Alan Gould waxes analytical, critical, and lyrical on poetry
and its anthological counterparts.
Presently on my bookshelves I house twenty-one anthologies of Australian Poetry and reckon to have read twice that number in the period since 1970 when my serious interest began. Moreover, I’m aware of the same figure again that I have either disdained or neglected to consult. Sixty-three claimant new assemblies of Oz Poetry in forty-two years, which is to say 1.5 per annum. While several take a theme (Religious, Family, World War One, etc) and one or two have been annuals, each makes an identical pitch: Reader, we present you with this latest version of your Poetry scene. You will be convinced by our authority and might well come under the more pervasive trance of the thing itself, Poetry.
Browse where you like among the anthologies of the past forty years – Heseltine(1972), Murray(1986) Lehmann/Gray(1991, 2011), Tranter/Mead(1991), Buckley(1991), Porter(1996), Leonard(1990, 2001, 2009), Kinsella (2009), and so on. This tendency to have a Poetry scene showcased before that of the intrigue of a singular poetic world appears to prevail in the discourse on Australian Poetry.
Shortly I’ll complain about this, but let me not neglect the good will that goes into anthologies. For us, Poetry’s clients, the utmost trouble is taken to select what is most Now and Real in our Poetry considerations. If that Now and Real slip in and out of resolution, depending on whether the poetics of a given anthologist are puritan or eclectic, the simple quantum of energy and zeal that goes to compile some threescore anthologies in twoscore years is a noteworthy behavioural phenomenon at the point in our society where the spiritual and industrial meet. Do we not witness a dedication as reverent as anything the secular affords? Most anthologists, including those whose ‘take’ on Poetry locks them into derisive agendas as to what passes for poetic, are motivated by a sense of the improvement Poetry brings to human fulfilment. Moreover, they do their long hours of research more pro bono than in the hope of accruing fortune. Many religious missions might envy the altruism Poetry attracts from this high-minded spreading of Word. Indeed, if our Poetry scene is so assiduously surveyed, how can that hard work not contribute to a literary culture’s well-being? And, if diversity is the upshot of that threescore, how can this not signal hybrid vigour in our national Poetry scene?
How not? Anthologies create the currency for poems, sift from the slim vols what merits continuance before a national readership, transform a poem from being a work of imagining to a representative of the same. Of course the sift is unavoidable if anything like a display of talent is to made, but in a literary culture serviced by 1-5 sifts per annum, this superabundance of survey oversells Poetry and undersells poets, channelling attention toward the scintillation of a scene rather than the intrigue discoverable in a singular imagination. As the anthologies succeed each other, perennially, relentlessly, readers come to know poets by sample and label rather than by their compass and essence. The result, in my view, is a dwarfism in the reputations of Australian poets under the age of 70. Who knows what any one of them is actually about?
This leads to one standardising caricature of our time. ‘You poets!’ we hear the jocularity from our public when something behavioural, say some spat on authenticity, happens between performers at a reading. For is not Poetry the means by which we seek to authenticate our inner living and have it witnessed by others? So ten million creative writing classes spring up, each with some boutique angle on the art. Poems teem and poets proliferate until the convenient thing is to taxonomise the kind rather than read, and read into, the individual. You poets! More write the stuff than read it, one wit observed. Would anyone, I wonder, dare taxonomise Milton, Blake, Yeats, Whitman, Dickinson, Slessor or Wright, those veterans fortunate enough to have lived in eras when singularity enjoyed well-being. What’s a word for the Poetry vocation in our era? Shop-worn suits, I reckon.
A few write effectively, most don’t. So the discourse on Poetry is unavoidably an aristocratic challenge to our egalitarian comfort zone because it must exclude dross at the same time as it tries to find the native place for each singular effort. Martin Boyd, in his novels, illumines this tension of privilege and fairness with wonderful lightness and penetration, and in acknowledging the aristocratic implication of taste, I predicate my interest as lying in the character of a committed poet’s work rather than how convenient might become a sample tray in establishing a tag for him or her. That is to say, I would like to see the conditions of our poetic discourse encourage intellectual habits that lead a reader’s interest to one poet’s whole-and-essence before it alights on the plurality of styles – that tend to diffuse our attention. In that intimacy of whole-and-essence, lies the well-being for Poetry’s place in our literary culture. First draw a reader to the intimacy of the one imagining power, in all its sensual, intellectual and emotional compass, and by that you will secure a more knowing, more confident love for the art of Poetry itself.
From publishers like Longmans, Angus&Robertson, Oxford, the means to this recognition used to be the Collected Poems, those sturdy retrospectives that gathered the works of such of our poets, steeped in the Poetry trance (Hope, Wright, McAuley, Stewart, Webb, Dawe) at a point in career when their dedication to Poetry had become inarguable. We need not disdain the idea that the unlikeliest imagination will sometimes come up with a stunning poem to also recognise that Poetry is taken up as a career with all the concentration of purpose that a surgeon, diplomat, or geneticist might enter upon a life’s work, awake each to the integrity of career, the revelation of career.
How did Alec Hope’s distinction go? A Selected Poems shows the poet’s judgement of his work, a Collected Poems shows the work’s judgement of him. I like that, but would extend the consideration laterally. A Collected Poems shows the mindfulness, with which a publisher attends his/her poet and how the work unfolds in its decades an integrity-of-variations. That mindfulness implies a confidence in values and the courage to assert them. In turn, the ‘collected’ poet witnesses how the painstaking of a working life has been valued elsewhere and permits the idea that the effort has establishment. The idea of establishment has come into disrepute in our time, denoting complacency of attitude. But I suggest the word also has a vibrant meaning, an acceptance within the integrity of a culture of the work of a large portion of a lifetime, the intelligent accordance of value by community to a singularity.
Perhaps a Collected Poems might be termed an Anti-anthology for it reminds us that the ampler idea of Poetry resides in an economy rather than in the small change. For The Collected presents the reach, power and strangeness of a unitary imagination. To change metaphor, it shows how day-to-day creations attach to a nuclear core of meditation. One reads the poems, but more, one comes to perceive the Poetry between the poems. By this one watches how character forms itself through its daily struggle with words. One sees a live thing, a vibrancy where wholeness and essence inhabit a body that is emergent through many try outs.
Today a rare, privately-printed Collected might find itself into bookshops. But that Collected tome instigated by a poet’s publisher as a testimony of value to a veteran in the art has grown rare as sturgeon.
With its vanishing goes the vital connection between the nerve, resource, and watchfulness of the entrepreneur and the dedication of the artist. Once this connection allowed an objective means by which to show a poet’s works were searchingly valued upon our scene. It is the present lightness of all that activity that troubles me as to the calibre of that value today. Do I plead my own case? Then I plead it.
Alan Gould 2013
(Featured Image property of The Australia Council)