Monday musings on Australian literature: World Poetry Day, on anthologies

Last week, Brona (This Reading Life) wrote a post on Eve Langley’s poem, “Native-born”, in which she shared the statement from Wikipedia that it appears regularly in Australian anthologies. As I responded to Brona, I checked my three “modern” Australian poetry anthologies and only found it in the most obvious one, The Penguin book of Australian women poets. This got me thinking about Australian poetry anthologies. I’m not an expert – by any stretch – on these, but it’s World Poetry Day today, so I thought to explore them a little.

Cover, Four and twenty lamingtons

This will be the fifth post I’ve done on World Poetry Day. In my first, I mentioned that I bought many children’s poetry anthologies when my children were young. I loved reading poems to them, and loved that these anthologies would include poems not written specifically for children.

Anyhow, I’ll start by sharing my four (adult) anthologies, listing them in the order I acquired them:

  • Ian V. Hansen, The call of the gums: An anthology of Australian verse (1962): my first year of high school poetry text. I treasure/d this book (loved the title, of course). It’s organised by subjects/themes.
  • Susan Hampton and Kate Llewellyn, The Penguin book of Australian women poets (1986): produced partly in reaction to years of male-poet-heavy anthologies; organised chronologically.
  • Jamie Grant, 100 Australian poems you need to know (2008): organised by themes.
  • Bertram Stevens, Golden treasury of Australian verse (1912): my oldest, but most recently acquired, it was given to my grandmother in 1914.

And here, I lost three hours work, when WordPress suddenly told me I don’t have the right to save my work, and I hadn’t noticed that it wasn’t saving! I feel defeated as I just can’t sit down now at 8pm and rewrite the whole thing. I usually copy and paste my content elsewhere when something like this happens, but I didn’t tonight and lost it all. So, a summary instead, to which you may all say, phew!

Essentially, I was writing about the value of anthologies, starting from the point of view that national anthologies can play a role in defining a canon (putting aside whether defining a canon is a good thing or not). I had found an excellent article in JSTOR, written by poet Geoff Page in 1994. He discusses Australian anthologising through much of the 20th century, focusing particularly on the impediments to their canon potential. Impediments include the times in which they were compiled (such as the nationalistic/imperialistic tenor of one in 1922), and, in Australia’s case, differences of opinions between poets. This has been well documented over the years but he simply alludes to it here, making the point that different prejudices have played out in the anthologies produced. He says:

No editor, of course, can really escape his or her own subjectivity but it is remarkable how many ones seem to feel it was not worth the effort anyway.

Page’s survey and analysis of inclusions and exclusions in several anthologies is fascinating.

He suggests that anthologies compiled by academics have tended to be the “fairest”. He also talks about the gaps in representation – such as of women, First Nations, and non-English speaking background poets – and notes some slow improvements in these areas.

He also makes the obvious-when-you-think-about-it point that it’s not just who is included or excluded but what poems are chosen. Page recognises the impact (on canon formation) of

the universal anthologist’s desire to discover what has not been anthologised before–which often, when space for only two or three poems is available, means passing up a classic for something less central.

I can understand this desire from both the compiler’s and reader’s point of view. However, there can be a darker side to the choice of a, perhaps, “lesser” poem, or, say, fewer poems for one poet over another. With anthologists becoming, Page writes, “more cautious about omission […] it’s not so much about exclusion now but branding by short measure”!

Anyhow, the end result is that “there is no generally agreed canon; various traditions contend or, increasingly, coexist”. This is not necessarily a bad thing, particularly if, as Page suggests, “the quality of the best work bears comparison” with that of other countries, and if, as Page also suggests, poets who “represent, or identify with, minority groupings … are slowly [my emph] being more widely represented in major anthologies”. Page concludes

the situation is lively and in flux, and is likely to continue that way for some time. Some allegiances are changing, some borders are being crossed, but the presence of long-established loyalties and demarcations are not about to disappear.

