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Two poetry magazines

John Tranter reviews

Poetry Australia (NSW issue) No 107/108

and Scripsi Vol 4, No 2, 1987

This review is 1,300 words or about 3 printed pages long.
First published as a talk on ABC radio presented by the author, March 1987.

There’s a folk belief that the useful life-span of literary magazines is about ten years. After a decade, their arteries harden, the editors lose their enthusiasm — not to mention their health, their youth, their good looks, and most of their money — and the Muse of Magazines turns her back and bestows her favours on a younger, more trendy publication.

What happens to little magazines when history has kissed them goodbye? Some take their service revolver into the library and do the decent thing — Makar Magazine, edited by Martin Duwell from the English Department at the University of Queensland, simply pulled down the blinds and ceased to exist when its decade came up.

Others eke out a superannuated existence in a twilight world, deserted by their best contributors, the spark gone out of them and their reputation of brilliant leadership shrunk to a kind of dull competence. Poetry (Chicago) is perhaps an example.

There’s another way out, of course. Some magazines come to terms with a changing world by a kind of mutation or brain transplant, throwing off the founding editor and taking on another. Meanjin is a local example of that practice of changing horses in midstream — it’s had four editors in the last dozen years. Others do as the amoeba does, and survive and reproduce by splitting in two. Poetry Magazine (once called Prism magazine) actually combined these last two desperate ploys in the mid-1960s — first hiving off a clone, then mutating into a new organism.

It used to be the official organ of the Poetry Society of Australia. In 1964 its editor was Doctor Grace Perry, a general practitioner, and a poet since her teenage years. She grew dissatisfied and left the Poetry Society, talking the spirit of the magazine — and the print format, and many of the subscribers — with her, renaming the magazine Poetry Australia.

The original Poetry Magazine strugged on to become New Poetry, and — after a decade of erratic brilliance — faded away, in the early 80s.

But Poetry Australia lives on, still firmly in the grip of the amazing Doctor Grace. It passed its hundreth issue some time ago. But immortality of this sort has its price. In this case, as in that of the Pharaohs, a kind of general stiffness of gesture is the most obvious sign of its age.

The latest offering — Number 107/108, a double issue consisting of 120 pages — is a regional anthology, focussing on New South Wales. The guest editor is Norman Talbot, Associate Professor of English at the University of Newcastle.

Why anyone would want to make a fuss about New South Wales poets is beyond me. They seem to be more than adequately represented in the poetry publishing scene as it is, and hardly need rescuing from oblivion.

There are poems by... famous poets and quite obscure poets; there’s regular rhyme and beatnik free verse, sonnets and sapphics; a poem in prose that goes on for pages, and a poem you can read in five seconds. I timed it. But what does it all add up to?

Well, to me, it adds up to this. Poetry Australia has a reputation as a nursery of new talent — young or new writers who are trying their wings. Frankly, a more thoroughly professional magazine couldn’t really afford to carry half the poems in this issue, and it’s good that we have a magazine that can, and does.

There are some fairly strong pieces in this collection, but — quite apart from new writing — the bulk of the work here is in a minor key. It’s important for the health of any culture, as T.S.Eliot reminds us, that there should be a place for minor poetry. And this magazine provides that place.

Poetry Australia published quite a lot of adventurous and experimental poetry during the last half of the 1960s and into the early 70s. Walter Billeter, J.S.Harry, Vicki Viidikas, Michael Dransfield, Alan Wearne, Rodney Hall, Roger McDonald, Rhyll McMaster, Carl Harrison-Ford — all these names appeared, in a single issue of Poetry Australia, some seventeen years ago.

Where are they now? Not in Poetry Australia any more; not in the latest issue, not a single one of them.

Something happened to the magazine during the 70s. It became reliable, well-meaning and rather dull. The poems it printed were often — far too often — simply amateurish. The energy that had driven it out of the arms of the Poetry Society into uncharted waters drained away, and the magazine’s editorial presence seemed to lose its sense of adventure.

As the 70s wore on, a painful irony became apparent — the magazine’s obsession with survival doomed it to become less and less relevant. The wave of history lifted the craft briefly, then surged past into the future.

Thoroughly splashed by that fickle current is Scripsi magazine. Like Poetry Australia, it is a healthy offspring from a defunct parent — in this case Compass, a poetry magazine from Melbourne. Most of Australia’s literary magazines come from Melbourne, these days. That Medici of the Modern Age, the Literature Board, spends ten or twenty thousand dollars each year supporting literary magazines in Sydney. The last time I counted, they spent over one hundred thousand dollars each year supporting literary magazines in Melbourne. People in Melbourne sometimes talk about an imbalance in arts funding in favour of Sydney. Perhaps they should look again at the funding for magazines.

The current issue of Scripsi — Volume Four, Number Two, and about nine months behind schedule, according to my calculations — is another gargantuan issue. Scripsi, like All-Bran, has a reputation for bulk, and this example of it runs to 300 pages exactly. That’s a bit longer than your average novel, and more than almost any Australian literary magazine publishes in a whole year.

The main focus is on translation — Michael Hamburger’s translations of Paul Celan, Laurie Duggan’s modernisings of an unnamed translator’s versions of the Latin poet Martial; Edmund Keeley — famous (with Philip Sherrard) for his English versions of Cavafy — this time translating Yannis Ritsos; and a casual but erudite ramble around Ezra Pound’s versions of the Latin poet Propertius by the founder of New Directions, James Laughlin — a man who was once Gertrude Stein’s secretary.

Having read all that, you’ve hardly scratched the surface of this issue of Scripsi. You need a pick and shovel and at least a week with nothing to do, to dig through all that it has to offer. Photographs, paintings, an excerpt from a novel by Kate Grenville, a short story by Tim Winton, an interview with the American poet Kenneth Koch, fifteen separate articles, and poetry from seventeen poets — some, quite extensively represented — all this fills out the issue.

The problem with Scripsi is that it’s like a giant chocolate cake — there’s simply too much of a good thing. Its ambition is like a rebuke; its endless pages a threat to your peace of mind.

Scripsi has been up and running for six years now. By the reckoning of that folk wisdom which says that literary magazines have a useful life of about ten years, it’s more than middle-aged — it has less than half its allotted span to go. By that time, I, for one, will be quite worn out.

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