Claire Potter: Acanthus: New Poems

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2022, 76pp.

The poems of Claire Potter’s new book, like those of its predecessor, Swallow, are simultaneously fascinating and challenging. It feels as though the book itself understands this and does its best to help you because there is a lot of material devoted to exploring what it is that the poems are actually doing. To begin with, there is a short note, preceding the first poem, which describes the inspiration behind the capitals of a Corinthian column. A basket covered with a roof tile was placed above the grave of a young girl. A dormant acanthus plant grew around the pot and over the tile, curving inwards as it rounded the corner. Seeing this, Callimachus decided to use it as a model – a challenging one – for a new kind of capital. This image is crossed with a quote from Derrida that seems to say much the same thing: “Everything will flower at the edge of a desolate tomb”. In a way these are both assertions that the baroque will evolve around emptiness: as Merwin says (or implies) somewhere, the bigger the emptiness of the doorspace, the more elaborate the decoration of the doorway. Why this is the case can be open to debate? is the emptiness loss or absence – they aren’t entirely the same. Does the art compensate for the nothingness or does it derive from it and thus, in a way, express it? The answer to that probably depends on where the philosophical tradition that you work within comes from. To make things a little more complex we are told, at the end of this note, that the poems of the book “might be said to begin” on the overlapping edges of the two accounts (Derrida and Vitruvius – who tells the story of Callimachus’s inspiration) and thus introduces the word “edge” which is going to figure largely in the poems to come. At the other end of the book is its blurb. Readers of these reviews will know that it is not a genre that I ever feel is very helpful for a critic and, I suppose, it isn’t intended to be since its main function is to lure innocent readers to buy the book. But in this case, the blurb has more help to offer, describing the poems as dwelling “in the landscapes of edges”, being interested in “surreal gardens, oblique geometries, cloud rooms, witches, and childhood remembrances”, all elements that can easily be traced in individual poems. Acanthus is also accompanied, as are all Giramondo’s books of poetry, by a sheet containing an Author Note on the reverse and, again, this is more than helpful:

An enduring line running through Acanthus is perhaps one that inevitably moves obliquely or sideways. Looking back now, many of the poems traverse the clarity of a dream-like state: diverting from an imaginary centre and meandering across strange ground. As with all poetry, fragments matter; figures and objects – as if on the level of the bee – are significant; unintelligible feelings turn into a blueprint language that errs and wanders in order to find a resting place. Nothing in the collection was fixed beforehand, you could say the writing took place in order to think a way through, think about certain things or events that at the time didn’t have any formal presence in my mind . . .

This degree of help is unprecedented and although those who don’t like the poems will think that this poet is protesting too much, I can see a fascinating attempt to make sense of – or to make a whole out of – very disparate poems some of which are extremely strong.

And then there is the help to be derived from the poems themselves which are often explicit about what they are trying to do to the extent of making it a kind of meta-theme. “Counterintuitive” is perhaps the closest to what I call a “poem-poem”. It begins with a passage by Gerald Murnane as an epigraph, a passage which seems to dissolve the writer-meaning-reader relationship in favour of “images and feelings in a sort of eternity”. There’s a not uncommon paradox in the fact that the poem which follows speaks very meaning-communicatively, almost prosily, in advocating a poetry of edges and intuitions:

There is a writing that escapes the head, rustles
          like stars of purple thistle,
moves the tiniest bones of clavicle, tilts like
                    a compass from centre to radius to peregrine. This writing
          cannot be analysed or
     understood by conventional means. Its solitude is written
in a vine that veins a crumbling edge, the foliage
           of a dream in amber . . .

and then modulates into the world of acanthus leaves developing around the edge of a tile. If it works as a poem it is because this expository introduction develops in a way which rather performs its own subject by moving into a metaphorical undersea world: “Sometimes from the seabed, it having become impossible / to work on land . . . / I drift to an underwater forest”. And this is only the first of a set of transformations. Underwater lights are likened to “paper lanterns / I pressed at other times” and the poem leaves the sea to speak of the “other times” which turn out to be liminal, edge-times:

