Detail from ‘An outdoor portrait of Gwen Harwood in 1959’. Photograph from Meanjin/C.B. Christesen collection, University of Melbourne Archives. Photographer unknown.
The following is the text of a lecture Robert Adamson gave as CAL Chair of Australian Poetry at the University of Technology Sydney.
I want to read a note that Judith Wright wrote to me after I had reviewed her book Alive in the Australian in 1973, it’s a letter that’s relevant to the way I have approached this lecture tonight.
Just to say thank you for the review—not because it was kind, but because it was a splendid piece of model reviewing of the sort that hardly ever happens. A few more of your reviews of Australian poets and people might really start knowing what poetry’s all about. It was tremendous.
After touring schools and talking about poetry to them, it’s obvious to me why poetry’s the most neglected art. I often wonder whether I should have refused from the start to let the educationists use anything I wrote at all. Of course about the only money you get from poetry comes from syllabus setting but the price is far too high. I’ve written articles for teachers’ journals in the past, pleading for poetry to be taken off the set courses and made an option to be taught only by people who know about it—preferably poets—but the mills of that god grind on. Right through the universities, for that matter. It’s outright murder. Again, thanks. And I hope you’re well and happy.
I hadn’t met Judith Wright at that stage, when I wrote this book review, I had just turned 30 and I was astonished at her generous response, that she had bothered to write was a gift, after all my review wasn’t a total rave. I compared one of her poems to a Bob Dylan song and imagined if she read the review she wouldn’t be so impressed with that at the time. I didn’t realize Judith Wright was used to being told by male reviewers that after her first two books her work wasn’t up to scratch.
Judith Wright was born in 1915, five years before Gwen Hardwood and seven before Dorothy Hewett. Wright’s first book The Moving Image, was published in 1946, 17 years before Gwen Harwood’s first book and 22 years before Dorothy’s first book, Windmill Country. Judith Wright was a model, a challenge and an inspiration to all three poets I am going to discuss.
In the Weekend Australian in February 1988, Judith Wright published a piece ‘on the problem of writing as a woman’ she mentions the ‘masculine, Anglo-Saxon models’ which she was convinced that her experience ‘contradicted’ (E.L.)
You had two problems to contend with always: (a) your whole surrounds, your whole background, was quite different from the stuff you were given to read: and (b) in any case, it was masculine. I started writing, I suppose, more or less on the old model. And that’s why people—males—will always say that after my first books, my work went seriously off centre…You’ll still find it.
Dorothy Hewett, Gwen Harwood and Fay Zwicky are pioneers of contemporary Australian poetry. They invented and adventured forms and lines from classic to post modern. Ahead of their time, their influence is continual and deep running .
I am going to read some classic poems tonight. Gwen Harwood’s work is set on many school courses, if you hear something you know, it will have a different context by the time things unfold so keep listening, listen anew as the poems speak rather than their critics. I’m interested in how these poets connect and interact, just in terms of geography they are interesting: one grew up in Western Australia and settled in Sydney, one was born in Melbourne and settled Perth, the other grew up in Brisbane and moved to Tasmania and settled in Hobart. They were connected even though they all lived with some form of the tyranny of distance. These women were all highly erudite by the time they finished University, the young Dorothy Hewett was an actor as well as a novelist and poet, Fay Zwicky was a concert pianist by the age of 10 and Gwen played Bach on the church organ in Brisbane in her teens. It’s interesting to know what they thought of each other’s work.
Here’s a paragraph written by Gwen Harwood :
No other Australian poet is quite like Dorothy Hewett or is able to create character in poetry in the same way. .. Many women have been forced into silence, or into disguise and evasion, trying to write poems like these… Dorothy Hewett’s Alice in Wormland reveals her power as an artist .. If the sheer range of grief, ecstasy, pain and love seem incredibly dramatic, that is a good thing. Drama, like poetry, gives us the power to transcend ourselves.
Gwen Harwood knew a lot about ‘disguise and evasion’ and she found Dorothy’s straight-shooting thrilling even she though wrote about similar subjects in a very different manner.
Dorothy Hewett wrote of Gwen’s poetry:
Her approach is highly personalized…She is very much her own woman, with her own brave individual voice, quite outside current fads and fancies
In 2006 Western Australia declared Fay Zwicky a ‘ Living Treasure’. When a journalist from The Age asked her what she thought of the honour, Fay replied ‘Living Treasure’ —‘It’s a most repulsive term’.
