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The Public Life of Contemporary Australian Poetry

Summary and Keywords

Since the late 1990s, complaints about the status of poetry, and the parlous state of poetry publishing, have been commonplace in Australia and other Anglophone nations. Concomitant with this discourse of decline (a transnational discourse with a surprisingly long history) is a discourse of return, in which poetry is presented as returning to public culture (often through the literalized voice of the poet) to reoccupy the place it putatively held in earlier, if not premodern, times. Poetry’s engagement with public themes and the public use of poetry continue to be important, if sometimes overlooked, elements of Australian literary culture. Indeed, despite its apparent marginality, contemporary poetry could be said to have what may be called an “ambiguous vitality” in public life. While other forms of media continue to dominate public culture, poetry nevertheless remains public, in part by occupying or being occupied by those other forms of media. In other words, contemporary poetry’s ambiguously vital presence in public culture can be seen in the ways it figures in extra-poetic contexts. Such contexts are manifold. For instance, poetry—and the figure of the poet—are mobilized as tropes in other media such as films and novels; poetry is used as a form of public/political speech to articulate crisis and loss (such as at annual Anzac ceremonies); and it is used in everyday rituals such as weddings and funerals. Public culture, as this list suggests, is haunted by the marginal discourse of poetry.

In addition, poetry’s traditional function of commenting on the body politic and current political debates continues, regardless of the size of the medium’s putative audience. Recent poetry on the so-called “War on Terror,” the Stolen Generation, and asylum seekers illustrates this. But contemporary Australian poetry engages in public life in ways other than the thematization of current public events. Poets such as Jennifer Maiden, John Forbes, and J. S. Harry exemplify a group of poets who have figured themselves as public poets in a self-consciously ironic fashion; acknowledging poetry’s marginality, they nevertheless write poetry as if it had or may have an extra-poetic efficacy.

Keywords: poetry, public culture, Australian literature, Les Murray, media, Aboriginal poetry, politics

Poetry and Contemporary Public Culture—The Discourse of Decline

We live, it seems, in a post-poetic age. One possible harbinger of this epoch in Anglophone culture is Marianne Moore’s poem, “Poetry” (1924/1967), which famously (or infamously) begins with the confession that “I, too, dislike it.” The adverb “too” is all-important here, implying a fellowship of dislike between the poet and reader. This statement is culturally akin to another oft-cited statement of poetic decline, similarly shorn of its all-important context: W. H. Auden’s “poetry makes nothing happen” (from “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”). Both comments function as statements about poetry’s status in modernity as a public discourse. Moore implies a loss of a reading public, Auden a loss of political efficacy.

In his polemical defense of poetry, The Hatred of Poetry (2016), the American poet and novelist Ben Lerner asks, apropos of Moore’s poem, “What kind of art assumes the dislike of its audience and what kind of artist aligns herself with that dislike, even encourages it?”1 This supposed dislike of—or perhaps indifference toward—poetry in contemporary Anglophone culture has, understandably, been a matter of concern for various commentators. Since the 1990s, laments about the status of poetry, and the parlous state of poetry publishing, have been commonplace in Australia and elsewhere.2 In the United States, such laments were part of the “Death of Poetry” debate of the 1980s and 1990s. An oft-cited work in this subgenre of poetry studies is Dana Gioia’s “Can Poetry Matter?” (1991). Gioia begins with the assertion that “American poetry now belongs to a subculture,” adding that poetry has no role in public culture despite the vestigial prestige afforded to poets: “As a class, poets are not without cultural status. Like priests in a town of agnostics, they still command a certain residual prestige. But as individual artists they are almost invisible.”3 This disjunction is widely recognized. As the Australian critic Anne Collett has claimed, “the value of . . . literature, and of poetry in particular, seems to be waning whilst the cultural capital of ‘the poet’ remains potent.”4 For Gioia, such a disjunction leads to the alienation of poets’ labor: “The new poet makes a living not by publishing literary work but by providing specialized educational services.”5 This alienation means that despite their residual status, poets have lost their supposedly historical, and public, role (though only, of course, if one refuses to see the poet’s pedagogical role as a public one). Gioia argues that “Without a role in the broader culture . . . talented poets lack the confidence to create public speech.”6 “The death of poetry,” then, is the death of poetry as a form of public speech.

Those who valorize the role of the poet as a public one often do so out of nostalgia for either a bardic (or mythopoeic) role that poets undertook in premodern times, or for a journalistic (or narratological) role that was present at the height of print culture. Appealing to these putative roles also tends to bring together poetry and music. Bards, like the epic poets of ancient Greece, would declaim their work to music (using a harp), while the journalist-poet, though working with a print medium, conventionally used song forms. This relationship between poetry and music is one that ambiguously continues to the present day. Bob Dylan’s winning the Nobel Prize in 2016, for instance, was an exceptionally visible instance of this disputed relationship. Like this association of poetry and music, the idea of poetic speech is a nostalgic trope, metaphorically returning print poetry to performance and viewing the poet as an embodied subject.

The troping of poetry as something associated with ancient public roles, or public roles of an earlier stage of modernity, sits oddly with prevailing ideas of “the public.” As Alastair Hannay comments in On the Public, the public (as opposed to “the multitudes,” or subjects, or the hoi polloi) is usually considered to be a modern concept, associated with modern nation states, if not democracy itself, and the rise of capitalism. The public in this sense is a mobile citizenry able to move between putatively public and private spheres. In addition, as Hannay notes, “the public” can be conceptualized within modernity as plural (modern “publics”) and apolitical. Since the rise of the European middle class in the 17th and 18th centuries, Hannay argues, non-political publics “can be thought of as expandable audiences,”7 or apolitical consumers. As Hannay notes, these audiences can also shrink. To appeal to poetry as a form of public speech, then, is consistent with lamenting the decline of a public audience (rather than a coterie of poets and literary specialists) for poetry.

Of course, just as there is a plurality of publics, there is plurality of meanings when it comes to the term. As Joseph Harrington writes in Poetry and the Public: The Social Form of Modern U.S. Poetics (2003), with regard to the American context,

I have found that American poets and critics tended to define poetry with reference to “the Public” in all its senses—to the reading public, to the public sphere, to public norms, to public service, publication, publicity, popularity. U.S. poets and critics have had a marked tendency to regard poetry as either an alternative to or refuge from the public, as a vehicle or mode for participating in and engaging with the public, or as a way of negotiating or problematizing the separation of public and private spheres.8

As Harrington notes, arguments in poetic culture have often involved populist or elitist models of poetry, in which poetry is either instrumentalist or not, speaking the language of “the people” or not. Poetry can be a site for competing ideas of “the public.” I take it as axiomatic that poetry does not have any inherent social efficacy, but it can be used by both poets and non-poets to intervene in public discourse. In other words, the public life of poetry is one of use as much as form. Such use will have various social forms and protocols (such as recital at a wedding, or quotation in a parliament), but the social use of poetry can also be seen in aesthetic practices, especially its incorporation into other aesthetic forms, such as film, prose fiction, and political cartooning. Nevertheless, to only consider instances of public use is to ignore an important feature of contemporary poetry: the continued investment, even in this supposedly post-poetic age, in poetic discourse as a form of public discourse. Such investment can support what could be termed “counter-discursive poetry,” “witness poetry,” “activist poetry,” or simply “political poetry.” In these poetries, we see a rhetorical, if sometimes agonistic, continuity between the public and private spheres, and, often enough, a continuity between poetic and non-poetic (or extra-poetic) speech. If I remain agnostic about the political efficacy of a minority practice such as poetry, it is only because that, as with any artistic practice, one cannot often predict, or even describe, the social effects of poetry with great accuracy. Any published poem, or any poem spoken in a public space, real or virtual, is “public” in some or all of the ways enumerated by Harrington above. As V. B. Leitch writes in The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, “popular and minority poetries serve compensatory roles: they keep alive for large audiences not only the socially critical and outsider missions of poetry but also its appeals to emotion, musicality, representation, and ethical judgment.”9

However, social media has further complicated the notion of “the public” or “publics.” In general, scholarship on the role of social media in refashioning (notions of) the public sphere has tended to focus on journalism, public relations, policy development, and participatory culture (ranging from fandom to citizenship journalism). With regard to the public life of poetry, the role of social media remains under-researched and under-theorized. Certainly, social media allows new platforms for publishing and publicizing poetry and poetic events. Nevertheless, traditional media—most notably literary journals and the book—continue to dominate Australian poetic culture. Social media, however, could be said to offer a transformational role when it comes to how we understand and engage with traditional (poetic) media. As Beth Driscoll argues in her essay on the social network Twitter and literary prizes, Twitter allows for the conversion between forms of capital, transforming the “symbolic capital and media capital of the prize into social capital for Twitter users.”10

It remains to be seen whether Twitter (a more hierarchical mode than Facebook, for instance) offers a significantly new form of political and cultural efficacy for a marginal or minority cultural practice such as poetry. One certainly could argue, however, that it shows how dynamic and intersectional subcultures can be. There is no “poetry culture” per se in social media, but rather the formation and reformation of micro-publics responding to various cultural-political contexts in any given moment. In recent times, those “micro-publics” have engaged with transnational issues, such as the role of poetic discourse vis-à-vis the “post-truth” age of President Donald J. Trump, the #metoo movement, and the rights of asylum seekers.

