Tag Archives: Susan Hampton

Towards a New Diversity: Martin Johnston and the New Australian Poetry

25 Feb

Towards a New Diversity: Martin Johnston and the New Australian Poetry. By Mark Roberts. Published in Island 58, Autumn 1994.

Shortly before I received my copy of John Tranter’s latest collection, At the Florida, Mick Jagger turned fifty. Television marked the occasion with old Rolling Stones film clips and numerous minor musical celebrities emerged to describe how Jagger had influenced their own musical careers. Later, while glancing through Tranter’s biographical data, I realised that he too was celebrating his fiftieth birthday in 1993. So where were the “minor” Australian poets lining up to explain Tranter’s influence on their work, where was the TV news item, the magazine articles. I had in mind one of those celebratory volumes the English are so good at: A Collection of Poems dedicated to John Tranter on the Occasion of his Fiftieth Birthday.

There is a certain symmetry here. Not only does 1993 mark Tranter’s fiftieth birthday, it also represents twenty-five years since 1968—a year that Tranter helped make a milestone in the development of contemporary Australian poetry. These factors, together with the publication of Tranter’s ninth collection of poetry and the Tranter-edited Martin Johnston: Selected Poetry and Prose, provide us with the opportunity to look back and perhaps begin a reappraisal of the new Australian poetry as it begins to take its place in Australia’s cultural history.

The starting point for any study of contemporary Australian poetry over the last twenty-five years is the Tranter-edited anthology The New Australian Poetry (NAP) (Makar Press) in 1979. Tranter was not, of course, the first to recognise the major changes taking place in Australian poetry during the late ’60s and early ’70s. The label “New Poetry”, in its Australian context, probably owes much to the takeover in 1969 of the established Poetry Magazine by a group of young poets including Robert Adamson and Martin Johnston. Renamed New Poetry, its success over the next decade signalled the movement of the poets associated with the magazine into the literary mainstream. Five years later the term “New Australian Poetry” was also used by Kris Hemensley and Robert Kenny in the introduction to an anthology called Applestealers, edited by Robert Kenny and Colin Talbot (Outback Press 1974).

In many respects Applestealers is as important an anthology as The New Australian Poetry. Although the two anthologies share many of the same poets, they are very different. The most important difference, I believe, lies in the five years that separated their publication. In 1974 there was an immediacy to the essays that Kris Hemensley and Robert Kenny contributed; they are a call to arms, a rallying cry against the “abdication of poets from poetry to careerism”(Kris Hemensley ‘The Beginnings—A note on La Mama’ Applestealers page 9). Whereas, by 1979, Tranter was looking back and documenting the movement. Although many of the poets were still writing, one senses in the introduction to The New Australian Poetry that Tranter was attempting to confirm the New Australian poetry’s place in Australia’s cultural history.

It is ironic then, given that in his introduction Tranter identifies that one of the features of the new Australian poetry was its “freedom from the handcuffs of rhyme and the critical strictures of English departments”, that one of the great successes of The New Australian Poetry was the influence it had upon the teaching of Australian poetry in university and college English departments. This influence, I believe, was not unintentional. In his introduction to the anthology, and in a paper he gave to ‘The American Model Conference’ held at Macquarie University on 19791, Tranter carefully argued the importance of his “generation” and forcefully outlined the social, political and cultural factors which he believed helped propel a group of young poets to make a radical break with Australian poetic tradition.

In this respect, then, Tranter’s anthology marks the end of the main period of dynamism of those poets he grouped together as the “Generation of ’68”. By 1979 many of the poets in The New Australian Poetry had become part of the poetry establishment—or rather they had created their own establishment. New Poetry magazine had become one of the most influential poetry magazines in the country and small presses like Island Press, Makar Press, Outback Press and Rigmarole of the Hours (among many others) had produced an extraordinary number of impressive titles.

By the early ’80s, however, things had begun to change. The Australia Council’ and, in particular, The Literature Board were beginning to feel the effect of Fraser’s razor gangs and an economic recession made it even more difficult for poets to produce collections or for small presses to publish them. New Poetry magazine faltered, then folded, but by then many of the poets it had earlier championed were being published regularly in the mainstream literary journals. Given such a context, many poets would have been more than happy to look upon Tranter’s Generation of ’68 as a sort of lost golden age of contemporary, experimental/radical poetry.

