A gift adrift: what the loss of RN’s Poetica means to poets

Australia’s long-running literary flagship program – Poetica on Radio National (RN) – is slated for axing in 2015. It’s one more casualty of the cuts to the ABC budget, announced last week.

For the first time since 1946, ABC Radio will be without a dedicated poetry program.

Barry Hill, a poet and radio critic for The Age from 1978 to 1990, placed the blame not with the Government but squarely on the broadcaster’s shoulders: “Shamelessly,” he wrote in The Age, “the Australian Broadcasting Corporation beheaded poetry”.

Hill points beyond the budget to what he sees as the “mega culprits”. These include the ABC’s “managerial corporate ethos” and its “insipid grasp of what might be called a critical culture”.

Even if true, it hasn’t always been the case.

Poetry has had a safe home on radio since the ABC’s inception on July 1 1932 – as Mike Ladd details in his 75th anniversary of ABC Radio – when the bells of Sydney’s General Post Office first were broadcast to the nation.

Prime Minister Joseph Lyons issued the station with a charter to “provide information and entertainment, culture and gaiety” while serving “all sections and to satisfy the diversified tastes of the public”.

Early on, as Ladd recounts, poetry appeared on ABC radio in the form of (usually Shakespearean) dramas. Douglas Stewart was the first Australian author to have his verse dramas broadcast – beginning with The Fire on the Snow in 1941 and Ned Kelly in 1942 – followed by Colin Thiele, Rosemary Dobson and others.

In 1946 John Thompson – poet, editor and moreover the father of actor Jack Thompson – founded Australia’s first weekly program dedicated to poetry. Quality Street ran for an impressive 27 years before being replaced by Sunday Night Radio 2 in 1973.

Founded by Richard Connelly, Julie Anne Ford, and Rodney Wetherell, Sunday Night Radio 2 ran regular, full-length features on poetry, as did its 1981 successor, Radio Helicon, whose executive producer was at one time the poet John Tranter.

Another long-running program, The Poet’s Tongue, appeared in 1957 and ran until 1986. In the early days the producers drew on actors, Judy Davis among them, to perform the poems. Soon the program employed the more contemporary idea of featuring the poets themselves to read and discuss their work.

In 1986 the Poet’s Tongue was replaced by Richard Buckham’s The Poetry Feature, a 30-minute segment slotted into the Sunday Fictions, which ran until 1994. After a brief poetry-free stint following the axing of Sunday Fictions, a program called Box Seat ran for a couple of years before morphing into Poetica in 1997.

Airing every Saturday afternoon since 1997, Poetica has produced more than 900 programs, 60% of which have featured Australian poets. At its peak it reached 90,000 listeners per week. According to some sources it currently attracts as many as 60,000 listeners per week, with more on the internet.

Produced by Mike Ladd, Poetica draws on live readings, studio-based poetry features and on-location recordings. It is admired in the English-speaking world for the way it presents poetry, embedded in rich soundscapes, carefully crafted to enhance comprehension and heighten the listener’s experience of the poem.

Not only has Poetica brought poetry to a broad audience, it has also amassed a free online archive from which past programs can be downloaded by researchers and the general public. And not to be overstated, it has provided much-needed exposure for poetry publishers and a source of income for poets in the form of copyright fees.

A freelance radio producer, Prithvi Varatharajan, described the axing of Poetica to me as “a huge loss to Australian audiences”. He elaborates:

George Orwell, in his essay Poetry and the Microphone, spoke about the ‘possibilities of the radio as a means of popularising poetry’. Poetica was doing just this in Australia, and the overwhelming majority of online feedback shows just how appreciative audiences have been of the program. We can only hope that there is some room for poetry on the ABC in the future, after Poetica is gone.

It has been suggested that RN will replace Poetica – along with its axed cousins, Bush Telegraph, Into the Music, Hindsight and 360 Documentaries – with a multi-purpose, weekday feature-slot that will run commissioned 28-minute radio documentaries from freelance producers.

Certainly a new program offers consolation, but in its contraction of scope and expertise the successor looks to be far from commensurate with the cultural gift that was Poetica.The Conversation

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This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Lest we forget: binyon’s ode of remembrance

First published in The Conversation

On an autumn day in 1914 Laurence Binyon sat on a cliff in North Cornwall, somewhere between Pentire Point and the Rump. It was less than seven weeks after the outbreak of war, but British casualties were mounting. Long lists of the dead and wounded were appearing in British newspapers. With the British Expeditionary Force in retreat from Mons, promises of a speedy end to war were fading fast. Against this backdrop Binyon, then Assistant Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, sat to compose a poem that Rudyard Kipling would one day praise as “the most beautiful expression of sorrow in the English language”.

laurence_binyonOn an autumn day in 1914 Laurence Binyon sat on a cliff in North Cornwall, somewhere between Pentire Point and the Rump. It was less than seven weeks after the outbreak of war, but British casualties were mounting. Long lists of the dead and wounded were appearing in British newspapers. With the British Expeditionary Force in retreat from Mons, promises of a speedy end to war were fading.

