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Australian Poetry Since 1788

CD, Book and Concert Reviews

aboriginal australia


Published by University of NSW Press. 2011. RR Aus $69.95
ISBN 978142232638

There is no doubt that this new collection of Australian poetry will be the last such print survey for a long, long time, if not the very last. In this day and age when so many bookshops are closing their doors, and hardly any new ones opening, it is obvious the printed book is struggling and destined to join the bristling ranks of the electronic book. Poetry is a good example of why some e-books will not work as well as print. As an occasional reciter, and someone who has recorded over 50 poems, I approac poetry as something to be read aloud – even if in your head.

Reading aloud was certainly the case in the 19th and 20th centuries when the bulk of the poems represented in this collection were written. Many of the older works first saw publication in what were known as ‘reciters’ or magazines like The Bulletin or Lone Hand. Others were considered favourites of the bush reciters who were usually locally famous for their renditions of Adam Lindsay Gordon, Henry Lawson, A.B.Paterson or, that most prolific of all bush poets, Anon.

This is certainly the first major retrospective since those two journalistic poetry lovers from The Bulletin magazine, Douglas Stewart and Nancy Keesing, compiled the landmark 1950s publications ‘Australian Bush Ballads’ and ‘Old Bush Songs’ (both Angus & Robertson), which, incidentally, if sandwiched together, would have resulted in a similar weighty tome as this new work. As a young lad these two 1950s books were unbelievably important reference works for my burgeoning research and also as a resource for material I wanted for ABC radio programs and, later, performance. I still refer to them some fifty year’s later. I can see a similar use for ‘Australian Poetry Since 1788’.

There were no surprises for me in the material selected to represent the first one hundred years – other than to see my name occasionally pop up as a reference point for particular published works – however I must say I am impressed by the scholarly nature of the notes to the poems. Selecting poetry for an anthology will inevitably disappoint some hardliners and I can already hear grumbling that our greatest convict literary figure, Francis McNamara, ‘Frank the Poet’ is only represented with one poem, ‘A Convict’s Lament on the Death of Captain Logan’ (aka ‘Moreton Bay’), all the more galling that 2011 was his bicentennial year. They could have, at least, saluted the fact or myth that McNamara was probably the writer of our most important colonial work of all, ‘The Bold Jack Donahoe’. At least the colonial songster champion, Charles Thatcher, is represented by two works, neither his most popular, ‘Gold-fields Girls’ and ‘The Queer Ways of Australia’. Previously mentioned Anon gets a guernsey with his or her’s most famous works including ‘Botany Bay’, ‘The Wild Colonial Boy’, ‘Van Diemen’s Land’, ‘The Old Bullock Dray’’, ‘Stringybark Creek’, ‘The Old Keg of Rum’, ‘Stringbark and Greenhide’ and ‘The Banks of the Condamine’. But this is not an anthology of that sort of bush poem and credit must be given for, at least, an interesting representation. Probably more important is the inclusion of so-called bush poets who have all but disappeared from 21st century radar including Adam Lindsay Gordon (once our most revered voice of the bush), Henry Kendall, Joseph Furphy (Tom Collins), W.T. Goodge and Will Ogilvie. Although not lost in time (yet) Henry Lawson, A.B. Paterson and, one of my particular favourites, John Shaw –Neilson, are very well represented. Henry Lawson even gets an honourable mention as the likely author of the bawdy classic ‘The Bastard From The Bush’. I am still not convinced he penned the parody to his own ‘The Captain of the Push’, but I have always liked the possibility.

This is definitely a well-researched and representative collection truly worthy of its sweeping title. I still read poetry, usually those published in the New Yorker magazine, the weekend Sydney newspapers or, which is more often the case, when I am scanning digitised old newspaper and magazines for songs and folklore. Above all, this anthology provides us with a collection of much loved, much–recited and, hopefully, some later works that might possibly get recited. I have been giving some of the more contemporary poems a run – many simply don’t cut the recitation mustard but others, particularly those of Les Murray (probably no surprise here), Clive James (probably no surprise here either), Rhyll McMaster, Philip Neilsen and Susan Hampton were worth a go. There are also some very contemporary poems – hieroglyphic puzzles posing as poetry – I am still scratching my head over these but they certainly sparked my curiosity.

The book is 1090 pages and weighs about the same as a young baby. There are over 1000 poems representing 170 poets. It’s now on my bookcase and I am sure I will return to it whenever I need a poetical fix. The editors, Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray, both fine and acknowledged poets, have delivered a tome to defy e-book readers everywhere. Buy the print version – no one wants to recite from a device!