Australian Way of Life

The Poems That Made Us

Written by
27 June 2022
Dorothea Mackellar silo art, Gunnedah NSW.

Our poets made a unique contribution to Australian nationhood, and on quality alone deserve to be celebrated, writes literary critic PETER CRAVEN.

Australian poetry occupies a strange position in Australian literature which is in some ways analogous to (of all things) Australian sport. If we ask why Australians —together with other dominion countries such as New Zealand and South Africa—are so good at sport, the answer is that we had to do it on our own. If you are going to become a great cricketing (and swimming and tennis) nation, and if you are going to create a spectacular code of football like Australian Rules or excel at Rugby Union in the manner of the All Blacks or the Springboks, it will positively help if you are an infinite distance from the world you take your bearings from. You are not going to see the great stage stars of your time –the Henry Irvings and Sarah Bernhardts– nor will you find it easy to muster the confidence to equal them (despite the odd figure like Melba), but you have to entertain yourself somehow and sports games are a natural extension of self-diversion and it happens to be the case that organised sport—the different football codes, for instance—were getting underway when the gold rush in Victoria was transforming these colonies.

So what is the analogy with poetry? Well, poetry was something a country could do by itself. Until Australian publishing really got underway in about 1970 we read British and American fiction, popular and literary, and we took pleasure in the Australian popular novelists who made it into the international London-centred market whether they were popular novelists like Arthur Upfield, the author of the Bony detective stories, with the Aboriginal sleuth Napoleon Bonaparte, or Neville Shute with A Town Like Alice and On The Beach, mainstream bestsellers with a populist tilt, as was Morris West in The Devil’s Advocate or The Shoes of the Fisherman. Or, rather differently, the very formidable literary masterpieces of Patrick White, or Christina Stead in The Man Who Loved Children, or the Langton Quartet and Lucinda Brayford by Martin Boyd. The world was somewhere else when it came to fiction even when the approbation of that world—Al Alvarez, the promoter of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, saying White’s Riders in the Chariot made most contemporary British fiction look trivial or Robert Lowell, following his friend Randall Jarrell saying that Stead’s harbourside novel transposed to Annapolis was a “black diamond” of a book––deepened belief in the native product.

Patriotic verse of some shapeliness; absolute seductive-ness to a young ear

None of this is by any means over; there will always be a preponderance of great metropolitan centres even when the Irish, say—Shaw, Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, for heaven’s sake—will seem for a moment to belie it. But poetry is like Collingwood and Carlton, like the test match at the MCG, and even a bit like the Australian Open: homegrown, but of a very high standard internationally.

But let us move sideways. As a young naval officer during World War II, English critic Frank Kermode found himself spending a stretch of time in Sydney and said of this many years later, with some gallantry, that it was his good fortune to fall among the Australian poets at a time when Australian poetry was in a better state than English poetry. Was that the case? The British poets of the time included the early Dylan Thomas as well as WH Auden and towering eccentrics such as David Jones, published by Eliot and much admired by Auden.

The Australians that Kermode fell in with were primarily James McAuley (purged of his ambivalent modernism by his part in the Ern Malley satirical extravaganza), and AD Hope, limbering up to the enamelled grandeur of his greatest work. The Ern Malley affair, with the modernism we had to have perpetrated on us as a hoax via the letters of one Ethel, sister of the dead Ern, an unknown dead master– lead to a famous and hilarious obscenity trial. It was a bit like Barry Humphries’ Edna Everage and Sandy Stone: a level of realism (or in Ern’s case surrealism) that could only be perpetrated as a joke. But Kermode’s valorisation of Australian poetry has something to do with the developments to come where there was a division in English poetry between the Mavericks (in thrall to a high-toned rhetorical style in the manner of William Butler Yeats) and “The Movement” which saw such rich flourishes as akin to fascism (the major poetic voice of this second group would prove to be Philip Larkin)

The young Kermode, however, was all for the rhetorical Australian flagwavers. With the passage of the years it is not hard to see why, especially if you were subjected to early and instinctively confident versions of the Canon. Here again, of course, there are distinctions. Australians of a certain age know Dorothea Mackellar’s ‘My Country’ from their school readers a bit the way they know The Lord’s Prayer:

The love of field and coppice
Of green and shaded lanes,
Of ordered woods and gardens
Is running in your veins.
Strong love of grey-blue distance,
Brown streams and soft, dim skies
I know, but cannot share it,
My love is otherwise.
I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror
The wide brown land for me…
An opal-hearted country,
A wilful, lavish land
All you who have not loved her,
You will not understand though
Earth holds many splendours,
Wherever I may die,
I know to what brown country
My homing thoughts will fly.

