Response to the editors of "Contemporary Australian Poetry"

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David Campbell
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Response to the editors of "Contemporary Australian Poetry"

Post by David Campbell » Wed Nov 22, 2017 12:05 pm

Hi All

I've mentioned elsewhere that I tried some time ago to contact the editors of Contemporary Australian Poetry via the publisher Puncher and Wattman. I’ve still had no success with that, but decided to write a response anyway to their comments (as published by the literary editor Stephen Romei) in the Weekend Australian back on September 16. So below you’ll find, firstly, their comments, and secondly, my response. If they ever do bother to contact me I’ll send it to them.


The final word goes to the editors of Contemporary Australian Poetry: “We were aware of the bush poets, and have all assessed their work. We respect their presentation skills, and acknowledge their sometimes skilful use of metre and rhyme, their tidy endings, and their likeable jokes. But we wanted much more.
“Our best poets create distinctive points of view, and distinctive styles in which to express them. They contribute to our understanding of being alive at this time and in this place.”
The editors reject Campbell’s view that the inclusion of Stephen Edgar is “an anomaly”. “We do not have a prejudice against rhyme or metre (there are numerous other metrical poets in the anthology). Few poets who use rhyme and metre, however, also display the insight and skill of the best contemporary free verse.”
They also disagree with Campbell’s suggestion that free verse is a passing trend. It is now the “dominant form”, they think, “and for good reasons”. “Poetry now focuses on what it does uniquely well: to explore the shifting frontier of our understandings, and to capture their imaginative weight. In doing this, exactitude of meaning has taken precedence over the requirements of metre or rhyme. In a rhymed poem, the rhyme must come first, even if that leads, as it can with all but the best practitioners, to choices that are weak because they are vague, conventional or over-literary.”

Dear Contemporary Australian Poetry Editors

I am responding to your comments in the Weekend Australian on September 16 because I think you’re missing the point of my article, which was centred around Louis Nowra’s reference to poets struggling for an audience “like beggars fighting over the contents of a dumpster”. Nowra’s blunt assessment underlines the struggle for acceptance that poetry is currently facing, a situation for which free verse (by far the dominant form, as you say) must logically bear a large part of the blame. And that is borne out by the readers’ responses that Stephen Romei published in the column in which your comments appeared.

There, loudly protesting, is an audience that you completely ignored in the anthology, an audience that sees the sort of poetry that you favoured (and that Jaya Savige usually publishes in the Weekend Australian) and calls it (to take one example) “a manifestation of slovenly thinking and a superficial appreciation of life’s elements”. You might laugh that off as rather extreme, but I’ve heard much worse. Just try to imagine that gentleman’s derisive reaction to your claim that “exactitude of meaning” has taken precedence over the requirements of metre or rhyme.

Your attitude is encapsulated in the statement that “we wanted much more” than the bush poets could offer. (As an aside, with regard to your statement that you assessed the work of bush poets, which poets/poems did you assess and how did you access their work? And why, if this was the case, was it not made clear in the Introduction that you had done this and decided not to include any examples because you “wanted much more”?)

But, to return to the main issue, the obvious question is “much more what?” Your answer would presumably be along the lines of exploring the “shifting frontier of our understandings, and to capture their imaginative weight”, a statement which, with its vague and somewhat grandiose pretensions, would probably also raise the hackles of Stephen’s correspondents. “More obscurity” would be their answer. Too many poems just aren’t getting to first base with the casual reader. It’s all very well to write for other poets, those who are accustomed to classical references, foreign phrases, complex metaphors and imagery, and ingenious page layouts, people who are prepared to pore over the written word and spend time analysing it…but that’s a relatively limited audience. There is quite clearly a broader group out there which your anthology didn’t take into account. They want something that speaks to them directly, that memorably says something at the first reading or hearing without requiring scholarship or in-depth analysis. Otherwise “poetry” as an art form loses general appeal and acquires the stigma of exclusivity. That’s the situation we face now, and Contemporary Australian Poetry has done little to redress that situation.

I’m not saying that free verse can’t speak directly, it can, and there are excellent examples in the book, but I know from many public presentations I’ve given to non-poets that “poetry” has become a dirty word because of the exclusivity problem. It is seen as something that (to quote someone who emailed me) requires a “PhD in obscurity” to understand. And that perception creates a barrier which affects the whole art-form. It’s nothing new, as it’s been going on for decades, but your anthology provided yet another frustrating reminder of an opportunity lost.

