Essay by Bonny Cassidy

. . . [Harwood] was one of those poets I grew up with, care of my mother who taught Harwood’s poetry in high-school literature classes for decades . . . I don’t have a copy at hand, but if I recall correctly, it carried that wonderfully warm yet seemingly austere (to a fifteen-year-old boy) picture of her in a collared dress with page-boy hair looking as if she’d come out of a country Anglican choir. Then there were the poems, graceful and savage at once, clever and ‘sensual’. They seemed to allow place and human experience of place to commune, and to observe the potentially horrific outcomes . . . Poetry isn’t about comfort and conformity for me; it’s about disturbance and action. Harwood was always about action in her quiet (and sometimes quite rowdy and obsessive) ways. (Kinsella p. 12-13)

Since its publication in 2003, the availability of Harwood’s Collected Poems 1943 – 1995 has allowed students and teachers to gain a deep understanding of her work, through the long view of its development over her life. Born in Brisbane in 1929, but living most of her adult life in Tasmania until her death in 1995, Harwood inhabited a number of identities that reflect the protean quality of her poetic personae. In the above quote, poet and critic John Kinsella describes the contradictions and surprises to be found in Harwood’s work, particularly its sometimes ‘savage’ manner and ‘horrific’ view of human nature. A famous example of these qualities is found in Harwood’s short poem, Suburban Sonnet.

In fact, the poem’s brevity is an important contribution to its savage effect: Harwood presents no resolution, happy or otherwise, to her protagonist, the mother; rather, the poem leaves her occupied with yet another banal task and an unfulfilled sense of irony. It’s not that this mother is per se unhappy, but that she is neither happy nor unhappy. The poem vividly captures in-between experiences – frustration, tiredness, haste, distraction – that are savagely real. Perhaps it was Harwood’s unflinching vision that impressed the adolescent Kinsella: ‘Her poetry is a power to be reckoned with, and a teenage boy’s assumptions about distant aunties and women in general took a necessary knock’ (Kinsella p. 12-13).

Suburban Sonnet and its equally famous counterpart, In the Park, develop the significant theme of gender in Harwood’s oeuvre, which is carried into later poems such as Mother Who Gave Me Life. The value of Collected Poems 1943 – 1995, however, is that it situates this within the broader scope of theme, voice and style in Harwood’s poetry. The collection is edited by two leading Harwood scholars and friends of the late poet, Alison Hoddinott and Gregory Kratzmann.

Hoddinott has written numerous scholarly articles as well as essays and reflections on Harwood’s poetry and person, including the book study, Gwen Harwood: The Real and the Imagined World. She has explained the process of ‘Editing Gwen Harwood’ in a moving personal essay and, more recently, discussed her friendship with Harwood and ways of understanding certain of her poems, in an interview for mETAphor.

Kratzmann has edited Harwood’s letters in A Steady Storm of Correspondence: Selected Letters of Gwen Harwood 1943–1995 , as well as two editions of her selected poems:Selected Poems: A New Edition; and, with poet and critic Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Mappings of the Plane: New Selected Poems. Kratzmann, a reviewer and academic, has also written several reflections on Harwood’s oeuvre including insights into her work’s engagement with music, pseudonyms and occasional verse (poems written to commemorate events).

Kinsella’s remarks echo Hoddinott and Kratzmann’s introduction to Collected Poems, which provides insight into the character of Harwood’s poetry:

The tonal range and variety of her poetry leads to an interesting paradox. On the one hand she writes poetry which is strongly allusive, deeply grounded in her interests in European poetry, music, and philosophy, so that she is very much a ‘poet’s poet’, whose work has been the subject of extensive critical debate. On the other hand, much of her poetry appeals to a wider audience (p. xix).

For a few reasons, this ‘paradox’ makes Harwood’s poetry and poetics (the mechanics of her work) stimulating texts for students and teachers. At this level, the collection invites a study of the fundamental elements of poetics, from which teachers might select a focus: voice, persona and the importance of reading aloud; language effects, including sound, metaphor and allusion; or structure including form, rhyme and metre, as well as line length, enjambment, punctuation and stanza breaks. Hoddinott emphasises the pedagogical value of Harwood’s technique:

If you want to know about poetic technique, you teach it through Gwen Harwood. You can teach any form and any use of alliteration, assonance, run on lines, the sonnet form – and illustrate it from her poems. (“Memories, moments and   musings about Harwood.” p. 27)

To make one technical focus, for example, we might look at Harwood’s use of traditional poetic structures such as form, rhyme and metre. Suburban Sonnet and In the Parkdemonstrate sonnet forms, whilst Harwood’s acrostic poems gained notoriety for containing rude messages to the publisher. A Kitchen Poem has achieved popularity as a school study text, due to its clearly delineated structure of quatrains, a/b/a/b rhyme scheme and roughly iambic metre (Harwood p. 68):

Now the land shawls itself in gloom.

The mountain puts enchantment on.

I sit in this plain-spoken room,

and soon the cares of day are gone:


crows, starlings, eelworm, codling moth,

all nature’s murderous hosts are sweeping

from thought upon night’s tide like froth.