Against this backdrop Binyon, then Assistant Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, sat to compose a poem that Rudyard Kipling would one day praise as “the most beautiful expression of sorrow in the English language”.

For the Fallen”, as Binyon called his poem, was published in The Times on 21 September 1914. “The poem grew in stature as the war progressed”, Binyon’s biographer John Hatcher observed, “accommodating itself to the scale of the nation’s grief”.

Nearly a century on, Binyon’s poem endures as a dignified and solemn expression of loss. The fourth stanza – lifted to prominence as “The Ode of Remembrance” – is engraved on cenotaphs, war memorials and headstones in war cemeteries throughout the English-speaking world. Recited at Remembrance services in Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the poem serves as a secular prayer:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn;
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them.

These lines, situated at the heart of the poem, lay out an argument for consolation in which the dead are immortalised in the memory of the living.

Binyon died on 10 March 1943, and his ashes were scattered on the grounds of St Mary’s Church in Aldworth. His name is commemorated on a stone plaque in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey, alongside 15 fellow poets of the Great War. Wilfred Owen – who died in action at age 25, exactly one week before the signing of the Armistice – provided the inscription: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.”

the handwritten “ode”

BINYON, LAURENCE (1869-1943) AUTOGRAPH MANUSCRIPT OF THE IMMORTAL FOURTH STANZA OF HIS POEM 'FOR THE FALLEN',Earlier this month, “an autograph manuscript of the immortal fourth stanza”, signed by Laurence Binyon, came up for auction at Bonhams. The manuscript is a mere four lines, written in Binyon’s hand, on a single octavo page of ruled notepaper. The header contains a YMCA symbol and the imprimatur of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). Small letters at the foot instruct: “To economise paper, please write on the other side, if required”.

Binyon did not date the manuscript, but he likely penned it before the war ended in 1918. The BEF notepaper adds a particular poignancy, as the poem was written to honour British soldiers who died on the Western Front – many of whom Binyon, as a volunteer medic, would have served alongside.

controversies

Every year, after ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs in Australia receives scores of letters about “The Ode”. The issue of greatest concern, according to the DVA, is whether the last word of the second line should be “contemn” – meaning to despise or treat with disregard – or “condemn”. Both words fit the context.

Despite all official versions of the poem using “condemn”, some people have suggested this usage is a typographical error.The British Society of Authors, executors of the Binyon estate, is adamant that “condemn” is correct. Likewise the DVA assures: “Binyon was very precise in his use of words. There is no doubt that had he intended ‘contemn’, then it would have been used.”

The condemn/contemn issue is considered a distinctly Australian phenomenon (oddly, the Academy of American Poets uses “contemn” in its publication of “For the Fallen”). Perhaps now, with confirmation coming from Binyon’s own hand, the issue may be put to rest.

But that’s not the only anomaly. In the Bonhams manuscript, Binyon has used an alternative construction of the famous second line. Instead of “weary” he uses “wither”, which echoes Enobarbus’s compliment to Cleopatra – “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety” – in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal”, so TS Eliot posited in The Sacred Wood. “For the Fallen” might be uneven in quality, but in turning his theft “into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn”, Binyon proves himself to be a great poet.

the sale

Bonhams expected Binyon’s manuscript to fetch around £5,000, but the poem once again exceeded expectations when an unnamed buyer parted with £10,000 (AU$15,000) for the honour of holding history in his or her hands.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

The wrap: poetry in the news (w/e 25 apr 2013)

In Los Angeles, a Harvard poet wondered ”Is this too loud, is this too soft, am I going on too long?” while Sharon Olds put the ideal of her husband to rest and won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Anne Carson published a poem composed using a random integer generator in the London Review of Books, and James Franco released a poem on the occasion of his 35th birthday. Bollywood heartthrob Farhan Akhtar penned a poem after hearing a five-year-old girl in Delhi had been raped and tortured by her neighbour. Dresden Dolls singer Amanda Palmer penned “the worst poem of all time“ in her musings on the younger Boston Marathon bomber. Historians noted 397 and 189 years have passed since Shakespeare and Byron, respectively, died of fevers.

newspaper-icon-thumb10559428In Los Angeles, a Harvard poet wondered “Is this too loud, is this too soft, am I going on too long?” while Sharon Olds put the ideal of her husband to rest and won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Anne Carson published a poem composed using a random integer generator in the London Review of Books, and James Franco released a poem on the occasion of his 35th birthday. Bollywood heartthrob Farhan Akhtar penned a poem after hearing a five-year-old girl in Delhi had been raped and tortured by her neighbour. Dresden Dolls singer Amanda Palmer penned “the worst poem of all time” in her musings on the younger Boston Marathon bomber. Historians noted 397 and 189 years have passed since Shakespeare and Byron, respectively, died of fevers. The only known poem by Winston Churchill, “Our Modern Watchwords“, failed to sell at an auction at Bonhams. The priest who found Malta’s earliest poem died at age 97, and Irish rare-book collector Rick Gekoski prayed that the poem James Joyce wrote as a little boy – “Et Tu, Healy” will never be found.

