Review of A crowd of voices in ‘Small, poignant details of hell’, The Weekend Australian, 1986
If the Auschwitz Poems [by Lily Brett] are minimalist, those of A crowd of voices often teem. It seems unreasonable to insist that a writer has only one voice, or that a collection should be unified, but too great a variety can make a book harder to talk about and such a collection can become a teasing thing when one discovers something one likes, only to then turn the pages vainly for something else like it.
There are many different forms in A crowd of voices—‘free’ verse, more structured rhymed poetry, ‘prose’ poems, stories—and many different tones and styles, from the wryly intellectual or cooly speculative to the lyrical or stridently engaged, and from the Tranteresque ‘The High Price of Travelling’ to a touch of Robbe-Grillet in ‘X Equals X’. The subjects, too, are just as various.
One’s attention is shifted constantly, rarely encouraged to settle. In this way the book does become a crowd of voices, but, as often in a crowd, it is hard to hear what anyone is saying.
The great risk of such writing is of mere cleverness, and Williams does not always avoid it. Too often—although there are lines, images, whole poems enough to prove that it can do more—the poetry engages the mind only, or seems more concerned to display a range of reading, talent and contacts than to explore a subject or emotion.
And, as when a sort of necessity leaves the writing, or the statement of feeling is not strong enough to shape itself, a touch of rhetoric enters the work (here mainly anaphora, the repeated use of the same opening word or phrase).
For all my reservations, however, the book is entertaining and alive with promise, and I shall await Williams’ next with interest. A crowd of voices was awarded the Anne Elder and Mary Gilmore prizes for a first book of Australian poetry. It is not hard to see why. There is abundant talent, and more than a touch of the poet here; all that he wants is direction.
Review of A crowd of voices, in ‘Mordant and threatening behind the bright detail’, Sydney Morning Herald, September 1986
Stephen J. Williams is a very good poet, whose promise is attested by his Mary Gilmore Prize, awarded for a first book of poetry by the Association for the Study of Australian Literature.
The cover of A Crowd of Voices features a Peter Booth painting. Williams’s most effective poems are similarly mordant, even threatening, behind the pantomime of occasions and bright detail. Even his jokes, like Booth’s beasts and fancy dress, are disturbingly serious.
Williams is tantalised by what lives behind blank spaces in a text, behind cult images and trendy behaviour, behind ideas and obsessions. ‘Epic Red’ and ‘Burning Poem’ are the most obvious examples.
You can burn an argument by falling silent,
though a word is logically uninflammable.
You can burn the midnight oil, have a burning
ambition or burning desire, burn money or
burn time. . . You can burn Dresden,
or burn Hiroshima, or burn the world.
Anything that burns or should not burn, that
you can burn, other people can burn, too.
Williams’s parody-ripostes to John Tranter and Rae Desmond Jones are some of the best contributions to current poetic writings of this type. In many of his poems you feel a large power of poetic analysis—this weight is behind even the lightly-touched-in allusion to a photograph, Mario Giacomelli’s ‘Scanno’.