My favourite slogan from the early years of Maoist China was ‘Let a hundred flowers bloom’. Whereas the Chairman’s vaunted embrace of diversity was only temporary, Ginninderra Press has been encouraging and assisting the publication of verse and prose from a very large number of Australians for the best part of two decades.
Although named for the part of Canberra where it was founded, the press has been based in Adelaide since 2008. It operates as a matter of policy without any form of government subsidy, and believes, to quote its website, that ‘subsidies encourage over-production’. It runs, therefore, on a very small budget, especially as it can hardly expect to make much in the way of profits from poetry sales. Ginninderra’s philosophy can be summed up in the words of the press’s owner, Stephen Matthews, ‘I do it because I believe that all people—not just a privileged few—have a right to participate actively in cultural production rather than just being passive consumers of mass media. Our culture is enriched when everyone is encouraged to fulfil their creative potential and diminished when that creative potential is stifled or thwarted. I love to see the transformative possibilities for people when they see their work published and acknowledged—getting published can and does change lives, even if only on a small scale’. [Email, 16 September 2014]
A scroll through the names of poets Ginninderra has published will reveal few that are familiar to aficionados of Australian poetry. Stefanie Bennett, Geoff Page (as editor of an anthology), Jude Aquilina and Molly Guy are among the exceptions, but most of the almost two hundred poetry titles promoted on the press’s website are by those who have had little exposure through other publications. This is, on the one hand, to be lauded; we all know how difficult it is for poets to find an outlet for their work, especially those just starting out on their career. The counter-argument to this is that one of the traditional functions of the poetry publisher has been quality control, and that this operates really well when it involves constraints on quantity.
Stuart Rees is an internationally known and lauded activist in the field of human rights. He has been a Professor of Social Work and helped found the Sydney Peace Foundation. He has received honours and awards from universities in the UK, Hong Kong and Japan, has worked for Save the Children and the Aboriginal Reconciliation Commission, and is a regular contributor to serious discussions on ABC Radio. One might think that this busy life devoted to worthwhile causes left him little time to master the craft of poetry, and on the evidence of his collection, A Will to Live, published by Ginninderra, one would be correct.
Poetry, of course, consists of more than craft, and Rees’s book should not be lightly dismissed. The issues with which he deals are vital issues, fundamental to human life and wellbeing, and it is a salutary exercise to engage with such matters by reading pieces of less than a page in length, divided into lines of ten or twelve syllables instead of longer prose dissertations with footnoted references and academic language. What is missing, however, from, for example, the poem ‘Against the Latest War’ is the kind of vivid imagery that would drive home in a visceral, emotional way the points he makes intellectually. We get that the writer is outraged, but he does not engender an outrage in us, the readers, through his language; we do not smell the death, see the suppurating wounds or hear the gunshots. Our response remains abstract, theoretical.
Where Rees does evoke sense impressions, as in the last stanza of ‘May Day at the Bastille’, it seems like light relief, almost throwaway references to matters that are peripheral to the weightier, more cerebral concerns. Even in poems that should be entirely sensual, such as ‘Raspberries in the Cotswolds’ or ‘Arctic Dawn’, he labours to make points that demand a lighter touch. This is a book by a highly intelligent, profoundly moral man, a compassionate and rational thinker, who has obviously read a lot of poetry and understands in general how it works.
Phillip Gijindarraji Hall’s sweetened in coals demonstrates a much firmer grasp of how language matters. While not entirely devoid of the flat and hackneyed phrase, Hall’s verse can rise to a level that his subject matter deserves. He understands the importance of allowing vivid images to speak for themselves, without interposing banal commentary. In the short poem, ‘Red Gold’, for example, the final image of ‘gold-grained stumps’ acts as a bright and clear focal point to a meditation on the interaction of humans and nature. The complexity and ambiguity of the history of the Australian bush is encapsulated in eight short lines and, although one might quibble at the facile ‘Rainforest giants’, the result is an exquisite gem. He even gets rhyme to work for him, something that is beyond most of the other poets represented here.
