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?

Poetry Month 2021: Your favourite poems

Earlier this month, I wrote a Monday Musings on Poetry Month, at the end of which I asked readers to name their favourite poem.

Poetry Month finished yesterday, 31 August, so I thought I’d close out the month by listing the nominated poems, alphabetically by poet. I should add that some commenters cheekily named more than one (so I did too). Links on the poem title takes you to an online version

If this list has suddenly inspired you to add your own, please do so in the comments, and I will add it to this list.

Meanwhile, here are some thoughts about poetry posted on Instagram by the month’s organisers, RedRoom Poetry

“Poetry … brings me great comfort and discomfort, and I’m thankful for both” (David Stavanger, Lead Producer))

“Writing is also an act of reading–not only books but all forms of textuality: the ground, the vegetation, the ‘world around us’. (John Kinsella, #30in30 writing prompt)

“Poetry for me is the project of trying to put into language ideas and states of being that feel unnameable or uncontainable” (Izzy Roberts-Orr, Digital Producer)

“Poetry has no limits or positions. It is a freedom. It can be one word or many.” (Tenzin Choegyl, #poetryambassador)

And this, a challenge for Bill:

“I’m not interested in hearing people read other people’s poems. I’d rather listen to a truck driver read out a poem about his truck, than the world’s finest actor read out the world’s finest sonnet. It’s about the poet for me.” (Brendan Cowell, #30in30)

And finally, to close out Poetry Month, an image from RedRoom Poetry’s Instagram account of one of the many poems posted during the month (as part of the paired-poets #fairtrade project). (I think it is ok, copyright-wise, for me to share this)

And remember, it’s not too late to share your favourite/s.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Poetry Month 2021

I have posted on World Poetry Day, which occurs in March, several times in recent years. And I have written about Australian poetry various times, including about the Red Room Company (or, Red Room Poetry). Their vision is very simple: “to make poetry in meaningful ways”. They have initiated and supported various projects over the years, and have now come up with a new one, Poetry Month. It seems the perfect topic for another Monday Musings on poetry in Australia.

Many of you are probably aware that the US has various months dedicated to literary/humanities/justice issues, like Black History Month in February. One of these is their National Poetry Month which has been going now since 1996. I’ve often thought it would be good for Australia to emulate some of these. We do have NAIDOC Week, of course, but that could be a month, eh? Anyhow, now Red Room has initiated a Poetry Month which is exciting:

Our goal is to increase access, awareness, value and visibility of poetry in all its forms and for all audiences. The inaugural Poetry Month will be held during August 2021 with the aim of an ongoing annual celebration.

What are they doing?

A lot, in fact. They say that they have

an electrifying lineup of poetic collaborations, daily poems and writing prompts, online workshops, poetic residencies and live to live-streamed showcases, designed to engage everyone – from veteran poetry lovers to the (for now!) uninitiated.

There is a calendar. They have 8 poetry ambassadors, who are an eclectic and appropriately diverse bunch: Yasmin Abdel-Magied, Tenzin Choegyal, Peter FitzSimons, Dr Karl Kruszelnicki, Stephen Oliver, Grace Tame, Megan Wilding.

My love of reading and writing poetry is guided by a lifelong attraction to the seemingly simple and unadorned.

