘Dog Days’, for instance, her sonnet on Brisbane, she uses a variety of images to evoke the relentlessness of that city’s midsummer heat: ‘The sky is a blue so pressing it falls/like glass to the ground.’ She finds herself drawn by ‘hope’ to the river and concludes her poem by noting how ‘Today the water slides by/in silence, a quavering less oppressive city //splayed upside down on the surface./A dog barks in the white light, just once.’ That ‘just once’ is a typical Lea touch, a nicely resonant full stop to the whole poem.

A similar compression and understatedness can be seen in Lea’s poem, ‘Ars Poetica’. It’s short enough to quote in its entirety and is plainly indicative of where she is heading in this second collection: ‘I used to want/to say one thing //& have it turn/out to be another./Now I only want //to say one thing./As if the pleasure //now is in the voicing/not the trickery //but the soul making/itself heard //above the traffic.’

There was not very much ‘trickery’ in Flight Animals but one can sense here the eloquent simplicity Lea is reaching for. Some of the poems, for example, ‘Love Begins with a Vision’ and ‘View from the Blue Pavilion’, read like haiku sequences. Others, such as the technically ambitious ‘Routine Love Poem’, use the repetition of simple elements, almost in the manner of a Gertrude Stein or Samuel Beckett. The poem also displays the persistent ambivalence running through many of the erotic love poems at the book’s centre. In ‘Palinode’, for instance, Lea begins ‘I have written before how I loved him/ but I have never written how I disliked him too.’ In ‘Born Again’ she has the deliciously malevolent lines: ‘Instead of dying, god spoke to him./God forgave all his trespasses. But I/didn’t forgive his trespasses against me./My heart was a long ledger.’

This degree of intensity carries over to into the book’s final section which, while it touches on temples, pavilions and terracotta warriors, is just as much concerned with the raw force of human emotions. We are given, for instance, Lea’s versions of the graffiti at Sigiriya, written between the seventh and 11th centuries AD. They begin: ‘I came & saw the girls with gold chains/between their breasts now heaven is no good.’

Another poem in the sequence has Lea’s narrator reminiscing: ‘Each night/I found the present-tense of you: your body/in the bed conducting light,/the little room lit up, my sex ransacked/by a branch of burning sky.’ This might sound melodramatic but the poem’s ending is convincing enough: ‘Each morning we walked/ in staggered silence till the future came/to blind us with its mirror.’

In some other poems in the last section (such, for instance, the deeply moving ‘Father and Daughter’) there can sometimes be, by contrast, an almost risky minimalism but these are dangers Bronwyn Lea is more than willing to deal with in her pursuit of the subtlety she aims for. The Other Way Out will be more than satisfying to the many readers who have waited since Flight Animals in 2001 alerted them to the presence of a poet who has, as Alan Gould has put it, ‘the humour … the tact … and the fine connections of a very singular sensibility’.

Geoff Page reviews The Other Way Out (Giramondo, 2008). This first appeared in The Canberra Times (13 December 2008): 16.

 

 

Poetic intimacies to be shared

Geoffrey Lehmann reviews The Other Way Out (Giramondo, 2008) by Bronwyn Lea. This extract first appeared in The Weekend Australian 6-7 Dec 2008: Review 8-9.

by Geoffrey Lehmann

Why do people write poetry? Unlike Damien Hirst, who auctions artworks fabricated in his workshops for millions of pounds, poets get little money from their poetry. Nor is there much fame, and sometimes it seems as though there are more poets than poetry readers.

So why write poems? One reason may be the longevity of a good poem. Thousands of lines of ancient Greek poetry have survived for more than two millennia. This compares with some rare fragments of their music (less than 50 minutes recorded for Harmonia Mundi in 1978), none of their paintings (although they ranked this art form with their sculpture) and a few remnants of their best sculpture.

Poetry is like bits of DNA. It codes itself into our minds and transports itself down generations, popping out at odd moments, such as the poem by W.H. Auden read out in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral. But it is still worrying. Where will the new good poets come from?