His ‘colonial heads’ sequence, on the other hand, reads in some measure like a botanical compendium. This is probably because the content generally trumps the form. In ‘red cedar’, the final poem of the sequence, there is a much more successful synthesis of the two, and also of observation and thought. The tree as ‘a gentleman gone awry’ is a deft touch, and the references to coffins and boardrooms give the reader a history lesson without the least didacticism, leaving a lasting impression that more abstract or self-consciously powerful language could never do.
The collection is uneven but at his best, Hall is a powerful and compelling presenter and interpreter of landscape (in the fullest meaning of that term). One could make an argument for tighter editing out of this, but on the other hand, many publishers would pass over the collection in its entirety on the grounds that it does not contain enough of the really good stuff to make a book. I, for one, am glad that Ginninderra has given us the chance to sift through these pieces and glean the brilliant specks.
Ray Carmichael was born in 1939 and, according to the back cover blurb of his no secret fear (what is with this growing tendency to use lower case for titles?), ‘has been writing poems for most of his life’. It would seem fair to assume that this book contains a selection of the best work from more than half a century’s worth of poetry, long enough, it would seem, for the poet to have worked out that strict adherence to a metrical and rhyming pattern imposes the kinds of restrictions on tone that make serious meditative verse very difficult, if not impossible, to bring off. The opening handful of poems in this collection exacerbates this problem by their use of half rhymes and occasional metrical dislocations that appear to have no intrinsic function. Carmichael’s verse works best when his tone is lighter and conversational and when he allows his wit and warmth to show through unhampered by the felt need to be ‘poetic’. Although there is the danger of slipping into the prosaic, he usually manages to avoid this, resulting in pieces that both charm and hint of further depths. It is often in such pieces (I am thinking of ‘into a shed of giggles’ and ‘the diamond not so far’ for example) that he employs the kind of language that adds a genuine poetic dimension. Phrases such as ‘the back fence of the world’ and ‘human in that tangled urge’ show what Carmichael is capable of.
There is a poignant quality to the short poem, ‘time stretched by time’, a title that depends for its impact partly on the reader’s understanding of what happens to reel-to-reel recording tapes as they age. Perhaps for those not of Ray Carmichael’s or my generation, it also depends on knowing what a reel-to-reel tape is. Unfortunately the poem requires a footnote that is more that twice as long as it in order for the full meaning to be grasped. I, for one, would love to see this poem expanded into a longer piece, or into a sequence of poems based on the contents of the said tapes and incorporating the substance of the footnote. This would necessitate an expansion of the poetic into the political, or at least the socio-historical, a realm that the poet, at least in this collection, prefers to avoid.
Pam Morris understands the value of the light touch. Her collection, In the Breathing Space, attains at times a delicacy of texture that sits happily within that tradition of Australian poetry running from John Shaw Neilson through Robert Gray and Judith Beveridge. Of course there is always a danger with attempting poetry in this vein that one will tumble off the tightrope into banality. Density and complexity offer more hiding places.
At her best she can summon a whole loving relationship by the sensitive use of peripheral details, as in ‘Speaking of Love’. Tackling bigger, more public themes, such as in ‘Beslan, North Ossetia’, however, her technique proves less adequate and the result is on the verge of mawkish. Morris is more at home with the domestic, the evocation of a moment, of a child or of a remembered scene. The short lines of ‘How it Was’, ‘A Brown Dog in Spring’ and ‘Red Hearts’, for example, help the poems keep the necessary tautness, the pizzicato quality that complements the limpidity of the language. In fact, the last two mentioned are very much in the vein of Neilson. Longer lines allow her more latitude and are generally speaking not as conducive to the clarity and subtlety that are her strengths.
