Thursday, 29 January 2009

more on the anthology

I'd agree pretty much with Jill Jones' comment on the Penguin anthology when she takes issue with John Kinsella's suggestion that 'experiment' is now the mainstream. Jill says that the mainstream is still very much the kind of 'free-verse' expression of the individual that gets taught in so many writing schools (not the good ones). If anything the recent 'return to the lyric' is the same thing as this in a slightly more sophisticated guise. Of course it all depends on what we regard as 'mainstream' and whether or not it's the result of critical or popular consensus. I'd say there was a definite conservative edge to the anthology though paradoxically the mode of its assembly isn't necessarily a conservative one. Or maybe I mean the opposite to this (i.e. conservative structure, not-so-conservative choices). I'd be curious to know how others feel about the principles the anthology suggests it is observing.

the original

Here's the 1957 version (thanks to John Tranter for this).

Monday, 26 January 2009

big hits, high tide and green grass

‘What is an anti-nationalist doing compiling an historical anthology of Australian poetry?’ This is the question with which John Kinsella begins his introduction to the new Penguin Anthology of Australian Poetry, and it’s a question he mostly fails to answer. It’s not a bad anthology as far as these things go, though it certainly doesn’t overcome Robert Graves’ and Laura Riding’s arguments against the fashion. The book certainly isn’t served well by either the designers or the sub-editor. The cover really has to be one of the worst I’ve seen. It’s hard to see how anyone could have thought it a ‘selling point’. What is this cheap (seemingly empty) bag doing, dumped on a beach. Is it somehow symbolic of the volume’s content (a washed-up culture?!). The layout within could have been worse though some of the poets are scrunched up uncomfortably close to their neighbours. The grouping of poets by century is also rather odd (is someone born in 1799 really an ‘eighteenth-century poet’?). It would perhaps have been best to keep all the introductory materials together with the general overview at the front of the book rather than use it to divide the ‘centuries’. The way the poems are interrupted by these disquisitions seems to indicate that the book was envisioned as a school text (as so many general anthologies are these days). This seems partly in conflict with Kinsella’s desire to produce a Jerome Rothenberg like tome where the relative quality of poems is subordinated to a grand scheme: a kind of anthropological approach to poetry that might not lend itself so well to teaching.

I’ve made my thoughts about nineteenth and early twentieth-century Australian poetry clear before now. It seems to me another instance of the editor hesitating between the pragmatic (if I don’t include this material it won’t become a school text) and the idealistic (the Rothenberg job). It’s history that is partly used to justify these inclusions. If the authors aren’t that interesting in themselves nonetheless they represent a kind of ‘voice of Australia’ (though ‘Australia’ as such didn’t exist for most of this period and, in any case, it was not an America: it was less an ideal than a brute fact). For an ‘anti-nationalist’ this might seem a strange position to operate from.

So, the nineteenth century. Pretty thin gruel overall, though you could certainly argue for CJ Dennis (I imagine Pound and Eliot would have liked this poet had they read him), and there are always arguments for Charles Harpur and Christopher Brennan. The early twentieth century produced oddities like Furnley Maurice who often began poems well (try the line ‘The lanes are full of young men swallowing beer’) before collapsing into doggerel. Maurice had obviously read the early modernists but had made the mistake of figuring modernity as content rather than form.

The Rothenberg effect means that poems of very different provenance written for very different audiences are allowed to sit together. This can be a profitable exercise and, at times, an amusing one. My own poem, a translation of an early twentieth-century Italian sophisticate appears next to a piece by Geoff Goodfellow, a self-proclaimed ‘working-class poet’. It can also be a less than useful practice. The anthology has one of the better selections of Aboriginal poetry in English (plus several pieces in translation and a couple untranslated) and for this it is to be commended. However, among these are one or two pieces included for their overt politic rather than for any other merit. This is surely an unnecessary act of reverse discrimination when there are very good poets like Lionel Fogarty or, for that matter David Unaipon to hand who are every bit as ‘political’? I’d argue too for Sam Wagan Watson who isn’t included here.

So who are the ‘heroes’ of this new anthology? Kinsella disavows any attempt to suggest relative importance by representation yet it can hardly suggest otherwise. Those poets afforded three or more poems, it turns out, are an unsurprising list: Kenneth Slessor, Judith Wright, Les Murray &c. For better or worse it’s more a kind of critical consensus (amidst this it’s nice to sense the editor’s undisguised awe of John Forbes). So how does the book justify itself? It is refreshing in some respects, though it’s a pity that for various ideological reasons poets like Alan Wearne and Robert Adamson refused the editor permission. Why did the poets not cooperate? Did they sense that they might become mere materials for someone else’s argument (isn’t this true of every anthology?). It’s a sad fact of general anthologies that they tend to exist as though those omitted need never have existed (I won’t win any friends for saying this even if I’ve been left out of any number of anthologies myself). In my own case, as an ‘expat’, I didn’t really feel I had much choice. Australia forgets its poets with alarming rapidity unless, like Les Murray, they hog the feature pages of the dailies (i.e. become ‘celebrities’).

Let the debate continue!

