[Noted in my Journal in September, 2012]
Each year (since 2003) Black Inc. has asked Australian poets to submit a selection of their work for this anthology. This year it was my turn to read through the two to three thousand poems that were sent in and choose the best.
I’m not sure that we can trust the word ‘best’ when we’re talking about poetry – there are so many different kinds of poetry, from Homer to rock and roll, and then there are millions of readers with their individual tastes and prejudices – but in any case I chose a little over a hundred of what I felt were the most vigorous, varied and interesting poems for this book.
And any honest anthologist should offer a further disclaimer: though I have tried to be widely representative, of course I have my own blind spots and may have failed to recognise wonderful work; some poets may have missed the deadline for any of a dozen reasons, some may have chosen not to offer poems to an anthology claiming to showcase ‘the best’ (this has happened), some of our best poets may have had no ‘best’ poems this year but may have next year, and so forth. As different editors publish their choices from year to year, any personal bias or imbalances should be cancelled out.
But what a rich, strange and diverse lot these poems turned out to be. Look at this list below, a gathering of some of the brightest images, transformations and unbelievable events that litter this collection. I suspect that these baroque and potent imaginings can only have come into existence as fragments of dreams or nightmares:
Bent hot-dogs talk to strangers. Still, the oak trees flower above us, a canopy of lust; an academic scholar talks about whoring his mind, a poetry editor apologises for not accepting a sentimental poem about a lost ant, a well-known fiction writer snoozes on the sofa, an empty brandy bottle in her lap, Boofhead’s Egyptian style of ambulation and a vast mural of Fred and Wilma are discussed, mothers wonder how tiger snakes got into the linen cupboards, an unknown baby skeleton, a word in Arabic that means a tree that befriends doomed travellers, the irony of green rain, the devil on holiday in Tasmania, Picasso’s one red eye, Ezra Pound’s brilliant rottenness, the Master of Stomachs, a skyscraper as a babel of crockery, dawn as the clock-face of the heavens, the feedback loop of amazing grace and dead birds, phantoms on the home stretch, a woman who’s doing the accounts with one hand and killing a snake with another while she gets an armful of wood, Rupert Bunny’s women waiting for a take-away pizza, two shopping bags full of stuffed bears etc, a shop where dresses were hanging like marked-down lungs, an apoplectic monkey and a monkey who practises sermons too green to transcribe, gods crawling through trumpets to get here, a miracle on Blue Mouse Street (in Dublin, of course), a wolf sack filled with of courses, perhapses, and maybe, the boots of Nazis misunderstanding stairs, God smoking a pipe, love like police presence, History with its morphine headache, a new neighbour swathed in her pet python, a man who looks forward to looking back on this moment, a mincing lion and an indignant unicorn and a dragon wind, a convention of lapidarists, a gluey saraband, murder at the poetry conference, a man with echidna gloves, a love that is an inscrutable monster, tickets to the monster trucks, a beer-drinking pig, a holidaying tycoon who has popped an artery on a sodden golf course, human beings as the tennis-balls of the stars, the memorable vanilla windows of Miss Moore, a Jungian bus trip and an absinthe sea.
The American poet John Ashbery is one of the most widely read and intelligent people in the world of writing. He has thought deeply about what it means to create poems, and in an address to the Poetry Society of America in 1995, he said:
Every poet who reads his or her poetry before an audience is accustomed to the question and answer period that follows, which often ends with the question, ‘Are there any questions that haven’t been asked that you feel you would like to answer?’ The underlying thrust of all these questions is something like: ‘Please explain your poetry to me.’ Now it may be true that composers and painters and cineastes are also asked to explain their work, but if so their task is lightened somewhat by the fact that there is something there to explain. With a poem there is nothing, or there should be nothing if the poet has done his job successfully, and that is because the act of writing the poem was an explanation of something that had occurred to the poet, and demanded to be put into words which in turn formed a poem. To explain an explanation is a much more difficult, and in the end perhaps a hopeless task because it’s doomed to redundancy. Yet I’m fully aware that I’ll have to go on making repeated stabs at it for as long as I’ll be asked to speak in public, and that this impossible feat is also a necessary one if only because people expect it, and it is normal and proper to give people what they expect.
