Australian Poetry Today

In his trenchant study of Victorian England, Culture and Anarchy, an essay in social and political criticism, published in 1869, one-time Professor of Poetry at Oxford, Matthew Arnold—and the author of many still-admired poems, such as “Dover Beach”—divides his society into three classes: Barbarians, Philistines and Populace. The first are the aristocracy, and the last the working or servant class. Most interesting—and amusing—is his definition of the contemptuous term, of biblical origin, which had been circulating for some time in English usage in cultural theory, for the bourgeois middle class: the Philistine. And the term remains in fairly popular use, more or less with the meaning which Arnold gave to it, to this day. “Consider these people,” he writes, “their way of life, their habits, their manners … the words that come forth out of their mouths, the thoughts which make the furniture of their minds; would any amount of wealth be worth having with the condition that one was to become just like these people by having it?”

This review appeared in a recent Quadrant.
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Essentially, the Philistine is hostile to art and culture, indifferent to aesthetic values and preoccupied with economic materialism and conspicuous consumption. The climax of Arnold’s execration of this particular unsavoury specimen of humanity is in his appropriation of Christ’s parable of the wedding banquet, at which one of the guests is inappropriately attired and, as a result, ejected from the celebration: “Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness, there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. For many are called, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:13–14). This ill-attired character, for Arnold, is nothing less than the prototype of the contemporary Philistines, who—as he writes—will “sit down at the banquet of the future without having on a wedding garment and nothing good can then come from them”.

The Philistines remain with us as a permanent fixture of our culture and have always been a conspicuous element in Australian society, with its ingrained and apparently ineradicable suspicion of the life of the mind, of the arts, and of the spiritual dimension of human existence—all of those components which, nonetheless, for many people in our unhappy world, make human existence endurable.

For this reason, it is against considerable odds that poetry-writing and -reading continue to flourish in Australia. Once, in the living memory of those of us politely described as being “of senior years”, this important aspect of the nation’s reading culture was strenuously maintained in our schools and universities. Today, however, such has been the extraordinary and lamentable meltdown of our education systems, generally, and of the Humanities, particularly, that we would look in vain even for the presence, let alone active promotion of the treasury of poetry in English in most of these degraded places now. People can graduate, and go on to teach what passes for “English” in today’s schools, without having read or studied any poetry at all. As comparatively recently as half a century ago, this cancellation of verse, as the result of the incursion of various ideological movements in the academy, would have been unimaginable. Poetry, especially that of past ages, is the least susceptible of all the forms of literature for stretching on the Procrustean bed of such as Social Justice theory.

The Philistine in society and those ideological enforcers, posing as educators, in schools and the university, can do their worst, in their ignorance or active suppression of poetry. But it is alive and well, as the 300 original poems, mostly from Australian poets, that Quadrant publishes every year (from the many hundreds more that are submitted to us) clearly indicate.

In Anthology of Australian Verse 2023, from Bonfire Books, some twenty contemporary Australian poets are featured, with several well-known names, for Quadrant readers, amongst them: Vivian Smith, Geoff Page, Ivan Head, Kevin Hart, Jeremy Gadd and others. The emphasis of this collection, the blurb indicates, is on verse with “formal and semi-formal styles”, and features, appropriately, “Australia’s greatest living formalist, Stephen Edgar”. As it turns out, “semi-formal” is loosely applied here—indeed, almost to the point of meaninglessness—as some of the contributions are in the vers libre tradition, with little or nothing of what is usually understood by “formal” components: regular rhythm and rhyming patterns, conformity to traditional structural forms, such as that of the sonnet, and so on.

The volume carries a short and curious “Introduction” from Lucas Smith in which he alleges that “formalism only became an -ism in reaction to the onslaught of free verse in the twentieth century, which was itself reacting quite understandably against the nursery rhyme certainties of Tennysonian verse”. Reaction against rhyming is not peculiar to twentieth-century, free-verse poets. One assumes, perhaps riskily these days, that, as Smith is a published commentator on poetry in English, he has read the greatest of English poems. Its author, in his Preface to it in 1674, proclaims that he is freeing English verse from “the troublesome and modern bondage of Riming”.

And Smith’s attack on Lord Tennyson is extraordinary. What are the “nursery rhyme certainties” of one of the most brilliant and moving of English elegies, In Memoriam? Its theme of religious doubt, in the context of the mid-Victorian crisis of faith, was described by that most notable and influential of Modernist free-verse poets, T.S. Eliot, as a “very intense experience”. So much for “certainties”, rhyming or otherwise! Tennyson’s urban imagery, moreover, in this well-known section of In Memoriam, where the elegiac speaker visits Arthur Hallam’s house in Wimpole Street, is proleptic of the compelling Modernist cityscapes and the moods of desolation they stir, closing with one of the most devastating uses of alliteration in all of English poetry:

Dark house, by which once more I stand

     Here in the long unlovely street,

     Doors, where my heart was used to beat

So quickly, waiting for a hand,


A hand that can be clasp’d no more—

     Behold me, for I cannot sleep,

     And like a guilty thing I creep

At earliest morning to the door.