Because you have sat in judgment inside Clive James’s “ruling majority” bubble and made decisions accordingly, without considering the perceptions of the sort of people who responded to Stephen. They just want to enjoy reading poetry, and if their concept of “real” poetry happens to be metred and rhyming verse that lacks the “much more” you’re after, does that make it illegitimate? Or are you, perhaps, hoping that they will “see the light” and embrace your viewpoint? Somehow, I doubt that’s going to happen.

Traditional verse, despite the restrictions imposed by metre and rhyme, at least has the advantage of looking like poetry (you’ll scoff at that, but it reflects what I hear), and the metre and rhyme lend themselves to memorisation. They can also be exploited for humorous verse, something which doesn’t seem to feature much in Contemporary Australian Poetry. The bush poets tend to speak to the audience exemplified by those whose comments were published, so my article was simply about the fact that you ignored them completely. And thereby exacerbated the alienation factor that sees poetry struggling for recognition.

At this point it has to be said that I am extremely puzzled by your claim that I suggested free verse was a “passing trend”. Where in the article did I say that? After all, as stated, I write free verse myself, and made it perfectly clear that free verse is currently the dominant form (the “ruling majority”). All I was seeking was a better balance, “more respect” for the traditional approach. I certainly don’t expect metred, rhyming verse to regain the pre-eminent position it once enjoyed, but I’m arguing that it does still have a place worthy of recognition and support from the poetry “establishment”. Instead of, as James pointed out, continually having to justify itself…as I am doing now.

To suggest, as you have done, that traditional verse poets are incapable of presenting distinctive points of view with distinctive styles, and unable to “contribute to our understanding of being alive at this time and in this place” is simply rubbish. Furthermore, you are saying that not even one bush poet can do this, and that there isn’t a single poem from the genre that warrants inclusion in a book which purports to be a “critical review” of the last 25 years of poetry in Australia. That’s what hits hardest. Not one poem. (Incidentally, I’m interested in your comment that there are “numerous” metrical poets in the anthology. Can you point me to the poets/poems?)

Your observation that few poets who use rhyme and metre “…also display the insight and skill of the best contemporary free verse” makes me wonder how you define “insight and skill”. Does the use of rhyme and metre somehow eliminate insight? You’ve already said you respect the “sometimes skilful use of metre and rhyme”, so we’re presumably talking about different skills here. Perhaps you could indicate some specific poems from the book which display this “insight and skill”?

One of the respondents suggested that poets should have to go into the marketplace and sell their wares “like people who sell cabbages and corned beef”. How do you reckon you’d fare with Contemporary Australian Poetry in that situation? Would you even get started with titles like (to select a few from the first 60 pages) Via Negativa: The Divine Dark, The Moloch Heap of History, Bahadour, Vlado Perlemuter Playing Ravel, and Outdoor Pig-keeping, 1954 & My Other Books on Pigs? You’d have trouble selling those, I suspect, because your principal marketplace is fellow-poets who see something like that and think “That looks interesting, I must investigate!” But your average reader just regards it as smart-arsed nonsense and switches off. You’re working in a bubble where the “we wanted much more” mantra is constantly reinforcing itself with greater complexity and obscurity, and that gets rewarded in major competitions (with even more arcane reviews), which lead to more anthologies…and so on.

Meanwhile, public interest in poetry dissipates. It was part of the primary school curriculum when I was a kid. We were tested on it and had the set of Victorian Readers to use as source material. Now teachers tend to avoid it if they can. Stop ten people in the street and ask them to name a contemporary Australian poet or poem and how many will be able to give an answer? Or quote a few lines? I’m interested in promoting poetry, full stop. Free verse is pretty much all people see when major competition results are announced, it’s all they’ll find in the published books and anthologies, it’s all they read in the weekend papers…and it’s not cutting through. So why not step out of the bubble and broaden the range a little? What is there to lose?

David Campbell

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Maureen K Clifford
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Re: Response to the editors of "Contemporary Australian Poet

Post by Maureen K Clifford » Wed Nov 22, 2017 1:29 pm

Very well said David - hoisted by their own petard :lol:
Check out The Scribbly Bark Poets blog site here -

I may not always succeed in making a difference, but I will go to my grave knowing I at least tried.

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Shelley Hansen
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Re: Response to the editors of "Contemporary Australian Poet

Post by Shelley Hansen » Wed Nov 22, 2017 3:33 pm

So well written, David!

It really sums up the discussions we've all had on this subject since the release of the ill-fated anthology.

I hope you get a chance to send it to them, even if I do suspect that it would simply go over their heads. They obviously believe they are the cultural experts, locked in the lofty heights of Thesaurus Tower!

Would the newspaper publish it, do you think?