As he suggests, there’s not much point in trying to explain how poems work or what they ‘mean’. But as with public talks, so with anthologies of poetry: readers expect an Introduction that will explain each of the poems, or if not that, then explain why they should bother reading all this stuff, which means ‘Please explain why poetry matters.’ If you’re reading this page, you have the anthology in your hands, so you already have some suspicion as to why poetry might matter — matter to you, at any rate. So thank you.
But what kind of meaning do I think poems have? After all, I’ve written more than a thousand of them over the last half-century: I should have some idea.
Well, to be frank, I don’t really know, but I have made some guesses, and I should like to share them with you.
Let’s go back a while. A book I wrote twenty years ago — The Floor of Heaven (1992) — consisted of four long narrative poems, and was based partly on a story device employed in Luis Buñuel’s funny and clever movie The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), which features a sequence of dreams one within the other. It occurred to me many years ago that the meaning of a poem is like the meaning of a dream: intense, important, difficult to unravel and full of the energies of the unconscious mind.
And – though I have generally avoided the Juggernaut of Academia – I recently weakened (I needed the money) and completed a Doctor of Creative Arts degree at the University of Wollongong. Writing the doctoral thesis allowed me to explore this idea further. I won’t drag you through all the details — the exegesis part of my thesis (where I reveal everything) is thirty thousand words long — but in brief, building on the work I did for my 1971 BA degree in Psychology, I followed Freud and Lacan through their various mirror-mazes and theories about dreams. Movies came next, and there the trail led from Slavoj Žižek to Alfred Hitchcock and back to Buñuel. In 1953, nearly twenty years before he made The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, he said:
Film is a magnificent and dangerous weapon if it is wielded by a free mind. It is the finest instrument we know for expressing the world of dreams, of feeling, of instinct. The mechanism that creates cinematographic images is, by its very function, the form of human expression most closely resembling the work of the mind during sleep. Film seems to be an involuntary imitation of dream … the darkness that gradually invades the auditorium is the equivalent of closing our eyes. It is the moment when the nightly incursion into the unconscious begins on the screen and deep inside man.
I know no better way of exploring the movies I like — Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, for example, or Hitchcock’s own favourite among his many movies, Shadow of a Doubt — than to read them as expensive, complicated, multi-authored, beautiful and sometimes terrifying dreams.
And what better way to interpret the oeuvre of Australia’s most interesting poet, the non-existent Ern Malley? His every poem is a melange of incomprehensible images wrenched into an unwilling cohabitation, a process that liberated the vengeful unconscious fantasies of the collaborator hoaxers, the young poets James McAuley and Harold Stewart. The fecundity of those violent nightmares is still producing poems, plays, movies and paintings based on Ern Malley’s invented life and writings, half a century or more after Ern’s death, mainly by creative artists who weren’t even born in his lifetime. In fact just as I was writing this Introduction a major new academic study of the Ern Malley affair landed on my desk.
To speak more calmly about the creative urge, Henry James’s enigmatic story ‘The Figure in the Carpet’ (1896) comes to mind. In his well-known tale, James tells how a young critic seeks to unravel the secret theme or key that the famous (fictional) author Hugh Vereker says lies at the centre of everything he has written. It’s visible, Vereker says, but hard to discern, like a subtle pattern woven into a carpet. Alas, after many plot twists and turns, no secret is found. The Bulgarian-French critic Tzvetan Todorov comes to an enlightened conclusion about this quest in his 1977 book The Poetics of Prose (translated by Richard Howard):
If Henry James’s secret, the figure in the carpet of his work, the string which unites the pearls of the separate tales, is precisely the existence of a secret, how does it come about that we can now name the secret, render absence present? Am I not thereby betraying the fundamental Jamesian precept which consists in this affirmation of absence, this impossibility of designating truth by its name? But criticism too (including mine) has always obeyed the same law: it is the search for truth, not its revelation, a treasure hunt rather than the treasure itself, for the treasure can only be absent. Once this ‘reading of James’ is over, we must then begin reading James, set out upon a quest for the meaning of his oeuvre, though we know that this meaning is nothing other than the quest itself.