                        At twilight for example or sometimes before dawn
               when I decrease myself and my misreadings in the camouflage
          of singing grasses where the tourmaline colours
     in a nest of eggs could stand in for a palette
of seaweeds and stones. Here the elements become
     woven, here the words come in the noon of heatwaves
                    backwards, forwards, sea creatures in bricolage
                             images and feelings in a sort of eternity
                  that float in a trilogy of windowpanes – the flaw
of the paper, the fleck of the eye, desire attempting to feel its way
      rub its runic skin against the arch of page

One of the reasons for quoting this poem at length is to give readers some idea of what Potter’s poetry actually feels like. Encountered on its own in a journal, say, I think this would be fairly daunting but within the context of an entire book, where it has an explanatory, and thus helpful, role, and where it is surrounded by friends in the form of poems which work on the principles that it speaks to, it looks a strong piece. The “flaw / of the paper” and the “fleck of the eye” are those revealing moments at the edge of concentration, the moments when Potter’s poetic self begins to become interested, the moments “too visible to be seen straight on” as another poem says. The exact nature of the “desire” which is attempting to feel its way is a bit more problematic. We are anxious to work out what it is since it hints at the thematic forces behind the poetry but is ambiguous. It could be nothing more than good old physical desire: this would suggest a core interest in the complexities of relationships. It could be the desire to find a structure and development in one’s life: this would account for the poems which revisit childhood and also for poems like “Of Birds’ Feet” and “The Birthday” which are very much about direction. Or, at its most extreme it could be no more than a desire to push one’s own poetry to explore what can be done with material that comes from the edges of things. At any rate, in a poetry so full of development and transformation it is understandable that readers search for reasonably familiar, conventional underlying certainties in as many poems as possible: ailing parents, problematic relationships, childhood memories and so on.

Other poems which have a methodological component include “The Art of Sideways” and “Plant Poem”. The former of these is one of the more difficult poems of the book even if its title makes its subject perfectly clear. It begins with a striking metaphor which determines much of what is to come: the diminution of sunlight as the northern winter solstice approaches is likened to the sleep of “a yellow snake in a tight burrow”. I think the basis of this connection is the sense of the sun circling lower and lower on the horizon (to the point where, if London were a thousand kilometres farther north and touched the Arctic Circle, the arc of the sun’s course would barely rise above the horizon at mid-winter). But the snake is also an image from Australia – “Last summer I stood over a sheath of snake in the bush” – something that introduces the issue of the poet’s journeyings and developments. The central section of the poem is an extended description of the snake’s shed skin, another metaphor for an individual’s development, but the main concern of the poem precedes this:

But just as rain can fall sideways   and eyes look aslant
might a northern winter   not widen light in the way
a snake   exceeds its skin?

Again, this wants to be read as a guess on the poet’s part that the changes in her life that are happening in the northern hemisphere may be changes in the quality of her perceptions but before we get to such a straightforward concluding assertion, there is a complex passage:

Trees are empty on the sidewalk   their fallen leaves   layered
and overlapping   like shelves of ancient papyruses
One tree casts a long shadow   two arms striking upwards
as though piqued   by pavement light
Between the shadow lying flat and still   and the tree standing
long and tall   there is an angle of forty-five degrees.
There is Icarus   falling from blue   to decimal   to amber
The distance between north   and south   is mapped
with the shape   and angle   of his eyes
The snake’s skin is colourless   his eye invincible
The winter light is warm   piercing darkness
a trajectory that points in all   directions

