johntranter.com [»»] Homepage     johntranter.com [»»] Links page: Links to poems, photos, prose     O F F S I T E : [»»] My Journal at johntranter.net

    [»»] Index to reviews written by John Tranter

Notes on some recent Australian Poetry, 1974

John Tranter reviews

recent [1974] poetry publication in Australia, and reviews six chapbooks from Gargoyle Poets, published by Makar magazine in Queensland:
    Graham Rowlands, Stares and Statues
    Alan Wearne, Public Relations
    Richard Packer, The Powerhouse
    Peter Annand, The Long-Distance Poets’ Entry into Heaven
    Antigone Kefala, The Alien
    Rae Desmond Jones, Orpheus With a Tuba;
and reviews nine poetry magazines: Canberra Poetry, The Saturday Club Book of Poetry, Fitzrot, Mere Anarchy, Parachute Poems, Makar, Contempa, etymspheres, and The Ear in a Wheatfield.

This piece is 8,000 words or about 23 printed pages long.
It was originally published in New Poetry volume 22 number 1, 1974.

Paragraph 1

The last six or seven years [1968–74] has seen the growth of the most varied and useful program of publishing in the history of Australian poetry. After the brief flourish of little magazines and presses around 1967 and 1968, a second and stronger wave of books, booklets, magazines and anthologies has washed over the bookshops leaving a tang of freshness in the air and a crop of young talents budding on the beachhead. It has never before been so easy for a young poet to be published, and the production quality and market success of most of the new ventures marks a type of assurance and confidence hitherto rare in the land of the cultural cringe.

2

With the present Federal Government subsidy for small presses and magazines as well as for the larger publishers we are likely to see a further polarisation of the publishing scene. The heavies such as Angus & Robertson (or the tattered rump thereof), Penguin, Oxford, John Wiley and Macmillans (owners of Sun Books) will maintain their trend toward anthologies and big name collections, material which can be exploited safely and profitably through the education market. The growing number of smaller presses are better designed, through low overheads and a general flexibility of attitude, to concentrate on small volumes, inexpensive production and untried talent. This is the area which has shown most growth since 1967, and which, intentionally or otherwise, is laying the foundation for the next generation of ‘Aust. Lit’.


                 

3

The three most successful small presses (to date) are the University of Queensland Press Paperback Poets series, Prism Poets from the Poetry Society of Australia, and Gargoyle Poets from the English Department of the University of Queensland. Between them over the last few years they have published twenty-seven young poets in a format which is relatively inexpensive, well-designed and competently produced, and in print-runs of between 300 and 1,000. Other small presses in Sydney and Melbourne are producing volumes intermittently, providing a valuable arena and testing-ground for those writers, young or otherwise, who by necessity or choice are not on the big publishers’ lists.

4

Many of these poets would not have found a voice at all, or would not have found anyone to listen, had it not been for the rash of little magazines which they helped to create in the late sixties. With only a typewriter, a dozen stencils and a borrowed or bought roneo machine [rotary silk-screen printer, e.g. Gestetner brand], a magazine could be produced in issues of one or two hundred copies for as little as fifty dollars, and the comparative luxury of photo-lithographic reproduction was not much more expensive for someone with cheap access to a machine such as the Multilith 1250 litho press commonly used for printing office circulars.

5

By 1970 we had seen the birth (and often the mercifully quick extinction) of magazines such as CAt, Crosscurrents, Dark Areas, Fields, the dubious Free Grass, Free Poetry, The Great Auk, Gruntled, Mok, Our Glass, Poetry and Prose Broadsheet, Rapunzel, Transit, and Your Friendly Fascist. When the establishment Poetry Magazine couped itself to death and was resurrected as the more modernist New Poetry, a large number of poets found an opportunity to emerge from the underground into a clearer light of recognition and subsequent book publication. The little magazines still live on, however, and in many cases perform an extremely valuable function. The Ear in a Wheatfield and etymspheres (both from Melbourne) are ‘home-made’ roneo productions, but exercise a strong analytical approach and a sense of experiment not often found in the more successfully established magazines, and both provide a welcome international flavour. Some other publications are Contempa, Fitzrot, Leatherjacket, Makar, Mere Anarchy, News and Weather (swallowed at birth by Living Daylights), Parachute Poems and The Saturday Club Book of Poetry.

6

As with New Poetry’s series of Prism Poets and Makar magazine’s Gargoyle Poets, some of these magazines have associated book presses, either roneo or litho, and appear as ‘underground’ in comparison to New Poetry as does the latter compared to the right-wing orthodoxy of Quadrant. Below the Plimsoll line of establishmentarianism, however, there is an easy interchange of ideas and poems, growing perhaps from the realisation over the last five years that anyone under fifty might as well be trusted, and that most of those over fifty have accepted the fact that a freer kind of poetry is here to stay.

7

One of the most surprising aspects of the ‘poetry renaissance’ is the almost overnight emergence of Brisbane as an important node in the cultural energy field. Sydney and Melbourne had always been able to define their differences easily in terms of a simple dichotomy: where Sydney was sophisticated, pluralist, amoral and akin in spirit to America’s West Coast, Melbourne was inclined to parochialism, concerned with a single set of ‘right values’ for both art and society, highly moral (examples are the reasons for the birth of the DLP and the quasi-Leavisite criticism from Melbourne University), and linked more to London and Europe than to the USA. These are gross simplifications, of course, and a far more complex treatment of these antagonisms can be found in John Docker’s book Australian Cultural Elites, to be published later this year. These characteristics appear sometimes in a contradictory way in poetry.