In this lecture I hope to create a field in which poems will answer poems, where correspondences between the three poets may create a new focus… These poets are the fates and furies who moved with style and grace through Australia’s changing literary climate for eight decades. Gwen Harwood and Dorothy Hewett passed away in their late seventies. Now at 81 Fay Zwicky continues to write important poetry. Her latest book, Picnic, was published by Giramondo Press in 2006. After its release she said ‘My poems are getting a bit engrossed by the political state of things at the moment … leaning towards a study of despotism, the waste of life and the need for survival.’
I first encountered Harwood, Hewett and Zwicky in my role of as editor of New Poetry magazine. I corresponded with all three in the early 1970s, eventually met them and finally became friends . I had a close friendship with Dorothy and together we wrote a film-script, a mock opera Ziimmer, and Zoo, a play for the Theatre for Young People which was produced in the 1980s. In 1993 at the Launceston Poetry Festival, my wife Juno and I spent time with Gwen Harwood surrounded by poets, friends and various marsupials. We even saw a platypus in the wild.
There are many excellent books and essays about these poets, (I’ll list them in the footnotes) there are pages and pages of critical analysis of the poetry, better than I could possibly attempt in one lecture; so here in the spirit of Judith Wright, I want to introduce you to some of their best poems directly. I have been reading through their books again for the last two months and have discovered certain poems in the work of each poet that connect with others, sometimes it’s as if each poet has written a ‘take’ of one of their peer’s poems. Sometimes there are direct responses to existing poems, echoing at first, then expanding into new original dimensions.
When Gwen Harwood heard Dorothy Hewett reading her poetry at a Literary Festival in Hobart in 1980: she responded by writing, ‘Quartet for Dorothy Hewett’. In this poem Gwen weaves together a kind of spell and a curse, a poem where two women commiserate about their demon lovers and broken love affairs, this is on the surface, there are levels of meaning and music, ‘Truth is
humbling’ ‘Truth’s a motel room/ where nymphs and satyrs howl for nembutal’ ‘Truth will dash out our teeth’ ‘Sing, the love-letters never posted/ the lovely game where art is wasted’ Here’s the final stanza, the last line would make an appropriate epigraph for this lecture.
Melt the black frost, mysterious angel.
Heaven’s long emptied of its gods.
Fill the void with a woman’s voice.
The poet Elizabeth Campbell says
With Harwood, as soon as we are anywhere, we are knee-deep, neck-deep in tradition. There is no other Australian poet who has written so resonantly and richly within the literary tradition which has at its centre the Bible. Her erudition is profound, but more than that, she imagines organically within the deep symbolic furrows of this language, these stories.
Elizabeth is one of our best younger poets, and it was music to my ears to read her say here without qualification ‘Gwen Harwood is our greatest poet’. I know Dorothy Hewett thought along similar lines about Gwen, Dorothy saw her alongside Elizabeth Bishop in terms of her technique alone.
Gwen Harwood was a poet of masks, intricate metaphysical lyrics, luminous pastorals along with philosophical sonnets, she loved Wittgenstein and has poems with titles such as ‘Schrodinger’s Cat Preaches to the Mice’, her range is broad and brilliant. Here are two stanzas from her poem Wittgenstein and Engelmann:
formal and courteous they talk
of the Count’s hawthorn flower:
how nature and our thought conform
through words’ mysterious power;
how propositions cannot state
what they make manifest;
of the ethical and mystical
that cannot be expressed;
how the world is on one side of us,
and on the other hand
language, the mirror of the world;
and God is, ‘how things stand’.’
Gwen Harwood, like Blake, is interested in the way we perceive good and evil, innocence and experience, and she takes these ideas to luminous places. In a poem concerning her early years, as a teenager or slightly younger, she weighs up the meaning of obeying a parent as a Christian might except God’s commandments. As soon as she launches the poem ‘Father and Child’ we follow her into the open field beyond thinking into pure poetry: here’s the first section, ‘Barn Owl’
Daybreak: the household slept.
I rose, blessed by the sun.
A horny fiend, I crept
out with my father’s gun.
