David Verse Goliath: On USyd’s cuts to poetry

The University is failing to preserve its poetic history by way of education, and in doing so, it is failing to nourish the poets of tomorrow.

It was in the local charity book shop that I found a book called Modern Australian Verse on a bottom shelf, sandwiched between books kept in far better condition. This copy had many indentations in the spine, symptomatic of ardent page turning.

Despite it being entitled ‘Modern’ Australian Verse, the collection was first published in 1958, with the edition I picked up being last updated in 1971. The pages were a somnolent shade of golden brown, a tonal match to the hue of the English Breakfast I would sip on while reading it.

I found a chronology of USyd alumni immortalised in this tattered collection. Alumni, or past educators at the University, included Christopher Brennan, Robert D. Fitzgerald, R. G. Howarth, A. D. Hope, Rosemary Dobson, Lex Banning, and Joyce Shewcroft. Many familiar names, but some I had never heard of or been exposed to. All were poets I would expect the university to relish in as a part of our history.

In my biannual scroll through the English units of study website, I had noticed that, very conspicuously, the unit ENGL2650 Reading Poetry had been branded with a damning “This unit of study is not available in 2021.”

With a furrowed brow, and jaded by the destructive unit cuts, I scrolled through the units available for the following year — revealing further missing units.

It seemed antithetical to my education that I was moving through an English degree without an intensive study on poetry. 

I contacted Dr Toby Fitch, poetry editor of Overland and Creative Writing lecturer at the University who had also noticed the erosion of poetry units in recent years:

“[Units about] reading poetry in a more focused way… Or poetics… They’re not there anymore,” he said.

The ‘retirement’ of Reading Poetry, the only generalised undergraduate unit of study about the form, leaves ENGL3705 Writing Country: Indigenous Ecopoetics as the one remaining poetry unit in the undergraduate course. Honours units such as Modern Australian Poetry and Poetics have also been retired.

The cuts to poetry units were not limited to undergraduate courses. Dr Fitch mentioned the ‘retirement’ of the Advanced Poetry Workshop masters unit, which was a capstone unit within Creative Writing postgraduate courses.

This brought into mind similar cuts to units I had witnessed. The retirement of the University’s Chair of Australian Literature, Professor Robert Dixon, in 2019, resulted in the corresponding retirement of a variety of units in Australian Literature. The position of Chair has since not been replaced.

Units of study that are now indefinitely “unavailable” include Australian Gothic, Australian Writing in the Postmodern Age, Writing Australian Nature, and Australian Stage and Screen. In fact, the Australian Literature minor now possesses only two units with a centralised focus on Australian literature.

This comes in the wake of unprecedented cuts to units in the Arts and the Social Sciences, the guillotine of austerity proving to be especially unrelenting towards poetics and Australian literature. This, in turn, has impacted many of the University’s casual workers in the department.

“Poetry…promotes honesty and the understanding of truths and truthfulness in language and in ourselves,” Dr Fitch said “I daresay management at USyd could also benefit from such studies, considering how they communicate with and treat their workers and students.”

Dr Fitch facilitates poetry readings at Sappho’s Bookshop, pointing to community as a means of enjoying the artform with others. I have been to similar readings and open mic nights at Lentil as Anything in Newtown. The love of the artform is undoubtedly alive in the community.

“The University of Sydney is missing an opportunity there, I think.” Toby Fitch said. “They have poets on their staff, and we’re keen to teach poetry.”

“There’s a long lineage at the University of Sydney of poets teaching poetry, and fostering the study of poetry,” He said. “Not just poetry generally, but specifically Australian poetry.”

As educators, the apathy towards protecting poetry units and Australian literature are corrosive to the University’s ability to deliver a holistic education in English. It is a sign of missed opportunities at education, including unrequited opportunities of studying Indigenous literary voices in the context of Australian literature.

The University is failing to preserve its poetic history by way of education, and in doing so, it is failing to nourish the poets of tomorrow.

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