So then, who composed the Generation of 68? The easiest answer is those poets Tranter included in his anthology. But, as with every anthology, questions immediately arise as to why particular poets were left out. It is probably safest to look to Tranter’s own explanation. Tranter lists a number of factors which helped shape the generation: the baby-boomers of the postwar years who came of age in the late ’60s, advances in printing technology which made it cheaper and easier to publish magazines and books, and, that adjunct to imagination, drugs. But the most important influence was the new poetry of the USA which emerged in the late ’50s and early ’60s. While these factors may effectively include all the poets within The New Australian Poetry, it does remain a somewhat limiting definition if we are to attempt to understand the developments which took place in Australian poetry during the ’80s.

Perhaps a better starting point is to identify those poets who were excluded from Tranter’s anthology. As Livio Dobrez has pointed out, it must be remembered that The New Australian Poetry “represents, after all, Tranter’s taste, his interpretation of the nature of the New Poetry, and one may well query the centrality of this”2. Of course the near absence of women in The New Australian Poetry has been a point of discussion ever since its publication. In fact both The New Australian Poetry and Applestealers each contain the work of only two women writers. Writers who I would have thought fitted Tranter’s description of a Generation of ’68 poet, such as Jennifer Rankin, Dorothy Porter, JS Harry, Pam Brown, Lee Cataldi and Kate Jennings, aren’t even mentioned.

The Generation of ’68 has come to dominate discussion of Australian poetry over the last twenty-five years. But while the movement Tranter effectively analyses did make a profound break with tradition there were other poets who were also smashing their way through Australia’s poetic orthodoxy. Kate Jennings’ 1975 anthology Mother I’m Rooted had an enormous effect on Australian poetry in general and on Australian women poets in particular. Nine years later Susan Hampton and Kate Llewellyn, in their introduction to The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets (1984), looked back over “fifteen well-known collections of Australian poetry since 1970” and found that on average women poets made up only seventeen percent of total contributors. They went on to claim “this may not be a problem of deliberate critical neglect, but a problem of consciousness—until recently most anthology editors, literary historians and critics have been male, and their gaze was unconsciously focused on other men”. Hampton and Llewellyn’s anthology sparked a debate which ran for years in the book pages of the weekend papers and the review pages of literary journals as anthologists attempted to justify the ratio of female to male poets, and conservative male writers pulled out their old rusty quality/excellence shield and attempted to take shelter behind it.

But if the Generation of ’68 broke with a British-based poetic tradition, the women’s writing movement of the ’70s swept away traditional notions of poetic excellence. The sales figures for both Mother I’m Rooted and The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets suggest that both anthologies gained a readership far beyond the traditional poetry-buying public. In a review of Hampton and Llewellyn’s anthology, first published in The Sydney Morning Herald 13 September 1986, Martin Johnston, one of the “chosen” referred back to the critical reaction which greeted Kate Jennings’ anthology: “It sold a lot of copies and caused a lot of consternation, notably among (male) reviewers who thought it had something to do with bra-burning and were incapable of seeing that their own notions of ‘quality’ were—as Jennings had argued all along—socially constructed, not delivered from on high.”

Rather than view the Generation of ’68 as a coherent movement, it is, perhaps, more useful to see it as part of a larger cultural movement. Such a stance would acknowledge that, while the influence of American poetry and the political upheavals of the ’60s gave an impetus to a group of young, predominantly male, poets to break from what was seen as an Australian poetic tradition, there also existed a more traditional poetry as represented by poets such as Les Murray and Geoffrey Lehmann. At the same time the ’60s was also the period that the women’s movement was reborn and it was only natural that women writers would quickly gain the self-confidence to broaden our notions of poetry even further. One could, at this point, also look at the development of gay and lesbian poetry during the mid-to-late ’70s which culminated in another influential anthology, Edge City on Two Different Plans, or the rapid growth of Aboriginal writing during the ’80s.