The Poet as Bard—Les Murray and the Preamble

The paradoxical appeal to the premodern with regard to poetry as a public discourse has a surprisingly long history. Notably, Collett traces that history back to the 18th century. As she points out, Thomas Percy’s essay on the Minstrels (1765/1794) attempted to establish “an ancient English poetic tradition and to shore up the cultural capital of the poet,” and it did so with reference to Celtic bards and Scandinavian scalds.11 (And minstrels, of course, were another class of poet that blurred the line between music and poetry.) As Collett argues, “reverence for the scald as seer . . . remains alive today in cultures influenced by Romanticism,” even when it is poets themselves encouraging such a position.12

In Australia, the poets most often associated with a bardic role have been Judith Wright and Les Murray.13 The activism and progressive politics of Wright, who died in 2000, prefigures that of activist-poets such as John Kinsella who have come after her. Wright’s activism was foreshadowed by political service. For instance, Wright was a member of the 1973 Committee of Inquiry into the National Estate established by the Whitlam government, an enquiry that led to the formation of the Australian Heritage Commission in 1975. She abandoned poetry for political activism in the 1980s and 1990s—especially with regard to environmentalism and Aboriginal land rights—but she remained a visible figure. This visibility was very much based on her authority as a poet and, to a lesser extent, a critic. Indeed, Wright’s poetry gained in critical stature, while her prose writings were seen as harbingers for the postcolonial turn in the late 1980s.

Despite the political differences between Wright and the politically conservative Murray, both were endowed with bardic qualities for much of their careers. As Brigid Rooney notes, Wright’s “‘prophetic’ voice, her focus on land, and her preoccupations with body, spirit and time positioned Wright early in her career in the bardic role.”14 Murray, however, was more active as a poet during this period. Often referred to as the “Bard of Bunyah” (evoking his home in rural New South Wales [NSW]), Murray offers a public, nationalist model of Australian poetry, while habitually engaging in politico-cultural controversies and debates. Interestingly, too, Murray—at least throughout the 1980s and 1990s—was one of the most internationally mobile and visible of Australian poets, enjoying unprecedented critical standing for an Australian poet among international critics and poets. When an Australian poet laureate was mooted by the Council of the Centenary of Federation in 2000, Murray was widely considered to be the obvious choice, though he rejected the idea outright.15 Murray’s association with both a particular Australian place and a transnational mobility further suggests his bardic role. But it also suggests a duality, if not ambiguity, about such a role. As Helen Lambert writes in “A Draft Preamble: Les Murray and the Politics of Poetry,”

The bard is not a member of academe, nor confined to a small network of poets and their readers; he is not elitist but radically democratic. After all, if the people are the government, their bard is a member of the people, and not the parliament. Further, the bard sings the particularities of a place, and journeys in order that he may remain in one place, because he is loyal to his people and origin. Most importantly, the bard speaks for his people, and against the power of what Murray calls the ‘ascendancy’, the elite of Australia—those who hold power, money and influence, and who shape the political, academic, and cultural milieu.16

As Lambert suggests, such a role risks contradiction. How can the bardic poet be “loyal” to the people he putatively represents when, however resistantly, he becomes engaged in the political discourse of the “ascendancy”?

This possible tension did indeed arise in Murray’s most “public” (in the sense of “official”) role as a poet: his part in drafting a preamble, subsequently not used, to the Australian constitution. In 1998, the Constitutional Convention made several recommendations regarding Australia becoming a republic, as well as recommendations regarding a preamble to the Australian constitution if such a republic was to come into being. As he relates in his essay in Constitutional Politics: The Republic Referendum and the Future (2002), Murray was asked in 1999 by the journalist Tony Stephens to write a sample preamble. A week later, Murray heard from John Howard, the then-Prime Minister of Australia (and leader of the politically conservative Liberal Party), who had liked the sample preamble and wanted him to write “the real one,”17 which Murray did, with input from Howard. Comprising eight clauses, the preamble’s most controversial elements were the sixth and seventh clauses:

Australians are free to be proud of their country and heritage, free to realise themselves as individuals, and free to pursue their hopes and ideals. We value excellence as well as fairness, independence as dearly as mateship.

Australia’s democratic and federal system of government exists under law to preserve and protect all Australians in an equal dignity which may never be infringed by prejudice or fashion or ideology nor invoked against achievement.18

Putting aside their politics, these two clauses show how the preamble, although written in prose, illustrates the trace of poetic discourse. The repetition of the word “free” is an instance of anaphora, a rhetorical device in which a word is repeated at the beginning of a line, phrase, sentence, or other unit of meaning. As The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics notes, anaphora is both ubiquitous in poetry, and “often used in political and religious rhetoric to build cohesion or emphasis.”19 This use of anaphora, along with the use of parallelism, and a serious tone, all suggest a rhetoric that is “epideictic”: the ornate and figurative oratory of praise. This is not to say that this is “good” poetic prose, but that it is attempting to engage in a rhetoric that is poetic as well as necessarily legalistic. The fact that Australia’s unofficial national poet was hired for the job suggests that the figure of the poet had indeed retained a trace of the bardic model in which there exists a special relationship, involving both praise and blame, between poet and nation.

As related in his essay in Constitutional Politics, Murray was not happy with the inclusion of the word “mateship” (the one word that received the greatest scrutiny in the media) in the sixth clause, but as Howard “dearly loved the term” and was the “client” it stayed in.20 This version of the preamble was not popular. The revised preamble was disliked by all commentators (including Murray), and it was rejected by the Australian people, along with an Australian republic, at the November 1999 referendum. Of the 148 electorates only 16 voted in favor of the preamble.21 As Lambert suggests in “A Draft Preamble,” “Perhaps the preamble was a ruse all along, designed to fail, and drag along with it the very notion of an Australian republic.”22 No doubt, such an interpretation stems in part from the fact that Howard was opposed to the idea of Australia becoming a republic.

Regarding the penultimate clause, whose reference to “prejudice,” “fashion,” and “ideology” was of concern to many commentators, Murray has this to say: “Although mutterings about a ‘polemic against political correctness’ surfaced at times, no clear acknowledgement that the draft preamble’s bottom line was aimed directly at the throat of our over-mighty media was ever made.”23 For a poet working on such a significantly public text, this sentiment is telling, illustrating a desire for an alternative form of public speech beyond mainstream media, politics, and even the law (the ostensible subject of the clause). This realm could be described as “poetry.”

The reference to “the media” is notable also because it relates to another nostalgic model of poetry as public speech. The “over-mighty media” that Murray refers to is clearly not the media that once allowed a role for poetry as a form of public speech. Such a journalistic model of the poet-as-public-figure, evoked for instance by Jamie Grant,24 is one in which the poet is presented as a spokesperson, shorn of bardic or shamanistic paraphernalia, authoritatively or satirically commenting on public and topical events. This model is implicitly supported by Murray in his anthology, The New Oxford Book of Australian Verse (1986). In the introduction to this work, the only historical observation that Murray makes is that “most Australian poetry in the 19th and early 20th centuries first saw the light of day in newspapers,”25 before poetry became marginalized in small literary magazines. Both these models, bardic and journalistic, suggest disquiet concerning modernity. The bardic model looks to premodern cultures in which poetry had a central role to play in a society’s governance. The journalistic model looks to earlier forms of modernity in which print culture was both dominant and more willing to support poetic expression as a legitimate form of political discourse, a discourse not debased by modernist obscurity or scholasticism. The loss of these roles is commonly seen as a decline of poets’ cultural authority.