And, it seems, he was right, because, nearly twenty years later, in 2012, academic and poet Ali Alizadeh wrote a negative review in Overland of a 2011 anthology, Australian poetry since 1788 by Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray (whose earlier 1992 anthology Page had discussed). Alizadeh writes that the anthology

is not only a collection of some of the more timid and uninteresting poetry produced in this country since British invasion, it also propagates ideological notions that are comprehensively trite and reactionary …

He comments not only on who is included, but also what, noting, for example, that

the only poem by the radical avant-gardist Ania Walwicz included in the anthology is ‘travelling,’ a poem that is, according to the editors’ notes, largely bereft of the ‘socio-political intent’ present in ‘much of Walwicz’s [other] poetry’.

This is just one example of unrepresentative selection he provides to support his assertion that the editors’ “key objective … may have been much more ideological and tendentious: to present – or even shape – an image of Australian poetry as a cultural milieu devoid of ‘socio-political intent’.” Strong words. And they garnered strong, but mostly very interesting, if lively, responses. Do read them if you are interested.

Meanwhile, I will just share a response by critic Alison Croggon (whose Monsters I’ve reviewed). Picking up the point about “what” has been included, she argues that “the creation of context [is] another crucial aspect of anthologising”, and agrees with Alizadeh that what has been created here is the idea that “poetry is apolitical, a contextless aesthetic object”. This reminds me of Susan Hampton and Kate Llewellyn who, back in 1986, introduced their anthology by calling it “part of a history of women’s writing and of cultural politics which are creatively disturbing the conventional view of our literary heritage.”

Ah, poetry in Australia! It’s still a lively, contested place, and, really, that’s a good thing.

Now, do you enjoy – poetry anthologies? Care to talk about them?

40 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: World Poetry Day, on anthologies

  1. I may have more poetry anthologies than you do, as I have all my father’s plus a couple of Indigenous anthologies. I wish I was home to list them all, but I will name just one: Dark Somme Flowing: Australian verse of the Great War 1914-1918, David Holloway.

    • Any relation, Bill? This is a more specialised or thematic anthology than the ones l was writing about, isn’t it. Have you noticed how more of these earlier anthologies used the word “verse” rather than “poetry”. Wasn’t it Banjo who said that he wrote verse not poetry?

      • My father. You’re right about ‘Verse’; and I think also about ABP – who wrote both ballads, in the Scottish tradition, and quick verse (doggerel) for news magazines, but not ‘poetry’ like Kendall for instance.

        • So your father edited an anthology as well as taught? Is this the only one? Are all your brothers interested in literature? I think at least one is?

          There was a bit of discussion about “Poetry” in Page’s article, though he doesn’t really talk about verse, which is probably not surprising in 1994.

  2. Hi Sue,

    Firstly, Happy Poetry Day. Secondly, sorry you lost all your copy. There’s (almost) nothing worse when that sort of thing happens!

    Thirdly, I’ll mention a few recent anthologies published in Australia that think “outside the square” somewhat, or are otherwise just good. They all contain some marvellous recent work:

    – “Borderless: A Transnational Anthology of Feminist Poetry” (Recent Work Press, eds. Saba Vasefi, Melinda Smith, Yvette Holt)
    – “Fire Front: First Nations Poetry and Power Today” (UQP, ed. Alison Whittaker).
    – “Anthology of Australian Prose Poetry” (MUP, eds. Cassandra Atherton and Paul Hetherington) – this one wisely includes Anna Walwicz’s poem “Australia,” which is very definitely socio-political.
    – “The Fremantle Press Anthology of Western Australian Poetry” (Fremantle Press, eds. John Kinsella and Tracy Ryan) – yes, still a bit of a one-eyed Sandgroper, but there are some long neglected names and poems in this one, along with some very deserving “regulars.”

    I used to have a copy of “The Puncher and Wattmann Anthology of Australian Poetry,” which would be about ten years old now. I enjoyed it greatly, but I suspect it’s disappeared into storage somewhere (I hope that isn’t an unwitting euphemism on my part).

