02 Introduction

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Four young poets at the time of this anthology at Exiles bookshop, Taylor Square, 1979: left to right: Nigel Roberts, Nicholas Pounder, Richard Tipping, Eric Beach. Photo by John Tranter.
Four young poets at the time of this anthology at Exiles bookshop, Taylor Square, 1979: left to right: Nigel Roberts, Nicholas Pounder, Richard Tipping, Eric Beach. Photo by John Tranter.

[The New Australian Poetry, page xv]


Because there are no pages and thus no page numbers on the internet, paragraph numbers are given here instead, so scholars may quote the position of textual fragments accurately. Paragraph One Follows: 1:

This anthology contains the work of twenty-four poets, mainly young writers who first came to prominence in the closing years of the 1960s — the ‘Generation of ’68’. They rose to public notice on the crest of a wave of poetry readings, ‘underground’ magazines, and a generally expressed antagonism to the established mainstream of poetry at that time, which they saw as too conservative. The readings attracted a large and varied audience, and the magazines, being cheap and open to almost anything in the way of new poetry, were an ideal breeding-ground for ideas, argument and experiment.


Most of the readings were held in Melbourne, which was the home of two quite different groups of young poets. In 1967 Joe Mauch organised readings at Monash University each month during term. More than twenty were held until they folded in late 1969, and they featured writers such as John A. Scott, Laurie Duggan and Alan Wearne. At the La Mama Theatre Workshop, Kris Hemensley organised a series of readings that ran from 1966 to 1969. Poets from these groups rarely read at one another’s home venues. In Sydney there were scattered readings, but the only regular events were organised by Nigel Roberts as the poetry side of the annual Balmain Poetry and Prose Readings, which drew large crowds. The editors of the little magazines were also poets, and many of them are collected in this anthology: Nigel Roberts, Rae Desmond Jones, Charles Buckmaster, Kris Hemensley and Robert Kenny, among others. Late in

[The New Australian Poetry, page xvi]

1969 a group of young writers took over the running of the established Poetry Magazine, re-named it New Poetry, and began publishing work suited to its new title. Robert Adamson and Martin Johnston were among the co-editors, and three poets in this collection — John A. Scott, Laurie Duggan and John Forbes — won its annual poetry award in 1970, 1971 and 1972 respectively.


The readings and little magazines began appearing around 1967 and 1968; within five years or so the movement had produced at least twenty valuable poets, and had exercised a strong influence on all forms of poetry publication in Australia. What was it about this loose group of writers that made it unique, and how did it come to have such an influence in so short a time?


I think one of the basic contributing causes is simply demographic. The ‘baby boom’ of the post-war years surged out of the high schools in the early 1960s. The affluence of Australian society in the 1950s presented them with better tertiary education than ever before, and often this included modern poetry. This created a large, well-educated audience, ready to hear a new type of writing that rejected conservative values. And because most of the new poets were young, they were just as ready to accept the influence of the new rock music — Dylan, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, for example — as they were that of Yeats or T.S.Eliot. And the rock music of the late 1960s was, in some cases, very literate indeed.


Technology was another factor. Printing was markedly better in terms of quality, low cost and availability in the late 1960s than before. The development of the small offset litho press such as the Multilith 1250, the electronic automatic Gestetner, and the IBM office golfball typewriter using a carbon ribbon, all made the little magazines easier and faster for an amateur to produce, cheaper to print, and better-looking.


Drugs were also important. These writers belonged to the first generation in Australia’s history to take to various illegal drugs on a large scale. I would hazard the guess that most of the poets in this book experimented with marijuana; most poets from the preceding generations did not. This matters little in terms of the quality or subject-matter of their poetry — a drug high is no more ‘poetic’ than any other. But it does mark a shift in attitudes to authority, to

[The New Australian Poetry, page xvii]

moral values, and ultimately to the craft and purpose of writing. Where drugs appear in their work, they are seldom used as a Romantic justification for a mode of rhetoric. They are more often — and more significantly — seen as involving an experiential process analogous to the creative act itself.


