Poetry: Austral pain

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The Independent Culture
An evening of innocent Austral verse

Wigmore Hall, South Bank, London

The force and originality of the best Australian poetry has long been appreciated in this country, and poets such as Les Murray and Peter Porter are always assured of critical respect. In Sunday's evening of "innocent Austral verse", however, Barry Humphries' express purpose was to draw attention to the worst Australian poetry. For many years now, Humphries has collected what he refers to as "naive" verse, combing the shelves of thrift shops for slim volumes, many of them privately printed, and bearing titles such as 'Neath Austral Skies and The Cooee Reader.

In his introduction, and in a programme note, Humphries compared this "naive" verse to naive painting, suggesting that despite the apparent crudity of technique, it can catch some moods and emotions better than the work of more sophisticated practitioners. It's an attractive view, but not one substantiated here. The best verse selected was notable for its vigorous rhythms and unselfconscious use of demotic language - as in the anonymous ballad "Spider by the Gwydir", about a conman and his girl ("a spieler and his sheila") thwarted by a redback spider in their efforts to rob a drunken sheepman, which is notable for ingeniously rhyming "camped in" and "jam tin". The programme also included a couple of verses by Banjo Patterson, "The Man from Snowy River", whose strong lines and sure sense of locale and sentiment place him closer to Robert W Service than to William McGonagall.

If this innocent Austral verse caught anything, it was an unabashed and sometimes aggressive nationalism, often defined in opposition to British imperialism, as in Greg Craigie's uncompromising "Expatriates", written in 1983 (one of the most recent verses paraded here). Many poets referred proudly to Australia's distinctive indigenous flora and fauna - "the gay marsupial and the gloomy eucalypt".

Humphries and his colleagues, the critic Charles Osborne and a young Australian actor, Scott Agius, apparently recognising the hollowness of his reference to the qualities of bad verse, played for laughs. They did this expertly, all three displaying a commendable reluctance to milk a bad line, and a powerful sense of rhythm, often hard to maintain in the face of inadequate scansion ("The old pioneers, with courage endowed/ Did important work of which we can be proud"). There were many highlights - too many to quote even a representative selection.

But to some extent, bad verse is universal, defined by certain obvious features - clumsy scansion, howling ambiguities, unintentional bathos, inappropriately elevated language, contrived or non-existent rhymes (as in the obituary limerick to "a workmate named Alan" which rhymed his name with "gallon" and "forgotten"). And after a while, you're left with a sense of deja entendu and a certain weary guilt at finding entertainment in other people's sincere failures - a guilt that even the second-half appearance of Dame Edna Everage couldn't assuage. An entertaining evening; but ultimately, a painful one, in more than one way.

Robert Hanks

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