8

Sydney has two well-established poetry magazines, Poetry Australia and New Poetry. They feature many writers in common, and both publish a wide range of verse, from concrete and ‘underground’ poetry to the work of such ‘establishment’ figures as Charles Tomlinson, James McAuley, Chris Wallace-Crabbe and W. Hart-Smith. Melbourne seems to suffer from (or delight in) a split of sensibility: one is either ‘underground’, enthusiastic, and associated with the energetic little roneod magazines, or one is academic, wry, formal and respectable. There is no well-established magazine for poetry; rather there are numerous youthful broadsides on the one hand and a few academic journals which feature poetry incidentally on the other. In Sydney one is likely to find an older ‘established’ poet such as Bruce Beaver sitting happily in the company of the hairy freaks in the pages of Free Poetry or Leatherjacket; such a juxtaposition would be either uncomfortable or grotesque, one imagines, in the Southern capital, where a single-minded judging approach is often found in young and old alike.

9

The recent emergence of Brisbane as a cultural focus confuses this neat picture, and the full implications will take a long time to settle into a clear pattern. Two attitudes of the Brisbane ‘school’ are fairly well defined, however. In the publications from the University of Queensland, Paperback Poets and Gargoyle Poets, there is a predominance of writers who live or have lived in Brisbane, naturally enough; but there is also a solid proportion of writers from Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, and the poetry ranges from the stiffly formal exercises of David Lake to the ‘drug’ poems of Michael Dransfield. We find, then, an eclecticism that apparently encourages a wide divergence of styles, and in this aspect the Brisbane editorial attitudes align themselves more with the Sydney ‘pluralist’ approach.

10

Yet, just as a given magazine may publish a dozen different poetic accents and still maintain a clear voice of its own, these publications, though showing a broad diversity of talent, give the impression of fitting into an editorial framework of ideas which is fairly coherent. (And by ‘editorial’ I mean not only the application of certain criteria to each manuscript as it becomes part of the series, but also that function of an author where he decides which types of poetry not to try to write.)

11

One of its manifestations is a liking for a type of poetry which illustrates a moral or philosophical point and which uses landscape or human interactions as illustrative steps in an argument leading to a conclusion. A result of this purposive approach is an uneasy attitude to humour and an avoidance of cynicism. Another aspect is a concern with ‘Australian’ poetry as an important tradition, though this is seen more in its negative aspect — the dismissal of current American and European experiments — than in any fervent espousal of localised themes.

12

Within the small compass of the first six of the Gargoyle Poets, most of these characteristics can be clearly seen.

13

The average age of the poets is less than 30, and most of the books are first collections. Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne are represented, and the range of styles is wide: Peter Annand shows traces of the influence of the Academy, Rae Desmond Jones by contrast has been published widely in ‘underground’ magazines; Antigone Kefala strains for a dark Hellenic lyricism that is reminiscent at times of Seferis, while Richard Packer uses strong Elizabethan blank verse lines to create a radio parable of down-to-earth political manipulation, and so on.

14

Yet for all this diversity, the tone seldom strays beyond what was possible for an adventurous poet in Australia fifteen years ago. Kerouac, hypothetically, could then have helped to mold Jones’ rhetoric, while the American cool academics might have influenced Annand’s style; and Seferis and the Elizabethans have been available for even longer. There is little trace of anything more recent, for example the kind of awareness of the New York school that informs John Forbes’ prize-winning ‘4 heads & how to do them’ (New Poetry, October-December, 1972). ‘Trendiness’ is no virtue, of course, and the New York school is no more worthy of emulation than any other bright cluster of fads, yet the point remains that when a group of first books by new, young Australian poets can be seen to fit a framework which is already a generation into the past, the thinking reader must pause to wonder why.

15

Beyond these quibbles, though, the books make good reading. The format of the Gargoyle Poets series is well suited to the publication of first books of poetry. The books are small (averaging about 30 pages), though large enough to give a fair sample of a writer’s work. The presentation is simple and unpretentious (a single fold saddle-stitched with light board cover), though the design is carefully thought out and the production quality is excellent. The result is a cheap, attractive and very useful series. Given that five out of the first six books are first collections, the general standard of writing is uniformly good. There are few dazzling surprises, though few failures.

16

Graham Rowlands’ Stares and Statues is first in the series, and makes a good introduction. The verse is intelligent, colourful and well-made. The poems are generally about people, emotional situations or group ideas, and function mainly as descriptive indicators of carefully realised attitudes.

17

The poems which lack personalised tension work least well. ‘Doughnuts’ says (more or less) that we are all subject to the manufacturing process:

18

Your life...
circles on the same wheels every time.
Your freedom is the freedom of the slide.
Even that is planned.