~ Tony Birch

Specific events are …

  • 30in30 daily poetry commissions: every day there are/will be “new original text/video poems, poet reflections and writing prompts from some of the country’s leading poets, authors, spoken word artists and playwrights”. They can be accessed on the site, and on social media (with the hashtag #30in30). Today, for example, there’s a 2-minute video from First Nations author, Tony Birch, on what poetry means to him. He talks of poems that can have new meanings each time you read them. 30in30 will include commissions from their larger Fair Trade project which involved First Nations poets from around the world.
  • Line Break: a weekly online show, on Tuesdays through August, 7pm AEST, on Facebook and YouTube, providing previews from feature poets, publishers, spoken word artists, and musicians, and more.
  • Poets in Residence: a program, supported by City of Sydney (how great is that). The poets were to be located at Green Square Library “for a period of writing, reading and performing poetry on site, engaging the general public in various ways and showcasing COS library collections”. Unfortunately, Sydney’s current lockdown has forced the postponement of this.
  • Showcases: a “raft” of live and online events across the country, including the inaugural Poetry Month Gala supported by The Wheeler Centre. Click on the Showcases link to see events from, indeed, around the country, including in South Australia and Western Australia.
  • Workshops: weekly online workshops, on Wednesday nights 7-9pm, via Zoom, catering “for all poets at all levels … anywhere in Australia”, with the topics being “stripping poetry back, breath and beatboxing, the intersection of poetry and comedy, and a special older emerging voices workshop”. They suggest a donation of $10. The workshop leaders are Sarah Temporal, Hope One, Vidya Rajan and Tony Birch.

What an exciting-sounding and diverse program.

Here is a taster … Australian of the Year, Grace Tame, with her strong 30in30 contribution, “Hard pressed”.

A little value add from me …

If you are looking for contemporary Australian poetry, you could start with two independent publishers:

Ali Cobby Eckermann, Inside my mother
  • Giramondo, which published Jonathan Shaw’s chapbook that I reviewed recently). They have also published Ali Cobby Eckermann, Jennifer Maiden, Gerald Murnane, Gig Ryan, Fiona Wright, and so many more known and unknown to me.
  • Pitt Street Poetry, which published Lesley Lebkowicz’s The Petrov poems (my review) and Melinda Smith’s Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call, which won the 2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for poetry. They have also published Eileen Chong, John Foulcher, Peter Goldsworthy, Geoff Page, and Chris Wallace-Crabbe, to name some of the better known (to me) from their stable.

There is also the Australian Poetry Library, about which I’ve written before. It now contains, the website says, “tens of thousands of poems from hundreds of Australian poets”. You can read poems free online, but if you want to download and print poems, there is “a small fee, part of which is returned to the poets via CAL, the Copyright Agency Limited”. This resource is particularly geared to teaching poetry, but is available to anyone.

Lesley Lebkowicz, The Petrov Poems

If you are looking for Australian bloggers who write about poetry, try Jonathan Shaw at Me fail? I fly. This link will take you to his poetry tagged posts, of which there is now a substantial number. Also, blogger Brona (This Reading Life) is planning to support the month, so if you don’t already subscribe to her blog, do check her out if you are interested in poetry and/or in what Red Room is trying to do for Australian poetry.

Finally, you can also find poetry reviews in the Australian Women Writers database.

And now my question: do you have a favourite poem to share with us? (And do you, like Tony Birch, go back to it again and again, and find something different each time?)

Jonathan Shaw, None of us alone (#BookReview)

Some of you will know of Jonathan Shaw as the blogger at Me fail? I fly! If you read his blog, you will also know that he loves poetry: he writes it, he reviews it. None of us alone is his first commercially published collection, though he has self-published five collections and has had a number of poems published in journals like Quadrant, Going Down Swinging, and, would you believe, the European Journal of International Law. None of us alone, styled a chapbook, contains 24 poems, selected from his previous collections and published works.

I enjoy reading Jonathan’s* poetry reviews, because he takes us through the poems, sharing his thoughts as he goes. I also like the fact that though he sounds confident, he admits to not always being sure that he’s picked up the nuance or, say, understood all the “metaphorical dimensions” of a poem, so I know he’ll forgive my errors and misses here. Then again, I don’t plan to discuss particular poems in detail, the way he often does, so I may avoid big errors!

However, I will say that Jonathan plays with various forms including sonnets (which seem to be a favourite), free verse and traditional ABAB quatrains. His rhyming is confident and comfortable rather than forced, which is a great start. His allusions are accessible, and his resolutions are usually clear, with the sonnets mostly ending in a rhyming couplet, which make their point. Overall, the tone tends to be neutral or lightly melancholic, with touches of humour, even where the subject is serious. This sort of writing appeals to me.