As John Ashbery suggested in 1995, there’s not much point in trying to explain poems or to search for the meaning of a work of literature. But if it’s true that poems are really dreams in disguise, neither is there any stable frame of reference from which to view and judge a parade of dreams. The dreamer is the last person to ask, which is why people who have baffling dreams often go to psychiatrists to ask the meaning of what they are going through. Sometimes the psychiatrist, with her or his independent viewpoint and long experience in such matters, hits the nail on the head; sometimes not. That’s the role I seem to be stuck with, and as you can see I have been making the most of the opportunity without getting very far. Of course if you don’t agree with my line of thinking, you can always ask for a second opinion.
Meanwhile, enjoy these fragments of dream-work, as Freud called it. And when you wake up tomorrow, if you’re lucky, you’ll have some dream-work of your own to think about.
Keen readers may buy their copy of The Best Australian Poetry,
if it is still in print, from the website of the publishers, Black Inc.
Later in 2011 I answered some questions put to me by Black Inc to make up an Interview about the process of compiling the book. Here it is.
Interview paragraph 1
What was the selection process like for The Best Australians Poems?
The editors at Black Inc. sent me the poems in large envelopes, about two envelopes a week, over a period of a couple of months, until I had about three thousand poems to read. I checked off all the poems and all the authors and kept in touch with the editors so we didn’t lose any. And I read them all.
I’ve done this kind of thing before. When I was poetry editor of The Bulletin from 1990 to 1993 I read everything that was sent in, regardless of who wrote it, and asked poets I knew to send in poems too. And I went through back issues of the magazine looking for excellent poems. That way I discovered many real gems.
And when I was asked to be one of the judges for one of the many sections (long poems, short poems, and so on) of the 1988 Bicentennial Poetry Prize we all read everything that was sent in. When that was all over I suggested to the ABC that they produce an anthology of all the best poems, and they agreed. That meant I had to read everything over again, in all the different sections: some six thousand poems in all. The anthology was titled The Tin Wash Dish (ABC Enterprises, 1989), and it had over a hundred wonderful poems in it, from famous poets and from people who had never written a poem before. I remember one I liked about a little lost calf in the bush.
And I have edited a fifty-page selection of Australian poems for The Atlanta Review and a similar selection for New American Writing (both in the USA). And five anthologies of Australian poetry since 1970 totalling about a thousand printed pages. And forty issues of Jacket magazine, a free Internet-only literary magazine I began in 1997 and gave to the University of Pennsylvania in 2010. You can find out about all this stuff (and more, much more) on my homepage at johntranter.com
What do you look for in a poem?
First, it has to be a good poem. What that means exactly is hard to say, and my judgments here are more or less intuitive and experiential, based on a lifetime of reading many tens of thousands of poems (in English and a dozen other languages translated, and from ancient Greece to Rome to China to Elizabethan England and up to contemporary America), and thinking about why some worked and some didn’t. That first selection process is not difficult, and anyone who is properly trained can do it. I noted when judging the medium-length poems for the Bicentennial Competition in 1988 that the whole group of judges I was with, about half a dozen of us, quickly agreed on which poems we should think about further, and which poems we need not think about further. It’s a workshop skill, and it’s always surprising how firmly everyone agrees on the first sorting: roughly ten per cent good, and ninety per cent no good. It’s the next few steps that cause arguments, when you are comparing fifty good poems in order to get down to two or three of the very best. That can become quite miserable, because you know how much talent and hard work has gone into each poem. And sometimes there just isn’t room to include all the poems you know are good. Some have to go.
When Philip Mead and I compiled the work of 86 poets for the Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry in the early 1990s, I was quite aware that (according to Thorpe’s Australian Writers) some six hundred Australians considered themselves as poets. Over five hundred of them had to be left out of the Penguin book, otherwise each poet would get two and a half lines, and the collection would be impossible to read. I always regret having to say no.