It’s therefore a great relief to read Bronwyn Lea’s The Other Way Out. Still a year or so short of 40, Lea may be the brightest light to emerge in Australian poetry since the start of this decade. Her poetry is intense, personal, intelligent and witty. She is able to make her lines move briskly and economically and create surprises. In ‘Born Again’, which is surely a modern classic, she describes a divorce from a man

who sold his house
by the beach and drove his Volkswagen
into the desert to die. He was gone
a year. I was living one vertical mile
above the desert floor – where he slept
in his car.

The vivid detail about living one vertical mile above the desert floor puzzled me for a few days. Then I realised I’d been a bit stupid. The persona of the poem, presumably Lea during her years in the US, had gone to live in a mountain region such as Colorado, where she would be one vertical mile above the desert floor. The ex-husband doesn’t die as he’d planned. He becomes a ‘born again’.

‘Instead of dying, god spoke to him./God forgave all his trespasses. But I / didn’t forgive his trespasses against me. / My heart has a long ledger.’

The ex-husband comes to collect his daughter from the mother’s snowbound house, presumably on parental access. The mother gathers her daughter’s things. ‘It took a little while. When / I returned he was gone. Typical.’ She looks around and discovers him praying in the snow. In an ironic conclusion, Lea recalls:

Snow collected on his upturned palms.
I felt its coldness. Such intimacy
we had never shared. Sometimes grace
Comes like that, it falls like snow.

Geoffrey Lehmann reviews The Other Way Out (Giramondo, 2008) by Bronwyn Lea. This extract first appeared in The Weekend Australian 6-7 Dec 2008: Review 8-9.

 

Foreword: The Best Australian Poetry 2008

The editor of this volume, David Brooks, has included work from many poets who have not appeared before and his distinctive “take” on contemporary poetry (he has been an editor of the venerable journal, Southerly, since 2000) has resulted in a deeply satisfying collection. Brooks’s most recent poetry has been a poetry of experience, passion and momentary distillations into meaning or action, and one senses something of this in his selection.

Guest Editor: David BrooksGuest editor: David Brooks
Series editors: Bronwyn Lea and Martin Duwell

The sixth collection in our series is another reminder of the richness of contemporary poetry in Australia and the fact that this richness can only be adequately sampled by different editors who each bring their own perspectives to the scene. The editor of this volume, David Brooks, has included work from many poets who have not appeared before and his distinctive “take” on contemporary poetry (he has been an editor of the venerable journal, Southerly, since 2000) has resulted in a deeply satisfying collection.

This is not the place to launch into a full-scale description of Brooks’s writing, but it is worth noting that his high reputation as a writer of elegant short stories, his extensive academic/critical work, and a Miles Franklin shortlisted novel have, for a long while, obscured his status as a poet. His first book, The Cold Front, was published twenty-five years ago and the title of his second, Walking to Point Clear: Poems 1983-2002 reveals that, although his fiction and criticism might have been better known, he has never stopped being a poet.

Now, with the publication of his fourth book of poetry imminent, readers will be able to see the results of an extended commitment in better perspective. To summarise some of the results of this perspective, one can see that his early poetry was infused with the influence of contemporary US poets such as Galway Kinnell and Robert Bly. His third book, on the other hand, was filled with poems of energy and intensity, suggesting the presence of a figure more like Bruce Beaver. It would be fascinating to trace the consistencies that underlie such radically different sorts of poems but, for this anthology, it is worth focussing on a sense of poetry as intensely embedded in life itself. Brooks’s most recent poetry has been a poetry of experience, passion and momentary distillations into meaning or action, and one senses something of this in his selection.

One of the reasons for the high number of new poets may, of course, be the fact that Brooks has been able to include poems from sources not available to previous editors: as we flagged last year, this year we would begin to include on-line journals such as Jacket and Cordite in our catchment area. That was not an easy decision though many of our reservations (on-line journals often contain previously published work etc) may have been no more than the prejudices of essentially print-based editors.

Reading Brooks’s selection (and yielding momentarily to the cliché that the internet is especially good at doing the fleetingly present) one is reminded of poetry’s power to give us some kind of impression of life as it is in the process of being lived. There is a dangerous metaphor which hovers in the background here, but the word “capture” is far too simplistic to give any sense of the complex possibilities of what is happening when poetry sets out to engage the everyday.

