Philip Levine

I read in the NY TImes this week that Philip Levine is to be the next American Poet Laureate. In that great tradition that they took from the British, Levine will succeed W.S.Merwin in the role.

And in tune with these tough economic times, Levine is a working man’s poet. The NY TImes says:

Mr. Levine grew up in Detroit, back when it was still a “vital city,” he said. His parents were emigrants from Russia, but for some reason they told him he was of Spanish ancestry ,and as a young man he became fascinated with Spanish anarchism and the Spanish Civil War, which still turn up in his poems. Mr. Levine’s father died when he was 5, leaving the family hard up, and before embracing poetry he held a succession of what he has called “stupid jobs.” He built transmissions for Cadillac, worked in the Chevrolet gear and axle factory, drove a truck for Railway Express. His early poems, often written in narrow, seven-syllable lines, were gritty, hard-nosed evocations of the lives of working people and their neighborhoods.

Over the years Mr. Levine’s subject matter hasn’t changed much — he remains a distinctly urban poet — but his line has lengthened, and his edge has softened. Many of his poems these days are narrative, anecdotal elegies for that vanished working-class world, and as in the title poem of his Pulitzer-winning volume, he finds depths of beauty in the simplest of pleasures

More here

Low tide, Norman Bay

I was pleased this week to have some new poems published online in Eureka Street, including Low Tide, Norman Bay, which I reproduce below. You can see the rest of the poems here.

Low tide, Norman Bay

This isn’t a place to talk about death,
the tide falling, thin peaks
crumbling in a light onshore,
the light fading too,
though the waves in the corner
are still that aqua colour
that makes them look tropical,
the beach is as wide as ever
Skull Island holds the horizon.

The light is falling away with the tide
but the dark shapes are birds going somewhere
the bubbles in the sand
small breaths rising into the air

Warrick Wynne

Photo above: Low Tide, Norman Bay by Warrick

Big changes in Poets Union

I’m not usually all that interested in the political and largely Sydney-centric nature of Australian poetry politics, but it sounds like big changes afoot with the Poet’s Union and the Australian Poetry Centre. This came from a recent newsletter; I’ve got to admit some of it sound pretty exciting:

Dear Member,

As you will know from previous correspondence, the Poets Union and the Australian Poetry Centre are to merge at the end of the year to create a new, truly national poetry body, Australian Poetry Limited. This merger is supported by the Literature Board of the Australia Council, Arts NSW and Arts Victoria. For the first time poetry will receive a more sustainable commitment from Arts funding bodies in order to provide a professional  service to members, support poetry groups  and have a greater influence on the reception (and promotion) of poetry nationwide. Australian Poetry will have an office in Melbourne and Sydney in 2011, with a brief to include all cities, states and territories in projects and opportunities. The purpose of this newsletter is to let you know about the arrangements and the effect they will have on your current membership of the PU or APC.

Structure and Governance

Australian Poetry will be governed by a National Board. The members of the current Board are: Chris Wallace-Crabbe (Chair), Anna Kerdijk-Nicholson (Secretary), Nell White, Marcus Powe, David Musgrave, Margaret Bradstock and Martin Langford. The Board will be responsible for the strategic direction of the organisation and advising the National Director in regard to all future plans for Australian Poetry. A National Director will report to the Board and have responsibility for the artistic program, working with a team initially based in Victoria and NSW to deliver an exciting national education, events and publications program, including the publication of high quality poetry journal. A National Advisory Council will be made up of leading poets and representatives of key poetry organisations to advise the Board and National Director in regard to the program and strategic direction of the organisation.


Following national advertising and interviews, Paul Kooperman has been appointed National Director of the organisation. Australian Poetry is currently advertising for a Publications Manager and other positions will soon be advertised for including a NSW Director and National Administrative Officer. Please watch the websites for these advertisements. You will be advised of these appointments as they are made.

NSW Director

The NSW Director will be responsible for the delivery of the national program in NSW and for initiating specific NSW projects. It is anticipated that there will be a need for a volunteer committee to assist the NSW Director. The exact nature and function  of this committee will be advised following the appointment of the NSW Director.


Current APC members will be invited to roll their membership on into the new organisation without having to pay extra joining fees. Current Poets Union financial members will automatically become members of the new organisation and receive free membership until June 30th 2011, at which time you will receive renewal notices. From then on membership will date from time of joining. Membership fees have not been finalised. They will be slightly higher than a single membership of either organisation but cheaper than being a member of both organisations. They will offer more for your money than comparable organisations. The next newsletter will provide the fee structure.


The Board of Australian Poetry is determined that the new organisation will provide services nationwide. The services may be different from the ones which you have come to expect and specific projects will change according to circumstances but the core services will include:

A National Journal, published 3 times a year (replacing Blue Dog, twice a year, and Five Bells, four times a year)

A national Website, offering a members’ only section offering updates and opportunities restricted to members only

A monthly E-Newsletter, including national opportunities, competitions and updates

Discounts to national events, readings, workshops, courses, festivals and opportunities

Discounts to other relevant organisations, bookshops and other stores who are partners of Australian Poetry

The Next Newsletter

We will be posting another newsletter later in the year which will advise you of the formal procedures for winding up the PU and APC. At this time we should be able to announce all appointments. In the meantime, please keep your eye on our respective websites for interim information.

Frequently Asked Questions

Answers to frequently asked questions about the merger have been posted on the website

These answers expand on the information contained in this newsletter.

