Les’s Collection

It seems strange to me that The Quadrant Book of Poetry, 2001-2010, was panned elsewhere, since most of its contributors are as good (or they seem to me as good) as Auden or MacNeice or Frost or Larkin or Lawson, and there are scores, nay, hundreds of them; but there you go. Most striking perhaps is Tyburn, by Calwell’s assassin Peter Kocan, worth quoting in full.

On one side is a bustling city street
And over on the other side the park.
You loiter on the corner and you watch
The afternoon beginning to go dark.

This unassuming spot was an abyss,
The gaping terror of so many hearts,
And here for generations they were brought
On a never-ending convoy of carts.

How grimly in the mind’s eye they pass
As here and there you recollect a name,
A few who have a mention in the books,
The tiny consolation of their fame.

But mostly you are dimly picturing
The sadder multitudes of the unknown,
Whose anguishes were never History
But just a little matter of their own –

Who swung for a petty misadventure,
Some desperate, impulsive little theft,
Some error now too utterly obscure
For any knowledge of it to be left –

Or even were entirely innocent
And who died by some malice or mistake:
The juvenile, the imbecile, the scared,
Who didn’t know the right reply to make.

Remember that there wasn’t any drop.
The dangling figure had to choke to death,
Would go for several minutes treading air
In the mad frenzy of that fight for breath.

Apparently the smallest suffered most
For the lack of sufficient body-weight.
The lucky had a friend who’d cling to them,
To help them throttle at a faster rate.

Eternities before the mind went blank,
Of attempting to scream or plead or curse.
Eternities they had in which to know
The howling horror of the universe.

Think of it happening here for centuries!
And think of all the minutes that were spent!
Imagination quails and pulls away,
Refusing to consider what it meant.

You hurry to join the commuters
Who never want to meditate on that,
Who keep their sanity by going home
To tend the garden and to feed the cat.

It has the gloom of Larkin and the dark of Blake. Am I wrong to say this? I looked through 239 pages (big and square and pleasingly composed with acres of palliative white space) for a false, pretentious, dimwitted or ramshackle work, but there just aren’t any.

Hal G.P. Colebatch is vivid and frequent: always rhyming, often caustic, sometimes zany, like a mixture of MacNeice, Ogden Nash and Banjo Paterson. He takes us to the Perth War Cemetery, the Rottnest Island Hotel and Beer Garden, the Ypres Cathedral and to a night with a redhead on a yacht in 1976; and, perhaps most mischievously, into the dark heart of Nazism, genially shared. I quote in part:

My natal day I share with the Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler,
but I hope despite this fact that we are not too similar.

Both, I am told, as children, liked collecting postage stamps,
while he when entering adulthood liked setting up death-camps.

His father was a school-master, and mine a politician,
but both of us, in different ways, inherited the ambition.

On leaving school I got a job with the local daily press,
he tried out chicken farming, then started the SS.

In different ways and times, it seemed, the both of us succeeded.
I have several Jewish friends, but I don’t think that he did.

And then I went to Law School (a foolish thing to do),
but Heinrich also made mistakes, and landed in the poo.

I studied torts, he torture – those were our salad days.
And we both of us studied murder, but in quite different ways…

Some poems have the quiet rectitude of A.E. Housman (October, by Victoria Field), the working class angry grief of Alan Sillitoe (Thirteenth Birthday, by Jean Frances), or the transnational wonderment of Barack Obama (In Memory of Corey Tottenham, 1973-2005, by Brad Jackel), or the ghostly exactitude of Emily Dickinson (Visitors, by David Chandler), or the brute invasive force of Ted Hughes (The Polygraph Experience, by Craig Sherborne), or the fulminating biblicality of Kipling (The Final Cliche, by W.H. Presley). But all of them are in different ways striking, and some, like a museum of Van Goghs, overwhelming.

