Last time I wrote about poet Rosemary Dobson was in my post on Australian literary couples but my post today is a sadder one as Dobson died this week, just a week or so after her 92nd birthday. She had a long career as a poet, starting soon after World War 2. When she first came to recognition, winning awards in the 1940s, she was described as the granddaughter of English poet and essayist, Austin Dobson, who was well-known in his time.
Dobson moved to my city – well, she was here first, in fact – in 1971 when her husband Alec Bolton became the National Library of Australia’s first Director of Publications. I knew Alec, as his office was next to mine for a few years in the late 1970s. He was a charming, lovely man who, first as a hobby and then a retirement project, managed his own small press which printed, among other works, some of his wife’s poetry. It’s nicely fitting that the poem used in our newspaper’s front page article on her death is one she dedicated to him:
The kitchen vessels that sustained
Your printed books, my poems, our life,
Are fallen away. The words remain –
Not all – but those of style and worth.
(from “Divining Colander”)
The poem goes on to use the “colander” as a metaphor for sifting out the bad from the good.
Dobson was active in Canberra poetry circles and well-known to our poets, some of whom I’ve written about here, such as Geoff Page and Alan Gould. But, she was known more widely too, having won several significant literary (and other) awards, including:
- Patrick White Award for Literature (1984)
- Grace Leven Prize for Poetry (1984)
- Order of Australia for Services to Literature (1987)
- Australia Council’s Writers’ Emeritus Award (1996)
- The Age Book of the Year Award for Untold lives (2001)
- NSW Premier’s Special Award (2006)
In a review of a recently published collected edition of her work, titled, Collected, Australian writer David Malouf described her as “the last of a generation of Australian poets – Judith Wright, David Campbell, Gwen Harwood – who in the 1940s and ’50s remade Australian poetry, and then, by remaking themselves, helped remake it a second time in the ’70s.” He also refers to a poem of hers which appears in The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets (1986) which I like to dip into every now and then. The poem is dedicated to Christina Stead, whom Dobson knew, and is about Stead’s dying:
I sit beside the bed where she lies dreaming
Of Pyrrhic victories and sharp words said
Suppose her smouldering thoughts break out in flame,
Not to consume bed, nightdress, flesh and hair
But the mind, the working and the making mind
That built these towers the world applauds
(from “The Nightmare”)
I reckon that effectively conveys Stead’s strength and feistiness – and Dobson’s affection and admiration for her. “The Nightmare” is one of five poems of hers, from her mid career I think, included in the anthology. They demonstrate some of Dobson’s variety, her seriousness and her humour, but there’s no way I can do justice to her career here, now. Before I conclude though, I must say that what I found interesting, when I researched her life a little a few years ago, was that she and poet David Campbell, also produced anthologies of Russian poetry that they had translated.
For a lovely, brief summary of her life and contribution to Australian poetry, check out the podcast from ABC Radio’s Books and Arts Daily.
Australian poetry will miss her …