But perhaps the strongest direct influence was from America, in the form of the new poetry that emerged there in the early 1960s. And here, the effect of two books was incalculable — Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry (New York: Grove Press, 1960) and Donald Hall’s Contemporary American Poetry (London: Penguin Books, 1962). They were big, various, and completely new, and when they finally arrived in Australia in the mid-1960s (Donald Allen’s book was banned for several years) they showed the local writers that there was a real and vigorous alternative to the world of Henry Lawson and A.D. Hope.


Added to these external factors was a belief that poetry was worth a serious effort of commitment. It was not seen as a pastime, nor as a hobby; it was not a pleasant diversion from an academic routine, nor a skill to be developed for its own sake. It was generally seen as an integral part of a wider struggle for freedom: freedom from conscription (we were at war with North Vietnam at the time), freedom from censorship and police harassment, freedom to experiment with drugs, to develop a sexual ethic liberated from authoritarian restraints, and freedom from the handcuffs of rhyme and the critical strictures of the university English departments.


So a large part of the energies of these writers went towards overthrowing what they saw as the tradition of conservatism that had dominated poetry in this country for many years. Many of them believed — to put it very crudely — that this tradition had at least three major faults. It was largely derived from, enfeebled English models; it was too closely aligned with the reactionary establishment that had dragged us into the shame of the Vietnam War; and it was built upon a mid-Victorian understanding of poetry’s role that had been convincingly demolished in Europe and the Americas decades before.


The need to develop a new poetics appropriate to the age drew a different and highly individual response from each writer. Michael Dransfield, skilfully evoking a mythical ancestral estate wreathed in an opium twilight — a mood that is almost a type of Transcendental Melancholy — con-

[The New Australian Poetry, page xviii]

trasts vividly with Nigel Roberts’ colloquial and sometimes cynical rendering of the urban drug scene; and there is little in common between John Jenkins’ advertising parodies and Walter Billeter’s intense linguistics, or between Vicki Viidikas’ scenes from the counter-culture and Martin Johnston’s erudition. The number of different styles is as great as the number of poets in this book — greater, in fact, as many of them show a range of distinct modes within their individual contributions.


Yet however diverse these poets are, a general aim can be seen in the development of their work over the last ten years, and it can most usefully be seen in terms of the modernist movement. As either blindness or hostility to the importance of this tradition is a part of Australia’s cultural insularity, it might be worthwhile to outline some of its implications briefly here. [1


During the first half of the nineteenth century, a vast change began to make itself felt through every aspect of European society. The old philosophical certainties were giving way, and man’s traditional faith in reason and its acquiescent tool, language, was being eroded. just as the foreign concept of zero at first shocked mathematicians, then revolutionised their science, the newly-developing concepts of absence, nothingness and relativist values at first unnerved philosophers and writers. The shock waves can be traced in the work of Pascal, Descartes, De Sade and others, and literature turned to the inherent properties of language itself to discover solutions.


Characteristic of this process was Flaubert’s remark that ‘the only truth in this world is a well-made sentence’, and Mallarmé’s equally extraordinary ‘everything exists in order to end in a book.’ Language was enthroned as a primary and opaque material, the proper tool not of reason but of literature itself, whose new task — in an age when innocence had disappeared, and self-consciousness had become inevitable — was to deal with relativism, and to come to terms with the absence of rationalist man and his optimistic view of a world of ‘permanent’ and ‘real’ things. With Nietzsche’s brusque counter to this evolving problem — ‘the apparent world is

[The New Australian Poetry, page xix]

the only true one’ — the foundations of twentieth-century modernism were laid.


The period 1890 to 1930 saw the culmination of these developments and their flowering into full consciousness. The context was specifically European, the label is Modernism (now, conventionally, with a capital ‘M’) and the visual arts, literature, drama, cinema, ballet, music, philosophy and linguistics were all bathed in its glow.


