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Youngish Australian Poets

John Tranter reviews

«The Younger Australian Poets» eds. Robert Gray and Geoffrey Lehmann, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney,1983. This review is 2,300 words or about 5 printed pages long. First published in Meanjin magazine vol.42 no.2 Winter 1983 (pp.244–248).

For a start, that silly title, ‘The Younger Australian Poets’. ‘Youngish’ would have been more honest, and ‘The Middle-Aged Australian Poets’ would have hit the nail on the head.

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The last decade has seen the publication or reprinting of close to a dozen different anthologies of Australian poetry, averaging around 250 pages each. That’s nearly three thousand pages of deathless verse. For yet another collection to have a fighting chance of gaining a general audience and an economic viability that depends on educational institutions, it has to have a lot going for it — good design, cheap unit cost, and a strongly realised point of view. It has to have something new as well as something useful to say.


Robert Gray and Geoffrey Lehmann’s The Younger Australian Poets is attractive and cheap. The hard-working husband-and-wife team of Sylvia Hale (Hale &. Iremonger, the publishers) and Roger Barnes (Southwood Press, the printers) has ensured a sensible (if rather florid) design and a sturdy product. A Literature Board subsidy and a print run of 5,000 copies has kept the price down to a level where the publishers can reasonably hope for school sales.


So far so good. But good looks and a low price are not everything. Anthologies, despite their cast of dozens, are quirky and individual things, and this book is a particularly odd mixture.


The rambling five-page Introduction bewails various antagonisms that have divided Australian poetry over the last decade, and proposes to heal the breach, or at least to provide a remedy of sorts, with a collection of poems and poets that ‘disregards partisan lines’.


A worthy motive; but are Robert Gray and Geoffrey Lehmann the disinterested observers we need to accomplish this difficult task? And do they properly address themselves to the complex issues involved? Their Introduction wanders around the edges of some of the main problems but fails to come to grips with any of them in a fully satisfactory way.


A thicket of non sequiturs waits at every step. ‘Amongst Australian poets who had emerged by the 1950s, only Slessor and Webb, among the best writers, were really innovative, but Slessor had already stopped writing, and Webb was permanently confined to mental institutions.’ The confusion of ‘amongst’ and ‘among’ echoes the confusion of purpose underneath the halting syntax. Slessor had surely emerged by the late 1930s, we would have thought; and the strength of his mature work was due more to his debt to Eliot than to any innovative gestures he may have made. And Webb continued writing his best work while confined to mental institutions.


Again: ‘Certain earlier Australian poets’ procedures might sometimes have been literary, but their work was often strong in content.’ Aren’t all writers’ procedures ‘literary’ by definition? And which earlier Australian poets? Does ‘earlier’ mean before 1850? Or prior to World War I? Which ‘procedures’? The use of certain rhyme schemes related to the border ballad, for example? Or the transplantation of late Victorian English ideas about subject matter to a differently mediated social structure? We are not told.


Again, they confront the difficult question of the qualification of political, social and literary categories with a bluff assurance: ‘In all this, a clear division cannot be made between so-called avant-gardists and leftists on the one hand and conservatives and establishmentarians on the other.’ Apart from the fact that ‘establishmentarian’ is the wrong word for the context, this looks promising.


But their argument is based on a blend of moral theory, aesthetics, politics and anti-climax: ‘And few of those who write in an inverted, deliberately amoral and non-communicative style, while at the same time claiming to be leftists and radicals, have been so actively involved in politics as, for instance, Geoff Page has been with the Labor Party.’


And, unfortunately, to help validate their theories they have re-manufactured a bogey-man: the so-called ‘generation of ‘68’. This shadowy ogre has been kept alive by the anger some poets and editors felt at being left out of the fun and the little magazines of the late 60s and early 70s. Gray and Lehmann make much use of this decade-old demonology, but their position — a kind of Conservativism with a Human Face — hardly needs excuse or justification in those terms. Their harping about ‘opponents’, ‘competition’ for privileges, and floods of poetry that is ‘obscure, silly or vicious’ seems excessive, and they should take care that it doesn’t bloom into the kind of obsession that has made the journalistic careers of Mark O’Connor or Jamie Grant so crippled by resentment.