Let him dream of a child
old No-Sayer, robbed of power
by sleep. I knew my prize
who swooped home at this hour
with daylight-riddled eyes
to his place on a high beam
in our old stables, to dream
light’s useless time away.
I stood, holding my breath,
in urine-scented hay,
master of life and death,
a wisp-haired judge whose law
would punish beak and claw.
My first shot struck. He swayed,
ruined, beating his only
wing, as I watched, afraid
by the fallen gun, a lonely
child who believed death clean
and final, not this obscene
bundle of stuff that dropped,
and dribbled through loose straw
tangling in bowels, and hopped
blindly closer. I saw
those eyes that did not see
mirror my cruelty
while the wrecked thing that could
not bear the light nor hide
hobbled in its own blood.
My father reached my side,
gave me the fallen gun.
“End what you have begun”.
I fired. The blank eyes shone
once into mine, and slept.
I leaned my head upon
my father’s arm, and wept,
owl-blind in early sun
for what I had begun.
She published under several pseudonyms. The poems she wrote in the 1950s were often dramatic monologues, where by using a mask or persona, she distanced herself from the issues engaged by the poem. Alison Hoddinott, in her critical analysis of Hardwood’s poetry, Gwen Hardwood: The Real and the Imagined World, quotes this sentence from a review of the first Selected Poems:
‘Perhaps the first question to raise, as one confronts this book is: where is Gwen Harwood to be found in her poetry, what kind of human presence declares itself through her poems?’
In comment Gwen Harwood makes about this review in a letter in September 1961 there is a tone of deliberately cultivated elusiveness :
As to questions(welcome, I’m sure) about my Real Nature: answer that I’m like a pure diamond, and give back whatever light is cast on me: brightness to the bright, dullness to the dull.
Many people perceived Hardwood as pleasant, intelligent and sometimes behind the smile, a woman with an icy wit hovering, deadly accurate when it struck. The photographic portrait of her on the cover of Alison Hoddinott’s book is, however, like some of her early poetry, another disguise: she sits in a chair looking into the lens with her hands crossed, a neat fringe, a wary look in her eyes and is wearing a dark dress with a Peter Pan collar.
Here’s a poem by Dorothy Hewett on the subject of this complex illusion:
To the Literary Ladies
Here come the clever ladies
in their detachable Peter Pan collars
their fringes the sober mien
hiding such anger such
subtle vices dizzying torments
how do they manage to keep it intact
that demeanour? Is it something they’ve learned?
Not from George rough-hewn or Emily
choking her mastiff down on the moors.
No it’s Jane with her simpering smile
her malice her maidenly virtues
rustling through the 20th Century seminars
sitting on platforms discussing
manner and style how to instruct
& parry impertinent questions.
Not George Eliot, not Emily Bronte…. but Jane Austen.
Gwen Harwood made use of masks and disguises during the late fifties and early sixties. She said it wasn’t a whimsical literary game, it wasn’t something she particularly enjoyed. She thought her poems were being rejected by the editor of The Bulletin and other journals because of what was known about her gender and situation: a mother of four school children who lived in Tasmania. The editor of The Bulletin was Douglas Stewart, and over the years he rejected many poems
under her own name, until Harwood noticed the poems that were published were far inferior to her own. She guessed that poems by women were not finding acceptance as easily as poets with male names. So she invented another pseudonym, Walter Lehmann, and submitted two poems. Two sonnets that were immediately accepted and published. When The Bulletin hit the streets on the 5th August 1961 it created a storm of outrage in the press. The sonnets read acrostically: ‘SO LONG BULLETIN’ and ‘FUCK ALL EDITORS’. Frank Packer the owner of the Bulletin immediately re-called the edition with the offending poems . (AH): Hobart’s newspaper, The Tasmanian Truth ran banner headlines that read: ‘TAS. HOUSEWIFE IN HOAX OF THE YEAR’ the copy was patronizing in the extreme, the paper’s drift was that it was not so much the foul language that shocked them, such language had been used by a wife and the mother of four schoolchildren. However, the paper took comfort in the fact that ‘this lady poet’ was ‘a Queenslander by birth.
In 1980, thinking back over those early years, Gwen Harwood wrote an essay, ‘Lamplit Presences’ for the literary magazine Southerly: here’s a papagraph:
Looking back at these poems written about twenty years ago I see myself behaving like a mother duck feigning a broken wing to draw enemies away from her secret nest. I have never been a confessional poet, and would not want to be … Why should people find different meanings in the text if they think the work is by the morning housewife in the bedroom cupboard and not the afternoon genius in romantic golden light?