A brief list of typical modernist works can only be selective and arbitrary, but the energy of this movement can be seen clearly in the drama of Strindberg and Wedekind, the poetry of Rimbaud and Apollinaire, the expressionist cinema in Germany, and in the heady Parisian ambience of the 192Os: Cubism, Duchamp’s ‘found’ sculptures, Stravinsky’s music and the Russian Ballet. and the ultimate anti-poetry, Dada. Many of these movements overlap with seemingly opposing tendencies — as examples, Expressionism in literature can be seen as both a denial and an endorsement of some aspects of Romanticism, which is itself bourgeois and individualist, revolutionary and solipsist at the same time; and the rich, painterly surface of a Soutine directly opposes the clinical planar structures of a Braque collage.


Yet these conflicts revolve around a set of strongly common denominators. Some characteristics of works regarded as modernist are: ‘self-signature’ — the work validates its own technical innovations — and self-reference, where the ‘method’ is reflected consciously in the ‘medium’.. emphasis on individualist values against an agreed social value, fragmentation against synthesis and harmony, kinetic energy against the status quo, and an intention to disrupt the canons of the art form and the preconceptions of the consumer. Hence modernism tends to be on the side of experiment rather than conservatism. Its body of tradition is always conditional, as it depends on flux, enquiry, social change and growth rather than stasis, traditional values, social stability and consolidation.


In the radical way it has altered our perception of ourselves, modernism stands as the most significant revolution in thought since the shift from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance; its disruptions are still reverberating through Europe, have been current in the Americas since the 1930s, and —

[The New Australian Poetry, page xx]

after a few false starts — finally appear to have broached the wall of Anglo-Saxon impeturbability in Australia in the late 1960s.


Bronowski reminded us that we are still living in the midst of the Industrial Revolution; in the same manner, we are still involved in the modernist revolution. [2] An understanding of Abstract Expressionism or post-object art, of the music of John Cage or Stockhausen, of the poetry of Frank O’Hara or John Ashbery is incomplete without a grasp of the modernist tradition that is developed and transformed in their work. The phrase ‘post-Modernism’ can only be used properly in relation to the Modernism of the 1920s. In larger cultural terms, we are still significantly enmeshed in those same troubled relations between subjectivism, formalism, language, speech, writing, literature and reality that began their most intense and public debate one hundred years ago.


The bulk of the poems in this collection are set consciously against a background of ideas drawn from this area. Certain of them focus deliberately on points of exploration and conceptual tension, and use formal self-awareness as a reflecting mirror to intensify the poem’s energy. John Forbes’ poem ‘T.V.’ (p. 262), for example, has a deceptively simple surface, and a very complicated underlying structure.


John Forbes


dont bother telling me about the programs
describe what your set is like the casing the
curved screen its strip of white stillness like
beach sand at pools where the animals come
down to drink and a native hunter hides his
muscles, poised with a fire sharpened spear
until the sudden whirr of an anthropologist’s
hidden camera sends gazelles leaping off in
their delicate slow motion caught on film
despite the impulsive killing of unlucky Doctor
Mathews whose body was found three months later
the film and camera intact save for a faint,
green mould on its hand-made leather casing


It is a single sentence, without capital letters, without a full stop, and beginning ‘don’t bother telling me about the programs…’ It is obvious that the world of traditional poetic discourse has been left far behind; and yet the objects and events in the poem are within everybody’s range of experiences. We’ve

[The New Australian Poetry, page xxi]

all watched television, and seen movies about African wild-life, and nothing in the poem is at all unusual. What is unusual is what the poem is doing, in terms of its role as a piece of language acting upon a reader. Instead of the poet saying to his audience ‘Listen, here are some objects and events from the real world; I have experienced them intensely, and I want you to share this experience through a literary fiction that we shall pretend is not a fiction’ (which is what many readers expect from a poem), here John Forbes is saying to the reader: ‘Look at your TV set; don’t describe the content of the programs; describe instead to me, the poet (which is of course impossible) what the container of these hypothetical programs is like -’ and then the poet breaks off, abandoning the reader and releasing him from the imperative mood of the poem’s opening. The poem then modulates into an extended Homeric simile that contains within itself a story that depends (for its fictional validity) upon the contents of a film camera, itself imaginary. The word ‘casing’ in effect opens and closes the action of the poem; appropriately enough, for the poem is itself a metaphor for the concept of a container, or rather a set of descending levels of containers: the poem containing the concept of a television set, which bears an image (the ‘casing’) that, through the process of metaphor, becomes contained within the imaginary story of unlucky Doctor Mathews; the television set which contains imaginary and never-to-be-described programs; the film camera which contains the slow-motion film of gazelles; and finally the poem seen as containing the word ‘casing’, which brackets and thus formally contains the whole metaphor upon which the poem is based.