Simon armitage: walking home backwards

Review of Walking Home by Simon Armitage

Wordsworth – poet–walker par excellence – had the best legs in the business. As his friend Thomas de Quincy noted: ‘Undoubtedly they had been serviceable legs beyond the average standard of requisition. For I calculate, upon good data, that with these identical legs Wordsworth must have traversed a distance of 185,000 English miles.’ In contrast, Simon Armitage’s legs, by his own admission, generally ‘do very little other than dangle under a desk’ or propel him from the multi-storey car park to the railway ticket office. ‘Even if I’m writing about the Sahara or the Antarctic,’ he confesses, ‘I’m usually doing it in a chair, in a room, behind double glazing.’

Simon-Armitage-297x300Wordsworth – poet–walker par excellence – had the best legs in the business. As his friend Thomas de Quincy noted: ‘Undoubtedly they had been serviceable legs beyond the average standard of requisition. For I calculate, upon good data, that with these identical legs Wordsworth must have traversed a distance of 185,000 English miles.’ In contrast, Simon Armitage’s legs, by his own admission, generally ‘do very little other than dangle under a desk’ or propel him from the multi-storey car park to the railway ticket office. ‘Even if I’m writing about the Sahara or the Antarctic,’ he confesses, ‘I’m usually doing it in a chair, in a room, behind double glazing.’

In 1994 Armitage swapped social work for poetry and quickly became the most recognisable face in Britain’s so-called New Generation poets. Since then he has written fifteen collections of poetry, eleven radio documentaries and verse dramas, two novels, and several non-fiction titles. He has also edited five poetry anthologies – including a new selection of Ted Hughes’s poems – and published new translations of The Odyssey, Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, and The Death of King Arthur. But by 2011 the stodginess of routine had set in; the sediment was building up. So Armitage decided to take a walk.

The Pennine Way, measuring 256 miles (410 kilometres, or roughly the distance from Coff’s Harbour to Brisbane) of adversarial terrain, is generally considered the most demanding long-distance walk in Britain. The route begins in the peat moorlands of Kinder Scout, Bleaklow, and Black Hill, stretches along England’s unbroken spine of bleak hill country, across Hadrian’s Wall and traversing half the Cheviot ridge before terminating in the Scottish border village of Kirk Yetholm.

At least that is the way it is supposed to go. But Armitage – sporting a bad back and the ‘small lungs’ he inherited from his mother – sets out from Scotland to walk the Pennine Way south toward his hometown of Marsden in West Yorkshire. Instead of the weather at his back, Armitage walks headlong into a wind so powerful he has to lift his knees high and cycle into it. Crossing Haughton Common, the wind is so adamant in its opposition that ‘any progress is progress upstream, against the flood, into the rapids, with boulders and logs of hard air’ piling into him and knocking him sideways. It is the medicine he has been looking for:

And I think: this is why I came, to stumble into the unexpected, to feel the world in its raw state. I open my mouth to shout MORE, but the force of air just rams the word back into my mouth and down my throat.

Walking the Pennine Way backwards not only allows Armitage to air his poetic bent for perversity, but also launches the titular metaphor that makes this narrative a homecoming. Armitage was born in 1963 in the West Yorkshire village of Marsden, nestled not far from the trailhead. It is the pull of home – the promise of returning to his wife and daughter – that keeps him walking when his loneliness bites and his sense of humour fails.

Armitage trudges through England’s most literary landscapes – passing by Wordsworth’s Aira Force (‘what a sight it is to look on such a cataract’) and sleeping in Hughes’s childhood home in Mytholmroyd – but Walking Home is not a literary pilgrimage. Homage, if any is to be paid, is to Odysseus and his legendary yearning for home.

In the course of ten years, Odysseus outwits the Cyclops, is spellbound by the Sirens, sees his crew turned into pigs, is kept as a love-slave, and slays his wife’s suitors before reuniting with Penelope in the marital bed. Armitage’s conquests are not quite so formidable, nor as eldritch. He keeps careful inventory of his wounds: five horsefly bites, a bloody thumb, soreness in big toe of right foot when bent backwards, windburn, chapped lips, and wounded pride. Happily, he is spared blisters.
For reasons best described as masochistic, Armitage elected to finance his journey by giving nightly poetry readings at pubs and in private homes along the way. His Sisyphean efforts netted him nearly £2000 for his trouble and provided endless opportunities for poetry gags: ‘In the presence of the spoken word,’ he observes, ‘the scrape of knife against plate or the opening of a packet of salted peanuts are nuclear explosions.’

