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Dealing with conflict

John Tranter reviews

The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets edited by Susan Hampton and Kate Llewellyn, Penguin Books, 1986

This review is 900 words or about 3 printed pages long. First published in the National Times on Sunday, 24 August 1986

This is a poetry anthology with big ambitions. It sets out to represent the poetry made by women in Australia from the beginning to the present. It is nearly 300 pages long, and it comes packed with useful biographical notes and indexes that will help the eager reader to track down the writers, books and magazines the poems originally came from.

It starts with two aboriginal women’s songs and an anonymous ballad about a convict lass. (Uh oh — could the author have been a man?) But if you like Victorian verse you’ll be disappointed to find that the nineteenth century is disposed of within the first thirty or so pages.

This collection focusses mainly on the twentieth century, and — as with Australian poetry in general — that’s probably a good thing. Less than a fifth of the way into this book we are among contemporary poets, and overall, most of the contributors are in their 40s or younger (eighteen of the poets are under 35); young enough to have been developing their work when the latest phase of the women’s movement was at its height.

One of the real delights of the book, though, is the rediscovery of a great deal of sharp and sparkling writing from the first half of the century. Anna Wickham (b.1884) is my favourite, with Dorothea Mackellar (b.1885) coming a close second. Her famous ‘My Country’ puts in an appearance, but it’s the less usual ‘Arms and the Woman’ that I like. Brecht might well have penned its closing lines, where the female speaker says:

‘Women should lead a guarded life —
God be thanked, I carry a knife.’

The younger writers show just as sharp an edge. It’s worth remembering that the women’s movement has been restlessly experimental, and these voices are distinctly individual. Gig Ryan’s ‘If I Had a Gun’ echoes Dorothea Mackellar’s ode to the blade, but with a modern mixture of urban anger and whiplash humour. Ania Walwicz constructs staccato prose pieces that often remind me of a comment of hers quoted in the Introduction: ‘Both the migrant and the woman are in the same position. They have to deal with conflict.’

Anthology editors have to deal with conflict too. Their publishers need the school market, and they’re understandably nervous about any ‘bad language’ that might shock parents or teachers. And women’s writing is a particularly touchy problem — nice girls don’t talk dirty. Susan Hampton says her publishers baulked once or twice, but after a brief tussle and a friendly misunderstanding or two, it was agreed that the editors could use whatever poems they wanted, including the naughty ones.

Among the other younger writers J.S.Harry, Joanne Burns, Jennifer Maiden, Anna Couani, Vicki Viidikas, Pamela Brown and Judith Beveridge all renovate, reconstruct and refurnish poetry in fresh, different and important ways. They prove — were such proof ever needed — that there’s no such thing as a women’s writing style.

The middle ground of established writers is well represented too, with strong appearances by Judith Wright (mainly from her later work, at her request), Gwen Harwood, Dorothy Hewett, Judith Rodriguez and Kath Walker.

The editors have other large ambitions, as I read it: to drag contemporary women’s poetry out of the 70s and into the present, out of the so-called ghetto of feminism into its proper place in the mainstream of Australian culture.

Part of that task involves challenging the undeniable gender imbalance in recent poetry anthologies. Those statistics are depressing for women, and the editors firmly note them in their Introduction: ‘In fifteen well-known collections of Australian poetry published since 1970, the average of female authors selected was 17 per cent. The average number of pages of women’s poetry was 13 per cent.’ The editors of these anthologies were all men.

It’s disingenuous to say, as Les Murray did in a recent interview in a widely-read American magazine, that ‘women are writing less well because feminism is there to absorb the energy that otherwise would have gone into literature.’ In fact the opposite is the case: feminism gave many women who came from a hostile or non-supportive background the courage and the support to write and publish their poetry in a male-dominated subculture, and it has been doing that important job for over fifty years.

At one point in the long, cluttered and rather defensive Introduction, the editors say that ‘...the radical questioning of social structures often leads to an angry stage, chaos, which makes way for a new layer, creation.’

The ‘angry stage’ during the 70s certainly had its unpleasant moments for men and women alike, but that was a decade ago. Here we are offered the hope that the long-awaited third stage has arrived, where women can feel free to create and publish in a context of understanding and acceptance.

This book has perhaps half a dozen dud poems and a couple of regrettable omissions. But most anthologies have many more. It is mainly full of good and varied writing, and some happy surprises. To me, it says clearly that Australia’s women poets have come out of the sweatshops, the farming country, the Depression, the kitchens, the typing pools and the troubled 70s rich with talent, confidence and energy. It is full of poems that anybody — men and women, young and old — can read with delight.

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