There are two puzzling parts here. The first is the issue of how the shadow of a vertical, winter-struck tree can be at forty-five degrees to the tree itself when, if the surface that the shadow falls on is a road or pavement (presumably “sidewalk” is used when it isn’t the accepted term in either Australia or the UK because it involves the word “side” which “pavement” doesn’t) it should be ninety degrees. The only solution I can offer here is that the shadow falls on a wall. It isn’t entirely a trivial point since Potter’s poetry reveals an interest in angles, not only as part of the sideways, edge-seeking view, but as something measurable. There is a nice poem about a couple and “the incandescence of love / and hate in two ordinary / people”. It is called “Eighty-nine degrees” and the line “eighty-nine degrees to the usual” shows it to be derived from E.M. Forster’s famous description of Cavafy as “standing at a slight angle to the universe”. Potter’s poem, and perhaps her poetry in general, wants to be more precise than this and actually to measure the “slight angle” as being one degree. Then there is the issue of Icarus, falling into the poem much as he fell from the sky. His presence is made less surprising by the context of the book’s other poems: he appears reasonably frequently as an image of plunging descent. The puzzle for me – which may be no more than a result of my own readerly inadequacies – is how he can fall from blue (the sky) through “decimal” to amber. It can’t be a matter of falling from one colour to another via a measurable process of declension since declension is measured in degrees which derive from the old Babylonian sexagesimal system and are thus not part of the decimal system. And why “amber”? Possibly it is a description of the northern winter light that the poem is concerned with or possibly it involves the meaning of preservation – it does occur in “Counterintuitive” in that sense: “a dream in amber”.

“Plant Poem” is rather a different beast:

The decision of a plant
to grow this way or that
might mimic the decision
to leave by this door or that
but ultimately like a plant
one stays put, moving only in minute
imperceptible degrees, craning
the neck for example towards the sun
towards light that remains glacial
towards peace that carries spurs
towards a singular voice, a neon
strobe which may flicker or be broken
but which nonetheless shines
some small thing inwards to pinken
the discoloured mind, brighten the worsted
eye looking this way or that
towards a door ajar but not open
extending just enough to hear as well as to feel
the work of the feet outside.

The mode of this poem is quite different to that of “The Art of Sideways” in that it is syntactically “smooth” moving through its propositions sequentially. Other poems are inclined to break the material up into individual units even if only by tab spaces so that the structure of such poems seems more like an assemblage. At their most extreme these poems begin to look as though they might be closer to the “field” style of half a century ago and it’s perhaps significant that three of the poems from Swallow are built around propositions from Olson’s Projective Verse essay. It’s interesting to see something that always looked to be so much “of its time” get a sympathetic run two generations later. (A passing reference to “roots and branches” in “Call them Blueprints of Weather” deliberately alludes to Duncan’s book, born of the same period and ethos as Olson’s essay.) As do many of the poems of Acanthus, “Plant Poem” also exploits a context that has become familiar. It’s familiar metaphorically because the plant recalls the acanthus curving around its roof tile and familiar thematically because it’s about seeing things at the edge of vision. The stationary observer picks up “some small thing” which is capable of flooding a “discoloured mind” with fresh colour. That then enables the poet to both hear and feel what is happening in the world outside of their anchored mind. It is, in retrospect, a very Romantic poem, concerned with the nature of the interaction between the mind and reality. One could almost read it as a gloss on Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode” where the state of the poet’s mind “colours” the reality he sees and only the access of “joy” will enable him to throw a net over the phenomenal world. In Potter’s poetry there is none of the all-encompassing interactions of temperament that there is in Coleridge: for her it will be a small thing that works its way back into the perceptual and poetic apparatus.

Having dwelt for so long on poems that explore the methods behind the book, it seems trivialising to begin to list the book’s themes and I’ll simply touch lightly on them. One of the foremost is the notion of transformation. This can appear in a number of guises. It can be a matter-of-fact assertion that recalls the opening of Kafka’s story. A prose poem, significantly entitled, “Metamorphosis”, begins with the poet as spider centred on her silk threads and attached to the world. For all its vulnerability in the face of wind and rain it’s a stance engaged with the world from which poems can be made but the darker implication is that the poems are in the “benumbed form” of a captured bee or fly. Transformation is something enacted by metaphor of course in that the tenor is altered by the existence of a vehicle. I’ve mentioned the way in which the snake of “The Art of Sideways” enters the poem as an explanatory connection – the arc of the sun is like the coils of a hibernating snake – but it then becomes part of the fabric of the poem, altering its direction and transforming it as it does so. In “Slow Corsage” the detailed observation of the way a fellow train passenger holds a loaf of bread as he prepares to leave is disturbed by the sight of a camellia blossom when the poet gets home and the poem is then transformed from social observation into something quite different – “I became distracted from any trace of the tall man with the bread upon whose lapel, given the chance, I might have pinned a day-old camellia” – perhaps, as in “Plant Poem”, exemplifying the idea of the small thing which enables a wider comprehension.

