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John Tranter reviews

«The Quadrant Book of Poetry 2000–2010» edited by Les Murray

Quadrant Books, Sydney. $44.95 Hb. ISBN 9780980677867. This piece was first published in «The Australian» newspaper on 13 October 2012, with the phrase “spits on” replaced by the gentler word “nips”, and minus the Stop Press item at the end. It is about four printed pages long.

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AS WITH MOST poetry anthologies, the impression given by Les Murray’s Introduction to this large collection is quite unlike the impression the poems in the book give. It’s only a page long, but manages to project a harsh spotlight of fear and anger onto a number of phantom enemies.

Leslie Allan Murray, 1962

Leslie Allan Murray, 1962


The tone shows through in the vocabulary: battler, political correctness, defied, niggardly, bullying, soured, everlasting combat, obsessive, academic, class-defensiveness, turn-off, triumphs, stern, squeezed out, pluralist freedom, scorned, sabotage, fear, relegation, critical, refuge, but only if they write well, brave, excellence, sent to Coventry, wars, firing lines, ignorance, class warfare.


Les Murray’s resentment is abundant and unpleasant, but his praise is almost as unhelpful: “Brave writers of the excellence of Hal Colebach and Peter Kocan, long sent to Coventry by the poetry wars of the last century, fight their corners in precise metre”. Surely a war can’t send you to Coventry, only a group of people can; surely it doesn’t take much bravery to write a few angry poems — who hasn’t? Perhaps “grumpy” would be a more honest word than “brave”.


And though many of their poems are enjoyable to read and hold some real human interest, the claim for “precise metre” is silly. If this line is even loosely iambic pentameter (the rest of the poem is), I’ll eat my hat: “The Spartans remembered the Persian Wars.”


«Quadrant» was founded in 1956 by James McAuley as a bulwark against international Communism, and was supported financially by the American CIA for some years. Australian government subsidy took over that burden quite early in the piece, in 1961, and has continued ever since, but it’s not enough for Les Murray. Here’s how he spits on the hand that feeds him: «Quadrant», he says, “defied the niggardly measure of government subsidy which came its way.”


Defied? What about saying thanks? «Quadrant» is not a literary magazine, like say «Australian Book Review»; poems, reviews and stories make up only a part of its contents. But by my rough calculation, «Quadrant» has asked for and received over a million dollars in literary subsidy since it began. And this largesse didn’t just “come its way” — «Quadrant»’s editors have been tireless in asking for these taxpayers’ dollars for over half a century, and so they should.


Literature Board funding to «Quadrant» was cut in 2009 from $50,000 p.a. to $35,000 p.a. for 2010, then raised to $40,000 p.a. for both 2011 and 2012. In 2009 the director of the Literature Board, Susan Hayes, said that the Board had had “concerns” about «Quadrant» because its fiction and poetry seemed to come repeatedly from the same small field of writers.


So who are the poets in «Quadrant»? Most of the contributors are seldom met with elsewhere, and are represented by one or two poems, often in the style of the newspaper verse of long ago. While simple heartfelt poems from the common people are a welcome sight, should they be paid for in taxpayers’ dollars? I think so, but some would disagree.


The Index of Poets also reveals that a handful of authors feature often in «Quadrant». Perhaps they make up the “small field of writers” the Literature Board deplores: Hal Colebach, Jennifer Compton, Suzanne Edgar, Jamie Grant, Ashlley Morgan-Shae, Pascale Petit, and a few others.


Along with the better-known Geoff Page, Alan Gould, Les Murray and Peter Skrzynecki, they are the dominating voices in the collection. I hope it is not unkind to suggest that they are not perhaps the most outstanding poets in Australia, though they are talented and do stand out in this company.


Numerous poetry anthologies have appeared over the decade 2001 to 2010 covered by this book, yet hardly any of the poets in them appear in this anthology. Many of our best poets, young and old, are simply not here. Why is that, I wonder.


This divide lies alongside the obvious left-right dichotomy, but aslant and in another dimension, as it were. I hardly imagine that any politician over the last half-century has cared much about the poems in «Quadrant» one way or the other. The two most recent editors of the magazine were intense leftists in their youth and drifted to the right as they matured. Maybe the explanation for the uneven quality of this collection lies somewhere in that spinning tangle of extreme and conflicted allegiances.


Most of the poems take pains to speak clearly, and despite Mallarmé’s dictum that “Too precise a meaning / erases your mysterious literature”, there’s nothing wrong with that. But is direct speech what people ask of poetry?


John Press in his book «The Chequer’d Shade» makes a telling point about obscurity in verse, versus popularity. He notes (and proves amply) that all the poets we regard as major today were accused of pretentiousness and obscurity early in their careers. That is, when young, they didn’t care to be popular, and attacked the status quo.


It seems that a radically experimental turn of mind is natural to great artists, especially in their youth, and gives them the ability to avoid stale ideas and develop new ways of creating art that later generations accept. He adduces the careers of Callimachus, Shakespeare, all the Romantics, Hopkins, T.S. Eliot, Pound, Dylan Thomas and many others. His arguments are persuasive and sensible, and he covers every aspect of obscurity in verse in detail.


We think of Wordsworth as a famous and reasonable old man, but when he was young his poetry and that of his friends was seen as eccentric, and was attacked by many critics. Wordsworth wrote that every author “as far as he is great and at the same time original, has had the task of creating the taste by which he is to be enjoyed.” This is an obvious point, when you think about it, and reverses the usual emphasis on critics and reviewers as taste-makers.


The corollary to Press’s argument is that poets who court the approval of their own time are already out of date, and care more for current popularity and status than for future renown. Sensible people!


A prime example is Pope’s bête noir Colley Cibber, the successful and popular playwright and actor-manager, who was appointed Poet Laureate in 1730 despite his evident lack of poetic talent. His verse is now generally out of print. More recent Poets Laureate include Alfred Austin, Robert Bridges, John Masefield, Sir John Betjeman and Andrew Motion. On the other side of the Atlantic there’s Robinson Jeffers, e.e. cummings, Sarah Teasdale, Edna Millay… popular roosters one day, feather dusters the next.


Then there is the contrary example of John Ashbery, excoriated for obscurity until his middle age. His audience has at last caught up with him, and he now has international fame. His work is widely liked by young readers and he was recently voted Poet Laureate of the MTV channel on the Internet.


Somehow I can’t see that happening to any of the poets in this large, varied but uneven anthology.


Stop Press: A contributor to this anthology wrote to me recently (after I had written this review) with this opinion: “I’m reluctant to bite the hand that quite often feeds me but I think it’s general knowledge that the poets in it were not asked for permission to reprint; nor were they paid a permission fee.” «Quadrant» magazine’s website says that “By submitting a work to «Quadrant» you licence us to publish it in «Quadrant» Magazine and «Quadrant» Online.” There is no mention of the purchase of anthology rights. The misappropriation of real property (the theft of televisions, cameras, laptops) is regarded seriously by police and magistrates; apparently the misappropriation of intellectual property is a different matter.

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