Here’s one of the poems Harwood is referring to, published under the name Miriam Stone:
She practices a fugue, though it can matter
to no one now if she plays well or not.
Beside her on the floor two children chatter,
then scream and fight. She hushes them, A pot
boils over. As she rushes to the stove
too late, a wave of nausea overpowers
subject and counter-subject. Zest and love
drain out with soapy water as she scours
the crusted milk. Her veins ache. Once she played
for Rubinstein, who yawned. The children caper
round a sprung mousetrap where a mouse lies dead.
When the soft corpse won’t move they seem afraid.
She comforts them; and wraps it in a paper
featuring: Tasty dishes from stale bread.
Harwood didn’t write just a few poems and send them off to journals, magazines and newspapers, she undertook a full scale operation to infiltrate the inner circles of the establishment and the outskirts of the avant-garde. She wrote around sixty five poems under eight different pseudonyms. This would amount to an 80 page book, they are all fairly substantial poems, and many of them are classic Gwen Harwood poems.
Harwood refers to as her poem ‘In The Park’ as her ‘Lake Isle of Innisfree’: that early poem of Yeats that followed him from the time he wrote it for the rest of his life. She published ‘In The Park’ under the name of Walter Lehmann:
She sits in the park. Her clothes are out of date.
Two children whine and bicker, tug her skirt.
A third draws aimless patterns in the dirt.
Someone she loved once passes by—too late
to feign indifference to that casual nod.
“How nice,’ et cetera. ‘Time holds great surprises.”
From his neat head unquestionably rises
a small balloon… “but for the grace of God….”
They stand awhile in the flickering light, rehearsing
the children’s names and birthdays. “It’s so sweet
to hear their chatter, watch them grow and thrive,”
she says to his departing smile. Then, nursing
the youngest child, sits staring at her feet.
To the wind she says, “They have eaten me alive.”
The next poem I want to look at is Fay Zwicky’s charming, but rye, lyric to her daughter, she approaches the mother-daughter relationship in a very different tone of voice to Gwen Harwood who writes behind the cover of her ghost poet pseudonym, Walter Lehmann. Here’s Fay Zwicky’s ‘For Anna’:
This is your friendly pelican
Talking to you, just above your ear:
The seas all rush together
As you chomp and snort among
My feathers. Burrow your
Pulsating skull against me,
Scan your larder well and choose
Your fill today, dear small predator,
Scrabbling to be free. Tomorrow,
With your trusting breath and
Reckless gums you shall devour
The world. And me.
When Dorothy Hewett writes a poem about her children in her last book, Half Way Up the Mountain, it is a poem of strange wonder, a poem stripped back to plain language and short lines, with starkly beautiful images of her children just after birth with ‘star-shaped fingers’. It’s a strikingly different poem to Harwood and Zwicky’s :
I remember the small ones
each one of them
like a bud opened out
lying there in the sunlight
blinking eyes squeezed shut
opening closing like anemones
the smell of their warmth
the tight curls sculptured
wet on their scalps
so many how could there have been
so many rocked in the fluid warmth
with the star-shaped fingers
and toes the bulbous eyes
wrenched out in a mess of blood
the afterbirth shivering
jelly-wet on the undersheet
and now each one of them
have gone out
treading the earth
men and women
tall than I am.
In her middle period, Fay Zwicky writes a poem about her son and daughter entitled ‘Letting Go’ They have grown up and the poem addresses the question of leaving home. Zwicky is always a poet of ideas and she has developed poise and deliberation in her linking of the conscious and unconscious:
Tell the truth of experience
they say, they also
say you must let
go, learn to let go,
let your children
and they go.
and you stay
letting them go,
because you are obedient, and
respect everyone’s freedom
to go. and you stay
and you want to tell the truth,
because you are yours truly,
its obedient servant,
but you can’t because
you’re feeling what you’re not
supposed to feel, you have
let them go and go and
you can’t say what you feel
because they might read
this poem and feel guilty,
and some post-modern hack
will back them up
and make you feel guilty
and stop feeling, which is
post-modern and what
you’re meant to feel.
so you don’t write a poem
you line up words in prose
inside a journal, trapped
like a scorpion in a locked
drawer to be opened by
your children, let go
after lived life, and all the time
a great wave bursting
howls and rears and
you have to let go,
or you’re gone you’re
gone gasping, you
till the next wave
shreds you to lace—
When you wake
your spine is twisted
like a sea-bird
inspecting the sky,
stripped by lightning.