Tranter himself seemed to be arguing something similar in the introduction to The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry (1991) which he edited with Philip Mead. More ambitious than The New Australian Poetry, this anthology attempts to define “what is the ‘modern period'” and what poetry has been important to its development. In their introduction Tranter and Mead are, in effect, placing the Generation of ’68 writers in the sort of wider context which I have just outlined: “But our readings of the past keep changing. It seemed to us that modern Australian poetry needed to be looked at from a perspective that took in not only the issues of the ’60s, but those of the ’40s and the ’80s (and now the ’90s) as well”. Tranter and Mead go on to claim that “if the modern movement has a major theme, it must be the constant questioning of older ways of looking at things”. While such a definition can, of course, be applied to the writers in The New Australian Poetry it can equally be applied to Hampton and Llewellyn’s attack on the marginalisation of women poets or Kevin Gilbert’s reaffirmation of the strength of Aboriginal poetry in the face of two centuries of white cultural genocide.

It was important that Tranter and Mead acknowledged the important role that women poets played in the development of contemporary Australian poetry. Even more satisfying is the strength of this acknowledgment:

The roles of gender, race and ethnicity are crucial in any act of reading. While this (collection) doesn’t claim to be a feminist or a multicultural anthology, the selection from recent women’s and multicultural poetic writing has a strategic place in our understanding of modernity in Australian poetry… Poetry by women… has claimed a powerful role in postmodern developments in Australia over the last two decades.

Mead and Tranter seem to be moving towards a view of contemporary Australian poetry which is more inclusive than Tranter’s New Australian Poetry, and they have indeed thrown a much larger net than Tranter did back in 1979. Their catch includes many of the poets who appeared in the Hampton/Llewellyn anthology and Kevin Gilbert’s Inside Black Australia (Penguin 1988). Interestingly it also includes poets such as Les Murray, Robert Gray and Geoffrey Lehmann who have commonly been regarded as the natural antithesis to the Generation of’68 poets.

While the anthology has embraced the women’s writing movement and the diversity of multicultural and Aboriginal writing, there are, no doubt, those who can argue that The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry excludes their poetry. On one level The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry is refreshing because it appears to be retreating from the confrontationist approach which has marked poetry criticism in Australia for many years. On a closer reading, however, the anthology can be seen to be building on the foundation of The New Australian Poetry. Tranter’s Generation poets emerge as central to the editor’s concept of “Modern Australian Poetry”. While the collection begins with Slessor, one is left with a feeling of the centrality of poets such as Tranter, Adamson, Johnston, Dransfield, Forbes and Duggan. These are, according to the anthology, the real groundbreakers, the poets who dragged Australian poetry into the modern world. They helped to created a climate in which women’s writing, and writing by non-Aiglo-Celtic poets could be critically accepted. The inclusion of poets such as Murray and Lehmann in such a context serves to place them in a hierarchy of modern Australian poetry where they can perhaps see the peak but have little hope of scaling it.

The futility of an approach which seeks to categorise poets, or to claim them for a particular movement, is clearly illustrated by the publication of Martin Johnston: Selected Poems and Prose, a posthumous collection edited by John Tranter. One of the strengths of the collection is that it brings together Johnston’s critical writing, journal entries and interviews, as well as his poetry, so that we begin to have some sense of the complexity of this remarkable writer.

Introducing the writer and the work, Tranter refers to the unique place Johnston held among the poets of his generation, for while he was very clearly identified with the Generation of ’68 poets he did not fit easily into the new poetry pigeon hole. The son of authors George Johnston and Charmian Cliff, Martin had a childhood which was anything but conventional. He spent the first seven years of his life in England where his parents were working as journalists. They then moved to the Greek island of Hydra where George and Charmian attempted to make a living as fulltime writers. Following the success of the George’s autobiographical novel My Brother Jack the family moved back to Australia when Martin was seventeen. In many ways Australia remained a foreign country to him and he maintained a strong interest in Greek culture and politics for the rest of his life.

The Greek influence on his work at once placed him outside the mainstream of the new Australian poetry, which looked towards the USA for its poetic models. Tranter highlights lines from ‘Gradus Ad Pamassum’ in his introduction: “And the groovier modern Americans? They seem to be the context I’m supposed to work in, though I mostly haven’t read them.”

In an unpublished essay on John Berryman’s elegies Johnston directly comments upon the Australian poetry scene when he talks about the way Australian poets approach elegising other Australian poets: “Australian poets, in their relations with each other, either snipe or huddle: and neither attitude is a convenient one from which to undertake genuinely to memorialise the target.” A little later on he refers directiy to the influence of modern American poetry on Australian poetry:

how pitiful, how second hand, how weedy all our sub-O’Hara, sub-Ashbery, sub-Creeley and sub-Ginsberg; how ill fitting the borrowed clothes; how sadly comical the attempt to set up our rag-and-twig lay figures against the overwhelming weight of this century’s dominant body of English language verse.

