“The Best Australian Poems 2011”. Tell ‘im ‘e’s dreamin’

BAP 2011

Poems are Dreams – Or Not?

He says that poems are dreams

manifest on paper

that poems are from

your deep subconscious

they float up to the surface

of your brain then flit down

the neural pathways

into your fingertips and onto

the tip of your pen.

But what if he’s wrong?

what if they are an expression

of frustration with everyday life?

what if they are anger

at the foolishness of politicians?

what if they are observations

of simple events?

what if they are cracks in the edifice

through which we shine a torch?

what if they are a reaction

to life’s tragedies and triumphs?

what if they are rampant emotions?

what if they are jokes

played on or with the reader?

what if they are all of these

and only some are dreams ?

 © Mike Hopkins 2011

I was given a copy of The Best Australian Poems 2011 (editor John Tranter), as a departing gift from some very nice work colleagues on finishing my contract with Country Health SA last week.  Today, I cycled up to Brownhill Creek, sat under a river redgum with a thermos of rooibos, and started to read it.

I read about a quarter of it, and then dipped into other parts of the book at random.  I was almost immediately hit by the impenetrability of many of the poems (not all of them e.g Jude Aquilina and Melinda Smith are two exceptions  in what I’ve read so far). So then I did what I don’t usually do.  I read the editor’s introduction.  In it, John Tranter proposes that poems can be read as dreams.  He says of his selection of Australian poems:

“I suspect that these baroque and potent imaginings can only have come into existence as fragments of dreams or nightmares”


“enjoy this fragment of dream-work”


“of course if you don’t agree with my line of thinking, you can always ask for a second opinion”.

Well, my opinion, partly expressed above, is that if he has used this filter (i.e. looking for poems which resemble the result of dreams), then he has excluded all sorts of equally valid types of poems. I’ve always found dreams (mine and anyone else’s) difficult to interprete (other than the obvious Freudian interpretations).   Maybe this is why I don’t understand many of the poems in The Best Australian Poems 2011.

Am I the only one who has this difficulty? I’ve had it with previous editions of the book, but I don’t have it, for instance, with Best of American Poetry anthologies. Nor do I have it with most of the poetry I hear around Adelaide.  Are these “dream poets” writing for the general populace, or just for each other?  Am I being harsh, or is it just that I don’t “get it”?  Have Australian poetry anthologies been ‘captured’ by a sub-set of Australian poets who all write in the same style, for the same small audience?

Perhaps Darryl Kerrigan should edit Best Australian Poems 2012?:


10 thoughts on ““The Best Australian Poems 2011”. Tell ‘im ‘e’s dreamin’

  1. Ta for the name check, Mike. I loved Jude’s poem too ! And Michael Sharkey’s is hysterical (and very good in other ways). And there were half a dozen other good ones – by which word I mean I wanted to read them again (Sariban, Thurloe, Plunkett, Kennedy…) . But you are right about the impenetrability index – through the roof. As a non academic outsider myself, I despair when I read things like the Minter poem from that anthology. He’s poetry editor of Overland and very erudite (I heard him speak in October at Newcastle) but goodness me what a load of tosh. Nudest Emperor I’ve ever seen. Can you see people repeating that to each other 150 years from now ? Me neither. I’m not afraid of experimentation, mind: I’ve been known to dabble a bit in flarf / Google sculpture poetry and I am one of the few Aussie poets I know using Twitter as a poetic medium. But please please leave a way in for the reader. You don’t have to open the front door for them but at least leave the third floor window a bit ajar. What towering arrogant pointlessness to present them with an unscalable wall.

    • Blimey Melinda, you should have written the post for me. And it carries far more weight from you, being an ‘includee’ in the anthology, whereas I am a ‘reject’. I hadn’t even got as far as M for Minter, but have just dipped into it: “paroxetine somnolence weakly ornamented”! I think he’s channelling Ern Malley – there’s nothing wrong with that as long as you put “After Ern Malley” at the start. Can’t see people repeating that to each other next week, never mind in 150 years. It’s like its written for a small, incestuous group who all pat each other on the back, saying “great stuff, real poetry”.

    • Very well said Melinda, and Mike. I remember a comment from one of the judges of the Adelaide Plains Poets poetry competition one year – they were referring to one poem and said – I can’t give that an award, it’s fancy words, but it’s not ABOUT anything.

      I agree, a poem has to be about something. It may not be something you know about or care about, but it should be about something.

      And poems can be any number of things – sex, love, children, nature, politics, sport, hobbies, anything you name, you can have a poem about it. But it has to be something.

      And what the gosh is ‘paroxetine somnolence?’ Something or other sleepiness I’m guessing, but who would know the word paroxetine? I’m going to have to look it up now, aren’t I?


      • Let me know when you find out what ‘paroxetine somnolence’ means. My guess is that its something to do with a bottle blonde falling asleep after reading too much of the anthology.

  2. G’day Mike, I really like this post, but don’t feel qualified to comment on it, just an intuitive ‘I agree’, plus I haven’t read the book. But for what it’s worth – yep.

    PS. Who’s the poem (that opens the post) by? Is it yours? If it’s from the book, I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I quite like it.

    • Russ, The poems is mine, and didn’t make it into the anthology! Wrote it on the spot at B’Hill Creek after wading through a quarter of the anthology and reading his introduction.

      P.S. you are highly qualified to comment.

  3. Poems are difficult to write; they shouldn’t be difficult to read. If poetry is difficult to write and read it doesn’t really have any hope.

    Personally, I find listening to other people’s dreams incredibly dull anyways:)

    • I agree Krishan. I can accept a fair bit of difficulty in reading a poem. I don’t necessarily expect to understand it on first or even second reading. But it seems to me that many of these poems are deliberately obtuse, deliberately obscure, and that some people see this as ‘clever’. To me it’s the sort of thing that makes the general populace sneer at poetry. No, poetry doesn’t have to be simple and obvious, but it should at least eventually yield to the persistent, intelligent reader.

  4. I agree Mike. I like to be able to understand poems, and have an emotional reaction to them. I don’t consider confusion an adequate emotional response. Maybe that is why I have only written children’s poetry recently.

    • Yes Kristin. It’s hard to have an emotional response (other than disdain, if disdain is an emotion, or confusion as you suggest), when you’ve got no idea what that poet is on about. Having to have a dictionary next to you can also take away some of the spontaneity – I don’t mind that too much, but I resent it if the poet appears to be deliberately choosing obscure words.

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