Modern Australian poetry
Modern Australian poetry seeks to tell Australian stories and truths with a poetic significance so that 'they sear into the soul and can never be untold' (Dorothy Porter). The aim for lucidity is also central.
Susan Gordon-Brown, John Tranter with his Manchester Terrier 'Tiger', Sydney 2007. Image courtesy of Susan Gordon-Brown.
During the 1930s and 1940s there was much debate about Modernist writing and what it meant. In the 1930s, two poetry movements emerged in Adelaide: the Jindyworobaks and the Angry Penguins. The Jindyworobaks encouraged Australian writers to express themselves in language indicating their essence as Australians, whereas the Angry Penguins wanted Australian poetry to become more innovative and international by using surrealism.
The influence of the two movements on Australian poets was profound. In combination with the search for essentially Australian qualities, modernism has contributed to the unique character of Australian poetry. National, urban and social issues have been explored with great lucidity using realist as well as surrealist traditions. The form of modern Australian poetry ranges from sonnets through free verse to the highly successful verse novel.
In the 1930s a group of poets led by Rex Ingamells called themselves the Jindyworobaks. The Jindyworobaks wanted to develop a distinctive Australian poetry which described the unique Australian landscape in Australian terms, and which incorporated and appropriated elements of Aboriginal culture and the Aboriginal relationship to the landscape and natural environment.
John Meredith,1920 - 2001, Portrait of Roland Robinson, 1991?, photograph: gelatin silver, sepia toned . Image courtesy of National Library of Australia: an12653534-v.
The Jindyworobak movement continued the spirit of literary nationalism inherited from the early Australian poetry, especially the 1890s. The Jindyworobaks described European culture as a 'Conditional Culture' (1938). The Jindyworobaks maintained that in the oldest of continents, European culture could only be localised with an acceptance of 'place', and then renewed on a higher plane.
A founding member of the Jindyworobaks, Ian Mudie, published a selection of poems Unabated Spring in 1942. The Arrente word 'Alcheringa' (spirit of the place) is used more than once amongst his poems. Other Jindyworobak poets, like Roland Robinson (1912 - 1992) in Legend and Dreaming (1952) and Black-feller, White-feller (1958), used words and symbols from Aboriginal culture as well as transcribing Dreaming stories.
The Angry Penguins and the Ern Malley Affair
During the 1930s and 1940s, a group of young Adelaide poets including Max Harris, Geoffrey Dutton, Sam Kerr and Paul Pfeiffer founded a literary journal called Angry Penguins. The Angry Penguins challenged old literary orthodoxies of what constituted literature - based on the new European writings by James Joyce, Gertrude Stein and others.
Harris was well known for his interest in Modernism and perceived Jindyworobak notions as parochial and limiting. He saw in Modernist approaches to writing and poetry the possibility for experimentation, for abstraction and impressionism - an anti-realist approach to poetry. However, the publication of fictional poet Ern Malley's poems by Harris in Angry Penguins, and Harris's endorsement of them, was THE great hoax of Australian literary history. Harris was not in on the hoax and experienced an extraordinary level of ridicule for his defence of Malley's work as modern poetry despite any literary merit it may have had.
Post-war giants - A D Hope and Judith Wright
A D Hope was seen as one of the great love poets of the century. 'Love often seemed to him a religious mystery, sex its sacrament. He produced haunting lines like 'You near me, you always, you watchful and invisible one'. (Review by Mark O'Connor.) Alec Hope also explored the pull of religious faith and spirituality, conceding that his strongest statements were better left as questions:
Do other beings inhabit our biosphere
Whose life is one and whole? I cannot tell.
I only know at moments everywhere
I sense their presences in earth and air...
(From The Wild Bees)
Terry Milligan, Portrait of Judith Wright, 1998, photograph: gelatin silver. Image courtesy of Terry Milligan and the National Library of Australia: an13997783.
Judith Wright's poem 'Oppositions' from her last collection of poetry Phantom Dwelling illustrates the immediacy of her work which struck chords with her readers. It is as if 'the lightning so lightly mentioned in the poem has jumped the page and made some of the ground under me smoke'. The poem is 'lucid - marvelously lucid. Both rich and clear. And indeed beautiful - with a crystalline and precise earthing in the tubby body of the frog.' (Review by Dorothy Porter.)