It is not giving anything away to say that the journey is not entirely successful. Neither is the book. It is – to use an Armitage word – a little bit ‘boring’, partly because each leg of the journey follows the same formula: a walk, a quirky fan, a beer, an awkward poetry reading, the scrutiny of his takings (not always cash); and partly because the narrator is often damp, chilly, shaken up, and in a bit of a sulk.

‘In many ways,’ Armitage says, ‘the Pennine Way is a pointless exercise, leading from nowhere in particular to nowhere in particular, via no particular route and for no particular reason.’ Asked if he would walk the Pennine Way again, his routine answer is no. ‘But if I did,’ he relents, ‘I’d rely more on my feet and less on my tongue.’

He would also take someone brave and intrepid with him: ‘Someone not daunted by mist or intimidated by dark clouds, to guide me across the Cheviots, to hold my hand over Cross Fell, and to part the black curtain which hangs over Kinder Scout and lead me through.’

This article was originally published under the title ‘A Pack of Salted Peanuts’ in Australian Book Review 348 (Feb 2013): 56-57.

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The poetry bestseller

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?

Khalil GibranAt 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?

Certainly if one looks at the life of a contemporary book of poems it would appear so. Poetry publishing in Australia (and indeed in most Western countries) has been relegated in the main to boutique presses and self-publishing outfits that run on the good will and thankless efforts of poetry enthusiasts. Outfits that stay afloat often do not have sufficient access to resources, distribution and marketing to have their books noticed by readers. Their books are inadequately reviewed or not reviewed at all. Those that do find a buyer do so mostly at poetry readings to fellow poets – thereby flying under the radar of Neilsen BookScan which makes official sales look even worse. Under these conditions the thus-far unchallenged maxim that ‘poetry doesn’t sell’ becomes self-fulfilling prophesy.

But all this bellyaching conceals an interesting fact: some poetry books actually do sell. Some sell very well indeed. Some poetry books are even bestsellers.

It’s widely agreed that Australia’s best bet for a second Nobel Laureate in Literature is not a novelist but, astonishing to some, a poet: Les Murray. Murray’s books, critically acclaimed at home and overseas, have garnered a plethora of prestigious awards, including Britain’s coveted TS Eliot Poetry Prize. His publicity frequently affirms him as one of the best poets writing in English today, and Murray is regularly grouped with a trinity of recent Laureate poets: Ireland’s Seamus Heaney, Russian–American Joseph Brodsky, and the Caribbean’s Derek Walcott. With domestic sales buoyed by his international sales (in English and in translation), Murray’s reputation as a poetry heavy–hitter translates into healthy book sales by the standards of contemporary poetry. Nevertheless, and relevant to this conversation, even Murray has been left on several occasions in his career without a publisher due to the aforementioned vagaries of the sector. But more on Murray later.

Poetry readership in Australia looks comparatively good when figures are adjusted for population. As Murray has pointed out, poetry in Australia enjoys a much larger readership in proportion to population than in most Western countries. Whereas a typical US poetry title runs to about 1500 copies, a poetry title by a reasonably well-known poet in Australia (at about one-fifteenth of the US population) runs to about half the US number.

But not all Australian poets enjoying relatively healthy sales have a profile to match Murray’s. In fact some lesser–known poets might sell even more copies of their books. Poets lucky enough to have their books set on high school English curricula can often compete with sales figures of fiction authors. One poet in this enviable position, Peter Skrzynecki, whose book Immigrant Chronicle has remained in print for 30 years. Another favourite on the HSC curricula, Bruce Dawe, is – at least according to his Sometimes Gladness book jacket – Australia’s bestselling living poet. While sales figures have yet to be verified in a full-scale study, it is fair to say that Dawe and Skrzynecki, and a handful of others, have bypassed the imperative of the marketplace and been turned into poetry bestsellers by the education sector.

But it is still difficult to find these books in bookshops. And it is difficult to mount the case that these books, their success aside, have entered the realm of popular culture. So which poetry books, if any, have?

To answer this question, it is necessary to cast one’s vision temporarily beyond the realm of Australian poets and, further, beyond the realm of the living. Immediately Shakespeare struts upon the stage. And in fact Shakespeare, we are told, is the best-selling poet in English of all time. The author of – at least as we are able to count his works today – 38 plays, 154 sonnets, two long narrative poems and a handful of others, Shakespeare has been generating sales in a proliferation of editions for the past 400 years.

But what about poetry sales not mounted over time, but poetry titles that sell well in a given year? Well, things get interesting.

