Poetry Journal

Issues / Volume 5 Issue 2 , November 2015


_The Best Australian Poems 2014_ and _The Best American Poetry 2014_

Caitlin Maling

The Best Australian Poems 2014 is a democratic, reader-oriented anthology. Indeed, in the submission call-out, editor Geoff Page specified that ‘submissions should be able to be enjoyed by “general readers” who don’t necessarily read much poetry, as well as by those dedicated ones who do’. From this, one could level the charge that what is ‘best’ equates to what is easiest or accessible. Yet Page draws wider terms for himself in his introduction, defining a well-written poem as that which ‘creates a small world of its own which coexists essentially on the same level as other successful poems, both now and over centuries’. The characteristics of such a poem are left more opaque but alluded to in his statement that he chose to assemble poems that make an impact ‘most typically through their evocation of deeply shared human experience and emotion’ and that his aim is to have poems that are ‘both reader-friendly and of high aesthetic quality’. It appears that what is being strived for in the anthology is quite Romantic, a timeless poetry capable of uniting humanity.

The best of these best poems live up to the aim of marrying accessibility with aesthetic. In Anthony Lawrence’s ‘Lepidoptera’, elegant tercets are offset by enjambment, contributing to a surreal but simple narrative of ordering live ornamental butterflies for a wedding:

  One by one they expired. They died as brooches
          on the neckline of dresses. They shivered
  on palms. A swallowtail unfurled the lavender stem
  Of its proboscis. I swear, the academic said, it sampled    
            the rare vintage of my sweat, and swooned. 

Sarah Holland-Batt’s ‘Approaching Paradise’ is similarly convincing in its tight quatrains, which, coupled with the use of repetition and rhyme, give the poem a liturgical feel unsettled by the content of the images: ’A shark’s slit corpse gapes pink on the jetty’, and ‘Men with knives kneel down like seraphim’. Of equal strength are the long lines of Jennifer Compton’s ‘The Frankston Massage’ and the re-envisioned sonnets of Peter Minter, joanne burns and John Tranter.

Perhaps the most unexpected aesthetic strength of the anthology is the selection of prose poems by Cassandra Atherton, Lisa Brockwell, Samuel Wagan Watson and John Foulcher, demonstrating the versatility of the prose poem as litany, monologue, word play and narrative respectively. Atherton arranges paratactically a series of punctuated short clauses, so the potential sprawl of the prose form is contained and contested. This is uneasy prose that does not make an argument, yet the simple syntax of each clause communicates to even the least sure-footed reader of poetry:

  Names make you attached. Even if you aren’t so attached to your own name. You 
  connect. Like a dog collar and leash. Dog tags. Names are important.

What each of the poems highlighted above does well is establish a tension, often narratively, but also through an attention to language that counterbalances prosody with image, or line with syntax. These are poems that allow for ambiguity. Interestingly, the poems that do not succeed as well are often overly sentimental or, for lack of a better critical term, overly poetic. Such is unfortunately the case with often brilliant Bruce Dawe’s ‘Present Continuous Santa’, whose rhymed and measured quatrains ventriloquize Santa in a predictable way: ‘Once upon a time, the Christmas season/ Had a particular beginning, and an end;/ Nowadays it seems, for some odd reasons,/ Those supermarket blokes aim to extend//my special niche’.

There is also a lot of the familiar plain-spokenness we expect from Australian poetry. This is put to good use in poems by Dennis Haskell and Joan Kerr who use everyday diction to describe difficult and fundamentally irreducible emotions, following the Empsonian maxim of putting the complex into the simple (Kerr: ‘my father has no common sense/ I have learned this early/ the house is falling down/ around our ears…’). Other poems are not as successful where the plain language stays simply plain. These poems attempt to reach for a powerful simply put truth but when unsuccessful feel constructed in the manner of a joke leading to a punch line, not because they are funny per se but because we know exactly where they will land.

It is interesting that one of the more dominant themes or perspectives a reader takes away from The Best Australian Poems 2014 is of history, or to put it another way, the collection feels retrospective beyond the one year time frame indicated by the ‘2014’ of the title. This is a function of Page’s acknowledged intent to include poets long on the Australian scene and of mixing ‘meter and rhyme along with the Anglosphere’s current free verse orthodoxy’, and there is some fine traditional versification included in the rhymed quatrains of Jakob Ziguras and Kevin Hart, among others. A sense of retrospection also appears through the themes and subjects emphasised. There is a substantial section of mixed quality wars-of-the-20th-century poetry coupled with an arrangement of poems looking back at other aspects of that century. Some of the war poetry steers too close to the sentimental, such as Alan Gould’s ‘Charlie Twirl’, which is not helped by pairing war-time sentiment with an extremely dominant rhyme scheme where ‘This is the Street of Hullaballoo/ when poor link arms with the well-to-do,/ two Diggers drunk beyond all help,/ vast crowds a-sway like ocean kelp’.