Zwicky is often a poet of dialogue. Her persona talks to the reader, itself and its subject. There is always an intellectual separation from the intensity of her inspiration and dedication to craft. When her poem ‘Kaddish’ arrived on my desk for New Poetry there was nothing of hers that had prepared me for the poem’s impact. It was a poem unlike anything that was being written in Australia in 1976. The Kaddish is traditionally recited a son, it is a Jewish prayer meant to be spoken by a male for 11 months after the death of a parent. Zwicky subverts the form and the tradition, not only does she recite it, she writes it. The earlier dark, tight poetry had been spilt open and what emerged was a poetry that blended a long projectivist line with her own rhythmical sensibility. It is a long poem that is difficult to quote because it is so unified, here’s a few lines sampled from the beginning:
For my Father, born 1903, died at sea, 1967
Lord of the divided heal!
Father, old ocean’s skull making storm calm and the waves to sleep,
Visits his first-born, humming in dreams, hiding the pearls, that were….
Hopes trembled to earth shaken from the boughs of heaven.
By day the heart was silent, shook in its box of bone, alone fathered
three black dancing imps.
Notice the internal rhyme in these lines, how unlike Gingsberg’s ‘Kaddish’ with its shocking, intimate lament for his mother; here in Zwicky’s poem there is both dirge and intellectual anger:
Do the dead rot? Then rot as I rot as they rot.
‘Honour thy Father’ sing Armistice bells, espressivo.
The book after Kaddish, Ask Me contains one of Fay Zwicky’s finest poems, ‘A tale of the Great Smokies’. This sequence is based on Homer’s Odyssey. The original story, however, is subverted by focusing almost exclusively on Penelope.
In the final poem of this sequence Zwicky has Penelope actually complete the tapestry that binds her to her husband, she finishes it and dyes it ‘A clean unfaltering green. / Wordless’. In the original the tapestry is never finished, ensuring Penelope’s faithfulness. We now wonder what its completion means for the faithful Penelope? This sequence of poems is representative of the poet’s need to subvert unsatisfactory traditions dominated by patriarchy. To open them up. Religious myths and legends, the tradition of the Kaddish, Noah’s flood (Ark Voices). ‘In Memory, Vincent Buckley’, In Memory William Hart-Smith are testament to the purity of their dedication to poetry. In many poems Zwicky shows a wonderful knack for deflating her ‘self’ while retaining dignity.
Her poetry runs through her life, and records a stoic figure, a poet who like Hokusai, in this following poem values the imagination and the great disciplines of craft and art, a technique capable of translating a muscular vision into reality.
The poem ‘Hokusai on the Shore’ demonstrates this quality, it focuses on the wood-block print, The Great Wave:
On the coast of a faraway ocean
where the sun sinks daily
a monster wave rears itself
high above a tiny figure
a young man crouched on his board.
The watchers stand fixed
on the sand and gape.
You were seventy when your wave
sprang alive. Old, ill, destitute
your money gambled away by your
grandson, your name forgotten
by the world you’d survived.
Your monster rode out
talons curved higher than heaven,
bent to envelop three boats
and their cowering oarsmen.
After all those anonymous years
beggared by petrified artefacts
your people took note, applauded,
flooded you—rewards, praise,
promises mounted. Near death
you raised life. Who among us
makes such miracles? Who keeps
a steady eye on mystery?
Quick and slow, fierce and meek,
quietly waiting came your answer:
‘Until I was seventy, nothing I drew
was worthy of notice. When I’m eighty,
I hope to have made progress.
Fay Zwicky was the daughter of a doctor and a musician. Born in Melbourne she was a child prodigy, an accomplished pianist by the age of six. She trained as a classical musician and performed with her violinist and cellist sisters. She went to Melbourne University and received her Bachelor of Arts, more importantly she met other poets including Chris Wallace Crabbe. Vincent Buckley and the film maker director Bruce Beresford. Fay published her first poems as an undergraduate. She married in 1957 and settled in Perth and had two children. Between 1955 and 1965 she worked as a musician, a touring extensively through Europe, America and Asia.
