Snapshot of the Australian Poetry Scene

By Cooper, G. Burns | Antipodes, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Snapshot of the Australian Poetry Scene


Cooper, G. Burns, Antipodes


POETRY Snapshot of the Australian poetry scene John Tranter, ed. The Best Australian Poetry 2007. St. Lucia: U of Queensland P, 2007. 101 pp. n.p. ISBN 978-0-7022-3607-5

As editor John Tranter notes, any claim to represent the "best" of the poetic output of an entire country for a year is open to all sorts of challenges (xviii). Nevertheless this book can serve as a very useful and enjoyable snapshot of the poetry scene of a given moment, and also as a brief and up-to-date introduction to Australian poetry for relative newcomers.

The poets selected form an interesting mix, from a few well-known outside of Australia and Australianists (for example, Les Murray, Clive James) to a number who are widely published and well established nationally, to some relative newcomers. Refreshingly, the mix also includes a number who are not employed by universities. All have lived in Australia, but quite a few weren't born there, don't live there now, or both. The subject matter of the poems also ranges from quintessentially Australian themes-flora and fauna (platypuses, kookaburras, gum trees, parrots), rural and urban life, national politics, Aboriginal culture-to artistic traditions and pop icons shared by much of the English-speaking world: Dorothy (and William) Wordsworth, Jack (and WB.) Yeats, Lord Jim, Hurricane Katrina, 17thCentury Italian painting, Kubrick's The Shining, Mariah Carey, the Sub-Saharan African drought.

The style and form of the poetry varies, as one would expect, but overall is rather conservative. The series editors point out that this is perhaps a bit surprising considering "Tranter's reputation as a high postmodernist" (viii-ix). Few of the poems are experimental enough to frighten casual readers; most have an identifiable line of narrative or argument and a reasonably consistent speaker and voice. A few very ably explore traditional forms such as the ballad stanza or the "Venus and Adonis" six-line stanza; a few are prose poems; but the majority are in fairly conventional free verse-the dominant verse form of the last fifty years.

Within free verse, of course, there are many formal possibilities, and many (unfortunately not all) of the poems exploit these adroitly and creatively. For example, Cath Keneally ("Crying Girl") and John Kinsella ("Canto of the Muscular Treasurer of Australia: Mr. Costello") use free verse tercets skillfully (though since Kinsella's is from something called Purgatorio: Up Close, I would have expected more of a nod to Dante's terza rima). Pam Brown ("Darkenings" ) uses a line reminiscent of late William Carlos Williams, spreading itself across the page one phrase at a time. Ouyang Yu ("The Kingsbury Tales: Shanghai Women") makes interesting use of repeated lines with variations, and Jennifer Maiden ("George Jeffreys Wakes in New Orleans") provides a sample of extended and somewhat surreal narrative.

Beyond these generalizations, I would like to single out a few particularly notable poems, though there isn't room for some that I would like to mention. …

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