A new front opens in the ‘Poetry Wars’ – John Tranter, David McCooey and Peter Minter on ‘that anthology’ (Australian Poetry Since 1788)

Back in the first issue of Rochford Street Review I commented on Mike Ladd’s  review of  Australian Poetry Since 1788, edited by Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray. At the time I stated that I had not read the anthology and did not intend to do so – “… it is unlikely that I will end up spending close to $70 for another anthology of Australian poetry (and given the size of this collection – 1,108 pages – I doubt my aging bookcases could support another large anthology”.  Nothing has happened in the intervening months to change my view.

The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), however, must be really interested in this anthology. The Ladd review was published in Spectrum (in the Saturday SMH) on 12/13 November 2011. Earlier David McCooey had published a review in the Entertainment section of the SMH on 1 October. Now we have a third, an embarrassingly gushy review by John Clare published again in the Entertainment section on 29 January this year. While I appreciate that this is a thick anthology, does it really warrant 3 reviews in a major Sydney newspaper? Surely there are other newly released books of poetry that should have been reviewed but haven’t because of the space taken up by these multiple reviews.

Of the SMH reviews only the McCooey one takes up the obvious issue of the title – in particular the use of 1778. McCooey takes 1778 as a departure point for the fist part of his review. He points what he sees as the “neo-colonial” aspects of the opening sections of the anthology.

McCooey also refers to the “ethnographical” approach the editors take to indigenous poetry.  He points out that only 2 of the poets are Aboriginal (Oodgeroo Noonuccal and Elizabeth Hodgson) and he quotes the extraordinary description of Hodgson as a Aboriginal poet who  “’has not moved towards a Creole for her poetry” – excuse me!. McCooey also notes the exclusion of Lionel Fogarty and the inclusion of other indigenous poetry in the context of their non-indigenous “collectors and editors”.

While both the Ladd and McCooey reviews in the SMH have been a carefully measured critique of this lumbering anthology (I am dismissing the Clare review), John Tranter, in his new online journal, does not feel the need to hold back. From the start we know exactly where he stands – he has titled his piece on the anthology as “The Gray and Lehmann Death Star”. One has an image of Tranter as Luke Skywalker firing a series of explosive words down the spine to the core of massive anthology.

Interesting enough Tranter opens in the same way as McCooey, by attacking the way Gray and Lehmann approach the issue of Aboriginal poetry in the anthology. Tranter starts by quoting from the publicity for Peter Minter’s address at the 2011 Poetry Symposium held in Newcastle NSW on 1 October 2011(interestingly the same day that the Mccooey review appeared in the SMH):

Peter Minter will speak on the exclusion of modern Aboriginal poetry from “Australian Poetry Since 1788″, the new poetry anthology edited by Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray. He will examine how Lehmann and Gray’s marooned neo-colonialism (circa 1988) whitewashes the rich tapestry of Aboriginal poetry from its so-called “landmark” vision. As such, and alongside the editorial sanitisation of many other non-Anglo poetries from its pages, the anthology will undoubtedly be viewed historically as one of the last gasps of white-Australian conservatism.

Tranter then moves on to the rejected poets, noting, as many others have, the “pointed exclusion” of Dransfield, but also the absence of Kenneth Mackenzie “a neglected, intensely lyrical poet rather like Dransfield, who died in the 1950s”. On the flip side of course are the poets that have been included who probably shouldn’t have been . Tranter cites the case of Jemal Sharah who published one slim volume “decades ago” together with a handful of poems in Quadrant (a journal, Tranter points, out was partially funded by the CIA during the Cold War). While Tranter doesn’t deny that she did show signs of “distinct talent”, she abandoned poetry at an early age to pursue another career. Tranter implies that she is included due to a friendship with Gray, while poets like Dransfield, Mackenzie and Fogarty miss out: “When does friendship get in the way of dispassionate literary judgment?”.

Tranter also raises questions about how the book was funded, hinting that the private subsidy that supported the publication of this anthology perhaps borders on “vanity publishing”. Tranter does not, however, drill too deeply into the details of this “subsidy” so, at least for me, the question of subsidy and influence remains a little unclear.

So has Tranter fired a missile into the spine of the “Death Star Anthology”? Maybe not quite – but along with reviewers, critics and writers such as Peter Minter, David McCooey and others – he has raised some serious questions around the objectivity and intention of this anthology. I’m sure, however, the ‘saga’ isn’t quite finished yet

As for me…one of my favourite anthologies of Australian poetry is Applestealers……so Gray and Lehmann aren’t quite my cup of tea.

– Mark Roberts


  1. I agree with Peter Minter and David McCooey’s views of this tome. I’m in it myself, represented quite reasonably though the story of how this came about might be of interest. All I knew for starters was that UNSW were going to do a big anthology and they had asked me for particular poems. Significantly – and I probably should have noticed this – they didn’t say who the editor/s were. Sometime later when Alan Wearne contacted me to say that I was in the new Lehmann-Grey anthology I told him I wasn’t. Then I discovered that I was when I got the publicity material. I suspected that Lehmann and Grey had left their names off the invitation to contribute because they thought some people (like me) would have automatically refused permission. Given that their earlier anthology had left a lot of people out and with some they included had provided narky introductions (John Forbes’ poems, we were told, were really about how he couldn’t get a girlfriend) they probably felt it best to hedge their bets. As it turned out I would probably have let them have the poems anyway, seeing it as some kind of thaw in the poetry wars. But then I didn’t have any idea of the parameters of their project. So it goes.

    1. This might seem nickpicking, Mark, but why bracket neo-colonial in scare quotes? I would say that scare-quoting a term is a sign that twe need to pay more attention to what Minter and Tranter mean be neocolonial in this instance. Omitting so many good indigenous and Asian-Australian poets for example (though I cheer the inclusion of Pi O.) The faux Aboriginal cover papers, the lack of poets who do not fit a “national style”, and what else I wonder.

      1. BTW, here’s what Mike Ladd said of Jemal Sharah:
        “I’ve also been re-reading a first book, Path of Ghosts by Jemal Sharah. It’s
        one of those first books that seems to have come out fully-formed, polished,
        and with a maturity that makes its author seem like a veteran. That’s
        unusual, but I can think of some recent others such as Aidan Coleman’s
        Avenues and Runways and Penelope Layland’s Suburban Anatomy. Path of
        Ghosts is not a new book. It was published by William Heinemann Australia in
        1994. The poems were all written before Jemal was twenty five. They are
        remarkable, tightly constructed, often formal in metre and rhyme, but
        emotional too. At the time, Les Murray said on the back cover blurb that
        Jemal Sharah was “the most gifted young poet in Australia, and the one most
        likely to have a career of major achievement.” That hasn’t happened so far –
        Path of Ghosts remains her only slim volume, and she has instead chosen a
        career in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, but that doesn’t
        matter; this book still stands up as a wonderful achievement.

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