Gwen Harwood

Selected Poems: A new edition by Gwen Harwood, edited by Greg Kratzmann

by
July 2001, no. 232

Although her work is often surprisingly varied, there is no doubt that when you read a Gwen Harwood poem you enter a highly distinctive poetic world. If it comes from her first twenty-five years of productivity, there is a good chance that you will be in a landscape of psychic melodrama. Everything will be liminal. The setting will be a sunset, the late sun will be flaring a dangerous gold on some intertidal stretch, the protagonist will have awoken from a menacing dream or, pace Kröte, be moving backwards and forwards across the threshold of one. The history of her poetry may be the way this scene increases in intensity as the voices that communicate in dreams increasingly come from figures in Harwood’s own past.

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In Boundary Conditions, Jennifer Strauss, taking her title from the Eisenhart poem of that name, points to the centrality of Gwen Harwood’s concern with ‘those littoral regions where the boundary terms that define themselves on either side of us also overlap and interact'. It is here, she claims, that ‘our most intense experiences, for better or worse, occur, and it is here that she correctly and perceptively locates Gwen Harwood’s major preoccupations as well as her recurrent images and settings.

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What is the relation between poet and critic? No, not a topic for yet another tedious and oppositional debate at a writers’ festival. Rather, a question about the nature of oppositions, and the possibility of disrupting, or even suspending them, in the varied and delicate acts of literary criticism. Let me frame my question even more precisely: who is the ‘Gwen Harwood’ to whom I refer when I write about the poetry of a women who in recent years has become increasingly public, celebrated and accessible?

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Gwen Harwood’s poetry has been the subject of an increasing number of essays and articles during the last decade; in the last twelve months three books have appeared (written by Alison Hoddinott, Elizabeth Lawson, and Jennifer Strauss) and a fourth (by Stephanie Trigg) is on the way. All of this industry, as well as the publication in the Oxford Poets series of a Collected Poems, is to be welcomed; few would deny that Gwen Harwood’s work deserves all the attention it gets, particularly as it continues to surprise and delight.

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Gwen Foster met Lieutenant Thomas Riddell in Brisbane in 1942, when she was twenty­two. ‘Tony’ Riddell, stationed in Brisbane, was sent to Darwin early in 1943; and between January and September of that year, Gwen Foster wrote him the eighty-nine letters that make up this book. It’s the chronicle of a year, of a city, of a family, of a friendship, of a war no one could see an end to, and of that stage in the life of a gifted young woman at which she says, ‘At present I am unsettled and do not know which way my life will turn.’

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One afternoon at the recent Melbourne Writers’ Festival I noticed that, while adulatory throngs surrounded Elizabeth Jolley and Thea Astley, another notable member of our literary matriarchy, Gwen Harwood, sat quietly outside in the sun, deep in philosophical discussion with a younger poet. This is a comment on the differential status accorded to fiction writers and poets, but also on the relatively self-effacing Gwen and her presence or place in the literary world.

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How good to receive Gwen Harwood’s latest book of poems, The Lion’s Bride! Though Harwood seems to be continually active making words for music for Australian composers, a five to seven year interval lies between the appearance of each volume of poems –·here I include the 1975 Selected Poems because it gave us twenty-seven New Poems, including many that caught the imagination of readers and are already well-known: ‘The Blue Pagoda’, ‘At Mornington’, ‘Father and Child’. Selected Poems also included the tragic sonnet ‘Oyster Cove’, which, though we could not know, anticipated courageous series in The Lion’s Bride which mourns and confronts the guilt bequeathed by the black Tasmanian dead.

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