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date: 28 April 2017

Australian Poetry—1940s-1960s

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature. Please check back later for the full article.

When situating 20th-century Australian poetry within world literary space, critical histories often map it against the Anglo-American tradition and find it wanting. In particular, and despite the strong reputations that poets like Judith Wright and A. D. Hope continue to enjoy, there is a tendency to regard Australian poetry from World War II until the mid-1960s as variously complacent, insular, or retrograde—representative of what John Tranter in his introduction to The New Australian Poetry in 1979 called “a moribund poetic culture.” Certainly there was a turning away from avant-garde experimentalism in the immediate postwar period, as there was in Britain and the United States; but in Australia this has been linked to a discrediting of modernism as a result of the Ern Malley hoax. In the Malley “affair,” as Michael Heyward dubbed it, two conservative poets hoodwinked the editor of the avant-garde journal Angry Penguins with a suite of poems written by a wholly invented working-class surrealist. As a result, according to Wright (among others), Australian poets became less adventurous in favor of more traditional forms. On top of this, recent revisionist accounts of the hoax have virtually canonized “Malley” himself as a bona fide modernist, and so exacerbated the sense of lost opportunity after the mid-1940s. Yet modernizing impulses may take many forms, and it is an overstatement to suggest that innovation had ceased, or that the poetry of this period was somehow disengaged from the rest of the world, or from international literary-political debates. A reassessment shows that Australian poets were keenly engaged by the questions of their time: by the impact of scientific technologies on traditional humanist values, by the attendant rise of consumerism, by the Cold War and its geo-political implications, and by the meaning of post-imperial Australian identity within the new dynamics of global power. Through all these ran the persistent, unresolved problem of how to become “unprovincial” and overcome a cultural cringe that now gravitated away from Britain and toward America. In fact, for Australian literature prior to the emergence of Patrick White, it could be claimed that poetry, rather than beating a retreat, actually led the way forward. It is time, then, to reconsider Australian poetry of the postwar era within its own cultural ecologies and in terms other than those of later poetry wars.