19

In ‘Prisons’, a party of clerics visiting a limestone cave find it reminiscent of a prison or a cathedral. The ‘Archaeologists’ are condemned to ‘... take the pulse of a vein in marble.’ In ‘Photo’ the rather obvious point is made that though the observer (the voyeur poet-figure?) may separate individuals from each other as a philatelist separates stamps, in the end ‘you have to live locked with people,’ / layered one against the other in paper, / perforated all the time by mice.’ In ‘Lives’ a simplistic contrast is made between the carefully polished world of the writer’s parents and his own ‘mania for volcanoes’ and a more violent reality.

20

These poems fall thoughtlessly into the convention of much mediocre poetry. A description of a scene or an event is given, the poet’s commenting voice is introduced, and the neat moral or philosophical point is made at the end. The triteness of this formula clashes with the importance of the issues involved. This type of poem is about as valuable as a painting-by-numbers kit, and one feels that anyone could do it, given the assumption that it is worth doing. Rowlands does it well, with many a good metaphor and a promising control of language, though an occasional weakening of the grip betrays the lack of personal force in many of the themes:

21

Aborigines pattern wood with irons,
sear weapons by fire
and sell them to tourists.
Sell them cheap.

22

The last quoted line dissipates the statement’s energy. The kind of problem presented by a contradictory society can only be answered with a verbal vote, a gesture which may be more than a token, but which can hardly grow from a privately-felt source of energy.

23

He is at his best in the many poems which deal with man-woman relationships. Most of these are built on portraits of women. ‘Still’ catches the glossy surface of a woman in a green silk dress, and modulates to the philosophical point: ‘I have only caught a face between two covers of an album...’ ‘Prickles’ builds a remembered relationship with blocks of images that interlock to form a contradictory though satisfying pattern. ‘The Need’ is a strong quasi-sonnet roughly in the form of (a) the girl is a nymphomaniac, and (b) she can only get satisfaction from Satan. A heavy story, but the muscley rhetoric manages to keep it under control. It is in the areas where a felt response pushes itself through the poetry that Rowlands succeeds. If he can leave the obvious moral issues of society to be embodied in more suitable forms than verse, his ability with language and his obvious commitment to emotional realities should underwrite his growth.

24

Alan Wearne is a different kind of writer altogether. His Public Relations is as coherent and as personal as Rowlands’ book, but his approach results in a less personal shape for the individual poem. Where Rowlands is content to re-work conventional forms, both in structure and in substance, Wearne seems to be attempting a new poetic with every piece, and this inevitably places unusual demands on the reader.

25

The most salient difficulty is that of a personal brand of obscurity. What are we to make of this?

26

...only hassel
was paying for it; (or yourself, new master which
slashed the back of a hand that snatched
at this dumb and roly-poly niece nineteener, you used
for eighteen months.) Soon I matched
such clowning, when Making it for March was interrupted…

27

Why ‘hassel? Why new master ‘which’ rather than ‘who’? And who owns the ‘you’ in the fourth quoted line? The ‘yourself? The ‘nineteener? The ‘new master? What is ‘Making it for March?’ Is March a surname or a month? Or a command? These difficulties, annoying to even the most kindly-disposed reader, are not ‘explained’ anywhere in the text. This is not the obscurity that grows from the pressure of intense intellectual inquiry, nor is it the offshoot of a surrealist auto-dictation method, nor simply carelessness, nor ‘insult-the-reader’. Wearne has his reasons, but they are not vouchsafed us.

28

My own feeling is that complications of this sort grow from the genuine complexity of the author’s need to create a form which is both true to his experiences and capable of the necessary subtlety to edge through the verse to an area of reader-derived experience beyond. Such an attempt is both unusual and worthy, and if the penalty is an occasional stumble into meaninglessness, the successes of the best poems outweigh it here.

29

And there are excellent poems in this first collection. Where Wearne’s elliptical subtlety fuses to a delicate accuracy the language becomes transparent, and the area behind the poem glows through. A single phrase, odd but careful, can unlock a landscape, as in ‘Forger at Midnight’:

30

Stood next to a window
with some passionless song

flung on the sheets,
a wry chill covering me
for a secret…

... A secret. To sleep from the secret!

31

The unexpected ‘from’, near the end of the poem, flashes back through the verse like a zipper, revealing something like a concealed movie with its own poem-related universe.

32

In ‘A Molester’s Fortune (7am)’, the concerns of the successive images seem two-dimensional, until the last stanza:

33

O anychild, my future — seen, known, fulfilled,
you,
        whoever mine is, have already
arisen now:
soon, small and dark
        over the monkey-bars…

34

The final image is as unrelated to the tenuous moral concerns of the ‘argument’ as a surreal image, yet it completes the poem with a finality that any moral or logical attempt at resolution would find impossible.

35

It is worth noting that although Wearne writes of arguments, deaths, war, marriages, growing up, and so on, he never lapses into moralising or advocacy. It is against the yardstick of his concern with the values that grow out of a careful meditation on experience that the more ‘conventional’ types of poetry should be measured, and their concerns then will often be seen as growing from the easy values we learn to paste on the surface of things. Wearne’s shunning of tautologies is complete, and banality is not even a risk in his verse. The danger he courts is, I think, the real possibility of his complications burying his complexities. Personal references may unlock his own responses, but his readers will want a skeleton key.

36

Richard Packer’s The Powerhouse, the third in the series, is not a collection of poems but a radio play. The idea of breaking up the flow of the series in this way works well: Packer’s play is different enough in form to provide relief, and similar enough in language not to look out of place.

