Reviewed: New Music: An Anthology of Contemporary Australian Poetry, John Leonard (ed.), Five Islands Press (2001).
I should anticipate this review with a preamble: John Leonard is a fantastic anthologist, and New music is, as the phrase has it, ‘the contemporary poetry anthology we had to have’. Anyone the slightest bit interested in Australian verse should acquire it immediately; the variety of poems and poets presented here testifies to the variety and vitality of the situation.
But there are some other things that could also be said.
If, as Pierre Bourdieu has remarked, ‘taste classifies and, first of all, it classifies the classifier’, then I begin with a self-classification: I am repelled by the design of this book. My repulsion begins with the cover, which features a garish, semi-abstract painting overlaid onto mottled blue marbling. The cover opens onto pages of uninspiring fonts; simply opening this book will deform the cheap cover card forever.
Of course, this is hardly surprising in the world of Australian poetry, and literary journals more generally, which almost universally define themselves by contravening all the canons of good design. One can perhaps discern many things in this not-altogether-deliberate contravention: a declaration of distance from the established circuits of book marketing; a repudiation of mere seeming in the name of substance. This also says something about the dispositions of poets, and their ambivalent relation to the contemporary institutions that determine visual taste. Yet this contravention also denotes a certain resignation to necessity. Even with a really attractive cover, poetry is highly unlikely to attract a mass audience.
But you can’t always tell a book by its cover.
Then again, I also hate the title of this book. New music—why not Exhausted noise? The emptiness of the pseudo-identification of poetry with music hasn’t even the strength of ironic distance, and so we’re back to an earnest affirmation of a very old idea of poetry’s substance: poetry as music attains to the affective and asignifying apotheosis of sense. But there’s even more to it than that. As Leonard explains, ‘I have favoured poetry that has a rich music of syllable and rhythm; this, as it happens, fits in with how most contemporary poets wish to have their poetry considered’ (xiv). The anthologist’s selection criterion thus supposedly conforms to the desires of ‘most’ poets—and this conformity is then expressed in the title (and subtitle). The ‘musicality’ of poetry is, apparently, the way that poetry ruptures with prose, and sets the terms in which poets would like to think of their work; it frustrates any attempts at rapid scanning or skim-reading.
But one then wonders what principles underlie the peculiar organisation of this book: the poets are presented in reverse order of date of birth, from youngest to oldest (this is, of course, one of Leonard’s signature techniques). At least the index is alphabetically arranged. This principle is bizarre, and for many reasons. One suspects an avoidance of other categories because of the risk of being seen as ‘too exclusionary’ (and there are a number of anxieties evident in the introduction about how ‘representative’ the volume can claim to be). But perhaps such an organisation is intended to expose, in its very weirdness, the preposterousness of all such attempts at organisation? (Leonard himself alludes to some of the ‘foolish’ divisions that split contemporary poetry, such as that between ‘intellectual’ and ‘popular’ verse.)
Such an organisation is at odds, in any case, with the idea of a ‘shock of the new’—the immutable enchaining law of ordinal regression having little to do with the inauguratory event implied by a ‘new generation’. Furthermore, the introduction speaks in the same breach of an identifiable generation and of this generation’s evasion of identifiable marks. Identifiable, it seems, by its stylishness and eclecticism. What does this mean for the older folk here? Are they part of this new generation or not? What about the dead poets (John Forbes, Philip Hodgins) who still count as ‘new music’? We’re back to state-ratification of birth dates as the machinery of selection and the exigencies of organisation collide. Then again, perhaps the point is to get readers to intensify their reading, to have them asking themselves at every new date: is the rupture here?
As it turns out, what holds this ‘new generation’ together is the fact that they hold themselves together:
A clear, swift, generational change has come about very recently. There is no cult of youth about it, but poets from their twenties to their early forties (or so) now write with a strong awareness of each other’s published work, and mostly organise the public readings. The poetry of this generation is abundant in imagination, craft and confidence. It seems timely to display it right now, when poetry has become almost invisible in the weekend review pages and the mainstream publishers’ lists.
This holding-oneself-together in the face of lack of interest comes back to one of the foundational anxieties of ‘Australian’ poetry—is poetry an issue merely for threatened and dreary elites? If so, these are not elites of gender, sexuality, culture or ethnicity: they are not even ‘elites’ in any real sense of outstanding socioeconomic or professional privilege. If anything, it seems that Australian poets are disproportionately metropolitan and petit-bourgeois (if this term still means anything at all). But this only shows how difficult it is to decide whether the current restrictions upon Australian poetry are the consequence of incapacity, unwillingness or impossibility—or, indeed, whether they really exist at all (Dorothy Porter being a case in point). For very good reasons in this context, the difficulty has to be decided by self-congratulation and public-relations hype: ‘The poetry of this generation is abundant in imagination, craft and confidence’; ‘In the period covered by New music, much of the innovation has been by women.’
Certainly, there’s no necessity for an anthology’s introduction to provide a rigorous and consistent account of the situation of Australian verse, nor to avoid the rhetorics of self-praise. But there is still something symptomatic about the fact that an anthologist feels it necessary to justify his or her project at all (why not ‘just do it?’)—and that such justification cannot avoid incoherence to the extent that it tries to answer incommensurable theoretical, political and economic injunctions simultaneously.
And all this before one even gets to the poetry! Aside from remarking that almost anyone who’s anyone in the Australian poetry scene is here (with some notable exceptions), many of the poems appear to tum around the very same difficulties I have outlined above. But then, they should be read for themselves and, indeed, it is Leonard’s capacity to welcome extreme divergences of voice that make his anthologies so interesting—and yet makes one want to ask whether these divergences are responding to the same anxieties.
I must reiterate that nothing I have said should put anyone off buying or reading this book. On the contrary, New music begs the question of the conditions of Australian poetry’s contemporary existence, as evidenced in the ways in which it circulates and characterises itself. It is precisely because Leonard’s anthology is what it is that it should be read by everyone. New music presents poetry that is all the more fascinating the more irrelevant that poetry (feels that it) has become.