Judith Wright was the first white Australian poet to publicly name and explore the experiences of its Indigenous people in her poem 'Nigger's Leap', published in her first collection The Moving Image (1946). 'Like other great political poets, like Dante, like Anna Akhmatova, Wright's poetry tells, and tells lucidly, stories and truths that only poetry can really tell so they sear into the soul and can never be untold'. (Dorothy Porter).
Slessor in Sydney, solemnity and satire in the 1950s and 1960s
Portrait of Kenneth Slessor (1901-1971), 195-. Photograph: B & W. Photograph courtesy of the National Library of Australia: vn3096390.
In the 1950s and 1960s, distinct poetic strains developed in Sydney and in Melbourne. Melbourne verse expressed a solemn, ironic, concern for social and moral issues and, in the work of Vincent Buckley and Chris Wallace-Crabbe, an academic literariness. Francis Webb (1925–1973), from Sydney, produced intense, demanding and often tortured poems.
In Sydney, where Kenneth Slessor, R D Fitzgerald and Douglas Steward were influential, a more relaxed, popular, and various style of poetry flourished.
Kenneth Slessor was:
probably the most talented one to have written in Australia, and the first renovator of twentieth-century Australian poetry. Slessor's career as a poet ran in tandem with his life as a hard-working journalist. He seems to have been able to turn off the raucous babble of everyday Sydney, like a radio, and to produce the piercing, rinsed-clean order of words that characterises his best poetry.
Philip Mead (ed.), Kenneth Slessor: Critical Readings, UQP, 1997.
In Sydney, Rosemary Dobson's first book of poems was In a Convex Mirror (1944), and her second was Ship of Ice (1948). Her work is often reflective and pictorial, and many of her poems are based upon paintings, particularly from the Renaissance. In 1979 she was awarded the Fellowship of Australian Writers Award (then known as the Robert Frost Award).
Gwen Harwood (1920–1995) was born in Brisbane, and moved to Tasmania when she married in 1945, where she raised four children. Her first book was Poems (1963), and she published six more books of verse. She was awarded the Robert Frost Poetry Award (1977) and the Patrick White Award (1978). Her fourth book Bone Scan (1989) won the Victorian Premier's Literary Prize for poetry.
In Melbourne, Bruce Dawe wrote biting and often funny social and political satires as well as reflecting the realist tradition - showing strong social awareness, with religious overtones. His first book of poems was No Fixed Address (1962), a title reminiscent of his own early years. He went on to publish many poetry titles and win many awards including the Dame Mary Gilmore Medal in 1973 and the Patrick White Award in 1980.
Sandgropers and Islanders - Dorothy Hewett, Jack Davis and Oodgeroo
Jack Davis. Photograph courtesy of University of Queensland Press.
Jack Davis (1917 - 2000) spent his childhood in the Western Australian mill town of Yarloop and began writing when he was 14 years old. He worked as a stockman in the north before returning to Perth and settling into fulltime writing. His first book was The First Born (1970), a volume of poetry. Jagardoo: Poems from Aboriginal Australia (1978) and John Pat and Other Poems (1988) followed. Jack Davis received numerous distinctions including the British Empire Medal, the Order of Australia, and honorary doctorates from the universities of Murdoch and Western Australia.
Dorothy Hewett (1923 - 2002) was raised on her parent's isolated wheat farm in Western Australia. By the time she was 20 she was a prize-winning playwright and poet and had joined the Communist Party. She attended university, travelled to Melbourne and Sydney, worked in factories, left the Communist Party in 1968, and moved permanently to Sydney in 1974. She wrote dozens of successful plays, books of poems, novels, and memoirs. Among her published works are Hidden Journey (1967), Rapunzal in Suburbia (1975) and Alice in Wormland (1987). Her emotional life was as turbulent as her politics: she had three husbands and six children.
Oodgeroo (1920 - 1995), of the tribe Noonuccal, was born Kathleen Jean Mary Ruska, on Minjerribah (the Stradbroke Islands) was a domestic servant at the age of 13, and served in the Australian Women's Army Service from 1942 to 1944. Her first book of poetry was We Are Going (1964), the first book of published poetry by an Aboriginal Australian. She was the recipient of numerous awards, including the Mary Gilmore Medal (1970), the Jessie Litchfield Award (1975), and the Fellowship of Australian Writers Award.