Perhaps the most striking of the many manifestations of the idea of transformation occurs in “Pond Weather” which begins as an immersion poem – this time into a pond in the middle of London – and seems to want to be a poem about the dissolving of boundaries. But it changes direction radically at the end:

. . . . . 
Silken as a cormorant my mother arrives out of the trees
Her wings rake the pond into an exclamation of black glitter

She addresses me from her wingspan, her beak
clapping like a pair of scissors

I rise amphibian into her weather
A fugue of water beetles drifts into the brocade

They form a net of black eyes
She drinks a blue moon from their gaze

Hatching herself from bird to
woman to mother

It’s a strong poem and one that a reader would remember from even a casual first reading. Looking into it a bit more closely, you can see that the way in which it is a kind of transformation in reverse adds a lot to the dynamics of the poem – the thing that ultimately makes a poem memorable. In the edge-dissolving world of the pond it’s quite possible to transform one’s mother into a bird, it’s an environment ripe for transformations. But there is something exciting and challenging about the reverse process. Does the mother call the poet back to reality, a reality in which she is not going to be a bird but a mother? Is it that a domestic relationship – mother to daughter – trumps the transformational world of poetry? Whatever the answer, the poem has both a strongly memorable structure and, of course, that image of the “beak / clapping like a pair of scissors” – also something that is hard to get out of one’s head.

Transformation – metaphoric as well as actual – is only one of a series of themes in the poems of Acanthus, in fact the vaguer word, “interests” might be more suitable. An obvious question that a critic might pose would be to ask where are the poems which, instead of taking their own natures and grounding in edges of perception as their theme – as in, say, “The Art of Sideways” or “Plant Poem” – simply use these perceptual methods to generate poems. These will be poems which have nothing of the “poem-poem” about them. I would choose a couple of poems here, “Errand” and “Antigone”, as representative of two different kinds of result. The former begins with the image of a mother bird flitting in and out of bushes like someone sewing:

In and out of leaves   the blue tits sew the garden
because to the mother bird   in my mind   I’ve tied
an infinite string   as she zig-   zags fervently   shirring
distance in a loose smocking   of air

Faded winter grasses   rosebushes tinted with rust
amulets strung with the dry hairs of weeds
the entirety of the field   broken open   restitched
and engrossed   with minute wing-

work   a prowess   I must   remember   when putting seeds
out tonight for birds . . .

and it then moves on to become poem partly about doing necessary work (another theme of the book) and partly about the mother. “Errand” – whose title indicates both work and a side to side flitting movement (it derives from the same source as “erratic”) – is a poem that wouldn’t be too disorienting for a reader with no other knowledge of Potter’s aesthetic and thematic interests. Our reading of it is deepened by the context of other poems but we would not be lost without them. It may be complex, in other words, but it’s not really challenging. At the other extreme is “Antigone”, a poem I rather like now – partly because of its apparent refusal to bring poetic methods into the fabric of the poem – but which initially I found frustrating and irritating.