The poems in None of us alone draw from Shaw’s life, his domestic, artistic and political interests, and so are easily relatable to Australians of a certain age and persuasions. There are gorgeous poems about dogs (“The dogs outside Orange Grove Markets”) and (“She looks out”), for example, that will speak to dog lovers. There are poems inspired by art exhibitions (“Sculpture by the sea”) or attending a play (“This is just to say”). And, most particularly, there are poems responding to the politics of the day (asylum-seekers, same-sex marriage, domestic violence, and climate change.) The first poem, in fact, is a climate change themed sonnet, “Demo”

… We
rallied, one link in a chain
of rallies all around Australia
crying out against the failure
of governments who play the role
of sycophants to Old King Coal.

I like the cheekiness of another sonnet “Unprecedented again”, which he wrote just last year. You can find it on his blog. However, while looking for it on his blog, I learnt something, which is that his favourite form is not, in fact, a sonnet, as I felt I had ascertained from this collection, but an Onegin Stanza. You’d have to be a poetry purist to know though! Anyhow, the poem plays on the idea that the “unprecedented” just keeps on coming, in one form or another, creating a fine line between the unprecedented and the precedented.

“A pronunciation lesson” – a free verse poem – is one of the poems that has been published before. It has also been read on ABC’s Poetica. I’m not surprised by its success because it lures us into a sense of calm before hitting us in the guts with a stand-alone last line. Its subject is Hiroshima, and it is followed by another free verse poem on Hiroshima, “Correspondence”, this one expressing the cynicism of one who knows how it goes. You can live too long! And indeed, there are poems here that recognise our mortality.

Before I finish, I must mention the beautiful design of this little series, with its classy front-papers, and the cover of this particular work. It features a photograph of a ceramic heart from the “Connecting Hearts Project” by potter (and Jonathan’s partner) Penny Ryan. The collection includes a poem inspired by these hearts, “2 July 2016”. The artwork and the poem address the pain experienced by asylum-seeker detainees, and the “malice” of governments refusing to open their hearts to them:

Unwrapped, this heart confronts that malice:
our beating hearts can face our fear –
Close down those camps, bring those hearts here.

And here I’ll leave it, because it’s a little book – a chapbook – and you can buy it, as I did, for $5 plus postage and handling. Check Jonathan’s post for details.

* I haven’t met Jonathan in person but have “known” him long enough in the blogosphere that I felt silly using my usual last name style, Shaw, to discuss this book of his.

Jonathan Shaw
None of us alone
Port Adelaide: Picaro Press (Ginninderra Press), 2021
ISBN: 9781761091247

World Poetry Day 2020

I have written two World Poetry Day posts before, in 2016 and 2018, so why not again in 2020, particularly given, more than any year, we are probably in need of hearing what poets have to say – of being soothed, inspired, entertained, or yes, even admonished by them. says of World Poetry Day:

Poetry reaffirms our common humanity by revealing to us that individuals, everywhere in the world, share the same questions and feelings. Poetry is the mainstay of oral tradition and, over centuries, can communicate the innermost values of diverse cultures.

In celebrating World Poetry Day, March 21, UNESCO recognizes the unique ability of poetry to capture the creative spirit of the human mind.

They explain that the day was adopted by UNESCO in 1999, and that one of its main objectives is “To support linguistic diversity through poetic expression and to offer endangered languages the opportunity to be heard within their communities.” Observing the day is, they say, also “meant to encourage a return to the oral tradition of poetry recitals, to promote the teaching of poetry, to restore a dialogue between poetry and the other arts such as theatre, dance, music and painting, and to support small publishers and create an attractive image of poetry in the media”. Wonderful goals, all.

