Some notes on the Robert Gray and Geoffrey Lehmann anthology «Australian Poetry Since 1788» (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2011.) Peter Minter addressed the 2011 poetry symposium (1 October 2011) in Newcastle, Australia, as follows:
Australian Poetry Symposium. 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.
As Peter Minter has noted in detail, Aboriginal poetry is treated with condescension and contempt in this book. Lionel Fogarty’s poetry is powerful, angry and not easy to read, which is exactly as he intends; nonetheless his is widely regarded as a major Australian voice. But in this book he simply doesn’t exist, along with half a dozen other worthwhile black voices. (You can see a 20-page interview with Lionel Fogarty here.)
But there’s plenty more bad news; read on.
Also, there is no poetry from the late Michael Dransfield, as many have commented. It’s hard not to notice this pointed exclusion. He was a minor, flawed but very significant poet of the late sixties whose highly-coloured and dreamy free verse is still popular. Worse, no Kenneth Mackenzie, a neglected, intensely lyrical poet rather like Dransfield, who died in the 1950s.
Many other good poets are left out, while poets of nugatory talent are given a place.
Jemal Sharah, for example, only ever published a handful of poems in «Quadrant» magazine when she was young. «Quadrant» was established in 1956 as a bulwark against international communism and was funded for many years by the American CIA. She only published one volume, decades ago, and has since deliberately rejected the literary scene in favour of a professional career in the Australian diplomatic service. Perhaps the connection with half a century of unrelenting anti-communism was seen as an unwelcome attribute by her new employers, who are after all in the business of diplomacy. She showed distinct talent, and like Keats may well have gone on to write wonderful poems in her maturity, had she not abandoned poetry. Who knows? Who cares?
Robert Gray does; he attended the launch of her only slim volume in Canberra nearly thirty years ago, and won’t let her memory fade. When does friendship get in the way of dispassionate literary judgment?
Too big, too heavy, too much!
And then, on the publisher’s part, there is the clumsy approach to print production. Poetry books, to have a chance of breaking even, need to find sales in the education market. Poetry anthologies seem like a good bet. Alas, this one, at 1108 pages and over two kilograms weight (four and a half pounds) and with a RRP price of $70, is much too big and much too heavy and much too expensive to sell anywhere much, let alone to students.
Angus and Robertson was faced with the same problem back in 1964, and they solved it professionally. Australian poetry was divided into the two groups that common sense indicates, in two matching volumes. T. Inglis Moore’s «From the Ballads to Brennan» took care of the old poems few except scholars and bar-room reciters were interested in, and Douglas Stewart’s «Modern Australian Verse» brought us up to date. New South Wales University Press perhaps lacked a poetry editor with a sense of history, or perhaps a sense of economics.
Why so quiet about the subsidy?
Of course this peculiar book has been privately subsidised, though you have to search for the evidence. The use of subsidy is an interesting matter that perhaps deserves its own article. So was the recent «Puncher and Wattman Anthology of Australian Poetry» edited by John Leonard. Perhaps we need another Samuel Johnson, to wake us up to the delicate problems inherent in the problem of patronage and patrons. Would the University of New South Wales have published this book if it had not been privately subsidised? And what does that mean for their vaunted editorial independence? When your contributors are more or less paying you to produce the book, how far can you interfere editorially? If you notice that the editors are indulging in vanity publishing, giving their friends a boost and knocking their rivals on the head, how much should you complain? Was this ever an issue? We are not told. (See my piece on poetry publishing subsidies here.)
But this collection of disappointments is mere nit-picking compared to the wonderful surprise that the editors have provided for us. For decades, like many readers, I had assumed that Francis Webb and Judith Wright were Australia’s two major poets. Silly me! In this collection, they get twenty pages between them. But the two editors, Robert Gray and Geoffrey Lehman, are given thirty-seven pages between them. Together they are almost twice as important as Webb and Wright. And to think that I never knew that! Amazing.
That moment of enlightenment is what books like this are all about: with the imprimatur of one of Australia’s great university presses, two major Australian poets are introduced to a respectful public and given their proper place in our history.