The Good Stuff

Review by Louise Waller


The Best Australian Poetry 2005

Guest Editor - Peter Porter Series Editors - Bronwyn Lea & Martin Duwell (UQP - ISBN 0 7022 35180)


This is the third book in this series published by University of Queensland Press, (Series Editors Bronwyn Lea & Martin Duwell). Each edition benefits by having a different Guest Editor, allowing for broader insights and selection choices.  Thus, each editor provides an informed, yet subjective view on what is the best work of Australian poets publishing in print journals in Australia over a specific one year period. 

The 2005 Guest Editor, Peter Porter is a canny choice.  An expatriate based in England with on going ties here, he is a distinguished poet with an international reputation.  Besides having edited the important anthology, The Oxford Book of Modern Australian Verse, in 1996, Porter has been a regular visitor to Australia and has been a generous supporter and mentor to a number of younger poets.  Porter has published sixteen volumes of verse, he won the Whitbread Poetry Prize, 1987; the Forward Prize, 2002; was awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry, 2002; with his most recent poetry collection Afterburner published in 2004.

The anthology is limited, as Porter says, 'Space was not as restricting as number. I could not call the collection The Better Australian Poetry 2005: my use of the comparative in this introduction is just a more democratic way of justifying the selection I have made.'

Much is made of Porter's decision to include numerous lengthy poems within the allowable number of forty poems and it would be difficult to argue with his logic and rationale for this selection.

This collection contains a range of poetries, many poems exploring exciting ideas, poetry which is experimental, lyrical, narrative and so forth.  The selected poetry is quite outstanding, with many well-known names including; John Tranter, Judith Beveridge, Faye Zwicky, Bruce Beaver, Peter Goldsworthy, Diane Fahey, John Jenkins, and Dorothy Porter, among them.

One big surprise for me was the masterful J.S. Harry's contribution 'Journeys West of "War" ' from her Peter Henry Lepus series. The poem, first published in 'Heat' is so rewarding, with her skilful use of persona, '& wondering, for the umpteenth time, / where his Rabbit History of Philosophers / should begin.', 'Clifta, Peter thinks, wants to find / something in 'the world' / that is bracketed out.', 'He worries.  If she is too small / to make a web, what does she eat?'.  This poem of sixteen pages, negotiates each page effortlessly.

Zoltan Kovacs's contribution 'Ghosts' published in 'Famous Reporter' is an elegant poem, written he says, 'based on a real archaeological find in the Severn Estuary.'

This five line, five stanza poem is crafted beautifully 'Of their heels and arches, toes, / With a soft care of sediment. / Fifteen paces each (or so) / With nothing to say what sent / Them out that way, who chose'.  The poetry from another younger poet, Brett Dionysius's 'from The Extinction Sonnets' published by 'Meanjin' is worth noting.  Dionysius tells us the idea for these poems grew, in part, from late Australian poet, Martin Johnston's idea of giving voice to the dispossessed; '1. Giant Galapagos Tortoise', '.As you died, I only grew. / Survived your fashions, your skin theories. / My advice: carry your own home with you.'.

The thirteen page contribution from John Kinsella, 'The Vital Waters' published by 'Meanjin' was, the poet tells us, 'formulated over many years of living in Cambridge, England.'  Porter says of this contribution, '.a very sharp intelligence is at work.  The style is dexterous and audacious, something unusual in a poem of this kind.'  I should declare here, my interest in Kinsella's work, he is as artfully clever as any poet writing today; a postmodernist, a language poet, a lyrical shaman.  He is a prolific and much lauded international poet, often maligned by his own countrymen/women.  He can vault poetry's possibilities in an effortless and uncompromising way.  From the end of his poem, 'You Australians are always / on about the weather .' // The growth of ancient stone at twilight / is sensed by one whose sight / is honed by the pulse of the river, / science of bridges, microcosm of pasture.'

