The Gray and Lehmann Death Star

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.

You can see a video of the talk.

Aboriginal poetry

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.

Special Exceptions

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.

Samuel Johnson, by Sir Joshua Reynolds
Samuel Johnson, by Sir Joshua Reynolds

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.

18 Replies to “The Gray and Lehmann Death Star”

  1. Thanks, Mark. I was pleased to note at the conclusion of your piece that you say “As for me…one of my favourite anthologies of Australian poetry is Applestealers……so Gray and Lehmann aren’t quite my cup of tea.”

    Now that was a real anthology! A brimming mug of caffé forte!

    John Tranter

  2. Dear John,
    Thank you. Once again you have made me laugh out loud with that wonderfully expressive tongue placed firmly in a very informed cheek as you wonder at your late education on the comparative fame and worthiness of Australian Poets.
    …and yes, I too have a preference for “Applestealers”.
    Lyndon Walker.

  3. Luarie Duggan has posted a comment on how he came to be included in the Gray & Lehmann anthology on RSR

    “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.”

  4. Indeed, Rosemary. There are many little shocks like that. In fact the whole experience is rather like being given electro-convulsive therapy.
    John Tranter

  5. Gee, don’t know that I want to be bound by the concept of Francis Webb and Judith Wright being Australia’s two major poets. Or any other pecking order, come to think of it. I’d rather enjoy good poetry when it comes my way, in all its permutations.

  6. Gosh, Rhyll, you’re so right. And it’s refreshing to see someone sweep away this obsession with pecking orders. It’s good to see how Robert and Geoffrey have done away with all that ideology stuff, and just put all their friends in, like good fellows, and given you and Judith Wright the exact same number of pages. Each as important as the other! Like you, I’d rather enjoy good poetry when it comes my way, in all its permutations.

    The difficulty there is that Robert and Geoffrey only let some good poetry come my way, and prevent other good poetry from being heard at all. Dransfield, for example, who has thousands of fans, and Mackenzie, and… well, it goes on and on.

    But you’re right. Let’s pretend, like «Quadrant» magazine, that we have no truck with ideology at all. Ah, that’s better!

  7. Golly, John, you’re right, I’ve been given the exact same number of pages as Judith Wright, though I have a mere 11 poems to her 15. I notice that you have one more poem than Robert Gray, but Robert Adamson has one more poem than you, and I have one more poem than A.D. Hope (now there’s a boast I delight in, meaningless though it is on anyone’s ‘icon meter’). I could go on feverishly counting, but I get bored easily.

    I do not read ‘Quadrant’ magazine, eschewing, like Carl Jung, the ‘isms’. I submitted my poems to the Lehmann/Gray anthology with small expectations of inclusion. Frankly, I thought they might put in a couple of poems from my earlier books and ignore the later ones. I had no idea of their opinion of my poetry, or their opinion of anyone else, as I rarely speak to other poets.

    Being a pacifist,I can never remember exactly who’s on which side of the Poetry Wars. All I know is, we’ll all be dead in the end.

    All anthologies are idiosyncratic, reflecting personal choices, just as your seminal ’93 anthology, ‘Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry’ did, but Lehmann and Gray are distinguished poets and have a solid reputation as anthologists. It’s good to debate the exclusions, but I’m glad to be in the anthology, glad, whether you’re their ‘friend’ or not, that you’re in it too.

  8. Hi John – I thought you might be interested in an article from 1994 I have just loaded onto my Printed Shadows site:

    Towards a New Diversity: Martin Johnston and the New Australian Poetry. By Mark Roberts. Published in Island 58, Autumn 1994.

    I guess it places the Gray and Lehmann anthology in some sort of historical context…and it puts Martin Johnston front and centre….

  9. This anthology has to be the most expensive and complex vanity publishing ever undertaken, as well as presenting a hopelessly narrow and matey view of Australian poetry.

  10. Having read the reviews and comments, I might go to my local bookshop and flick through the contents of this anthology and count the West Australians. I’ve heard that Fay Zwicky’s not in it. But then, Fay was born in Victoria, so perhaps that’s not relevant.
    I’ve seen these ‘poetry wars’ rage time and time again, but from where I sit, in my Perth suburban study, crafting poems and stories, occasionally seeing them published, I think you lot over there have no idea at all of what it’s like to be ignored.

