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Three Young Poets

John Tranter reviews

Tactics, by Jennifer Maiden;
Wild Honey, by Paul Kavanagh;
Creekwater Journal, by Robert Gray:

Paperback Poets Series 2, University of Queensland Press, $3.50 and $1.50 (paper).
First published in The Australian 26 April 1975, Weekend page 6
This piece is 950 words or about three printed pages long

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Paperback Poets are with us again, now in their second series, and these first three books maintain the standards of freshness and variety that made the previous volumes so attractive.

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The three poets were all born in the 1940s and have been publishing for at least five years. A combination of youth and assurance marks their work.

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Jennifer Maiden, at 26, is the youngest, and Tactics shows her verse to be the most strongly individual of the three. Almost any subject could engage her attention, yet her verbal style is so idiosyncratic and forceful that in a sense the style becomes the subject of all her work. Which is perhaps another way of saying that what makes her poems work is their working-out, and very difficult it can become:

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My hands are white with scars, and torn by caution
Must ration out your blood from every well.

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When she has a simple story to tell — as in ‘The Factory’, the first poem in the book — she tells it with an attractive tautness. When she is engaged — as she often is — with a problem both cerebral and metaphysical, all her verbal resources are flung into the struggle.

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The complexities seem a response to a need to make the meaning absolutely precise; this ambiguity lends tension to the verbal surface, very few concessions are made to the reader, which is well advised to hang on as best he can. ‘Haptic Chess’, for example, begins with the statement ‘Hands are flimsy mongols’ and proceeds to even more extraordinary arguments. Her book is full of such tantalising propositions, set in a framework of brilliant yet difficult imagery.

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To call this first book promising would be trivial. Still in her twenties, Maiden has all the skill, insight and assurance she needs. Her language is occasionally prolix and sometimes obscure: if she can resist her strongest verbal compulsions enough to keep the clarity of her early work present in her more demanding exercises, she will certainly develop into an important writer.

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Robert Gray’s Creekwater Journal is an entirely different type of book. Sixty-eight of the pieces are ‘mini-poems,’ delicate photographs of a few lines each in the manner of haiku. Unlike many such attempts at essentialism, Gray’s glimpses are nearly always complete, accurate and original; for example: ‘This chair, made of frayed light — it speaks of absence — like half a carpenter’s join.’

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Robert Gray’s method is often to synthesize a landscape — with or without human figures — and then neatly to avoid comment. This is in itself a welcome relief from the more usual ‘landscape’ or ‘portrait’ poem we are too used to from other writers, where the pictures are merely scenery to prop up an obvious value judgment or a labored moral point. Gray’s landscape speaks for itself with an unusual authority.

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Like Gary Snyder, Gray finds his most natural responses in the countryside; though, like Bly, he is no withdrawn ascetic. Many of the poems bring a clear-headed perception to the world of the city — factory, street, boarding-house, laundromat, the ‘ladies hairdressing salon atmosphere of the advertising agency.’

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At the other extreme from the ‘haiku’ pieces is ‘The Meat Works’, a well-handled longer poem with a really sickening central metaphor. In ‘The Farm Woman Speaks’ he paints a strong picture of rural poverty and the personal emotions that surround it; in ‘Salvation Army Hostel’ the sound of falling rain (so delicately handled in other poems of his) is revealed as the sound of a drunk urinating from a balcony.

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Creekwater Journal is a book of quiet individuality; of subtle humor, precise imagery and sure control. It is outside the mainstream of most local poetry movements and offers a pleasing change of diet for the appetite jaded with the usual poetry offerings.

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Paul Kavanagh’s Wild Honey is immediately more recognisable. Its individuality lies in the poet’s adopted persona — aggressive, Lawrentian, tough-minded, wry — and not in the literary approach, which bears obvious marks of the author’s 30-year apprenticeship to the educational systems of mid-20th-century Australia.

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The most obvious dichotomy in the work is that between persona — personal pronouns are rife — and the load of culture that spills over into the verse. Picasso, Milton, Dylan Thomas, Berryman, Lucretius, Grosz, Augustine, Petronius, Goya, Horace, Pound, Martial, Mayakovsky, Norman Lindsay and others pop up and down like puppets in the 18 poems that make up the last section in the book.

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The air of the well-read man is less obtrusive in the first and third sections, where Kavanagh’s strong personality deals with day-to-day struggles — sexual, often, and colored with aggression.

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The book is less coherent than the other two, and sometimes clearly derivative in the currently fashionable Lowell-Berryman convention, yet Kavanagh’s insistence on his personal individuality and his attempts to find a genuine answer to important personal dilemmas guarantee the poetic authenticity of the better pieces in the book.

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These three books are excellent examples of the high quality of the new local poetry. The poets may lack the maturity and polish (and the occasional sententiousness) of the best of our older writers, but they make up for it in good measure with the sparkle and individuality of their work.

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The design of the books has finally caught up with the quality of the contents — the Aldine typeface now adopted is elegant and clear, and the cover designs are neat, colorful and apt. At $1.50 each, these books must be the best poetry buy of the month.

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