It is amazing how many of these poems are filled with the sense of “Here I am” or “I am doing this” – in Jennifer Maiden’s case: “So, here / I am in bed with one silk sheet – / a Chinatown bargain – rippling its water / on my legs”. But the ways in which this kind of poetry engages with the world are almost endless in their variety: there is all the difference in the world between, say, Michael Aiken’s “Victoria Street, Darlinghurst” and Robert Kenny’s “An Australian Suburban Garden” – both, interestingly, appearing in on-line journals. In the former the poet, as recording eye, limits himself to what he can see and hear but the results are structured so that we see a picture of animals alive and dead framed by pictures of humans, all involved in motion. In Kenny’s poem, we are taken much closer to the way that the mind travels while the body stands (or, in this case, sits) still. And Kenny’s mind, being what it is, travels continuously to literary and artistic references. Although Kathryn Lomer’s complex double sestina, “The Fencer and His Mate” and Jan Owen’s “Boat Harbour Beach” are both portraits rather than slabs of reality, they are portraits of what can be seen from a specific vantage point: in the latter case, men seen while the poet is writing. The connection between writer and workmen is wryly stated: “all of us trying to move the earth”. The men, so acutely observed, are figures in a landscape and we sense that they are figures which just happen to impinge on the poet’s consciousness.

Tass Holmes’ “Mum’s Taxi”, Sarah Tiffen’s “Rain Event in the Whispering Country” record the experience of living, in the latter case with a good deal of rhapsody. In both these poems, as in Ross Clark’s “Full-Bucket Moon”, reality is not left entirely to its own devices when it comes to representing itself. Mythic structures hover in the background. The life of the family of “Mum’s Taxi” is lived “in a rain-shadow on the side of a recumbent woman-mountain” (I thought, the first time that I read this poem in its journal, that “Under the Mountain” might have been a better title) and both the Clark and the Tiffen almost dissolve in their own mythic structures.

Other poems are portraits. But even Brook Emery’s “In the Hollow of a Wave”, which is a complexly organised portrait of Bondi Beach, is attuned to the way in which life is lived: here the ever present waves represent the continuous unfolding of the phenomenal world. In John Kinsella”s “Imitation Spatiologue (Sublime)” the fury of being harassed by “the ski-boat fraternity” on their way to a lake spins out into complex analyses of the formation of the lake itself. On a lighter note, John Jenkins “Dad Says” is a kind of portrait of life lived in popular sayings. On one level it is a portrait of a language – a recording of a specific language – but it can just as well be described as a poem in which these tart clichés determine how we experience life. In Geoffrey Lehmann’s “Self-Portrait at 62” the author defines himself not by analysis but by letting us see what he does. Here the implied structures are not mythic but poetic and the poem concludes by redefining poetry:

Poetry is incidental. / I am my poem.

Foreword: The Best Australian Poetry 2007

The editor of the fifth volume in our series does, literally, need no introduction, at least for most readers of Australian poetry. Since the mid-sixties John Tranter has been a continuous, modernising force in our poetry, and, more recently, risen to the point where he is acknowledged as one of a select few of Australia’s really great poets.

Guest Editor: John TranterGuest editor: John Tranter
Series editors: Bronwyn Lea and Martin Duwell

The editor of this, the fifth volume in our series does, literally, need no introduction, at least for most readers of Australian poetry. Since the mid-sixties John Tranter has been a continuous, modernising force in our poetry and, more recently, risen to the point where he is acknowledged as one of a select few of Australia’s really great poets. His poetry, as shown in his most recent New and Selected poems, Urban Myths (UQP, 2006), is a complex mix of abstraction and concreteness (he writes as well about the ambience of Sydney, his home town, as any poet), experiment and nostalgia (it is remarkable how often the rural world of his adolescence emerges in the poems). He is also a formal master, reinvigorating old forms and inventing new ones. It is worth noting that Tranter has also been an editor of and for magazines. At the moment he is the editor of an online journal, Jacket, which many people have thought – and said – is the best of its kind in the world.