Figures out of the United Sates – a significant market for literature in English – do not rank Shakespeare as number one on their bestseller list for poetry. The best-selling poet in America today is not only dead but he – let gender be no surprise – also did not write in English. He’s not an American. Some might even say he is un-American.

The prize for best-selling poet in America goes to a poet in translation: Jalal al-Din Molavi Rumi. A Sufi poet known to Iranians as Mawlana. Or, to Westerners, simply as Rumi.

Rumi was born in Balkh, which is now in Afghanistan, in 1207 on the shores of the Persian Empire, but he lived most of his life in the town of Konya, in what is now Turkey. Rumi’s major work is a six-volume poem, Masnavi-ye Manavi (Spiritual Couplets), regarded by some Sufis as the Persian-language Qur’an. The general theme of Rumi’s thought, like that of other mystic and Sufi poets of Persian literature, is essentially the concept of tawhid – union with his beloved – and his longing and desire to restore it. He writes:

There’s a strange frenzy in my head,
of birds flying,
each particle circulating on its own.
Is the one I love everywhere?

Rumi sought god everywhere and in everybody. He encouraged others to experience the ecstatic union: “It doesn’t matter that you’ve broken your vow / a thousand times. Still come, / and yet again, come”.

Rumi’s voice still resonates. It touches, if we are to judge by sales, the contemporary reader with the same fervour as it did 700 ago. It touches celebrities too: Madonna set his poems to music on Deepak Chopra’s 1998 CD, A Gift of Love. Donna Karan has used recitations of his poetry as a background to her fashion shows; Philip Glass has written an opera – Monsters of Grace – around his poems; and Oliver Stone apparently wants to make a film of his life.

American poet Coleman Barks, perhaps more than anyone, is responsible for bringing Rumi’s poetry to the English-speaking masses. Barks is not a scholar – and he doesn’t speak a word of Persian. But this didn’t stop his book, The Essential Rumi (HarperCollins 1995), from being the most successful poetry book published in the West in recent years. Coleman has come out with a new book of Rumi translations every September for the past decade.

Even the 9/11 attacks didn’t subdue the public’s interest in mystical Islamic verse: Coleman’s The Soul of Rumi, released days after the Trade Centre bombings, went on to become a bestseller. Barks himself seems surprised by sales of his Rumi translations. In the preface to his 2003 book, Rumi: The Book of Love, he confesses:

I have sold too many books. I once calculated that Rumi books sell at least a hundred a day right through weekends and holidays, while my own writing goes at about twelve copies a month, worldwide. In other words, Rumi’s work sells at about 365,000 copies a year; Barks sells 144. Those numbers keep me humble.

Rumi is popular not only in America but also in Australia. Nevertheless his book sales – Barks’s translations as well as other scholarly editions – fall short of granting him primacy. Neilsen BookScan, which records book sales in Australia since 2002, reveals two poets neck and neck: the Greek poet Homer (which is not his name, scholars tell us, but the name he goes by), author of The Odyssey and The Iliad; and twentieth-century Lebanese poet, Khalil Gibran, whose book The Prophet made him a household name.

Homer’s epic poems – second in antiquity only to (what-is-now) Iraq’s Gilgamesh – are about war, gods and mortality. Although a steady favourite on education lists, Homer enjoyed a surge of popularity when The Iliad was morphed in a 2004 film called Troy starring Brad Pitt.

But Gibran, who writes on ‘spiritual’ themes, is never studied in institutions. And yet he is considered the third-best selling poet in history after Shakespeare and sixth-century BC Chinese poet, Lao Tzu. In Australia – adding his book sales across all edition of The Prophet – Gibran is the clear favourite.

Born in 1883 in Bsharii in modern-day northern Lebanon, Gibran died of liver failure at the age of 48 in New York. The Prophet, his first book, was published in 1923, and incredibly it sold over 1000 copies in three months. Its fame spread by word of mouth. By 1931 it had been translated into 20 languages. By the 60s it was a favourite with American youth culture. It’s been popular ever since.

The fictional set up for The Prophet parallels the legendary story of Lao Tzu’s writing of the Lao Tzu’s writing of the Tao Te Ching (on his way to Tibet he is stopped by a border guard and made to record his teachings before leaving). In Gibran’s book, however, the prophet Almustafa has lived for 12 years in the foreign city of Orphalese and is heading home when a group of people stop him and he offers to share his wisdom on an array of issues pertaining to life and the human condition: love, marriage, children, giving, eating and drinking, work, joy and sorrow, houses, crime and punishment, reason and passion, self-knowledge, beauty, death and so on. The chapter on marriage is perhaps the best known, as it’s a regular in wedding ceremonies. A testament to love (and an argument against codependence), it concludes:

Give your hearts but not into each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.

