Introductory activities: Tapping into prior knowledge and values

Exploring poetry and your values

Agree or disagree?

      • Poetry is a concise way of conveying a lot of information.
      • Poetry is a personal experience.
      • Poetry is objective.
      • Australian poetry is always set in Australia.
      • Poetry is very difficult to understand.
      • Knowing about the poet helps to understand the poetry.
      • Poetry doesn’t fit into the modern world.

Exploring your attitude to poetry

I like/don’t like poetry because ______________________. Now ask the class to interview each other to find out how the class feels about poetry.

Personal response

  1. Group work: look at the titles of any poems selected for class study.
      • What kind of person do the titles suggest the poet is?
      • What do you think she is interested in?
  2. Read and listen: reading aloud
    Choose students from the class to read a selection of Harwood’s poems. Students should listen without any script before them and just enjoy the rhythm and ideas in the poems. They can discuss this but the main idea is to enjoy the sounds. After each poem they can write about what they can see or hear as they listen. Does this resonate with anything in their own lives?
  3. Discuss: personal connections
      1. If you were a poet what events of your life would you write about?
      2. Who are the people you would write about?
      3. Who would you dedicate your poems to?


Outline of key elements

Poetry terminology: revise poetry terminology with the class if necessary.


Synthesising task/activity

Direct students to write their own poem about an experience, person, or place that has affected them. Work in pairs to critique each other’s work and offer some editorial advice on: structure, images, line length, rhythm, sounds, punctuation. Reflect on the experience of the rewriting – how important is it to have an editor for your work?
One of Harwood’s beliefs was that the first version of a poem was the right one. She rarely changed her poems except for punctuation. Ask students what they think about this? How much thought did they put into their punctuation?

Reading Harwood

In an interview, Alison Hoddinott had this to say about reading Harwood:

I would suggest they just read each poem carefully. 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. She’s constantly fighting against an awareness of what time and mortality do to you and what you substitute for a religious belief in terms of belief in human relationships, love of nature, continuity, friendship and, above all, art.

Harwood’s poems are lyrical and often challenging, capturing a tonal range and a strong sense of voice. She uses the discursive Augustan mode (witty and ironic). Her insights into the mysteries of language are framed by highly sophisticated complex poetic forms and she plays with traditional form.

Her poetry is strongly allusive referring to:

      • European art
      • Music
      • Literature (Shakespeare)
      • Ancient Classics
      • King James Bible 1611 version
      • German Lieder
      • Philosophy (Wittgenstein, Heidegger)
      • English Romanticism Her own life.

Harwood’s themes

For an overview of Harwood’s themes and some key poems go to Colleen Keene article Gwen Harwood Selected Poems in The Age (February 11, 2013).

Poetic forms

Harwood is interested in all forms of poetry. She frequently writes sonnets but she also uses the ballad, ode, elegy, narrative, and pastoral forms among others. Many poems have more than one part which, like movements in classical music, may be quite different.

In the same interview, Hoddinott says:

In the 1960’s – her first book was published in 1963 and the second in 1968 – the approved poetic convention was free verse and those who practised the traditional structures were  criticized as being out of touch and old-fashioned. However, she developed a very intricate type of formal verse which she never really abandoned – she never really went in for unstructured free verse, but her verse did become freer as she developed. She used the sonnet form a lot. She also used the six line-stanza form with an intricate rhyming pattern, and I think that corresponds with the form used by some of the American poets that she was keen on. She was very good at formal verse structures and she did them apparently effortlessly.

Look for these different techniques and forms as you read the poems.


Voice emerges in the way language is used. Harwood’s poetry is always intellectual and complex in its thinking and yet it is also intensely personal. Her voice is embedded into the texture of the poems, through the words, the structure, the allusions. She locates herself into a literary Australia through her direct references to famous Australian writers who were her friends.