He is not here; but far away

     The noise of life begins again,

     And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain

On the bald street breaks the blank day.

“Nursery rhyme certainties”? Possibly, Smith is referring exclusively to matters of technique, not theme, in his allegation of the Victorian laureate’s childish verses, but if so, what is of “nursery rhyme” kind in Tennyson’s great Homeric poem “Ulysses”, written in blank verse, and concluding:

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

And if he has in mind this superlative exercise in the music of poetry, which only the poetically tone-deaf could fail to appreciate, then all one can say is, let us have more of such “nursery rhymes”:

The splendor falls on castle walls

And snowy summits old in story;

The long light shakes across the lakes,  

And the wild cataract leaps in glory.

Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,

Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

So oddly obsessed with Tennyson is Smith that he closes the brief introduction with an attack on “readers whose idea of poetry is still the Tennysonian model”. What model? Any of the variety of poetic expressions above, or the Spenserian stanzas of “The Lotos-Eaters”, the narrative verse of “The Light Brigade”, and many more models, besides? And which “readers”, today? Most readers of any kind now, alas, so far from having Tennyson as their touchstone of what poetry should be, would probably have difficulty naming a single one of his poems.

Moving now, with relief, to the poems in this collection, and consideration of a selection of them. In Vivian Smith’s “Headlines in the 1940’s”, we have a series of striking juxtapositions of the diurnal trivia of a young boy’s life and the headlines of global import that the newspapers carried as he grew up in that turbulent decade. The benign “breakfast table” has spread out on it news of one “struck with an ice pick through the skull” in Mexico. It is the murder of Leon Trotsky, of course, in 1940: Vivian Smith knows readers who know their history will pick this up, that a poet can work his effects through suggestion and evocation, and all the more powerfully so, without everything having to be spelt out; and the Stalinist butchers need not be named, either: “We knew / they’d stop at nothing just to get their way”.

Then, several years later, having begun a paper round and, on the very day in 1948 that he is starting “to ride no hands”, the assassination of Gandhi is recorded. We see what is building here. It is the same theme that W.H. Auden, a few years before these incidents, was pursuing in the ekphrastic poem “Musée des beaux arts” (1938)—possibly his best—inspired by The Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Suffering, of the most terrible kind, will go on while the rest of us are engaged in our very ordinary lives. The “Old Masters” never got this wrong, Auden opines. Neither does Vivian Smith.

As a coda, for the third stanza, Smith reflects on the wordsmith’s craft: the “playing around with parts of speech”– “topical, optical, critical, political” — and the extent to which the poet can capture experience in words, reliably but un-classifiably, because in life, as in art, there is “so much near, so much out of reach”.

Speaking of formal designs in verse, Geoff Page’s witty “Coloratura” is an extended exercise in couplets, not rhyming themselves, but with the second line of each rhyming with its counterpart in the following couplet: “Who says dogs don’t speak Italian? / Research informs me that there are no” is followed, with a brisk enjambment, by “roles for dogs in opera / although today a fine soprano”. The verses are impelled by the rhyming pattern from being in any way end-stopped, until we reach the penultimate couplet’s second line: “right down to a final tremor” rhyming with the very last line of the poem: “she offers comments on the crema”. The accomplishment of this technique, as in the best poetry, while evident and very satisfying for the reader, does not become an end in itself. It is at the service of the amusing and affectionate theme of the poet’s Jack Russell’s imagined imitation of the most brilliant of the operatic soprano voices, the coloratura, in the course of her objection to her master’s abandonment of her, “solo in the car”, while he chats with friends over coffee “in a swank espresso bar”– car and bar rhyming the physical separation. Page, with further astuteness, knows not to overplay the vocal-operatic motif, which nonetheless runs –appropriately, like a motif in music — through the poem. “Seven canine octaves” are traversed by the dog, in protest, but at the upper level, attaining “pitches only angels reach”. In her tempo, she sings “adagio”, while in volume, ranges widely from “fortissimo to coy piano” to that “final tremor”. The poet could be describing the technique of Joan Sutherland, the coloratura soprano par excellence, if it were not for the Italian accent becoming “a tad Jack Russell here and there”. This delightful poem reveals a poet in complete command of his art.