Intense and demanding poetic searches, 1980s - 1990s
John Tranter describes the focus of this period in his review of Robert Adamson's Where I Come From (1980). The mood is one 'of passive recollection' which tells of an adult life tormented by decay, women gained and lost and dead animals. Adamson 'does not ruminate on history, philosophy or nature, unless it is to search for a mask that he can use to dramatise his life ... he sketches his environment as a backdrop against which he can act out a ritualised search for experience made meaningful in poetic terms'.
Dorothy Hewett's Greenhouse (1980) has love and betrayal, death, travel, politics and passion as its subjects although the main source of energy in this book is sexual (John Tranter).
The poetry of snakes and making sense, 1990s
Fay Zwicky. Image courtesy of University of Queensland Press.
Fay Zwicky (b. 1933) began publishing poetry and short stories as an undergraduate at Melbourne University. She was a concert pianist before becoming a Senior Lecturer in English literature at the University of Western Australia. Fay Zwicky was the winner of the 1982 NSW Premier's Literary Awards for poetry, for Kaddish and Other Poems (UQP, 1982), and the 1991 Western Australian Premier's Book Awards, Poetry Award, for Ask Me (1990). In 1993 she published the collection Fay Zwicky: Poems 1970 - 1992 (1993). She won the Patrick White Award in 2005.
Roberta (Bobbi) Sykes (b. 1943) was born and grew up in Townsville. Formally educated to the age of 14, she then completed a Masters degree and then her doctorate in education at Harvard University. While studying, she won the Patricia Weickert Black Writers Award (Australia 1982). In 1994 she won the Australian Human Rights Medal. Her publications include her earlier poetry book Love Poems and Other Revolutionary Actions (1988), which has been translated and published in Germany and the three-volume autobiography Snake Dreaming (1997 - 2000).
Billy Marshall-Stoneking (b. 1947) is an Australian/American poet/playwright and author of seven books, including Singing the Snake: Poems from the Western Desert. In 1988, he was awarded the prestigious Bill Harney Prize for Poetry.
Dorothy Porter (b. 1954) is the author of six collections of poetry and three previous verse novels, Akhenaten, The Monkey's Mask and What a Piece of Work. Dorothy's verse novel Wild Surmise (2002) was given the Adelaide Festival Awards 2004 John Bray Memorial Prize for Poetry as well as the overall Premier's Award - the first book of poetry ever to be awarded this prize and was short-listed for the Miles Franklin Award in 2003. She also worked with the jazz composer Paul Grabowsky, on a song cycle, Before Time Could Change Us (2004).
Dorothy Porter is credited with Australian poetry making a comeback in the late 1990s by re-visiting one of the oldest forms of literature - the verse novel. Porter's style is described as 'brash and confronting ... nudging its way onto general best seller lists and threatening to shatter stereotype modern poets'. (Kate Torney).
'My palms sneak up on me', Frank reveals one morning after he's had a sleepless night 'They smell like women going out in puffs of powered and too much scent'
Dorothy Porter, The Monkey's Mask (1994).
Les A Murray (b. 1938) has received numerous literary awards, including the TS Eliot Award in 1996 and the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry in 1999. In addition to poetry and prose, Murray has written two verse novels: The Boys Who Stole the Funeral (1979) and Fredy Neptune: A Novel in Verse (1999).
He [Murray] is a poet of dispossession and ungainliness as well as of landscape and animals. With great authority his poems hold intellectual, social, personal and religious elements in play, while they take the stubbornly unglamorous perspective of the ''poor white'' Australian underclass from which he comes.
Ruth Padel, The New York Times, May 16 1999 .
Poetry titles from 2000 to 2008
Between 1993 and 1996, more than 250 books of poems were published in Australia each year. By 2006, this figure has been reduced to about 100 titles. The reason stated was that the major publishers could not sustain the maximum sales of between 200 to 400 copies. Bob Sessions of Penguin said that Penguin ditched its poetry list in the 1990s because it wasn't selling. Small independent presses such as Black Pepper, Giramondo and Brandl & Schlesinger have become the home for Australian poetry because it is more feasible for them to produce small print runs (Bronwyn Lea, Making Books, University of Queensland Press, 2007).
Dorothy Porter. Image courtesy of Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
The exceptions for the major publishers are the verse novels. Dorothy Porter and Steven Herrick recently published verse novels with Picador and Allen and Unwin. Porter's new verse novel El Dorado, about a serial killer, sold 4000 copies in its first month. Alan Wearne published The Lovemakers (2001), which took out the NSW Premier's Literary Awards for poetry in 2002.