37

There is a difficulty in publishing a radio play in book form, however. A piece created for the peculiar medium of radio will not ‘work’ in cold print in the way it was meant to, in the way that a speedboat moves over water better than a Volkswagen, but has trouble on the tarmac. Yet the book works.

38

Like the epic narrative, the radio play usually has a story to tell, and is usually measured by how well it tells it. The Powerhouse is set in the future, and tells a political tale of how the controllers of a nation’s electric power thwart the politicians’ plan to make atomic war. An effective and psychologically convincing twist towards the end reveals the Powerhouse Director, Tossman, to be flawed by the very compassion that motivated his plan to stop the killing. The Assistant Director Elkerton, a man without personal feelings, takes over, and yet his ruthless efficiency is not without its own ambiguity. The plot is clear, well-outlined, and (granted the allegorical nature of the tale) believable. The characters are boldly sketched at the start, and shaded more finely as the story proceeds. The technical business of radio drama is handled skilfully — labelling characters through dialogue, moving scenes through effects and atmosphere, typifying voice patterns, and so on — and there is enough variety of texture through the play to keep the hypothetical listener attentive. It should work as radio, and that is probably the ultimate judgment of such a work.

39

Yet, as we have been presented with a static printed script, our reactions to it must be different. A radio play is one-dimensional, even in stereo — a single line of sound moves from the beginning to the end, and there is no real opportunity for reflection and comparison. A book presents horizontal lines of language, to be read at the readers’ own pace, without sound effects except in the mind’s ear, and the reader is deprived of the solidity of character that a good actor will provide in the broadcast version. The shape and colour of the printed language, as in a prose story, are all we have.

40

A director of Italian radio has claimed that a script is merely a rough draft blueprint, and that the play is given life in the studios and editing rooms — inside the machine — of the broadcasting network. This is the extreme technician’s view, and fortunately for book publication Packer’s play belongs more to the older BBC school of thought, which says (roughly) that the script is interpreted in the studio by the actors and the producer, much as a stage play is translated from the page to the audience. It aims at literature rather than sound, and is concerned more with poetic values than with the decisions a microphone imposes on a producer. It is, in fact, in blank verse, that weapon forged in Elizabethan England and now rusty with disuse. This is its virtue as poetry, and, I fear, its drawback as radio drama.

41

I have read, and have listened to, about three hundred radio plays over the last year, and have found only one in blank verse, Aaron’s Fallout Shelter. Oddly enough it is also in allegory form, and deals with the threat of atomic war, though from an entirely different angle: it is in the style of a comic up-dating of the medieval morality play. The Powerhouse uses the Elizabethan rhythms to a more potent dramatic purpose, and drives its arguments past facile moralising to a complex psychology of power and responsibility. The problem remains, though, of the disjunction of tone and content. Where do we place our response to such excellent lines as these?

42

Since I’m prime mover in this venture,
I should fairly venture all mistakes.

43

Or these?

44

Now you, Elkerton. To you I give
the mission most like quicksand.
Don’t flounder in it, or you’ll sink.

45

Shakespeare is not an echo here, but a direct model. The reversal of normal syntax in ‘To you I give…’ and the archaisms of ‘fairly venture’ and ‘most like’ stand as signposts to an earlier epoch, when tragedy spoke in ringing measures, not through an amplitude modulated carrier-wave detector. Packer’s flexible talent has worked energetically to make the blank verse succeed as blank verse, and from this point of view the play must be counted a thorough success. But as a poem written to be published and read in the last half of the twentieth century, or as a piece of sound-drama created to be produced and heard through a radio speaker, it must be seen as an excellently-forged archaism with a worthwhile underlying structure of ideas to present. In the final analysis I think we should consider that if Shakespeare were alive today — and the play’s style implies this consideration — he would be writing for the movies.

46

Peter Annand’s The Long-Distance Poets’ Entry into Heaven is reminiscent of Rowlands’ book as far as the surface characteristics of style and general approach are concerned. A poem by either in the other’s book would not look out of place. Each takes a well-made formal rhetoric for granted and sees style as sentiment’s haberdashery, dressing up the poem neatly for the reader’s interview. Poetry is not a method of enquiry in these books, and neither writer is in danger of succumbing to the belief that art is more important than the insights that it illustrates.

47

Yet they are distinguished by a difference as important as that between the Apollonian and the Dionysian views of creation. Rowlands, as I have argued before, is most persuasive when a subject engages his direct emotional responses, and his many good poems are the gestures of an angry self.

48

Annand’s book on the other hand shows the complete absence of the Romantic ego. Not one of the twenty-three poems in his book deals even indirectly with the writer’s soul. They are all portraits, still-lifes, studies, reflections on a theme, or re-told stories. Like Rowlands, Annand at one point comments on the Aboriginals’ loss of history and tradition, but the poem begins ‘Let’s draw no easy moral on the / face of it...’ and proceeds to point out the destruction wrought by strip mining with as little passion as a sociologist discussing the fall of the Hittites. The actors in his drama are impersonal forces — the mine itself (‘the stripped lode strikes at air’), animals, insects, the desert. The poet’s observation is disembodied and calm.