Zwicky published her first book Isaac Babel’s Fiddle when she was 46. Her life was packed and committed to others. In her essays published in the collection The Lyre in the Pawnshop she discusses how much Australian literature is constructed in ways that marginalize minority writers and women, these essays were written in the 1970s and early 8os.
Dorothy Hewett was born in Perth and grew up on a farm in the Western Australian wheatbelt at Wickenpin. She was educated through correspondence school and at Perth College. She published her first poem at nineteen . Hewett maps out her early life in her autobiography Wild Card and I would suggest you start there if you want to know more about her life. When Dorothy died at 78 on the 25th August 2002, Joan Williams wrote in UK edition of The Guardian:
She was a member of the Communist Party of Australia for more than 20 years from the early 1940s. She joined me in Perth at The Workers Star in 1946 … her first articles were of such size and passion that they could have filled our paper several times over … among her targets were un-liberated attitudes among the male-dominated Left. Dorothy visited China and Russia in the 1950s and the poem ‘The Hidden Journey’ was written on the return from her second and final trip to Russia just before she finally left the Communist Party. In the impeccable Introduction to the new edition of Hewett’s Selected Poems, her daughter, Kate Lilley writes:
‘The Hidden Journey’ is clearly indebted to Ginsberg’s scandalous Howl, first published in 1957. This remarkable poem is the first of a significant group written over many years, including ‘The Mandelstam Letters’, presented here in full, in which Hewett attempted to give sustained, experimental form to the complexity of her political commitments and experiences, the ‘dirty, rosy, glittering linen of Moscow’.
Here’s the beginning of ‘The Hidden Journey’ on which Lilley comments ‘A lover of melodrama, Hewett piled image on metaphor in cascading, panoramic catalogues reminiscent of Whitman and Ginsberg, cinematic and sometimes faintly surreal in effect as in this opening paragraph :
In 1952, in the year of Stalin, I came to Russia.
And saw flowers growing our of the blinkers on my eyes,
Saw the statues in the squares with their heads blown off,
The stumps of their thick stone necks stuffed up with roses.
Saw the wedding cake skyscrapers toppling like ice-cream cones,
And the firecrackers dripping off Stalin’s moustache in the sky.
Saw a dumb cracked girl in Stalino who would not speak,
Welding under the great ribcage of the foundry,
While the Heroes of Labour smirked in the avenue outside.
Saw a blind man standing on a village corner,
With white eyes and a tin to take the kop-peks,
Under the limes and the wind shaking the bird cherries.
Saw a ragged child who ran begging by the train in winter,
While the commissars pulled their pale fur coats to their ears.
Saw a man who sat on a step in a Siberian village,
Naked to the waist in the sleet, head buried in his hands,
Saw a woman with savage eyes who sat beside him
One arm flung over his body to shield him from cold.
Robert Creeley visited Sydney in 1976, he came to attend a conference about American poetry at the Seymour Centre and to conduct workshops at Sydney University’s English department. Dorothy Hewett was on the panel and immediately hit it off with Creeley, yet the poem she wrote a week or so later revealed she wasn’t as much in agreement as she appeared to be at the conference.
Creeley’s comments and his talk had sparked off a new direction for her poetry. (Dorothy names many of the poets I have talked about in earlier lectures in this poem, including myself, she picks up ideas from Creeley and runs with them, weaving his visit into context with the talks and readings and Australian poets .)
Here’s one of her breakthrough poems ‘Creeley In Sydney’
“I can’t write autobiography because there is no me
‘Me’ is not a stable reality / the collective
‘Me’ in the changing world no propped up statue
in the square for pigeons to shit on turning green.
Creeley arriving one-eyed at Sydney Airport
searching for the American Centenary Poetry Workshop
Writing exists in its own activity …
so why can’t I leave a message for anyone? ”
Creeley arriving one-eyed at Sydney Airport
searching for the American Centenary
Writing exists in its own activity
so why can’t I leave a message for anyone?
America gave us: Pragmatism
The Symbolist Trade—Eliot Tate & Ransome 21
The Lyricists—Williams & Pound
be specific / get the moment / experience
no opening out—
Shapcott’s American/ Australian Anthology
is opening in the foyer:
We are better known than Jesus Christ said Lennon
Christendom went pale
& all those Mohammedans / Buddhist
Muslims stood up to be counted at last
Paul is dead
the Trinity splits
Lennon married Yoko Ono the smiling guru.