Turning to The Best American Poetry 2014, this difference in timeliness is most immediately apparent. The Best American Poetry 2014 is clearly of its particular moment. Series Editor David Lehman begins his introduction with a discussion of Twitter, technology and its impact on poetry, before detailing changes to the arts education system in America. Guest Editor Terrance Hayes eschews a traditional intro for something more post-modern. Inspired by David Foster Wallace’s maxim that readers are rarely interested in the introduction, he invents a sprawling false interview with familiar imaginary academic ‘Dr Charles Kinbote’ (of Nabokov’s Pale Fire). In both introductions, it is apparent that a different readership is being addressed than in Page’s, a readership that might be expected to be familiar with Lehman’s extended references to Snow and Leavis’s two-culture clash, and to get Hayes’s Kinbote joke. The poetry that follows is, in general, as can be expected from the introduction, more challenging, guided by Hayes’s acknowledged bias towards ‘linguistic fleetness’. Reading through the poems, I recalled Joshua Corey’s statement on the north American post-modern pastoral, that it has an ‘allegiance to the movements of language’; this collection displays a similar allegiance. The poems are rarely still, jumping from image to image propelled by a distinct, often bluesy, musicality, so in Douglas Kearney’s stand-out poem, ‘The Labor of Stagger Lee: Boar’, we encounter the quatrain

  pig prey to piggishnesses. get ate from the rooter to the tooter. 
  I’m a hog for you baby, I can’t get enough of the wolfish crooner. 
  the gust buffeted porker roll in the hay or laid down
          in twig rapine. let me in, let me in.

and in Nathaniel Mackeay's long poem ‘Old Time Ending’, the music of tight internal rhymes and short lines: ‘Reluctant light light’s/ evasion, faces lit. Soulin’/ one of them called it’.

In his introduction, Hayes talks of loving the ‘moment of “not knowing” more than the moment of “knowing” in a poem’, and there is a different type of clarity, and attitude towards clarity, at work in The Best American Poetry 2014 than in The Best Australian Poems 2014. Often, as seen above, there is musical clarity, and in other poems an associative imagistic clarity, as in Mary Ruefle’s poem, ‘Saga’, where ‘Being particular has its problems/ In particular there is a rift running the length of Iceland/ and so a rift runs through every family/ and between failed as a feud./ It’s called a saga’. This type of associativeness is not for everyone, and I imagine that many readers opening the book and encountering, by virtue of the alphabetical ordering, Armantrout followed by Ashbery in the first three poems might be put off although there is much to like about Armantrout’s playful lines (‘It’s lonely in a song/ about outer space’). There are other poems that do veer too close to elliptical such as Adam Hammers’ ‘As Like’, where the repetition of the image of an accordion is not quite enough to guide the reader through the poem: ‘In times of the most extreme potatoes/ My hair is very thin,/ Almost ink-like./ Space is like an accordion,/ Accordion-like./ But also, our fingers become accordions’.

Similarly, while there are many exceptional formally inventive poems that tackle present issues in new and revealing ways (for example Jon Sand’s ‘Decoded’ or Ray Gonzalez’s ‘One El Paso, Two El Paso’), there are poems that are perhaps too indicative of this particular kairos, such as Kiki Petrofina’s ‘Story Problem’: ‘Try to release your Life Token without locating it/ Then press ESC to affix your nightmare to a plane’; or Rachel Zucker’s ‘Mindful’: ‘I run & the running [GPS: average time]/ [activity started] [GPS: per mile] then a snow-/storm no school I cried & said Mayor Bloomberg’.

The editors of each collection have made very different choices when it comes to how to approach what is ‘best’, Page striving for what might be best across time, and Hayes for a deliberately diverse mix of what is best of the right here and now. If, as Pound says, poetry is the news that stays new, then the potential fault in Page’s approach is to bring us old news, and in Hayes’s to bring us something that will last only this one day. Part of the news that The Best American Poetry 2014 brings us is through pairing author bios with a short exegesis by the poet on their included poem. Hence, we learn that to Steve Scafidi, ‘writing poems (and reading them) always involves being lost. I like that the word “bewildered” echoes the first syllable in “wilderness”. I like that the word “wilderness” has an anagram for the word “deer” near the centre of it. In this poem that deer is dead and death always bewilders. I write this poem constantly’. These poetic statements and the lengthy introductions to the volume deepen the context for the poems, granting the reader insight into how poetry is being conceived of in that particular year. There is room for the development of similar commentary in the Australian volume without it turning into something too prescriptive of the reader’s experience.

Read side by side, the two collections deepen and complicate one another. It would have been interesting to see more of the virtuosity and linguistic invention of the American volume in the Australian. We see inklings of what this could look like in the poems by Michael Farrell, Jessica Yu, Maria Takolander, and Kevin Brophy’s wonderfully strange litany ‘How old are you?’ where the age 8 is summarised at the end of the poem as ‘And the goldfish, they’re right, it’s the most beautiful answer/ to the question everyone asks you’. Yet, while the American volume has this sense of musical propulsion, it could have made room for more of the stillness of Robert Adamson’s masterfully quiet ‘Garden Poem’ or the gravitas of Clive James’s ‘My Home’, which ends the Australian collection on the lines ‘We fade away, but vivid in our eyes/ A world is born again that never dies’. It’s paradoxical, but I feel that these changes could be accommodated through shortening the Australian volume and through extending the American. Working from a much smaller population of poets, the Australian volume manages to be of approximate equal length to the American, and this leads to a slight feeling of repetition. This is not aided by Page’s choice to group the poems thematically, which also raises questions about whether a more diverse mix of poets and poems might have been possible. Cut back, or diversified, it would feel like a more varied collection. As it stands, The Best Australian Poems 2014 does offer much to the reader, everyday or otherwise, particularly in quiet moments where the resonance of seemingly simple lines such as Treddinick’s (‘But I’d be no other man than this./ This looted self, blessed by theft,/ this harbour for love’s worst scoundrels’) can be given the contemplation they deserve.

The Best Australian Poems 2014. Ed. Geoff Page. ISBN 9781863956970. Melbourne: Black Inc. 2014. RRP $29.99

The Best American Poems 2014. Eds David Lehman and Terrance Hayes. ISBN 9781476708157. New York: Scribner. RRP $US 35