Poetry in Contemporary Public Culture—Return

Concomitant with this discourse of decline (which is a transnational discourse with a surprisingly long history) is a discourse of return, in which poetry is presented as returning to public culture—often through the literalized and embodied voice of the poet, as seen in the rise of the poetry slam as a cultural practice—to reoccupy the place it apparently held in earlier, if not premodern, times. Active here, again, is Dana Gioia. In Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture, he hails the return of poetry through new media and performance, especially rap and poetry slams. The decline of print culture, according to Gioia, has led to the return of the oral: poetry’s “rehabilitation has happened mostly off the printed page.”26

Media discourse on poetry, such as it is, similarly emphasizes the performative and the oral. Such emphases are conventionally linked with a populism that rejects specialization and academia. As Murray’s concept of the “vernacular republic” suggests, the ideal poet speaks the language of the people, rather than that of a coterie or “the elites.” (This is despite the evident difficulty of Murray’s poetic idiolect.) This accounts, in part, for the continued presentation of poetry as something revitalized by a rejection of poetic conventions that are seen to be artificial, arcane, and alienating. (Again, this move has a long history, as seen in William Wordsworth’s preface to the 1801 edition of Lyrical Ballads, which attacked the jargon of 18th-century English “poetic diction.”) Hence Courtney Trenwith can report in the Illawarra Mercury of a school visit by the poet Stephen Herrick, who “has done away with alliteration and onomatopoeia and brought in ‘everyday’ words and a bit of humour.”27 One could argue that such journalism merely illustrates an ignorance of contemporary poetics. But it also illustrates an unconscious neo-Romanticism that seeks to return poetry to “the language of men” (to cite Wordsworth).

The most often-cited examples of poetry both “making a comeback” and operating in public culture, as noted, are the poetry reading and performance poetry, especially the competitive poetry slam (a form increasingly related to music and rap). For decades, the poetry reading has been enjoying a more-or-less-permanent comeback. For instance, in a profile on Dorothy Porter in the current affairs program, the 7:30 Report, and with regard to the success of her verse novel The Monkey’s Mask (1994), Kate Torney asserts that “While Porter’s unconventional style has done little to win the hearts of traditionalists, it’s attracted a huge following of young people and can take some credit for the resurgence of pub poetry.”28 Some years later, Laurie Clancy in The Sunday Age notes that “Poetry readings are making a big comeback in Melbourne.”29 Similarly, in The Sunday Times Magazine, the story “Poetry in Motion” claims that poetry is “reinventing itself—in pubs, online and even on toilet doors.”30 As implied here and in the 7:30 Report story, this revival is both about performance and “breaking the rules”; that is, positioning poetry as something resistant to its own elite-cultural history. This constant revival of poetry is a feature of its status in public culture and is something echoed in the choice of title for the short-lived annual anthology, A Return to Poetry, published by Duffy & Snellgrove (itself more-or-less defunct), and featuring poems chosen by writers and celebrities. With its investment in conventionally “literary” poetry, A Return to Poetry also shows a middle-brow or elite cultural articulation of the endless return of poetry.

Contemporary poetry in the public sphere, then, is staged as an endless revival that is also eternally deferred. Like the discourse of decline, the discourse of return is often based on nostalgic models that emphasize the poet as seer, bard, presence, performer, spokesperson, and/or purveyor of special knowledge generally. While these tropes may seem to empower the poet, the continual “return” of poetry in and through marginal sites and practices such as pubs, poetry slams, and bush poetry, in fact implies the endless deferral of poetry’s return to mainstream public culture.

Thus, where poetry is apparently given a space in mainstream culture, its marginality remains paradoxically central. The television series Bush Slam (Screen Australia/Freehand, 2009), for instance, was broadcast nationally by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, but the format of the show resolutely presented poetry via marginal practices and spaces, often associated with earlier periods of modernity. The program brought bush poetry, most broadly conceived as poetry not about the metropolitan centers, and the metropolitan poetry slam together, pitting poets of various kinds (bush poets, rappers, “literary” poets) in poetic contest in small country towns and rural communities. As such, the program (not always successfully) sought a Romantic transcendence of apparent oppositions. Also post-Romantic in articulation is its emphasis on place and landscape. The program’s episodes emphasize the communities’ histories, and while David Knox in TV Tonight claimed that “It doesn’t get much more Australian than this,”31 the program trafficks in more than just Australiana. It offers an odd mix of registers, showing the poets grappling with the difficulty of finding suitable “public speech” for both capturing the often-problematic legacies of the chosen locales and producing an entertaining performance before an inevitably small local audience. Based on this example, and those mentioned above, one could say that poetry’s role in public culture—as both essential and eternally deferred—is to exemplify marginality, to remain as a trace of the pre- or early-modern that can be neither fully rejected nor fully incorporated.

A less ambiguously positive development is the rise of figures such as the Malaysian-Australian writer and performer Omar Musa, who has “crossed over” to literary culture from a rap and slam background. Musa’s poetry is published by Penguin Random House (not a publisher that regularly publishes poetry in Australia), and his novel, Here Come the Dogs (2014), incorporates poetry into its narrative. It remains the case, though, that Musa is a “minority” figure, both in poetic and cultural-political terms. In response to the hate mail and threats that he has received, he says that “There are a lot of people in Australia who don’t like the idea of a person called Omar bin Musa speaking his mind and being out in the public arena and being confident and brash.”32

Poetry’s “Ambiguous Vitality” in the Public Sphere

Notwithstanding the success of a poet such as Musa, it is materially the case that poetry remains a minority art form among consumers. In the United States, the 2015 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA), as reported by the Washington Post, showed that “In 1992, 17 percent of Americans had read a work of poetry at least once in the past year. 20 years later that number had fallen by more than half, to 6.7 percent.”33 In Australia, readership figures since 2009 have been more dynamic, but nevertheless indicative of a small readership. Connecting Australians (2017), the report on the third National Arts Participation Survey by the Australia Council for the Arts, shows that reading poetry “declined in popularity (14 percent), after a peak in 2013 (26 percent).”34 The following table (Figure 1) from the report shows the shift in reading preferences, relative to other forms of writing.

The Public Life of Contemporary Australian PoetryClick to view larger

Figure 1. Reading preferences among Australians 2009, 2013, and 2016.

Reprinted with permission from Connecting Australians: Results of the National Arts Participation Survey. Australia Council for the Arts, 2017.

On the other hand, there was a rise in Australians who participated in creative writing (20 percent in 2016, up from 16 percent in 2013), and this was, according to the report, “driven by increased participation in writing poetry, plays and creative non-fiction.”35

If one considers books of poetry, the public audience for poetry in Australia is miniscule. Jan Zwar, in Disruption and Innovation in the Australian Book Industry: Case Studies of Trade and Education Publishers (2016), believes “that sales of literary fiction comprise less than 5 percent of trade publishing and Australian-authored literary fiction comprises 2.5 percent or less of total trade sales.”36 The report does not disambiguate fiction from poetry, but since print runs of fiction are generally ten times that of poetry, we can get a sense of the tiny market-share that poetry occupies. As reported by Zwar, at Pitt Street Press (the case study for poetry publishing in her report) “the usual first print run of poetry collections . . . is 300, with reprints of 100.”37 Anecdotal evidence suggests that these numbers are indicative of print runs of poetry titles in Australia generally.

Taken together, these reports suggest that if 15–20 percent of Australians read poetry, most of them do not read poetry books. Despite this, and despite the abandonment in the 1990s of poetry lists by major publishers, independent publishers such as Five Islands Press, Giramondo, UWA Publishing, and the University of Queensland Press continue to publish numerous poetry titles each year. And despite the miniscule size of the readership afforded these titles, contemporary Australian poetry could be said to have an “ambiguous vitality” in public life. This concept of an ambiguous vitality offers an alternative to the discourse of decline or the discourse of return, and can be seen in the ways it figures in extra-poetic contexts.

Such contexts are manifold. For instance, poetry—and the figure of the poet—are mobilized as tropes in other media such as films and novels; poetry is used as a form of public/political speech to articulate crisis, loss and memorialization (such as at annual Anzac ceremonies); and it is used in everyday rituals such as weddings and funerals. It also occasionally features in the media as an index of cultural extremity and incongruity. And as Murray’s role in the writing of a draft preamble to the Constitution illustrates, poets are sometimes engaged in official acts.

In addition, poetry’s traditional function of commenting on the body politic and current political debates continues, without engaging in either the bardic or journalistic models, and regardless of audience sizes. Poetry on the so-called “War on Terror” and asylum seekers (such as that by Jennifer Maiden and Robert Adamson) illustrates this. But contemporary Australian poetry—especially poetry that can be thematized as postcolonial—engages in public life in ways other than the thematization of current events, narrowly conceived. Numerous Indigenous poets, such Lionel Fogarty and Samuel Wagan Watson, as well as non-Indigenous poets such as Jennifer Maiden, John Forbes, J. S. Harry, and John Kinsella, have figured themselves as public poets or activist poets, attending to the politics of poetics itself. Such poets operate in a self-consciously ironic fashion; acknowledging poetry’s marginality, they nevertheless write poetry as if it had or could have an extra-poetic efficacy. And, as the example of cartoon-poems by Michael Leunig and First Dog on the Moon shows, the possibility of politically engaged poetry occupying a mainstream—and intermedial—space remains present.