In a room circled by nets of gorse
I wept in a long black dress
Across the window, plovers rake the sky
with the gold dust of feather
I replay dreams with an abacus of stones -
hang-gliders, Catherine wheels, meadows
of butterflies because I curved into the sunken bell of his shoulder
unmarrowed his beard from everlasting snow
I threw dirt in ferns of silt and loam – there was no midpoint
between a daughter and a father
The hem of my skirt felted in bog-blood, billowing
like a diatribe in my uncle’s burning ears. In a room
circled by nets of gorse, I hung
in a long black dress

Not a poem that anyone is going to feel comfortable with immediately. The title itself is a very strong element, invoking Oedipus, his daughter and her uncle, Creon, and is capable of distending any poem it is attached to. To my mind, the tension that animates the poem is that between its mythic context and a domestic situation transformed, perhaps, by dream images. Other poems in the collection help a little: it is hard not to find a connection between the girl in her dress here (together with all the other images of circularity) and the spider in her web in “Metamorphosis”, for example, but, fundamentally this is a stand-alone poem with no connection to the theme of how the poet’s perception works. Is it an early poem, a little outside of the methodological emphases of Acanthus, or is it a new direction? An outsider can’t really tell but it’s just possible it’s the latter and that Potter’s next books will feature more poems of this kind where she decides to stop using an examination of her poetic methods as subject matter.

Felicity Plunkett (ed.): Thirty Australian Poets

St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2011, 285pp.

The significant poetic productions from the declining months of last year seem to have been anthologies. Not only is there this intriguing collection of thirty poets – all born after 1968 – edited by Felicity Plunkett but there is also an anthology, interestingly different but covering similar ground, edited by John Leonard called Young Poets: An Australian Anthology. And, as well as these, there is Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray’s daunting Australian Poetry Since 1788. Though, generally, I avoid reviewing anthologies I will try to cover both the Leonard and the Gray and Lehmann in later months on this site.

Anthologies are weird and fascinating reading experiences. In many ways they are rather like poems themselves. They have an intention (to encapsulate a national poetry, to show what interesting things newcomers are doing, to raise the profile of poems the anthologist likes and diminish the reputation of those that he or she doesn’t, etc) but the possible meanings of the work often overtake its intention. Like poems they have a personal stamp but they also have a context – the context of other anthologies. Like poems they have complex and important internal structures: are they to be arranged chronologically and if so should it be by date of birth of the poet or by the period in which the poet floruit. This is a more important consideration than it seems: Kenneth Slessor and R.D. FitzGerald were born within a year of each other but the former, precocious, is really a poet of the twenties and the latter a poet of the thirties.

The intention behind Felicity Plunkett’s Thirty Australian Poets is, I think, to showcase (an unfortunate but useful word) the work of poets who have risen to prominence recently and perhaps, also, to give critics like myself, who have a dim and fragmented perception that a poetic renaissance (largely led by women poets) is taking place, the chance to see the group in toto and make some decisions about what is happening. And some evaluations, too. In this respect it is a very cool and clean anthology, eschewing subjective judgements at every point where it can. The poets are organised in alphabetical order by surname so that it is not a judgement of the quality of their work but merely the result of an alphabetical accident that the poems of Ali Alizadeh are placed first and those of Petra White last. (Alizadeh’s Iranian origins prompt me to make the point that the divans of the classical Persian poets – Hafez, Sa’adi, et al – are organised in the same, neutral, way whereby the poems are placed in alphabetical order according to their final, rhyming words. A Western equivalent might involve something like organising a collected poems not chronologically but according to the poem’s first letter so that the Index of First Lines became, in effect, the contents page. It’s an intriguing rethinking and one that it might be interesting to try with a Collected Auden or Graves, say.)

Similarly there is no weighting of representation whereby we know that the anthologist considers one poet to be more significant than another because the former gets more pages allocated than the latter. Here everybody gets about five pages. I like this because, when I am doing my thinking about the quality of these poets and the nature of what is happening in Australian poetry, I don’t have to enter into a debate with the anthologist. Many anthologists are inclined to be opinionated and the reader’s fight with them (on the subject of individual choices and omissions, both of poets and poems) can obscure the wider issues. Felicity Plunkett is as anonymous as an anthologist can be and brings to mind (another “showbiz” analogy, I’m afraid) those award hosts who have the good grace to get off the stage quickly and let the real stars of whatever show it is get on with the job. In fact it’s not entirely coincidental that images of award nights keep sliding into my prose here. There is a slight sense about Thirty Poets of a public performance where everybody – in alphabetical order – gets their five minutes to show what they can do before being replaced by the next act. There is nothing wrong with this. If you wanted to know what was happening in, say, Australian stand-up comedy, then giving thirty comedians five minutes to do their thing in front of an audience might be a lot better than a show put together from what some entrepreneur thinks are “the best stand-up comedians in Australia” carefully organised (according to the structures of comedy whereby some acts work well as warm-ups for others) to emphasise particular performers.