In Moving With the Times Cynthia Hallam seems to be attempting a similar lightness, but succeeds less often than Morris. The short line is a much more difficult proposition than it appears. Here it works better, for example, in ‘The Pedestrian’ with its understated humour and expression of shared humanity. In ‘Cold Call’, where the humour is more obvious and the narrative element more important, it adds nothing to a piece that could work as well if all the lineation were abolished and it appeared on the page as prose. The combination of short lines and long words is especially problematic, as shown in ‘Growing Up’, resulting in lines like ‘this providential solution’ (which sounds as ugly as it looks) or ‘with determined resignation’ (which might be suggesting how best to complete reading the poem).
It might seem harsh to dwell on such low points, but they do indicate a problem with self-editing. There are glimpses of an ability to use language to telling effect scattered throughout the collection. Hallam has a good ear for overheard speech and a good eye for interesting detail, social or scenic, and the sonnet ‘Volcano’ demonstrates a facility with formal structure, but these highlights are not sufficient to carry the reader along enthusiastically for the whole book. A more rigorous attitude to selection might have given us a slimmer but more consistently good book; alternatively, it might have meant postponing publication. It is a matter of weighing up the benefits of getting a book out there early against the chance that the best bits will be overlooked.
John Egan is another who tends to favour the short line, despite what might be inferred from the title of his collection, Lines Continue Forever. It was the Imagist poets of about a century ago who popularised this approach and it is certainly more appropriate for those poems where the presentation of images is paramount. Certainly, for Egan, the short lines work much better in, say, ‘Rain at midnight’ than in the more contemplative pieces such as ‘The wolves’. But then, regardless of line length, it is imagery that is his strength. Attempts at more depth result in the gap between the weight of thought and the power of language to bear that weight becoming unfortunately obvious. An example of this is the last line of ‘The transaction’, ‘of life and growth and death’, where it is the concepts themselves that the reader responds to, not the words that embody them. Herein lies the difference between philosophy and poetry.
The cover of Sue Donnelly’s Heartfelt Moments does not bode well. For all that one shouldn’t judge a book by... it is difficult not to approach this with an apprehension about its contents. The expectation of full-blown romantic kitsch, however, proves for the most part unwarranted. The poems are sharper, more tactile, more connected with the diurnal than the fluffy clouds and the monstrously symmetrical heart nestling in the palm of a grossly oversized hand seem to predict.
There are some charming observations here, presented in many instances with a tightness and clarity of diction that delights. ‘A different perspective’, for example, avoids both mawkishness and condescension in presenting an encounter with a beggar while Christmas shopping. The quirky, self-deprecating humour of such pieces as ‘Lost and Found’ is welcome. As an aside, there is far too little humour and even less wit, in many poetry collections, and I don’t mean just those under review here.
Donnelly is yet another devotee of the imagist short line. Hilda Doolittle and Dorothy Porter have a lot to answer for. Many of the shorter pieces here read like haiku written by an innumerate. This is not necessarily a comment on their quality, but more a plea for the vivid sense impressions to be incorporated into something of more substance. I have no quarrel whatsoever with the absorption of elements of Japanese culture into Anglophone traditions, nor do I think it valuable to insist that when this happens it should be holus-bolus, but I find it frustrating that even the best short imagistic poems, with all the keen perceptions and skilled presentations that are in evidence, have no dynamic, that they leave all cerebral engagement to the reader. Once again, it is Donnelly’s humour that saves the best of the examples here, such as ‘Baby Lambs’ where the eponymous creatures ‘count sheep’.
Humour is a not inconsiderable contributor to the success of Ian McFarlane’s work in The Shapes of Light. His ‘Hooking the Flipper’, for example, I found enjoyable on a few levels. It is an attempt to do an updated ‘Ern Malley’ with the target being postmodernism rather than modernism. Although more deliberately comic than McAuley and Stewart’s original, it achieves a similar outcome by succeeding as a poem in its own right. Some commentators have opined that the Ern Malley poems were among their authors’ best work; I leave such judgments to others, but I certainly found ‘Hooking the Flipper’ among McFarlane's best.