Perhaps less well-known is the fact that Tranter is an anthologist of real importance. Most will know of his anthology of the group of poets to which, in terms of literary history, he belongs, The New Australian Poetry (Makar, 1979) and of his editing, with Philip Mead, The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry (Penguin, 1991). The second of these surprised many readers, who perhaps feared a stony-hearted, experimental rigorousness, by its generous inclusiveness. Less well-known are Tranter’s Preface to the Seventies – a prescient selection of new poets published by Poetry Australia – and The Tin Wash Dish (ABC, 1989) – a selection of poems made from entries in a bi-centennial competition run jointly by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Australian Bicentennial Authority. Again, what stood out, was its editor’s love of poetry and of the surprises it can bring. As he says:

I saw a chance to compile a genuinely democratic collection of poems by all sorts of Australians, all living and writing in the late 1980s, about every theme imaginable, in every style and form under the Australian sun. Perhaps it’s only now, at the beginning of the third century of white colonisation, when we have learnt to face the often unpleasant facts of our history and the difficult compromises of our social and cultural mix, that an authentic Australian voice can begin to be heard. If so it’s a voice rich with diversity.

‘Rich with diversity’ sounds very like the keynote of The Best Australian Poetry 2007.

All poems are built along an axis with Life at one end and Art at the other. Some – Tranter’s own work is an example, as is Robert Adamson’s, though in a very different way – negotiate this binary with more complexity than others. Some seem to speak simply about, to represent, the world but are in acknowledged or unacknowledged ways verbal creations true to laws which are the laws or art not the world. Others may take the  inside of the mind as their subject – meditations – but are never entirely divorced from the world – which is, after all, if nothing else, the home of their metaphors. Others attempt to be entirely referential, to live inside the world of art or its equally complicated friend, language, but even the most abstract or self-referential of works is an object in the world. Many readers of this anthology will expect from someone with Tranter’s reputation as a high postmodernist an anthology of poems leaning towards the ‘art’ end of the spectrum. They will be surprised. There are many powerful poems here deeply concerned with life as it is lived. In the case of a poem like Pam Brown’s ‘Darkenings’ this involves a rapid sketching of an immediately apprehended reality. Michael Sharkey’s brilliant ‘The Land of Eternal Verities’ is a comic meditation on generational relationships in a distorted but recognizable Australia and Reg Mombassa’s ‘A Commemorative Tone Poem of Surprising Delicacy’ is also in a high comic/hyperbolic mode. But poems like joanne burns’ ‘fork’, John Millett’s ‘Elderly Woman at the Financial Planners’, Megan Petrie’s ‘Peter Doyle’, Brendan Ryan’s ‘What It Feels Like’, Mary Jenkins’ ‘In Tidy Town’ or Cath Keneally’s ‘Crying Girl’ or, indeed, a number of others, derive from a kind of quiet but insistent social-justice tradition in Australian poetry in that they record events and scenes with social implications. Underneath this surprisingly large representation you can feel, I think, Tranter’s abiding interest in the voices of poetry as social and cultural phenomena, intriguingly diverse and, at their best, never drab, predictable or pontifical.

The book opens with an elegant meditation about art in Robert Adamson’s ‘Double-Eyed Fig Parrot’ where that fantastic bird seems an icon of poetry itself looking simultaneously at life and at art. The fact that our anthologies are organised so that the authors appear in alphabetical order produces the accident that the Adamson poem is followed by Judith Bishop’s ‘Still Life with Cockles and Shells’ a work that seems almost to be a counterpart. Here the life is in the art, not the reality of the dead subjects. The poem speculates about the implications of life arising from the dead and finishes with two visions of the end of the world when we are all, paradoxically, dead but still alive. Barbara Fisher’s ‘The Poet’s Sister’ concerns itself with Dorothy Wordsworth’s interaction with her brother and though it may be, at one level, an attempt to recover the reputation of an important and unjustly silenced figure, the level that intrigues us is where Wordsworth’s ‘The Daffodils’, in pretending to be a solitary’s experience, is built upon a lie.