This essay now turns to a more detailed discussion of the various extra-poetic contexts in which poetry is mobilized: ritual, media representations, and remediation through other cultural formations such as film, fiction, and political cartoons. Such extra-poetic articulations reveal the “ambiguous vitality” that characterizes poetry in contemporary Australian public culture.


As the extraordinarily popular use of W. H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues” in the British film Four Weddings and Funeral (1994) suggests, vernacular public uses of poetry commonly occur in rituals such as weddings and funerals. Given the decline of religious discourse in such rites, it is not surprising that the secular, but linguistically “heightened,” discourse of poetry should have become so present in everyday rituals. As a vernacular practice, it is not surprising either, that such a use is marked by diversity. The poems found on the Australian wedding-planner site,, range from Percy Bysshe Shelley and D. H. Lawrence to “Eskimo Love Song” and “I Wanna Be Yours” by the English “punk poet” John Cooper Clarke.38

In terms of official rituals, especially those of commemoration, poetry is mobilized into the service of the state in a more formal way, as one would expect. Elegy, especially, has long been used in nationalist-official forms of commemoration. This is particularly the case when we consider how the war dead are mourned. The incorporation of poetic speech into official nationalist ritual can be found internationally. As Jahan Ramazani writes with regard to elegy, “Mourning, memorialization, nationalism—the political uses of mourning in the service of the nation‐state are everywhere to be seen.”39 Evoking Benedict Anderson’s seminal Imagined Communities (1983), Ramazani theorizes the relationship between mourning and the potential for shared, heightened language in poetic speech:

We can thus identify two distinct elements that fuse in the imaginary of national elegies, each playing a separate role: first, the collective mourning that is often fundamental in the formation of group identity; and second, the recursive or echoic quality of poetic language that can foster the sense of simultaneous community. Not all cultural expressions of collective mourning are poetic, and not all poetic uses of language are made to serve public mourning, but when the two meet, we have the imagined‐community‐in‐mourning of the public elegy.40

In Australia, such public elegy is generally focused on Anzac Day, the annual ceremony that commemorates all Australians who have served and died in war and peacekeeping operations, and which is held on the anniversary of the landing of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corp at Gallipoli in 1915. The elegiac component of most Anzac ceremonies is the “Remembrance Ode.” The Ode is a stanza of “For the Fallen” by the English poet Laurence Binyon and it was composed in 1914. It reads:

  • They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
  • Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
  • At the going down of the sun and in the morning
  • We will remember them.

According to the Australian Army website, the stanza, “which became the [Returned Servicemen’s] League Ode, was already used in association with commemoration services in Australia in 1921.”41 The phrase “Lest We Forget,” usually uttered after the Ode, is not by Binyon but Rudyard Kipling. This twinning of poetic fragments illustrates a neocolonial element in the Anzac ceremony, not surprisingly, perhaps, given that the Anzacs were effectively fighting for the British in a war between imperial powers. More recently, poetry has also figured in the memorialization of the eighty-eight Australians killed in the 2002 Bali Bombings. The Bali Memorial at Cronulla, Sydney, for instance, includes a poem, written by the families of seven victims, on a plaque near the memorial monument.42


The role of Les Murray in the writing of the preamble attracted considerable media attention. However, this event was exceptional in terms of the ambiguously vital presence of poetry in the media. While poetry and the figure of the poet are cited in the mainstream media relatively rarely, when they do appear in media stories they tend to cluster around the following themes: scandal and crime; humanization and memorialization (such as stories on the Bali Bombing); and what could be called “discursive incongruity.” As an instance of the last category, it was widely reported in the Australian media that Attorney General George Brandis (who was also Minister for the Arts at the time), spent thirty minutes reading Our Country: Classic Australian Poetry, an anthology of bush poetry, during an evening hearing of the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee in June 2015. When asked to explain his behavior, Senator Brandis told Fairfax Media that “I find it very easy to read and listen to Senate estimates at the same time.”43 In the accompanying video for the online edition of the story in the Sydney Morning Herald, lines from “Said Hanrahan” (1921) by John O’Brien are facetiously super-imposed over the vision of Brandis reading during the committee hearing. The refrain of the poem, “‘We’ll all be rooned’ [ruined] said Hanrahan,” was once part of the Australian lexicon and, given the political context of the story, it was presumably chosen for satirical effect.

Related to such comic incongruity are stories that report on politicians, celebrities, and public figures writing poetry. In 2012, the mining magnate and Australia’s richest person, Gina Reinhart, was reported in The Telegraph (UK) as having written the “universe’s worst poem,” as so described by an unnamed critic. As with many such poems by non-poets, the verse was doggerel (hence the approbation). The Telegraph reported that the poem was “engraved on a plaque fixed to a 30-ton iron ore boulder as part of a new outdoor artwork in the billionaire’s home state of Western Australia.”44

Poetry and poets sometimes appear in the media because of scandal and criminality, and these categories are also related to incongruity. In 2006, after the poet John Kinsella published a memoir, Fast, Loose Beginnings, Kinsella subsequently took out a restraining order on the poets (and ex-friends) Robert Adamson and Anthony Lawrence, who had been emailing Kinsella repeatedly since reading the memoir. According to the book’s publisher, Louise Adler, “The magistrate was left in no doubt as to the threatening nature of those emails.”45 The story, as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, was given the headline, “War, Blood, Courts: It’s Poets at Arms.” As is often the case, it is the headline, rather than the story itself, that telegraphs the supposed incongruity in this story. In this case, there is a double, contradictory, sense to the reference to “poets at arms.” On the one hand, the idea is incongruous, since poetry is generally considered a middle-class, feminized activity. On the other, the headline plays into the idea that Australian poetry is internecine, plagued by constant “poetry wars.”

Literary scandal is also present in the reporting of a plagiarism case in the 2013 Josephine Ulrick Prize (with a $10 000 prize), in which the “Newcastle-based poet and academic Andrew Slattery, 30, admitted to The Australian . . . he had passed off as his own the work of other poets and acknowledged his once-promising writing career was in ruins.”46 Actual criminality sometimes appears in media stories featuring poetry. For instance, in 2003, it was reported that Robert Joe Wagner, while on trial for the “Snowtown” murders, sent a poem to another criminal, Paul Page. The poem was reproduced in a number of newspapers, and gave, according to The (Adelaide) Advertiser, a glimpse “into the mind of a serial killer.”47

Trove, the database of Australian print media, lists 2300 articles concerning poetry between 1990 and 2011. Many of these are ephemeral, items of news in local newspapers, and reviews, or actual poems, but the number nevertheless shows the potential for a “distant reading” project on the figuring of poetry in print media.


Poetry and the figure of the poet exist in public through their mobilization in non-poetic cultural formations, such as films, novels, and plays, with not surprisingly, a more sophisticated troping of the poetry and the figure of the poet than in, for instance, the mainstream media.

Internationally there are significant examples of poetry figuring in film. Biopics such as Sylvia (2004), The Libertine (2004), and Howl (2010) make up a small but significant group within the genre. In addition, films such as Dead Man (1995) and Four Weddings and a Funeral (to choose two at random) incorporate poetry through quotation and allusion. Stacey Harwood’s “Poetry in Movies: A Partial List” (2007) catalogs scores of films that contain “recognizable, often canonical, poems, or excerpts from poems.”48 Harwood’s list, which is “necessarily incomplete,” includes poets ranging from Geoffrey Chaucer to W. H. Auden and Denise Levertov, and films from Gunga Din to Alphaville and Spider Man 2. However, even considering the comparatively small size of the Australian film industry, it is notable how few Australian productions feature poetry and the figure of the poet. Early Australia film is notable for its two adaptations (1919/1932) of C. J. Dennis’s bestselling comic poem, The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke. In 1982, an extremely free adaptation of A. B. (Banjo) Paterson’s “The Man from Snowy River” (which had already been adapted into a film in 1920) proved to be a popular success, initiating a minor vogue in bush poetry.

Since the 1970s, as with Anglophone film generally, poetry in Australian films is often used as an intensifying discourse, as seen in the use of a spoken-word piece in The Proposition (2005), the Australian revisionary Western, scripted and co-scored by Nick Cave. Despite their lighter, even comic tone, the opening sequences of Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) also evokes a sense of intensity, through the breathless sharing of Valentine’s Day cards by students of a private girls’ school in rural Victoria in 1900. The poetry in these scenes helps set the pastoral tone that dramatically gives way to the Gothicism the film is primarily concerned with. As both examples suggest, poetry can be used filmically to set tone, often in an ambiguous manner. The figure of the poet, too, operates ambiguously in film, where the poet is part visionary and part risible, as seen in Candy (2006), in which the poet-status of the protagonist primarily underscores the drug-fueled bohemian milieu. The figure of the poet in Australian film can also act as an index of Australian philistinism. In The Year My Voice Broke (1987), a pastoral bildungsroman, the teenage protagonist is disparagingly referred to as “the poet” by his peers. Poetry can function ironically in other ways related to national identity. In Breaker Morant (1980), which details the execution by the British of two Australian soldiers during the Boer War, the inclusion of Alfred Austin’s “Mafeking,” a jingoistic poem about the defense of the town of that name by Robert Baden-Powell, underscores the anti-heroic, anti-British sentiments of the film.