At the other extreme is his ‘Echoes from Treblinka’, where the grimness of the subject matter overwhelms the poet’s ability to summon up words strong enough to carry its substance through to the reader. Adorno’s famous line, ‘There can be no poetry after Auschwitz’ may have been an exaggeration, but it seems appropriate to invoke it here. Still, it is salutary to find between the same covers, not only the two poems mentioned, but a wide range of competently structured light verse, meditations on landscape, love poems and earnest social commentary, to mention just some of the genres he attempts. McFarlane is nothing if not eclectic. There is even a homage to John Shaw Neilson that wears its tribute on its sleeve with lines like ‘Your song, so delicate in bloom’. The influence of Neilson is not as pervasive in this book as it is in, say, Pam Morris’s, and it is unambiguously acknowledged, but it does give rise to what might prove an interesting field of study: the impact of John Shaw Neilson on minor Australian poets.
The first section of Upon Reflection, by Antony Fawcus, is set in the Ethiopian Afar region and, we are told in the first of the accompanying useful and interesting notes, its poems ‘were originally written to accompany photographs’. This is perhaps the strongest section of the book. Some of the poems in this section exhibit an awkwardness of sentence structure and others fail effectively to marry tone to subject matter, but there are some strong lines scattered throughout and many examples of a mastery of form sufficient to carry off a dignified and satisfying articulation. ‘Boys of the Afar’ is marred only by the unfortunate inversion of ‘with their guns they shoot’; otherwise it is a fine example of a traditionally patterned poem in the vein of AD Hope.
The fourth section (of five) of the book, ‘Affairs of the Heart’ contains far too many romantic clichés (‘Soft spoken whispers’—are there any other kind?—and ‘nothing can tear us apart’, and words apparently chosen for rhyme rather than tone, such as ‘eschew’ and ‘anew’). The book would be much stronger without this section.
Another section, of pantoums and villanelles, demonstrates understanding of the forms without showing an ability to use them to create anything serious or substantial. Perhaps this is too carping a criticism, as these forms do not lend themselves easily to poems of great substance, but if light verse is the intention, then Fawcett would do well to follow the examples of Ian McFarlane and Pam Morris and learn from John Shaw Neilson.
Adrian Rogers trumps Antony Fawcus by dividing his even shorter book, The Sun Behind the Sun, into twelve sections plus an epilogue. The sections, consisting of a few poems each, are not given titles, only numbers, and there seems to be no obvious reason for this fragmentation. We are once more back in the realm of the short line. Aspiring poets should realise that the pentameter and free verse lines of roughly equivalent length have dominated English poetry for centuries for a good reason. That reason is the flexibility they afford, along with the opportunity for using any number of variables: rhythm, tempo, internal rhyme, enjambment, etc. The short line, though its appeal is clear, is a trap. To use it well is much harder because that opportunity is curtailed.
A third of the poems in this book have first lines consisting of either one or two words. In ‘Alone’, it is easy to see why, as the title is repeated as the first line. It stands alone, thus using a formal technique to emphasise the meaning. Fairly basic primary school creative writing class stuff, but there is, at least, a point. The poem immediately preceding this one has as its opening line ‘Waking’. There seems to be no valid reason for isolating this word in such a prominent position. Much the same could be said for all the very short lines throughout the book. The reinforcement of the separation of language into short phrases by turning the slight pauses into line breaks takes away the chance of playing one set of structures against another, and leads to monotony. Listening for the small differences in length of the pauses in natural speech rhythms and giving the reader some caesuras to affect how the mind's ear works could make for much more interesting verse.
That said, Rogers has some nice turns of phrase. I liked the ending of ‘St Kilda’, ‘sediment to steel / continuity / through time’ (although I contend it would be better as one line instead of three) and the effect of chaos and confusion he creates in ‘The swallowing twentieth century’, in part by the clever use of fragments of language rather than whole sentences. In fact, fragmentation at various levels is the hallmark of this collection.