Now tired with light my son is sleeping.
Harwood employed English metres and conventional forms long after free verse had begun to dominate twentieth century poetry, and this makes her work an unusual example of how a contemporary poet exploits musicality and tradition. By extending a focus on structure, teachers might also enable students to perceive how Harwood bends or breaks traditional rules as often as she observes them:

. . . many of her later poems are in free verse. But if you look at them closely there’s a lot of internal rhyming. And always from the beginning, when she uses the traditional forms, she uses run-on lines and run-on stanzas in a way that would not have been so traditional – the end-stopped stanza is something she really seems to avoid, so that when you read it aloud you’re reading against the traditional form. (Hoddinott “Memories, moments and musings about Harwood.” p. 23)

As well as examining her work’s formal technique, students of this collection may also be guided to describe how Harwood creates a stark dramatic voice through tone, register and a sense of audience. In A Kitchen Poem, this voice is enriched by imagery that draws on conventional pastoral and gothic motifs – poetic traditions that teachers might explore with students through secondary readings. To this end, the extensive notes to Collected Poemsprovide optional frameworks for reading, helping to open up specific literary, cultural and linguistic allusions. As Hoddinott explains:

[Harwood’s] range of reference and allusion is based on her reading, which is both traditional and idiosyncratic. Readers (a decreasing number, perhaps) may well be familiar with Shakespeare, classical mythology, the English Romantic poets and the King James Bible; but allusions to the philosophical writings of Wittgenstein, Schubert lieder, the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, to say nothing of Schrödinger’s cat, require a more specialised knowledge. Our aim was to provide the kind of information that would aid interpretation. However, we wanted to avoid unnecessary background or biographical information that might distract from the poem rather   than illuminating it. (“Editing Gwen Harwood.” p. 43-44)

The ‘tonal range’ contained within Collected Poems also rewards more complex, independent textual analysis. It invites teachers and students to explore how a poem can mean and do many things at once, not only structurally but also representationally. This is what Hoddinott and Kratzmann mean by a ‘poet’s poet’: Harwood is a poet highly respected by other poets for the complexity of her language, facility with form, and philosophical investigation.

One way in which the editors of the text have recognised the multiplicity of Harwood’s poetic voice is by identifying her pseudonymous works by their invented authors. Harwood’s poetic pseudonyms and their poetic output have been the subject of numerous critical studies, and continue to provide an amusing and provocative source of thinking about her poetry more generally (for various angles on this element of Harwood’s Collected Poems see the critical works of Kratzmann, Cassandra Atherton, Richard King and Stephanie Trigg). A classroom focus could be made, for instance, on the poems of Harwood’s alter-ego, Timothy (TF) Kline, an anti-war protest poet: what does Harwood, as Kline, say about Vietnam and the modern Australian identity? As well as multiple personae, modes of self-awareness appear in Harwood’s writing and refuse any easy reduction of its intentions or affects. For instance, discussion of her pseudonyms can be extended into critiques of her dramatic characters and voices. John Beston, Douglas Dennis, A.D. Hope, Vincent O’Sullivan and I have each examined how Harwood’s characters relate satirically to her own experience with Australian culture and gender.

In the Professor Kröte and Professor Eisenbart sequences, characters and narratives run across poems, seeming to take on a life of their own. A rewarding study might follow the travails of Kröte, a romantic European immigrant, or the tension between science and art felt by Eisenbart. And, as ‘Del Chessell has pointed out, ‘Harwood, fed up with the critics assuming every speaker in every poem was identical with herself, spoke of the operatic Iin her poems, implying the assumption of a role’ (p. 50).

Dramatic voice, such as that used in A Kitchen Poem, occupies many of Harwood’s frequently studied poems such as the Suburban Sonnet and Father and Child suites. This technique is frequently a source of humour – sometimes crudely satirical, other times more subtly ironic as in ‘Barn Owl’ from Father and Child (Harwood p. 275):

Daybreak: the household slept.

I rose, blessed by the sun.

A horny fiend, I crept

out with my father’s gun.

Let him dream of a child

obedient, angel-mild—


old No-Sayer, robbed of power

by sleep. I knew my prize

who swooped home at this hour

with daylight-riddled eyes

to his place on a high beam

in our old stables, to dream


light’s useless time away.

I stood, holding my breath,

in urine-scented hay,

master of life and death,

a wisp-haired judge whose law

would punish beak and claw.

In this poem, the child speaker is both feisty kid-hero and bombastic villain, whose juvenile power-hunger is presented from perspectives simultaneously innocent (childish) and knowing (adult). I have further discussed this aspect of ‘Barn Owl’ in a web video produced by Allen & Unwin. Through such duality of tone, Harwood’s work offers an important example of how reading poetry is an imaginative pleasure that rewards repetition, performance, discussion and flexible critical thinking. This complexity of interpretation and representation raises significant questions about critical methodology, which might appeal to capable senior students. Hoddinott advises:

Read it very carefully and link it to the other poems. Look at the form of each poem and see how varied they are. Become aware of her as a human being who is writing about her own life and writing as she develops (“Memories, moments and musings about Harwood.” p. 28).