University of Queensland Press maintains five or six poetry titles each year and include John Tranter and David Malouf on their list. David Malouf's first poetry collection in 26 years, Typewriter Music, was released at the Sydney Writers Festival in June 2007, selling out of its print run of 3000 in three days.
Performance poetry is re-animating the art form. Miles Merrill is an Australian poet of African-American descent and performs for school students around the country. Merrill is also director of the State Library of New South Wales' 'poetry slam'. Poets have two minutes to impress judges for $10,000 in prize money. The 2006 New South Wales finalists included a 12-year-old from Broken Hill and a 70-year-old from Armidale. Melbourne is also presenting 'Poetry Idol', which has a grand final at the Melbourne Writer's Festival in September.
Poetry on the Internet is promoted as a way for the future. Jacket is an online poetry e-zine edited until 2010 by John Tranter. A video-only online forum for contemporary poetry, The Continental Review, was launched in June 2007 by Nicholas Manning. John Tranter and others have received $500,000 to archive Australian poetry online. The Australian Poetry Centre, funded by the Copyright Agency Limited was open in Melbourne from 2007 to 2010. Australian Poetry,launched in 2011, is a merger between the NSW Poets Union and the Australian Poetry Centre. Writers Now Online is a space for people who love writing in all categories: short stories, novels, scripts and poetry.
2008 onwards - humour and nostalgia
Today, 'we are often told, poetry leads a fugitive existence in Australia, unremunerated, scantly regarded' (Peter Pierce), yet three new Australian poetry collections have been published in 2008.
The Best Australian Poems 2008 edited by Peter Rose has 71 poems by 71 poets, set in alphabetical order
With his selection of 40 poems from 40 poets for The Best Australian Poetry 2008 , David Brooks notes a commonality in his choice - 'an obsession with a kind of laconic pastoral'. Ross Clark is here for Danger: Lantana, which won the poetry prize from the Australian Book Review (edited by Rose); Stephen Edgar with Nocturnal, a beautiful elegy for Glen Harwood; and Vivian Smith in sparkling form with The Real Life of Ern Malley.
According to reviewer Peter Pierce, Jamie Grant's 100 Australian Poems You Need to Know goes further in exploring 'the key to understanding Australia's national character in its sense of humour'
At the start is the uproarious A Convict's Tour of Hell by 'Frank the Poet', which takes us into the infernal regions where his jailers and tormentors are punished. In the colonial period, poetry was a democratic popular entertainment.
Grant has settled for a lightly imposed thematic arrangement: Convict and Stockrider; The Red Page (that is the literary page of the now-vanished Bulletin); Gundegai to Ironbark; Bastard and Bushranger; Drought, Dust and War; Country Story; Melbourne and Sydney; Beyond Sprawl (this title from Les Murray's serious piece of hilarity, The Quality of Sprawl); and, finally, bringing us to the present, The Generation of XYZ. The collection includes John O'Brien's masterpiece of inconsolable rural gloom, Said Hanrahan, a poem once learnt by school children.
Resources in Australian literature and poetry
- The Red Room Company
- The Poetry Resource
- Australian Poetry Centre
- Australian Poetry
- Australian Poetry Library
- Australian Literature Resources
- Australian Libraries Gateway
- Australian Literary and Historical Texts - Sydney Electronic Text and Image Service (scholarly and electronic literature database at the University of Sydney)
- Jacket - online poetry e-zine edited by John Tranter
- Cordite Poetry Review
- Fellowship of Australian Writers
- Fellowship of Australian Writers (WA)
- Tasmanian Writers Centre
- Queensland Writers Centre
- Writing WA
- Poets Union Inc
- Australian Society of Authors
- NSW Writers' Centre
- Australian Bush Poets Association
- Society of Women Writers NSW
- Copyright Agency Limited
Australian poetry sampler
Australian poetry is vibrant and alive with poets working across approaches and genres. Visit these websites to sample a range of Australian poetry from John Tranter, Martin Johnson, Bernard Cohen, Les Murray, Gig Ryan, David Rowbotham, Komninos, Antigone Kefala and Pam Brown.
Have some fun and write your own poem
If you want to write your own poetry read some poetry writing tips in The Art of Writing Poetry. If you need more help or just want to have some fun, visit the Poetry Forge and to find that perfect rhyme visit the Rhyming Dictionary.
Last updated: 14th June 2011