UK’s Global Dimension website provides ideas for recognising the day, including, of course, “organising readings of poems from different cultures, including from pupils’ own cultures.” Well, that’s not going to happen now, in the UK or anywhere, is it, with COVID-19 and the cancellation of public events. However, the page points us to the Wikipedia Poetry page as a good starting point for investigating different forms of poetry. They also, and this is just what we need, provide a link to a site called Poetry Station which offers “poems to view on video”. It was established after the English & Media Centre (EMC) was awarded in 2009 a small Arts Council of England grant for a pilot project to create “a freely accessible web-based video channel and portal for poetry”.

What a lovely aspirational site it is – and, it is also available as an app, simply called Poetry Station. For each poem, as well as the videoed performance, there is a link to information about the poet (often from Wikipedia), to suggested activities (for educators) and also a list of related poems which, of course, are linked to performance of this poems. The site also lists the poets, titles and topics for the poems on the site.

And in Australia?

A Google search brings up various cancelled events in Australia, run by organisations like the Geelong Library and Heritage Centre and Gosford Library. As in previous years there are also non-poetry reading activities being promoted or run. Golden Carers has a page of activities on their website (as I also noted in my 2018 post), and Reading Australia, which regularly support the day, is running a World Poetry Day competition for primary and secondary students and teachers, with the support of Red Room Poetry. (I’ve mentioned both organisations here before).

For those interested in Australian poetry, there are many sites and sources of information – many that I’ve mentioned here over the years – but for today, I’m sharing a list of Australian poetry books from the National Library of Australia bookshop.

Finally, not specifically created for World Poetry Day, but unfortunately applicable, is Australian comedian Sammy J’s recent offering, “The ballad of the dunny roll”, which riffs off the classic Australian balladeer Banjo Paterson. I think both Aussies and non-Aussies will appreciate this:

Leonard Cohen, 2009

Leonard Cohen, Bowral, January 2009

I’d love to hear about any poetry you like, or your favourite poets.

Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with what seems a very appropriate line, from Leonard Cohen’s “Dance me to the end of love” (available at the Poetry Station.)

Dance me through the panic till I’m gathered safely in.

Keep safe everyone.

World Poetry Day 2018

Did you realise that today, March 21, is World Poetry Day? I’m not asking this to catch you out but more because I wonder how well promoted it is – particularly here in Australia? I must say that, as in previous years, I’ve heard very little about it. Perhaps, though, if I went to my local public library, they might be promoting it? You never know.

I have mentioned this day before, including dedicating a Monday Musings post to it in 2016, when I gave a brief explanation of the Day. It was designated for 21 March by UNESCO in 1999, but has been celebrated for much much longer, often in October to align with the birthday of the birth of the Roman poet Virgil. Its aim is to promote the reading, writing, publishing and teaching of poetry throughout the world. There is, as I wrote back in 2016, a Facebook Page for World Poetry Day, but the posts there are an eclectic bunch.

I enjoy poetry, but I don’t write a lot about it here. However, most years I write a few posts and I have a small book by a Tasmania poet on my TBR now that I hope to get to soon.

Now though, I’ll just share a three Australian initiatives I discovered via our good friend Google, and which cover us almost from cradle to grave!

Reading Australia

Leah A, Ten silly poems by a ten year oldThe Australian Copyright Agency’s wonderful Reading Australia, which I’ve mentioned before, is doing its bit. In late February it announced that it would spend “the entire month featuring the diversity and brilliance of our Australian poets, contemporary and classic.” They list five works for primary school students, including a picture book featuring a poem by Australian classic balladist Banjo Paterson, and five for secondary students, including a verse novel I don’t know by Steven Herrick, and works by well-known Australian poets Robert Adamson, Judith Wright, Bruce Dawe and Kenneth Slessor.  For each work, they provide teaching resources, along the lines of this one for Judith Wright’s Collected poems.

They also provide an “extra reading list” for those who want to explore further. This includes a verse novel for primary students, Bully on the Bus by Kathryn Apel, which won the 2015 Australian Family Therapists’ Award in the Young Readers/Picture Book category, and the now classic feminist anthology Mother, I’m rooted from 1975, comprising works from over 150 poets. They say about that that “You’d be hard-pressed to find a collection of poetry that so completely represents the diverse spectrum of being a woman.”