Did you hire a speech writer?
Have you arranged a crucifixion?
Creeley at the bar
drinking his whisky
Be careful! Look what missionaries have done to the world
Riding through the sky
to the Adelaide Festival
listening to bagpipes
talking about Robert Adamson.
The sea broke at the end of the cliff face in Bermagui—
seeing it all
barbecue terrace children wife
waving as the little plane
lurched off the More-uya runway into space
More-uya / Narooma Tranter/ Moorhouse country 22
the dark south coast of boyhood & trauma
Blay’s spotted gums
& Dransfield’s Courland Penders
Fathers who wanted sons not poets to fill their shoes
Adamson in Balmain fighting the bikies
car keys wrapped round his fingers
netting the Hawkesbury for the Furies
Buckley roaring the pubs in Lygon St
Campbell on the Monaro Thorne in Launceston
Harwood buried in black Hobart frost
Depersonalize the world in abstract words ….
all that topography dropping away
under the dip of a wing.
Houses of straw & cards the wolf
at the door & who is the clever pig
who built in brick?
Arriving at conclusions is so sad the reference
To go swimming is not to get
to the other side
of the lake
but to go swimming.
Because I’ve never arrived I can’t reassure you
& it’s nearly time to go .
Adjust the mike ignore the topography
Creeley from Buffalo Hawk-eyed
at Sydney University irritable 23
hooked on all you’re asking me!
I want my negative capability again
that sparrow builds outside my window for the crumb
I am my life the plans are over cause & effect
I’m 55 wake up get dressed smell the leaves
hear the currawong in the dark tree
the swallow crosses the balcony
this day is added to all the other days
the dishes collect roundly on the table
fly away out of the mind
as the dark tree full of currawongs flies
away to the park.
I want my negative capability again
that sparrow builds outside my window for the crumb
I am my life the plans are over cause & effect
Dorothy commented some lines from this poem in an interview, “I always felt that I had failed completely that test of Keats—‘negative capability’—I always wished that I could achieve that. That is, rather than being ego-centered the poet can project themselves into the outside world.”
Keats used the phrase ‘negative capability’ only once in a letter, it means ‘the willingness to embrace uncertainty, live with mystery, and to make peace with ambiguity’ This idea came from a disagreement with Coleridge whose quest for definitive answers over beauty, some say, laid the foundations for modern reductionism, and eventually to Creeley’s poetry, or Beckett’s plays (another of Dorothy’s influences ).
Bruce Bennett’s volume Dorothy Hewett: Selected Critical Essays has an essay by Lyn McCredden who makes this comment about above
Of course, as an aside, it could be argued that Keats’s ego may be read as more voracious for its desire to swallow up the world into the self. Guilty, or disappointed, about her lack of negative capability, Hewett reads it as a process of projecting herself into the outside world. The claims of negative capability, however, can be read to describe perfectly the active effect of all those attempts at self-imaging, both visual and verbal, around which her poetry moulds itself.
This poem ‘Creeley in Sydney’, placed at the beginning of her book Greenhouse, (1979) is a turning point, a departure from the rhetoric of many of the poems in the book before it, Rapunzel in Suburbia, where she was at the peak of her ‘confessional style’. ‘In the first section of Rapunzel ‘Memoirs of a Protestant Girlhood’ there’s a poem called ‘I’ve Made My Bed, I’ll Lie On It’ where Dorothy deconstructs, by writing her version, one of Robert Lowell’s most well known poems ‘Man and Wife’. Here’s an extract from Lowell’s poem:
Tamed by Miltown, we lie on Mother’s bed;
the rising sun in war paint dyes us red;
in broad daylight her gilded bed-posts shine,
abandoned, almost Dionysian.
At last the trees are green on Marlborough Street,
blossoms on our magnolia ignite
the morning with their murderous five days’ white.
All night I’ve held your hand,
as if you had
a fourth time faced the kingdom of the mad
— its hackneyed speech, its homicidal eye—
and dragged me home alive…
Now twelve years later, you turn your back.
Sleepless, you hold
your pillow to your hollows like a child;
your old-fashioned tirade—
loving, rapid, merciless—
breaks like the Atlantic Ocean on my head.
