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.
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?