Lehmann & Gray’s Australian Poetry since 1788: A first post

Geoffrey Lehmann & Robert Gray, Australian Poetry Since 1788 (UNSW Press 2011)

This was a thoughtful and generous Christmas present, and it’s a daunting 1080 pages. After a bit of dipping and checking, I started at the beginning on Australia Day (after all, the title implies that in this book Australian poetry began on or after 26 January 1788), expecting to take a year or so to read it in bits here and there. Rather than wait till next January or thereabouts to blog about the book all in one go, I’ll post now and probably a couple more times over the coming months.

It’s the age of the interwebs, so naturally before I’d gone much past the Introduction I went looking to see what other people were saying. It was no surprise to come across snippets of ‘poetry-war’ conversation. John Tranter called the book the Death Star and blogged some inflammatory sarcasm. Someone on The Rereaders called it the Grey Lemon. So far so expected. I followed a trail of links to a video of a lecture given by Peter Minter at a seminar last October, and suddenly we were out of the poetry wars (in so far as that phrase implies squabbles among the marginalised) and into serious cultural issues. Minter starts out by saying that as a poet you don’t often have to take a stand, but this is one of those moments, and even though some of the lecture, particularly the discussion of the endpapers, is gleefully sarcastic, the over all feeling is a kind of passionate no pasaran. The anthology, he points out, includes only two modern Aboriginal poets. [Have a guess who they are, and if you’re at all familiar with Australian poetry you’ll probably get one right, but almost certainly your other name is one of the excluded. If ten of my readers did this in a room together we’d probably come up with ten names – that is to say, it’s an obviously significant exclusion.] This wouldn’t be such a big deal if it wasn’t being sold as a grand canonising statement rather than a selection of stuff that a couple of men happen to like. As it is, though, the omission, along with the ethnographic treatment of the traditional Aboriginal songs that are here, amounts to a ‘disappearing of modern Aboriginal poetry’ (Minter’s phrase), a contribution to this country’s continuing genocide (my phrase, and though it’s intemperate I’ll defend it if need be). Minter lists numerous omissions beyond the Aboriginal poets, and says there are many errors in the commentaries (the only one he specifies is the description of the 1967 referendum as giving Aboriginal people ‘special recognition’ in the Constitution, whereas in fact it removed ‘special’ provisions). The video is well worth watching, even though it misses a lot because it doesn’t show us Minter’s slides.

Poor old Geoffrey and Robert! I’d heard one of them on the ABC’s late lamented Book Show being quietly pleased with the representation of women among their poets. ‘Whew!’ you could almost hear him saying. ‘We dodged that bullet.’ One mitigating factor is that while the book is generally being touted as in some way definitive, the actual Introduction presents it pretty unambiguously as a product of the compilers’ idiosyncratic tastes and preferences.

All the same, I gave quiet thanks for Edward Said’s notion of counterpoint (that is, roughly, rather than boycotting a work of art that is, say, racist, it is preferable to read it along side of work by the people it has belittled or slandered or erased), and promised myself that I would dig out my books of poetry by Lionel Fogarty, Kevin Gilbert, Samuel Wagan Watson and read them and other Aboriginal (and non Anglo, and so on) poets in parallel with this anthology.

The two Aboriginal poets who made the cut are Odgeroo Noonuccal and Elizabeth Hodgson. There are quite a few versions of Aboriginal songs and stories ‘as recorded by’ white men, and in the case of those recorded by Roland Robinson, the storytellers’ names are given. This doesn’t negate Minter’s main point, but it does indicate that the editors were more aware of Aboriginal people as cultural creators than his lecture might seem to imply.

11 responses to “Lehmann & Gray’s Australian Poetry since 1788: A first post

  1. Great review Jonathan. I remember witnessing the frays between Tranter and Gray back in the 70s and have been reluctant to go near the anthology. I myself use the Jose Macquarie Pen Anthology of Australian Literature for all my Aust Lit poetry teaching. No complaints there. Great blog: you are at the cutting edge!


  2. “you are at the cutting edge!”
    Nice of you to say so, Michael, but it’s more like the outer edge!
    If only there’d been a YouTube back in the 70s! Imagine the comments on the Poetry Wars videos!


  3. Pingback: (Re-)reading Kevin Gilbert’s poetry | Me fail? I fly!

  4. Jonathan, there would not be so much criticism of the anthology if it had presented itself as a personal collection: i.e. it should be re-titled “Our Favourite Poems Since 1788.” I think it’s great that Lehmann put up a lot of his own money for this, but it’s not a representative sample of the diversity of Australian poetry, and I don’t think it makes that claim anyway. It relies on the editors’ faith in their own “good taste”.


  5. Hi Adam. That’s a good distinction to make: they weren’t trying to be representative, but nor is it presented as a personal collection. At least by implication it’s a ‘best poems’, as determined by two men’s self-confident taste. I went to their session at the Sydney Writers’ Festival on the weekend, and enjoyed it, but when someone asked about Fay Zwicky’s omission from the anthology, Geoffrey Lehmann’s response was very confusing to me. I blogged about it yesterday, suggesting that what was missing was someone to step in and tell them when their choices were idiosyncratic, ie, when their ‘good taste’ didn’t justify their faith. Incidentally, your poem on the subject is terrific.


