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In the world of the average man

John Tranter reviews

The First Paperback Poets Anthology, ed. by Roger McDonald; University of Queensland Press, $4.75 and $2.25 (paper).

First published in The Australian, Saturday 1 March 1975, page 20, titled In the world of the average man. This piece is 900 words or about three printed pages long.

This anthology sums up and marks the completion of stage one of UQP’s Paperback Poets program — an intelligent publishing venture that has produced 18 cheap and generally attractive books by poets aged between 20 and 40.

There have been individual successes and failures, but in local terms the series has been very useful in finding a format and a market for young writers. The anthology itself is less exciting, partly because it is a reiteration of something already achieved.

In general terms most of the action in the collection takes place in the world of the average man, and most of the poems are put together with some regard for skill; thus its most salient feature is its cohesiveness. Despite the range of tone from the “drug” lyrics of Michael Dransfield through the suburban jottings of Judith Rodriguez to John Manifold’s rollicking ballads, the book presents a fairly level surface and a clear set of boundaries.

The “Brisbane school” would never be so crass as to publish a manifesto, but this collection clearly establishes what UQP is about.

Six of the poets appeared in Hall and Shapcott’s polemic anthology New Impulses in Australian Poetry in 1968, and the influence of the English “Movement” writers of the 1950s is still clear in their poems. Many of the younger writers in this collection share their concerns, and though the occasional maverick is allowed a rabid nip at the heels of the well-made poem, the setting more often fits the title of David Malouf’s poem Suburban.

Typical of the less interesting poems in the book are Judith Rodriguez’s over-anthologised ‘Nu-Plastik Fanfare Red’, in which the poet daringly breaks the suburban conformities by painting her room red; and Rodney Hall’s ‘Domesticity’. The opening line of this poem could be taken as an apt description of many of the poems in the anthology: “The quiet domestic round proceeds...”

Boundary of Taste

On the other hand, there are interesting poems to be found; for example, David Malouf’s translation of Horace, Richard Packer’s ‘Name Me’, R. A. Simpson’s precise rendering of a lake, Andrew Taylors ‘Slide Night’, Tipping’s ‘Multiple 1’, Viidikas’ ‘Ode to a Young Dog’.

In some cases such poems push the boundary of taste that surrounds the anthology a little to one side: in others (Simpson’s ‘Lake’ for example) a real virtue is forged from competence and restraint.

There are problems, though, in such an anthology that may well be insoluble. Roger McDonald’s editorial choices are compromised by the politic need to include work from each of the poets in the first series of the Paperback Poets: Dransfield, Hall, J. S. Harry, Jurgensen, David Lake, McDonald, McMaster, Malouf, Manifold, Page, Packer, Roberts, Rodriguez, Shapcott, Simpson, Slade, Taylor, Tipping and Viidikas.

At least some of these poets belong well outside the category of “the best new poetry published in Australia during the past five years,” to quote part of the introduction.

Another claim in the introduction should not be taken too literally: that “Paperback Poets has evolved as a series offering a comprehensive view of current Australian verse.” The UQP series is not elitist in any sense, but it has managed to ignore much that is important in the current scene, particularly some good new work by older writers, the localised Melbourne “underground”, the Melbourne-based “internationalism”, and the American-influenced “neo-surrealism” in Sydney.

Type Cast

Another disappointment is the kind of choice that McDonald has made within each poet’s work. He said in an interview in Makar magazine that “the area we are really concerned with is the area of real competence...” and it is unfortunate that competence is the major virtue of this collection and the common denominator of many of the poems in it.

One example (and a short review affords space for only one) is that of Vicki Viidikas. In my opinion the best piece in her paperback Poets book Condition Red is the four-part prose-poem ‘Four Poems on a Theme’. It takes on a notoriously difficult form and comes out a clear winner, and part of its appeal is the tension involved in her efforts to bend the language to her purpose. McDonald will have none of it, and has selected some easily digestible and more “characteristic” short pieces for the anthology.

The result is that Viidikas emerges from the operation type-cast and thus more acceptable, and it is likely that many others have suffered the same treatment, for the sake of the sense of cohesiveness mentioned earlier.

Many individual volumes in the Paperback Poets series have sold more than 1000 copies and it seems likely that this anthology will have a correspondingly pleasing success; a good thing when one considers that the average age of the poets is around 35, and that 10 years ago such an interest in new local verse did not exist.

Compared to the meagre sales of the more experimental ventures — New Poetry, Wheatfield, Etymspheres, to name a few magazines — it is clear that UQP’s program has created relatively wide support among a notably apathetic public. They should be given their due, then, for establishing a solid base from which I hope a more flexible and adventurous poetry may one day emerge.

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