It would be tedious to rehearse all the confusions that undercut their arguments. No doubt they mean well, but Gray and Lehmann are plainly out of their depth in the muddy waters of literary theory. In any case, their main point seems not to be a literary one, but a moral one: ‘The essence of the anti-humanist position is solipsism, in its varying degrees: it can appear not only stylistically but also as an intellectual pleasure in cruelty. We have rejected this aggression towards the subject-matter and the reader...’ In the end, they appear to be calling for a kind of Literary RSPCA, to protect the poem abused by its master, and the reader tormented by one too many an unkind couplet. Who could argue with that noble aim?


So much for the Introduction; what about the contents? Granted the editors’ viewpoint, there are no major surprises (but one or two minor ones) in the selection and arrangement of poets. The book appears to be wide-ranging and generous, and in many ways it is; but a number of factors disqualify it from taking up that large and commanding area of middle ground that Gray and Lehmann claim as its rightful position.


For a start, that silly title, ‘The Younger Australian Poets’. ‘Youngish’ would have been more honest, and ‘The Middle-Aged Australian Poets’ would have hit the nail on the head. Most of the space in this collection is given to poems by writers in their forties, and the youngest poet in the book is a year short of thirty. Another problem is the matter of overt bias. The editors are two Sydney men. Who is poorly represented? Women poets, and poets from Melbourne.


So far, an interesting anthology could be compiled from Gray and Lehmann’s rejects: a collection of young poets, women poets, formal and informal experimentalists, poets who are cruel to their readers, and poets from south of the border.


Given their biases, how do they apportion their chosen material? In a loosely-structured pecking order, it turns out, with most of the older poets towards the front. Their distribution of the number of pages given to each poet is a ranking in terms of hierarchies — the more ‘important’ a poet, the more space he gets. This results in a dramatically-designed galaxy of poetic luminaries, beginning with a blazing sun (Les A. Murray, 25 pages) circled by two slightly lesser stars (Robert Gray, 20 pages, and Geoffrey Lehmann, 17.) At some distance from the hot centre of talent three other white dwarfs glitter: Geoff Page, 14, John Forbes, 14, and Nigel Roberts, 10 pages. Then, far out in a distant orbit, a scattering of cosmic dust — the remaining twenty-three poets, with an average brightness of less than four pages each.


The imbalance is striking, and there appear to be several factors involved apart from the general drift of the editors’ moral concerns.


Les A.Murray is a subtle and impressive craftsman, and that he should be enthroned as the star attraction is to be expected. In fact, it would seem that the age limit was stretched specifically to squeeze him in — born in 1938, he is the oldest poet in the book, and, as the editors respectfully point out, he is ‘the most highly regarded poet in this anthology, is frequently prescribed for schools and universities, and he has some international standing.’


Why the two editors should then have chosen themselves as next in importance among Australian poets under 46 is more difficult to understand, given that even the crudest notions of decorum would have suggested a more modest self-appraisal.


It is good to find Geoff Page with a sizable portion of material. He is not a self-promoter, and his modest output has been inadequately represented in recent anthologies, as the editors of this one quite properly point out. His poetry has been influenced loosely by the American William Carlos Williams. In general, the spare precision of Williams’ short lines is a good preventive against galloping garrulity, and in Page’s hands it delivers a dry and particularly Australian accent and a thoughtful movement from phrase to phrase. The short line, as a model, can be overdone: ‘of 3 a.m.’ is an example that does little for me. Page’s technique is low-key — his French and American influences are invisible in the texture of his localised speech — yet it enables him to range widely among language and experience.


John Forbes and Nigel Roberts are shown working in various modes, and like Page they modulate various North American influences through their verse. In Roberts it lies on the surface of his discourse as both a syntactical pattern and a typographic emblemisation. Hip Beat jargon, slant/ lines, lots of lower case, ampersands & contractions (e.g. the use of yr for you are) all help to determine the speech that emerges through a carefully-selected section of social gesture. The wit is flip, but clever, and the implications of his style are always much more ambiguous than the plain dialect would indicate:


a poet is a man / who
camphors his chest / &
inhales / the mendicant air
of himself.


