Overview and context
Gwen Harwood (1920-1995), like Judith Wright, holds a celebrated place in Australian poetry and culture, but her inclusion into the canon came more slowly, as critical discourse and tastes changed. The nature and space of her work, while intense and brilliant, is paradoxically also understated and ambiguous.
She was not a social or political activist, and not engaged with history and the national project, but more of a private project – as an activist of existential and emotional experience and the psyche, philosophy and art. Wright was a navigator of intimate territory as well, but Harwood's poetry contains a complex subversive edge and many notes of wit, dark humour and satire. An adjective often used to characterise her approach is "mischievous", and even "wicked". Much writing about Gwen Harwood has attempted to trace the autobiographical element of her poems, and to find specific personal references, but this may not be a fruitful exercise, and it was one Harwood continually deflected. While quite available to critics and scholars, she was also elusive and playful, like much of her work. She denied the direct personal connection and description of her work as "confessional poetry", saying instead that her poetry is about "enchantment and illusion". She identified more with the Romantic tradition in poetry than with women's writing as a genre. But the entity "Gwen Harwood" is complicated and heterogeneous, reading and interpreting her poetry is a potent experience and rich challenge, and gender is an intriguing dimension.
With a strong background and training in music and a reputation as a fine librettist, Gwen Harwood's love and knowledge of music encompasses her very active engagement with language, metre, rhyme schemes and rhythm, as well as metaphor and myth; all the formal elements of poetry. Yet philosophy was a keen interest as well, and she examines the dialectic between the transcendent and the everyday, the mystical and the domestic, and the constructive, generative and evocative role of language in poetry and experience. Locating herself solidly within European culture and the Romantic tradition and tracing a more masculine lineage of inspiration, and confidently taking on historical forms and masculine modes, Harwood also plays with them, "writing against" them in a layering of varied registers. It is in her strikingly intimate poetry and her embrace of ordinary women's subjectivity that her gender as a poet is most evident, with a distinctive and powerful feminine voice.
Selves and voices
Harwood's dramatising elements and her use of characters, voices and narrative, demonstrates her playful and intellectually knowing stance. Her audacity in publishing under various personas, both female and male, and actively confounding critics, made her a controversial cultural figure in the 1960s and '70s.
Impersonation and dramatisation of both men's and women's perspectives and layered commentary are integral to her "Professor" sequences – Eisenbart and Krote – and under her pseudonyms of Walter Lehmann, Francis Geyer and Miriam Stone. As a woman poet writing in a largely masculine tradition, Harwood uses play and ambiguity to resist and deflect easy interpretations and closed readings.
In Prize-Giving, dramatisation is used to full effect to satirise pomposity and pretension, and the insecurity of aged "master" Eisenbart, in the face of a clever youthful female energy, as he reluctantly presents the "trophy which suspended his image upside down".
In Nightfall, "Francis Geyer" composes Professor Krote's bitter self-deluding elegy in direct voice as he wanders the urban streets, seeking inspiration, celebrating and mourning his lost European past and superiority to the "drab monotony" that surrounds him. Recalling sunsets and settings "Who would know me now, /a second-rate musician in an ignorant town? Or tell me how/discords of fading light find and restore / the colours of a day that comes no more/". The imagery of the poem and its structure and rhythm effectively conjure the contrasts and contradictions.
As "Walter Lehmann", Harwood demonstrates two ironic registers in In the Park and Home of Mercy. On the impersonation level there is the counter-intuitive role of profound male insight into frazzled mothers and the institutional life of "ruined girls". On the level of content and language there is the anti-Madonna, almost blasphemous private utterance – "They have eaten me alive". And ironic "mercy", within constraints of neatness, smoothness, daylight, plaster saints and prayer, is juxtaposed with sin, ripening bodies, burning memories, soiled sheets, and the "brutish vigour" of wrestling angels in night dreams.
But for Harwood, art and creativity are not gendered.
Music, art and language
Creativity and generative artistic activity in music and poetry and the quest to use form and words to tease out the limits of language and move beyond them to the unspeakable and indescribable – the mystical, the metaphysical, the erotic, the intensely painful – through myth, metaphor, poetic structure, word choice and sound are embodied in many of Harwood's poems.
Dedicated to composer Larry Sitsky, the earlier poem New Music asks the rhetorical question "Who can grasp for the first time / these notes hurled into empty space?", the "tormenting nerve" that "affronts the fellowship of cells", goes on to celebrate new music as "love", which "beckons the mind to move /out of the smiling context of what's known", and culminates in the exhilarating power of music "to summon/ a world out of unmeasured darkness/pierced by a brilliant nerve of sound".
To Music, a late poem, directly addresses music and sound, its registers and ranges and countless presentations "fitting yourself to any language, at home with love and death and revolution", both magnificent and mundane. "Music, made of the very air we breathe", discovered and re-discovered, "always new", transfused by human beings – "everywhere/ nowhere without a human ear". Humanity, the senses and art intermingling constantly as creative possibility.