The website doesn’t make clear how they are making this is a month-long focus, but it’s a start – particularly for teachers who are uncomfortable with or unconfident about teaching poetry.

Coffs Harbour Regional Museum

Google also revealed that the Coffs Harbour Regional Museum (up there on the NSW mid-north coast) is celebrating  the day with an event they’re calling Celebrating World Poetry Day with a Rime and an Open Poetic Mic. The word “Rime” comes from their feature poem – Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – for their. The event, which has a sea theme, comprises an art exhibition named for Coleridge’s poem; a conversation between a poet and the exhibition’s artist; and the open mic session for people “to perform an original or much regarded poem – under 4 minutes please bards” (and sea-themed of course).

What I particularly like about this is that it’s example of the way regional museums and galleries work hard to actively engage their communities in culture, rather than simply present static exhibitions.

Golden Carers

You can probably guess what Golden Carers is – and you’d be right. Based in Brisbane, Australia, its tagline is “Supporting carers of the elderly worldwide since 2007”. The organisation caters for “Diversional Therapists, Recreation Therapists and other caregivers of the elderly, including volunteers”, but to get full access you need to pay. Fair enough.

Wonderfully, they have a page for the 2018 World Poetry Day, and provide a list of activity ideas which look doable for non-experts. The ideas include:

  • Ten Tips for Celebrating World Poetry Day
  • Poetry in Popular Song
  • Poets and Poems Quiz
  • Funny Poems by Roald Dahl
  • Multicultural Poems
  • Share Your Poems

There are resources for all the listed activities, behind the pay wall.

Before I conclude, I’d like to share some lines from a couple of poets* (one Australian, one not). Who would not benefit from thinking and talking about what Emily Dickinson has to say:

If I can stop one Heart from breaking
I shall not live in vain …
(Emily Dickinson)

Or, Judy Johnson:

Listen to which footsteps

on the heart’s risers
produce a squeak

and which treads
are noiseless.

(Judy Johnson, from “Words, after an absence”)

And now, back to the UN and its aims for denoting this day:

One of the main objectives of the Day is to support linguistic diversity through poetic expression and to offer endangered languages the opportunity to be heard within their communities.

The observance of World Poetry Day is also meant to encourage a return to the oral tradition of poetry recitals, to promote the teaching of poetry, to restore a dialogue between poetry and the other arts such as theatre, dance, music and painting, and to support small publishers and create an attractive image of poetry in the media, so that the art of poetry will no longer be considered an outdated form of art, but one which enables society as a whole to regain and assert its identity.

What a comprehensive goal! I wonder if they are doing anything to measure whether or not the Day is achieving anything.

Happy World Poetry Day everyone!

* Emily Dickinson, from The School of Life’s boxed set, 20 poems; Judy Johnson, from Prayers of a secular world.

Monday musings on Australian literature: World Poetry Day

Well, folks, Trove has let me down, which is a very rare occurrence when I’m doing historical research. I looked for the phrase “world poetry day” and I looked for all the words “world”, “poetry” and “day”, but nothing apparently relevant appeared. Hmmm, because …

Interestingly, a Google search did retrieve a photograph on flickr of a World Poetry Day function held in 1963 Australia. The photograph says “all rights reserved” so I can’t reproduce it here, but you can see it online. Clearly World Poetry Day has been known about here for some time, but, oh dear, it’s only poetry so why write about it in the newspapers, eh?

