About 10 years ago, I met up with an acquaintance of mine who had recently succeeded as a writer. The conversation got around to the subject of poetry and I remember her confessing that she didn’t understand poetry, and wouldn’t make a judgement call on a particular poet we were discussing because it was too difficult to do so. We moved on, but the conversation stuck in my mind for a number of reasons: after all, this was a person who was becoming a respected author and critic and here they were copping out from making a literary judgement. All the more ironic, too, was my recollection that barely another 10 years before that, she, like many beginning writers was writing, among other things, poems for student journal publication.
What had happened in the meantime, to make her want to avoid any discussion of poetic value at all? I suspect the answer to this is not so much rooted in the individual, but is explainable with reference to a few key cultural attitudes.
The first, and probably most important, is the idea of what it is to be a poet. Almost by definition, poets are not seen as writers. The Sydney — and other — Writers’ Festivals are predominantly populated by prose writers, many of whom also grace the pages of our weekend newspaper cultural supplements, where books and writing are squeezed between food and art, bands and film. A poet is seen as something else, someone whose cultural commentary, with one or two exceptions, is of little interest to a wider public, someone whose authority derives from notions of vatic inspiration, considerations of Romantic difficulty and possibly the idea of literary genius.
Many writers conveniently adhere to these easy clichés: it is much easier to defer to an already established judgement than it is to formulate one’s own opinion, particularly if it involves reading widely in a certain genre (poetry) and formulating opinions which may be at variance with established orthodoxies (the politics of poetry). I suspect some writers are quite happy for poets to remain being seen as obscure nuts squabbling over a small cultural pie of very little economic significance.
Which leads me to the second problem. The model currently adopted for the structuring of poetic reputations in Australia is similar to the importance, say, Paris has for the rest of France: a kind of megacephalic dominance. In Australia, according to one school of thought, there is (and has been for a couple of decades now) only one poet of real significance: Les Murray. The pre-eminence of his reputation in Australia deservedly rests on a body of work which must be considered to be nearly complete, and a career which is now almost over. On closer inspection though, his brilliant reputation derives largely from poems written in the first half of his career.
It can also be argued that the megacephalic nature of Murray’s poetic reputation derives from the sheer force of his personality. While it is certain that his reputation will continue to eclipse that of the majority of his rivals for some time to come, it is to be hoped that the megacephalic model will soon be replaced by another model, perhaps such as that of the Russian poets in the post-revolutionary period, where Mayakovsky, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova and Pasternak were seen as equals without peer. The megacephalic model is a difficult tendency to resist, not least because most poets secretly really only want their poems to be heard: WB Yeats reportedly once walked into the Cheshire Cheese Pub in Feet Street, looked around at other members of the Rhymers’ Club, sighed and said "we are too many" — the natural reaction of a poet to his or her rivals. Once people realise that there are a number of major poets at work in Australia, and that they are not all difficult poets, or wildly eccentric or obscure, then I am certain their work will become more widely read.
Another problem with the construction of poetic value in Australia is more insidious and far more wide-reaching in its implications than the previous two I have mentioned: it’s what I call the "lunatics have taken over the asylum" syndrome. When, in 1995, Oxford University Press dropped its poetry lists, the result for Australian poetry was more significant than just fewer books being published: the whole apparatus of poetry editors, publicists and distribution was largely lost as well. In succeeding years, many small publishers stepped in to fill the void but often with less rigorous, or at least less authoritative, editorial intervention.
Most (but not all) of these presses were put up by poets themselves, and much of the cultural game of poetry in Australia has come to be run by the poets themselves. This has had enormous implications: there is a sense that the opinion of the non-poet reading poetry does not matter or can be ignored; there is also tolerance for, or active promotion of, work based on cronyism. Most reviews are written by other poets: there are only a handful of critics willing to review poetry regularly and, as a consequence, most reviews fail to be honest or objective for fear of reprisal. No one really has the stomach for a return to the poetry wars of the 1970s and 80s.
The net outcome of all of this is that people who consider themselves to be members of a sophisticated cultural elite, or intelligentsia, often have a poor idea of Australian contemporary poetry because they have little idea, beyond a handful or two of names, who might be worth reading. There is often confusion because substantial reputations often seem not to agree with the shoddy, makeshift nature of the work which comprises them; it is difficult to find useful cultural guides and just as often books are difficult to obtain or out of print.
You might think after having said all this that I am not optimistic about the future of Australian poetry, but you would be wrong. This is a golden age for Australian poetry, with a number of very good poets currently at work in this country. I expect the normative forces of our culture to prevail over the emptiness of some poetic reputations, and that the best that Australian poetry has to offer will eventually be readily available to all who are interested.
And if you have any doubt about there being sufficient numbers of people interested in poetry, then take heart. Last week I launched an anthology of regional poets, not far from Sydney. I was told that the group was small, and so I was not expecting a large crowd. You can imagine my surprise when I found myself addressing a crowd of well over 100, most of whom were not poets but were there because they were interested in poetry. A lot of these people looked to me like retirees. In 10 years, that crowd will double, perhaps even triple in size: the rapidly expanding leisure classes will need something more than television to keep them going.
And I suspect that there are a few people who are beginning to realise that being a sophisticate means not just reading the latest blockbuster dominating the pages of the weekend newspaper leisure pages; being familiar with the nation’s poetry is going to be another requirement without which it may no longer be possible to claim to be cultured after all.
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