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.

The bee hut, by Dorothy Porter

Cover image (Courtesy: Black Inc)

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)

PorterBest100BlackIncThis 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.


20 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Black Inc’s Best 100 Poems

  1. There is a certain poignancy (of your writing or my response) in your reviews of these three fine poets. One is a kinsman of mine! Whose work I have both studied and taught. Thank-you! (From San Francisco! – Lunch to-morrow for my wife and I with academic historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States – 1914 – and much else, earlier!)

      • You are quite right about the poet. (I admire your ability to retain all the minutiae as well as to see the bigger picture, too!) This morning’s fog just lifting now – after the bluest of skies yesterday – coolish in the shade, though. And dry here but not as dry as the rest of the state of California with the rolling in during the evening of the regular (apparently) all-enveloping moist fog. Setting for a Stephen King horror tale, perhaps? (Or, perchance, he’s already written it!)

        • Oh Jim, thanks, but the memory is very sporadic and I only remembered after you mentioned it. It suddenly popped into my head. Hope your lunch went nicely. How long are you in SF? Are you going or have you been before to Muir Woods, or Sausalito, or Tiburon?

  2. 1914? – no, 2014 – of course – else she is of a grander age than has been possible since the Book of Genesis!

      • You could argue that poetry anthologies are a necessary evil but anthologies that are chosen by the poet or by someone very close to the poet’s work seem a really good idea. I can see the case that anthologies can distort the work of a poet but I do enjoy browsing through them!

        • I do too Ian – I guess the question of whether they distort the poetry could depend on how the poems were published in the first place. But certainly in the Porter and the Murray volumes, the poems did mostly come from other collections so we would be reading them out of context.

  3. You must read The Monkey’s Mask, a favourite of mine. I treasure my copy as DP signed it! I nearly taught TMM to my IB Diploma students, but decided to go with Gwen Harwood instead and the two classes, as did I, really enjoyed her. She has such a range of themes and styles with, at times, an underlying sly humour.

    • You’re right Glenda, I really must. Was Gwen Harwood a set writer? I’m guessing she was. I’ve seen a couple of her poems, but don’t have a feel for her. I think I should buy this anthology. Hmm … Hard copy or print.

      • Yes, the IB has a list of prescribed authors from the English speaking world listed in regions that you choose from. Oceania is Oz and NZ. Only two NZ poets: Fleur Adcock and James Baxter. Oz poets: Robert Adamson, Bruce Dawe, Robert Gray, GH, Les Murray, John Shaw Nielson and DP. A little embarrassing really, although there is a part of the curriculum where you can choose one work that is not on the list (across all genres). She has been a set writer in NSW and Vic at different times.

        • No, one more year of teaching and then we have to decide. We’d like to stay in Europe, at least part-time if we can, and use Mexico the rest of the time. Off to Portugal next week to visit friends but also to see if we might like living there.

        • Ah I wasn’t sure from previous comments whether it was imminent or still planning. I look forward to hearing what you decide. I LOVE Mediterranean countries – anywhere that’s hot and dry, really.

  4. These books do sound wonderful. I liked the Murray poem you linked too, the people against the beautiful landscape seem so sad and almost out of place. Is the John Harwood who selected his mother’s poems the novelist? If so, I have read two of his books.

    • Yes, re Murray’s poem. For Aussies there’s also the hint of sawmill towns and timber cutting which is a fraught business in Tasmania with its beautiful native forests.

      John Harwood wrote The Ghost Writer,
      The Seance, and The Asylum. Is this the author you’ve read? If so I’m impressed because I hadn’t really been aware of him! He’s also a poet like his mother.

      • Ah, timber cutting, that is a big issue her in the Pacific NW and while I know it isn’t the same thing, I can still use that to connect a bit more deeply with the poem.

        Yes, that’s the same John Harwood. I have read Ghost Writer and The Seance. I didn’t know he also wrote poetry!

        • Well, that’s fascinating Stefanie. How did you come across Him over there? It’s always interesting to find out how Aussies make it to overseas readers.

        • I was offered a review copy of Ghost Writer out of the blue and really liked it. So then when the next book came I out I read that one which I didn’t like as much as the first so I’ve not read the third book and not sure if I will

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