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Book Review: Australian Poetry Since 1788
Book Review: Australian Poetry Since 1788

pleasure-seeking audience is the only audience for poetry worth having, Philip Larkin has said. This was the guiding principle in making our anthology. We wanted a book that could be lived with over a lifetime, a physical object to be picked up with pleasure and still able to surprise many years after it was purchased."

That is how Australian poets Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray begin their introduction to this hefty 1024-page anthology of Australian poetry from 1788 to today. Whether they have succeeded, only time will tell.

Certainly, all the poets one would expect are here (170 of them) - Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson, Christopher Brennan, John Shaw Neilson, CJ Dennis, "Ern Malley", Kenneth Slessor, AD Hope, Judith Wright, Francis Webb, Peter Porter, Bruce Dawe, Les Murray, Clive James, John Tranter and John Forbes.

And in that respect, the anthology does not differ greatly from Les Murray's much shorter (fewer than 500 pages) classic New Oxford Book of Australian Verse. WA is well represented by Dennis Haskell, John Kinsella, Andrew Lansdown, Randolph Stow, Caroline Caddy, Tracy Ryan and Lucy Dougan. So where, I wonder, is Fay Zwicky, who is included by Murray).

Lehmann and Gray are represented by a generous selection (they chose each other's poems). It's also worth comparing the new anthology with John Kinsella's superb Penguin Anthology of Australian Poetry (480 pages) in which he too finds space for Zwicky).

One substantial difference between the present anthology and Murray's is that Lehmann and Gray have included "extended critical biographies" for each poet to "deepen appreciation".

But Murray took a different view, saying: "The absence of notes and other prose apparatus is intended to focus attention solely on the poetry."

I'm with Murray. If you want to know more about a poet, try a good reference book. I'd rather have more poetry.

That being said, this exceedingly generous anthology is a major achievement and an essential addition to any serious library. The multiplicity of voices, subjects and forms - everything from bush ballads to concrete poetry - is dazzling and the effect of having them gathered together in one place is less cacophonous than complimentary, poetic invention purifying life's essentials like a bushfire while exposing a uniquely Australian genius for combining reckless optimism with the deepest melancholy. As the shearer's cook says in WT Goodge's poem of the same name, "There's nothing in this world, my lad,/That's worth your worry, good or bad;/Grief on the left,/Sorrow on the right,/Trouble on the bunk, but blast it!"