Whatever else John Forbes may have intended his poem to do, it is at least certain that he is not concerned with persuading the reader to accept his view of human destiny; ethics, morality, religion and mythology are distinctly absent from the writer’s concerns. [Note: I should mention that the late John Forbes disagreed strongly with this sentence. J.T., 1999.]


To show how far the language of this type of poetry has moved from the more generally accepted view of what type of rhetoric English verse is expected to embody, I’d like to quote a selection of phrases used in two typical reviews of a well-known and highly-regarded contemporary Australian poem, Vincent Buckley’s ‘Golden Builders’:


guarantees our belief, a change of heart, practical and positive, what gives life value, keeps alive our hopes,

[The New Australian Poetry, page xxii]

more humanly meaningful, sense of responsibility, convinced of the moral value, intelligence and moral judgment, the ‘God’ who guarantees human value, the artist’s responsibility, this responsibility forbids self- indulgence, honesty of approach, responsible for the world they have made, reverence, enlarge his sense of responsibility, honest acceptance, seriousness, something significant to say, the true, as against the false, life, freedom and responsibility, reverent, sensitivity, sensitive response, deeply-observed, deeply-felt sensations, full humanity, integrity, mature, (and) convincingly.


These terms are of course appropriate to a discussion of a poem such as ‘Golden Builders’, a work with specific moral and religious overtones. But the kind of high seriousness we find in this language is quite inappropriate to most areas of most people’s lives, and its application to many of the poems in this collection that have a different kind of value can only result in their dismissal. This quasi-religious rhetoric is a natural outgrowth of Australian university English departments, and is probably inevitable, given their peculiar ancestry: by Matthew Arnold, out of Doctor Leavis, via Victorian England. Common-Room Humanism is as apt to sermonise as any other fervid minority belief. This is one of the crosses the new poetry has had to bear for the last ten years, and accounts for the anti-academic bias evident in some of its earlier works.


More dispiriting in some ways is the maladroit praise sometimes begrudged it by well-meaning critics of this persuasion. An example that illustrates the problems this approach runs into when it tries to come to terms with a poem constructed on different premises is Christopher Pollnitz’s response to the poem ‘The Front Window’, by Rae Desmond Jones (p. 28). [Christopher Pollnitz, ‘Writer and Reader: The New Mannerism,’ Southerly (3, 1978), p. 349.]


Rae Desmond Jones


it is raining softly
as an old greek woman
dressed in black walks
along the path with
a big brown paper
       the spray tapers on
       the roof opposite like durer’s
       hands & i know if i take a rubber
       i can obliterate the world
the old woman looks
at me & her face is folded & cracked
& her eyes are small
               i take the rubber
               & she looks down as she
               begins to disappear
because she is heavy i rub harder
& she becomes gradually faint
& weak
         she drops the parcel &
         it splits on the wet ground
         & sets loose a swarm of angry
their tails are fat &
they beat against the glass & live
although i rub them out one by one
they are a plague


This poem, says Mr Pollnitz, ‘makes a woman of words… Here he is meditating his responsibilities as a creator of fictions, but is this not also a parable about compassion, and even more about Woman? For Jones as for Robert Graves, She abides.’ We have come across the words ‘responsible’ and ‘responsibility’ before; they occur six times

[The New Australian Poetry, page xxiii]

in the list of homilies on ‘Golden Builders’ quoted above. But it should be clear to most readers who approach this poem in a less earnest frame of mind that Rae Desmond Jones is here shrugging off the Puritan work ethic, and making a delightful poem out of his ability to play freely within his text. There is no evidence in the poem to support the rather strained thesis that it is a parable, nor that it has anything to do with compassion; and even less excuse to refer to ‘woman’ with a capital ‘W’, and ‘she’ with a capital ‘S’.