Language and style

Structure, form, word choice, imagery, allusions, line length, rhythm, visual patterns of lines, punctuation – all these make up a style that is uniquely Harwood. At times her poetry is very accessible and at other times it becomes more obscure creating a puzzle for the reader – displaying virtuosity with forms and enacting philosophical ideas of great depth. Sometimes when the reference is obscure she adds footnotes for her reader.

Musicality and rhythm

Music inspires Harwood and also provides imagery. Harwood plays with metre to create music with the words – listen for the beats to the line in the poems to see how the rhythm is played out. Many of the longer poems are divided into parts with very different rhythms like a piece of classical music, with movements that may be slow then fast. Given Harwood’s musical background, sound is an extremely important element. One feature of Harwood’s poetry is breaking the rules:

So, 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 shereally seems to avoid, so that when you read it aloud you’re reading against the traditional form. (Hoddinott, interview for Metaphor)

Look for unexpected breaks in the lines and listen for the sounds created. Add the syllables in each line and mark the beat on a given line.

Layout and punctuation

As they read, students will notice that the poems often have unusual indenting or spaces – this is purposeful. Hoddinott and Kratzmann write, ‘Her use of indented lines is subtle and significant’ (introduction to Collected Poems p. xxv). They say that the indenting can signal:

      • a new speaker
      • a different time frame
      • an altered perspective.

Another feature of her poems is punctuation or the lack of it: ‘While she rarely made any major alterations, she frequently changed the punctuation and sometimes altered a word or changed one or two lines. Her alterations to  punctuation are usually designed to make sense of a passage clearer or to guide the placing of emphasis or pausing in the reading of a poem aloud’  (Hoddinnott and KratzmanCollected Poems p. xxiii).

As you read the poems take note of punctuation and indenting considering how this imparts the message of the poem and what it adds to sound and imagery. Look for poems with unusual indentation: At the Water’s Edge, The Waldstein, The Fire Scarred Hillside, Soldier, Soldier and Songs of Eve. All of Harwood’s poems exhibit interesting punctuation so multiple poems could be chosen for study.

Unpacking the techniques

Sample close reading 

Good criticism is not about giving a generic reason for techniques or just interpreting lines individually; it is about relating all the parts of the poem to the theme – the bigger picture. Download an annotated version of the poem Memento Homo Quia Pulvis Es Genesis iii. 19 (PDF, 110KB).

This is a poem about death which comes to us all. The title is understandable when translated and immediately asserts the theme of mortality so we need to read the rest of the poem with this in mind. All the techniques that you see in the poem should therefore be related to the theme. If we follow the poem closely we see that negative words abound so the poem reinforces the theme of the title and conveys the pain of death through such words as ‘agony’ and ‘monstrous’. Even spaces which can be regarded as techniques need to reflect the theme. Good poetry criticism links techniques to the theme so if the theme is that death comes to anyone the spaces could be a sign that death strikes at anytime and leaves an absence – a hole – in our lives.
There is an interesting pattern of rhyming couplets in the first quatrain (aabb) that changes to an alternating pattern (cdcd) in the next quatrain, changes (effe) and disintegrates as the poem progresses. This can be interpreted as the attempt to create a pattern in our lives which we can’t hold on to.

Another feature of the poem is the enjambment which in contrast to the idea of death suggests continuity as each line flows into the other. Given the negativity of this poem, this could be seen as an attempt to cling to life.

Composing a response

Here is the beginning of a response – responses need to have a clear argument and techniques need to support the argument and not drive it.

Memento Home Quia Pulvis Est Genesis iii. 19 is an existential poem about mortality, a theme that preoccupies Harwood in many of her poems. The Biblical allusion that begins the poem is balanced by a scientific allusion to galaxies at the end of the poem, bringing together Harwood’s religious beliefs with an intellectual approach.
The structure of the poem reflects the struggle for life against inevitable death. A rhythm from rhyming couplets (aabb) to alternating rhyming lines (cdcd) disintegrates to suggest the loss of control over life while the enjambment linking the lines becomes an attempt to connect to life. Disconnection is further indicated by spaces and indenting in the poem.