Shelley Hansen
Lady of Lines

"Look fer yer profits in the 'earts o' friends,
fer 'atin' never paid no dividends."
(CJ Dennis "The Mooch o' Life")

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Re: Response to the editors of "Contemporary Australian Poet

Post by keats » Thu Nov 23, 2017 7:24 am

I wouldn't worry too much, David. It's like getting upset by Sixty Minutes or A Current Affair. They only get attention by being controversial in their statements and content. I have seen some wonderful Free Verse poets at Folk Festivals and really enjoyed their performances. I have been to Free Verse 'Slams' and 'Reading Night' just to watch what the other side do. It was very easy to get a drink! Everybody there was a fellow free verse poet! Either with or without talent.

Nobody really cares much about Poetry in general these days, but in our field we can still pull crowds of hundreds, sometimes thousands to watch Bush Poets entertain everyday Australians. That is quite an achievement. And one that Free Verse Poets (I can't name many except David Hallett, Joe Lynch and C.J. Bowerbird) would be very envious of. We have had Joe at the Gympie Muster before and he has blended in very well, and attracts great crowds at his own shows because he writes and performs with a Passion and not just an Ego or self-concieved IQ.

Just keep producing Bush Poetry of the quality you do and ignore these 'Experts' and their generalized opinions, and enjoy what you do.



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Re: Response to the editors of "Contemporary Australian Poet

Post by mummsie » Thu Nov 23, 2017 11:56 am

I could'nt agree more Neil.
I "happened" on David Hallett & CJ Bowerbird at the NFF earlier this year and came away converted (well, sort of)-but I now have a much greater respect for their chosen field.
As you say, bottle the passion (the key ingredient of capturing an audience)and leave the egos and politics at the door-your audience will appreciate it and so will your fellow performers. If the words resonate-so will the applause-whether it's written or performance.
the door is always open, the kettles always on, my shoulders here to cry on, i'll not judge who's right or wrong.

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Re: Response to the editors of "Contemporary Australian Poet

Post by keats » Thu Nov 23, 2017 12:40 pm

Check out Irish Joe Lynch too if you get a chance. I think he’s got some stuff up on YouTube. Most possionate writer and performer I have heard and the Irish accent tops it off!!


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Gary Harding
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Re: Response to the editors of "Contemporary Australian Poet

Post by Gary Harding » Fri Nov 24, 2017 12:05 am

Good stuff David.
That you have taken the time to express your intense feelings in this area in an excellent letter and have also reproduced it here for others to see is something I appreciate.

It is one of the things that forums are about isn't it.. expressing views on things... which invariably attract a range of attitudes.

If there is an audience for free verse as there apparently is, and such unfettered "poetic" writing pleasurably resonates with those folk then who is to rail against the principle of people enjoying something? Like music, tastes differ. If it brings pleasure, well.... Supression is not on Our agenda, at least.

However if I see free verse as nonsense, as I do, then I will still openly call it nonsense. The truth needs to be dealt with fearlessly and I do that. I am sure that my call (and yours) would not affect the enjoyment of those who appreciate the stew of nice sounding words that constitute free verse.. and that is as it should be.

Many years ago when I was young and naive, I certainly held no hard feelings about free verse. Let them do their things etc. No skin off my nose etc.

It was only when I attended a public meeting by the Judges of the Victorian Premier's Literary Award (the C J Dennis Poetry Prize) where a supposed judge labelled Lawson "a drunkard" that I had a very rude awakening and battle lines were drawn!! I suddenly realised what these free verse people were really on about. Domination is one thing, as you cite happens in the papers.

Since that time I have clashed publicly on several occasions with them. I have criticised them at a Senate Inquiry, just as they equally had shots at balladry at the same Inquiry. I am sure that over the years they have come to know that I am their implacable enemy, or at least I hope they have.

The free verse camp have cunningly infiltrated the ranks of government arts and they dictate school curriculums in poetry too .. and guess where Lawson finds himself on such curriculums. The kids suffer, and I try and be there to fight for those kids with letters to government that while they may be ineffective, may still cause some discomfort somewhere. They are being watched.

I for one "do care about poetry these days". Like you. Intensely.

So much so that I have two massive and important historic Bush Poetry projects on the go at present that constitute an almost full time job!

The fight is a good one and noble and not something to run away from or have dismissed as incidental. Bravely fronting them as you do deserves only full credit.

I admire your passion and eloquence on this subject. Do not bottle it or contain it, or let anyone try and sit on you....but give it free reign and argue clearly and logically as you do.

Your cause is good.. so do not let anyone put you off. Go for it.!

Thank you for posting your letter. Gary

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