What the poet is in fact doing is far more interesting. He reveals a double view of the creative act in a single frame: first the landscape with figure is revealed as a fiction — it only exists on the page because the poet has chosen to make it exist, and he can (and does) choose to destroy it. Second, if the poet also exists in the poem, he does so on the poem’s terms, and the ‘reality’ of the fictional landscape can take over and destroy ‘him’. This carries Nietzsche’s ‘the apparent world is the only true one’ a few steps further. If the reader believes in the old Greek woman at the start of the poem (her prototype, incidentally, did exist in the ‘real’ world; presumably with a lower-case ‘w’), at the end he or she will have to believe equally in the poet, and in his ability to evoke a transformational reality that has its basis in language. This is one of the tenets of modernism: that the mental landscape can be displayed as being more variable, complex and humanly meaningful than the external, because it includes the ‘real world’ as one of its many attributes.


It is interesting to note that John Forbes’ ‘Four Heads and how to do Them’ (p. 262) also uses the theme of a drawing exercise as a model for the creative act, though in a more extended and stylistically self-conscious manner. It is a poem that risks disaster at every step, and only the poet’s skill and panache save it. The American poet Frank O’Hara defined his method with the phrase ‘You just go on your nerve’, a motto that ‘Four Heads’ enacts and endorses.


John Jenkins’ ‘Read This’ (p. 255) appears to work in a similar area to ‘Four Heads’, in its focus on a set of stylistic parameters that are derived from the advertising industry. But ‘Read This’ works on another level entirely. Its subject is openly stated as poetry, though its theme is advertising; and though it appears to look through the tinted glasses of salesmanship in the direction of an ideal ‘style’ of poetry, in fact the reverse occurs: its gaze is

[The New Australian Poetry, page xxiv]

reflected back onto its own linguistically corrupt and beautiful surface. It works successfully as a modernist poem by evading poetry through commenting on it, where John Forbes creates poetry by commenting on another subject that becomes a model for the progression of the poem itself. Two other long poems are worthy of brief comment here: they have been subjected to misinformed criticism both for and against, and they display a difficult and complex surface to the reader.


In ‘The Rumour’ (p. 85), Robert Adamson created an ambitious and important work. The key to its achievement — and its inherent flaw — is the tension created by his desire to give the poem an autonomy based on the claims of literature, and his contrasting need to justify his role as a poet in Romantic terms. This conflict characterised much poetry of the late 1960s (Michael Dransfield and Charles Buckmaster are other notable examples) and this poem brings the problem to a sharp and revealing focus. Romanticism, with its emphasis on an organic order in the natural world, on the primacy of the individual ‘soul’ of the poet, and on humanist man, was the first serious attack on Neo-Classicism, but in accepting the basic premises of rationalism in all areas but the emotional, it stands as a prototypical but clearly inadequate response to contemporary experience. It works uneasily in the context of Adamson’s more self-aware conceptual gestures, and both approaches are illuminated — and, to some extent, undermined — by this juxtapositioning.


Martin Johnston, in ‘The Blood Aquarium’ (p. 109), constructs an entirely different literary artefact. The residues of classical learning, both Western and Eastern, are held together by the cement of a modern literary speech to form a static object whose verbal actions, though often in the present tense, gesture towards a past where the poem exists as a fait accompli. Memory and intellect fuse into learning, and the formal tension of the poem occurs where learning surfaces through the language to create a pattern of conceptual decorations. At this aesthetic interface, the poem demonstrates a value unencumbered by moralism, ego or social utilitarianism.