49

He describes an Agricultural Exhibition, a piece of agate, a Norman Lindsay illustration, a wooden carving, a cricket match, a wombat, a fly at an art exhibition. He paints an Australian landscape at dusk, an expressionist night landscape, a pastoral idyll with two female figures. He re-tells the story of a historical disaster, re-interprets Polonius as a failed politician, constructs a hypothetical seal-hunter’s legend.

50

All this is done with wit and economy. From ‘Brittle Before Their Time’:

51

Brittle before their time, curling up at the corners,
the Lindsay koalas
solemnly tending a press
on the Australian Bookman’s covers.

52

His similes are seldom imposed, and fit the tone of his remarks well ‘... on a hot day the asphalt swells like a boil;’ ‘...stars bounce and jerk/ like cubes of glass’ The language is accurate, the decorum of the pieces is never disfigured, and the insights he offers for display are worth the care he has spent in gathering them.

53

In one sense he is well ahead of the discredited Romantic involvement he ignores. A distancing from emotion can allow the poem a proper independence, and Annand’s art-objects have a self-confidence that reflects an unselfconscious authority. In another sense his approach is anachronistic. The still-life, the bright yet faithful portrait, the telling of a story with a built-in moral point — these are the accomplishments of a bygone age, and Annand nowhere attempts to forge the new dialectic that would be needed to wrench his themes from the Victorian and Georgian past that seems to condition their existence.

54

The Alien is Antigone Kefala’s first published book of verse. Her poems have been appearing in magazines for some years now, and the publication of this collection gives the reader an opportunity to evaluate the general drift of her concerns. Read independently, each poem has a strong point to make; viewed as a whole, the impact is cumulative and somewhat obsessive.

55

The writer was born in Rumania of Greek parents, and has lived in Greece, New Zealand and Australia. At the point of publication, then, she is in progressive exile from three countries, and the intense depressive anxiety of the lost soul echoes through every poem she writes. Alienation is the theme of almost every poem:

56

You that had lost the image and the way,
had lost now even the recollection of the way,
and wandered through the broken walls,
in that far country...

           (from ‘Memory (ii)’)

57

‘Home’ is seen in images of glass, clear air, sunlight, flying birds. The oppression of the present breeds loneliness and fear, and the poet constructs a type of re-worked pathetic fallacy in which the sights and sounds of a foreign world echo a locale of despair. Darkness and silence, blindness and speechlessness are the most common metaphors, the darkness shot through with light and the silence broken by harsh sounds:

58

Only your voice that
shrilled in night
born out of an
eternity of fear
was human.

           (from ‘New Born’)

59

Quite late...
the shadow from upstairs would start
to measure with dull, even steps the darkness...
the thing that they had killed
to raise so high,
still had a voice.

          (from ‘The Motel’)

60

I may be crying your name into the
endless desolation of the sky...
...this tight rope that offers no
support against the darkness.

          (from ‘The Acrobat’)

61

and the recorded voice, crying out,
alone and desperate in the night.

          (from ‘Retrospective’)

62

and I covered you with my arms and cried desperately
in the silence, my voice unheard,
cried before the black night descended on us…

          (from ‘Memory (i)’)

63

... the silence
would fill with moonlight...
and in the deep of night the silk tearing
sound of waves would break over the dead sand.

64

Then from downstairs the echo of that foreign laugh
would come, surprised and unsubstantial in the stillness,
forced out of you by those black shadows
no one could exorcise.

          (from ‘Memory (ii)’)

65

this land we search for in each other’s eyes
its surface steaming in the shafts of light
immersed in silence
waves that flow in me till I am filled with terror…

          (from ‘The Alien’)

66

The sense of loss and the clear landscape bathed alternately in light and darkness are reminiscent of Seferis’ ‘Mythical Story’, but where Seferis uses detachment to reinforce the emotional connotations of his tale, Kefala invests such a load of feeling into the verse that the reader becomes numb under the onslaught. Where Richard Packer, for example, develops technical effects that are expensive in terms of a simple credibility, Antigone Kefala’s style bears little trace of complexity or development beyond Romantic lyricism and appears incapable of enough variation, emotionally or intellectually, to draw attention away from the sameness of the themes.

67

Thirteen out of the fourteen poems in the book are set in a landscape of night, darkness or twilight. The first ten lines of the first poem, ‘Holiday in the Country’, contain the words dreams, darkened, shadows, dark, black night and darkness.

68

Yet the scenery is not always painted black. ‘The Lecture’ presents a teacher who is ‘uninvolved, except with the design’, and the poem presents not a straightforward condemnation of desiccated academics, but rather an image that grows out of the book being discussed into a strange realm of its own:

69

Only the child did not fit,
still clinging to his mother’s velvet dress,
in the mysterious twilight of the lamps,
already moved by that thin terror
he would carry through his life
spent in abandoned castles
eating roses.

70

‘Botanical Gardens’ and ‘At the Pictures’ close with carefully placed images of darkness that are the more haunting and effective through being understated. It is the area of implied experience that is most telling, and many of the poems work with a precision of language that is both satisfying and persuasive. It is hard to see how a second book dealing with these themes would be less than too much, but there is a strong promise in this author’s ability to suggest a realm behind the world of appearances. Her strength lies in her willingness to invest belief in a spiritual rather than an emotional or social reality.