I did find a few more recent references to the day via Google (using “world poetry day Australia”, without the double quotes), such as:

  • an Australia Council for the Arts news item on World Poetry Day in 2013. The item says, among other the things, that the day is for us “to acknowledge the role of poets around the world who are unable to speak openly and freely and who strive to build a better world.” Amen to that.
  • a news item from the United Nations Information Centre in Canberra on World Poetry Day in 2014 stating that “One of the main objectives of the Day is to support linguistic diversity through poetic expression and to offer endangered languages the opportunity to be heard within their communities” but it doesn’t list any activities planned to achieve this in 2014 Australia.
  • an article in the Sydney Morning Herald titled “World Poetry Day 2015: a chance for children to embrace the power of words” but it doesn’t mention any events encouraging children to do just that.
  • a World Poetry Day program (Eureka!) for the 2015 World Poetry Day, fun by the Queensland Poetry Festival. The web page starts with a William Hazlitt quote: “Poetry is the universal language which the heart holds with nature and itself. He who has a contempt for poetry, cannot have much respect for himself, or for anything else.” I don’t see anything for the 2016 day.

That’s pretty much it for the first page of results on my Google search. I guess these results tell me that Trove let me down for a reason. There really doesn’t seem to be much interest in the day here. Most of those links about seem more lip service than commitment, don’t they?

Before I continue, a brief explanation of World Poetry Day. According to Wikipedia (and some of the links above), it was designated as 21 March by UNESCO in 1999. The day, though, has been celebrated for much much longer, often in October to align with the birthday of the birth of the Roman poet Virgil. The UK, says Wikipedia, still celebrates it in October. There is a Facebook Page for World Poetry Day, but I can see nothing on it for Australia in 2016.

And yet, Australia – like many countries – has a rich poetic tradition. We have, to name a very very few, the bush balladists of the 19th century, early twentieth century poets like CJ Dennis and Dame Mary Gilmore, indigenous poets like Oodgeroo Noonuccal, later poets such as Judith Wright, Dorothy Porter and our grand old man Les Murray, and new poets-cum-rappers like Omar Musa*. We have poetry events and slams, poetry prizes, poetry websites, poetry magazines and poetry in literary magazines, and publishers specialising in poetry. I’ve written about many of these over the life of this blog. (See my poetry tag which tags all my poetry-related posts, not just Australian.)

Cover, Four and twenty lamingtonsAmong the first works I read to my children when they were babies were poetry books – AA Milne (of course), Dr Seuss, TS Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, and poetry anthologies, of which I bought many. A favourite Australian one was Four and twenty lamingtons. And picture books too, many of which are told in verse. Poetry is such an easy way to introduce children to the fun of language and words and to reading together. Poetry like music is something you can introduce to babies from the beginning.

I’m going to keep this post short – give you an early mark this Monday! And, anyhow, I’m sure you’ve got my meaning.

But, just for a straw poll, no matter where you live, can you tell me whether you’ve heard of any World Poetry Day events in your neck of the woods?

* I hate naming names here, really, because there are so many wonderful Aussie poets I’d love to mention.

POSTSCRIPT: After I drafted this post, the UK-based International Business Time published, for this year’s World Poetry Day, a list of “Famous non-English poets you should read”. Not Australian, but of interest to us all. Check it out.

Paul Hetherington and Jen Webb, Watching the world (Review)

Hetherington and Webb, Watching the worldI hope it’s not condescending to suggest, at this time of year, that a book would make a good Christmas present? I know some publishers, and fair enough too, choose around now to release certain types of books deemed to be good gift material. That, however, is not the case with this book, Watching the world, as it was in fact published back in July. It’s just that I’m reviewing it now and, quite coincidentally, I think it would make a good Christmas book. This is not because it’s a light, easy summer read, as it’s not your typical beach book, but because it’s a very attractive book that is priced reasonably and that can be enjoyed in multiple ways. You can meander through it sequentially, stopping to ponder, or dip in and out, exploring what catches your fancy.

Subtitled Impressions of Canberra, Watching the world comprises poems by Paul Hetherington paired with photographs by Jen Webb. It has a rather interesting genesis, as the Introduction explains, in that it’s the “result of an extended collaboration” between the poet and the artist. Their aim was to explore Canberra as a place in which people live and work, rather than, as is usually the case, as a planned city that is also the national capital. I like that idea. Too often Canberra is used as shorthand for the federal government – as in “Canberra said today ….”. But, as we who live here know, there is far more to Canberra than that.