Have students complete this response.

Point of view

The poems are mostly written in the first person, frequently addressed or dedicated to friends. In her character poems she captures different perspectives. In her poems on childhood, especially the two poems in the Father and Child series, she is able to return to a childlike state with emotions of guilt while offering an adult perspective. The layering of time and perspective is a repeated element in her poetry.

Direct students to undertake a close study of the poems in Father and Child (page 275).

Characterisation and Harwood

Harwood’s oeuvre includes two series of poems on the characters: Professor Eisenbart and Professor Krote, both intellectuals of some age whom she treats with disdain. The Eisenbart series is earlier and less extensive than the Krote series. Krote with his musical training is relegated to teaching young girls the piano. Harwood’s strength as a poet is in the way she enters their minds, capturing their dissatisfaction through a single scene which she carefully unpacks. The sense of regret and failure pervades these poems.

Explore these poems about character: Prize-Giving (Eisenbart, page 49) and Professor Kröte (page 118).

Note: many of the poems about Kröte and Eisenbart have sexual undertones.

Music, painting creativity and Harwood

Many of Harwood’s poems are about acts of creativity and creative people. When she writes about music, poetry and art she is often invoking a Romantic sensibility about genius and the act of creation. Sometimes creativity is central to the poem; other times it adds an additional element. She sees this as a gift which is to be valued. In the Kröte series of poems, music loses its spark as it degenerates into teaching of children and lost opportunities and past accomplishments. She uses music as a theme or as an identifier of people’s personality.

Poems about music:

      • Alter Ego p. 3
      • Of Music p. 13
      • Beethoven, 1798 p. 14
      • “Beethoven in a shabby room” p. 102
      • To Music p. 467
      • New Music p. 194
      • Professor Kröte p. 118
      • Matinee p. 233
      • The Magic Land Of Music p. 405

Poems about art:

      • A Postcard p. 25
      • Death of a Painter p. 19
      • An Unveiling p. 98

Poems about poetry:

      • Critic’s Nightwatch p. 42
      • Poets’ Night-watch p.96
      • A Public Place p.243

Close study: Suburban Sonnet

Direct students to read Suburban Sonnet (page 159) and then answer the following questions:

      • What features of the sonnet form do you find in this poem?
      • What is the effect of having a nameless mother?
      • How is the past presented? And how is the present presented?
      • What does the poet mean by ‘subject and counter subject’?
      • What is the significance of the dead mouse?
      • What is the significance of the last line?
      • What is the role of music in this poem?
      • Why would this poem be regarded as a feminist poem?
      • Compare this poem to Alter Ego on music or to In the Park on the housewife.

Setting and Harwood

Despite her protestations that her poetry was not about her life, the places she writes about are clearly familiar and often named (Mornington, North Hobart, Sydney, Venice) and her descriptions are strongly lyrical capturing a Romantic sensibility.

Undertake a close study of the poem The Fire-scarred Hillside (page 79). Other poems about setting are:

      • The Dead Gums p. 78
      • At Mornington p. 258
      • The Violets p. 247

Listen to the YouTube presentation on the poem At Mornington by David Evans. How successful do you think this presentation is in capturing Harwood’s themes?

Temporal themes

Time and memory are important elements in Harwood’s poems and emerge in the play of past and present verb tenses. She writes in On History (page 474):

. . . posterity

is what we were to be. The tenses

of English let us make some strange

assertions: all that greets the senses

we sort and sift and rearrange.

Things have been past, and will be future.

The present moment like a suture

holds time together. What’s to come

will be the past.

Harwood’s biographer, Alison Hoddinott, said when interviewed:

Oh yes, I think memory is something that unites her poetry all the way through, and also she sees time as the enemy. Time has to be fought off and one of the ways you fight it off is by recording the past in poetry – so that poetry endures . . . Fear of time and mortality and the attempt to build defences against it, in terms of family love, sexual love, memory, music – all forms of art that record the present moment and transmit it to future generations.

