Sunday, February 5, 2012

What is a poetry generation? Some ideas...

There exists multiple ways to conceptualise generations. The multiplicity of view points and approaches to study and definition of generations vary widely, consequently in order to deploy the term effectively, to have it read with an intended meaning, one needs to demarcate how the term is being utilised. In the case of the “generation of 68” the term acts as a label for a group of poets rather than as a specific generation locator. It is not utilised critically to demarcate a generation of poets born after 1945 in Australia, but used to define a group of poets within the post-war generation. The “generation of 68” is does not function as an all encompassing term like “generation X” or “baby boomers”. It functions more like the label of “Beat generation” which was applied (in their case self consciously) to a group of poets.

The label "generation of 68" is synecdochic, it functions as a figure of speech where the part is used to express a greater whole, it is short hand for the generational location and the contributions young poets were making to Australian poetry, but it does not represent all poets of their generation (i.e. Les Murray is their contemporary, but not a "generation of 68" poet). While the term does carry obvious political connotations, and many have read it as a reference to international youth movements, 1968 was also the year that many underground magazines appeared in Australia (Mok, Crosscurrents, Our Glass and Transit) and readings began in meaningful ways at Monash University and La Mama. The significance of the year 1968 is reinforced in the preface to Applestealers (1974), where Colin Talbot explains that the collection offers a sample of works from the “renaissance in Australian poetry, which took place from about 1968, and continues to occur” (12). The year 1968 is a reference point, a metaphor, used to denote a period of time, a beginning date for a decade of change.

The "generation of 68" remains in many ways a contentious label or definition, this is largely due to the ambiguous nature of literary generations. The earliest allusion to a “generation of 68” is arguably Thomas Shapcott’s 1970 Australian Book Review article “Poets Today”. Shapcott writes that the advent of a number of new little poetry magazines beginning in 1968 “indicates that there is – at last – an active body of young people prepared to make the break with established journals and go it on their own” and whose faults of “brashness, arrogance, imitation [and] haste” are outweighed by their “openness of attitude”, and who will “have to face exactly the same problems of integrity, allegiance and adaptability as every generation before them” (277). While he does not explicitly use the term “generation of 68”, Shapcott’s article links for the first time in print the idea of a new generation of young poets with the year 1968, demonstrating his tacit awareness a new generation.

Tranter’s “Four Notes in the Practice of Revolution” (1977) is the first article to explicitly use the phrase “generation of 68”. Tranter ruminates over the preceding decade, and writes of the generation of 68’s rebellion and revolution. He describes the conservative poetry scene that the New Poets were rebelling against in the late 1960s, and the importance of small magazines around that time for the “cross-fertilization of ideas and techniques”, as well as focusing “the anti-establishment aims of the groups” (129). The groups go unexplored, but the generation of 68 comprised poets associated with Monash University, La Mama and Carlton in Melbourne and the New Poetry magazine and Balmain poetry scene in Sydney.

In the introduction to The New Australian Poetry (1979) anthology Tranter begins by stating without reservation, “This anthology contains the works of twenty-four poets, mainly young writers who first came to prominence in the closing years of the 1960s – the ‘Generation of ‘68’” (xv). He goes on to examine some of the causes that made this “loose group of writers” so “unique”, citing: demography (youth population/ baby boomers), music, technology, drugs, shifting attitudes to authority, American poetry, the Vietnam War and a “commitment to the overhauling of the poetic method and function” (xxvi). He also identifies the importance of poetry centres, poetry readings, and “underground” magazines. At this moment, by assembling a group of poets around the label, Tranter gives concrete form to what was previously an abstract idea by naming poets associated with the generation. The anthology contains the work of twenty-four Australian poets including Robert Adamson, Michael Dransfield, Laurie Duggan, John Forbes, Kris Hemensley and Alan Wearne. Tranter’s edited collection is in many ways a showcase and a retrospective for his own generation of poets, who he perceives as being united by “a generally expressed antagonism to the established mainstream of poetry at that time, which they saw as too conservative” (The New xv).


  1. Hi TAF

    I saw your comment on my blog and thought I'd come over and check this out. (I'm using my blogger, rather than WordPress identity - but I have another blog on WP for reviews, Devoted Eclectic.)

    You might be interested in the final chapter of my thesis which looks at all the other women apart from Viidikas and Maiden who were publishing in the little magazines at the same time as the 22/24 male poets represented in The New Australian Poetry. The rest of the thesis, in my opinion, isn't very interesting which is why I haven't tried to publish it.

    As you no doubt know, editor John Tranter considered the work of women poets who contributed to the little magazines lacking in sufficient quality to be represented in his New Poetry anthology, so there's lots of room for further discussion about aesthetics in relation to men's and women's writing.

    Are you involved at all in any proposed even on International Women's Day? The Stella Prize is promoting discussion among bookshops and authors on the question: "Is women's writing different from men's writing?"

    I'd be very interested in your views, especially in relation to (new/current) canon formation regarding the previous fifty years of Australian poetry.

    Great that you made contact. Are you on Twitter?

    1. Hi Elizabeth,

      I would be very interested in reading your chapter! Tranter has long been questioned over the gnerder bias of the anthology.

      I will look into the Stell Prize events.

      Thank you,

  2. Hi Fiona

    I'll see if I can dig it up from my computer archives and either post it on my blog or email it to you.

    Just checked on the comments issue: if I click on "subscribe by email" below right, I get the message "Follow-up comments will be sent to..." Mystery solved, thank you!!

    @ElizabethLhuede on Twitter

  3. Hi Fiona

    I have recently uploaded some reviews and articles I wrote in the 1980's and 1990's which you may find useful:

    Towards a New Diversity: Martin Johnston and the New Australian Poetry:

    The Ultimate Commitment – Michael Dransfield: Collected Poems:


    1. Thanks Mark for letting me know about those - I will certainly check them out!



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