    As for controversial inclusions and omissions from anthologies, let me quote from Clive James’ recent (and brilliant) “The Fire of Joy: Roughly 80 Poems to Get by Heart and Say Aloud.” He mentions this incident twice, but the more telling of the two is in his assessment of Yeats:

    “Yeats famously left the British war poets out of his 1936 edition of “The Oxford Book of Modern Verse.” He seems to have thought that the Great War was no fit subject for poetry. A strange idea on his part, perhaps, but he could have backed it up by saying, truly, that he himself wrote little about it at the time, being more preoccupied with trouble at home. As the war on the Continent developed into a mass mutual slaughter, it was remarkable how he, as a poet, declined to notice.”

    • Thanks so much for all this Glen, particularly for your list of recent anthologies. I have a few recent collections but haven’t bought a poetry anthology for a long time. This list looks great – and tempting.

      I must say that editing an anthology (of any sort) is a brave thing to do and maybe more so for poetry where the struggle for recognition is great?

      Didn’t know that Yeats story – though have seen James’ book, and been tempted.

      BTW, I hope it’s not a euphemism either – may you be reunited sooner rather than later.’

      • Yeats wrote the poem “On Being Asked for Poem in Time of War”, giving as his reason for not writing about that war, ‘we have no gift to set the statesman right.” His poems “1919” and “Meditation in Time of Civil War”, do stick in the memory, though.

        I would add that Robert Graves eventually dropped his WW I poems out of his Collected Poems

        • Thanks George. Interesting statement from Yeats, I will try to read those poems. I did study him but have read very little since.

          So did he remove the poems on aesthetic grounds or philosophical ones? Or practical?

        • I didn’t know that about Graves. According to the Wikipedia page on him, he thought his war poems were too obviously “part of the war poetry boom.” So the grounds were philosophical, I guess.
          Clive James’ comment about Yeats’ attitude to the war is in response to Yeats’ “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” which is a meditation on the nature of and motivations for combat. It’s a great poem, published just after the war. But he might not have been disposed to write it if he had seen any action himself, of that sort or any other.
          Sue, “The Fire of Joy” is well worth it for James’ erudition and wit, let alone for the poems he’s selected. Do yourself a favour, as a certain Akubra-wearing celebrity might say…

        • Haha … James is such a complicated character I have thought will I or won’t I, but you have pushed me into the “will”! He can be perceptive, when he’s not trying to be a bit too smart or self-focused I think.

          And yes, interesting point about what Yeats might have written had he seen action.

        • I wasn’t going to mention it, but I think James’ held certain attitudes to poetry that, while not being “wrong” as such, are somewhat modified in some particulars in the minds of more recent commentators. I have sympathy with both approaches; my own views are a mixture of James’ “sonic bias” (shall we say) and the more contemporary “image bias.” I just happen to notice this because I’ve had a few different opinions on the value and possibilities of poetry recently. I could also pick a hole or two, or perhaps just add some exceptions, to James’ rules for reading poetry aloud i.e. his rules work EXCEPT when lines are enjambed. But there’s no disputing his aesthetic nous and the depth and breadth of his reading. And his prose is elegant and, often, very funny.

  3. Sorry you lost all your work! I have discovered (after a lot of trial and error, mostly error) that I only seem to have this problem when I have wordpress open in two different tabs or windows. I’m super cautious now to make sure I only have one tab open before I start typing – might be worth trying (along with saving as you go along)?

    I do have a lot of poetry anthologies as they are often available in second-hand shops, and I love picking them up. Best-Loved Poems, compiled by Neil Philip, is probably on a lot of bookshelves in the UK. It’s old now, and definitely not perfect (no poems in any regional language or dialect, for example) but it’s been a favourite of mine since I was a child. I bought my mum a couple of short anthologies for Christmas, both about the seasons, and I have some anthologies of war poems although I can’t remember any of the titles. This post has made me curious about what poems crop up in all the anthologies, and what got left out! I’ll have to check when I’m at home.

