Neither Here Nor There: Suburban Voices in Australian Poetry

In a 1996 interview Chris Wallace-Crabbe observed: 'There was a stage when those of us who wrote about the scorned suburbs were looked down on by scions of the squattocratic gentry, like Judith Wright and Geoff Dutton. Subconsciously, they treated us as lower middle-class - terribly politely, of course! One reacted against that, and against the restrictions of academic language' ('Interview' 379). Perhaps Wallace-Crabbe had these words by Wright in mind:

'poets writing so-called 'city' poetry in Australia have generally tended ... to write rather a 'family and suburb' poetry, and even if the suburb is a natural milieu it is not easy to avoid sounding rather bourgeois when introducing motor-mowers. Bruce Dawe has written 'suburban' verse once or twice very well, once in a love-poem about milk bottles and orange peel; but his subject was really love, and his background was transformed by that. You can write love-poetry with any background at all, however banal' (132-33).

While indicating the status of suburbia in cultural discourse at the time (1971), Wright's comments also say something about representation. If Dawe's 'subject was really love' then it wasn't really suburbia, suggesting that if there is no such thing as an inherently poetic subject then it is because 'poetic' subject matter is smuggled into the apparently 'antipoetic'.

Can, then, suburbia in poetry be spoken about? Does suburbia have a voice? If the title of Les Murray's 'The Quality of Sprawl' suggests suburbia, it does so misleadingly. The poem is, as Paul Kane suggests, an apologia for Murray's poetics (193), as well as an apologia for his country: sprawl is 'An image of my country. And would that it were more so' (184). It is curious, then, that the suburbs are absent in the poem, given that 'sprawl' is the condition most commonly associated with them. The poem seems to expropriate suburbia's key aspect, leaving it featureless, and voiceless.

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Published 1 November 1998 in Writing the Everyday: Australian Literature and the Limits of Suburbia. Subjects: Australian identity, Australian poetry, Gender roles, Poetic techniques, Suburbs.

Cite as: McCooey, David. ‘Neither Here Nor There: Suburban Voices in Australian Poetry.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 18, no. 4, 1998, doi: 10.20314/als.4d8a89050b.