In keeping with the anthology’s general tone of a calm dispassionateness and an overall lack of indulging whims or vendettas, there isn’t too much that one could object to in the choice of the thirty poets. There is a strong argument for including Graeme Miles whose first book (reviewed on this site) was an interesting and challenging one and one could make a case for Adrian Wiggins and perhaps Brett Dionysius, Liam Ferney and some others. Certainly they wouldn’t look out of place (or tone) in this anthology, especially if they replaced some of the weaker selections. And there are others who might have had some sort of claim. But, all in all, this seems as good a presentation of a generation as one could ask for. We aren’t told whether the editor or the poets actually chose the poems but I suspect it was the latter in collaboration with the former and the selections involve a mixture of published and new work. The poems chosen do seem, in the case of the poets whose work I know well, to give a good sense of a poet at his or her best. But the format does have a slight levelling quality. In the case of those poets whose published work is probably uneven (I’m deliberately avoiding names here, rather than being vague or coy) five pages of poetry can make you think they are stronger than they are. Those poets who are marked by their ability to write very different but equally strong poems end up being reduced slightly in a volume like this. If one read the books of these thirty poets I think one would feel that the poets’ abilities and achievements were much more varied than Thirty Poets alone suggests. And then there is the issue of the way a poet’s work is “set” in the arbitrary, alphabetical context of other poets’ work. To name names, for once, at the end of reading this book, I felt that, yes, Elizabeth Campbell, Emma Jones, Bronwyn Lea and Nick Riemer were terrific poets, absolutely individual voices doing their own thing. But I wouldn’t necessarily have expected this based on a previous knowledge of these poets’ work. I did plan to read the book in reverse as an experiment to determine how much of this reaction was really a response to the setting of the poet’s work, but time and deadlines caught up with me!

As I said at the beginning, anthologies are, in a way, like poems. The aleatoriness of the procedures of arrangement means that these hundred and forty-odd poems are not naturally sociable with each other and one of the pleasures of anthology reading is to trace unexpected motifs as though this were the work of a single mind. There is a lot that is hermeneutically interesting about this procedure and both Felicity Plunkett (in her Preface) and David McCooey (in his Introduction) do this to some extent. The idea behind this sort of reading is that, like poems, anthologies reveal patterns that might well come from somewhere else.

This reference to McCooey’s introduction leads me to the most difficult of questions which it would shame a reviewer to ignore: What are the features of this generation of Australian poets? I’m so old that the issue of the challenge posed by the “academic” poets of the fifties (Hope, McAuley, Buckley et al) to the “Bulletin” poets (Wright, Campbell et al) is not merely an historical one. I have thought long and hard about these issues of poetic generations, their ruptures, influences, internal relationships and continuities. Most descriptions of poetic periods are very impressionistic and would not satisfy a professional historian let alone a scientist. Chris Wallace-Crabbe memorably spoke of “the habit of irony” when dealing with the poetry of the fifties and I spoke of the need to “make it new” as the imperative behind the “generation of ”˜68” but these were very gestural statements. Accepting, though, that it is probably impossible to give a completely accurate account of thirty poets, I’ll describe a few, equally subjective, impressions I have at the conclusion of this book.