  6. I know nothing of this LEHMANN-GRAY anthology (but think like MichaelGriffith1 above that the Nicholas JOSE-Macquarie PEN Anthology is excellent) – but I am dismayed to hear it has only two Indigenous poets represented. A little anthology I edited for OUP in 1990 (a kind of middle/upper school text – challenging topic and the reader to some reflection – Made in Australia its title) – had scattered through many pieces poetry and prose by Indigenous writers, and non-Indigenous. Just back from a recent southern NSW northern Victoria road journey Iris CLAYTON’s “River Bidgee” is close to my mind:

    No one knows how long he’s been there
    Twisted, old ravaged beyond repair
    Father to many, too many to count.
    His dying will be a terrible account
    Perhaps if the damage is quickly mended
    His shores and banks strongly defended
    Old River Bidgee need ever be
    Another lost legend of the Warrajarree.

    or Ernie DINGO:

    The tracks and the traces
    Are all that’s left behind,
    Yet I still see the people
    In the back of my mind.

    …not unlike Jindyworobak Rex INGAMELLS’ ‘Black Children’

    Where now uninterrupted sun
    Is shrivelling the sheaves,
    Black children leap and laugh and run
    Beneath a sky of leaves;
    And where the farmer thrashes wheat
    With steel machinery,
    Go glimmerings of their little feet,
    If only he could see.

    Other pieces by A JUPPURLA, Archie WELLER, Beryl PHILP-CARMICHAEL, Mary DUROUX, Julie WATSON-NUNGARRAYI – as well as prose selections from these and other Indigenous writers.

    It seems a great loss that making national anthologies representative of our ethnic and cultural diversity is still something which leads to counting up percentages – not so much the counting up (which is revealing, of course) but that we still feel and find it so necessary! Jonathan – Lionel, Kevin, Sam – all important to me 30 years ago when I was diving into the broader river of our national literature – as a teacher with a clear responsibility to take my students on from the bush ballads a marvellous primary school teacher full of passion for our land had declaimed in class in the mid-latter 1950s! He tossed me in – then a stint packing gherkins on a farm at Eurunderee (Pipeclay Creek) almost alongside where Henry Lawson grew up/went to school some 34 years ago had me striking out for deeper waters – now still swimming!


  7. Thanks, Jim. Your comment is a nice demonstration that this counting up of percentages points to a deeper concern: that the message given by excluding these writers is that they have nothing to offer – or less to offer than, say, a limerick by John Shaw Neilson or an elegant squib from the Bulletin’s ‘Replies to Correspondence’. The fact that the poetry/song of Iris Clayton and Ernie Dingo comes to your mind in the way you describe indicates that if this anthology came to define the canon whole generations would be deprived of rich sustenance.

    By the way, I think we may know each other from university days. Is your memory any better than mine?


  8. Really? Goodness…well, 1966 – not yet 17 – from a rural Seventh-day Adventist upbringing leaping into Sydney University – ‘the world’ (against which I had been forever warned) suddenly finding every certainty being undermined or breached (H.Ian HOGBIN – the marvellously irreverent anthropologist; McLACHLAN – uncovering hitherto unimagined and startling true life stories of key reformation players; the tenderly intricate rhythms of verse celebrating God’s natural world – from G.M.HOPKINS; lectures from David MALOUF; BERNARD – on the three varieties of the Aussie accent identified in some major study – [after my many years in Japan I came back detecting a fourth newly-emerging – evidence of the younger generation’s wide overseas travel – and brushing up against the tens of thousands of their age cohort from overseas here to study and lean for a few year – I wonder]; and reading Patrick WHITE’s Tree of Man; and new friendships – despite the fundamentalist mantras “be ye in the world but not of the world” and “be ye not unequally yoked” – a strong memory of three young women next to whom I sat in packed Wallace English classes: Robyn – of Chinese ethnicity from Darwin; Peta – of ‘White Russian’ background from Harbin in north-east China – and she in 2nd Year Eastern Suburbs and me in 3rd Year Tamworth had both had the same Latin teacher – an exile with her family from apartheid/Sharpeville South Africa; and Estelle – of Sydney Jewish background – how not representative of our post-war national character – and had we been able to articulate – both Robyn and I would have carried in alongside us the presence of Indigenous Australia – my childhood neighbours and classmates – hers, too). It took me some time to find my voice in tutorials – struck dumb in some senses by the free-wheeling nature of standard English – with which I was really only familiar in my head – a form to be read or for writing. My untethering from religious rectitude and obedience to narrow strictures came gradually – and then with some work experience for a year till coming back to tackle a newly envisioned Dip. Ed. at Sydney – in 1970 – and then away to teach – beginning in far south-west NSW. And a life – and now the chance to reflect – and how rich that is. Thank-you, Jonathan, for asking. (PS One of my English tutors was the charming Ms ARNOTT.)


  9. shawjonathan

    Well, Jim, we were there at the same time: I was an undergraduate 1967 to 1970, though it looks as if the only overlap was Eng Lit. I also came from an intensely religious background, and I also remember the wonder of being in tutorials with young women, and David Malouf’s wonderful lectures


  10. Sitting upstairs in Manning – Scott Mackenzie singing of going to San Francisco – continuing paedagogical discussions with fellow students during my Dip. Ed. year … just yesterday!


  11. shawjonathan

    You really should start up a blog of your own!


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