This is patriotic verse of some shapeliness and a more-or-less absolute seductiveness to the young ear schooled to the leannesses of a small country afraid of its inner desert in every season.

The Australian Canon

Remember, by the way, the abiding pertinence of that great Canadian critic and taxonomist Northrop Frye who said that in colonial/postcolonial societies the question of ‘Who am I?’ was always displacing itself into some absurdity or conundrum like, ‘Where is here?’ And, of course, this is natural, the geography of the imagination, the imagining of all but unknowable geography, is an inevitable thing in a small country with the self-consciousness that is bound to run along with it.

There is the romantic expectation of a new ecstasy, a new wisdom.

‘My Country’ is in that sense coterminous with the various bits of hilarity or elegiacs in the Bulletin writers, in Lawson and Paterson, who are projecting with great swish and style, if from opposite positions, the pulsating novelty of a new land and a nascent nationalism. ‘My Country’ is a versifying of the theology, the doctrine behind ‘The Man From Snowy River’ and ‘Clancy of the Overflow’ just as something like ‘Doreen and me, we been to see a show’, C.J. Dennis’s vignette of the Sentimental Bloke’s bewilderment in the face of Romeo and Juliet is a send-up of Australian philistinism—though a triumphalist one—and Paterson’s ‘The Geebung Polo Club’ is just pure Australian farce: a verse entertainment in honour of our own capacity to entertain ourselves.

Yet none of this is unrelated to the endeavour to capture the glory of a national literature. Just as it was possible in the late 1960s for a university such as Monash to put Voss on a first-year English syllabus, alongside Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, and Dickens’ Bleak House. Just as the Year 12 literature syllabus could include Randolph Stow’s To the Islands. The comparable moment with poetry saw the publication of Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s anthology Six Voices: Contemporary Australian Poets in 1963, which gathers together coherently and as it were flatteringly the poetry of Judith Wright, James McAuley, AD Hope, RD Fitzgerald, Douglas Stewart, and Kenneth Slessor. The answer to ‘My Country’ is famously Hope’s ‘Australia’.

A Nation of trees, drab green and desolate grey
In the field uniform of modern wars,
Darkens her hills, those endless, outstretched paws
Of Sphinx demolished or stone lion worn away.
They call her a young country, but they lie:
She is the last of lands, the emptiest,
A woman beyond her change of life, a breast
Still tender but within the womb is dry.
Without songs, architecture, history:
The emotions and superstitions of younger lands,
Her rivers of water drown among inland sands,
The river of her immense stupidity
Floods her monotonous tribes from Cairns to Perth.
In them at last the ultimate men arrive
Whose boast is not: “we live” but “we survive”,
A type who will inhabit the dying earth.
And her five cities, like five teeming sores,
Each drains her: a vast parasite robber-state
Where second hand Europeans pullulate
Timidly on the edge of alien shores.
Yet there are some like me turn gladly home
From the lush jungle of modern thought, to find
The Arabian desert of the human mind,
Hoping, if still from the deserts the prophets come,
Such savage and scarlet as no green hills dare
Springs in that waste, some spirit which escapes
The learned doubt, the chatter of cultured apes
Which is called civilization over there.

It is a magnificent feat of rhetoric. Look at the way Hope incorporates the laconic understatement of that characteristic Australianism ‘we survive’ but does so with a mordant disdain. At the same time, this is a poem of enthralments and imagined geographies. There are the grand insinuating inversions:

They call her a young country, but they lie:
She is the last of lands, the emptiest,
A woman beyond her change of life, a breast
Still tender but within the womb is dry.

And then, by way of climax, there is the complete retreat from satire to the romantic expectation of a new ecstasy, a new wisdom.

Yet there are some like me turn gladly home
From the lush jungle of modern thought, to find
The Arabian desert of the human mind,
Hoping, if still from the deserts the prophets come…

This is energised, resonant and Romantic, with a glow not less strong but stronger for the satirical preambling. ‘Hoping, if still from the deserts the prophets come…’. What could be a greater giveaway from the man who accused the Patrick White of Tree of Man of writing “illiterate verbal sludge” than Hope’s ultimate expectation so parallel to the author of Voss? “Such savage and scarlet as no green hills dare.” This is an all-but-explicit endorsement of “the hard brown land” and its nationalism and is all the more exalted, the intimation of something akin to religious illumination––God help us—from the man who seems to sit back and contemplate the Australian Dunciad.

There is no fear in these mid-century Australian bards of high-toned rhetoric.

The poems of Hope in Wallace-Crabbe’s selection are glittering gems. A generation of Australians grew up, or at any rate edged towards maturity, with the elegiac beauty of ‘The Death of the Bird’. Geoffrey Rush told me he read it at a funeral. It begins, ‘For every bird there is this last migration…’ It is a poem that naturalises the act of dying and the beauty as well as the plangency of flight, and if there is a residuum of the Hope who passed as a satirist it is in the scepticism about all expectations which are tested through the poignancy of the bird’s imminent death, where the melancholy is most present because the scale of the loss which is registered is at once small and immeasurable.

And darkness rises from the eastern valleys,
And the winds buffet her with their hungry breath,
And the great earth, with neither grief nor malice,
Receives the tiny burden of her death.

It should be clear from all this that Kermode was onto something with the high colourism of these Australian mavericks. Think of Judith Wright’s ‘Woman To Man’:

The eyeless labourer in the night,
the selfless, shapeless seed I hold,
builds for its resurrection day –
silent and swift and deep from sight
foresees the unimagined light.

This is the maker and the made;
this is the question and reply;
the blind head butting at the dark,
the blaze of light along the blade.
Oh hold me, for I am afraid.

There is no fear in these mid-century Australian bards, to some extent even in McAuley, of high-toned rhetoric and the kind of poetry they wrote is liable to be highly attractive to youthful people who have had their tastes formed by the greatest hits, the high-and-mighty anthology pieces, of English verse, especially its Romantic afterglow.

The Song of Australia won ten guineas in a competition run by the Gawler Institute, in 1859.

The Song of Australia won ten guineas in a competition run by the Gawler Institute (pictured), in 1859.

Does this mean mid-century Australian poetry exhibits a kind of fool’s gold? Not really. But it’s very traditional resonance which is there as much in Hope’s ‘The Double Looking Glass’ as it is in a poem like Judith Wright’s ‘The Surfer’ (‘He thrust his joy against the weight of the sea; / climbed through, slid under those long banks of foam…’) has a somewhat belated quality which has a bit in common with Patrick White’s fiction, though it is not at as high a level. White’s novels—and perhaps this is especially true of the earlier pioneering ones such as Voss and Tree of Man—are old-fashioned novels which have intricate dramatic plots not a million miles from, say, a Hardy novel. There’s an analogy here with Slessor’s ‘Sleep’:

Do you give yourself to me utterly,
Body and no-body, flesh and no-flesh
Not as a fugitive, blindly or bitterly,
But as a child might, with no other wish?
Yes, utterly.

Sleep is analogised with seduction, with a rhapsodic erotic injunction where sleep is the master of the love play and the seducer who must be obeyed. Some younger readers are disappointed when they realise the poem is about sleep rather than sleeping with. Does this tendency, the tendency in William Carlos Williams’ phrase, towards what he called “dim wraiths of former mastery” in one kind of Wallace Stevens poetry make the poem at once overly grand and reminiscent?

Well it doesn’t stop Slessor’s ‘Five Bells’ from being a fine and moving poem but it does mean it is not as original a piece of poetry as, say, Eliot’s Four Quartets which was starting to appear and which in fact influenced Slessor. At the same time the very lack of restraint (as opposed to an old master like Eliot, who invented the English version of poetic modernism and offered his own critique of it) has a tremendous figure in Slessor’s lament for Joe Lynch, an acquaintance who fell off a ferry while drunk in 1927 and was dragged to the bottom of the harbour by the weight of the bottles of beer in his overcoat pocket.

Time that is moved by little fidget wheels
Is not my time, the flood that does not flow.
Between the double and the single bell
Of a ship’s hour, between a round of bells
From the dark warship riding there below,
I have lived many lives, and this one life
Of Joe, long dead, who lives between five bells.

It is part of the virtuosity and dramatic power of Slessor’s poem that it had such an accurate circumambient sense of place, of the water and intoxication of the nightscape, of the Harbour. It is one of the greatest things in our heritage to be inspired by the city of Sydney.

Forbes’ famous critique of Murray’s basic mythology is unfair and unforgettable.

Les Murray, always sensitive to things people thought he was blind to, said Utzon’s Opera House marked the moment when Sydney started to think of itself as a great city. His own poetry has its own monumentality in that way, even if you can also wish that the endless outpouring ad majorem Dei gloriam (to the greater glory of God) sometimes embraced bigger themes. Here’s ‘Noonday Axeman’, which is in the IPA’s Australian Canon and shows the easiness of Murray’s mastery of form:

Axe-fall, echo and silence.
Noonday silence.
Two miles from here, it is the twentieth century:
cars on the bitumen, powerlines vaulting the farms.
Here, with my axe, I am chopping into the stillness.

When they visited Scripsi both Frank Kermode and Northrop Frye remarked on Murray’s technical virtuosity. Frye said, “with rhythm he can do anything” and that is one reason why Joseph Brodsky said of him—and he also said it of Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott—“He is simply the one by whom the language lives”. Murray—who had the manner of a burbling autodidact—was probably in his way the most talented writer, certainly the most talented poet, the country has produced. Does this make him the greatest? Clive James and a thousand others thought so. Peter Porter, that cultivated expatriate, in so many ways Murray’s opposite, would never have claimed to be his equal, but the greatest of Porter’s poems which encompass death and grief and the effort—however doomed—to look beyond suffering have a range and a maturity, a fathomless conjuring up of worlds of undreamt of intensities, which is beyond Murray. Look at ‘Non Piangere, Liu’, one of the greatest poems ever written by an Australian and one of the better poems in a great sequence of poems of the post-war period:

…You need answer none of them.
Nor my asking you for one drop
of succour in my own hell.
Do not cry, I tell myself,
The whole thing is a comedy
and comedies end happily.
The fire will come out of the sun
and I shall look in the heart of it.

On the other hand, a poem of Murray’s like ‘Bent Water in the Tasmanian Highlands’ is a dazzling work of art to place with the greatest Fred Williams paintings.

Flashy wrists out of buttoned grass
cuffs, feral whisky burning gravels,
jazzy knuckles ajitter on soakages,
peaty cupfuls, soft pots overflowing,
setting out along the great curve,
migrating mouse-quivering water.

It made John Forbes, poetry editor at Scripsi, compare him to one of his own poetic heroes, John Ashbery, with no sense of detriment. Forbes’ famous critique of Murray’s basic mythology is unfair and unforgettable, ‘The trouble with vernacular republics is that they presuppose the kingdom of correct usage is elsewhere.’

We know we are in the presence of a sense of solemnity and outrage.

Sometimes, of course, poetry is the art of wise sentiment, dutifully expressed. All manner of magnificent miraculous poems by that great tormented poet Frances Webb—who any literature department worthy of the name should teach as they should teach Peter Porter—can give way to the serenity and wisdom of a Bruce Dawe poem (Life Cycle):

When children are born in Victoria
they are wrapped in club-colours,
laid in beribboned cots,
having already begun a lifetime’s barracking.
Carn, they cry, Carn … feebly at first
while parents playfully tussle with them
for possession of a rusk: Ah, he’s a little Tiger! (And they are …)

Here is a fine poetic tribute to a great sporting code. Bruce Dawe is better than anyone else at invoking the meditative commonplace, which can turn into a magical truth. And when we read Kath Walker we do not feel the pressure of language at an extraordinary stretch, but we do know we are in the presence of a sense of solemnity and outrage:

Peace was yours, Australian man, with tribal laws you made,
Till white Colonials stole your peace with rape and murder raid;
They shot and poisoned and enslaved
until, a scattered few,
Only a remnant now remain,
and the heart dies in you.
The white man claimed your hunting grounds
and you could not remain,
They made you work as menials
for greedy private gain;
Your tribes are broken vagrants now
Wherever whites abide,
And justice of the white man
means justice to you denied.
They brought you Bibles and disease,
the liquor and the gun:
With Christian culture such as these the white command was won.
A dying race you linger on,
Degraded and oppressed,
Outcasts in your own native land,
you are the dispossessed…

It is one of the wry revenges of culture on our history that in the world of anthropology there is more interest in ancient indigenous Australia than in white Australia. Obviously in a more comprehensive canon we would give a formal priority to the song cycles and it is interesting that Andrew Lang (the Victorian Homer translator Matthew Arnold liked and James Joyce used) should have been one of the earlier translators of the great Aboriginal stories. None of this makes the poem of Walker (who in 1987 changed her name to Oodgeroo Noonuccal) great in itself. We do not have Aboriginal writing with the reputation of Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s painting, although some people make very high claims for Larissa Behrendt’s fiction.

Very early on at Scripsi—when the whole endeavour was to publish an international magazine—we became aware of the abiding excellence and very high contemporary standard of Australian poetry. The tiniest handful of people cared, but it was lustrous and grand and compared well with poetry anywhere.

When the Oxford classicist and sometime professor of poetry Peter Levi said of Dipti Saravanamuttu’s poetry, “Blessed is the country that has such a poet”, we knew what he was talking about.

Peter Craven, literary critic and commentator, co-founded the literary magazine Scripsi, and was founding editor of the Black Inc. Best Of annuals and of Quarterly Essay.

The IPA published its Australian Canon in the Spring 2021 IPA Review. More information can be found at australia.ipa.org.au

This article from the Autumn 2022 edition of the IPA Review is written by literary critic Peter Craven.

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