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Australian Poetry Now

Once asked what poets can do for Australia, A.D. Hope replied: “They can justify its existence.” Such has been the charge of Australian poets, from Hope himself to Kenneth Slessor, Judith Wright to Les Murray, Anthony Lawrence to Judith Beveridge: to articulate the Australian experience so that it might live in the imagination of its people. While the presence and potency of the Australian landscape remains an abiding interest, a great deal of Australian poetry has been innovative and experimental, with poets such as Robert Adamson, Michael Dransfield, Vicki Viidikas, John Forbes, Gig Ryan,   J.S. Harry, and Jennifer Maiden leading the way. The richness, strength, and vitality of Australian poetry is marked by a prodigious diversity that makes it as exhilarating to survey as it is challenging to encapsulate.

While the most convincing justification for the existence of Australia might come from its indigenous poets, Aboriginal poetry in Australia has been particularly overlooked, both its historical traditions and the innovative work being written today. Australian Aboriginal culture is thought to date back over forty thousand years, making it the oldest continuous culture on the planet. Of the 250 indigenous languages in circulation before European settlement in 1788, fewer than 150 survived the advance of English, and the numbers are dwindling. Fortunately, linguists have managed to transcribe and translate at least some of the rich and diverse Aboriginal oral traditions before they are lost. According to R.D. Wood, T.G.H. Strehlow’s Songs of Central Australia is “the most majestic, complete, and important” contribution to Aboriginal oral poetry called “songpoetry,” for the linguistic artistry of the lyrics. While frequently ceremonial or ritualistic in nature, some songpoems take an interest in quotidian matters, such as love, hunting, flora, fauna, settlement, and local history. The eponymous songpoem in Martin Duwell and R.M.W. Dixon’s Little Eva at Moonlight Creek, for instance, recalls the December 1942 crash of a US B–24 heavy bomber, “Little Eva,” in the Gulf of Carpentaria from the perspective of the Aboriginal stockmen who took part in the search for survivors.

The most recent contribution to Aboriginal songpoetry publications is Stuart Cooke’s translation of George Dyuŋgayan’s Bulu Line: A West Kimberley Song Cycle, which narrates the dreams of Dyuŋgayan, a twentieth-century Nyigina lawman from the Roebuck Plains in Western Australia, in which he is visited by his late father’s spirit and given the seventeen verses of the Bulu Line. Every age demands its own translation, it is said, and as such Cooke’s translation of Dyuŋgayan draws on various tropes found in contemporary Anglophone poetry — repetition, fragmentation, variations in typeface, and so on — to create a mesmerizing, multivocal text. For example, in “Verse 2” of Bulu Line Cooke spins Dyuŋgayan’s rhyming tercet — “guwararrirarri yinanydina / dyidi yarrabanydyina / nanbalinblai yinanydina” — into twenty lines describing the courtship flight of snipes, whose feather vibrations in the slipstream produce a throbbing sound known as “drumming,” as in this sample:

a flock of snipes
                                  flying toward us
wait! they’re rai
                                   fast approaching
we nearly collide
                                       their bellies like birds’
wait they’re flying
becoming rai
                              racing through sky

Aboriginal poetry written in English, a more recent development, frequently engages the politics of race, ecology, and Aboriginal land rights. Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s We Are Going holds the distinction of being both the first book of poems published by an Aboriginal poet and one of Australia’s bestselling poetry titles. Kargun, Lionel G. Fogarty’s debut collection of poems appeared in 1980 and, along with the rest of his oeuvre, has helped to reformulate the role of poetic discourse in both black and white communities. Born in 1958 on Wakka Wakka land in South Western Queensland, Fogarty’s poetry deploys language in innovative and disruptive ways and has 
pioneered a new space of Aboriginal writing: “I see words beyond any acceptable meaning,” he explains, “this is how I express my dreaming.” His poem “Am I,” for example, concludes with the cry of a kangaroo that presages the collapse of boundaries between self and other:

I heard a roo cry
Am I hearing attendants
to my hearts
Am we lovin’ in these days
Am I sadden these nights
Forever it possess you man
something must tell
Am I me or you am us.