I’ V E MA D E M Y B E D, I’ L L L I E O N I T
With legs apart I lie on mother’s bed,
disturbing dust that shrouds the mighty dead.
You stake me out; as I begin to moan
her hairbrush beat us like a metronome.
She snicks her death’s head over us with pins,
we fall apart, the bed’s small hell begins.
An epitaph to end the fearful ride,
my heart, recalcitrant, leaps from my side:
seizing a chance I plagiarize a line,
“With thee contending I forget all time;”
staking a bid for permanence I weep,
you give me up, roll over, fall asleep.
My tongue’s a broken clapper in a bell,
with book and candle I roll down to Hell,
and circling back upon my mother’s bed,
gift-wrapped receive the Kingdom of the Dead.
Lowel is tamed by a tranquilliser on his mother’s bed; Hewett lies on her mother’s bed with legs apart ‘disturbing the dust that shrouds the mighty dead’
Hewett uses Lowell’s famous heroic rhyming couplets to mimic Lowell’s music while subverting his meaning by her version of the poem. Dorothy was fascinated by Lowell’s work and loved his technical skill, her poem can even be read as a weird slightly mocking homage. As Susan Sheridan wrote in her review of the New Selected edited by Kate Lilley ‘Hewett ‘rings a distinctively female change’ on Lowell’s poem ‘Man and Wife’.
In Dorothy Hewett’s final book of poetry Halfway Up The Mountain she continues to refine her technique, continuing to, as she puts it, alluding to Verlaine, ‘ to ring the neck of rhetoric, to modernize my poetics, and try to catch the moment with a shorter, tougher, economical line, centering on a driving verb’. Many poems look back to her childhood and early years growing up on her family’s isolated wheat farm in W.A. However there’s several poems that push into new territory, exploring an interior space that looks onto certain important experiences from her past, for example, ‘Containing Multitudes’ reaches back to concerns she touched on in ‘Creeley In Sydney’:
I would love to contain multitudes
Whitman’s phrase but I
can’t even contain myself
the self is always drifting out
into unknown waters
struggling to come back but of course it can’t
nothing can be repeated in quite the same way
so you’re left at best floundering
at worse totally out at sea
pushing against the rip wondering
how the hell you ever got there
and will you ever see landfall again 28
so containing multitudes is definitely out
what then perhaps just juggling
your various selves
into some kind of hard-won unity
some semblance of being
to confront the world.
Facing yourself that’s another matter entirely
probably best not to even try it
in our present state of confusion
so old Walt go on containing your multitudes
gloriously sure of yourself
and your place in a universe of brothers
when I was sure of myself
I used to use it too
that long triumphant ringing image-freighted line
until the Russians rumbled
into Czechoslovakia and I resigned.
1968 how astonishing to be able
to date it so meticulously.
We flounder now
our time is mostly up
our way is mostly down
and the rain seems to be blowing in
through an open window
too stiff to close.
As Kate Lilley says in her Introduction to Dorothy Hewett’s Selected Poems “As we read we are right there with her, where the poem is, where she wants us to be, keeping her alive.”
I will end with a poem by Gwen Harwood, in transcendental flight with an eagle, we travel with the poet as her mind sweeps along over Hobart and then takes off above the hills of Bruny into the light’s ‘cold shires of air’.
Dusk, early springtime. Light’s a tender
grey monotone, and silver-cold
water’s a mirror where the slender
grasses in stony shallows hold
their shadows still. Twilight uncovers
old nightfall sorrows: friends and lovers
long lost, once beautiful. The hills
of Bruny darken. Darkness fills
thin ribs of water as the wading
herons stab at the edge of night.
Wingbeats: from a bare branch the white-
breasted sea eagle soars in fading
cloudlight. A late gleam from the west
catches him riding on a crest
of air to his untroubled gleaming
eminence. He turns and drifts,
his mile of quiet water seeming
a wingspan wide. How the heart lifts
from old hesperian sadness, follows
him homeward through the shadowy hollows
between the hills, accepting all:
the lordly hunter and the small
creatures who tremble at his rising.
Night voices wake as night comes on
and conjure when the last light’s gone
the always known, always surprising
flight of the mind that soars to share
his pathway in cold shires of air.
. – Robert Adamson