The spectrum of allusion and identity in Harwood’s poetry prompts the question: what (and who) is poetry for? This question opens up discussion about preconceived notions that readers may have about poetry, female writers or Australian literature. Many of Harwood’s poems address the ‘big’ questions of philosophy, including gender and the nature of art, suggesting that poetry is more than decorative or expressive. The worldliness of her work can be seen in ‘Barn Owl’, which demonstrates how Harwood’s ‘writing embodies universal issues in vividly evoked particular settings’ (Hoddinott and Kratzmann Collected Poems p. xx). Landscape and the interaction of mind and matter is one more thematic focus that grips Harwood’s work. Specifically, her sense of local and regional (Australian and Tasmanian) identity engages with a broader interest in humanism, as in Estuary (Harwood p. 173):

Over the goldbrown sand my children

run in the wind. The sky’s immense

with spring’s new radiance. Far from here,

lying close to the final darkness,

a great-grandmother lives and suffers,

still praising life: another morning

on earth, cockcrow and changing light.

Chris Wallace-Crabbe remarks upon this poem that, ‘the landscape is charged with the present and past . . . of remembering as well as perceiving’ (The Wheeler Centre, web video). This braided perspective is also found in ‘Barn Owl’, where the speaker’s self-realisation marks not only her maturity but her humanity. As well as ‘Barn Owl’ andEstuary, this focus would include poems such as At the Water’s Edge, Littoral andThreshold among others.

Students of Collected Poems can appreciate that Harwood goes beyond simply representing place or personal experience; she undertakes a more aesthetic crafting of the immediate world as a trigger, symbol and illumination of what is absent, immaterial or unknown to us. While there is a strong Christian subtext across Harwood’s Collected Poems – knowledge of which is not mandatory to an investigation of her work, but certainly available to readers who wish to consider what it adds to Harwood’s philosophical query – it should be reconciled with her materialist appreciation of mortality and the corporeal, ‘the real world of human relationships . . . music, friendship, the natural world’ (Hoddinott “Memories, moments and musings about Harwood.” p. 25).

Collected Poems reveals to students the delicious and unfolding experience of finding the recurring poetic motifs, themes, symbols, settings and figures in a life’s work. As Wallace-Crabbe puts it, Harwood ‘could write her meanings, she could write her life into this low-angled sunlight, these cold, clear, bright, beautiful shorelines’ (The Wheeler Centre, web video).


Referenced works

Allen & Unwin. Bonny Cassidy—Gwen Harwood’s ‘Barn Owl’: family as a stage for big ideas. 29 June 2009. Web video.

Chessell, ‘D. “The Heart’s True Life: Teaching Gwen Harwood.” Idiom 46.1 (2010): 50-53.

Hoddinott, A., Kratzmann, G. eds. Gwen Harwood: Collected Poems 1943 – 1995. UQP, 2003.

Hoddinott, A. “Editing Gwen Harwood.” Island 111 (Summer 2007): 29-45.

—. “Memories, moments and musings about Harwood.” Metaphor 1 (2013): 22-28.

Kinsella, J. “Textual feminism.” Island 129 (Winter 2012): 11-13.

The Wheeler Centre. Texts in the City: Collected Poems of Gwen Harwood. 18 May 2012. Web video.

Further reading

Atherton, C. Flashing Eyes and Floating Hair: A Reading of Gwen Harwood’s Pseudonymous Poetry. Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2006.

Beston, J. “Artists and Academics in the Poetry of Gwen Harwood.” Quadrant 18.3 (1975): 21-27.

Douglas, D. “A Prodigious Dilemma: Gwen Harwood’s Professor Eisenbart and

the Vices of the Intellect.” Australian Literary Studies 6.3 (1973): 77-82.

—. “Gwen Harwood—Poet as Doppelganger.” Quadrant March 1969: 15-19.

Harwood, G. “The Evanescent Things.” Interview with Jenny Digby. A Woman’s Voice.

Ed. UQP, 1996: 45-65.

Hoddinott, A. Gwen Harwood: The Real and the Imagined World. Angus & Robertson, 1991.

Hope, A.D. “Gwen Harwood and The Professors.” Australian Literary Studies 5.3 (1975): 227-232.

King, R. “A symphony complete: the range of voices employed in Harwood’s poetry”. Meanjin63.1 (2004): 185-190.

Kratzmann, G. ed. A Steady Storm of Correspondence: Selected Letters of Gwen Harwood1943–1995. UQP, 2001.

—. ed. Selected Poems: A New Edition. Penguin, 2001.

Kratzmann, G., Wallace-Crabbe, C. eds. Mappings of the Plane: New Selected Poems. Fyfield Books, 2009.

O’Sullivan, V. “Voices From the Mirror.” Gwen Harwood. Ed. Robert Sellick. Flinders UP, 1987.

Strauss, J. Boundary Conditions: The Poetry of Gwen Harwood. UQP, 1992. Print.

Trigg, S. Gwen Harwood. OUP, 1994.

© Copyright Bonny Cassidy 2013