Look for the way time is explored in the poems you are studying.
(ACELR042)   (ACELR043)   (ACELR044)

Synthesising task: Writing an essay tracing a theme

Select one of the themes explored above and read the suggested other poems (alternatively locate another theme you want to explore). Write a comparative essay on the way the chosen theme is developed in Harwood’s poetry. You will need to take note of the dates of publication and the context of each poem as this may influence your interpretation.
(ACELR045)   (ACELR046)

Ways of reading the text

Different perspectives – theoretical approaches

We’re caught, as Wittgenstein reminds us,

in the net of language.

(from On Poetry p. 440)

Harwood was influenced by many philosophical ideas. While Wittgenstein and Heidegger are specifically addressed in some poems, their ideas pervade other poems. One can also see evidence of the psychoanalytic theories of Freud and Jung’s theories of dreams in many poems. Harwood has been called a feminist poet because of such poems as In the Park and Suburban Sonnet, which come at an early stage of motherhood but later on she is critical of these poems ‘wishing she’d never written about that dowdy housewife and her brood’ (‘Later texts’ in Harwood’s collection The Present Tense, 1995).

Using theories to understand the poems

Read one of the following poems. Copy down lines that capture interesting ideas and think about what they mean. Then conduct research into the theory. Read the poem again and see if the research has changed your interpretation of the poem.

Poems using the ideas of Wittgenstein:

      • Hesperian p. 30
      • Retirement Into Life p. 539
      • Late Autumn, Sydney p. 515
      • Wittgenstein’s Shoebox p. 486
      • On Uncertainty p. 483
      • The Sharpness of Death p. 294

Poems using the ideas of Heidegger:

      • The Sharpness of Death (Part II – Heidegger) p. 295

Poems using the ideas of Freud (the unconscious and Oedipal theories):

      • The Glass Jar p. 21
      • Father and Child p. 275

Feminist Poems:

      • In the Park p. 65
      • Suburban Sonnet p. 159
      • Suburban Sonnet: Boxing Day p. 157
      • The Lion’s Bride p. 281
      • Mother Who Gave Me Life p. 361

Close study: Father and child

1. Reading
First reading: read the poem and think about the images and the words. Second reading: watch and listen to the YouTube video on ‘Barn Owl’.

      • What mood is the video trying to evoke?
      • List the images that appear. Which one stood out for you?
      • Describe the music that is used.
      • How effective do you think this interpretation is?

2. Structure
The poem operates in complimentary parts:

      • Childhood – Adulthood
      • Loss of innocence by child – Loss of experience by adult
      • Past – Present
      • Sin – Redemption

There is also internal contrast in each stanza: light – dark; youth – age.

      • Why is contrast so important in the poem?
      • Why is the first part called ‘Barn Owl’?

3. Musicality: rhythm and rhyme
Rhythm – how many syllables are there in each line? Is this consistent? Trace the rhyme pattern. Is this consistent?

      • Why does Harwood adhere to a rhyme pattern in this poem?
      • How does this develop the ideas of the poem?

4. Punctuation
Note punctuation including dialogue. How does the punctuation affect the way the poem is read? Comment on the pace. (Does this slow down or speed up the poem? Why?)

5. Allusion
Harwood alludes to Shakespeare’s play King Lear in the second part – especially in the last two stanzas.

      • Find out what the play is about and comment on the effect of this allusion.

6. Words
Locate any significant images – these may not be metaphors or similes but can be carefully organised descriptions. In the first stanza the adjectives ‘horny’,  ‘obedient’, and ‘angel-mild’ create a contrast.

      • Find any other contrasts in the stanzas.

