From a small island, messages in a bottle floating out to sea. That was Gwen Harwood’s image for the poems she sent out during her early years in Tasmania, long before she had due recognition. Her letters, by contrast, knew their destination; they were treasured for decades by her friends, and they now make up the remarkable collection A Steady Storm of Correspondence.
As editor, Gregory Kratzmann has had an enviable but not an easy task in choosing no more than four hundred letters when ten times as many were made available to him. The quality is extraordinary. There’s nothing forced or formal: none in which Harwood’s voice seems muffled by the conventional phrasing of a duty letter. Spirited and witty, warm, reflective, at times enraged, often overcome by laughter, the letters are so varied that this large volume can be read as one might read a novel or an autobiography. It would be a pity just to dip in at random: this is the story of the making of a poet as well as many stories of friendship; and it gains from being read in sequence.
Many readers will remember the letters of the young Gwen Harwood (then Gwen Foster) from the collection Blessed City (1990). Written from Brisbane before her marriage, these letters all have the same recipient, Thomas (Tony) Riddell, the friend of a lifetime to whom she dedicated all but one of her published volumes of poetry. They were written in quick succession (sometimes two or three in the same week) during a single year, 1943, when Harwood was twenty-two, working as a secretary in the War Damage Commission and as organist at All Saints’ Church of England. Kratzmann reprints only three from Blessed City: enough to place the new reader, but with minimal repetition for those who know the earlier volume.