Nibbling on the hand that feeds me, with an occasional sharp nip

by David Musgrave

Co-editing Contemporary Australian Poetry with Martin Langford, Judith Beveridge and Judy Johnson was one of the biggest projects I’ve ever worked on: it was like doing a PhD all over again, but without the pool-playing. Because the anthology covered poetry published in the period 1990-2015 (excluding verse novels), I want to make a few general comments about the state of the artform as I experienced it from researching and reading pretty comprehensively in the period.

Any Australian writer who wishes that they were American, like a novelist of my acquaintance, need only have a look through the anthology to see the rich subject matter Australia offers: its unique history and pre-history, the natural environment and the interaction of humans with it, the increasing diversity of the population, with resurgent indigenous cultures, and a wide range of other topics and issues too numerous to mention here. The increase in the number of indigenous voices in Australian poetry is important, and will continue, but a similar increase in the number of voices emerging from recent migration to Australia has not yet taken place.

The reasons for this are complex, but I would hazard a guess that because it is a language-based artform, it takes a couple of generations for people from non-English speaking backgrounds to find a voice in an Australian English-language artform which is dominated by Anglo-Celtic elites. I’m making the distinction between poetry written in English and poetry written in another language and translated into English for a couple of reasons. One is publication channels and accessibility; the other is the relative monolingualism of most Australian poets. I’m not blaming anyone for being monolingual: in most cases it’s a combination of the curse of speaking English and being isolated in Australia.

I find it odd that when I read about poets who made their living from translation (Mandelstam translating from English without ever having been to England, for example), it seems a million miles away from the situation in Australia. I recall being told by someone whose advice I mostly listened to about twenty-five years ago that if I wanted to be a poet, I needed French at the very least, and ideally two or three other languages. I took his advice seriously, and while speaking fluently is a skill difficult to attain in the relative isolation of Australia, it is possible to attain reading proficiency in other languages through hard study.

You can still be a very good Australian poet and not have any other language than English, but I have come to agree with my friend: reading poetry from another language in the original does strange things to your brain. It is as if the poetic moment is it once inaccessible yet apparent, and the familiar tropes of all poetry, such as metaphor, personification, metonymy and so on, take on a strangeness that has a pressure which remains after returning to English. I can point to poems I have written that have arisen from such engagements. I am hoping that Australia’s increasing diversity will have a linguistic benefit for its poetry, and that the rich poetic traditions of Arabic and Chinese literature, for example, might become increasingly familiar in Australian poetry through poets who can move between the different traditions with ease.

I also wonder why Australian poets of a non-indigenous background haven’t taken up the study of an indigenous language (or languages) more systematically than, say, the Jindyworobaks. It’s one thing to chuck in a few words, hopefully from the same Australian language, into a poem, but it’s another thing altogether to experience the difference of an ergative language, with metaphors based on a frame of reference which is completely alien to your experience. Here’s hoping that being familiar with an Australian language becomes a more common characteristic of being an Australian poet.

Another aspect of contemporary Australian poetry that I want to touch on is the rise of Creative Writing in universities. Broadly speaking, this has had, and will continue to have, some discernible consequences.

The first derives from the fact that universities were once part of a poetic establishment (in conjunction with government, media, publishers, reviewers) that, after 1995, has been largely dismantled. Poetry publishers are now largely independent, poetry is fairly invisible to the mainstream media, and the signs that poetry is increasingly become sidelined by government funders is alarming but not surprising. Yet the universities remain a home for poets, largely through Creative Writing programs: the establishment is dead, long live the establishment!

The second is that experimental and avant garde poetry is increasingly establishment-sanctioned: it will take something monumentally unexpected to occur for this nexus to be overturned: perhaps this might happen along the lines of the scenarios I have outlined above. It’s difficult to say where innovation will come from (if we could predict it, it wouldn’t be that innovative, innit?), but I’m of the camp that values development in poetry in terms of what happens in the language and, by extension of that, technique.

Lastly, poetry that is being written with more of an eye towards the continuity of the lyric tradition appears to be flourishing in the work of many graduates from these programs, but with a tendency towards aestheticization. It is not uncommon to read accomplished lyric poetry in first or second books with an impressive range of intertextual reference, largely based on European literatures, with figures drawn from Western fine art or music. The same occurs in a lot of recent first or second novels. This has great appeal to some older members of the establishment, but I wonder of its appeal to the future? Both the avant garde, and more traditionally lyrical poetry which come out of Creative Writing programs seem to me to be increasingly sharing a turn towards art: they are more often art that is about art, albeit in different traditions (maybe we should blame the exegesis!). This could be viewed as a species of decadence, by which I primarily mean decadence as the impossibility of change. Change that emerges from the avant garde is as important as the achievement of a finely wrought lyric, but change that comes from unexpected quarters can often have the greatest impact. The Australia of 50 years’ time is going to have a different set of poetries than those we see today.