7. Ideas
What are the ideas about life and death and family in this poem?

8. Other readings
Watch this video clip on an interpretation of ‘Barn Owl’ by Bonny Cassidy: family as a stage for big ideas. Listen to Bonny Cassidy talking about ‘Barn Owl’ and make notes to answer these questions:

      • What is it about ‘Barn Owl’ that appeals to you?
      • Is Gwen Harwood’s work typical of her generation?
      • How is family evoked in ‘Barn Owl’?
      • How does Harwood use wit?
      • Has this interpretation made you rethink the way you see the poem?

Now read this interpretation by Alison Hoddinott and consider how this affects your original interpretation:

Father and Child is two poems with quite different sets of images. ‘Barn Owl’ is full of imagery from Blake: ‘old No-Sayer’ and the child ‘obedient angel-mild’. The ‘old No-Sayer’  is the God of the Old Testament. The second one, ‘Nightfall’ takes its imagery from King Lear – ‘Be your tears wet’, ‘Ripeness is plainly all’. Her father is, like Lear, ‘four score and upward’ and he’s blind. So he’s both Lear and Gloucester. I always admire the phrases she uses about old age, like ‘time’s long-promised land’, which echoes the biblical reference to the Promised Land, but it makes it much darker by transforming it from an image of an attainable ideal to an image of the inevitability of ageing.

‘Nightfall’ is a splendid poem. I like it better than I like ‘Barn Owl’ . . . ‘Things truly named can never vanish from earth’. The job of a poet is to name things truly. The father used to name objects in the natural world for the child and, now that he is blind, the child must name them for him. Naming ensures continuity and connectedness. She frequently writes about innocence and experience. At first the child doesn’t really understand about death. When you’ve gained experience you bring all these darker aspects into your field of consciousness. The child in ‘Barn Owl’ learns through experience.

How important is it to read and listen to other people’s interpretations and to understand the theoretical background to the poetry?

Comparison with other texts

How does Harwood’s poetry compare to her contemporaries?

Judith Wright is a contemporary poet of Harwood’s. Look at the poems Songs of Eve by Harwood and Eve to Her Daughters by Wright. How does each poet use the story of Eve to convey a message? What is the message of each poet? Can you see any connection in the way they write or what they are writing about?

How has Harwood influenced the next generation of Australian poets?  

Felicity Plunkett is a recent Australian poet whose poetry resonates with Harwood’s poems. Read Father and Child and The Glass Jar by Harwood (and other Harwood poems centred on family) and Plunkett’s poems Ferrying, Kindergarten and Learning the Bones in her book Vanishing Point. Construct a comparative table of the way these two poets explore family and death. Consider images, allusions, structure and the voice in each. What similarities and differences do you see? (alternatively you could look at the poets who have won the Gwen Harwood Memorial Award to trace the way poetry has developed during the period of the competition).


Evaluation of the text

      • As representative of Australian culture.
      • As significant to literature and the world of texts.

Read Professor Dixon’s essay on Australian literature’s relationship to world literature (“Australian Literature and the World Republic of letters”. Metaphor 1, 2013). Or watch him speaking about the Australian Canon on YouTube. Alternatively, watch Sophie Cunningham and Joseph Gelfer discuss Australian literature. Where does Harwood fit in the different periods of Australian literature cited by Dixon? How does Cunningham’s definition of Australian literature position Harwood’s poetry?

Go back through Collected Poems and look at the dedications – Harwood has very close friendships with other Australian writers (Dorothy Hewett, Vivian Smith, A.D. Hope). Consider where they stand in Australian literature. Do some research on Harwood’s awards and reviews of her work.

How do her references to other Australian poets and the comments of reviewers affect our assessment of Harwood as an Australian writer? Then consider Harwood and the world: think about the links to the world beyond Australia. Look at the range of references and allusions in Harwood’s poems. What does this show about the way she connects to the world?

Offer a summary of your findings in a table under the headings Australian poet/World poet.