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Tuesday night in Holborn

The year’s poetry readings in London are up and running, though two of the organisers have unfortunately doubled up, meaning that for the next few months the Shearsman and Blue Bus readings will occur on the same night. I’ll have some difficult choices to make and whichever way I go I’ll feel guilty for not attending the other reading. Last night I opted for the Blue Bus at the Lamb to hear Geraldine Monk and Jeff Hilson. It was a well-attended gig for these two engaging writers: so well-attended that we had to open a window. Jeff read from his soon (hopefully) to be published ‘bird’ series and Geraldine’s new book from Salt, Ghost & Other Sonnets was on the table.

Friday, 16 January 2009

Rothko at Tate Modern, belatedly

I finally got to the Tate Modern’s showing of Mark Rothko’s later works (I’d delayed this visit in part because of the reported crowds). The central works in the exhibition are a group of paintings originally intended for the Four Seasons Restaurant though the artist eventually withdrew them figuring the venue was inappropriate. At the Tate they occupy the four walls of a very large space. Besides these paintings there are (notably) some preliminary pieces, a group of ‘brown and grey’ works on paper, and the ‘black on grey’ paintings that were Rothko’s final series. Rothko of all painters seems to require that you view his work peripherally as well as frontally. Colour in his work often interacts with our peripheral vision and the artist himself had often placed paintings carefully so that they would do this. A photograph in the brochure shows two large paintings immediately framing an entrance at a Sidney Janis Gallery showing in the mid-fifties.

Perhaps my delay had something to do with it but I found the show generally disappointing. It wasn’t too crowded but somehow the paintings mostly failed to deliver the anticipated retinal excitement. Only one or two seemed particularly vibrant. The pieces I liked best of all were the works on paper though these suffered the most from their presentation. Perhaps they might have worked better if the walls of that particular room had been darker or if they weren’t under glass. As it turned out, the white walls, combined with the lighting, introduced a purplish glow to the works that was very difficult to avoid. Spotlights that seemed neutral when viewed directly appeared mauve when reflected in the glass, resulting in work that would not resolve one way or another. This was indeed ‘interaction’, though not perhaps of the kind that Rothko himself would have countenanced.

Rothko’s popularity is itself a matter of interest. Together with Jackson Pollock he is a sure draw for gallery crowds. Both artists have a considerable mythology built around them; their work when displayed becomes a site for pilgrimage as much as for ‘dispassionate’ viewing. A career retrospective would have been even more overwhelming (in terms of gallery crowding) though this may have proved a financially prohibitive exercise. It’s hard to imagine that Cy Twombly, for example, or even one of Rothko’s contemporaries like Barnett Newman or Philip Guston would have made viewing the work a potentially difficult task.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Crab & Winkle

In the post: an advance copy of my new book, Crab & Winkle, from Tony Fraser at Shearsman. It's my first 'English' book: the product of writings over a year from August 2006. Murray Edmond, who had viewed the manuscript, made a wonderful comment which I ended up using on the back cover: "Crab and Winkle is fine, a whole range of especially English connotations - the Dickensian law firm, the seaside pub, the ancient board game, the wheedling ingratiation (as in 'crab and winkle one's way into someone's good books'), some early industrial tool dedicated to a single task (removing stones from wheat?), as well as the ghost of another phrase = grab and wrinkle." The cover photograph depicts part of a row of figures on a ledge above a window at Birchington-on-Sea, along the coast from here.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Yesterday I returned from this:

to this:

Here are a few notes made along the way:

20/12 Amid the Xmas muzak in Hong Kong airport, a tepid version of ‘The Red Flag’ [I’m later informed that it was probably ‘O Tannenbaum’ which spoils the story a little but it’s still a small epiphany at the intersection of Marx and Mammon].

24/12 Wattle birds barking in Williamstown.
A crested pigeon.

The newsagent sells bait.

26/12 The question of how I relate to Australia, not in any nostalgic sense (missing the weather, the beach &c) but in the sense of what I intellectually take from (t)here. Is it a kind of grounding that makes everything I write relate back? If so, it means that my work may be ‘exotic’ in the UK, that people may like it even, but that it can never really be ‘essential’ for anyone else.

27/12 A new anthology of Australian poetry (in which I appear) must be one of the ugliest books Penguin have produced. And is there really any need for us to trudge through 19th century colonial poetry anymore? As a child I was punished by these endless ballads and clanky verses. I didn’t get an inkling of what poetry was until years later with Keats and TS Eliot. Lawson was a good prose writer, but I can’t see how he, ‘Banjo’ Patterson and the rest of the poets can be resuscitated, ever. I would much rather read the diaries of the 19th century colonies than I would the poets.

All week, no movement
in the army depot.
Exotic birds over khaki trucks,
yellow boats on their trailers
ready for what?

The containers have left the Bay.
The Bellarine’s a smudge, past the
wartime bunkers.

Ships move through the trees


A further week in Sydney was no less eventful but I gave the notebook a rest.

A couple of those days were spent up in the Blue Mountains:

Here’s a snap taken at Mt Blackheath with Pam Brown: