When situating 20th-century Australian poetry within world literary space, critical histories often map it against the Anglo-American tradition and find it wanting. In particular, and despite the strong reputations that poets such as Judith Wright and A. D. Hope continue to enjoy, there is a tendency to regard Australian poetry from the Second World War until the mid-1960s as variously complacent, insular, or retrograde: representative of what John Tranter in his introduction to The New Australian Poetry in 1979 called “a moribund poetic culture.” Certainly, there was a turning away from avant-garde experimentalism in the immediate postwar period (as there was in Britain and the United States), but in Australia, this has been linked to a discrediting of modernism as a result of the Ern Malley hoax. In the Malley “affair,” as Michael Heyward dubbed it, two conservative poets hoodwinked the editor of the avant-garde journal Angry Penguins with a suite of poems written by a wholly invented working-class surrealist. As a result, according to Wright (among others), Australian poets became less adventurous in favor of more traditional forms. On top of this, recent revisionist accounts of the hoax have virtually canonized “Malley” himself as a bona fide modernist and so exacerbated a sense of lost opportunity after the mid-1940s. Yet modernizing impulses may take many forms, and it is an overstatement to suggest that innovation had ceased, or that the poetry of this period was somehow disengaged from the rest of the world or from international literary-political debates. A reassessment shows that Australian poets were keenly engaged with the questions of their time but also dealt with the persistent, unresolved problem of how to become “unprovincial,” overcoming a cultural cringe that now gravitated away from Britain and toward America. In fact, for Australian literature prior to the emergence of Patrick White, poetry, rather than beating a retreat, actually led the way forward. It is time, then, to reconsider the poetry of the postwar era within its own cultural ecologies, acknowledging that Australian poetic modernism, while it remains contested, may also be distinctive.
In 1898, U.S. imperialism spread beyond the continent’s borders and took possession of Puerto Rico during the Spanish–American War. This began the repeated waves of migration from the island to the mainland. In New York City (the main destination, along with Chicago), Puerto Ricans settled in East Harlem and the South Bronx, while the Lower East Side became the immigrant neighborhood par excellence. Adaptation strategies, common to previous immigrant communities, ensued, especially regarding the urban context and the reinvention of spaces. During the 1960s, authors such as Piri Thomas or Pedro Juan Soto began to narrate this complex experience, always in an unsteady balance between Puerto Rico and the United States. This first phase of literary output culminated the following decade (a period of deep economic and social crisis) in the so-called Nuyorican Experience, where “nuyorican” stands for “New York Puerto Rican”—a neologism that sums up the community's condition of “divided self” and defines the social and cultural horizon of a new generation of artists. In their works, poet-performer Pedro Pietri and writer Nicholasa Mohr expressed their peculiar view and sense of the city, both surreal and realistic, ironic and passionate.
“Micropoetries” is a self-eroding category initiated in academic poetry scholarship in the 1990s to address a perceived crisis in poetry audiences, with an implicit argument that the term “poetry” needed to be widened to account for phenomena beyond the poetry found in academic and writerly, high-literary discourse. While the referents of the term may shift over time and in response to cultural and social change, and while the term itself was intended somewhat provisionally, it can still open up the possibility for discussing para-literary materials as poetry, that is, aesthetically and socially meaningful artifacts. It refers positively to half-formed, degraded, or ephemeral verbal phenomena, or writing produced by abjected persons—for example, “outsider writing,” prison or other poetry arising from incarcerated subjects, writing by children—or poetry by non-poets. The concept is indebted to multiple intellectual traditions, but primarily those of the Russian formalists, the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies, Walter Benjamin as a kind of outlier Frankfurt School philosopher, cultural ethnographers such as Mark Slobin and Lila Abu-Lughod, and poets as well as poetry scholars working at the limits of their disciplines. Phenomena such as “outsider writing,” ecopoetics, the Human Microphone (the oral relay system that characterized communication at the Occupy movement sites in 2011–2012), and Scottish insults directed at Donald Trump via Twitter are explored as examples. Pedagogical use can be made of the concept to both widen students’ opportunities for encountering “the poetic” in everyday life and to pressure them to clarify and revise what they consider poetry to be. Contemplation of the category “micropoetries” gives rise to contemplation of its complement, “macropoetries,” or phenomena that, because of their durational properties, challenge the notion of mastery through analysis, forcing the consideration that poetry and poetics reside at the breakdown seam of analysis and experience, or where “the beautiful” meets “the sublime.”
In 1833 a reforming government seemed to threaten the disestablishment of the Church of England. This provoked a small number of clergy associated with Oxford University to address Tracts for the Times (1833–1841) to fellow Anglican clerics. Reminding them that they derived their spiritual authority not from the state, but by virtue of ordination into a church which traced its direct descent from the body instituted by Christ and his apostles, the tracts ranged from scholarly argument to templates for the renewal of spiritual life. The tract writers included John Henry Newman, John Keble, Richard Hurrell Froude, Isaac Williams, and Edward Bouverie Pusey. Determined to reinterpret the Church of England to itself as the true Catholic church in England, they sought to counteract the perceived Protestant bias of the Book of Common Prayer by appealing to the early Fathers of the undivided church of antiquity, and by emphasizing the via media (middle way) favored by many 17th-century theologians.