And talking about the basic qualities I hope to find, I look for literary skill, a sense of wit or humour (if appropriate), a sense of deftness in the use of English, arresting and fresh imagery, a strong point of view, something special to say, a clear sense of the cultural space poetry occupies, a sense of tradition, an awareness of the need to challenge tradition.
But every poetry anthologist would say things like that. In a basic way it is a matter of personal taste, but it’s to do with selecting and editing and balancing, not creating or writing: an anthology is not like a collection of poems you might write. Each poem I write is quirky and essentially me, but an anthology cannot be me, it has to be made up of a hundred or so other people. That’s what is so refreshing about compiling an anthology: I could never have imagined the poems that make it up. Each poem is a surprise.
What are some of your favourite or noteworthy poems in this year’s collection?
Well, there are lots, and each reader will find their own favourites, poems that answer some special need for the reader. I liked them all, or I wouldn’t have put them in. So I can’t tell you which ones are the good poems: they’re all good, in different ways. But here are a few of the poems that clicked for me: Jude Aquilina’s ‘An Apology’, which is a very funny poem rejection letter, ‘Portrait of Edith Murtone, fiction writer,’ a quirky and revealing story about a popular novelist with lots of problems including a fondness for the bottle, by Peter Bakowski; ‘The Sublime’ by Kevin Brophy which takes a surreal but touching look at an old couple; ‘Motherlogue’ by Michael Farrell, a bizarre drug-soaked monologue by a heroic mother-figure amid the wreckage of suburban Sydney; ‘Send in the Clowns,’ by Evan Jones, a dry and civilised tribute to the late Peter Porter; ‘Heroes of Australia,’ a terrifyingly funny poem about unspeakable hangovers by Michael Sharkey… but I could go on and on.
And of course there were many very good to excellent poems I had to leave out, which is always the downside of doing this kind of work: I’d love to be able to publish at least half the entries, but there is only room for a tenth of that. Then again, there will be another anthology next year, and another the year after that…
In your opinion, what makes a great poem?
Look, it’s hard enough justifying the title ‘Best Australian Poems’, without going into more dangerous territory! What’s ‘best’? As I mention in my Introduction, ‘I’m not sure that we can trust the word ‘best’ when we’re talking about poetry — there are so many different kinds of poetry, from Homer to rock and roll, and then there are millions of readers with their individual tastes and prejudices.’ The word ‘great’ is even more open to disagreement. From ‘Wow, that pizza was great!’ to ‘Shakespeare is a truly great writer’ you have a gulf of galactic dimensions. Let’s say you have a scale for poems, from ‘awful’ to ‘okay’ to ‘pretty good’ to ‘excellent’ to ‘blindingly powerful’… well, ‘great’ lies well beyond ‘blindingly powerful’ with the additional difficulty that you have to wait a hundred years to see if it really applies. I mean, in Alexander Pope’s time, Colly Cibber was the Poet Laureate, and was thus the most renowned poet in the land. A hundred years later it was clear that he was a laughable fraud, and now, over two hundred years later, there’s not a single book of his in print. So I guess ‘great’ is ‘very successful’ plus a hundred years.
What do you hope people take away with them after reading this collection?
A sense of happy excitement. And a desire to read more wonderful poetry. There’s an awful lot of drivel out there, and the difference between a really good and memorable collection of poems and a bag of flab is the quality of the editorial process; the editor. That’s what made Jacket magazine so widely read, at close to a million visits. There was a lot of rubbish on the Internet, and Jacket at least was edited by someone who had trained properly, who had spent a lifetime at it, and who took the job seriously.
Any advice for aspiring poets?
I am often asked that, usually by people starting out to be a writers, asking me to read their manuscripts and tell them (a) how good the manuscript is and (b) offering a course of reading and writing that will turn them into successful published writers. Since what I say is usually the same, here it is.