A special form of filmic quotation is the use of poetry in film titles. Numerous international films take their titles from poems (including three from Hamlet alone), but there are again few Australian examples of this practice. Bright Star, the Australian/UK/French biopic of John Keats is one. The supernatural thriller, Till Human Voices Wake Us (2002), is another, taking its title from T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and incorporating lines from the poem in the script. But, like many examples of filmic quotation of poetry, the poem is used as an index of intensity, lyricism, and eroticism. Nothing of the satirical nature of Eliot’s poem, for instance, is present in the film.

As in other biopics of poets, Bright Star presents the poet as both visionary (having access to a special realm of sensation) and anti-authoritarian (opposing authority and mainstream ideology). This duel aspect is related to an emphasis on the poet’s (dis)embodiment. The visionary poet is anti-authoritarian because she or he can speak of things beyond the official repertoire, and because being visionary means both an intensification of sensory experiences and a losing of the body, a shift from the realm of bodily sensation to poetic vision, which is apparently free of political or social authority. But this latter realm is far from unambiguous. Visionary, anti-authoritarian poets, or poet figures are often associated with sickness, bodily decay, social disruption, and death.49 Despite their manifest differences, Till Human Voices Wake Us and Bright Star both engage with this symbolic economy of illness and mortality. As such, the transformations that vision demands of the poet (of the body, of the self, of society) are far from ideal or utopian, given their close relationship to decay and death. Such a relationship is also seen in The Monkey’s Mask (2000), adapted from Dorothy Porter’s verse novel of the same name.

As in film, the use of poetry and the figure of the poet in novels is often concerned with poetry’s putative status as a discourse of extremity and anti-authoritarianism. Johnno (1975) and An Imaginary Life (1978) by the poet-novelist David Malouf illustrate this in very different ways; the former a bildungsroman set in post-War Brisbane, and the latter a historical novel concerning Ovid’s exile. The poet figure (named Virgil) in Rod Jones’s Swan Bay (2003) is also associated with sickness, and the intertextual references to the Aeneid represents poetry as a form of occult knowledge related to death. The novels of Beverley Farmer also often invoke poetry in terms of intensity and elegiac impulses.

The four “Roānkin” stories in Maria Takolander’s short story collection The Double (2013) retain a link between poetry and mortality, but they also offer a satirical picture of contemporary poetic culture, even as it nevertheless, and ironically, validates poetry’s power. Similarly satirical and anti-realist is Peter Carey’s My Life as a Fake (2003), which allegorizes the Ern Malley hoax, showing, like Takolander’s stories, how the “the fake” is central to, rather than inimical to, poetry and the poetic experience. Takolander’s and Carey’s works, then, resist the troping of poetry—ubiquitous in popular culture—as the domain of authenticity and sincerity.

In contrast, the political cartoonist, Michael Leunig, brings satire and sincerity together. By appearing in metropolitan, broadsheet newspapers, Leunig has a readership that far exceeds all “literary” Australian poets. Leunig’s poetry is a contemporary instance of the journalistic model of public poetry, inasmuch as some of his political cartoons include poems, though Leunig has republished the texts of cartoon-poems as “straight” poems, as seen in his collection, Poems: 1972–2002 (2003). As Poems: 1972–2002 also illustrates, Leunig’s poetry works very much in the tradition of newspaper verse, being self-evidently light verse, if not doggerel, and strongly marked by whimsy. But as poems such as “Modern Stupid” and “The Missile” show, Leunig is also commonly satirical in tone, often directing his satire toward modernity and the political realm.

Leunig is unpopular with right-wing media commentators because of the political content of his poems, such as those on the Iraq war and David Hicks, the Australian citizen incarcerated by the US Government in the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp from 2001 until his return to Australia in 2007. Hicks, who received no support from the politically conservative Howard government, was the first person to be tried and convicted under the controversial US Military Commissions Act of 2006. For the most part, Leunig tends to employ poems in the less directly political works, which may be described as existential-whimsy, but there are notable exceptions to this practice. One such exception is “The Tao of John” (2006), in which Leunig offers an indictment of the Howard government’s refusal to intervene on behalf of David Hicks. The cartoon shows an over-sized John Howard standing on a cage inside which sits a forlorn man. Next to the image is the poem that begins “In order to be strong/Make somebody weak.” The poem’s second stanza reads:

  • Sacrifice a man in the outer world.
  • Keep a man alone and tormented in a cage.
  • He will mirror the inner man you have sacrificed.
  • Thus pain will balance pain and end all feeling.
  • As you have controlled yourself,
  • So you shall control the world.50

Image and text in the cartoon are complementary, rather than either being merely illustrative, though the epitexts—the title and dedication—are what make the work explicitly political. As a parody of the Tao Te Ching, the poem employs that work’s use of paradox and parallelism to critique the Howard government’s position on Hicks. Interestingly, while the larger figure in the image clearly represents Howard, the figure in the cell is a generic Leunig character, a kind of Everyman or, according to the logic of the poem, the personification of Howard’s conscience, rather than an image of Hicks. As well as the style, Leunig employs the lexis of the Tao Te Ching (especially the word “control”). For instance, the Tao Te Ching advises that “If you want to be a great leader,/you must learn to follow the Tao./Stop trying to control.”51 In addition to mobilizing the “ancient wisdom” of the Tao Te Ching, Leunig employs poetry in a journalistic context, invoking an earlier print culture in which poetry had a less ambiguous role as public speech.

Like any speech act, the context in which Leunig’s cartoon-poems appear is central to their effect as public speech. “The Tao of John,” for instance, appeared at a time in which The Age was undertaking a concerted campaign to have Hicks released from the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp. The poem-cartoon, “Torture,” was similarly topical, appearing in The Age on May 21, 2005 at a time of intense debate on the use of torture in matters of national security. But as “Torture” also illustrates, Leunig’s poems are not always concerned with engaging in the topical events to which they seem to be adverting. Rather than engage in the “debate” on torture, the poem covers familiar Leunig “existential-angst” territory, with its protagonist asking rhetorically, and perhaps bathetically, “Oh why did we all have to torture each other?”52 As such, it is an instance of how Leunig’s “political” work often gestures toward a realm beyond politics, where the poetic, the comic, and the existential coexist as a way of making life in the political realm more bearable.

While the cartoonist First Dog on the Moon (Andrew Marlton) sometimes gestures toward such a realm, his political agenda is more explicit, and his work (which has appeared in The Guardian since 2014) is less interested in offering comedy or lyricism as consolatory forces. While he has employed poetic or song forms only occasionally in his work, when he has done so it has not been associated with allegory or comfort. “The Life and Death of a Sheep: A Poem” (2012), for instance, is a bald indictment of the live animal trade. Using a balladic question-and-answer form, the cartoon-poem ends with the eponymous sheep lying in a pit, its throat “partially slit.”53

Poetry as Public Discourse

While poetry remains an ambiguous presence in non-poetic culture, poets themselves have remained active participants within public culture, regardless of whether poetry is considered a marginal cultural practice. This has partly occurred through institutional developments. Organizations such as Australian Poetry and the Red Room Company both give material support for poets (though publications and professional services) and undertake arts projects that aim to make poetry publicly visible.

Australian Poetry offers professional development, school education programs, and community engagement, and is home to the Australian Poetry Journal. The mission of the Red Room Company, founded in 2003 by Johanna Featherstone, is to “make poetry accessible to all, especially those who face the greatest barriers to creative opportunities.”54 Red Room Poetic Learning, for instance, offers workshops and professional development for students and poets. The Company’s many arts projects are notable for inclusiveness, collaboration, and placing poetry and poets in non- or extra-poetic contexts. These features are seen, for instance, in the “New Shoots” projects. In 2016, four poets from NSW were commissioned to create “poetic pathways”55 at the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney, while, in 2017, ten Victorian poets were commissioned to “respond to sites, spores, histories and seeds across Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria.” For the latter iteration, poems were “recorded, performed, shared on seed packs and ‘planted’ in the garden throughout the year.”56 The project involved multiple partners, including publications, festivals, and public-transport organizations. Projects such as this illustrate the potential for poetry to be “public speech” in a literal sense, occupying public spaces (a defining feature of “the public”), and partnering with public institutions.