Johnston’s solution is not to ignore contemporary American poetry, which is precisely what some more conservative Australian poets did, rather it is “to set out to discover just what is being done, rather than pursuing our general custom of imitating the most facilely imitable… aspects of our models”.

More than anything else, what emerges from this collection is a sense of Johnston’s erudition. He was, arguably, the most widely read poet of his generation and his work clearly shows the influence of European, and especially Greek writers as well as the more common Americans. Johnston was also a critic of some standing and he obviously brought to his own work the same critical intensity which he used on others. At the beginning of his essay on John Berryman’s ‘Elegies’, for example, he writes: “When an Australian poet dies there is, invariably, an almost instant exudation of rich—not to say overripe— elegiac verse from large numbers of his colleagues. The process is, it would seem, purely reflexive and quite, quite unstoppable”. In a poem from his 1978 collection The Sea-Cucumber, Johnston returns to a similar theme:

Death and rebirth myths are made by poets, and no wonder:

one Dransfield can feed dozens of us for a month,

a Webb for years. And they’re fair game, we can plead continuance,

no poet ever died a poet: as the salt filled Shelley

the empyrean gave way to the nibbling fish and the cold.

(In Memoriam’)

‘In Memoriam’, which is dedicated to John Forbes, illustrates the range of Johnston’s technique. He is, for example, quite at home with a playfulness which is influenced, if not by the Americans, then at least by the work of the other “new poets” around him:

O’Hara, Berryman, Seferis, Pound

have a lot in common. Not only are they all dead poets

but they make up a metrically perfect line

Johnston’s reputation as a major poet will rely I believe, to a large extent, on his longer poems, such as ‘The Blood Aquarium’, ‘Microclimatology’ and ‘To The Innate Island’. This last poem, although perhaps one of Johnston’s most difficult, is also one of his most rewarding. Johnston almost assaults the reader with details of Greek history and geography, relenting at the last moment by providing incredibly detailed notes which help to place the poem into context. For example the lines:

The island in the lake

scatters itself just below the surface in sherds and ash,

the trout feed on seventeen dear dead ladies.

take on meaning when we read Johnston’s notes: “Kyria Frossyni and her sixteen attendant ladies, drowned in the lake in 1801, for erotico-political reasons, by the then tyrant of Epirus, Byron’s good mate Ali Pasha. Ballads about this are still sung (and postcards sold).” A poem such as this is obviously far removed from the influence of the “groovier modern Americans”.

Martin Johnston: Selected Poems and Prose can only enhance Johnston’s already considerable reputation and emphasise the fact that Johnston’s early death was a tragic loss to Australian poetry. What emerges from a review of Johnston’s work, however, is not an overriding sense of his role as a part of the Generation of ’68. Rather I was left feeling the inadequacies that result from attempting to understand contemporary poetry through a study of different movements or groups. The closer we examine individual poets the more blurred the boundaries and definitions become. As Johnston wrote:

Coloured inks will soak through the best bond paper

in a soft fuzz of amoebas, a sunset blur

of fruit-coloured clouds, a weak ambiguous vision.

(In Memoriam’)

*****************************************************************************

Mark Roberts is a Sydney critic currently undertaking post graduate study at the University of NSW.

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NOTES

1    See John Tranter ‘Anaesthetics: Some Notes on the New Australian Poetry’ in Joan Kirkbv (ed) The American Model: Influence and Independence in Australian Poetry Hale and Iremonger 1982.

2    Livio Dobrez Parnassus Mad Ward: Michael Dransfield and the New Australian Poetry UQP 1990.

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A NEW ROMANCE: Beth Yahp, Margo Daly & Lorraine Falconer, eds. My Look’s Caress: A Collection of Modern Romances

11 Feb

Beth Yahp, Margo Daly & Lorraine Falconer, eds. My Look’s Caress: A Collection of Modern Romances (Local Consumption Press, 1990). Published in Southerly No. 4, 1991.