In all these poems, words — the fragments of language the poet places in the special framework of a poem — have a reality more solid and intense than the world of objects

[The New Australian Poetry, page xxv]

and sense-perception:


‘What if all that was left…was a piece of notepaper/with something written on it in a foreign language?’

(Martin Johnston)

‘The head, at/last one with the world, dissolves. The artist changes genre.’

(John Forbes)

‘i know if i take a rubber/i can obliterate the world… ’

(Rae Desmond Jones)


This brings us back to the modernist conception of the poet as a creative artist constructing fictions out of his or her experience in a world qualified by language. The poets of the Generation of ‘68 have left the duties of priest, psychotherapist and moral administrator to those who feel they are best trained to enact them. They have instead devoted their energies to that field of human action where their skills and talents arm them with a unique authority, where meaning embodies itself as speech, and words emerge as that most ancient yet most contemporary voyage of discovery, literature.


More than a decade has passed since many of these poets began writing, and collectively they have built up a large and solid body of work. Their achievement may be measured crudely in terms of quantity: in the last ten years these writers, and others loosely associated with them, have published and found readers for more than twenty thousand pages of creative and critical writing in magazines, newspapers, radio programs, anthologies and books, including a total of more than one hundred volumes of poetry. No other group of poets in Australia’s history has produced such a sheer mass of published writing.


This great bulk of material presents the anthologist with a choice between two courses of action: to collect a page or two from every poet associated with the movement and end up with a large and shapeless mass of small fragments, or to try to construct an order out of the chaos and to select ruthlessly, thus unavoidably imposing his own taste and judgment on the reader’s responses. I have chosen the second option, and have selected those writers who in my opinion most energetically demonstrate a range of concerns of major interest among this generation, and others whose achieve-

[The New Australian Poetry, page xxvi]

ments, though not large in scale, vividly outline some related areas of experiment and discovery. Within this framework I have made space for some extended works that I consider to be among the salient landmarks of the era, at the expense of a larger number of separate poems.


With such a course bias is inevitable, and I trust the reader will bear in mind that other editors could well have compiled a dozen quite different anthologies from the same mass of raw material. My likes and dislikes should be clear enough from the drift of this introduction, though I have made an honest effort to give a fair representation to as many varieties of the new poetry as I feel sustain a claim on the attention of a general audience. Many contemporary poets have not been included in this anthology. They have various virtues, but what they lack most, for my present purpose, is that commitment to the overhauling of poetic method and function that seems to become necessary from time to time in any culture. Given the emphasis on formal traditionalism that shaped our verse from the early 1950s, this seems to me to be clearly the most refreshing aspect of contemporary Australian poetry, and I see it as typical of the poets I have included. And I have left out many other young poets whose developing work shows sympathy with the writing included here, who would no doubt add breadth and colour to this collection. But this book is not meant as a state-of-the-art review. I see it as an attempt to give shape and body to a historical period in our writing that began around 1968, and that I feel is now drawing to a close. The experiments of the late 1960s and early 1970s were not so much beginners’ exercises as determined and serious attempts to revitalise a moribund poetic culture, and the best of them stand as considerable achievements in the history of Australian poetry.

 — John Tranter
Sydney, 1979


[1] A thorough introduction to this difficult area is provided by Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane, eds., Modernism (London: Penguin, 1976).

[2] Peter Ackroyd has argued that the beginnings of modernism can be seen in England in the late seventeenth century, when a new language, stripped of Renaissance conceits and opacity, was focused through the lens of Reason to transparently reveal a world of simple, plain and continuous relationships. ‘Language is only the instrument of science,’ wrote Johnson in the preface to the English Dictionary, in 1773, ‘and words are but the signs of ideas: I wish, however, that the instrument might be less apt to decay, and that signs might be permanent, like the things which they denote.’ Ackroyd calls this the ‘classical’ phase of modernism, and claims that the dramatic proclamation of the modern in Europe in the late nineteenth century was a transformation, or revolution, of a larger shift in thought that had been developing for two hundred years. See Peter Ackroyd, Notes for a New Culture [London: Vision Press, 1976].



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