71

Rae Desmond Jones is a prolific writer, and has edited and published the underground Your Friendly Fascist for the last four years. Anyone reading his verse scattered through the little magazines is likely to be surprised by his first collection, Orpheus With a Tuba. His individually-published poems may take on some of the deliberately grubby patina of the often anti-establishment broadsides in which they usually appear, but the ones in this book have an attractive polish.

72

His style is deliberately casual — no capital letters, ampersands rather than ‘ands’, a loose attitude to punctuation — and apparently naive. Behind this easy surface, however, there is a disciplined and flexible intelligence at work. In ‘The Apprenticeship’, for example, the reader is drawn into the scene of ‘the band playing / on the gazebo’ and ‘those couples / who languidly / stroll through / the gardens’ as a detached though interested spectator. It is only at the end that one sees that the imperative mood is not addressed outward from the poem: with a deft shift of focus we are now made to see that the poem’s voice is the instructing voice of a spy or policeman: ‘now note his name / and address.’ The poem in lesser hands could well have been merely a diatribe against those who persecute the orphic voice. The restraint with which it is treated here makes its point both more subtle and more effective.

73

‘Telephone Elegy’ treats the theme of a dying relative with the same care. The poem’s subject subordinates the style:

74

... he was

short with grey baggy trousers
the only member of my family
who ever wore a hat

he had small shrewd eyes &
the racing form guide in his
hip pocket…

75

The poet as a growing child, his mother, and his uncle form a three-sided portrait of family affection that shows an honesty of tone.

76

‘The Photograph’ (of a WWI soldier in Paris) plays with these emotions, and veers them in the direction of sentimentality then back to cynicism without losing the undercurrent of uncomplicated respect:

77

i think i
like him & feel a
bit sorry because

whether good or bad
his likeness is
sentimental junk

which should be burnt.

78

Most of Jones’ poems give up much of their meaning at first reading. They avoid stylistic exhibitionism and knowingness, and gamble on their genuineness for their final impact. I think it is this carefully understated humanism that makes the poems worth more than just a cursory reading.

79

A large number of poetry magazines (or magazines which feature poetry prominently) are available now, and it is surprising to realise that by far the majority of them are less than a few years old. Ten years ago the poet’s choice was limited: half a dozen outlets at the most. Today the earnest researcher could find around twenty, most of them flushed with the energy of youth. Where the output of book publishing houses is sometimes erratic and often biased toward a particular ‘school’, magazines by their very nature give a wider view of what’s happening on the poetry stage. A sample of the latest offerings ranges from the near-rabid Fitzrot to the genteel and somewhat confused The Saturday Club Book of Poetry, and the diversity of approach between these extremes would have been unimaginable a generation ago. We have exchanged insularity for a new openness to overseas influences, and are better off for it. There is so much ‘new’ poetry around, in fact, that the more conventional magazines often seem hardly worth reading, though this danger is present to an equal degree in those self-consciously experimental productions that achieve a cheap originality at the expense of monotony.

80

The nadir of modern poetry is reached (and easily reached) by two rather similar magazines, Canberra Poetry and The Saturday Club Book of Poetry. Amateurism is at fault here rather than pretentiousness, and both magazines could easily be mistaken for anthologies of mainly children’s verse. The Saturday Club did start out as a venue for high school students’ poetry, and probably still contains much that is apprentice work. Neither magazine indicates the age of the contributor, a serious fault where the verse is of such wildly uneven quality. A frank admission of youth and inexperience would do much to relieve both the reviewer and the casual reader of the feeling of unkindness that accompanies such harsh judgments as must necessarily be made, especially where the writing is accompanied by a heavy seriousness of attack (even in the supposedly light verse) that is often a feature of amateur work. Fitzrot shares this dreadful intensity of purpose, and it is worth reflecting that professionals of any type rarely need to show their earnestness.

81

The Saturday Club is the better magazine, as it features a stronger leavening of poets in the mash of versifiers: Judith Wright, Ian Mudie, Leon Slade and Graham Rowlands in a 40-page issue (Issue Five). Canberra Poetry (the Spring 1973 issue) is a hefty 75 pages, and boasts Norman Talbot, Rosemary Dobson and David Campbell. The younger poets in Saturday Club are a fairly solid lot: Stefanie Bennett, Joanna [sic] Burns, Rae Desmond Jones, Peter Kocan, Geoff Page and P. A. Pilgrim. Canberra Poetry, perhaps because of its geographical isolation, is burdened by a large clutch of unknowns, and their verse in general offers little hope that they will elevate their status in the near future.

82

Both magazines are useful, of course, and provide a much-needed testing ground and showcase for young writers who would find it too difficult to break into the ‘established’ magazines. Any judgment of this function must be positive, and they should be encouraged to keep up the good work. The inclusion of the occasional willing professional provides both a handy yardstick for the amateur to judge his work against and a selling point for an otherwise unattractive package in the market-place. Charitable works should be encouraged, and there is a place in the mansion of poetry for everybody.

83

The nurturing of young poets is, however, the only useful function that I can see these and other such magazines performing. Where the technical control is so loose, where the themes are so predictable, where the general quality of writing is so low, and most important where the purposes of poetry are taken for granted as being on the same level as Sunday painting, the attitudes promoted can only stunt the future growth of poetry in general and the growing talents in these magazines in particular.