What might be called the moral voice of poetry is revealed in Kevin Hart’s “A Kindness”. This is when verse reveals a profound truth-to-life experience, not through insistence that we share it or endorse it, for “poetry makes nothing happen”, as Auden said, but that we understand it, and through that understanding, which may involve Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief”, our perception and appreciation of the rich variety of human life is broadened. This is education, beyond the ken of the ideologue, for whom literary texts are valued or suppressed to the extent to which they endorse, or fail to endorse, this or that political or sociological position. It is an anti-educational, indeed anti-life strategy that is inimical to the appreciation of literature, but especially poetry and of the humane depth and breadth of life to which it has given profound expression throughout human history.

Hart’s poem, a sequence of unrhymed tercets, so of the “semi-formal” kind of verse, describes the kindly wisdom of the speaker’s father, communicated in the context of a quasi-mystical dream-vision, which deepens and enriches the son’s understanding of life in the midst of the ordinariness of it. Father, speaking (as it were) from beyond the grave, arrestingly challenges the common idea and fear of death as complete annihilation of the mind and the senses: “what you’ve always feared, the utter loss / Of ways of seeing, thinking, isn’t true”. With the bed covers kicked away, and his wife still asleep, the son “felt a kindness fill the early hours”, and such is the effect of this generous revelation that it “sweeten[s] darkness from here to Tennessee”. Partaking of the epiphanic moment, even the humble “water in my glass beside me shone”, and, more challengingly, the barking of the coyotes, “up on the bony ridge” is enlisted too, as part of the created world, and “their pack was suddenly my own”. All being is being drawn into unity, the “invisible and visible” and, for once, seen in its wholeness and completeness. The natural elements join with the human and animal creation, as the reader discerns the double meaning of Hart’s title: this act of paternal kindness expresses how we all belong to the created kind, or kin. We share that with the barking coyotes, the generously-speaking water, in its rhetorical questioning: “And did I give you all I am to drink?” and the friendly trees: “Why not come out and see us later on?”

Father’s kindness is expressed in his urging of his son to perceive the kinship of all of creation, and which he, from an eternal perspective, now understands and communicates: “He wanted me to see what he could see”, thus disproving any idea of post-mortem annihilation in a superlative expression of the superior insight that life after death affords.

More specifically Christian (as its title suggests) is Ivan Head’s “Dumpster Chorale Easter Day”. Very striking, in this short, three-stanza work, is the poet’s vivid use of verbs, from the beginning: “Carpark magpies out-muscle dumpster ibis”. Despite the urban squalor, this is life in all its liveliness, enhanced by necessity, as the maggies “scavenge lunch, then perch on the dumpster to sing”. Their mortality is precarious—“some have beak-ends broken”—but their exultant “song is unimpeded”. Beyond the un-ignorable grim realism of their routine and its setting, “the line of parked cars”, as one “jumps for dead insects in the grills”—we see that undeniable liveliness, again, as Head, like G.M. Hopkins, places the right verb of created energy in the right place—the speaker re-imagines them as “bright foragers on forest grasses”. It is a kind of resurrected life, beyond this life, reminiscent of Philip Larkin’s poem about retired racehorses, “At Grass”, and of T.S. Eliot’s beatific vision in “Marina”: “let me / Resign my life for this life”. So their song brings us to church (figured in “the lych-gate”) on Easter Day, the day of the Resurrection, as “Magpies fossick yellow leaves” (the informal Australian verb, often associated with searching for gold, so apt on this feast-day in the Christian calendar when the colour is golden) as the birdsong melds with the verbal imperative from the Latin liturgy of the Mass: “Warble streaming in my soul / would be if worded—sursum corda”. The poet lifts up our hearts, as his has been lifted, too, by the magpies’ chorale.

For one of the sonnets in the collection, we would turn to Jeremy Gadd’s, “Lockdown”, composed “with apologies to Hamlet and its author”, as the opening phrase of the melancholy prince’s famous suicidal soliloquy is being forthrightly challenged: “How could anyone wish not to be?” Gadd asks. The poem tackles the doubly difficult task of writing in a version of the sonnet form and the theme, in that context, of finding something good to say about the Covid lockdown. In the course of this, the poem honours several of the features of the traditional sonnet, and makes them new, as Ezra Pound urged poets, in general, to do. Gadd knows the traditions of poetry and this should be a signal to all of those who would write verse, and especially those engaged in such as creative writing courses. The best way in order to learn how to write well, and—paradoxically—to find your own voice, in the process, is to read and go on reading the works of those who, through the centuries, have written well.

