She Wore the Sky on Her Shoulders (Emilie Zoey Baker)
Dinted Halos (Angela Costi)
The Velocity of Night Falling (Dan Disney)
Love is the New Hate (Sean M Whelan)
These four emerging poets clearly circulate in a certain hip Melbourne milieu. At first, reading their "wonderspazzy" (Baker) acknowledgements and choppy colloquial poems I felt old and dowdy. Like a 60 year old lawn bowler who enters an under 20s night club and tries to join the dance. My understanding of the craft of poetry didn't sit easily with these poems, and the editor's warning, "you may not want to review these", echoed prophetically.
A more thoughtful reading changed my perspective considerably. The four voices became distinct and identifiable, I understood something of the motivation of at least three of these emerging poets. They forced me to ask myself, what exactly do I desire from poetry? Having taught poetry in universities for years (both in creative writing and in literary criticism classes) I thought I had a very open view of what might constitute a poem. Reading these works made me usefully revisit that debate, that question of aesthetics, that series of ever-expanding definitions of 'what is a poem'. I am also deeply interested in what motivates someone to write poetry. I am as interested in what they have to say, as I am in how they've chosen to craft that 'saying'.
In Dinted Halos Costi's voice is complex and vibrant. She explores religious ideas in a stimulating and intelligent way in poems such as 'Mary Magdalene's Redemption' and 'The Daughter's Liturgy'. She challenges expectations of feminine behaviour in 'Zorba's Widow' and 'Girls Have Them Too'. The diversity of her talent is showcased in her intense, compact portraits of people like 'Grandmother Maroulla', 'A Captured Man' or 'My Cousin R'. In this nineteen page volume there are few weak poems and many satisfying ones, such as 'The Little Boy Who Described Red' and 'When the Husband Comes Home (1929)': 'She pillows his palm across her cheek/ A bed of cacti would be softer'. Costi uses language economically and creatively to challenge norms and comfort zones. Her poems have grit. I shall keep an eye out for her next publication.
Emilie Zoey Baker's She Wore the Sky on Her Shoulders is a less even and certain articulation. I like Baker best when she is sending up current experiences such as the shared household in 'Share', the SMS phenomenon in 'SMS ME BABY' or an addiction to pop music in 'Pop Crush'. Her control over the craft of poetry is less confient than Costi's but she develops effectively in poems like 'I'm in Love with a Metal Man': 'I smile like a horseshoe and stretch back,/ red hot and able to move into any shape'. Some poems, like 'Trainsong#2', as well as the title poem, bothered me with their unconscious insularity of class and race. They lack the compassion necessary to make them powerful and insightful. But Baker can surprise and interest, can make a reader laugh and think again.
Sean M Whelan's Love is the New Hate seems less like poetry than prose with interesting line breaks and some funky images. It is witty and humorous at times but without the satisfying edge to be found in Baker. He returns repeatedly to the question of male/female relationships in poems like 'Mogwai', 'Lion Heart' and '1 of 2543 Things She Does'. This suggests an underlying concern with this eternal poetic theme but Whelan is focused on the quirky interactions between the genders rather than anything very deep. His images can be appealing and would work well in performance, in for example 'A Dick of Her Own', but they are images which provide a quick hit rather than a lasting and intriguing touch. The poem 'Try Hard' for example provides a list of doomed projects such as 'teaching goldfish the gentle art of Judo' which raise a slight smile the first time round but didn't stand up well to a second reading. 'Try hard' is one way in which I could describe this whole collection. I think Sean M Whelan really needs to find something he really cares about to write about. If he can find a strong motivator, some intense passion, he will probably find the motivation to develop his craft in more powerful and diverse ways, to move beyond the light and easy laugh.
The Velocity of Night Falling was the least appealing of these emerging voices. Disney has clearly been influenced by writers like Beckett, Camus, Hegel, Sartre, Heidegger, Kafka and Borges. There's nothing wrong in those influences themselves, it just depends what effect those influences have on the writer. In Disney's case it results in tedious rehashed nihilism. His poetry was consistent. This could be a virtue, except that this is a constant stream of pointless meditations on pointlessness - which is by now a very cliched point to be pointing out, again and again. Disney likes the surreal and it dominates poems like 'Man With Large Model of the City He Lives In Attached to His Back' but his surreal is somewhat tired and predictable. Surreal images can challenge and gain power through surprising the reader out of their rut of expectations, but Disney's never gave me that confronting shock. I've always enjoyed the work of Borges, and clearly so does Disney, but this poet lacks Borges' energy, craft, cleverness and ability to make the reader think hard about the nature of reality. Disney frequently uses the instructional tone and I suspect he wants to teach his projected boring, middle-class suburban readers how pointlessly boring, middle-class and suburban they are (and by implication, how cool and post-modern hip he is) ... and perhaps if he could find a lesson to teach which is just a touch more original and interesting then I'd find his instructions interesting, relevant or motivating.
What do I desire from poetry? Passion and craft. Intensity, energy, insight, surprise. Wit and grit. Stimulating language and ideas. Guess it begins to sound a bit like that appalling song, 'These are a Few of My Favourite Things', and I'm no Julie Andrews, so I'll stop making the list. Of course, it could never be definitive because some poet will always write a poem which rightly brings into question the premises of such a list. It's hard and probably unprofitable to summarise or compare these four diverse poets.. I will certainly watch their futures with interest to see where they journey on the continuum between energy and innui. I'm keen for more of their energy and diversity but who knows, maybe one day I'll start to enjoy innue?