Chris Wallace-Crabbe

Chairperson, Australian Poetry Centre

Brook Emery

Chairperson, Poets Union



The Role of the Critic (RIP Frank Kermode)

What role does the critic play in our understanding of great literature, including poetry?  How can our understanding be enhanced by literary criticism? And, I’m not really thinking about the short reviews that adorn the literary sections of the weekend broadsheets, but those critics who spend their careers developing expertise around certain authors and genres and then communicate that understanding to interested readers?

I thought about that last week when I saw that the great critic Frank Kermode had died. Some called him ‘the greatest critic of his generation’ and his death came around the same time as I was thinking about critics and how they can help enhance understanding and bring insight. I’ve been teaching Hamlet to my literature class and I was at the stage where I wanted them to be opened up to the idea of ‘interpretation’ and hear how critics had seen this great play. I turned immediately to A.C. Bradley, who I felt had helped me in my early understanding of Shakespeare: particularly Macbeth.

I generally tell my students that good critics can help you see new things in texts you read. Essentially, critics are gifted readers and there’s two or three reactions you can have. You can disagree and move on, you can say “I’ve felt that myself about this text, but never been able to put it like that” or “wow, I’ve never thought that before”. All those reactions are okay and they’re all ultimately helpful.

I didn’t know Kermode’s work as well as Bradley’s (and you can download the Bradley lectures from Project Gutenberg here) but I’d read and enjoyed some of his writing over the years. One Guardian tribute by John Sutherland said:

Beginnings and endings (genesis, apocalypse, final judgment) were a particular area of interest. It’s in this period that his most quotable quote originates. Why is it, Kermode asked, when the alarm clock by our bed goes “tick-tick”, the brain insists on hearing “tick-tock”? The reason, he suggests, is our human addiction to beginnings and (even more addictively) endings: “Tick is a humble genesis, tock a feeble apocalypse.” We’re wired, in other words, into teleology.

It relates to a larger point. Literature, as Kermode saw it, cannot make sense of our lives – and the end points, or destinations that we like to think we are heading for in our lives. What literature can do is “attempt the lesser feat of making sense of the ways we try to make sense of our lives”. Explain, that is, why our ears insist on hearing tick-tock, not tick-tick. And why we must have, or invent, our happy-ever-afters not just in grand narratives such as the Bible or Das Kapital, but in the smallest tracts of our daily lives (why, for example, do we begin and finish meals rather than just eating?)

Some more reading on Kermode below:

Kermode tribute by John Naughton in the Guardian

NY Times Tribute

Washing Post Tribute

Telegraph Obituary

Top photo of Franke Kermode from The Guardian

W.S. Merwin (US Poet Laureate)

I don’t mind the idea of an official Poet Laureate, though I’m well aware it can be a bit of a death knell for a poetic career. I wonder who’d be Australia’s choice over the years?: Henry Lawson, Christopher Brennan?, Kenneth Slessor?, A.D.Hope might have been fine for the time, Judith Wright the environmental poetic warrior, Les Murray probably.

This came to mind as I read in this NY Times article that W.S. Merwin had been appointed Poet Laureate of the USA. He’s not a poet I know much about so I’m going to be interested in finding out a bit more about him. The article sums up some of his career in this way:

At 18 he sought out the advice of Ezra Pound, who told him to write 75 lines every day. Pound also suggested taking up poetry translation to learn what could be done with language — advice that Mr. Merwin followed.

He attended Princeton University on scholarship, studying with the critic R. P. Blackmur, who he has called “a kind of mentor and parent,” and John Berryman, who he said was one of the brightest people he ever met. He has said that he used his initials because doing so seemed serious and adult, in the manner of T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden.

From his earliest scribblings, Mr. Merwin has had a conception of poetry that is strongly tied to music. “It’s close to the oral tradition,” he said. “It’s close to song. You have to hear it before you can understand it.” His first collection, “A Mask for Janus,” was selected for the Yale Younger Poets Prize by Auden, whose style of long unspooling sentences had influenced the novice’s own verse.

In the 1960s he began writing poems without any punctuation, and later, without capital letters, except for the beginning. “I came to feel that punctuation was like nailing the words onto the page,” he once explained. “I wanted instead the movement and lightness of the spoken word.”

Mr. Merwin came to wider attention for his hard-edged political allegories that condemned the Vietnam War and environmental destruction, starting with his 1967 collection, “The Lice.”

There’s a biographical account from the Academy of American Poets HERE and some poems from The Atlantic HERE

Peter Porter (1929-2010)

In all the busy-ness of the ANZAC Day long weekend I didn’t hear until today that poet Peter Porter died on Friday. I’ve admired Porter for a long time, not so much for his poetic landscape – it’s not really my interest – but for the body of work he created and his truth to his vision.

Porter’s work is a bit too urbane for my taste, almost too civilized and too classical in its literary basis. I sometimes wonder what kind of poet he might have become had he stayed in Australia? Better?

But Porter’s body of work is commanding and undeniable and I heard him read a couple of times over the years and always enjoyed that experience. Some critics say he’s the best poet since Auden. Big call! But it’s undoubtedly a big loss to poetry.

Sydney Morning Herald article on Porter’s death

Guardian article on Peter Porter’s death

Daily Telegraph article on Peter Porter

Peter Porter profile at the Poetry Archive