    • Ah Lou, that might have been it. I don’t often have two edit windows open but, thinking back to when I relaunched my browser, that may have been the case last night. Thanks for the hint … I’ll keep an eye out for that.

      You’ve reminded me of those short anthologies – often on a theme like your seasons ones. I have a few of those and have bought a few as gifts over the years. They can introduce you to some different poems.

      If you do find time to check your anthologies for recurring poems, I’d love to hear what you found.

      • I had a look – there was actually a lot less overlap than I expected. Of my three more general anthologies (one published in 1949, one in 1990, and one in 2002) the only authors who crop up in all three are Keats and Shakespeare, and even then it’s not the same poem every time. AE Housman, one of my favourites, is in the later two, but very different poems. The 1990 anthology is a Faber one, technically a book of love poetry, though they interpreted “love” pretty broadly. And to my surprise, the wonderful Christina Rossetti was only in the most recent anthology, and I couldn’t find Elizabeth Barrett-Browning or Tennyson at all! I had assumed they would all be in at least one since they are so widely known here.

        To my further surprise, the most recent anthology, the Neil Philip one I mentioned before, the only one that includes comic poetry – which is something I think that Britain does pretty well and has done for a long time.

        • Oh thanks for doing that Lou. I’m not sure what it tells us, though it’s fascinating that, say, Keats, is the only Romantic poet to appear in all. I wonder if Rossetti only appears because of that increasing awareness of the omission of women poets? And so on… I think discussions like these are Interesting if only because they get us talking and thinking?

  4. Interesting stuff. I love that you have your grandmother’s Golden Treasury. I have a book of Rupert Brooke poems that was my own grandmother’s; my own (British) Golden Treasury is the one I bought myself the summer before I went to university, as it was a set text.

  5. I mostly have individual poet’s collections, (mainly male until the 21st century, and mainly female and/or Indigenous since then) but I still have A Book of Poetry from school, (green and gold cover), a couple of war poetry collections, the Faber Book of Modern Verse, the Penguin Book of Australian Verse, and Seven Centuries of Poetry in English. Most of these are from my uni days, or harvested from Op Shops. But I’ve had Palgrave’s Golden Treasury since my father gave it to me when I was a girl.
    Whaddya mean WP said you don’t have the right to save your work?????????? I have never had this happen to me and am now mildly panicked because I compose directly into my blog.

    • Thanks Lisa. Yes I have a few collections too . And, I should have specified, though you all probably realised, that my little dot-pointed list of anthologies was of Aussie ones only. I do in fact have a couple of others, Collins Albatross Book of Verse by Louis Untermeyer that I bought as a teen, and a new poets one that was a university text. The way titles have changed over time is interesting isn’t it “golden treasury”, “verse”.

      As for WP, yes I write my posts in situ too. Lou may have the answer re having two windows open. That could have happened. I had put what happened down to the ongoing login problems I’ve been having with WP, though I thought on the weekend that I may have beaten that. I hope, from that POV, that Lou’s right!

      (PS Edited this comment for a couple of my inaccuracies … that’s what you get for typing on you device in bed without the post in front of you!)

      • Ah yes, Op Shops. Or second-hand book emporiums. Many years ago, a marvellous cafe-bookshop in Daylesford, Victoria yielded me a musty paperback edition of “Modern Australian Poetry,” edited by David Campbell, and published by Sun Books in 1970. It introduced me to Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s poem “Melbourne,” which remains my favourite piece of his.
        Then there’s the Save the Children book bonanza every August at UWA, which got me various anthologies on modernist poetry from Britain, America, and elsewhere, as well as a copy of “Twelve Poets: 1950-1970.” I first encountered this one when I was in high school, and includes people like Bruce Dawe, Gwen Harwood, Randolph Stow and Les Murray from when they were in early or mid career.
        Like the Puncher and Wattmann, most of these are also “in storage” now. I am rapidly discovering that this description really is a euphemism i.e. for what happens to a lot of your stuff after you leave your home town.