Public institutions also present ways of intervening in public discourse via poetry. “The Empathy Poems” (2017) is a public project that seeks to “raise awareness about the plight of asylum seekers and refugees” in the light of successive Australian government’s treatment of them. A project of the University of Technology Sydney, “The Empathy Poems” asks people (both poets and non-poets) to “choose a poem they have an affinity with and reimagine, rewrite or respond to it in any way, but with the broad themes of refuge and seeking asylum.”57 As well as engendering political speech via poetic revisionism, the project explicitly evokes poetry’s capacity for producing empathy, and its foundational status in literary culture. According to the project’s website,

Poetry is the perfect form to inspire empathy amongst readers. We all learned poetry when we were very young, in the form of nursery rhymes and songs: poetry was probably our first introduction to literature, it is that fundamental to our culture.

Such an emphasis illustrates how the public nature of poetic discourse is profoundly linked with the putatively private realms of affect, childhood, and personal value. The project more generally illustrates how poetry continues to act as form of counter-discursive power.

Counter-Discursive Poetics

Poets, obviously, make use of institutional support, but they write “public poetry” regardless of whether or not it is part of a public project. Not surprisingly, poetry by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders is characteristically concerned with its status as public speech. Contemporary Aboriginal protest poetry can be seen in collections by Indigenous poets such as Kevin Gilbert, Graeme Dixon, Kerry Reed-Gilbert, Romaine Moreton, Charmaine Papertalk-Green, Yvette Holt, Samuel Wagan Watson, Lisa Bellear, and Anita Heiss. Not surprisingly, the elegiac mode is an important form of Indigenous poetic expression. The Murri poet Lionel Fogarty, whose brother died in police custody, often employs this genre. In “For I Come—Death in Custody,” the elegiac mode moves between lament for the loss of an individual to a more general lament and expression of anger. Fogarty represents Australia itself as a kind of mortal jail for Indigenous Australians: “For when white man came/it’s been like a jail/with a wife and a family/black man can stay in jail/like it’s home./Fuck, they hung us all.”58 Fogarty’s use of the elegiac mode, however (and unlike most non-Indigenous Australian poets), occurs within a programmatically anticolonial poetics. Writing in his New and Selected Poems: Munaldjali, Mutuerjaraera (1995), Fogarty claims Aboriginal literary sovereignty, stating that “I see my words beyond any acceptable meaning, this is how I express my dreaming.”59 The radical stylization of Fogarty’s poems—which use untranslated language, deformed syntax, and code switching—may produce a degree of impenetrability for non-Indigenous readers, which most critics read as a postcolonial strategy, necessitating, as Adam Shoemaker argues, “that the White Australian reader will be on the outside, purposely externalized from an easy understanding of the text.”60 As such, Fogarty’s poems unsettle or displace (neocolonial) conceptions of the virtual spaces occupied by a (white Australian) reading public.

Such a “counter-discursive poetics” can take numerous forms, as the work of the non-Indigenous Australian poet, John Forbes, illustrates. His “On the Beach: A Bicentennial Poem” similarly unsettles preconceived ideas of a nationalist identity and public space (even as it evokes, through appropriation, the title of Nevil Shute’s novel of nuclear apocalypse). Written during Australia’s Bicentennial Year in 1988 (which controversially celebrated the two hundredth anniversary of the establishment of a British penal colony at what became known as Sydney Cove), the poem is appropriately concerned with historical precedents: Indigenous history, colonial history, personal history, military history, cultural history, and so on. But rather than cause for celebration, such precedents speak of loss and are freighted with a powerfully subversive elegiac, as well as comic, potential. The poem’s interest in precedents can also be seen in its fixation on poetic vocation; that is, the poet’s role as a public figure, and on models. In the fifth section of “On the Beach” this emphasis is firmly focused on Australia’s maritime status. Australian beaches may be universally admired, but, as the poem implies, they are also the site of colonial invasion. Forbes writes: “later/& like any poet/avoiding myth & message/to fake a flashy ode, consider/what model of Australia as a nation/could match the ocean, or get your desk/to resemble a beach.”61 As Ross Chambers writes, “The pursuit of models, models of nation and models of poetic style, is the form this poem’s response takes to [the] problem of vocation. But those models will prove elusive.”62 Indeed, at the end of the poem, the figure of poetic vocation slides down to the beach, like evolution—or colonialism—in reverse. As the ending of a “Bicentennial Poem,” this seems to suggest that Forbes saw himself as writing public poetry in an age that had no call for such things, even as he was writing a poem funded by the Bicentennial Authority (the government organization responsible for the funding of events in support of the bicentennial celebrations). In that respect, this poem could be seen as “anti-official public poetry.”

While no less aware of the ironies of being a poet in a post-poetic age, John Kinsella is less melancholy about poetry’s capacity to act as public speech in late modernity. Kinsella’s long-standing engagement with pastoral as both literal site of neocolonialism and key discursive space of colonial aesthetics makes him especially attuned to the tension between politics and aesthetics, and the putatively public and private. This tension is played out through both an “activist poetics” (since Kinsella has used his poetry to protest publicly) and a poetics of witness. Kinsella’s poems repeatedly represent the poet as a witness, observing, and moving through, places scarred by material and discursive neocolonial violence. Kinsella’s revisionist works, such as The New Arcadia (2005), Shades of the Sublime and Beautiful (2008), Divine Comedy (2008), and On the Outskirts (2017), offer book-length revisions of works by canonical Western writers—Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Burke, Dante Alighieri, and William Blake—that ironically move the author between pastoral and epic modes, center and edge. Such collections represent the poet as a subject embodied in an individual landscape, while simultaneously attending to the discursive power of neocolonial and postcolonial ontologies. While resolutely transnational in both his poetics and activism, Kinsella is also deeply regional in those realms. In this, he illustrates how the nation is not necessarily the locus of poetry’s public activity (a point made by Philip Mead in a different context63).

As Kinsella also illustrates, contemporary transnational neocolonialism has proved an important spur for an emerging postmodern postcolonial poetics. A good example of such a poetics can be found in the poetry on the Iraq War. Australia was one of only a handful of nations that undertook the initial stage of the neocolonial misadventure known as the Iraq War, begun in 2003; and Australian poets have engaged significantly with the event. Almost all have represented the conflict via critique rather than apology, though Bruce Dawe has written poems that support the military personnel, if not the intervention as such. Such critiques have occupied poetic spaces that range from overtly lyrical works (such as Robert Adamson’s The Goldfinches of Baghdad [2006]) to eccentrically “extra-lyrical” ones (such as J. S. Harry’s Not Finding Wittgenstein [2007]).

One of the most notable uses of such a mode is found in the later work of Jennifer Maiden, beginning with Friendly Fire (2005). Like Kinsella, Maiden combines the lyric mode with satire, verse essay, diary, and occasional verse. Like Kinsella, too, Maiden brings together those apparently antipathetic language forms, poetry and “the news.”64 As Bridie McCarthy points out, Maiden “makes it her prerogative to editorialize within her poetry, achieving an elegiac journalism.”65 In such “elegiac journalism,” Maiden critiques (Australian complicity with) the neocolonial discourse of the so-called “New World Order.”

Publications such as Quadrant and The Australian routinely engage in “culture wars” that reject both the politics and the poetics of many of the poets discussed here. Of course, to exist in such an agonistic space is to be “public,” just as much as being present in a marketplace.


Poetry anthologies have long been modes of intervening in public culture, as well as indices of poetry’s cultural capital. From 2006 to 2017, Black Inc. published the annual The Best Australian Poems series, with the various editors often using their introductions as an opportunity to consider where poetry currently stands in relation to “mainstream” culture (usually somewhere on the margins). But other anthologies have presented themselves more programmatically as interventions in public discourse. Mother I’m Rooted: An Anthology of Australian Women Poets (1975), edited by Kate Jennings, is a groundbreaking work of feminist literary activism. It makes an interesting contrast with later anthologies, especially Contemporary Australian Feminist Poetry (2016). As Bonny Cassidy and Jessica L. Wilkinson, the editors of this later anthology point out, Jennings’s anthology “expressed an urgency of voice during a moment in which the second wave moment called on women to break the bonds of graciousness, tradition, silence.”66 While the material conditions of production have changed (women are far less marginal in the production of poetry in contemporary Australian poetry), there is still a need for such anthologies. According to the editors, this is partly because of the continuing presence of misogyny and sexism in public culture (“a streak of prejudice and violence that is hidden in plain sight”), and also because, poetry “is regarded with some suspicion,”67 even within the literary community. The language of marginality, therefore, remains important. While the poetry of the more recent anthology may no longer come from the margins per se, the writing is “from a decentered space,” and the poets writing from this space “always have a memory, inheritance or view of the margin.”68

The views of the margins are literalized in Writing to the Wire (2016), an anthology of poems about, and by, asylum seekers. Writing to the Wire, edited by Dan Disney and Kit Kelen, is, like “The Empathy Poems,” a response to successive Australian government’s policy of submitting those who seek asylum in Australia by boat to indefinite, mandatory off-shore detention, using client states such as Nauru as detention sites. In addition to the way in which the Australian government treats those seeking asylum, as the editors of Writing to the Wire report, journalists and employees of the para-governmental agencies that oversee the running of these detention centers cannot “legally undertake to report on the treatment of ‘detainees.’”69 (As of 2018, despite numerous legal setbacks, including the effective closing down of the detention center on Nauru, the Federal Government continues to refuse allow the remaining asylum seekers entry to the Australian mainland.) In such unprecedented circumstances, poetry’s marginality, and supposed non-instrumentality, allows it to utter public speech when other more conventional forms of communication cannot.

