The best way to read poetry is to open the anthology anywhere you like, circle over it like an opportunistic seagull until the slight movement of a line or a title catches your eye, then dive in.
My eye was attracted to Peter Jeffrey’s simple nostalgic title “What it was like in the 40s.” Then the lovely rhythm and rhyme of his lines took over and drew me into the poem:
No-one was fit; they did not give a shit in the 40s.
They made love all night and washed their steaks down with champagne,
Died like flies in the war, smoked, and visited whores,
O Casablanca, O Bogey, O play it again.
Another way to approach the book is to peruse the short poet bios that appear at the end, find someone who looks interesting and look up their work. I thought Russell Irwin sounded interesting: “farms a small property in the Southern Tablelands…” His poem “Country Show Fantasy” turns out to be a striking expression of love. Dr Peter Jeffrey himself works at the John Curtin School of Medical Research at ANU. One can also find familiar names and track down their latest offerings to Australian verse: Thomas Shapcott, Judith Beveridge, Bruce Dawe, Les Murray, John Tranter, Michael Crane, Judy Johnson, Peter Minter, also Clive James and David Malouf… The list goes on. And one can discover new poets, fresh voices.
Maybe the only way not to read the book is to follow editor Geoff Page’s strategy in ordering the 120 or so poems: according to “subject matter, hoping that the poems will talk to each other” (xiii). Who wants to read a variety of verse by different poets all on war, or all on politics, or all on religion, or all on animals? I don’t want to read Jean Kent’s “In the Season of Citrus” because it’s about fruit and is positioned next to a poem by Emily Ballou about blackberries, but because I’m fascinated by the title of one of Kent’s four books of poetry, Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks, spotted in her bio at the back – and indicating her originality …
And one is rewarded:
a crepe-faced couple
contemplate baby snap-dragons’ soft, unopened fists
– how rich an image is that of old age reflecting on babyhood?
And why and how should isolated poems “talk to each other”? Poems talk to each other when the poet (not the editor) means them to – for example Felicity Plunkett’s admirable “Lost Sea Voices” which she has endorsed “After Chris Marks’ Imagine Becoming the Sea, 2007” – or Robert Gray’s excitingly deceptive “A Beach Suburb” which delivers a sting in its tail, where the final lines “the Kraken … / has stirred now, and begins to wake” allude not only to John Wyndham’s science fiction classic The Kraken Wakes but to Tennyson’s original poem “The Kraken” and thence to Norse mythology, and possibly also to the “leviathan” of Milton’s Paradise Lost and thus in turn to the Book of Job in the Bible. That’s poetry talking, Mr Page.
All the same, the editor has gathered an excellent selection of contemporary Australian work. The SMSA member whom I’d like to thank for recommending the volume was at the time intrigued with Joe Dolce’s thought‑provoking reflection on catastrophic twentieth‑century events, “If Hitler Spelled Hiedler.” I myself love “The sad-eyed beagle” by Michael Crane.
Rather than giving in to the cliché, “Poetry isn’t for everyone,” I’d like to endorse The Best Australian Poems 2014 by saying, “There’s something in this anthology for everyone.”