‘Grace Perry: Australian Poet, Publisher and Paediatrician’ by Dot Jensen. A review by Phillip Hall

Dot Jensen, Grace Perry: Australian Poet, Publisher and Paediatrician. Sydney: Boraga Academic, 2020. ISBN: 978-1-76032-359-2

This biography of the dynamic, yet forgotten Grace Perry, is the result of Dot Jensen’s doctoral studies at the University of Sydney. She graduated with a PhD in 1997 with a thesis titled: Grace Perry, Australian Poet and Publisher: Her Dynamic Role in the 1960s and 1970s. Jensen’s research and writing is meticulous and passionate as she takes on the mantle of Perry’s champion:

The aim of this writer is to reclaim a place for Grace Perry in the history of Australian Literature as a significant lyric poet as well as for her contribution as an editor, publisher and literary entrepreneur. (p 6)

For Jensen, Perry’s ‘remarkable achievements and her obsessive energy are those of a classic 1960s superwoman who wanted it all’ (p 5) and she argues for these reasons of gender, not talent or achievement, that she has been forgotten:

Perry was remarkable among Australian female poets for her willingness to become involved in the politics of Australian poetry. She threatened the hegemony of male poets and critics by establishing herself in the powerful positions of publisher and marketing director, as well as convener and director of workshops and literary events.(pp 4-5)

Jensen argues forcefully that this ‘forgetting’ was both wilful and tragic in its consequences:

Dr Grace Perry took her own life at the age of sixty in 1987. Ten years later few remember her and her work is still largely unacknowledged. Her poetry is no longer in print and few of her poems in the anthologies. The question has to be asked: How can she have been forgotten so quickly? How much more does a woman have to do to be included in the history of her times? (p 5)

Jensen spends some time analysing the 1964 schism in the Sydney poetry scene which saw Perry’s Poetry Australia and Robert Adamson’s New Poetry break away from the establishment’s Poetry Magazine. And she shows, very convincingly, how Perry was unfairly blamed for these splits:

What is puzzling in reflecting on the two attacks on the Poetry Society is that Adamson’s actions were tolerated in the local literary community in a way that Perry’s were not. Adamson’s actions were as ruthless as Perry’s had been. Conciliation has occurred between the male supporters of the factions, but it is the conclusion of this thesis that Perry was never forgiven for her very unfeminine behaviour in causing the major split in the Poetry Society in 1964. (pp 53-54)

The problem with Jensen’s explanation, however, is that Perry has not only been forgotten by males. Perry did not feature as a major poet in any of the anthologies of Australian women’s poetry that began to appear in the 1970s-1980s either, such as the classic Mother I’m Rooted: An Anthology of Australian Women’s Poetry (1975) and edited by Kate Jennings or in The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets (1986) edited by Susan Hampton and Kate Llewellyn. So, perhaps, Jensen needed to spend a little more time exploring all of the reasons for this ‘forgetting’ of Perry. Jensen concedes that Perry could be ‘quite forceful’, and uncompromising in her clashes with colleagues (‘she was liable to take you over if you let her’ p 60), and it is true that these traits are much more quickly forgiven, or explained away, in males, but were there also other factors at play in this ‘forgetting’ of Perry? As I have argued previously (Hall 2017) it is time to move beyond such gendered constructions of male (strong, influential, seminal) and female (shrill, strident, argumentative) and to separate assessments of Perry’s personality from her poetic output. Ronald Dunlop has argued, for example, that ‘Grace Perry’s poems are occasional: responses to a given moment, a given experience, hammered out hot, scarcely given time to cool before being put on paper’ (Dunlop 2016). Such an approach to poetic craft sounds remarkably contemporary and certainly deserving of renewed assessment.

One of the most enjoyable chapters in this biography is chapter nine, titled ‘Perry’s Longer Poem Sequences’, where Jensen turns her attention away from the life of publishing, facilitating workshops and role in poetry’s infamous schisms, and gives space to a sustained reading of Perry’s poetry (I wish Jensen had done more of this). Jensen argues, very convincingly, that Perry’s most successful books were livre compose, volumes designed not as collections of separate poems, but as a single poem sustained through fluctuating moods and verse-forms. This was a structure that Perry found in Christopher Brennan and Edith Sitwell and adapted for her own ends:

The language of the poetry to the contemporary reader may be more appropriately described in Kristeva’s terminology in Revolution in Poetic Language in which poetic diction is defined as ‘patterns of repetition and condensation…which must promote phonetic, syntactic and semantic repetition…that serve to foreground the signifier…and where literary practice is seen as exploration and discovery of the possibilities of language…and even language in the act of becoming’. (p 121)

Jensen shows that Perry’s livre compose structure demanded that ‘readers move through the flow of language as if to a symphony’. And she argues that, in our era of magazines and anthologies, this is a way of reading that is discriminated against as we have become more attuned to the short and sharply dramatic.

Jensen’s biography is divided between these twin concerns of ‘life’ and ‘poetry’. Most of her time is spent demonstrating the ‘dynamic role’ that Perry played in Australian poetry in the 1960s and 1970s. And she creates a vibrant picture of a go-ahead woman who helped change Australian poetry forever:

Her editorial choices in both Poetry Magazine and Poetry Australia gave preference to the new verse forms, inspired by the American poets, in a local climate that was reactionary and conservative. Her international vision…was the motivation for extraordinary entrepreneurial activities that placed Australian poets on an equal footing with their international contemporaries.

When it comes to Perry’s poetry, Jensen begins the argument for a new recognition of Perry’s achievement, both for the shorter poems and (especially) for the longer lyrical sequences. As Perry’s poetry is now long out of print, the need for a Collected or Selected is urgent.

References:

Dunlop, Ronald (2016), ‘Recent Australian Poetry’, first printed in Poetry Australia, 1970 & scanned by John Tranter in 2014, http://poeticsresearch.com/article/poetry-australia-32-1970-ronald-dunlop-recent-australian-poetry/, accessed online 3 December 2016.

Hall, Phillip (2017), ‘Poplars Stripped Bare: Mental Health & other Catastrophes in the Poetry of Grace Perry’, https://plumwoodmountain.com/poplars-stripped-bare-mental-health-and-other-catastrophes-in-the-poetry-of-grace-perry/, accessed online 31 March 2021.

Phillip worked for many years as a teacher of outdoor education and sport throughout regional and remote Australia. He now resides in the Melbourne suburb of Sunshine where he is a passionate member of the Western Bulldogs Football Club. Phillip’s poetry, essays and reviews can be seen in such spaces as Best Australian Poems, The Blue Nib, Cordite Poetry Review & Plumwood Mountain while his poetry collections include Sweetened in Coals (Ginninderra Press), Borroloola Class (IPSI), Fume (UWAP) and (as editor) Diwurruwurru: Poetry from the Gulf of Carpentaria (Blank Rune Press) and Cactus (Recent Work Press).He co-publishes the poetry e-journal, Burrow.

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