Syd Writers' Festival Review: Her Beauty and Her Terror

21 May 2012

Surrounded by what Professor Barry Spurr referred to as "the crushed sapphires of the Sydney sky", it was an easy day to appreciate Australia's sunburnt beauty - more difficult to acknowledge her terror.

This focus on landscape was central to Friday's talk Her Beauty and Her Terror, a look at how Australian poetry fares in comparison to the rest of the Anglosphere.

Chaired by the intimidatingly eloquent Barry Spurr, Professor of Poetry at the University of Sydney, the panel included Robert Gray and Geoffrey Lehmann, co-editors of the recently published anthology Australian Poetry Since 1788.

Using their selection process of the anthology as a starting point, both editors explained the criteria they used to judge a poem. While each differed in the value they assigned to technique and content, they shared a belief in the importance of the poem's distinct tone of voice. What they didn't want, Lehmann said, was "toffee apple" poetry - lacklustre poems that were "sugary on the outside, floury inside."

In their comparison of other countries' literature, Lehmann and Gray praised Australian poetry as textured by a "vividness and vitality" which stems from the land itself. They noted earlier poets' preoccupation with subject matter as an attempt to come to terms with the strange, alien landscape, and contrasted this against the formal experimentation happening elsewhere in the world at the time.

At this point, homage was again paid to Australia's "incredible blue sky" in its ability to lift the most humdrum of images - garbage bins in Surry Hills - to the level of poetry. It was fitting then, that as the talk came to a close, the sun took its cue and sank below the horizon.

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