Although I have avoided reading any of the plethora of recent anthologies of “erotic writing”, I have followed the debate which has grown up around them in the review pages of the various magazines and journals with some interest. The debate has, predictably, focused mainly on the meaning of the term “erotic” and, in particular, the difference between erotica and pornography. There also always appears to be someone or some group whose sexuality is ignored or misrepresented. The truth, of course, is that “erotic” writing is one of those genres which becomes more elusive as you attempt to pin down a meaning for it.

My Look’s Caress: A Collection of Modern Romances falls just outside the rapidly burgeoning erotic anthology market, although some definitions of the erotic would view a number of the pieces collected in My Look’s Caress as a perfect example of the genre. While there is a lot of sex in the anthology, the editors, Beth Yahp, Margo Daly and Lorraine Falconer, were concerned with much more than the purely sexual. Romance, they point out in their introduction, ranges from the popular image of Mills and Boon to feminist analysis which sees romance as pure escapism which “reflects the dominant mascu­line ideology”. The editors, however, attempt to open the genre up even further: “When we thought ‘romance’ we thought: Confession. Intensity. Obsession. Hysteria. Passionfruit. The romantic sensibility. Longing. Exotic places. The forbidden. The erotic. Nostalgia, loss, regret. Pulp romances. Repul­sion/attraction. Ecstatic revelation. Power. Sexual politics. As well as plain old love.” All this and more is indeed contained in the stories in this collection. In the end, however, the editors prove as elusive as their genre when they refuse to commit themselves to a definition. “And what is romance? The stories  in this collection do not provide concrete examples, or try to. Instead they provide clues.”

Prewarned, I approached the anthology as a detective would a crime. I quickly discovered that if the editors did not attempt to provide us with a single definition of romance, the anthology provided us with a multitude of meanings. In addition to their story, each writer is given the opportunity to discuss their “thoughts on romance” at the back of the anthology. In many cases these “thoughts”, when read in conjunction with the corresponding story, provide us with at least a personal view of romance and romance writing.

In Sandra Bridekirk’s and Sandra Dunlop’s piece, “The Disappearing Act”, we have what at first appears to be a fairly typical Mills and Boon romance. Rosemary Hammond fits the formula of a major female character in a romance “tall and slim with long, wavy dark hair and smooth, soft skin. Her features were delicate but striking, with cool blue eyes off­setting the darkness of her brows and lashes . . . Many men had been interested in Rosemary since she was fifteen years old. But she laughed off their attentions, preferring to spend time with her friends and her mother.” Into her life steps Mr Morrison the new marketing manager for Intimacy Romances, the publishing company Rosemary works for.

Both players in this romance know the rules but, unlike the women in the manuscripts which pass across her desk, Rosemary also knows how to use the rules to suit her own purpose. For a while she plays the game but, just before she is supposed to melt into Mr Morrison’s arms, she throws the formula out the window and Mr Morrison is left grasping at thin air. The strength of this story lies not just in its success as parody. Some serious research into the genre of romance writing has obviously gone into it. Sandra Bridekirk, in her notes at the end of My Look’s Caress, speaks of the need to “give voice to the women who read romance and obtain a great deal of satisfaction from it.” Indeed, she argues that to some extent it is the escape value that many women find in romance fiction that many men resent. When read in this way “The Disappearing Act” takes on another meaning. Not only does Rosemary physically disappear at the end of the story, emotionally she has never really “appeared” as far as Mr Morrison is concerned. When faced with an obstinate Mr Morrison she disappeared into her romance manuscripts and used them as a tool to gain her revenge.

Beth Spencer also attempts to locate romance fiction/fantasy as an act of “resistance”. She points out that romance as a genre can be seen as an attempt to fabricate “a cultural milieu—a fiction world—in which the woman is centre stage and a woman’s desire and feelings are valued and openly acknowledged.” In her story “My Look’s Caress” Spencer, while acknowledging the possibility of resistance, also highlights the contradictions which occur when fantasy dissolves into real life.

Spencer juxtaposes a dating ritual—Mary and John going to the movies—with a young girl’s romantic/sexual fantasy. Deirdre, the young girl “is at the start of her quest for sexual knowledge.” Boys, sex and romance become linked in her developing fantasy. She is centre-stage, her desire/desirability is the catalyst for Alister’s passion until, in her fantasy, “he covered her open mouth with his own, each kiss lasting longer, desire blotting out everything.” From a position where she has control—where she “creates” Alister’s lust—Deirdre has become its victim. Her fantasy has placed her as a woman into an increasingly powerless position. For Mary and John the fantasy is concealed as they act out a ritual. But like Deirdre’s fantasy the ritual becomes a device to prolong desire or, as Spencer puts it, “a kind of extended foreplay.”

