Tag Archives: Gwen Harwood

Southerly 73/3

David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (editors), Southerly Vol 73 No 3 2013: The Naked Writer


Alain de Botton was on the ABC recently arguing that we need to reclaim art (and by extension literature) from the academies and museums, to recognise its role in our ordinary lives. He was annoyingly persuasive, and had me wondering whether I really needed to read Southerly, which is after all solidly grounded in the English Department of the University of Sydney, largely written and edited by academics for academics. It seems to have stopped publishing poems by Jennifer Maiden, the regular appearance of which led me to re-subscribe a couple of years ago. So despite the fabulously daring cover, I approached this issue warily. What was in it for me?

It seems I enjoy reading about friendship. Alex Miller’s ‘A Circle of Kindred Spirits’ is a moving account of biographer Hazel Rowley’s career, seen through the prism of Miller’s long friendship with her, which they conducted almost entirely by email. Ann-Marie Priest’s ‘“Colour and Crazy Love”: Gwen Harwood and Vera Cottew’ explores a deep friendship between two women that has been sidelined in most discussions of Gwen Harwood’s poetry. It’s a beautiful essay, explicating some of the poetry and exploring the complex possibilities of friendship between women.

Scott Esposito’s ‘The Gate Deferred: J.M. Coetzee and the Battle against Doubt’ is interesting for similar reasons: at heart it’s about the relationship between readers and writers. The essay explores Coetzee’s engagement with Kafka. Far from writing dry academic analysis, Esposito begins by telling us how as a child of non-religious parents he (Esposito) experienced his own version of Pascal’s ‘le silence eternel des espaces infinis m’effraie’ (the Pascal reference is mine), then gives us a beautiful account of how in Coetzee he found someone with a similar sense of things, expressed in part by Coetzee’s engagement with Kafka. Coetzee, Esposito writes,

gives us not an answer to Kafka, nor an interpretation of him, but rather his experience of dwelling within Kafka’s mysteries.

Esposito comes close to dwelling within Coetzee’s mysteries. (I haven’t read enough of J M Coetzee – just Disgrace and the three volumes of quasi-memoir – to have an opinion on the validity or otherwise of Esposito’s reading, but that seems beside the point.)

Rowena Lennox’s ‘Head of a Dog’ is about another kind of relationship – that between dogs and humans. Her account of walking her dog made me wonder if she lives near me: could my collie be the one she describes as driving her kelpie-cattle dog cross to such paroxysms of exhilarated rage simply by existing behind a fence? Dogs ‘are the closest we have come to living with and knowing another species’, she writes, and whatever the cat brigade may say I think she’s right. The essay ranges widely, drawing on, among others, Frank Dalby Davison (Dusty), Jack London (The Call of the Wild), and Aboriginal elders Tim Yilngayari and Daly Pulkaa (as quoted by Deborah Bird Rose in Dingo Makes Us Human).

There are fine poems: Tracy Ryan has four on a hoard hidden and centuries later found;  Judith Beveridge (‘Peterhead’), Geoff Page (‘Angus’) and Stephen Edgar (‘The Sense of an Ending’) lend lustre (and just watch that Stephen Edgar use rhyme!); Ali Jane Smith (‘The Galapagos’), Simeon Kronenberg(‘Death of a Bull’) and Ross Donlon (‘Storm Water’) each do narratives it will be good to spend more time with.

There are fine reviews. I was especially glad of Anne Brewster on Melissa Lucashenko’s novel Mullumbimby, which I plan to read, and John Tranter being generous, illuminating and a little gossipy on Pam Brown’s Home by Dark.

That’s just some of the highlights for me. Other people may fall with cries of joy on the 42 page offcut from a forthcoming experimental novel by John A. Scott, Michael Buhagiar’s elegant discussion of Christopher Brennan’s debt to A. C. Swinburne, Robet Darby’s explication of the homoerotic content of a Martin Boyd novel, or … well, there’s quite a lot that I haven’t mentioned.

I’m going to finish with some whingeing, so feel free to stop reading now.

• First, does Southerly deliberately follow US spelling conventions for things like centre/center or the verb practice/practise?

• Second, is it just a little disrespectful to display a poet’s naked body on the cover and make no reference to him or his work except in the photo credit? If you’re interested, here’s a video of spoken word poet Randall Stephens full frontal, clothed and performing:

• Third, was it inattention or editorial illiteracy that allowed Ann-Marie Priest to go into print saying that

there is no mainstream literary tradition of female friendship, as there is with male friendship (think of Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H., Achilles and Patroclus in The Illiad, and Jonathon and David in the Bible).

Maybe Ruth and Naomi just a few pages over from David and Jonathan ‘in the Bible’ don’t constitute a tradition, but surely they deserve a mention; even spellcheck knows how to spell The Iliad; and however many people name their children Jonathon, it’s Jonathan in the Bible. Even if you don’t count the ‘with’ that really ought to be an ‘of’, that’s an impressive error count in so few words.

Gwen Harwood

Gwen Harwood, Selected Poems (Angus & Robertson 1975)

1gh 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.

awwbadge_2013 This is the ninth book I’ve read as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013.