Monday musings on Australian literature: Black Inc’s Best 100 Poems
I’ve been feeling rather guilty about a book sent to me in late 2013 by Black Inc. I’m usually very conscientious about reading and reviewing books that I’ve accepted for review – not so much for those sent to me “on spec” – but I slipped up with Black Inc’s The best 100 poems of Dorothy Porter. As I recollect, it came just after a major overseas trip and got caught up in the run-up to Christmas. I did read much of it, but just didn’t bring it to conclusion in order to review. So, I thought I’d talk about it “right here, right now”, to use some current vernacular.
Black Inc, which won ABIA’s Small Publisher of the Year award this year, is a small publisher that actively supports Australian poetry. Not only have they now produced three “best 100 poems” volumes, but they have published the annual Best Australian poems volumes for several years, as well as individual poetry collections like Les Murray’s Waiting for the past, Robert Gray’s Coast road, and Dorothy Porter’s The bee hut (which I reviewed a few years ago now). All these books, as far as I can tell, are published in print and electronic format.
Now, the topic in hand. Here are the three “best 100 poems” volumes published to date, listed in order of publication.
The best 100 poems of Les Murray (2012)
I bought the e-version of this after hearing Murray (b. 1938) speak last year at Poetry at the Gods. As the only living poet of the three, Murray made his own selection. Unlike the Porter collection, in which the poems are grouped in some way, Murray’s selection is simply (though some thought is sure to have gone into the order) a list of 100 poems with no reference to their original context. Murray’s oeuvre is huge – his career has been very long – so without extensive research I don’t know where every poem comes from or how each fits into his career. As you would expect from a “best 100” they are diverse in subject and style.
The first poem is “Driving through sawmill towns”, from the 1990s I think. Read it and see what you think. I like its understanding of human behaviour – the “tall youths look away” while “it is the older men who/come out in blue singlets and talk softly to you”. Meanwhile, “all day in calendared kitchens, women listen/for cars on the road/lost children in the bush,/a cry from the mill, a footstep -/nothing happens”. I like the sense of resignation in the inhabitants, but no judgement from driver driving through. A later poem, “Mirrorball”, from 2010, describes travellers on a bus riding up the Hume Highway through old towns full of history, but when the driver sets off again “half his earplugged sitters wear/the look of deserted towns”. Oh dear. Not all Murray’s poems are about country towns, but rural life is one of his ongoing subjects.
I’m not sure I really like reading poems in e-format, in which I bought this book, but the upside is that you can carry some poetry with you wherever you go.
The best 100 poems of Dorothy Porter (2013)
This is a posthumous collection selected by Porter’s (1954-2008) partner, the novelist Andrea Goldsmith. It includes a small selection of poems from her verse novel The monkey’s mask which I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read. (Having now read the few poems Goldsmith included here, I’m inspired to rectify this.) It also contains poems from her verse novels El Dorado and Akhenaton, as well as from various other collections of her rather extensive oeuvre. The poems range, for me, from beautiful, heart-rending, funny, and/or wicked to rather obscure. But that’s probably the nature of poetry. Those that draw on classics and mythology sometimes lose me, I have to admit, with their erudition, but her heart, her imagery and the way she can cheekily play with rhyme and rhythm are what I love about Porter.
I’ll just share one of Porter’s poems. It’s called “Circular Quay” and expresses discomfort with perfection, because experience has taught her so: “This perfect day/makes me uneasy … I breathe easier/spying some scum/floating/on a lovely green wave./Nothing’s perfect”. In the middle of this short tight poem she is reminded of the past. It’s the sort of poem that makes me write “Oh, yes” in the margins.
I’m tempted to suggest that Murray writes more of People while Porter’s poetry is more about the Personal. This is a rather coarse generalisation I know. These poets are highly diverse, but it’s how their writing, such as I’ve read in recent years, strikes me.
The best 100 poems of Gwen Harwood (2014)
Gwen Harwood (1920-1995) is the oldest of the three, and is the one I know least, so I won’t say much. I’ve heard her described as one of Australia’s finest poets, and readers I respect speak positively of her, but I really only discovered her when I started researching Australian poets for Wikipedia a few years ago. Why is this? I certainly didn’t study her at school or university, and since then, I must admit, my poetry reading has been very erratic. This selection was made by her son, John Harwood, who is also a writer. Her recurring themes, according to Wikipedia, include motherhood and the “stifled role of women”. Music, the Tasmanian landscape and Aboriginal dispossession also recur in her work.
From the compilers of these collections – the poet himself, the partner, the son – it appears that Black Inc has aimed to make these “best 100” volumes personal rather than academic in flavour, which is lovely I think.
Given these three volumes were published in the last three Novembers, I’m presuming another will be published this November. I wonder who it will be? Meanwhile, I’ll close by saying that these are gorgeously produced books – with lovely covers. They would suit those wanting an introduction to the specific poets as well as their fans.