While the stories by Bridekirk/Dunlop and Spencer highlight the diversity of styles in My Look’s Caress, one of the most refreshing pieces in the anthology is Barbara Brooks’ “Journal of the Parts of the House”. Brooks has approached the notion of romance from a completely different perspective to every other writer in the collection. While most of the contributors base their attitude to romance on inter-personal relationships, Brooks speaks of her “romantic attachment to the bush.” This romantic attachment is similar, in some ways, to the romantic fantasies that some of the other contributors write of. Brooks’ romanticism is the romanticism of possibilities, of an ordinary object becoming the stimulus for the imagination to expand. “Journal of the Rest of the House” contains some of the most evocative and sensual writing in the anthology, yet Brooks is writing not about an affair or a fantasy but about three rooms in her house. The opening of the story sets the tone: “The door opens, you close it behind you and come down the dark hallway. The house is cool and empty. It opens out for you, your presence spills down the hall like water and the small adjustments start.”

A number of other writers also stand out in My Look’s Caress. Janie Conway’s story “Snaps”, Gillian Mears’ “Cousins” and Susan Hampton’s “Lace” are all pieces which stay in the mind long after you have placed the anthology back in the bookcase. Another interesting feature of the collection is that, while the majority of the contributors are women, there are a few male authors scattered through its pages. Interestingly, in general the male writers don’t seem quite as comfortable in the genre as the majority of the female contributors. Nevertheless it is encouraging to see male writers being included in a genre that many regard as pulp writing for women.

My Look’s Caress contains some fine writing and introduces a number of promising young writers. The fact that the theme of romance does not emerge as a single unifying thread is perhaps indicative of the genre as a whole. In the final instance, however, the diversity of style and content of the work collected in My Look’s Caress would suggest that one of the major constraints of romance writing has been our preconception of what romance writing actually is.

Susan Hampton COSTUMES – P76 Magazine Issue 1 1983

1 Dec

Susan Hampton COSTUMES Transit Poetry 1981

Over a number of years now Susan Hampton’s reputation as a poet of a consistently high standard has been steadily increasing, largely as a result of the considerable body of her work which has appeared in various literary magazines and journals. It comes as a surprise, then, to realise that Costumes, her first complete volume, has been greeted with almost two years of critical neglect.

If we turn to the book itself in an attempt to find reasons for this neglect, we quickly find ourselves disappointed for Costumes is, in many ways, a virtuoso debut, as Hampton shows herself to be in control of many different  styles and techniques. One has only to compare the surrealist prose piece ‘Catalogue of Five Words at an Exhibition’ with the apparent autobiographical detail of ‘In the Kitchens’, to be aware of the range and scope of her work.

Throughout the volume, Hampton is always conscious of being a poet, both in the way she observes what is happening around her, and how she relates it to her own emotions. We become aware of the importance she attaches to individual words in a ‘Catalogue of Five Words at an Exhibition’; here Hampton describes a method of memorising single words which she has taken into the country:

We begin at the Angel Islington in a pub, looking at ourselves in the mirror. As we looked, she told me the first word. We walked from then pub to a phone-box, to the supermarket then to the tube station, the flowerseller with his red blooms, past a hoarding, then along Upper Street to the doorknocker on her house. At each of these stops she gave me a new word, and I was to recall them by walking this journey until I could do it in my mind, associating each word with an object on the way. It proved successful, and I wondered whether this was how Mandelstam’s wife memorised his poems to bring them out.

Words are obviously important here, and a close relationship exists between the individual words and the associated objects. It is no co-incidence that ‘Catalogue of Five Words at an Exhibition’ opens Costumes, for through it we are introduced to the poetry that will follow. The idea of a “Museum of Words” recalls the various museums in Murry Bail’s Homesickness, but Hampton sees little point in museums themselves:

The Museum of Words. I think this is a bad idea. Leave

these in the gallery for a while, and then give them

to people walking by.

