Monday musings on Australian literature: Capital women poets

Since Australia’s capital, Canberra, is celebrating its centenary in 2013, it seems timely to devote a few Monday Musings posts – scattered throughout the year – to its literature. Comparatively speaking, Canberra is a small city, but it is rich in poets, past and present, female and male, so I’ve decided to make my first topic Canberra’s women poets. I’ll write, as I usually do in these sorts of posts, about a representative few. They all appear in The invisible thread, Canberra’s centenary anthology about which I’ve written before.

Judith Wright (1915-2000)

Australian high country (Mt Stilwell)

Australian high country (Mt Stilwell)

Wright spent the last 28 years of her life in the wider Canberra region, and is arguably Canberra’s best known woman poet. She was a prolific writer, and a committed environmentalist and Aboriginal rights activist. Her poetry ranges over a huge range of subjects from the bush, birds and nature, through life and relationships, to all sorts of social justice and political issues. Like her contemporary Patrick White, she was not afraid to speak out about the issues that concerned her. As pretty well every biography reports, she took part in an Aboriginal Reconciliation March in Canberra not long before she died at the age of 85.  Several of her poems, including “Bullocky”, “Woman to man”, and “South of my days”,  are anthology standards. A self-confessed lover of our bush, I adore this from “South of my days”:

low trees, blue-leaved and olive, outcropping granite-
clean, lean, hungry country. …

I also like the lesser known (to me, anyhow) poem selected for The invisible thread, “Counting in sevens”, in which she counts off her years in, yes, sevens:

Seven threes are twenty-one.
I was sailing my own sea,
first in love, the knots undone.

Rosemary Dobson (1920-2012)

Another grand dame of Australian poetry, and also a prolific one, Dobson moved to Canberra in 1971 with her husband Alec Bolton. I’ve written about them before in my Literary Couples post. Like Wright, she turned her hand to many forms of writing and also worked as an editor. Both women knew that to make a career out of writing, you wrote … but in Dobson’s case she also translated – Russian poetry! I quoted a couple of her poems in the post I wrote after her death, including the one she wrote to/for Christina Stead. The poem from which I’ll quote here, though, is the intriguing “Child with a Cockatoo” in which a child, sitting for a painting by Simon Verelst in a time before the discovery of Australia, is given a sulphur-crested cockatoo, presaging Europe’s future contact with the southern land:

That sulphur-crested bird with great white wings,
The wise, harsh bird – as old and wise as Time
Whose well-dark eyes the wonder kept and closed.

Susan Hampton (b. 1949)

I must say I know Susan Hampton more as the editor, with Kate Llewellyn, of The Penguin book of Australian women poets, than as a Canberra-based poet, but I’ve discovered that she’s lived in Canberra since 1993. Her poems, from what I’ve seen, tend to be personal with a witty, whimsical or poignant edge, such as this one about “Hands” which starts

for some reason are battered and speckled,
the claws of an old hen poke through the skin.
I stare at my hands the way Escher
makes you stare at his …

I know the feeling … and isn’t that partly what poetry is about?

Melinda Smith

Now Smith, who has been in Canberra, on and off apparently, since 1989, is new to me, but I do love her cheeky poem in The invisible thread. It’s titled “No bed” and here is its beginning:

When love is on the wrong side of the sheets
romance must give way to expedience
and, short of coupling in the public streets,
all places serve at love’s convenience.

Kerry Cue at Poem Pig quotes another of Smith’s poems, “Mother love”. It’s a beautifully structured poem but you’ll have to go to Poem Pig to see that, as I’m just going to quote a verse:

Heaving itself onto an empty beach,
the sea still finds the energy to give.
I start a task whose end I’ll never reach.
I give you life, not knowing how you’ll live.

And here are the first two lines of a poem called “Virginia Woolf” from Smith’s own blog, Mull and Fiddle:

Veiled in muslin,
intellect like a steel ribbon.

“Intellect like a steel ribbon”. Love the combination of strength and fragility, masculinity and femininity, solidity and fluidity, in that image.

Penelope Layland (b. 1962)

My last poet – but there are many more in Canberra, including one I’ll review soon – has spent pretty much all her life in Canberra. I’m most aware of her through her work as a journalist and columnist but she is also a poet. I’m rather tickled that the poem of hers included in The invisible thread speaks to an earlier Monday Musings, that about the “lost child” theme in Australian literature. The poem was published in 2005 and doesn’t feel dated. The “myth” clearly resonates still. The poem starts:

They search the stock dams first –
neighbours, solid men feigning nonchalance,
the self-righteous, the busy-bodies, the merely excited
and somewhere the father, whose looks keep going
to the bush beyond, gathering itself.

And there you have it … an all too brief introduction to some of our capital women poets.

Who are your favourite women poets?

17 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Capital women poets

  1. My ffavourite Australian women poets have completely different styles. Dorothy MacKellar was introduced to me at school; and I think most Australians relate well to ‘My Country’. And the other one is Dorothy Porter. I think Sue, you discussed some of her poems from her book Bee Hut,

    • Oh yes, as I was writing this I was thinking, I wish Dorothy Porter had lived in Canberra so I could mention her again! But I do also like the poets I’ve mentioned here too! How could you not love Judith Wright for a start!

      And Mackellar … absolutely!

  2. I do like Judith Wright, and she would stand out as one of Australia’s most influential poets, and not because she is a woman.

  3. I used to love Judith Wright’s work and think I would like to read about her life. I feel like reading some now! I don’t normally read a lot of poetry due to time more than anything else. Two women poets I’ve enjoyed reading this year are Vanessa Gebbie and Alison Locke, both English writers who’ve also produced short stories and, in Vanessa’s case, a prize-winning novel called ‘The Coward’s Tale’.

    • Oh you sent me off on a hunt, Catherine, and I forgot to come back. I’d heard Grebbie’s name in another context a couple of years ago but have not seen anyone recently talk about her work. Someone clearly worthy following up.

  4. Pingback: A small new poem plus a mention on Whispering Gums | Melinda Smith's Mull and Fiddle

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s