Once asked what poets can do for Australia, A.D. Hope replied: “They can justify its existence.” Such has been the …
The 1990s heralded a new ethos in Australian book publishing: poetry was no longer presumed to be a prestigious staple …
Some of the names thrown around were Haruki Murakami from Japan – author of Norwegian Wood and, most recently, 1Q84, a novel about a woman who slips into an alternate reality; Margaret Atwood or better yet Alice Munro from Canada; Syrian poet, Adonis; and Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe, best known for his magnum opus, Things Fall Apart, the most widely read novel in Africa. Australia’s best bet to win the Nobel Prize in literature remains Les Murray. Widely acknowledged as one of the best poets writing in English today, his name is perennially linked to three postcolonial poets – all Nobel laureates – Derek Walcott from Saint Lucia, Seamus Heaney from Northern Ireland and the late Joseph Brodsky who hailed from the USSR. Each year America hopes, however unlikely, Bob Dylan might be their winner, but novelist Philip Roth is a more serious contender. In European eyes, contemporary American authors, it must be said, are considered too insular and unworldly to be strong contenders.
At first glance the phrase ‘best-selling poetry book’ looks oxymoronic. Anyone with a vague sense of book publishing is acquainted with the orthodoxy that poetry doesn’t sell: readers don’t want to read it. Commercial publishers have used this pearl to justify curtailing or, more dramatically, cancelling their poetry lists. Booksellers have relied on it as a way of explaining away – to the few who might enquire – their thin and often uninspired poetry stock. And who can blame them? Publishers and booksellers are not in the business of charity. The poetry book, without a benefactor, is fading from popular culture. Or is it?
Review of Australian poetry titles in 2009
The Mary Gilmore Prize is for a first book of poetry. This year there were 39 entries: 33 of them were authored by women. The short list of five, perhaps not surprisingly given the odds, is made up entirely of women: Emily Ballou for The Darwin Poems (UWA 2009), Helen Hagemann for Evangelyne and Other Poems (APC 2009), Sarah Holland-Batt for Aria (UQP 2008), Emma Jones for The Striped World (Faber & Faber 2009), and Joanna Preston for The Summer King (Otago UP 2009). At the time of writing, the winner of the Mary Gilmore Prize has not yet been announced; however, several of these titles have already won national (and, in Jones’s case, international) prizes, in some cases in competition against highly esteemed and established poets.
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.
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.
The Best Australian Poetry 2004 is the second of our projected annual surveys of contemporary Australian poetry published in literary journals and newspapers. Guest Editor Anthony Lawrence has established himself as one of Australia’s premier poets with a passionate and distinctive voice celebrated for its lush undulating movement, kaleidoscopic vision, and musical complexity.
Rosemary Sorensen reviews Flight Animals (UQP, 2001) by Bronwyn Lea. This extract first appeared in The Courier-Mail (16 Feb 2002).