  11. Murray, I understand, and feel sympathetic.
    But… if you live in Birmingham, England, and you want to be noticed, not ignored, go to London and make a big noise. That’s what the Beatles did.
    If you live in Tulsla, Oklahoma, and you want to be noticed, not ignored, go to New York City and make a big noise. That’s what Ted Berrigan did.
    If you live in Charleville, France, and you want to be noticed, not ignored, go to Paris and make a big noise. That’s what Arthur Rimbaud did.
    If you live in Perth, Western Australia, and you want to be noticed, not ignored, go to Cambridge and make a big noise. That’s what John Kinsella did.
    And so on. Yes, it’s a shame, but there is only so much room in the attention span of the national audience, and you have to make a claim on it if you want to be noticed.
    If you want to live in Perth, fine. It is a lovely place. But it is a long way from New York City. If you want to be noticed, you really need to make people notice you. Full stop. If you can’t manage that, live with it. It is really your responsibility to make that choice and to live with the consequences. “Sydney or the Bush”, as they used to say.
    John T

  12. Murray: please don’t think that I am making light of your problems in Perth: far from it. The issue of Provincialism is a very important one. Western Australia has produced some very interesting writers. I think Kenneth Seaforth Mackenzie is one of Australia’s best poets; I think Dorothy Hewett is a fascinating poet and playwright and political thinker; I fell upon Randolph Stow’s early novels with glee.

    But note that they all left Western Australia to become who they became.

    A theatre-goer in Sydney is not likely to look up the theatre reviews in Launceston, and in Townsville, and in Perth. She is not going to be in Launceston or Townsville or Perth in the forseeable future to attend the theatres there, so why take an interest in them? There is simply far too much to become aware of just in Sydney – dozens of theatres, some connected to friends of hers – and life is short.

    And of course Provincialism is relative. On my farm as a young person I felt out of touch with what was going on in town, Moruya, five miles away. The local kids from Moruya got together after school, and hung around the local milk bar. I couldn’t do that; I lived in the bush. It felt lonely.

    And every time I go to London or New York I feel that so much has been going on that I simply don’t know anything about. For example, I missed out on the whole Beat scene, and the New York School.

    And no one in New York or Paris or London knows anything about New Poetry magazine in Sydney in the early 1970s, but to me it was vitally important at the time.

    That is where the Internet can help. My literary magazine Jacket helped to pull together English poets, US American poet, South American poets, young Russian poets, Polish poets, Mexican poets, Cuban poets, and many others. And photographers and reviewers. It helped to create a community that stretched across borders. When I published an interview I had done with British poet Roy Fisher in Jacket 1, in 1997 (it’s still there), I received a letter via email from a Fisher fan, who thanked me for publishing the interview. “I like Fisher’s work,” he said, “but it’s difficult to obtain any work on Fisher, up here in Nome, Alaska.”

    John Tranter

  13. Like Rhyll McMaster, I almost never talk to other poets, so it was only when my dear old Mum mentioned (with amusement) that I was still attracting comment that I looked this up. I was tickled when I heard I was being included in The Anthology, and even more so to see how many reviewers chose to single me out despite my absence from the poetry scene – and all so kindly; it seems as if Robert Gray isn’t the only person not letting my memory fade. This is no exception. I’m touched that John Tranter thinks I showed distinct talent, and compares me to Keats (though I won’t allow that to go to my head); and pleased that for someone who has been AWOL from the poetry wars for so long, my modest representation in The Anthology has occupied such a respectable proportion of this review.

    My absence from the publishing scene was not at the behest of my diplomatic employers – most of whom probably subscribed to Quadrant, and all of whom know me to be a leftie despite my willingness to publish there. (Admittedly, they would judge by my political views, my open feminism, my time spent working in developing countries and with non-government organisations and so on, rather than my writing style or choice of publishing venue).

    NB back in my salad days I published in a broad range of journals and fora, but I do admit to appearing in the current edition of Quadrant despite its former CIA connections. I don’t consider that I ‘deliberately reject[ed] the literary scene’: I was busy doing other stuff, like having 3 kids, and bobbing around war zones and other exotic locations in search of Life Experience. Also, I was earning enough money not to need the proceeds of my Art, and could therefore work on it at leisure. If my apparent rejection of the cut and thrust of the Australian literary scene hurt or offended anyone, I’m sorry.

    Vanity compels me to add that ‘Path of Ghosts’ was published when I was 26, and I am now 43, so it hasn’t quite been “decades” (in the plural). I admit it’s a near-run thing, however. But I would argue that I am still young. Forty is, after all, the new 20.

    It’s nice to be back.
    Jemal Sharah

  14. Dear Ms Sharah,
    Thanks for writing in. I’m glad you found my Journal worth writing to, and it’s good to hear that you are still around. No, I don’t think your “rejection of the cut and thrust of the Australian literary scene hurt or offended anyone”. One less poet on the busy stage would be a relief to many. In the decades during which you were having children (better than producing books of verse, in my own experience) and developing your political views, as you say, and your open feminism (far better than closed feminism), your time spent working in developing countries and with non-government organisations and so on, I’m sure the average reader of «Quadrant» magazine didn’t particularly mind or care whether you were drifting to the left or to the right or somewhere towards the middle. I feel sure they were preoccupied with other things: real-politik. What works, works. As long as these people are on our side, they are not on the other side, as they say. Best wishes.

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