There is less crisis, perhaps, but not less bite in the poetry of Samuel Wagan Watson, the most prominent of the younger generation of Aboriginal poets. Watson’s recent collection, Love Poems and Death Threats, presents the particulars of his urban, contemporary life: the Dreaming and Aboriginal mistreatment — past and present — but also the war in Afghanistan, Hollywood, manga comics, the Beat poets, love, divorce, and the international poetry circuit he frequents. Watson’s language is loose, refusing economy and structure, but his eye is sharp. In the poem “Road Fire,” heat-haze is a “working ghost” on a highway in Mununjali country, where a “red-belly-black serpent / animates the bitumen” to remind us of what we too often forget: “venom is always ahead” but “some paths need to be crossed.”

The verse novel has enjoyed curious prominence in Australian poetry publishing for the past forty years, with many of the country’s established poets attempting at least one at some point in their career: Les Murray, Alan Wearne, Dorothy Porter, Philip Hodgins, Geoff Page, John Tranter, John A. Scott, John Jenkins, Ken Bolton, and Judy Johnson, to name some. For some poets, interest in the hybrid genre is a pivot away from the dominant lyrical mode toward the dramatic possibilities of voice, vernacular, temporality, and character beyond the persona of the poet. One apparent ambition of the Australian verse novel, Christopher Polnitz points out, “is to synthesize all narrative genres and medias, from opera to sacred allegory, radio drama to film.” For other poets, the reclamation of narrative is an honest attempt to recapture poetry audiences lost to fiction and film in the twentieth century.

One of the earliest Australian verse novels is Murray’s The Boys Who Stole the Funeral: A Novel Sequence, which Peter F. Alexander credits as “root and origin of   both Australian and American developments of the genre.” Wearne followed up with The Nightmarkets, a novel written in sixteen-line sonnets that came out the same year that Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate appeared across the Pacific. Both Murray and Wearne went on to contribute more ambitious works to the genre: Murray’s epic Fredy Neptune tackled the horror of twentieth-century genocide in loosely-rhymed, eight-line stanzas while Wearne’s momentous verse novel The Lovemakers arranged three decades of Australian suburbia into 750 pages of couplets, quatrains, and sestinas. Dorothy Porter, the author of nine (including two posthumous) collections of lyric poetry, wrote five verse novels in the space of fifteen years and is credited for popularizing the verse novel with fiction audiences in the nineties. Porter’s bestselling The Monkey’s Mask, a lesbian crime thriller written in punchy free-verse lyrics, was adapted for radio, stage, and eventually the screen. Verse novels for young-adult audiences also emerged around this time, proving a commercial success for authors such as Steven Herrick, Catherine Bateson, Margaret Wild, Libby Hathorn, and Michelle Taylor.

The Australian verse novel, young adult notwithstanding, has lost some momentum in recent years but a handful continue to turn up each year. The historical verse novel is proving to be a popular subgenre; Aboriginal poet Ali Cobby Eckermann’s second verse novel, Ruby Moonlight, is set in the nineteenth century and tells the story of a young Aboriginal woman whose tribe has been massacred by a party of European settlers. But the verse novel that has grabbed most attention in recent years is indubitably contemporary: Here Come the Dogs by Malaysian-Australian rapper and slam poet Omar Musa. Shadowing the lives of three young men through clubs and hip-hop gigs, tattoo parlors and greyhound tracks, Musa moves easily between prose and poetry to create an innovative middle genre. The verse novel’s gritty milieu, along with its lexicon of phonetic profanity, captured the attention of Irvine Welsh, who applauded its 
“swaggering exuberance.” In a late poem entitled “The end,” Musa offers an apocalyptic vision of a man and woman — their “beautiful, dumb love” about to end — leaving a nightclub at dawn. They laugh at a blackened sky, like farmers seeing the first rain in years:

But it is not rain.

It is ash,
the finest black powder
falling onto our collars and shoulders,
drifting around us, falling down
                                             like soot from the grate of heaven.

Having long considered itself a southern-hemisphere outpost of Europe, Australia has recently awakened to the fact of its geography and discovered itself to be a part of Asia — a circumstance reflected in its shifting demographics. According to a 2010 report, Australia is second only to Luxembourg as the most multicultural country in the world. Recent census figures reveal more than eight percent of Australians identify as being of Asian descent (in contrast to only five percent of Americans), with Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipino, and Indian being the predominant backgrounds. Of course the European roots of Anglophone Australian poetry remain stout and deep, but the pivot in perspective from Europe to Asia is opening up new possibilities for poetic engagement in the region beyond the ubiquitous borrowing of various Asian poetic forms.