Brenda Eldridge’s Tangled Roots is a triumph of content over form. It is difficult, perhaps the most difficult thing in writing poetry, to get the balance between them right. In the best poetry, of course, the two are seamlessly united and both contribute to the overall result. What is good about this collection is the variety of subject matter and the appropriateness of tone. Where the temptation to fall for the easy, hackneyed phrase has been avoided, Eldridge demonstrates an ability to surprise with the felicitous and the unexpected, such as the line ‘When my heart was lilac’.
Too often, however, this temptation is not avoided and the result is somewhat drab. The sun, for example, ‘shone brightly’ in one piece, and in another ‘Everyone was having a wonderful time’. The lack of punctuation is telling. There is no reason at all why punctuation should be used, although many poets use it skilfully as another element in the poem’s structure, another chance to include subtle variations of meaning and tone. Here, however, a deliberate decision to do without it seems to have been driven by a desire for the work to look more ‘poetic’ or ‘experimental’. The line endings and stanza breaks have to stand in as the visual elements of division.
Occasionally this can lead to a charming ambiguity, as in the book’s final poem, ‘Two Old Ducks’:
Daring to walk the roads Less travelled by Paths only intersecting
where the possible reading of ‘bypaths’ sets up a nice tension across the stanza break. I would have liked to see more of such playfulness.
Too often Tangled Roots reads like the proverbial ‘chopped-up prose’. This phrase, originating as an insult to free verse by those who didn’t understand its more nuanced formal character, is usually misapplied, but a simple test can be conducted. If one were to set out all these pieces without line breaks, with or without the reintroduction of punctuation, what would be the factors making them poetry? To my ear, at least, there are not enough.
Ginninderra Press is to be congratulated on its sterling support of Australian poets who might find it very hard to be published in the current economic climate, given that even the very best poetry is not a commercial proposition and the major publishing houses are more and more inclined to turn their backs on it. There is something worth reading in each of these publications, and it is doubtful whether without Ginninderra we would have the opportunity to discover this. As in most gardens, there is a sprinkling of weeds, but the policy of letting a hundred flowers bloom has generally paid off.
• Ray Carmichael, no secret fear. ISBN 9781740278669. Port Adelaide: Ginninderra Press, 2014. RRP $20
• Sue Donnelly, Heartfelt Moments. ISBN 9781740278652. Port Adelaide: Ginninderra Press, 2014. RRP $20
• John Egan, Lines Continue Forever. ISBN 9781740278751. Port Adelaide: Ginninderra Press, 2014. RRP $18.50
• Brenda Eldridge, Tangled Root: New and Selected Poems, ed. Jude Aquilina. ISBN 9781740278690. Port Adelaide: Ginninderra Press, 2014. RRP $20
• Antony Fawcus, Upon Reflection. ISBN 9781740278782. Port Adelaide: Ginninderra Press, 2014. RRP $18.50
• Phillip Gijindarraji Hall, sweetened in coals. ISBN 9781740278584. Port Adelaide: Ginninderra Press, 2014. RRP $20
• Cynthia Hallam, Moving With the Times. ISBN 9781740278614. Port Adelaide: Ginninderra Press, 2014. RRP $20
• Ian McFarlane, The Shapes of Light: Rediscovering Poetry in a Post-poetic Age. ISBN 9781740278447. Port Adelaide: Ginninderra Press, 2014. RRP $20
• Pam Morris, In the Breathing Space. ISBN 9781740278621. Port Adelaide: Ginninderra Press, 2014. RRP $20
• Stuart Rees, A Will To Live. ISBN 9781740278706. Port Adelaide: Ginninderra Press, 2014. RRP $27.50
• Adrian Rogers, The Sun Behind the Sun. ISBN 9781740278607. Port Adelaide: Ginninderra Press, 2014. RRP $18.50