There are a number of meditative poems too in this collection ranging from Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s ‘A Vocation’ which is a kind of audit of his current physical and psychical status (‘The myth I keep on peddling through a life, / That work may be identical to play, / Will do me after all’) to Jennifer Harrison’s ‘Baldanders’ – a difficult but impressive meditation on mirrors and their capacity to, at any moment, be ‘something else’, “Baldanders”. Finally there is Clive James’ ‘A Gyre from Brother Jack’ which, despite being an unlikely candidate, seems quite central to this collection. It compares the two brothers Yeats – one as poet the other a painter – opting for the artist rather than his far more celebrated brother. What James finds in a single painting of by Jack Yeats, ‘A Morning Long Ago’, is a registration of life, not in mundane details but in the realized drama of just how meagre our time on earth is:

William had theories, Jack had just the thrill.
We see a little but we miss the rest,
And what we keep to ponder, time will kill.

            …

The only realistic general scheme
Of the divine is in this rich display –
Proof that the incandescent present tense
Is made eternal by our transience.

It is a fine meditation on art and its complex interactions with the process of living.

Last year’s anthology, The Best Australian Poetry 2006, had already gone to print when that year’s guest editor, Judith Beveridge, wrote to tell us that her good friend, poet Vera Newsom, had died on 10 July 2006. It was therefore not possible at the time for Beveridge to acknowledge the loss in these pages. And so we do it now. Newsom began publishing poetry in Australian literary magazines in the early 1980s and her first collection, Midnight Snow, was published in 1988 at the age of 76. Newsom published three further collections of poetry, including the award-winning Emily Bronte Recollects. At a celebration for Newsom’s 90th birthday in 2002, Beveridge delivered an address in which she described Newsom’s poetry as ‘characterised by a meticulous attention to craft, to clarity, to directness, to rhythm, to a sparse lyrical elegance, and by a deft tonal and formal control’. In 2003 Newsome was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for service to literature as a poet and through her support for the emerging talent of other writers. At the time of her death, Newsom was working with Beveridge and other friends to produce a volume of new and selected poems to be published by Five Islands Press. 2006 was also the year in which Lisa Bellear, a Goernpil woman of the Noonuccal people of Minjerribah (Stradbroke Island), died. As well as being a poet, Bellear – author of Dreaming in Urban Areas (UQP, 1996) – was a visual artist, academic and social commentator actively engaged in Indigenous affairs throughout Australia.

From poets to poetry presses: two of Australia’s smaller publishing houses announced a change focus for 2007: Pandanus Books, based at the Australian National University, ended its poetry publishing days in 2006 with Windchimes: Asia in Australian Poetry, an anthology comprising poems that offer perspectives on Asia by eighty-six Australian poets; and feminist publisher, Spinifex Press, stopped publishing new books altogether. Five Islands Press – with the retirement of founder Ron Pretty – also announced a change of focus, dropping its New Poets Program (which published 32-page chapbooks by six emerging poets each year) and streamlining its mainstream program. From time to time, the New Poets Program had been criticised for being too large to maintain a consistently high quality, nevertheless it launched the careers of a number of 1990s poets who went on to enjoy critical success – Peter Minter and MTC Cronin among them – in much the same way as the Gargoyle Poets series did for Australian poets in the 1970s. It is sad to see it go.

Fortunately, a few small presses have risen to fill the gaps: David Musgrave’s Puncher & Wattmann, which started modestly with one title in 2005, kicked into full swing in 2006 with the publication of three new poetry titles; Paul Hardacre’s papertiger media launched its attractive Soi 3 Modern Poets imprint in 2006; and the eponymous John Leonard Press, producing books noted for top quality production, unveiled a promising list with four poetry books in 2006 and six in 2007. Which goes some way toward ensuring that the poetry book, while doing it tough in the current publishing climate, will not entirely disappear from bookshelves.

We made mention earlier of our guest editor’s role as the editor of an online journal. Taking off in the late nineties, online poetry journals have offered a new world of opportunity for editors not wanting (or unable) to finance expensive print journals. Tranter’s Jacket, launched in 1997, was one of the earliest and has become the most eminent, bringing into conversation poets and critics from around the world. At reportedly over half-a-million hits since its inception, it is difficult to imagine a poetry journal in print format attracting a comparable amount of traffic. A short list of other Australian-based, online poetry magazines that have steadily grown in profile might include Cordite, Divan, Retort, Stylus Poetry Journal, hutt and foame:e. Since we monitor each year the ground rules for our anthology, we have updated our initial decision to avoid taking poems from electronic journals. In coming anthologies, we intend to add the best of these sites to our list of literary magazines from which we source the year’s best poems.

