In The Guardian in March 2007 Ruth Padel listed what was styled as the top ten women poets, perhaps better noted below the headline as ‘her favourite poets who happen to be women’: Sappho, Dickinson, Bishop, Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Plath, Carson, Duffy, Shapcott, Ní Dhomhnaill. Personally, I couldn’t think of anything more insulting than being gendered up in this way. Surely one is either a good poet or not, not a good woman poet or a top ten male poet. It is very easy to play these pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey listings—six critical booming bores, seven preposterous pronouncements on poetry at Bunyip Bollocks, five Collected Poems that would be better off halved, and so on. People have their own ideas about culture, and they seldom coincide with other points of view, which is just the way it should be.
Whilst I can agree with a large swathe of the poets listed as being very good poets, I can’t then refer to them as good woman poets. As far as I’m concerned, Dickinson sends nearly all poets down to the lower slopes of Helicon, whereas I have never understood wherein Sylvia Plath’s greatness is supposed to reside. I should very much like to say that I can see the greatness, but I can’t pretend.
A bad habit has developed in some discussions of Australian literature—the reduction of writers to a supposedly representative handful who are then meant to stand in for the many. Subtle readings that bring out the complexity and breadth of Australian writing are not helped by this kind of simplification, and someone from another planet, or the United Kingdom, might get the idea that Australian poetry was restricted to a choice between two or three somewhat self-serving aesthetic billabongs. Professor Geoffrey Blainey’s well-known formulation that Australian history and culture had been formed under the pall of ‘the tyranny of distance’ had its literary equivalent in the strangely disjunct yoking of cosmopolitan yearnings and parochial machinations. With a smallish readership, and when some of the poets concerned also reviewed, the resulting attempts at creating instant canons of the various orthodoxies were probably inevitable.
‘Woman poet’ in Australian literature used to mean Judith Wright, famous for her love lyrics and evocations of the Australian landscape, but even then it was an inaccurate pinning down of history to a convenient holding pattern. Now, good as Wright is, I think there is one poet who is not only one of the best Australian poets, but one of the best poets of her time: Gwen Harwood. Harwood did not fetishise fashion accessories (Sitwell/Moore), get caught up in an historical terror (Akhmatova) or put herself conspicuously forward (Plath). Neither does she come trailing woe-is-me poisonous bon mots or turning her personal life into verbal stigmata. Born in Brisbane, Queensland, but spending most of her life in Tasmania, in Kettering, far from the madding crowd of supposed hot spots, she produced a remarkable body of poetry and librettos that still awaits its international due. Her poetic concerns were the suburban round, friendships, philosophy (Wittgenstein) and music. Her work is amenable to a wide readership and, though she is satirical—especially about academe—the warmth of her personality comes through. Harwood sometimes wrote under pseudonyms, the poems adhering to differing personas—Walter Lehmann, Francis Geyer, Miriam Stone, Timothy Kline. She was not above being rude with acrostics in poems to editors, but generally there is a clear bringing forth of the resolute certainties:
From A Young Writer’s Diary
A day, a night, a day, another night,
Frau Schmidt fingers her washing. It’s still damp.
Sunset hangs out its washing. That’s not right.
Four days without a word—a sort of cramp
stiffens the heavy sameness of my thoughts.
I read the paper I’ve already read.
(Horrible sentence). so-and-so reports
from Moscow: Is the Russian Novel dead?
He can afford to travel, on that grant.
Rose, peach and saffron clouds invade the air.
A grand but natural style, that’s what I want.
Light comes from nowhere and from everywhere,
rinsing the secret pathos from this room
until materials say what they are.
My things summon the visions they become.
That wineglass flares like an exploding star.
The west, solid with colour, glows above
earth that seems a mere pretext for the sky.
I stare at the chrysanthemums with love.
Night falls. Hell stirs again, and so do I.
Frau Schmidt is beating schnitzel. I believe
she’s pregnant. Women have an easier life.
Blessed Franz Kafka, comfort me, receive
my prayer: What could I offer to a wife
or want from one? Grant me the honesty
of evil thoughts, of torture, nightmare, fear.
Messy poeticism clings to me
like sensual wax. Let me be quite sincere.
The banging stops. Frau Schmidt is practising
her English phrases in a lazy drawl.
She’ll never master them. I’ve heard her sing
sometimes, in her own tongue. Across the hall
life, life! They say that Hogarth tried to paint
The Happy Marriage and then gave it up.
I read the journal of my patron saint
and drink enchanting tortures from his cup:
last hopes of every kind, extremities.
Frau Schmidt comes out to put the spade away.
How like a gentle animal she is!
A night. A day. A night. Another day.
Deceptively simple, yet full of fierce solicitations.
Harwood’s mordant eye can work up a kind of invective, but generally she loves too much to really hate:
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.
How good it is to come across a poet where there is no look-at-me subtext going on. Meditative, rueful, this is writing one can immediately relate to. Harwood’s philosophical bent has made her world the tangible one we all know: about the house, glimmers of beatitudes, thinking on the meaning of friendship, loves remembered, nature’s beauty holding off darknesses. Eloquent music. A memorable and hard-earned calm in the face of the telltale X-ray or the tragicomedy of having the large sensibility in the small-town environs. And there is passion too.
Carnal Knowledge l
Roll back, you fabulous animal
be human, sleep. I’ll call you up
from water’s dazzle, wheat-blond hills,
clear light and open-hearted roses,
this day’s extravagance of blue
stored like a pulsebeat in the skull.
Content to be your love, your fool,
your creature tender and obscene
I’ll bite sleep’s innocence away
and wake the flesh my fingers cup
to build a world from what’s to hand,
new energies of light and space
wings for blue distance, fins to sweep
the obscure caverns of your heart,
a tongue to lift your sweetness close
leaf-speech against the window-glass
a memory of chaos weeping
mute forces hammering for shape
sea-strip and sky-strip held apart
for earth to form its hills and roses
its landscapes from our blind caresses,
blue air, horizon, water-flow,
bone to my bone I grasp the world.
But what you are I do not know.
Reputations. Swings and roundabouts. It often all seems quite absurd. Yet genuine writing goes on, unaccompanied by the usual bling. In Tasmania the genuine writing went on, music and philosophy special joys close to hand, the Antarctic winds that sometimes blast Tasmania finally reaching Gwen Harwood in 1995.
Since I cannot do justice to this poet here, I can only encourage others to discover Harwood’s poetry for themselves. The Collected Poems 1943–1995 of Gwen Harwood, edited by Alison Hoddinott and Gregory Kratzmann was published by the University of Queensland Press in 2003 ISBN 0 7022 3352 8.