Poetry Journal

Issues / Volume 5 Issue 2 , November 2015



Michael Sharkey

This issue continues to take account of the work of translation and influence. Dan Disney, Daye Jeon and Ungyung Yi present some aspects of contemporary Korean poetry and its political import. RD Wood reviews Stuart Cooke’s interpretation of the Bulu song cycle and other poetries. In subtler manner, several poets pay respect to the topics, forms and temper of poets in English and other languages: witness Vanessa Page’s ‘found’ pattern of speech in her poem ‘Manus’; Lorraine Haig’s employment of Ali Jane Smith’s take on a form encountered in a poem by Laurie Duggan; Joe Dolce’s sampling of William Blake; Josh Mei-Ling Dubrau’s channelling of the moods of Tom Raworth and Philip Larkin; or Michael Easson’s epitaph for sinologist Pierre Ryckmans—celebrated translator of the Analects, and author of the extraordinary novel The Death of Napoleon.

Can I justify the inclusion of poems such as Dolce’s very Australian ‘Tyger’, or Ian C Smith’s ‘Cat’s Breakfast’? Or the appearance of a flower poem like Vanessa Proctor‘s ‘Bathroom Orchid’? To cadge a phrase from Denise Levertov (whose work is familiar to countless Australian students and readers), ‘O taste and see’. Caitlin Maling’s perceptive review of the Best Australian Poetry 2014 and the Best American Poetry 2014 suggests that the latter collection offers a more varied range of poems that catch a moment in time rather than seeking parity with ‘timeless’ reader-friendly, humanity-uniting poems. In something of the same spirit, this issue of the Australian Poetry Journal offers poems that, while catching particular moments on the wing, rub against each other in surprising ways.

I have included poems that exhibit playfulness of a kind that might not often appear elsewhere in Australian poetry magazines. Readers have asked why, on the evidence of such publications, contemporary Australian poets don’t seem interested in writing poems that directly invite pleasure or laughter, or poems that might appeal to children. The answer lies to some extent in demarcation: in the editors’ sense of an audience.

I expect more than one poetry magazine editor has shuddered at the idea of publishing poems that might enjoy broad popular appeal, let alone engagement with young readers, for fear of deflecting attention from an unstated assurance that what’s on offer is high-minded art about the self and one’s place in the order of things. Perhaps reluctance reflects fear of lowering the tone by taking a chance on amusement or fun (as Ezra Pound did in his hilarious parody ‘Ancient Music’). My imagined readership can live with poetry that delights as much as it challenges preconception. William Carlos Williams (especially in his poems of birds, beasts, flowers and everyday objects) did not think appeal to pleasure, expressed in forms that made some readers do a doubletake, beneath consideration.

The demonstrated ability to imagine as a child, as reflected in poems of Michael Duggan, Lorraine Marwood, and Libby Hathorn, never gravitated against appreciation of such works as they directed to predominantly adult sensibilities. Christina Rossetti, TS Eliot, Shel Silverstein, Roger McGough, Roald Dahl, and Australians since CJ Dennis, Elizabeth Riddell, Leon Gellert, and Douglas Stewart have addressed work to younger readers without any lessening of the appeal to aficionados of prosodic experimentation or engagement with topics of national and international import: witness Dennis on ecological responsibility versus ‘development’, Riddell and Gellert on personal experience of war, or Stewart—in his poem ‘Rutherford’—on what now looks like a forlorn hope that ‘men who would stop at nothing might stop at fear’.

I share the frustration of readers weary of poorly executed work in received forms or topics vitiated by anodyne sentiment, but I don’t denigrate the taste of those who are not put off by the mere subject of a poem concerning a bird, beast, tree, grass, or element on the grounds of subject-matter alone. The actual topic of such a poem may be far from pictorialism, and if I discount such poems on the basis of their ostensible subject or title, I must try to forget William Carlos Williams’ ‘Queen Anne’s Lace’, Robert Hayden’s ‘The Night Blooming Cereus’, Judith Wright’s ‘Platypus’ and ‘Rainforest’, Tomas Tranströmer’s ‘Morning Birds’, or Dimitris Tsaloumas’s ‘The House with the Eucalypts’. What lodges these in memory, as firmly as such unfashionable antecedents as Herrick’s ‘To Daffodils’, Lovelace’s ‘A Fly Caught in a Cobweb’, or Whitman’s ‘This Compost’ is, in every case, some matter that presents, in received form or not, immediate apprehension of temporality and what the poet makes of it.

I refer to memorably provocative poems of this sort, not those that plunge from ludic to ludicrous, though the edge is fine at times. Blake, Ginsberg and Arthur Symons have all written ‘sunflower’ (or ‘heliotrope’) poems: read these and exult—or despair on encountering clichéd thought and style? Perhaps the prevalence of what Annie Finch and others consider the postlude to New Formalism and conscious adoption of multiformalism will have much to answer for if it deters readers from reading no further than a title, or from observing the semblance of traditional form, and immediately whipping to the next page or screen.

Does this mean I will welcome an e-mailbag of poems solely devoted to the topics of flowers, land-, water- and air-dwellers? Hardly, but it may be that some examples provoke reflection on being alive, or of grief, folly, blame, the twisting of language, or the decline of non-human populations in Australia and elsewhere. Like the decline in the bee population, the phenomenon of avian depletion should be of interest to more than orchardists, agriculturalists and pastoralists. From Catullus’s ambivalent ‘sparrow’ and Bai Juyi’s equally equivocal ‘parrot’, to the present era, poetry has employed avian imagery as expression of allegory, joie de vivre, connectedness, political analogy, warning or lament. Poetry that advertently or not reminds us of inclusiveness in and reliance on a wider community than human social life is to our creative existence as food production and resources are to the physical life of human and other inhabitants of the planet. As John Kinsella has remarked, ‘Parrots shadow Australian poetry’—and, I add, in a polymorphous analogy, Australian politics.

Astute readers will detect poems, essays and reviews engaged with far other concerns in this volume of the Journal.