Pulping our poetry

Rosemary Neil investigates the findings in Bronwyn Lea’s book chapter, ‘Australian Poetry’ in Making Books: Contemporary Australian Publishing. Ed David Carter and Anne Galligan. St Lucia: UQP,2007: 247–54.

by Rosemary Neil

It took Alan Wearne 13 years to write his verse novel, The Lovemakers, which explored “all the great, sexy things” (love, betrayal, home renovation) about life in the suburbs. In 2002, The Lovemakers took out the poetry prize and book of the year in the NSW Premier’s Awards, an extraordinary achievement for a 359-page poem written in a kind of exalted Strine.

Yet even as Wearne stepped up to the podium to collect his gongs from then NSW premier Bob Carr, The Lovemakers was doomed. “At the same time they were congratulating me, they (his publisher, Penguin) were planning to dump me,” the poet says, still incredulous five years later. In spite of the prizes and high praise this verse novel garnered, Penguin spurned the second volume. ABC Books eventually accepted The Lovemakers II, but although it earned excellent reviews, “any promotional campaign was non-existent”, Wearne complains. In the end, both volumes of The Lovemakers were pulped.

Behind the pulverising of Wearne’s two-volume epic lies a bigger yet rarely told story of the near-abandonment of poetry by many powerful publishers. Reflecting this, a new study by University of Queensland Press poetry editor, Bronwyn Lea, has uncovered a fall of more than 40 per cent in the number of poetry books being published.

Lea’s study finds that ‘in the years between 1993 and 1996, more than 250 books of poems were published in Australia each year. By 2006, this figure had been reduced by about 100 titles.’

Today, Lea says, the vast majority of local poetry titles come from small, independent presses. Some, such as Giramondo and Black Inc, punch above their weight, winning prestigious literary prizes or attracting big names.

According to Lea, however, many independent poetry presses “do not have sufficient access to resources, distribution and marketing to have their books noticed by readers. Under these conditions, the thus far unchallenged maxim that ‘poetry doesn’t sell’ becomes self-fulfilling.”

Lea, a poet and academic, believes UQP is the only large, mainstream publisher that still maintains a formal poetry list. UQP publishes five or six poetry titles a year and has on its list eminent poets such as John Tranter and David Malouf. Malouf’s first poetry collection in 26 years, Typewriter Music, was released in hardback at the Sydney Writers’ Festival last month. Within three days, its print run of 3,000 had all but sold out.

Lea says this shows that – contrary to popular belief – if poetry is properly marketed, it will connect with readers.

Her study, published in the new UQP title, Making Books, retraces how “the 1990s heralded a new ethos in Australian book publishing: poetry was no longer presumed to be a prestigious staple on the list of a serious publishing house.

“With mergers and takeovers happening left and right in the commercial publishing sector, poetry, for all its ‘cultural worth’ was told to pay its way in dollars or be gone. But with characteristically small print runs and booksellers hesitant to stock specialty books, this was a big ask.”

By the close of the decade, Lea found that publishers such as Angus&Robertson, Penguin, Picador and Heinemann had axed or radically cut their poetry output, leaving canonical poets such as Judith Wright and Les Murray temporarily publisherless.

The antipodean retreat was part of an international trend. Oxford University Press caused a furore in 1999 when it dumped 28 of its poets, including expatriate Australian Peter Porter, and closed down its poetry series.

It is telling that Murray – commonly ranked with the world’s top handful of poets – has signed up with Black Inc. (His previous publisher was the small, stylish but now defunct Duffy&Snellgrove.) Murray says of the majors backing away from poetry: “Their philosophy now is sales at any cost and quick turnover, so we are better off in some ways without them. The only escape routes at the moment for poetry are the net and performance.”