A key feature of Writing to the Wire is that it brings together the poetry of protest with the poetry of witness. “Night,” by “B.” (whose designation uncannily parodies the practice of pseudonymous publication in the age of newspaper poetry) is representative of the impossibility of disambiguating poetics from politics in the context in which she or he is caught: “Everything is worse than our nightmares—/torture and despair./Bring me the night.”70 B.’s poem, which unpicks the traditional day/night dyad, also powerfully deconstructs the supposed opposition between poetic and political speech. As Justin Clemens memorably puts it in his review of the anthology, “At this point, there is no difference between poetry and testimony.”71 B. writes, literally, from a place that is not open to the public, but s/he is forcefully placed there in the public’s name. B.’s poem, then, speaks to a public that is both audience and incarcerator.

The Specter of Ern Malley

One of the most spectacular examples of poetry colliding with the public sphere (in this case the discourse of the law) was the Ern Malley affair. In 1944, two young conservative poets, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, sought to show up modernism as ridiculous by sending poems (allegedly written in an afternoon) to the surrealist Adelaide journal Angry Penguins, purportedly by a fictitious working-class poet named Ern Malley. What started as a hoax soon spiraled out of the authors’ control, when Max Harris, the young editor of the journal, was put on trial for obscenity. The hoax therefore moved from an intervention in poetics, albeit a malicious one, to an all-out attack against poetry as an elite, and therefore suspect, discourse. As Philip Mead so memorably puts it in Networked Language, the Ern Malley trial was a trial “about the (threatening) ambiguity and unlawfulness of poetic language. In the conservative cultural context of Australia in 1944, we have an instance, fascinating and appalling in equal measures, of the successful criminalisation of poetic language.”72 In this respect, it makes sense, as Maria Takolander does, to read Carey’s My Life as a Fake as a novel about “crimes committed against literature in the Australian public sphere.”73

One cannot think of a more complete, or more dystopian, conceptualization of poetry-as-public-discourse (or poetry as subject to public discourse) than its criminalization. Numerous poets and literary historians subsequently saw the Ern Malley case as the key cause of modernism’s late arrival in Australia. It is less clear, however, what effect the Malley poems had on the public life of contemporary Australian poetry. On the one hand, the rehabilitation of the Malley poems as postmodern avant la lettre, has led to numerous Malley-inspired projects that are unashamedly anti-populist and playfully hermetic. On the other hand, the specter of the simultaneously ridiculous and chilling legal intervention in the Malley affair may well be the repressed primal scene in Australian poetic culture. If poets are less likely to be criminalized for their art today (though the prospect of such a thing is not entirely impossible), they nevertheless usually “speak” from the margins, and by speaking from such a place, in their own poetic idiolect, they may from time to time realize the unsettling, unruly potential of poetry that is both public and unpopular.

Discussion of the Literature

There is no full-length study of the “public life of contemporary Australian poetry.” This essay expands upon and revises arguments by the author found in the following essays: “Poetry as Public Speech: Three Traces” (Poetry and the Trace, 2013); “‘Marginalia’: The Public Life of Australian Poetry” (Text, 2005); and the “Australia and New Zealand” chapter in The Cambridge Companion to Postcolonial Poetry (2017). With regard to what “the public” is, Alistair Hannay’s On the Public(2005) offers a useful historical and philosophical account of its eponymous subject.

A key text for anyone interested in Australian poetry is Philip Mead’s monumental Networked Language: Culture and History in Australian Poetry (2008), which—through a series of long essays on key case studies—presents the networked relations between modern Australian poetry (from Kenneth Slessor to ∏O and Lionel Fogarty) and its (transnational) social and cultural contexts. While, as Mead states, such a “contextualist” project is, in itself, an unsurprising one in contemporary literary studies, more often than not in the Australian context “the intellectual task of explicating the involution of poetry and poetics in the strata of (national) history and locational culture is not pursued.”74 Mead’s originality, then, stems from the many insights produced by attending to the complex cultural and historical networks found in poetic discourse. Perhaps appropriately given his subject, one of Mead’s strongest procedures is to consider the ignored or marginalized in the critical literature of his subjects. Mead illustrates the critical gains to be made by bringing to bear non-poetic and poetic discourses, as has been attempted, in a different way, here.

Regarding Australian literary activism, Brigid Rooney’s Literary Activists: Writer-Intellectuals and Australian Public Life (2009) is the key work. Notably, of the seven writers discussed by Rooney, three are poets (Oodgeroo, Judith Wright, and Les Murray), and one a poet-novelist (David Malouf). Ann Vickery’s Stressing the Modern: Cultural Politics in Australian Women’s Poetry (2007), the first major study of its subject, takes—like Mead’s and Rooney’s studies—a culturalist (as well as feminist) approach to its subject. Its historical focus, however, precedes the contemporary period. To these studies, one should add the extensive critical writings of John Kinsella, which not only extend our knowledge of his work but make powerful interventions into the field of activist poetics.

The major literary histories all cover contemporary poetry, and all include, to a greater or lesser extent, discussion of poetry as a public discourse. These literary histories include The Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature (2000), The Cambridge History of Australian Literature (2009), The Oxford Literary History of Australia (1998), and A Companion to Australian Literature Since 1900 (2007). Various essays in Poetry and the Trace (2013) also deal with Australian poetry in cultural contexts. Tom Clark’s Stay on Message: Poetry and Truthfulness in Political Speech (2011) concerns the poetics of political speech in the Australian context.

There are numerous studies of poetry and (or as) public culture in American literary studies. These include Joseph Harrington’s Poetry and the Public: The Social Form of Modern U.S. Poetics (2002); Christopher Beach’s Poetic Culture: Contemporary Culture Between Community and Institution (1999); and Paula Bernat Bennett’s Poets in the Public Sphere: The Emancipatory Project of American Women’s Poetry, 1800-1900 (2003). While these works obviously do not cover the field under review here, they offer models for further study of the public life of contemporary Australian poetry. Also relevant are Pascale Casanova’s The World Republic of Letters (2004); Peter Middleton’s Distant Reading: Performance, Readership, and Consumption in Contemporary Poetry (2005); and many of the essays collected in Poetry and Cultural Studies: A Reader (2009).

Further Reading

Hannay, Alistair. On the Public. Oxford: Routledge, 2005.Find this resource:

    Harrison, Martin. Who Wants to Create Australia? Essays on Poetry and Ideas in Contemporary Australia. Sydney: Halstead, 2005.Find this resource:

      Kane, Paul. Australian Poetry: Absence and Negativity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.Find this resource:

        Lerner, Ben. The Hatred of Poetry. Melbourne: Text, 2016.Find this resource:

          McCooey, David. “‘Marginalia’: The Public Life of Australian Poetry,” Text Special Issue 4 (2005).Find this resource:

            McCooey, David. “Poetry as Public Speech: Three Traces.” In Poetry and the Trace. Edited by Ann Vickery and John Hawke, 412–423. Sydney: Puncher & Wattmann, 2013.Find this resource:

              McCooey, David. “Australia and New Zealand.” In The Cambridge Companion to Postcolonial Poetry. Edited by Jahan Ramazani, 72–84. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

                McLaren, John. Writing in Hope and Fear: Literature as Politics in Postwar Australia. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.Find this resource:

                  Mead, Philip. Networked Language: Culture & History in Australian Poetry. North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Press, 2011.Find this resource:

                    Rooney, Brigid. Literary Activists: Writer-Intellectuals and Australian Public Life. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2009.Find this resource:

                      Varatharajan, Prithvi. “John Forbes, the Australian Poet: Representations of National Identity in A Layered Event on ABC Radio National,” Adaptation 9, no. 1 (2015): 1–11.Find this resource:

                        Vickery, Ann. Stressing the Modern: Cultural Politics in Australian Women’s Poetry. Cambridge: Salt, 2007.Find this resource:


                          (1.) Ben Lerner, The Hatred of Poetry (Melbourne: Text, 2016), 5.

                          (2.) For a scholarly account of poetry publishing in Australia see Bronwyn Lea, “Poetry Publishing,” in Making Books: Studies in Contemporary Australian Publishing, ed. David Carter and Anne Galligan (St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2007), 247–254.