If Nigel Roberts is ambiguous, John Forbes is positively Delphic: ‘Certain kinds of knowledge,’ he intones in one poem, ‘leave the field of / all possible experience, apparently to enlarge / the sphere of our judgments beyond the limits / of experience, by means of concepts to which / experience... can never supply / any corresponding objects.’ A philosophy in search of an author... John Ashbery, perhaps? Yet the simple metaphor has its place in his work too: ‘More precise than a stocking, / Julie lounges at the pool...’ A wide range of Forbes’ various approaches to his word-games is given, and the contrast of his reified solipsism with most of the rest of the material in the book is extreme. In fact, it’s almost impossible to understand, given the tight-lipped jeremiads against just such a poetics in the Introduction.


Roger McDonald’s glittering pieces of surrealism are also well worth having. He is always concerned to place an easily-identifiable subject at the centre of his poems, but he then replaces it with the highly-wrought jewellery of his style. The shift of focus, the entrapment of the reader’s interest inside a line, the cleverly understated endings — these all work to place the connections between thing, image and word near the centre of his concerns.


Among the rest of the poets in this anthology the distribution is more complex, and we have to look at the notes on each poet for assistance in sorting out the often odd selections that Gray and Lehmann have made. These notes — a paragraph or two, introducing each poet — are apparently there to give pointers to the teacher of Mod. Aust. Lit who is a little short on background. They are made up of a mixture of biography, anecdote, explanation and endorsement, laced with peppery pieces of sniping and lumps of literary opinion. Though sometimes unreliable, they do indicate the reasons behind the editors’ selection procedures, and help to explain the inexplicable — why, for example, Robert Adamson, Andrew Taylor or Michael Dransfield each gets significantly less space than, say, Rhyll McMaster, Alan Afterman or Mark O’Connor.


From these notes, here are some of the editors’ favourite things:


The poems are direct and explicit... his writing is severe, bare and conveys his voice with rhythmical exactitude... sense of passionate personal involvement; consistent decency and understatement... the language and voice... are dry and low-key; imaginative range of sympathies; explicit treatment of subject matter; meticulous craftsman; exacting about his work; an acknowledged humanity and a real perceptiveness about people; the particular strength... is its content: it has an appealing humanity; an intense conviction; ensures that each poem is distilled and authenticated; a moving sense of fraternity and a genuine involvement; clarity of image and language; he always deals directly with experience; openness of style and freedom from affectation; restrained and innovative poetry.


The identification of poetry with moral values is striking. For Gray and Lehmann, it seems that the poet should be rather like the ideal family doctor: he must be hard-working, honest, authentic, humane, genuine and involved. Unfortunately not all of Australia’s young poets always wish to act out these high ideals in their published work.


From most of these poets the editors have chosen to print only those poems that illustrate their own criteria. This gives a somewhat less than honest picture of such writers as Robert Adamson, Michael Dransfield, Susan Hampton, Vicki Viidikas and myself. In the kindly distorting mirror of Gray and Lehmann’s gaze, we look far more sober, decent, and ‘authentic’ than we would dare present ourselves to be. Other odd fish — notably John Forbes and Nigel Roberts — are permitted to indulge in their reductionist word-games and beatnik orgies untroubled by the editors’ scissors.


Another fifteen to twenty intractables are simply left out, among them Jennifer Maiden, Gig Ryan, Anna Couani, Jan S.Harry, Laurie Duggan, Steven K.Kelen, John A.Scott, Alan Wearne, Kris Hemensley, Ken Bolton, Martin Johnston, Rae Desmond Jones and others. Apparently there were limits of self-indulgence and irreverence beyond which Gray and Lehmann felt unable to venture. A pity, since there are many poems by poets in their twenties and thirties that would have enlivened the tone of this rather earnest and somewhat less than youngish collection.

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