Diversity and Cohesion: Marietta Elliott-Kleerkoper reviews Thirty Poets edited by Felicity Plunkett

Thirty Poets edited by Felicity Plunkett. UQP 2011.

Martin Duwell (Australian Poetry Review, 1.2.12) considers anthologies:

… weird and fascinating reading experiences. In many ways they are rather like poems themselves. They have an intention … but the possible meanings of the work often overtake its intention. Like poems they have a personal stamp but they also have a context – the context of other anthologies. Like poems they have complex and important internal structures …

An anthology is like a bunch of flowers, the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, and there is an art in arranging both flowers and poems. The two opposing principles of variety and cohesion often create a tension, as it is difficult to achieve both in equal measure. In the case of this anthology, the structural principle is the nature of the selection criteria: the poets were born after 1968 and had to have at least one publication. In fact, as far as we can judge (not all the poets reveal their date of birth in their biography), the dates of birth fall somewhere between 1968 and 1980. Apart from the criterion of year of birth, the arrangement is studiously neutral, poets being represented in alphabetical order, a common practice these days (e.g. Best Australian Poems). The advantage of a neutral arrangement is that readers may find their own connections. For example, there seems to be a deep link between the first poem, Ali Alizadeh’s ‘Listening to Michael Jackson in Tehran’and the last poem, Petra White’s ‘The Gone’: a journey across geographical and cultural territory and a mourning for those ‘packed into the present tense of here lie/ and the single past tense of the headstone’. David McCooey, in his introduction, has commented that Plunkett ‘has chosen the poems…so that the collection reads like a ‘book’, with artfully repeating motifs and themes.’

Themes and motifs I have chosen to trace have been those identified by David McCooey (‘Surviving Australian Poetry – the new lyricism.’ International Poetry Web, May 1 2007) as being part of a ‘new lyricism’. He identifies three elements of this new lyricism: ‘worldliness’, ‘the uncanny’ and ‘lyricism’. While, as McCooey has stated in the introduction to the anthology, there is clearly an enormous variety of theme and form represented, and we would not push this framework too far, I found it useful in exploring the ‘flavour’ of the anthology, with the caveat that both Potter (Poetry International Web, July, 2011) and Alizadeh (Cordite, 30th May, 2011) have expressed reservations about such a classification.

McCooey defines ‘worldliness’ as: ‘… the ‘recumbent poetic’ that can be found through any number of antecedents not determined by nationality.’ He has identified ‘key concerns in Australian poetry’ as ‘self and place’.

Place is interwoven with memory, as in the poems of Samuel Wagan Watson; as a source of ambivalence, as in ‘Antipodes’, by Bronwyn Lea, exploring the ambivalence of a European in Australia. Jaya Savige, in the persona of Michael Dransfield, exposes the Australian abroad:

I guess I’ve never understood
the romance of those ruins of the blood.

In Sarah Holland-Batt’s poem ‘The Art of Disappearing’, it is the self that keeps changing:

Desire will not hold …
Something is always about to happen.
You get married, you change your name…’

In Petra White’s poem ‘The Magnolia Tree’, the tree is a metaphor for:

A mind beginning to know itself again
after a long period of hostage.

Finally, Alizadeh and Kambasovic-Sawers explore self and place from the perspective of their bicultural heritage.

The ‘uncanny’ has to do with ‘strangeness, eeriness … we can find it in the unfamiliarity of the familiar, or in the sense of the familiar in the unfamiliar.’ The uncanny, of course, has a long list of antecedents, not least surrealism. In discussing the uncanny, McCooey uses as an example a poem by Michael Brennan, which has been republished in this anthology: ‘The Other’:

‘… the doppelganger (sic) … is associated with sleep … with
death … sleep is uncanny because it unsettles notions of the self …’

In Brennan’s first ‘Letter Home’ the narrator’s brother, who has died, appears in his mind: he seems to see him everywhere, as in a dream. Whilst he doubts there is an afterlife, the image is at once disturbing and comforting. The second ‘Letter Home’ consists of a dream sequence where dream and poetry are interwoven:

The people douse themselves in petrol
As though poetry mattered

As in a dream, all elements: earth, sky, water, fire, are confounded.

Kate Fagan’s ‘Dadabase’, dedicated to Michael Farrell, is a mosaic of non-sequiturs, a word- and soundscape.  ‘A Little Song’ presents a surrealist landscape, with juxtapositions that make you sit up: ‘Before the world was blue/it was a little darker …’ ‘Concrete Poem’ consists of a series of mini-poems, statements reminiscent of Neruda, dream-like associations with their own internal thematic logic.