Hetherington and Webb’s method of working was interesting too. They worked, they say, semi-independently:

Jen took photographs, which Paul then used as springboards into poems. Paul’s poems led, in turn, to Jen taking new photographs, or editing existing ones.

They continued this “iterative process” until they found “enough poem-photo pairs” that would satisfy their intention. They suggest that in this method of working a new “reality” appeared, one that was somehow separate both from themselves as individuals and from their partnership, a reality which confronted them with ideas about “the incommensurability of world, image and word”. That makes sense to me – I think! At least, it makes sense to me that we never can completely or exactly capture in one form – say poetry – that which is in another form – in this case life in Canberra. It seems both obvious and sophisticated at the same time to make this point! And so, when you have a poem and a photograph both “commenting” on each other and on life in Canberra, then the meaning (or the “reality”) surely becomes multi-layered? Hmmm … I think I’ll leave the philosophising here, but I hope that I’m making sense and that I’ve understood what Hetherington and Webb are saying.

Now, I’ll get to more concrete stuff (a very poetic word, that), starting with the wider project. In the Introduction, again, we are told that it was initially produced as an installation for the Imagine Canberra exhibition during Canberra’s 2013 centenary celebrations. It then had a couple of other iterations – at a conference, and as a set of scholarly essays – before finding its way into this book form this year. I love that they have managed to achieve such varied mileage out of their work.

And finally, the book itself. The poem-photo pairs are divided into three sections – Where we live, Memory places, and Paddocks and perambulations. They are, as you’d expect from the process described, idiosyncratic, although there is logic too to the groupings. The first poem-pair is titled “Waltz” and captures the physical sense of Canberra. I was amused by the poem’s opening:

Like algebra, these straight-drawn streets,
curves, crescents and rounding circles

Starting with the “straight-drawn streets” must surely be a little provocative gesture to the popular cry from tourists that they get lost in Canberra’s circles! We do, I’m sure, have far more traditionally designed streets than circular ones. It’s just that the circular pattern is a feature of the inner, early Canberra where tourists focus. The accompanying image is a low aerial shot of a warm, cosy looking Canberra suburb in autumn. The poem suggests that there is magic in Canberra, that for all the apparent “algebra” in its straight lines and curves, there is much here that cannot be easily defined or narrowed down to simple formulae.

The poems vary in tone. There is, for example, a subdued reference to indigenous inhabitants in “Ainslie”, whimsical self-deprecation in the simply titled “Canberra”, and wry or defiant humour in “Letter”. At least, it made me laugh: a woman hands her letter to someone, perhaps a husband she is leaving:

‘I know it’s not done
to be so formal
but just this once
I’d like the last word’

The accompanying image shows the back of a blue car driving away in light rain.

Sometimes the meanings of the poems and the connections with the photography are clear and unambiguous, more literal perhaps. Other times they are more tenuous, or abstract, as in “Handkerchief” with its accompanying leaf-litter image, encouraging the reader-viewer to delve further. I enjoy these challenges. It would be interesting to see whether different combinations challenge different readers.

The images are, of course, important, though being primarily a verbal/textual person, my focus tends to be the words. However, there are some gorgeous images here. I’ve mentioned a couple already. I also like the mystical tone of the poem-photo pair titled “Boundaries”, the sense of coming into and out of our different spiritual and physical selves, our individual and our social selves, and so on. A simple image and a two-line poem. Perfect.

Some of the pieces are universal, that is, they could apply to a lot of places in which people live, but many draw on signs and symbols familiar to Canberrans – the circles, the balloons, and Black Mountain Tower, for a start. We are a bush capital, and along with our trees come the birds. I enjoyed the cheekiness of the poem titled “Birds” (and the accompanying image setting movement against stillness) which suggests that for all the planning, life in the city might have other ideas. If you are now intrigued, have a look at the sample provided online by Blemish Books. That will probably speak louder than my 1000 words!