Firstly, it is rather a shock – though it shouldn’t be – to see how professional these poets are. If the generation before were often the product of Creative Writing courses taught by poets who had managed to get jobs in universities and often looked out of place alongside the (declining) establishment of literary scholars, these people seem to be teachers themselves, almost always with doctorates. And they often teach something more demanding than Creative Writing. Judith Bishop (whose “It Begins Where You Stand” was lovely to re-encounter) describes herself as a professional linguist; Michael Brennan works in the Faculty of Policy Studies, Chuo University; Claire Potter “spent five years studying and teaching in Paris”; David Prater and Jaya Savige are both doctoral students, the former in Karlskrona, Sweden, the latter at Cambridge (Emma Jones has a Cambridge doctoral degree in literature). I might be confusing two elements here – professionalism and multilinguality – but I think they are closely related (John Mateer, Ali Alizadeh and Danijela Kambaskovic-Sawers seem to have had multilingual upbringings). At one level this professionalism seems entirely admirable. But of course there is a darker side and my second impression of this anthology relates to this. There isn’t much madness in Thirty Poets. Those working in a surreal tradition (like Louis Armand or David Prater) work in the thoroughly familiar (dare I say acceptable and professionalised?) tradition of reworking and rebuilding existing texts. The complexities of the poems of, say, Maria Takolander or LK Holt, seem interesting and challenging complexities rather than confronting ones. Other poems have a lot of emotional intensity and weirdness (Bronwyn Lea’s “Born Again”, which readers have a habit of remembering, stands out here) but it isn’t something that is going to change your ideas of what poetry can do. This response was provoked by coming across, very late in the book, Samuel Wagan-Watson’s “Night Racing” (“night racing through the suburbs / of white stucco dreaming . . .”) and realising that there was nothing else in the anthology remotely like this (though angry, aggressive poetry is not usually something I prize). It reminded me of my reading of Benjamin Frater’s 6am in the Universe (reviewed on this site). That is “mad” poetry though with a perfectly coherent aesthetics/metaphysics behind it. Should he have been included? He would have been the youngest poet in the anthology and his voice would certainly have stood out. But it would also have skewed a reader’s response to what this generation is like. It isn’t like the poetry of Benjamin Frater.

David McCooey makes the good point that the work of these poets “shows a profound knowledge of poetic precedence” and I want to explore this a bit. It is a useful idea because it brings the textual manipulators in out of the rain and under the umbrella where the (generally) lyrical and meditative poets are camped. I would approach this issue from a technological angle: this is the first generation of Australian poets writing under the aegis of Google. Whereas previous generations might have been addicted to particular forms – the villanelle and then the pantoum – now we find centos; there is one by Kate Fagan in Thirty Poets. To write a cento is perversely difficult enough but to read it respectably – almost impossible in the pre-google age – is simplicity itself nowadays. And it isn’t only a matter of locating and relating to poetic precedences. What would once have been the result of a monstrous, obsessive erudition, an interest in the most arcane byways of some subject (which, for some reason, is often a feature of the make-up of a poet’s mind), is now easily available at the writing desk. In a sense we are all erudite now and can “get up” things unimaginable to much cleverer people (like Hope, Buckley or McAuley). In The Best Australian Poetry, 2009, Liam Ferney introduced his complicated poem (which blended the Australian High Court with a host of popular culture references) with the off-hand comment, “You can google the rest. I did”. That registers an important moment. Thinking this through further, though, leads me to see it as a possible positive that someone who was, himself, very erudite, John Forbes, would have approved of. Erudition itself is not going to be as impressive as it once was and poems will be forced to work for themselves rather than rely on some wonderful piece of arcane knowledge inside them. And apart from Google there are the combinative powers of the personal computer. Everone knows how John Tranter exploited the capacities of the Breakdown programme and while it must have taken Laurie Duggan hours of painstaking work to assemble his set of anagrams of the names of Australian poets in the 1970s, children could now do this effortlessly as a party game.

A final subjective impression concerns the sexes. If this is the Age of the Professionals, I had also expected it to be, poetically, an Age of the Woman. My sense from reading the new books emerging over the last ten years was that a fairly high percentage of the good ones were by women. Publishers like the excellent Giramondo Press seem to make a policy of publishing women poets. Picking up Thirty Poets and knowing that in today’s world an anthology without any particular axe to grind would have to aim at equal gender representation, I expected to find quite a number of make-weight male poets. This isn’t what happened. For some reason, perhaps to do with the levelling quality I spoke of earlier, the poetry of the women doesn’t seem dominant at all. Related to that is the fact that, of those poets I would have omitted if I had been editor, more than half are women and the poets that I listed previously as ones who might have been included in an anthology like this without raising any eyebrows are all male! Thinking about this, I have come to the conclusion that it is “the age of the woman poet” but that the anthology doesn’t entirely reflect this. In other words I trust the subjective impression I have from reading all the individual books over the years above the impression I have from this anthology.