The poems that follow are definitely not intended to hang in a gallery. Although our first reaction may be that Costumes consists of a number of very good, but also very different poems, as we progress further we become aware of a number of subtle but important ways in which poems of opposing techniques and styles are, in fact, related to each other. This can perhaps be best seen if we look at the way a number of Hampton’s best poems grow directly from everyday incidents. Early in the title poem ‘Costumes’, for example, we read:

Waiting for a bus, I rock gently on the edge

of the footpath, all manner of people coming past me

the ones in green dresses  the ones with very short hair

In ‘Costumes’, and other poems such as ‘Jubilate Sydney’, ‘Ode to the Car Radio’ and ‘Waiting for Rain’, we see emerging a particular way of looking at the city, and, more importantly, the poet’s relationship to that city. The concluding lines of ‘Jubilate Sydney’ reflects one manifestation of that relationship:

For tenthly there’s a cloud accompanying me

my windscreen is better than the latest Italian movie

The same sentiment appears in ‘Waiting for rain’:

& yes, life’s an Australian movie just now, no plot

but some very taking shots

Although part of the attraction of these poems lies in the way the actual incidents are described, their real strength  is Hampton’s ability to suggest an inter-relationship between many apparently trival observations. In a comparatively simple poem, such as ‘Waiting for rain’, this is achieved by the way the richness of the first section, where the poet is riding a bike across the campus of Sydney University, is contrasted with the sterile second section, when she has arrived at work. The poem works towards its final statement in the same way that a skillful scientist might support her/his theory, for when the poem concludes:

I want to go out into the rain.

there seems to be no other possible conclusion.

‘Costumes’ can be seen as an extension of ‘Waiting for Rain’. It is a far more ambitious poem, and structurally more complex, but again it relies upon the poet’s observation of her surroundings. This time, however, she is still and watches the city move around her. Her passiveness, though, is only physical, for the way people “narcissistically half-watch” themselves in the numerous mirrors of the MLC Centre becomes a metaphor for the shallow nature of the glamorous image they seek to buy:

And the mirors say, you have bought something from us,

look at us and see how you shine as you move, buy more

look more, shine more, buy yourself from us  we have

a big range of styles.

The poem becomes increasingly ironical so that when the people leave the mirrors and walk into the street past

                                                                         cripples with badges

fat girls from out of town, warehouse clerks with sore legs

and white noses, past all the losers.

the glamour and shine has all disappeared.

The five poems grouped together in ‘In the Kitchen’ also appear to be largely autobiographical, describing the poet’s childhood in Inverall and Newcastle. There is a gentle feeling of progression about the sequence. Each poem seems immediate and important, perhaps because with the exception of ‘Invererell’, they are all written in the present tense. They reflect a child’s growth, from early memories of an insurance sales and amateur magician, to bars in Newcastle and writing poetry imitating Eliot. The sequence appears almost crafted, for while it has at its centre, the memories of different kitchens, each poem expresses a mood unique to a particular period of growing up.

On e feature, then which runs through an unites Costumes is the way in which the majority of the poems have, as their centre, the poet herself. The best poems in the collection, however, use this as a starting point to make statements which transcend the personal. This is true not only of those poems which deal with the external world, but also those which concentrate on the personal or physical subjects. ‘It’, for example, begins by describing the feelings, both physical and emotional, associated with menstruation:

                                                                It grabs from behind &

whomp! you’ve gone mad again tonight, despite Vitamin B

& the gynaecologist’s plan for sanity.

As the description continues, the poet’s anger grows until, in the final lines, it overflows into violence:

                                                       Now the world’s

a different place, malign for sure, & we’re crying

(big girls do) about nothing, we know its nothing,

but we really want to kick the shit out of something

tonight, we’re violent, & we’re tired of making

little parcels & putting them in the cupboard.

In the final instance Costumes is true to the criteria that Hampton herself stated at the beginning of the collection in ‘Catalogue of Five Words at an Exhibition’. The majority of the poems refuse to be “hung” for an length of time on the gallery wall. Rather we find ourselves recalling the way we have felt in a particular situation,or perhaps see elements of ourselves in the poetry, so that seemingly personal statements suddenly take on a much wider significance. Costumes confirms Hampton’s standing as a poet of exceptional ability, and establishes he position as one of the best writers to emerge over the last few years. The fact that this collection has passed almost unnoticed by the majority of critics (there have been a few exceptions) is a sad comment on the quality of contemporary  criticism.

Mark Roberts

1983

Photograph of Susan Hampton in 1981 by John Tranter.  Thanks to http://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/