84

Unfortunately the most colourful and energetic of the Melbourne ‘underground’ magazines, Fitzrot, shares exactly the same faults, though it emanates from the working-class and supposedly artistically radical suburb of Fitzroy in contrast to the Sydney north shore gentility of The Saturday Club and the suburban academic naivety of Canberra Poetry. The cover of Fitzrot is bright and adorned with the latest Letraset masthead, and the pages are printed in varying colours. About half of them are upside-down, however, and the slather of different typefaces and pasted-on photo art-work make the reader’s job even more difficult. The editor, Peter Oustabasides, signs himself with the Greek letters pi and omega, and is an intense and energetic young man. His skill as an editor is minimal, though, and he seems to have no idea about the effective potential of the harnessing in print of irreverent attitudes. Technical skill is almost non-existent in this magazine, and whatever worthwhile sentiments the poets have to express is lost in the mass of repetitive and shapeless verbiage. Some hard-edge wit is present:

85

Don’t be fooled
by the skin head
my hair grows
inwards
and comes out my balls.

          (Jas H. Duke)

86

and a poem by A. D. Hope sits uneasily among the forest of clumsy verbal games.

87

The venture must be counted a failure as a poetry magazine, yet I can’t help feeling that it is not as bad as all that. It has a feeling of commitment and excitement that many magazines lack entirely, and its exuberance and sense of humour make it worth reading. For all its faults, every poetry reader should buy at least one issue, if only for the sense of lively difference it represents.

88

Mere Anarchy and Parachute Poems are generically similar to Fitzrot. From Adelaide and Melbourne respectively, they feature a type of poetry that is ‘underground’ only by virtue of its stylistic surface: loose, sloppy, self-consciously modernist, obsessively concerned with problems of the tortured and oppressed soul of the poet. Technical skill is almost entirely absent, and it is depressing to realise that most of the poets in these two magazines seem to regard a concern with effective form as a reactionary attitude. Nearly everything that Bob Dylan wrote was in rhyming verses, yet the message still hasn’t got through.

89

Mere Anarchy (number 2) is slim, neatly typed and roneod, and awkwardly bound in a loose stapled folder that must have caused the publishers as much trouble to put together as it does the average reader  to  take apart. Its  tone  is  knowing, often  humorous, selfconsciously anti-establishment and very light on meaningful content. Parachute Poems (number 3) is bigger, roneod and stapled at the side, often naive, seldom humorous and very, very meaningful.

90

music is love
music is peace
music is beautiful

91

goes a poem from one of the younger contributors, and his elders are seldom more complex or rewarding. Some Japanese-influenced verses by Terry Trueman make pleasant reading, Frank Kellaway has some contrived but workable lyrics, and Rae Desmond Jones has an interesting story to tell of an old flame, but generally the poetry is experimental in the worst sense: experiment for the sake of experimenting (or in the hope of looking way-out), and ignore the disappointing results. The blotchy printing matches the muddled aims of most of the writers.

92

It is hard to see much point in the continued publication of this type of magazine. The more diversity the better, of course, but when ink and paper are being used to reinforce a weak-minded and self-indulgent use of the language as though the results made up a kind of literature worth reading, it’s time that poets in general stopped to think about the large number of good magazines available that are willing to print any worthwhile poem that comes their way. Placed against the background of poetry publication in Australia today, these two magazines in particular and the many others of their general type stand out as the refuge mainly of people who haven’t bothered to find out what better magazines are available, or who have been consistently rejected from a wide number of sources because they are unwilling or unable to improve their talent. There is no longer any such thing as an ‘establishment’: the range of editorial interest among the many good magazines is too broad and eclectic for that to be possible, as it was twenty or even ten years ago. The ‘underground’ then can only perpetuate its beliefs by ignoring the wider and more generous realities outside its closed groups.

93

Makar magazine, a neat and unpretentious product from the English Department of the University of Queensland, is a good example of the ‘new eclecticism’. Five years ago this type of publication would be likely to reflect its origins: academic, concerned more with criticism than with creative writing, careful and subdued. Southerly, from the English Department of the University of Sydney, is still very much like that, and Makar itself was not so long ago a rather lightweight affair. Under the editorship of Martin Duwell, however, it has developed a very impressive design style and an accompanying liveliness of tone. Duwell is also the editor of the associated Gargoyle Poets mentioned earlier, and together the two productions lend a heavy weight of professionalism to the ‘Brisbane school’. Duwell is probably unique in being the only editor of a predominantly poetry-oriented magazine in Australia who is not a poet; he also stands alone in his very obvious skill as a production designer.

94

Makar (issues 1 and 2 from volume 9) achieves a unity of tone from a surprising range of sources. Rae Desmond Jones appears in issue 2 with a poem and a review, his ubiquity confirmed by his having a finger in the academic pie as well as one foot in the underground camp (Parachute Poems) and a firm grip on the middle class (The Saturday Club). Leon Cantrell, with a rather acidic review of two poetry anthologies, and K. L. Goodwin, reviewing Leon Slade and Craig Powell, represent a fairly flexible English Department. Grace Perry, Philip Benham and Nicholas Hasluck are more often seen in the pages of Poetry Australia. Alan Wearne, Stefanie Bennett and Tim Thorne each have excellent poems to offer, and could be thought of as being loosely associated with the editorial direction of New Poetry.