Gibran might be one of the best-selling poets in Australia over the past five years, but what is the best-selling individual poetry title during this time?

The prize goes to Desiderata: A Survival Guide for Life (Random House 2002) which houses the inspirational prose poem, ‘Desiderata’, offering instruction for attaining happiness in life. The title in Latin for ‘desired things’ or ‘things that are yearned for’, but in the context of the poem ‘essential things’ is a more accurate translation. It opens with the following advice:

Go placidly amid the noise and the haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others,
even to the dull and the ignorant, they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.

The poem ends with the directive: ‘Strive to be happy’.

As with the ubiquitous ‘Footprints in the Sand’ poem, whose authorship and copyright holding remains hotly contested (no fewer than four authors claim to have written it), questions of authorship have beset ‘Desiderata’. The poem was first copyrighted in 1927 by Max Ehrmann, a lawyer from Indianna, inspired by an urge that he described in his diary: ‘I should like, if I could, to leave a humble gift – a bit of chaste prose that had caught up some noble moods’.

But in the 1960s ‘Desiderata’ was widely circulated without attribution to Ehrmann. In face, a myth arose that the poem was written in 1692 by an unknown author. The slip came about when Reverend Frederick Kates reproduced the Desiderata poem for his congregation in 1959 on church letterhead which read: The Old St Paul’s Church, Baltimore, AD 1692. It was only a matter of time before a publisher interpreted this notation as meaning that the poem itself was found in Old St Paul’s Church, and that it had been written in 1692, and therefore took the poem to be in the public domain.

It was an unhappy error. Worse, law suits ensued. One court case held that the poem was forfeited to the public domain because Ehrmann had freely distributed it on Christmas cards to soldiers during WWII. But other cases have ruled that Crescendo Publishing Company – who bought the poem for an undisclosed amount in 1975 from Ehrmann’s heirs – holds copyright. It seems that the course cannot agree on the issue. There is no doubt, however, that the mistake in authorship added to the charm and historic appeal of the poem (despite the fact that the actual language in the poem suggests a more modern origin). It gives ‘Desiderata’ the aura of exoticism it might otherwise lack as a contemporary poem in English by an unheard of author.

So why are these particular poets popular with the reading public? It is surely not a matter of quality. Of the three poets discussed at length – Rumi, Gibran and Ehrmann – only Rumi is regarded as an important poet.

In his book, The History of Iran: Empires of the Mind, Michael Axworthy argues that the public’s choice of poet depends not so much on the merits or true nature of the poets or their poetry, but more on their capacity to be interpreted in accordance with passing Western literary and cultural fashions:

So [Persian poet] Hafez was interpreted to fit with the mood of Romanticism, Omar Khyyam with the Aesthetic movement, and it has been Rumi’s misfortune to be befriended by numb-brained New Agery.

It is true we live in an age where where spirituality-lite is a hot commodity in the marketplace. Rumi himself is not ‘lite’ – he was a devoted Muslim and a respected theologian – but Barks’s bestselling translations have bowdlerised almost every reference to Islam from his poems. Barks’s translations are Rumi-lite.

But the popularity of these poets might have something to do with their ‘spiritual themes’ more generally. Throughout history, the human relationship with the divine has often been described in verse.  Indeed, much of the literature of antiquity, when not merely factual or legislative, is poetic and sapiential:  the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Indian Vedas, the Old Testament, and the Qu’ran among others.

While much mystical poetry has been written in earlier epochs, a good number of contemporary poets continue the tradition. Murray – who has dedicated his poetry books since the 1980s to ‘the glory of god’ – upholds the need for belief:

Most people would agree, perhaps after some dispute about terminology, that something like a religious dimension exists in every human being. Some might want to call it a dimension of wonder, of quest, of value, of ultimate significance or the like. Some have denied its reality altogether, but I think the weight of human experience and…of perceived human behaviours is against them.

Although he describes himself as a poet who is religious (not a religious poet), Murray’s poems are increasingly infused with this dimension of religion, of wonder, regardless of denomination. In fart he has expressed a desire ‘to celebrate something, without giving it away. It may be a paradox, but I dream of someday reading, or writing, a richly secretive work’.

Poetry in the mystic tradition tends to be centred on paradox (an idea related to the word oxymoron that opened this essay). Empedocles (BC 495–435) writes: ‘God is a circle whose centre is everywhere, and its circumference nowhere’; Meister Eckhardt (1260–1327) writes: ‘The more God is in all things, the more He is outside them’. And Murray: ‘The more I act, the stiller I become; the less I’m lit, the more spellbound my crowd’.

As Western culture has become increasingly secularised and a widespread suspicion of organised religion pervades, it seems many readers have turned to the mystical poem as a vehicle for contemplation, meditation, and to negotiate their relationship with what we might call divinity. In fact, the strong times between poetry and mysticism, or religion more broadly, has led to the argument that poetry can be a substitute for religion in secular culture.