Childhood, family and memory
Harwood wrote about her happy childhood in letters collected in Blessed City, and the resonant memory and celebration of those early years is played out in many poems. The poet's voice is not to be simply taken as directly autobiographical – the "personal" and "private" are quite separate for Harwood, and deeper resonances and generalised reflection are always present.
In The Violets, childhood family memories are like "frail melancholy flowers" but "Years cannot move/ nor death's disorienting scale/ distort those lamplight presences: / a child with milk and story-book; /my father, bending to inhale / the gathered flowers…" Such precious memories cannot be erased by passing time.
Mother Who Gave Me Life is a warm celebration of generations of "women bearing women" and "wild daughters becoming women", and a gentle eulogy, overtly to Harwood's real-life mother. This poem is embraced as the closest Harwood comes to feminist, as well as feminine, sensibility.
The Secret Life of Frogs starts as a lighter look at a child's perception, but care for life and cruelty against frogs is framed by powerful war references, and memories of specific times and settings are used creatively to reflect on both nature and humanity.
Experience – ordinariness and otherness
As well as pleasure, innocence, desire and celebration, the starkness, dissonance and fierceness of human experience, emotional and existential, is a distinct and striking feature of many poems. The poetry finds sources of creativity in myth and tradition, but most of all in raw, uncensored life experience.
Suburban Sonnet, like In the Park, exposes the mixed blessing of children and the darker side of motherhood. Domesticity and private life offer up material to be crafted into poetry, via paradox. Ordinary life both feeds and starves art and creativity. "She practises a fugue, though it can matter/ to no one now… Zest and love drain out with soapy water". Resentment and love sit side by side.
In the Father and Child pair, Barn Owl witnesses and dramatises the rise and resolution of youthful violent urges, contained by fatherly authority and wisdom. And Nightfall is a dramatised elegy to the passage of time and the end of that loving connection –
"Let us walk this hour/ as if death had no power".
Pain and loss, memory, and the need for repair and restoration are powerful human experiences, and strong themes in the late poems. In Class of 1927 a narrative of school life, bullying and cruelty sees the tables turned, as Bonehead "…with one blow ended/ the wanton vivisector's sport./ then revolution of a sort broke out …"
Romanticism and eros
Love poetry owes much to tradition – the Romantics, as well as the earlier forms and structures of mediaeval love poems, biblical and mythological references – but the most powerful feature of Harwood's love poetry is embodiment. Her sense of the carnal and capacity to convey it in potent visceral ways are vividly demonstrated in varying voices.
In O Could One Write as One Makes Love, the creative urge draws poetic language and sex into interplay, aspiring to "put by at last /its coy elisions and inept /withdrawals…" and "trust/ its candour to the urgent mind,/ its beauty to the searching tongue…". Noting though, that the signature is "Walter Lehman".
The Lion's Bride has no pseudonym but is presented from a startling masculine viewpoint, using mundane description and metaphor in a kind of transfigured holocaust of sexual appetite – carnality and carnivore combined – "Come soon my love, my bride, and share this meal".
Art and immortality
Religious references, as well as classical and traditional, are spread across the work. The role of art – poetry and music – to approximate the divine, to be generative, celebrate life and leave a legacy to confront, and displace, mortality are keys to many poems.
Burning Sappho, by "Miriam Stone" and like Suburban Sonnet, testifies to creative impetus and desire for something larger besieged by ordinary family life, with heightened imagery figuring the fierce resentment barely below the surface. With night's demands – "In my warm thighs a fleshless devil/ chops him to bits with hell-cold evil". But morning renews hope and "stirs afresh/ my shaping element".
Autumn, dedicated to academic and poet Vincent Buckley, and using an intimate and playful voice ("Irish Darling") and pensive anecdotal address, is an elegy on time, friendship, ripeness, dry leaves and mortal decline. "I was charmed by your presence in the world… It's mortals who die".
In Bone Scan, mortality is confronted head-on in the form of the X-ray, in stark and weirdly beautiful imagery – "on a small radiant screen/(honeydew melon green)/ are my scintillating bones" – and religious references to light … "still in my flesh I see/ the God who goes with me/ glowing with radioactive isotopes". Harwood died at age 75.
Gwen Harwood's poetry is widely recognised now for its stark intimacy and brilliant resonance. It is about human totality, wide knowledge and raw experience in all its vibrant paradoxical qualities; ideas and craft, creativity beyond gender, and yet gendered "woman" when required at crucial existential moments.
Gwen Harwood Selected Poems. Penguin, 2001.
Gwen Harwood Blessed City: Letters to Thomas Riddell.1943. ed. Alison Hoddinott. Sydney : Collins/A&R, 1990.
Stephanie Trigg. Gwen Harwood. OUP, 1994 (Oxford Australian Writers series). [Available online through Melb Uni Library]
Stephen Edgar "An interview with Gwen Harwood", Island Magazine 25/26, (1986), p.74-6
Gregory Kratzmann A Steady Storm of Cor-respondence: Selected Letters of Gwen Harwood, 1945-1995. St.Lucia: UQP, 2001.
Colleen Keane is a freelance writer and editor with a PhD in literature