Are we neglecting Contemporary Bush Poetry?

Poet David Campbell wrote a piece today in the Australian (I do try and broaden my reading), taking the editors of Puncher & Wattmann's, Contemporary Australian Poetry, and Australian poetry's “ruling majority” to task, over their neglect of Australian Bush Poetry™.

So should Australian Bush Poetry™ or Bush/Folk Ballads be included in a book of contemporary poetry?

Bush Ballads are popular within certain communities, particularly those who seem to have some historical connection to the form or its famous practitioners.

The issue I have with a lot of Australian Bush Poetry™ is that it comes across as pastiche.  It reads and sounds like it was written in the late 1800's.

And if this is not the case then the repeated rhyme and rhythm schemes tend to produce, through no intention of the practitioner, cliche in sound, language and sense.

The one place where I think it may have wider appeal is in humorous works.

Bush ballads, like songs (which they derive from) have strong aural qualities, steady rhythms and ringing full rhymes to thump the poem home. For me, usually, the predictability, the overwhelming aural onslaught is too much, it overrides any sense of the words, any attempt at the poet trying to tap into the emotion of the situation.

If I want someone who talks about Australian rural life I'll take Philip Hodgins, Shooting the Dogs , over another ballad about droughts and banks.

As an historical practice, a pastime,a celebration of culture, I see it has value.  But I think good poetry needs to be on the move, challenging, churning over motifs, topics, tools and techniques to be finding the best vehicle for the times.

We should be rewarding and lauding inventiveness, and mastery.  We should be making it good and making it new. I am just not convinced that the current Australian Bush Poetry™ fits that bill.

Campbell recruits the work of  Stephen Edgar (who is in the collection) and both Louis Nowra's and Clive James' praise of him, for his cause.  This hinges on the idea that because Edgar uses metre and rhyme (quite masterfully) and Australian Bush Poetry™ does as well, that the later deserves consideration.

The key here is that Edgar is good, and he's varied.  He knows how to use enjambment, caesura and rhyme subtly.

Contrast the start of Edgar's Silk Screen

Silk Screen 

Furnished across a table,
The long provisions of midafternoon:
The cups, according as each tongue is able
To stand the heat, more or less full, and strewn
About a slewed and wrinkled
Expanse of damask that is crumb-besprinkled 
with Campbell's own award winning, A Man Alone:

A Man Alone 
I found him late one winter’s day, a rifle by his side,
and people said he’d “gone away”, a victim of his pride.
They’d nod and sigh “It’s just so sad, we’re sorry for your loss,
but maybe things had got so bad he’d one last bridge to cross. 
Personally I think writing Bush Ballads, constrains the poet too much for them to be able to achieve something truly striking.

I don't know how much spoken word poetry, or Japanese form poetry made it into the collection either but I do wonder if there is a point at which its not helpful to compare some subsections of Australian poetry.

I'd like to be generous and say its all poetry and it all gets in.  I think the line between stage and page should be fuzzy,  but I am erring in giving Australian Bush Poetry™ a pass.  I think it's anchored to a time and place, and it struggles to escape it to make vibrant, fresh poetry outside of its context.

So should Australian Bush Poetry or Bush/Folk Ballads be included in a book of contemporary poetry?

I'd have to say no, but I'd be willing to be convinced.


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