The Z-A of lyrical talent
Alan Wearne is an admirable exponent of the verse novel. Photo: Kirk Gilmour
THE BEST AUSTRALIAN POEMS 2012
Edited by John Tranter
Black Inc, $24.99
HERE must have been something in the air in 2003 when both UQP and Black Inc began their ''Best Australian'' poetry formats. Based loosely on the long-running The Best American Poetry series (now in its 25th year), in which an annual guest editor selects a poem from the nation's established and new poets, UQP's The Best Australian Poetry series ran until 2009, and Black Inc's is going strong. My hunch is that these anthologies sell better than individual poetry collections.
While the concept of a ''best of'' will always be contentious among poets, the choice of guest editors with varying tastes (including Martin Duwell, Anthony Lawrence, Judith Beveridge and David Brooks for UQP, and Les Murray, the late Dorothy Porter, Peter Rose and Robert Adamson for Black Inc) has ensured a heterogeneous crop. Some editors, including John Tranter, have worked on both series.
Tranter's taste is for irony, black comedy, urban imagery, quirkiness, experimentation and a certain line of influence from American poetry harking to the 1950s and '60s and arriving here in the '70s. This taste is clearly reflected in his choices for The Best Australian Poems 2012.
Tranter has selected many of the ''usual suspects'' but also a generous number of less well-known poets from across the country (I am among the 131 poets each represented by one poem), and humour is a strong element in this anthology. I often found myself reading with a smile on my face. Now and then I laughed out loud to poems such as David McCooey's parody of Ken Bolton, Karen Knight's A Factory Love Affair and Geoffrey Lehmann's Thirteen Reviews of the New Babylon Inn, based on TripAdvisor ratings of a particularly dodgy hotel.
Don't think it's all urbane comedy, though - there are some hard-hitting poems of social comment. Meg Mooney lives in Alice Springs and her poem My Town is a tensely understated portrait of racial division, but also of solidarity and community. Diane Fahey's Respite Weekend is a tough lyric about waiting for her mother to die.
For me, the standout poem in this collection is Alan Wearne's Anger Management: A South Coast Fable, which is a short story in verse about a single mother's relationship with a charismatic, violent man: ''You know he has a daughter,/but how the child is missed, that was the clincher./Though when he talks about her he blames/Not the ex, not the other ex,/But that ex, the Central Victorian one./'So,' says the man, 'let's plan it.'/And getting out the map just won't relent.''
In irregular (but carefully measured) syllables and stresses, and with a fine ear for Australian vernacular, Wearne moves the narrative forward to its sad denouement. Wearne is the first and best contemporary exponent of the verse novel in Australia and this long poem is a further demonstration of his art.
Tranter has not shied from including longer works in this collection, such as Michael Sharkey's experimental Where the Bunyip Builds Its Nest: Five Centos and Michael Farrell's Spoiled for Choice: 80 Ganymedes, made up of 20 four-line stanzas, where each line is dedicated to a different man. With lines such as ''The body of Craig wasn't made for work'', ''If Paul's a fabric, I'd like a new suit'' and ''Luke is idle, except for his lashes'', there are playful echoes here of Catullus and Cavafy.
Part of the tradition of these best-of anthologies is to arrange them alphabetically and, in this one, Tranter does so in reverse, from Z to A. Either way, it creates randomness as to how one poem follows another, but then, these collections are probably more designed for dipping into, rather than reading end to end.
In the Black Inc Best Australian Poems rack, 2012 is a good vintage. It will be interesting to see who takes over the editing role from Tranter in 2013, and what their taste will lead them to select.