I said that anthologies have contexts, just as poems do. To put it another way, anthologies are aware of their predecessors. Thirty Poets alludes immediately to one of these, John Tranter’s The New Australian Poetry, by choosing the date 1968 as the earliest cut-off birth date for its poets. That’s an elegant and generous gesture, I think, although there is a big difference between a birth date and the date at which a group of writers make an impact. The poets of the “generation of ”˜68” were generally born after the Second World War. But Thirty Poets also seems to be the younger sibling of an anthology published in 2000, Michael Brennan and Peter Minter’s Calyx. I think Thirty Poets is, as an anthology, a far superior book exactly because it does reflect a single generation. Calyx’s virtue was that it anthologised interesting poets but they came from what appear, now, to be two quite separate generations. I also want to make connection when I read Thirty Poets with an anthology from 1968, Rodney Hall and Tom Shapcott’s New Impulses in Australian Poetry (also published by the University of Queensland Press). That anthology had a very strong sense of a generation (it turned out to be the one between the Bulletin poets and the ’68 poets). It too was organised alphabetically though it was much more “interventionist” than Thirty Poets in that it varied the number of poems by contributors and included highly interpretive introductory notes to each poet by the editors. In retrospect (and, probably, at the time) the faultlines within that generation were fairly clear. There were Brisbane poets (Hall, Shapcott, Malouf, Rowbotham, Croyston, Green and perhaps Harwood), Melbourne “university” poets (Buckley, Jones, Wallace-Crabbe, Simpson, Taylor and perhaps Dawe), Sydney poets (Lehmann and Murray) and a number who could either be seen as “unaligned” or loosely connected to one of these groups (Beaver, Smith, Stow). I mention this to ask whether the same (or similar) lines can be drawn in Thirty Poets. There are Sydney University poets here, there is a Melbourne group published by the John Leonard Press and so on. If they can’t be confidently drawn now, will they become clearer a few years on. Living in the Google/Amazon/Internet age means that groupings are likely to be matters of sympathy rather than proximity (let alone class or gender, those subgroups beloved of sociologists). All poetic texts are available, as influences, to everyone and so there are less likely to be poetic “gateways” in the form of elder poets lending books or supervising reading groups.

A final two points about this excellent book. By encapsulating a generation it turns the older poets (who were born before 1968) into a generation as well. This is something that I don’t think they were before and they might not like being now. That dividing line means that major poets like Anthony Lawrence, Judith Beveridge, Peter Boyle, MTC Cronin, Adam Aitken, Emma Lew and a host of others (these were literally the first names that came into my head) have become isolated into a kind of group. I don’t think this is a bad thing because their work is different to that of these thirty poets and seeing them as a generation might encourage us to attempt a more complex description before looking for continuities between them and the poets of this anthology.

Tom Shapcott edited Australian Poetry Now in 1969. In many ways it has the fewest continuities with Thirty Poets being a bit of a grab-bag. But, for me, it was a very exciting anthology introducing (or allowing the authors themselves to introduce) a host of poets I had never heard of. It caught the idea that a poetic renaissance was occurring by not predefining the nature of that rebirth at the editorial level. So in many ways it is crude. It has a hoax poet (Gwen Harwood’s Timothy Kline) and a lot of poets who didn’t sustain significant careers. But more than Thirty Poets it conveyed a sense of a lot of new (and often weird) things happening. If Thirty Poets recalls New Impulses in Australian Poetry then it is possible that there is room for an anthology that recalls some aspects of Australian Poetry Now, publishing people who are young, have not produced a book and who have appeared only in journals or online.