How did all this occur? One can only guess at this. It may have been the exacting example, relentless and unforgiving, of their editor, Les A. Murray. It may have been the simple availability of a place of publication. But it seems to me the best such occasional collection I have ever read; better, for instance, that The Faber Book of Modern Verse; which is saying quite a bit.

Or it may be to do with the example of Larkin, who showed that clarity, intimacy, modernity and melancholy in the stating of the ordinary and the usual could strike like a gong at poem’s end. Or it could be the hours afforded by country life in Australia (and many are clearly country people, often country wives) is all the soul needs to enact, after many drafts, fine work like this.

Of hundreds I could quote in conclusion this one, perhaps, is a good example of this book’s achievement. It is called Song of the Crestfallen Pigeon, by Susan Edgar.

The pigeon on my window-sill
adores a bird of wood
that gazes from this other side
as if she understood.

Brought here from America,
she wears a perky crest
and feathers grey with olive tinge
adorn her lovely breast.

The pigeon on the outer ledge
believes he woos a dove
and cannot comprehend the glass
that keeps him from his love.

If only I could speak with him
of love’s elusive flame
I’d cure his sad obsession with
a bird he cannot claim.

All day he paces up and down
and pecks upon the pane
his doting morse-code plea for sex
like any featherbrain.

Leave a comment ?


  1. Thanks for that Bob.

    I enjoyed the one comparing the poet with Himmler; on the shallow level the poet observes the differences, but on a deeper level finds the similarities chilling. Himmler was a very ordinary little man who was enabled to do extraordinary things; rather like Eichmann his was a banality of evil. As an aside, I studied the transcript of Eichmann’s trial, as he tried to minimise his culpability. To give his claim the lie he once faced off with Himmler after Himmler, seeking to save his own skin, had ordered the end of the Holocaust in October 1944, and started a cover-up.

    Eichmann challenged Himmler in his own office : after a heated argument Himmler said “Will you obey my orders, or will you not obey my orders?!” Eichmann strategically withdrew, his authority intact. Anyone else might have been shot out of hand.

    Thanks again for the poetry; I’ll try to hunt for the book.

  2. The last is just a bit grim, wtf?

  3. Poem, I mean.

  4. On the pigeon.

  5. I have a baby Peewee in my backyard.
    Milo, the Jack Russell, stares at it, through the glass door.
    I’ll keep them separated,there’s no need to flush this little one out the rushes, it sits there on the garden hose, full of trust and innocence.

  6. I’ve only seen one ‘negative’ review of the Quadrant poetry book so far - in the Western Australian, by John Tranter, which was so poorly written and argued that no thinking lover of poetry could possibly take it seriously. Tranter also trashed another fine Australian anthology of poetry by Lehmann and Gray earlier in the year so he must have some kind of narrow poetic agenda which doesn’t make his opinion one to be trusted too much by those of us who like a broader selection of sensibilities.

  7. Interesting, and contradictory, that in Best Australian Poems 2012, and in last year’s 2011 anthology, Tranter includes both Suzanne Edgar and Jennifer Compton, both of whom he refers directly to in his comment, and I quote: “This book’s index of poets also reveals that a handful of authors feature often in Quadrant. Perhaps they make up the “small field of writers” the Literature Board was referring to: Colebatch, Jennifer Compton, Suzanne Edgar, Jamie Grant, Ashlley Morgan-Shae, Pascale Petit and a few others. Along with the better-known Geoff Page, Alan Gould, Murray and Peter Skrzynecki, they are the dominating voices in the collection. I hope it is
    not unkind to suggest they are not perhaps the most outstanding poets in Australia, though they are talented and do stand out in this company.” Arthur or Martha, mate.

  8. So, Joe, who are the outstanding poets of Australia ?
    This is wonderful: ‘the example of Larkin, who showed that clarity, intimacy, modernity and melancholy in the stating of the ordinary and the usual could strike like a gong at poem’s end.’
    So, too, is the flash of recognition that many poems are written by country women.

