Gwen Harwood, Selected Poems (Angus & Robertson 1975)
Gwen Harwood is a Big Name in Australian poetry, but one whose poems have mostly been unread by me. In the early 1960s she had a pair of sonnets published in the Bulletin of which the first letter of each line spelled out so-l-o-n-g-b-u-l-l-e-t-i-n and f-u-c-k-a-l-l-e-d-i-t-o-r-s. That’s about all I could have told you about her until Julie Chevalier’s ‘Corner of Glebe Point Road and Broadway’ sent me to her ‘Suburban Sonnet’, a powerful housewife’s lament that made me want more.
I picked this book up from the second-hand poetry shelf in Sappho’s in Glebe on one of my irregular visits soon after (and inadvertently paid a roughly new-book price for it; it’s inscribed by the author to a composer – I googled the name – who evidently didn’t reciprocate her ‘affection and admiration’ sufficiently to keep the gift). This isn’t where I’d have started if I was being systematic, because even though she was in her mid 50s in 1974, it was early in her publishing career. But it’s what turned up.
The book was in Angus & Robertson’s ‘Poetry Classics’ series, which is a bit rich given that the ink was barely dry on Gwen Harwood’s first book (Poems, published 1963). My reading may have been influenced by this presentation, but it felt to me that a lot of the poetry laboured to live up to a kind of poetic dignity. (If you clicked on the link to the scandalous Bulletin sonnets, you’ll see that even when taking the mickey she stuck to strict rhymes and laboured over her enjambments.) Many of the poems deal with the art and, especially, music, and there’s often a sense that the Australian social world is at odds with creativity – not so much cultural cringe as anti-Philistine rage, and the formality of the verse is perhaps a defensive structure. Still, it feels like museum art.
Which makes ‘Suburban Sonnet’ and ‘In the Park’, both harsh observations on the toll taken on a woman’s life by the social conditions of child-rearing, all the more breathtaking.
All the same, it was mainly poems towards the end of the book that I warmed to, that is, poems written closer to the mid-1970s publication: ‘Iris’, in which the Harwoods, ‘(husband and wife so long we have forgotten / all singularity)’, sail for the first time in a boat they have built and the poet tacks and veers among questions of identity and meaning; ‘At Mornington’, which I guess is a love poem, certainly a defiance-of-death poem; ‘David’s Harp’, a tale of lost young love; ‘Barn Owl’, which, well, it’s just a good poem.
Here’s a stanza from ‘In the Middle of Life’ that a) I like, and b) demonstrates nicely Harwood’s attachment to strict form and magisterial tone, and her ability to pull it off:
We need our enemies to teach us
what friends in kindness never show.
Where magnanimity can’t reach us
the darts of hatred lodge and glow,
lighting our follies and pretensions,
our self-esteem’s absurd dimensions.
I’ll read more of Gwen Harwood. I’m glad to have started at last.