95

An informative interview with Richard Tipping, a short story by Damien White (very much in the Moorhouse-Wilding Sydney mode), a straight situation story by Graeme Curtis, and reviews of poetry, prose and stage-plays all go to make up a very readable couple of issues. I have doubts, though, about the final effect of this type of easy pluralism. For one thing, the magazine lacks the firm sense of direction that, say, Poetry Australia, Quadrant, or even Fitzrot show so clearly. Are they academic? No. Are they genteel? No. Are they radical? No.

96

For another thing, there is a de-fusing process at work in the interactions between the various material in each issue. The academics don’t seem so rigid any more, and the radicals less hairy, in the neat clothing of this accommodating magazine. The attitude behind the magazine is one of easy tolerance; a good thing, no doubt, but hardly exciting.

97

Three fairly new magazines from Melbourne show the strong and invigorating influence of recent overseas writing on a group of local poets. Contempa, etymspheres, and The Ear in a Wheatfield share a number of contributors and editors: Walter Billeter, Robert Harris, Kris Hemensley, John Jenkins, Bruce Beaver and John Hall. The influences are from England, France, Italy, Germany and the United States of America, mostly from writers who have been active since the Second World War. The magazines may look slightly ratty, but they are big, heavy and professional. Wheatfield averages around 70 pages, Contempa issues 7 and 8 combined runs to 96 pages, and the massive etymspheres first issue staggers out of the bookstore weighing 166 typescript pages in all.

98

Contempa seems unsure of its aims, compared to the other two, and veers between the conventional and the avant-garde. Ken Taylor’s poem about modern Australia is good, though a little obvious in parts:

99

The magazines,
even the deposits on
empty lemonade bottles,
accounted for, collected.

100

His poem about America is more energetic, though the point he is making pushes the poetry around in an awkward fashion. John Jenkins’ ‘Street Music’ is more ambitious technically, being in a mixture of varying prose styles and seemingly off-hand verse, though the concerns of the ‘message’ reveal themselves a little too obviously to justify the pretentious style. Walter Billeter’s translation of Arno Schmidt’s ‘Tiporakemes’ is the most interesting and the most difficult piece in the magazine. Long, rambling, sometimes obtuse and entirely in prose, it constantly teases the reader with flashes of ‘good writing’ in a mass of apparent idiocy, and repays the hard work necessary in reading it.

101

Similar difficulties are shared by The Ear in a Wheatfield. Number 5, for example, features a long and strenuous poem by Jennifer Maiden titled ‘The Problem of Evil: a verse-novella’, probably her biggest gamble and best success yet. Colin Symes contributes an extraordinary prose work, ‘Je suis la niece de Monsieur Stravinsky’, Michael Palmer mashes up Rimbaud with his own colourful and value-free poetic constructions, John Millet and Roger MacDonald wave the flag of normal poetry in the throng, and Englishmen, Europeans and Americans fill out the issue. There has not been a magazine since Angry Penguins that is so capable of dragging in so many direct overseas influences and handling them with such casual assurance. Australian poets have spent ten or even twenty years nervously fiddling with imports like the English Movement and the American confessional mode, and it is good to see something really up-to-date (even by overseas standards) handled so confidently. An uneven magazine, but one of the most important available in terms of its ability to forge useful links with the best of contemporary experimental poetry in English elsewhere in the world. We needed a magazine like this ten years ago; now that it’s here, buy it and ponder.

102

etymspheres is almost a companion magazine, printing as it does so many of the personnel appearing in Wheatfield, yet its editors, Walter Billeter and John Jenkins, have stamped it with a personality of its own. It is more intellectual in its handling of Paul Celan and Arno Schmidt, and plunges head-first into linguistic theory with Neil Clarke’s article on ‘Modern Linguistics and Anthropological Theory’. A balance is given by Bruce Beaver, Thomas Shapcott and Robert Adamson, and the comparisons and contrasts between the Australian poets and the brainy imports are fascinating. Full of useful reviews, notes and theoretical discussions, it is a magazine by poets for poets, and anyone working in the field of modern language and literature theory and practice would be foolhardy to ignore it.

103

These last two magazines in particular are extremely important in the present context of poetry publishing in Australia. They are somewhat too cerebral for my taste, but their sheer strength of commitment and intellectual awareness show up the deficiencies of the average poetry magazine shamefully. No longer is it possible for an editor merely to publish the big names on the local scene. In the comparisons that must now be made our traditional attitudes are seen wanting, our big fish are seen as minnows in the ocean of poetry, and one is finally forced to realize that not one Australian poet has influenced the development of modern poetry in English. Our parochialism has been so total that we are unaware of it. Listen to the foreign-born editors of etymspheres and Wheatfield and think again.

The Internet address of this page is
http://johntranter.com/reviewer/1974-np-survey.shtml

Copyright Notice: Please respect the fact that all material in the johntranter.net site is copyright © John Tranter and the individual authors 1997 et seq. and is made available here without charge for personal use only, and it may not be stored, displayed, published, or reproduced for group or class use or for any other purpose.