In Lisa Gorton’s ‘Dreams and Artefacts’, dreams, history and poetry merge:

‘ … the mimic ship’s hull half-
sailed out of the foyer wall,
as if advancing into somebody else’s dream –
… these things raised
from a place less like place than like memory itself –’

Lyricism ‘is what we associate most commonly with poetry: musicality; brevity; intensity; the drive to epiphany or insight and an emphasis on thought, feeling and subjectivity… The ‘new lyricism continues the lyrical project by being both faithful and unfaithful to poetry.’ (McCooey, op.cit)

Lyricism is as old as the hills – so what might be new about the ‘new lyricism’? Perhaps nothing, or perhaps it lies in the notion of poets being ‘both faithful and unfaithful to poetry’ – maintaining an ironic distance from their own work, weaving into their poetry reference to the whole poetic enterprise. Many of the poets make specific reference to the poetic process in a variety of ways, such as using words such as ‘poetry’, ‘rhythm’ ‘syllable’, thus doubling the frame; the poem contains within it the history of its evolution. In Nick Riemer’s: ‘The Thing You’re In’, the poet is ‘in it’, yet sees himself somehow as an outsider, sitting on the sofa watching movies: ‘Everything happens fast and then is gone’. The poem is also about the frustrating task of capturing this fleeting reality speeding past as water down the drain:

I type full stop and an arrow
appears: today is a flickering thing, there’s
not much I could say about today.’

In Petra White’s ‘Karri Forest’, the forest, in the process of being destroyed, still ‘swirls you in its poem’, so that the creation of the poem in some way counteracts the destruction of the forest.

Referencing other authors and literary works: David Prater’s ‘Sunbathing’ begins with a quotation from Bernard O’Dowd, and the narrative voice seems to suggest this author; in ‘Oz’, Prater references O’Dowd’s ‘Australia’, at the same time creating his personal sardonic eulogy to the country. In ‘A821.4’ that library classification stands for ‘…the place where we all somehow hope to die’, a place where we are ‘in solidarity with those whose fame/ exceeds our own’.

Finally, in Jane Gibian’s ‘Sound Piece’, the items stored in the curiosity cabinet, such as ‘a baby sister sucking her dummy in the night’ are the stuff of poetry, making the whole poem a metaphor for the poetic process.

There are many more paths to explore through this varied and cohesive anthology. You could simply revisit your old favourites and acquire new ones. A poet who has for some time been a favourite of mine is Sarah Holland-Batt. In ‘This Landscape Before Me’, the natural environment, history, the present, in the form of the poet, and the future, in the shape of the rabbit, who is about to die, are all anchored. Then there is the delicacy of ‘Night Sonnet’, with its startling metaphors: ‘Cars drowse under the window quiet as mousetraps’ and ‘a grit of light trembles…’

I am not in the habit of criticising choices made by editors of an anthology. We all have our favourites and each editor has their own notion of what matches. Generally, the poets are all beyond the ‘emerging’ stage and are both competent and interesting. However, not all poems by individual poets are at the same level. The practical constraint of selecting roughly the same number of pages from each contributor, while having the advantage of providing a substantial representation, also carries the disadvantage of including some lesser work. As the poets are relatively young, this may eventually prove to be a disservice.

Another constraint perhaps too rigidly applied was ‘post 1968’. Plunkett herself mentions in the preface several poets  who could have been included, both ‘emerging’ and older poets. I agree. I wonder why she did not do this, as it would have provided greater continuity, instead of giving the impression that the cut-off point had more than ‘practical’ significance.

This collection has effectively balanced competing demands of diversity and cohesion: it is a richly coloured and thoughtfully arranged bouquet of poems. It has already inspired another anthology with authors selected on the basis of age: John Leonard’s Young Poets: An Australian Anthology (John Leonard Press, 2011), featuring 7 poets at greater length (some of the same poets, and even the same poems, as in Thirty Australian Poets). It will be interesting to see what other anthologies might follow in its wake.


Thirty Poets is available from UQP http://www.uqp.uq.edu.au/

Marietta Elliott-Kleerkoper was born in Amsterdam and survived the Holocaust in hiding. She arrived in Australia at the age of 11 with her family. She taught foreign languages and English as a Second Language and lectured in Teacher Education at several universities. She has been published in Australian and overseas journals and anthologies, has won several poetry prizes. Her Dutch-English poetry book and CD Island of wakefulness appeared with Hybrid in 2006. She is a former president of Melbourne Poets Union.

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