Wearne believes most of the majors are “scared of poetry and don’t understand it”. Now “a poet in exile” teaching creative writing at the University of Wollonging (he’s from Melbourne), he wonders why his earlier verse novel, The Nightmarkets (1986), enjoyed several reprintings and what he calls a crazy level of media attention, while 15 years later, The Lovemakers bombed.

The poet, who considers himself an entertainer and an elitist, believes the decline has been caused by dumbing down within the media, universities and publishing houses, a resurgent cultural cringe and a lack of nous about how to market poetry.

Wearne compares today’s poetry scene with the Australian film scene in the 1950s, when questions were asked about whether it had a future. Murray concurs, sort of. He tells Review “we are now back to exactly where we were in the early ’60s” when he started out as a poet. Back then, he says, few big publishers were interested in publishing local poetry as they were convinced it wouldn’t sell.

Interestingly, when Murray edited Best Australian Poems for Black Inc in 2004 and 2005, roughly half the poems he chose were by writers he had never heard of. He says this reflects the dearth of commercial publishing outlets for poets, but adds: “We always have had highly talented amateurs and I don’t think it matters that much.” Even so, deprived of mainstream publishing outlets, it’s hard to imagine our emerging poets attracting the same level of national and international recognition our senior poets (Murray, Malouf, Tranter, Wright, Peter Porter) have enjoyed.

At 39, Peter Minter has been writing poetry for 15 years, and has won significant prizes. He says of the scant opportunities for poets at bigger publishers: “It does grate. There is frustration that poetry doesn’t have the same kind of profile that prose does. The flip side is that in an almost up-yours kind of way, younger poets are stimulated into setting up their own presses and magazines.”

In spite of the grim outlook, Minter, Lea and others are adamant a poetry revival is under way on the web, at independent presses and in cafes, pubs and school halls. They say online poetry journals and performance poetry are reanimating the art form, and that the revival has so much grassroots support it exposes poetry-shunning publishers and bookshops as being out of touch.

Certainly, Miles Merrill is one of very few poets in Australia who can say: “I make an excellent living as a poet.” For the past two years, this charismatic African-American has performed for students around the country, from outback schools of 50 pupils to elite private schools with panoramic views of Sydney Harbour. Using little more than a mike, sunglasses and his sonorous voice, Merrill performs his own poetry and Coleridge, to a hip-hop beat.”If kids aren’t yelling for more when I leave the room, I feel that I’ve failed somehow,” he says.

Merrill, who moved to Australia 10 years ago, is also director of the NSW State Library’s poetry slam, which is about to go national. Poetry slams resemble a cross between hip-hop and Australian Idol, and the library is holding nationwide heats for its Grand Slam in December. Contestants get an audience and two minutes to impress judges who are plucked from the audience. At stake this year is $10,000 prizemoney.

The talent is nothing if not eclectic. According to Merrill, last year’s NSW finalists included a 12-year-old from Broken Hill and a 70-year-old from Armidale in northern NSW.

Melbourne, meanwhile, is warming up for Poetry Idol, another word wrestle that will culminate with a grand final at the Melbourne Writers Festival in September. Poetry Idol organiser Michael Crane is a mid-career poet who has had 350 poems published over the past decade, mostly in journals such as Meanjin and Overland. He agrees performance poetry is a growth area. But he also admits that in the present publishing climate, “if it hadn’t been for the magazines, I probably would have given up”.

While we like to profess reverence for dead poets from Shakespeare to Paterson, could it be that readers have little time for living poets? Ron Pretty has run Five Islands Press, Australia’s biggest independent publisher of poetry, for 20 years. He has never broken even and admits that without Australia Council subsidies “I probably would have gone under a long time ago”. A typical FIP poetry title has a print run of 500 or 600, “which is part of the reason the major publishers don’t want to know”.

Penguin boss Bob Sessions says the country’s biggest commercial publisher ditched its poetry list in the late ’90s because it wasn’t selling: “We had a poetry list at one time, until we realised that the maximum sales of the average volume we put out was between 200 and 400 copies, and that was unsustainable … We had a poetry list that was losing us money hand over fist, year after year.” He feels small, subsidised presses such as Black Pepper, Giramondo and Brandl&Schlesinger are the natural home for poetry (lower overheads can make it more feasible for them to publish books with small print runs). Given the rise of small presses and online poetry, Sessions says the obsession with poets being published by big publishers “is kind of irrelevant now”.