American poet Denise Levertov takes this idea a step further: ‘the poet – when writing – is a priest; the poem is a temple; epiphanies and communion take place within it’. And indeed, on of the few unquestioned roles of the poem is its priestly function at baptisms, weddings, and funerals. Certainly this function is on bright display in the poems of Rumi, Gibran, and Ehrman and their sales can be taken as endorsement for its need. But thinking about bestselling poetry, there’s one more quality worth mentioning.

Laughter. In terms of sales for an individual poetry title, the second ranked poetry title in Australia is Michael Leunig’s Poems (Viking 2004). Which goes to show that while Australian readers like thinking about god, they have retained a sense of humour.

The Conversation

An abbreviated version of this article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Powers we pretend to understand: funder’s all that I am

Review of All that I Am by Anna Funder

“When Hitler came to power I was in the bath.” The sentence shocks with its indulgence – the bather’s husband is in the kitchen crushing limes for mojitos – as it conjures the vulnerability of naked flesh against the army of jackboots that are about to descend upon Europe. It also happens to be the first sentence of Anna Funder’s debut novel, All That I Am, which has had a busy time of late garnering literary awards and accolades. In addition to winning the Indie Book of the Year award, the Australian Book Industry Book of the Year, and the $35,000 Barbara Jefferis Award, it has been shortlisted for the $80,000 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards for fiction.

ImageGen.ashx“When Hitler came to power I was in the bath.” The sentence shocks with its indulgence – the bather’s husband is in the kitchen crushing limes for mojitos – as it conjures the vulnerability of naked flesh against the army of jackboots that are about to descend upon Europe.

It also happens to be the first sentence of Anna Funder’s debut novel, All That I Am, which has had a busy time of late garnering literary awards and accolades. In addition to winning the Indie Book of the Year award, the Australian Book Industry Book of the Year, and the $35,000 Barbara Jefferis Award, it has been shortlisted for the $80,000 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards for fiction.

All of which has fuelled speculation that All That I Am is a front-runner for this year’s Miles Franklin Award, which will be announced on Wednesday night in Brisbane.

Funder’s novel follows her impressive non-fiction title, Stasiland: Stories Behind the Berlin War, which presented first-hand accounts of life in the former German Democratic Republic. Whereas in Stasiland, Funder focused on post-war Germany, in All That I Am she has turned her attention to the decade preceding the war when Europe resolved – as left-wing German playwright Ernst Toller put it – “to hurl herself into the abyss of suicide”.

The narrative centres on a coterie of German dissidents – cousins, Ruth Becker and Dora Fabian, and their respective lovers, Hans Wesemann and Ernst Toller – whose political agitating against Hitler and his Third Reich necessitated their hasty departure from Germany and their subsequent resettlement in London as refugees.

The persecution the exiles suffer unfortunately doesn’t stop at the Channel, and their story builds to a harrowing – and tragic – denouement.

Funder came to the story through her friendship with Ruth Blatt, the novel’s dedicatee whose extraordinary life inspired the character of Ruth Becker.

Ruth – the sole survivor of the group – spent five years in solitary confinement in a German prison before securing her passage to Australia (via Shanghai) in 1947. She lived the next fifty years of her life alone in a flat in Bondi Junction. Funder has said:

In conversation, Ruth would move from criticising Hitler to criticising our own government at the time, in a way that made it clear that when you are living through something, there are some people who can see things for what they are (whether that’s dire, or just moderately unpalatable), and will always speak out. It is this kind of courage that fascinated me, along with the moral compass that underlies it.

All That I Am is a novel that questions the ubiquity of the human conscience, yet it insists on its cultivation. We ignore our conscience – or allow its distortion – at our peril. History shows that the consequences can be mighty.

As WH Auden (who makes a cameo appearance in Funder’s novel) writes in his poem, “In Memory of Ernst Toller”: 

We are lived by powers we pretend to understand:
They arrange our lives; it is they who direct us at the end
The enemy bullet, the sickness, or even our own hand.

It’s true All That I Am is a dark novel, but as history and a warning there aren’t many more important.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

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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.

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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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.

Foreword: The Best Australian Poetry 2006

It should cause no surprise that Judith Beveridge, the editor of the fourth collection in our Best Australian Poetry series, has produced such a satisfying and stimulating selection. Those two adjectives accurately summarise the effect of her own work which has grown steadily in public esteem to the point where she can now be seen as one of Australia’s leading poets.