        • Or, what happens when you downsize, which we are considering. Do we get rent one of those storage containers, but, once there, will we ever access them as I could’t just get up out of my chair and go to the bookcase to check something, could I?

        • Oh and, sounds like you’ve found some treasures in those shops. I used to go into them a lot looking for older Australian novels mainly, but now I avoid them because I just can’t build up my collection any more!!

        • I regularly disgraced myself at the Save the Children fest by buying far more than I could store or even carry home. It used to last a whole week. Crate after crate of books flooding in, and flooding out. Heaven.

  6. After reading Wolf Hall, I fetched down a volume of Wyatt’s Collected Poems, and read fairly steadily through until I reached the Penitential Psalms. It struck me that the anthologists have on the whole done Wyatt justice: I don’t recall many poems that I thought should have been anthologized but that I hadn’t seen in some anthology somewhere. I suspect that the anthologies have done more to keep Wyatt in memory than would an equivalent chunk of sequential pages from the Collected Poems.

    So, yes, I do read anthologies, though I sometimes go on to read the selected or collected poems of somebody encountered in the anthologies.

    • Interesting point George about the role or perhaps I should be more neutral and just say impact of anthologies?!

      What you do would be music to many poets’ ears. I sometimes have that desire (as with short story anthologies) but rarely act on it!

  7. Hi Sue, happy Poetry Day. I have many old poetry books that belonged my grandmother, and not too many modern poetry books. I was introduced to poetry by my mother who gave me her poetry book, Enlish songs and Ballads by T W H Crossland (1903). One of my favourite poetry books is The Mallee Fire and other Verses by Charles Henry Souter (1913). I do have one anthology of poetry by Dorothy Porter, The Bee Hut and her verse novel Monkey’s Mask. I love her poetry.

    • Thanks Meg. I love that one of your favourites was published in 1913 – and is about the Mallee.

      I love Dorothy Porter too … I was focusing here on multi poet anthologies rather than single poet collections which is why I didn’t mention her. Otherwise I sure would have!!

  8. Happy Poetry Day Sue!!
    I cannot believe this day has passed me by. And I have no poetry draft posts to quickly whip something up, thanks to the one I posted last week (thanks for the shout out by the by).
    Like Lisa most of my poetry collections are by individual poets, but Fire Front and Homeland Calling are two First Nations anthologies that I can recommend.

    I do have a couple of Penguin poetry anthologies floating arounf the house – Russian and Irish and I do have a lovely old very English anthology that I picked up secondhand in my early twenties at a street fair in Bathurst. My Pop loved to recite poetry until the day he died and we found several notebooks in his beautiful copperplate writing where he had written down his favourite ones. I think it’s where my interest in poetry grew from, so very much a sonic experience for me 🙂

    • Thanks for all this Brona… Yes, my Dad read Banjo Paterson to us, and it’s his Mum’s anthology that I have. She loved to write verse for family celebrations. Simple and sentimental really but we all loved it because she’d speak to things about us and our lives. We’d also sometimes play limericks when driving on family holidays.

      It’s lovely having these family memories of poetry isn’t it.

  9. Anthologies are invaluable as texts for college courses, and I’ve always found them good as a kind of appetizer platter, to see what I like and might want to find more of.

  10. Just as you used to encourage your children to read poetry anthologies when they were young, i was an eager reader of poetry anthologies when I was a girl too. There were only two sections “worth reading” in the stacks, the non-fiction, when I was a girl: the poetry and the fairy tales. I loved them both. Often there were much more beautifully illustrated editions on these shelves than with the proper stories!

    • Interesting Buried, I was novels and short stories, and some nonfiction about topics that interested me, like ballet in primary school years, and certain biographies, social justice and WWZ in highschool. While I know a lot of fairy tales I have no memory of gravitating to them. I also don’t recollect gravitating to illustrations though I did have some favourites. The first poetry or verse I recollect was AA Milne’s. I liked his two collections more than Winnie the Pooh in fact.

      the fist

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