Sessions reveals Penguin is looking at producing a new anthology of local poetry “to show that modern poetry is alive and well in Australia”. Yet when asked about a release date and editor, he is vague. (Penguin’s previous anthology of Australian poetry was published 16 years ago.)

Clearly, some big publishers are still interested in verse novels. Dorothy Porter and young adult novelist Steven Herrick recently published such novels with Picador and Allen & Unwin respectively. A spokeswoman for Picador says Porter’s new verse novel, El Dorado, about a serial killer, “is doing fantastically” selling 4000 copies in its first month. The spokeswoman says while Picador doesn’t produce as much poetry as it used to, it has inhouse poets such as Porter and Lily Brett. (In Britain, Picador publishes Clive James and Peter Porter.)

Lea concedes some commercial publishers are still producing poetry, “but generally speaking, I haven’t seen a major act of re-engagement”.

Now in his early 60s, John Tranter is a poet of the printed page and of the cyber age. He believes “digital publishing will help save poetry from extinction. Online publishing is definitely the way of the future for poetry, mainly because it does away with the bugbear of distribution.”

While it is difficult and costly to ship poetry books overseas or get them into bookshops, Tranter’s web journal, Jacket, publishes poets from all over the world. British newspaper The Guardian has called it “the prince of online magazines”, and it has had 500,000 visits since Tranter set it up 10 years ago. Yet for all its prestige, Jacket remains a labour of love, Tranter is unpaid for the work he puts into it.

Last month, Nicholas Manning, an Australian academic working at the University of Strasbourg, helped launch The Continental Review, the web’s first video-only forum for contemporary poetry.

According to Manning, the review is a continuously updated poetry collection of video readings, reviews and interviews, integrated with YouTube. Manning hopes the Review will signal “a new approach in the communication and reception of contemporary poetry and poetics”.

But have our reading habits kept pace with technology? Are readers as seduced by a poem on a computer screen as they are by beautifully presented anthology of poems?

Lea concedes “there is no vetting system on the internet. It embraces the full range. To be published in Jacket would be an accomplishment, while at the democratic sites it’s just a matter of uploading your poem.”

Nevertheless, the mission to preserve our poetic heritage is turning to cyberspace. Tranter and others have secured a $500,000 grant to archive Australian poetry on the net; eventually, it is hoped poets will receive a fee whenever their poetry is downloaded.

Western Australia’s arts department is putting up $60,000 during a three-year period to encourage low-budget poetry publishing, while the Copyright Agency Limited is funding the Australian Poetry Centre, which opened in Melbourne this month.

The centre aims to lift the profile of homegrown poetry. Director Teresa Bell says the key to achieving this is to market poets more effectively. Poets, she says, should be marketed as celebrities, much as some novelists are.

“It is a scandal that we can’t have access to poetry in many of the bookshops of Australia and that it isn’t being supported by many of the larger publishers,” she says.

But she also sees a need for greater unity among our famously fractious poets. New to her job, she has already noticed divisions between Sydney and Melbourne poets, bush and city poets, performance and academic poets. “In order to flourish, there should be room for more diversity,” she says diplomatically.

Wearne retorts “that there were factions in the poetry world for about half an hour 30 years ago”.

Yet Murray claims that when he edited Best Australian Poems, “the great rivals of Australian poetry said. ‘Oh, Murray’s taking over the poetry world. He’s monopolising it.”‘ He accuses his rivals of “calling down the great Australian spirit that is called jealousy”.

In spite of the pulping of The Lovemakers, Wearne is working on another verse novel. He acknowledges poetry “is written by a minority and read by a minority”.

He is quick to add: “That does not mean it shouldn’t be on the shelves as it was years ago.”

Rosemary Neil investigates the findings in Bronwyn Lea’s book chapter, ‘Australian Poetry’ in Making Books: Contemporary Australian Publishing. Ed David Carter and Anne Galligan. St Lucia: UQP,2007: 247–54. This article first appeared in The Weekend Australian 7–8 July 2007, Review: 4–5.

Full text available online.