Guest Editor: Judith BeveridgeGuest editor: Judith Beveridge 
Series editors: Bronwyn Lea and Martin Duwell

It should cause no surprise that Judith Beveridge, the editor of the fourth collection in our Best Australian Poetry series, has produced such a satisfying and stimulating selection. Those two adjectives accurately summarise the effect of her own work which has grown steadily in public esteem to the point where she can now be seen as one of Australia’s leading poets. She has searched, as she tells us in her introduction, for poems in which the poets have won a battle with language rather than simply exploited comfortable idioms or, as she puts it, have ‘sat back on their comfortable haunches and written from facility or clannish pride’.

As a result this anthology has a high percentage of poems which are at first reading puzzling but which are attractive enough to lure the reader into the kind of deeper engagement that rewards us with rich responses. And as a result of this there is a high percentage of memorable poems here. Sometimes our initial puzzlement derives from an uncertainty as to what the poem is doing, how it is approaching its subject. The first and last poems of the book are examples of this. Robert Adamson’s ‘A Visitation’, describes with deceptive simplicity how, after a forty-year hiatus, the poet once again sees a yellow-footed rock wallaby: this time, one which has survived a Sydney bush fire. And we are not sure whether we are reading about an image that represents those humans who have been damaged by the intensity of exposure to the gods – what Patrick White, borrowing from Greek culture, called ‘The Burnt Ones’ – or whether we are seeing what is, for the poet, a bearer of revelation, a reminder to someone who has left childhood far behind, of  the overwhelming wildness of the natural world. And ‘I giorni della merla’, (the days of the blackbird) by Simon West – the poem with which Beveridge’s selection concludes – is also about visitations.

Here January’s blackbirds promise some kind of revelation but withhold themselves. Those who with tired stares ‘await the wasn’t of a century’ – a beautiful phrase – know the bird only as a shape in their minds.

This is also an anthology of mysterious narratives; a genre that emerges every so often in Beveridge’s own work. They can be surreal/symbolic stories like Peter Rose’s ‘Beach Burial’, Alex Skovron’s ‘Sorcery’, Kathleen Stewart’s ‘How I Got Away’ or Barbara Temperton’s ‘The Lighthouse Keeper’s Wife’ (a very Beveridgean poem). Equally they can be fairly straightforward narrations of what would be, to most of us, a surreal reality: Philip Salom’s ‘Sections from the Man with a Shattered World’ describes the psychic fate of an actual Russian soldier who lost the left side of his brain, and Lesley Walter’s ‘Hyphenated Lives’ tells the true and remarkable story of a pair of Siamese twins who produced a total of twenty-one children. All in all, Beveridge has done what we want our guest editors to do: to produce a selection which reflects its editor’s tastes and obsessions (this book is full of moons and horses) and yet have a coherent position on the question of what good poems in Australia should do. The result is one of the liveliest gatherings of Australian poetry we have read.

On a less happy note, last year was marked by extensive depredations by the Angel of Death among Australian poets. Tasmanian writers Barney Roberts, Jenny Boult and Margaret Scott all passed away. Margaret Scott’s work has been celebrated recently in an excellent article by Ruth Blair, ‘Finding Home: The Poetry of Margaret Scott’ (Australian Literary Studies 22.2), which shows how Scott’s migrant experience (she moved to Australia from England in 1959) forms a subtle framework that can be seen to encompass all her thematic material: in particular, the idea of home, which in all its guises is a recurrent focus in her poems. Scott published five books of poetry including a Collected Poems in 2000 (Montpelier).

Two Melbournian poets, Philip Martin and Shelton Lea, also passed away. The former after a long and debilitating illness; the latter after a long and lively life. Philip Martin’s Voice Unaccompanied, though a late first book, has many virtues and is one of those books which looks better as time goes on. Shelton Lea is still remembered in Queensland for a tempestuous visit in 1974. It produced a book in the Makar Press, Gargoyle Poets series called Chockablock with Dawn and one of the editors still has a chapbook of his in which Lea inscribed ‘Thanks for the American Dollar Kid’ in remembrance of overseas currency used to buy it (he hadn’t the courage to refuse). But Michael Sharkey in his memoir in Overland, No 180 speaks of their long relationship and writes so eloquently that it is impossible not to believe his account of Shelton Lea as someone who had the least sense of imposition, the surest sense that people would see a charitable act required doing and would do it. I think he had the least malicious intentions of anyone I’ve met. His self-deprecation was boundless, his awareness that he was putting on an act so surely judged (‘How was I, brudder?’; ‘Could you believe that?’) that it was impossible to begrudge him anything.

A final victim was the Canberra poet, Michael Thwaites who, between the ages of thirty-five and fifty-six worked for Australia’s security intelligence organization (ASIO). He went on to publish five collections of poetry but is best known for the story in which ASIO’s director-general, Charles Spry, recruited him saying, ‘You write poetry, I know. Much of the job will just be hard methodical work but imagination is also needed. I believe you could make a valuable contribution’, thereby establishing the possibility of a new kind of social relevance for poetry in Australia.