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 2005

One matter worth celebrating is the fact that the editor of this third anthology is one of the most distinguished poets writing in English. Peter Porter was born in Toowoomba, settled early in England, and over the last thirty years or so has renewed poetic contact with Australia to the point where he edited an important anthology of Australian poetry, The Oxford Book of Modern Australian Verse, in 1996.

Guest Editor: Peter PorterGuest editor: Peter Porter
Series editors: Bronwyn Lea and Martin Duwell

One of the tasks of these series editors’ Forewords is to map (or, at least, to sketch) what has happened in Australian poetry in the year under review in the anthology. In previous anthologies this seems to have involved us in lamenting the deaths of major poets and so there is a certain relief in discovering that this year has been one of few births and deaths. True, we have to mourn the closing of the journal Salt-lick: New Poetry – entirely devoted to poetry and thus responsible for publishing large numbers of poems, and good poems at that. And we note also the closing of Duffy&Snellgrove, which since 1996 has published books of poems by a number of Australia’s finest poets, including three poets found in this year’s anthology: Les Murray, Peter Goldsworthy and Stephen Edgar. Both these closures are indeed unfortunate, but we remain hopeful that new ventures will arise in their place. Sometimes it is good not to live in ‘interesting times.’

One matter worth celebrating is the fact that the editor of this third anthology is one of the most distinguished poets writing in English. Peter Porter was born in Toowoomba, settled early in England, and over the last thirty years or so has renewed poetic contact with Australia to the point where he edited an important anthology of Australian poetry, The Oxford Book of Modern Australian Verse, in 1996. And he has been a regular revisitor ever since. He has also had a lot to do with the writing careers of a number of younger poets. He has proved to be a sympathetic mentor to these poets and has been a generous supporter of many others while at the same time keeping an eye on what is happening in poetry in Australia. So the perspective he provides in this anthology is animated not only by his own stature as a poet but by a genuine interest in the literary life of the country of his birth.

His most recent book, Afterburner, published by Picador in 2004 is the sixteenth in a book publishing career which began in 1961 with Once Bitten, Twice Bitten. As a poet, Porter has a reputation for metaphysical daring, an immersion in European culture, and an almost morbid fascination with death and dissolution. This reputation is not entirely undeserved but it is worth noting that he is also one of the wittiest poets ever to have written in English. Some of these interests are inevitably carried over into the selection he has made for this anthology. Many of the poems here derive from contemporary Australian poetry’s renewed engagement with intellectual speculation.

Another feature of this selection, perhaps not out of keeping with this, is the number of long poems. The works of J.S. Harry, John Jenkins, John Kinsella and Fay Zwicky are all different kinds of long poem and exploit its different potentials. One is a surreal journey into a kind of Lewis Carroll-like environment in which philosophical positions can be looked at from an actualised perspective. The second is an imaginary meeting between a gangster and a great poet in a setting so associated with the poet that it seems like an externalisation of his mind (Stevens was, of course, obsessed by the relationship between the mind and reality and also with the nature of fictions). And the other two are more personal narratives distinguished by the fact that the former moves outward towards social documentation and the latter moves inward to register the effect of the alien on the young traveller. Then there are poems such as those by Chris Wallace-Crabbe and Geoffrey Lehmann which are extended works made up of individual units often providing different perspectives.

So it is good to see the long poem make a comeback of sorts. Generally Australia’s poetic tradition has avoided both minimalism and really extended poems although the verse narrative did re-emerge in the 1980s in the work of John Scott, Alan Wearne, Les Murray and Dorothy Porter. Rereading John Tranter’s important anthology of 1979, The New Australian Poetry, it is always a surprise to see how many long poems it contains: the twenty-two pages devoted to the work of Martin Johnston, for example, comprises two poems: ‘The Blood Aquarium’ and ‘Microclimatology’ and the whole of Robert Adamson’s ‘The Rumour’ is included. Not only are there a high percentage of extended works but now, in retrospect, they seem to form the backbone of the collection.

Introducing the collection in this way, with an emphasis on its editor’s preference for speculation over lyric celebration might be something of a misrepresentation. Many of the poems in this selection demonstrate a profound interest in the human sphere and it reminds us that Porter, in a recent lecture (republished in the Australian Book Review, 266), has emphasised this contribution from the ‘huge Commissariat of Poetry’:

We tend to think of poetry as descriptive, pastoral, lyrical or rhetorical – above all as lapidary, concerned with its own means, with language at unconsciousness’s most intrinsic borders. But it would get nowhere without its human subjects, the material of social life, material closer to home than trees, cataracts or sublimities of Nature.