THE distinguished literary scholar and critic, Barry Spurr is the new Literary Editor of Quadrant, succeeding Les Murray who retired at the end of last year after serving in the position since March 1990.
In 2011, Barry was appointed the first Professor of Poetry in Australia, and has long been a world authority on the life and work of T.S. Eliot. His book Anglo-Catholic in Religion: T.S. Eliot and Christianity (Lutterworth, Cambridge, 2010) is widely regarded as the authoritative study in the field.
In an academic career of more than forty years at the University of Sydney, including two stints at St Edmund Hall, Oxford, Barry’s literary scholarship ranged from Early Modern literature to contemporary Australian poetry. He is a leading scholar in the fields of religious literature and liturgical language, most notably in the works of John Donne and T.S. Eliot, and the language, literature and music of the Anglo-Catholic tradition.
His contribution to Australian poetry education and criticism has been prolific, and includes a series of small books for students on individual Australian poets including Kenneth Slessor, Bruce Dawe, Judith Wright, Lee Cataldi, Peter Skrzynecki, Judith Beveridge, Robert Gray, John Tranter, Douglas Stewart, Rosemary Dobson, John Foulcher, as well as the novelist Christopher Koch. In 2007, he was elected Fellow of the Australian College of Educators for his “outstanding contribution to education”.
He has also been a notable public commentator, especially on the role of literature in the modern education system, and the role of the humanities in the modern university. He was the consultant on literature education to the Abbott government’s 2014 review of the national education curriculum chaired by Kevin Donnelly and Ken Wiltshire. Most of his recommendations were included in the final report, which supported “a greater emphasis on dealing with and introducing literature from the western literary canon, especially poetry.”
When he was appointed to his poetry chair by the University of Sydney, Les Murray publicly welcomed him with a letter of congratulations, saying: “It is rare to have a person interested in poetry as distinct from the furthering of what you might call Stasi-type criticism in Australia. In the last 30 years or more, poetry criticism has descended more and more into politics – and a really nasty form of politics.”
In 2016, after he left the University of Sydney, leading literary figures and former academic colleagues from both Sydney and Oxford gave him the festschrift The Free Mind: Essays and Poems in Honour of Barry Spurr (editor Catherine Runcie, publisher Edwin H. Lowe).
Barry has been a contributor to Quadrant since the 1980s. In his most recent piece in March 2018, a review of the collection of Ivan Head’s poetry, The Magpie Sermons, he concluded on a severe yet positive note:
In our prosaic and crudely literal world, where just a word in jest in private can be stolen out of context and used to destroy a person’s career and reputation, and where thought, speech and expression are policed and pilloried (even, of all places, in universities), censoring and stifling the imagination, the voices of the poets, contrariwise, enlarging our vision of life and revealing the limitless capacity of language tellingly to communicate that generosity of spirit, have never been more necessary.