Australian poets with Asian heritage include Adam Aitken, Paul Dawson, Jaya Savige, and James Stuart, to name just a few; other poets, such as Ee Tiang Hong, Ouyang Yu, Shen, and Ivy Alvarez, were born in an Asian country and migrated to Australia later in life. While Britain has long been the orthodox address for Australian 
expatriate poets — Peter Porter and Clive James of the older generation, or Jaya Savige and Emma Jones of the younger — an increasing number of Australian poets are taking up residence in Asia, often with the support of a university posting: Kit Kelen teaches at the University of Macau, Dan Disney at Sogang University in Seoul, and Michael Brennan teaches at Chuo University in Tokyo. Benefited by technology, these poets have managed to maintain a presence in Australian poetry publishing while building new networks in Asia. Brennan continues to run Vagabond Press from his base in Japan and Paul Hardacre publishes the soi 3 modern poets imprint of Papertiger Media, among his other publishing endeavors, from Bangkok and Chiang Mai.

Several important Asian-focused publications have appeared in recent years. Windchimes: Asia in Australian Poetry, edited by Noel Rowe and Vivian Smith, presents a selection of Asian-themed poems by Australian poets in chronological order, allowing it to be read, as Geoff Page notes, “as an index to our changing attitudes towards Asia and its peoples.” Opening with a handful of Sinophobic poems published in The Bulletin in the early twentieth century, the anthology moves towards more contemporary works — such as Judith Beveridge’s striking poem sequence “Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree” — in which the source cultures are deeply admired and internalized. The anthology concludes with the ironic poem “Noodles” by Malaysian-born poet Shen, which uses humor to destabilize stereotypes within the Asian community:

Eating noodles,” mother says,
putting down her coffee cup.
“    ...    the only thing Chinese about you.”
I look up from the steaming
bowl of noodles, eyes half-slit
at dawn. Too tired to argue,
I slip into old habits;
an inscrutable smile
and a filial, obedient nod.

Poet Michelle Cahill, who describes her heritage as Goan-Anglo-Indian, has been instrumental in foregrounding the work of Asian poets in Australia. In 2007 she founded Mascara Literary Review, a biannual online journal with a brief to publish migrant, indigenous, and Asian Australian writing. Along with Adam Aitken and Kim Cheng Boey, she coedited the excellent anthology Contemporary Asian Australian Poets. Featuring poets who “are either first-generation migrants from Asia or Australian-born poets who can trace their roots to Asia,” the poems ruminate on home, travel, diaspora, identity, myth, empire, and language. One standout is Pakistani-Australian poet Misbah Khokhar. The solution to war, Khokhar proposes, is to dispense with borders: “Someone must rub out the demarcation lines that have been painted over valleys and mountains. Or,” she suggests matter-of-factly, “let both sides shoot it out until there is no one left to fire a gun.” The poet then turns to women, the hitherto invisible, and advocates for their sexual agency: “Women should refuse to have sex and build a fort on top of a hill and take-up arms to defend their liberty.” The poet concludes with an imagined frontier in which borders are as permeable as its inhabitants uninhibited: “They should hang their veils as flags,” she writes, “let their hair catch in the wind.”

The idea that “Australian poetry” exists is not a foregone conclusion, nor yet that a nation — Australia or otherwise — can be 
justified. Certainly, in the age of Wi-Fi, linguistic traditions based on geography, ethnicity, and political allegiances are contestable and 
increasingly difficult to discern. To speak of what might be distinctive, however faint, in Australian poetry is not to argue that these aspects are exclusive, representative, or permanent fixtures in the literary tradition. The number of ways into the imagination is, after all, infinite. Rather it is simply to notice when instances rise and temporarily collect like leaves blown against a wall.

More from this issue

This poem originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of Poetry magazine

  • Bronwyn Lea was born in Tasmania and grew up in Queensland and Papua New Guinea. She is the author of three award-winning collections of poems, most recently The Deep North (George Braziller, 2013). She teaches poetics at the University of Queensland.

Prose from <em>Poetry</em> Magazine

Australian Poetry Now

  • Bronwyn Lea was born in Tasmania and grew up in Queensland and Papua New Guinea. She is the author of three award-winning collections of poems, most recently The Deep North (George Braziller, 2013). She teaches poetics at the University of Queensland.

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