Identifying and justifying language and stylistic techniques

Read the essay by Bonny Cassidy attached to this unit and the introduction to Collected Poems. List all the techniques and stylistic devices mentioned. Working in groups, students search through five poems per group to find their own evidence for the devices that are listed. Use the wall for charts on each device. Use post-its. Copy interesting images and other examples and place these on the appropriate chart. Spend some time reading the charts. Students may start to see some patterns developing in the range of references and images in the poems. From this exercise students come to an understanding of the motifs and themes that link the poetry. Back in groups the students will collect their findings and report back to the class.


Rich assessment task 1

A debate:

Harwood is an international poet rather than an Australian poet.

Present a mini debate with one student arguing that Harwood is an Australian poet and the other that she is an international poet. Students will need to support their arguments with evidence from the poems. The class can vote on which argument is the more convincing.

Inquiry topic

To what extent can Harwood be regarded as an Australian poet? Present this orally as an argument supported by a PowerPoint.

Before writing:

      • Read the article by Professor Robert Dixon on Australian literature and internationalism for a definition of Australian literature.
      • Look at Harwood’s concerns in her poetry.
      • Consider the dedications and allusions in her poetry. How does each position Harwood?

(ACELR037)   (ACELR038)   (ACELR039)   (ACELR040)   (ACELR048)

Synthesise core ideas

Enable students to synthesise core ideas by:

      • Addressing and justifying any revisions to their initial response.
      • Developing a coherent, conclusive statement of understanding regarding the text and its themes, structures and or techniques as applicable.
      • Reflecting on awareness of the text’s wider cultural value.
      • Reflecting on one’s own processes of responding to and creating other texts.


Rich assessment task 2

A multimedia task

Part 1: Compose
Design a multimedia presentation on the influences on Harwood with carefully selected passages from poems. Carefully consider the music to be used and the way the ideas are to be arranged. Write an explanation of what you were trying to do and how you constructed the multimedia show.
You might find it helpful first to critique this YouTube presentation on At Mornington.

Part 2: Respond
Watch a selection of presentations from the class and write a response to the representations noting what you perceived to be the strengths of each composition and also suggesting some ways of enhancing the presentations. In groups you may want first to design a criteria sheet to guide your response.

Inquiry topic

To what extent is Harwood’s poetry life writing? Present this orally as an argument supported by a PowerPoint.

Before writing:

      • Read the introduction to the collected poems.
      • Read the ‘autobiographical poems’.

Inquiry topic

‘The power of Harwood’s poetry lies in her deep understanding of how language works.’ Present this orally as an argument supported by a PowerPoint.

Before writing:

      • Read the poems.
      • Read Bonny Cassidy’s essay attached to this unit and the journal articles by Atherton and Hoddinott (see ‘Articles’ below).

Consider the following:

      • Harwood’s biographer and editor of the Collected Poems, Alison Hoddinott, commented on the relationship between Harwood’s life and her poetry. The following quotes from Harwood appear in Cassandra Atherton’s essay ‘In the dreaded park: Harwood and subpersonality theory’:
          • ‘I am horrified at the tendency of people to identify the I with the author . . . I keep saying that the I of the poems is not the I making jams jellies pickles and chutneys.’
          • ‘The I that writes down the things on the page is certainly not the one who sits talking about writing and the things on the page.’
          • ‘You said, “We live two lives.
            One in the world, and one
            in what others write about us.”‘ (From the poem The Present Tense, p. 459)
          • ‘I am in complete control of what I publish.’
          • ‘With one hand, dear reader, I am extending my deathless verse; with the other I am keeping you away from my private life, which is mine and nothing to do with you.’

(ACELR045)   (ACELR046)   (ACELR048)


Atherton, C. “In the dreaded park: Gwen Harwood and sub-personality theory.” Journal of Australian Studies 84 (2005): 133-140.

Hoddinott, A. “Memories, moments and musings about Harwood.” mETAphor 1 (2013).


Hoddinott, A. and Kratzmann, G. eds. Gwen Harwood Collected Poems 1943 – 1995.University of Queensland Press, 2003.

Hoddinott, A. “Memories, moments and musings about Harwood.” mETAphor 1 (2013).