  9. Australia is now in a Golden Age of Poetry and has been for many years. It is a very exciting place to be for a lover of language. There are literally too many strong poets to count.
    I look now for outstanding POEMS, rather than poets, and by that I mean poems that speak to ME and inspire me to ‘.. see the Rose as Adam saw it..’ as someone once said. Poetry, like all art, is fundamentally very personal.
    Les Murray has the rare ability as editor to sift gold dust out of pyrite in finding the accessible poems in the most inaccessible poets. I leant on his two Black Inc anthologies, in 2004 & 5, as veritable primers in introducing myself to many poets I never liked or understood before. ie if I wanted to see why on earth John Tranter was so distinguished as a poet, I would read one of the poems Les Murray selected of his. Reading a collection of Tranter’s own work gave me a headache and I would toss it aside. Seeing one of his poems through Les’s editorship invariably caused me to reconsider and give these ‘headache poets’ another chance. This is what a great editor, like Billy Collins, in the US, can do for fellow poets and poetry as a whole.
    Looking at Australian poetry through Tranter’s blinkered-visioned reviews and selections does the reverse. I reach for the Panadol bottle again. I am not alone in this thinking.
    In an interview I did with Dorthy Porter, the last before she died, she said:
    ‘The older I get the less patient I get with poetry that is extraordinarily hard work often for very little gain. It’s almost as if the more complex and complicated and opaque and obscure the poem the more meager the reward and the more meager the actual poem itself is.’

    • I could not agree more with Dorthy Parker; and that goes for prose as well. The more the writer tries to dazzle, to be clever by throwing beautiful words at the reader to untangle, to make sense, I lose interest…
      I have no problem getting the meaning of WH Auden’s poetry , or of Bob’s. :wink:

    • Totally agree, Joe and Helvi, and with Dorothy Porter.

      Poetry is not an intellectual thing but an emotional thing. To work, it must stir your passions rather than invite your cerebration.

      • I really dig Collins as poet, editor and performance artist. He’s dry and self-effacing like the early Woody Allen used to be when he did stand-up before he became a filmmaker. Collins also possesses something that pretty much all of these so-called ‘academic’ poets lack: a brilliant sense of humour. Vive ee cummings! Here’s another of my favourites:

        • Polybius&Joe, thank you for putting those wonderful, amusing poems up…and so beautifully read…
          Will look for some more; I don’t want to be anyone’s fork and knife, cornfields and pineforests will do.

  10. I think that ‘oops’ was Dorothy Porter! (That was really a double oops.)

  11. Joe, your point about Les Murray as an editor is very interesting. It’s the first time I’ve read any acknowledgement of him in this role. Ever since the 80s I think he’s been our best poetry critic as well. He’s a fantastic critic, and perhaps that goes with his remarkable skills as an editor. A real unacknowledged legislator.

  12. First, thanks, Bob, for comparing us `best of the crop of Quadrant poets’ to those masters Auden, McNiece, Frost, Larkin et al (my favourites).
    A correction: that great Australian poet Peter Kocan attempted to assassinate Calwell; he did not, however, kill him.
    I like your selection of standout entries in Les’s book, although all are good. I also like your bouquet to George Thomas, the dep. ed. at Quadrant, who was responsible for the ideal layout of the book’s pages.
    The great quality that these poems have, in addition to their clarity and skill in the craft, is their ability to move the reader. Apart from their general incomprehensibility, this is just one obvious thing that the poems in Tranter’s Best Australian Poems 2012 lacks; and believe me, I’ve read them all. No comparison. Yet in his Introduction Tranter continually boasts of his prowess as an anthologist.
    (By the way, I am not a countrywoman and my first name is spelt with a z.)
    Dolce’s fine quote from Dorothy Porter sums up this whole debate.
    Finally I’ll mention just 2 of Les’s outstanding qualities as an editor: (1) his ability to detect and publish work of considerable unusuality; (2) his generosity and openness to considering carefully all-comers, nobodies, out-of towners; all get a fair hearing and are published if the poem is excellent. That is not a common quality among Austn editors.

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