The arresting opening is one of the time-honoured features of the sonnet form—John Donne was a master of it, in his Holy Sonnets, for example. So, Gadd, in the extension of his initially striking rhetorical question, gives several reasons why human-being is to be celebrated: “seeing the sun rise over Serengeti savannah / or sinking into the Caribbean, west of Havana”. We note the rhyme scheme here: there are two rhyming couplets to set the poem in motion, forming the orderly opening quatrain encountered in many sonnets. But then he varies the conventional arrangement, in two ways. First the rhyming in the following two lines is contained within just the second line: “or gaping at the Milky Way, awesomely wheeling / overhead, the night after witnessing a daughter wed”. Second, these lines form the conclusion of the first section of the sonnet—six lines. The sestet comes first; the octave is to follow, reversing the traditional form. Yet, traditionally again, the second section begins with a disjunction, and brings the title and precise concern of the poem immediately into focus: “But in lockdown, alone …”, and now comes the surprise (which Eliot singled out as an important element in good poetry), as we expect a negative contrast with the expansive, life-affirming imagery of the opening section. Not at all! Lockdown brings its own rewards:

it is enough to watch

insects waft their wings, to discern the momentous

in insignificant things. To marvel at willy wagtails

luring threats from their nests,

observing a mother and child at rest.

These gifts, afforded by lockdown’s solitude, silence and stillness—those spiritual qualities that so terrify modern human beings—banish “despondency from mind and sight”.

The poem perfectly fulfils what the literary critic and scholar of Donne’s sonnets, Dame Helen Gardner, described as the essential quality of an accomplished work in that form: that it needs precisely fourteen lines in order to say what it has to say.

Bonfire Books are to be congratulated on producing this volume, which displays in rich abundance the intelligence and accomplishment of contemporary Australian poets, from which I have taken just a small, but I hope representative sample. One could wish that the book would be set for study in senior high school and undergraduate literature courses, but as many of the contributors are mature-aged, white men (earning the triple demerit points of the woke ideologues: “male, pale and stale”); that there seem to be none conspicuously identifying as indigenous, non-binary or trans; that there are no apocalyptic climate catastrophists or any lambastings of colonisation, “the patriarchy” and “toxic masculinity”, it would appear to be very unlikely that this wish would be fulfilled.

Anthology of Australian Verse 2023
edited by Lucas Smith

Bonfire Books, 2023, 81 pages, $20

Barry Spurr was Australia’s first Professor of Poetry and is Literary Editor of Quadrant. His next book, currently in preparation, is Language in the Liturgy: Past, Present and in the Future.


6 thoughts on “Australian Poetry Today

  • Patrick McCauley says:

    The Palestinians were first known as the Philistines. This seems to be important to remember given Barry Spurr’s definition … and the level of disinformation, misinformation and downright propaganda now in play.

    • profspurr says:

      Thank you for reading the article and taking the time to comment. The definition of the Philistine which I provide is, of course, not mine, but the well-known one given my Matthew Arnold in Culture and Anarchy.

  • Peter Marriott says:

    Thanks Barry, good piece but I’m afraid I still get most pleasure reading a poem that rhymes. The talent of the poet is at it’s greatest, in my view , when he can get profound points across while finding the right words, that do rhyme…no easy task.
    Like in Colerdges ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’and Grays ‘ Elergy written in a Country Church-Yard,’ beautiful to my ears and still using good iambic pentameter to boot. Poems like Eliots Wasteland are so obscure as to be almost meaningless to me, without all the notes although his 4 Quartets were a little nearer the mark…for mine.
    Of course the rhyming poems of Patterson are still the ones that resonate with the ‘Philistine’ in most of us from the bush….including me.
    Palistine of course was the name given by the Romans to the Jewish nation of Judea and Samaria, after the long forgotten Philistines, who’s homeland was in fact the Gaza strip area and who disappeared from history in the time honoured way…..intermarried and intergrated with the Jews in defiance of God….but don’t tell the modern day versions in Gaza that.

    • Patrick McCauley says:

      Yes – thank you Professor Barry – of course, the Philistine definition was that of Mathew Arnold … but I wonder, Peter Marriott, whether (or not) a culture/tribe/ people – such as the Philistines can in fact “disappear in the time honoured way … inter-married and integrated with the Jews in defiance of God” ? It seems to me that ‘culture’ does not ‘disappear’ so easily after inter-marriage and integration – as exemplified by our own experience with Aboriginal culture. “Culture” seems to have a way of survival, even after its makers are long dead.

  • profspurr says:

    Thank you, Peter, for your comments. One can enjoy both rhyming and freer verse forms, and I publish both in Quadrant. What is in my view the greatest of English poems, Paradise Lost, was written, as Milton tells us, free from the ‘troublesome and modern bondage of rhyming’.

  • Peter Marriott says:

    Thanks Barry, I take your comment.
    I have The Portable Milton, edited with an introduction by Douglas Bush and have had much pleasure reading his Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained and all his other works, including Samson Agonistes, and admit he’s pretty much beyond comparison. He’s in my little library and I continue to revisit him when the mood strikes.

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