                          (3.) Dana Gioia, “Can Poetry Matter?,” in Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and American Culture, 2nd ed. (St. Paul: Graywolf, 2002), 1.

                          (4.) Anne Collett, “Poetry, Activism and Cultural Capital,” Australian Literary Studies 28, no. 4 (2013): 106.

                          (5.) Gioia, “Can Poetry Matter?,” 9.

                          (6.) Gioia, “Can Poetry Matter?,” 10.

                          (7.) Alastair Hannay, On the Public (Oxford: Routledge, 2005), 27.

                          (8.) Joseph Harrington, Poetry and the Public: The Social Form of Modern U.S. Poetics (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2002), 9–10.

                          (9.) V. B. Leitch, “Cultural Studies and Poetry,” in The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 4th ed., ed. Roland Greene and Stephen Cushman (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 327.

                          (10.) Beth Driscoll, “Twitter, Literary Prizes and the Circulation of Capital,” in By the Book? Contemporary Publishing in Australia, ed. Emmett Stinson (Clayton: Monash University Publishing, 2013), 103–119.

                          (11.) Collett, “Poetry, Activism and Cultural Capital,” 106.

                          (12.) Collett, “Poetry, Activism and Cultural Capital,” 107.

                          (13.) Regarding Murray’s bardic condition see Roger McDonald, review of Selected Poems by Les Murray, National Times 18–23 October 1976, 64–65; and Lawrence Bourke, “The Rapture of Place: From Immanence to Transcendence in the Poetry of Les A. Murray,” Westerly 33, no. 1 (1988): 41–51.

                          (14.) Brigid Rooney, Literary Activists: Writer-Intellectuals and Australian Public Life (St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2009), 80.

                          (15.) Laura Tingle and Mark Metherell. “Strangle Poet Idea at Birth: Murray,” Sydney Morning Herald (4 March 2000), 5.

                          (16.) Helen Lambert, “A Draft Preamble: Les Murray and the Politics of Poetry,” Journal of Australian Studies 80 (2004): 10.

                          (17.) Les Murray, “Mates Lost and Saved: Drafting the Preamble,” in Constitutional Politics: The Republic Referendum and the Future, ed. John Warhurst and Malcolm Mackerras (St. Lucia/Perth: University of Queensland Press/API Network, 2002), 81.

                          (18.) Quoted in Lambert, “A Draft Preamble: Les Murray and the Politics of Poetry,” 7–8.

                          (19.) J. Weare, “Anaphora,” The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 50.

                          (20.) Murray, “Mates Lost and Saved: Drafting the Preamble,” 82.

                          (21.) Murray, “Mates Lost and Saved,” 86.

                          (22.) Lambert, “A Draft Preamble: Les Murray and the Politics of Poetry,” 8.

                          (23.) Les Murray, “Mates Lost and Saved: Drafting the Preamble,” 83.

                          (24.) Jamie Grant, “Poets Well-Versed in Current Affairs,” Sydney Morning Herald, January 5, 2001, 7.

                          (25.) Les Murray (ed.), The New Oxford Book of Australian Verse (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1986), 22.

                          (26.) Dana Gioia, Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture (St. Paul: Graywolf, 2004), 7.

                          (27.) Courtney Trenwith, “Passionate About Prose,” Illawarra Mercury, March 10, 2005, 13.

                          (28.) Kate Torney, “Australian Poetry Makes a Come Back,” Interview Transcript, 7:30 Report, October 22, 1999.

                          (29.) Laurie Clancy, “Not Averse to a Pot of Poesy,” The Sunday Age, July 13, 2003, 10.

                          (30.) Joanna Bounds and Sheryl-Lee Kerr “Poetry in Motion,” STM: The Sunday Times Magazine, February 13, 2005, 13.

                          (31.) David, Knox, “Bush Slam,” TV Tonight December 24, 2009.

                          (32.) Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore, “Interview: Omar Musa, Australia’s Star Slam Poet, Brings ‘In-Betweener’ perspective to US,” The Guardian, February 18, 2016.

                          (33.) Christopher Ingraham, “Poetry is going extinct, government data show,” Washington Post, April 24, 2015.

                          (34.) Australia Council for the Arts, Connecting Australians: Results of the National Arts Participation Survey, 2017, 74.

                          (35.) Australia Council for the Arts, Connecting Australians, 20.

                          (36.) Jan Zwar, Disruption and Innovation in the Australian Book Industry: Case Studies of Trade and Education Publishers, Macquarie Economics Research Papers, 1 (2016): 8.

                          (37.) Zwar, Disruption and Innovation in the Australian Book Industry, 7.

                          (39.) Jahan Ramazani, A Transnational Poetics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 73.

                          (40.) Ramazani, A Transnational Poetics, 76.

                          (41.) “The Ode.”

                          (42.) “Bali Memorial.”

                          (43.) Latika Bourke, “Attorney-General George Brandis busted reading poetry books during estimates hearing,” Sydney Morning Herald, June 5 2015.

                          (44.) Jonathan Pearlman, “Gina Rinehart Pens ‘Universe’s Worst Poem’,”The Telegraph, February 16, 2012.

                          (45.) Angela Bennie, “War, Blood, Courts: It’s Poets at Arms,” Sydney Morning Herald, August 8, 2006.

                          (46.) Stephen Romei, “Poet Uses Defence of ‘Collage poetry’ After Recycling Plath Lines,” The Australian, September 13, 2013.

                          (47.) Simmone Reid, “A Poem Allegedly From Snowtown Triple Murderer: Rhyme and Twisted Reason: Glimpsing into the Mind of a Serial Killer,” The Advertiser (Adelaide), June 28, 2003, 2.

                          (48.) Stacey Harwood, “The Well-Versed Movie,” Michigan Quarterly Review 43, no. 2 (2004): 145.

                          (49.) For more on this association see Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1978).

                          (50.) Michael Leunig, “The Tao of John,” The Age, December 9, 2006, A2, 56.

                          (51.) Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching: A New English Version, trans. Stephen Mitchell (New York: Harper Perennial, 1991), section 57(np).

                          (52.) Michael Leunig, “Torture,” The Age, May 21, 2005, Insight, 8.

                          (53.) First Dog on the Moon, “The Life and Death of a Sheep: A Poem,” Crikey, September 28, 2012.

                          (55.) Red Room Company, “New Shoots NSW.”

                          (56.) Red Room Company, “New Shoots Vic.”

                          (58.) Lionel Fogarty, “For I come—death in custody,” in New and Selected Poems: Munaldjali, Mutuerjaraera (South Melbourne: Hyland House, 1995), 54.

                          (59.) Lionel Fogarty, “Breaking Down the Barriers,” New and Selected Poems, ix.

                          (60.) Adam Shoemaker, Black Words, White Page, 221.

                          (61.) John Forbes, “On the Beach: A Bicentennial Poem,” in Collected Poems (Sydney: Brandl & Schlesinger, n.d.), 131.

                          (62.) Ross Chambers, “‘Isn't There a Poem about This, Mr de Mille?’ On Quotation, Camp and Colonial Distancing,” Australian Literary Studies 23, no. 4 (2008): 384.

                          (63.) Philip Mead, “Nation, literature, location,” in The Cambridge History of Australian Literature, ed. Peter Pierce (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 549–567.

                          (64.) For a detailed consideration of the relationship between poetry and the news see Jahan Ramazani, “Poetry and the News,” Poetry and Its Others: News, Prayer, Song, and the Dialogue of Genres (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 63–125.

                          (65.) Bridie McCarthy, “When Poets Take up Arms: Combating (Hyper)real Wars under the Abstractions of the New Empire,” Melbourne Journal of Politics 30 (2005): 130.

                          (66.) Bonny Cassidy and Jessica L. Wilkinson, eds., Contemporary Australian Feminist Poetry (St. Lucia: Hunter, 2016), ix.

                          (67.) Contemporary Australian Feminist Poetry, xi.

                          (68.) Contemporary Australian Feminist Poetry, xiv.

                          (69.) Dan Disney and Kit Kelen, Writing to the Wire (Nedlands: UWA Publishing, 2016), 2.

                          (70.) Disney and Kelen, Writing to the Wire, 142.

                          (71.) Justin Clemens, “Review Short: Writing to the Wire,” Cordite Poetry Review, December 5, 2016.

                          (72.) Philip Mead, Networked Language: Culture and History in Australian Poetry (Melbourne: Scholarly, 2008), 110.

                          (73.) Maria Takolander, “The Unhallowed Art: Literature and Literary Fakes in Australia,” Text Special Issue 4 (2005).

                          (74.) Philip Mead, Networked Language: Culture and History in Australian Poetry (Melbourne: Scholarly, 2008), 3.