The series that gave the movement its alternative name, Tractarianism, came to an abrupt end when in Tract XC (1841), Newman, the influential vicar of the University church, argued that the Prayer Book’s Thirty-Nine Articles, to which all ordained clergy and all Oxford students were then obliged to subscribe, could be interpreted as compatible with Roman Catholic theology. For many, Newman’s founding of a semi-monastic community to which he retreated in 1843, and his reception into the Roman Catholic Church in 1845, where he was followed by a number of other Tractarians, marked the end of the movement. This impression was lent continued currency both by Newman’s own account, Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1864), and by subsequent 19th-century historians. However, the movement’s influence continued to be felt throughout the wider Anglican communion in renewed attention to sacramental worship, in church building, and in the founding of Anglican communities. The movement’s appeal to pre-Reformation theology led to its being associated with the revival of Gothic architecture, while Tractarian sacramental fervor later translated into obsessive observance of Prayer Book rubrics by the so-called Ritualists.
Admiration for the Lake Poets fed into a Tractarian aesthetic which saw poetic language as religion’s natural mode of expression, half revealing, half concealing heavenly truths, and poetic rhythm and structure as devices for controlling thoughts and emotions. As its title indicates, Keble’s The Christian Year (1827) was designed to accompany the liturgy: immensely popular, it carried the movement’s principles well beyond Anglo-Catholic circles. It was supplemented by further collections of Tractarian poetry. Institutionally male in origin, the movement nevertheless legitimated women’s work through sisterhoods, in education and as writers. Charlotte Yonge and Christina Rossetti are the two most notable exemplars of this impulse.
The movement provoked polemical fiction both from its ardent disciples and from disenchanted followers. In the popular press, Anglo-Catholicism quickly translated into Roman Catholicism, thus presenting a potential threat to English values. The revival of confession, sisterhoods, and the notion of celibacy seemed to undermine the Victorian domestic order, while priestly attention to liturgical vestments was attacked as unmanly. If Anglo-Catholicism’s long-term legacy was spiritual, its short-term effect was to politicize Victorian religion.
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.
Alan M. Wald
At the start of the last century a modern tradition of literary radicalism crystallized with inspiring results. From 1900 onward, socialists and bohemians yoked their ideals to become a marathon of forward-thinking activist cultural workers. For the next three decades, writers and intellectuals of the Left, such as Max Eastman (1883–1969), were oracles of enchantment in a world increasingly disenchanted, initially by the international war of 1914–1919 and subsequently by a decline in popular political defiance as capitalism consolidated. Still, the adversarial dream persevered during the violence and later, often in little magazines such as the Masses, Liberator, Seven Arts, and Modern Quarterly. Since the 1920s, literary radicalism meant creativity in the service of an insurrection against political power combined with a makeover in human relationships.
With the economic catastrophe of 1929 and the triumph of Nazism in 1933, what might have been a generational succession morphed into a paradigm shift. This previously self-governing literary radicalism was now multifariously entangled with Soviet communism during its most awful hour. An unofficial state of emergency escalated so that a range of journals—this time, New Masses, Modern Monthly, and Partisan Review—once more served as barometers of the depth and breadth of radical opinion. Bit by bit, a strange new ethos enveloped the literary Left, one that blended heroism, sacrifice, and artistic triumph with fifteen years of purge trials in the Soviet Union, mortifying policy shifts in the international Communist movement, and relentless domestic repression against the organized Left in the United States. By the end of this phase, in the reactionary post–World War II years, most adherents of communism (not just the pre-dominant pro-Soviet Communism, but the other varieties of communism such as Trotskyism and Bukharinism) desperately fled their Depression-era affiliations. The upshot was a blurring of the record. This occurred in ways that may have seemed clever for autobiographical concealment (by one-time literary radicals who feared exposure or embarrassment at youthful excesses) but became maddening for future scholars wishing to parse the writers’ former convictions.
As literary radicalism passed through the Cold War, 1960s radicalization, the late 20th-century culture wars, and into the new millennium, the tradition was routinely reframed so that it faces us today as a giant puzzle. New research and scholarship emerge every year to provide insights into a very complicated body of writing, but there is a fretful ambivalence about its actual location and weight in literary history. Not surprisingly, most overall scholarly histories, chronicles, and anthologies do not include the category of literary radicalism as a well-defined, principal topic. This is because enthusiasts of the last twenty-five years brilliantly championed the tradition less under the rubric of “literary radicalism” than as the fertile soil for a blooming of gender-conscious, multicultural, and polycentric legacies connected to the Left but primarily rendered as eruptions of American literary modernity onto the world stage. These revisionist images came to us in discrete volumes about black writers, women writers, regional writers, children’s writers, Jewish writers, and so forth. Nonetheless, such celebratory portraits remained in competition with a dark double, a notion that nearly all literary radicals were wanting in artistic value. This skeptical appraisal was entrenched in an older scholarship, a point of view that is partly an aftereffect of the long shadow that the Communist imbroglio cast on its entire legacy.