Another stand-out inclusion, from Jennifer Harrison, 'The Lovely Utterly Cold Snow', (Melbourne Writers' Festival 2003)', published by the now defunct 'Salt-lick: New Poetry' is a sharp, insightful poem.  Harrison writes of this poem, 'Many writers have made a simile of the blank page and snow'.  She suggests the empty chair follows a traditional therapy technique, emphasizing the importance of the absent one, but sees the gesture in this case as laudable, but self-conscious.  'each session / has the empty chair / of an absent author', 'a piety / to remind / this noisy church of words / of the elsewhere voices / in grotesque vignette / in butchered villages, verandahs breathe:'.

Some statistics, which might be indicative of volume of publishing, rather than quality, or suggestive of  both, with regard to Literary Magazines, Journal and Newspaper publications of poetry in Australia. 

The number of selected contributors for this 2005 'Best Australian Poetry';

from Heat - 8,  Southerly - 4,  Meanjin - 8,  Salt-lick: New Poetry - 2,
Island - 1,  Boxkite - 1,  Blue Dog: Australian Poetry - 2,  Famous Reporter - 1,
Eureka Street - 2,  Quadrant - 4,  Australian Book Review - 3,  The Age - 1,
Overland - 1,  Hecate - 1,  and The Weekend Australian - 1. 

The contributor gender representation is; women - fourteen / men - twenty-six.

This third in the series is fantastic really, the work of so many poets needing mention, no dud poetry here.  From Philomena van Rijswijk's, 'My Beautiful Whitewashed Skin', 'I live in a cleft not reached by roads. / There is barely any mail.' And the delightful 'Bee Season' from Kirwan Henry, 'Then for their stripes // They fit them / Oddly'.

Fellow expatriate Clive James, heard 'in discussion' with Peter Porter in recent broadcasts on Radio National, provides 'William Dobell's Cypriot'.  The structure and cadence of this poem uniquely conjures his voice; 'This sitter, sitting here, caught by this hand? / Caught beautifully.  No there is nothing wrong / About this transportation to Queensland'.

Anthony Lawrence, the 2004 Series Guest Editor, writes of his contribution," 'Wandering Albatross' began at sea".  'I didn't have pen or paper on board, so the first ten lines were written on the back of an aluminium lure-tray, scratched in by a screwdriver.'  Many poets could relate to that I'm sure!  Here's two of those first ten lines, 'What rides this marriage of elements / does so with a wingspan', and some lines further along , 'for up to eighty years, despite long absences, / despite their differences.', as Lawrence negotiates, he, 'Sees them coming in - white gliders with landing gear', endurance the crux, as his poem nears its finish, 'One partner.  One life, together. / And for every egg that grows / and breaks under terrible weather, a fledgling will emerge / to test its wings and stand its ground'.

From the prolific MTC Cronin, 'Star-creature, heart-creature, person-creature', 'They are like dust. / What fitted in your hand, dust', ('The Dust in Everything'), and the savvy  Michael Farrell, who tells us that he writes many poems using dice to determine word count, line breaks etc., but on this occasion, during a flight to London, he realized his dice had been left behind in Warsaw customs;  'imagine stevie smith on her death bed playing an atheist / bishop she calls for her cat & draws him a door there', ('poem without dice').  And it would be hard not to enjoy the durable, delightfully witty Les Murray's contribution, 'Sometimes after brown food / at a pub, I get so slow / that Highland trackways / only have one side'. ('Travelling the British Roads'). 

The publication provides Acknowledgments, Journals where the poems first appeared and detailed Contributors' Notes which afford the poets' an opportunity to discuss their selected work.  Their comments often enhance informed readings of their poems. University of Queensland Press is to be commended for producing this excellent Poetry Series and the series editors can take a bow, for their commitment to provide a Guest Editor for each publication. 

Peter Porter has done, what must have been a very difficult job, and I think he has done it exceptionally well, selected forty Australian poems, worthy of the title 'best'.  There may be a number of poets overlooked on this occasion, whose work would also warrant inclusion here.  That there will always be too many, to consider including them all, is I think, a great indicator of the quality and standard of the poetry being produced. 

This selection provides a wonderful overview and exploration of much of the poetry being written and published in this country.  In Porter's introduction he reasons the selection choices succinctly, 'these, I believe, are the good stuff - I am happy to offer them as 'the best'.'