It’s a good idea to read widely. Unless you read other contemporary poets’ work, you will have no idea what is going on out there, and you are likely to repeat someone else’s great idea, or write stuff that is immature and out of date. Also read the great dead: they were bright young things just like you when they wrote their best work. If you can manage it, do a good English degree (not Creative Writing: English) for several years: it forces you to read a lot. Apart from a few plays of Shakespeare, you should know the best work of a few of the main poets of Rome, the English Renaissance, the Romantics, a few of the French Symbolists including Rimbaud, and twenty or so poets in English (or American) from 1920 to 1970. Seek to understand why Coleridge was such a brilliant success. Seek to understand why Coleridge was such a tragic failure. (Hint: Richard Holmes has written a wonderful two-part biography of Coleridge.) Seek to understand why Wordsworth was such an inspired and radical young poet (did Communard politics have anything to do with it?). Seek to understand why Wordsworth was such a terrible old bore (did success and old age have something to do with it?).
Write a lot, and – more important – rewrite a lot. When you’ve written a good poem, put it away for a week or two and then rewrite it. Seek feedback from others and pay attention to it, and publish widely and persistently in a few different poetry magazines for a few years. That’s what I did, for ten years, before I published my first book, and I now wish I had waited a few years longer. It takes about ten years to turn out a skilled concert pianist or an interesting music composer.
Now and then I get inquires from people who say “I’ve got this manuscript of poems, how do I get a book produced?” I usually ask “Have you appeared in many poetry magazines?”. Usually they say “Oh no, I don’t want to appear in magazines, I just want to bring a book out.” This misunderstands the publishing and book-buying process.
No publisher can afford to bring out a book by a writer who is unknown. Publishers know that it’s hard enough to get a bookshop to stock a poetry title by a well-known writer; at least the bookshop owner knows that a few of his customers may have heard of the well-known writer and may buy a few copies of the book. For an unknown writer, there’s no point even asking the bookshop to stock the book.
Of course if you have a book ready, you can self-publish it without too much expense and try to find buyers for the book yourself. Or try Kindle or some other e-book publisher on the Internet. There’s nothing wrong with doing that.
But you learn a lot from publishing in magazines. On the one hand it helps you to find a readership, but also you can learn a lot from a poem when you see it in print in a magazine. Before it’s published it belongs to you, you know what it’s doing and how it works. But when you see it in print, in a different context, suddenly you see all the things that are wrong with it, and you will be amazed to find out how little of what you thought you put in the poem actually gets across to a reader. Then you can think about what to do better next time.
It’s useful to join a poetry discussion group, or a blog, or to take some classes in writing poetry. Your local Writers Centre will have a list of these. Academic Creative Writing classes can be useful, but many of them don’t teach you to read widely, which is what you need to do first.
When you feel your work is reasonably good, and you can handle a few rejections, send two or three poems to each of a few different magazines, making sure you enclose a stamped self-addressed envelope if the magazines ask for that. These days, with email, that’s often unnecessary, but it’s worth checking. Read some copies of the magazines first (try a large public library or a university library or a Writers’ Centre library) to get some idea if they might be interested in the kind of poem you write. It’s a waste of their time and of your time and money to send inappropriate poems to the wrong kind of magazine.
Keep a log of which poems you’ve sent to which magazine. When they come back, send them on to the next magazine on your list. If they look ‘used’ or grubby, make fresh copies. Keep doing this until all your poems have been sent out, then write some more and start again.
It’s probably a good idea to do some kind of training that will enable you to get a reasonable job, one that will ensure you mix with other people (don’t be a loner!) and that gives you a reasonable income without eating up all your energy. Fit your writing around that.
Poetry won’t provide a living for you, and it won’t make you famous. Remember the T-shirt motto from the twentieth century: ‘Life’s a bitch: first you grow old, then you die.’ Writing poetry won’t change any of that. Learn to accept with good humour having your life’s work more or less ignored. That’s what dentists have to accept, and most dentists are more important to more people than most poets.
And as a poet of whatever calibre, you will have the privilege and the fun of writing many poems that give pleasure to yourself and to others, and of becoming familiar with some great and rewarding writing by other poets. Enjoy.