Watching the world is a quietly subversive work that looks at Canberra from an insider’s point of view – with a lot of affection but a willingness to cast an acerbic or questioning eye at times too. And remember, it’s Christmas soon!

Paul Hetherington and Jen Webb
Watching the world: Impressions of Canberra
Canberra: Blemish Books, 2015
ISBN: 9780994250827

(Review copy courtesy Blemish Books)

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.


Delicious descriptions: Richard Flanagan on Poetry

In my review of Richard Flanagan’s The narrow road to the deep north I talked a little about the importance of poetry to some of the main characters. I can’t resist sharing just a little more on this topic.

This is Dorrigo thinking, at the end of his life, though he doesn’t know just how near it is at the time:

He felt the withering of something, the way risk was increasingly evaluated and, as much as possible, eliminated, replaced with a bland new world where the viewing of food preparation would be felt to be more moving that the reading of poetry; where excitement would come from paying for a soup made out of foraged grass. He had eaten foraged grass in the camps; he preferred food. The Australia that took refuge in his head was mapped with the stories of the dead; the Australia of the living he found an ever stranger country.

Dorrigo Evans had grown up in an age when a life could be conceived and lived in the image of poetry, or, as it was increasingly with him, the shadow of a single poem. If the coming of television and with it the attendant idea of celebrity – who were otherwise people, Dorrigo felt, you would not wish to know – ended that age, it also occasionally fed on it, finding in the clarity of those who ordered their lives in accordance with the elegant mystery of poetry a suitable subject for imagery largely devoid of thought.

I was thrilled when I read that Dorrigo, who was born around 1913, had “grown up in an age when a life could be conceived and lived in the image of poetry”. It reminded me of my recent observation that poetry seems to have played a more significant role in people’s lives back in the 1920s than now. So, for Dorrigo, poetry is what he turns to for sustenance, for meaning or explanation, in his life. He says at one point that he can sleep without a woman, but he can’t sleep without a book. I love the idea of a world where poetry is widely known, loved and referred to.

Anyhow, here is Nakamura, dying of cancer, thinking about “goodness”:

He told himself that, through his service of this cosmic goodness, he had discovered he was not one man but many, that he could do the most terrible things he might otherwise have thought were evil if he had not known that they were in the service of the ultimate goodness. For he loved poetry above all, and the Emperor was a poem of one word — perhaps, he thought, the greatest poem — a poem that encompassed the universe and transcended all morality and all suffering. And like all great art, it was beyond good and evil.

Yet somehow — in a way he tried not to dwell upon — this poem has become horror, monsters and corpses. And he knew he had discovered in himself an almost inexhaustible capacity to stifle pity, to be playful with cruelty in a way that he found frankly pleasurable, for no single human life could be worth anything next to this cosmic goodness. For a moment, as he was being eaten by Tomokawa’s* oppressive armchair, he wondered: what if this had all been a mask for the most terrible evil.

The idea was too horrific to hold on to. In an increasingly rare moment of lucidity, Nakamura realised what was imminent was a battle not between life and death in his body, but between his dream of himself as a good man and this nightmare of ice monsters and crawling corpses. And with the same iron will that has served him so well in the Siamese jungle, in the ruins of the Shinjuku Rashomon and at the Blood Bank of Japan, he resolved that he must henceforth conceive of his life’s work as that of a good man.

Nakamura, as I said in my review, saw poetry as portraying “Japanese spirit” and it helped him justify his actions as commander of the camp. After the war, he gradually started to question his actions, but here at the very end of his life he wants, needs in fact, to see himself as a good man. And by force of will he does so, enabling him to choose as his death poem one which concludes with “clear is my heart”.

I love the idea of choosing your own death poem – and think I’ll start thinking about mine. What about you?

* He’s visiting Tomokawa, who had been one of his corporals on the Railway.