Gwen Harwood was one of Australia’s finest poets – she was also one of the most subversive

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Gwen Harwood is one of Australia’s finest poets. His poetry is studied in secondary schools across the country. Although she remains largely unknown internationally, her poetry and letters continue to excite and inspire readers 27 years after her death.

During her lifetime she published over 400 poems, 13 booklets and six collections of poetry: Poems (1963), Poems / Volume Two (1968), Selected Poems (1975), The Lion’s Bride (1981), Bone Scan (1988) and The Present (1995).

Harwood’s Collected Poems 1943–1995 was published posthumously in 2003. There are also three volumes of his extraordinary letters: Blessed City (1990), A Steady Storm of Correspondence (2001) and Idle Talk, Letters 1960–1964 (2015) .


Exam:

My Tongue Is Mine: A Life of Gwen Harwood – Ann-Marie Priest (La Trobe University Press)

Bad Art Mother – Edwina Preston (Wakefield Press)


Two recent publications explore Harwood’s experiences as a poet and demonstrate the power and durability of his poetry and letters. The first is the highly anticipated biography, My Tongue is My Own: A Life of Gwen Harwood by Ann-Marie Priest; the second, Edwina Preston’s Bad Art Mother, is a fictionalized account of a number of female artists in the 1960s, centering on a poet with obvious parallels to Harwood.

These books examine the inequalities implicit in the gender stereotypes of the time, some of which persist today. They highlight the inventive ways in which Harwood and other female artists have attempted to transcend or subvert the boundaries of patriarchy.

Both books discuss the significance of the Bulletin scandal or “hoax” perpetrated by Harwood in 1961, initiated when Harwood sent two sonnets—Eloisa to Abelard and Abelard to Eloisa—to the Bulletin under the pseudonym Walter Lehmann.

Harwood thought the sonnets were “poetic garbage” and anyone publishing them was completely incompetent. She famously said:

I refrain from saying that those who could not distinguish poetry from a bunyip’s ass might well be laughed at.

The poems alluded to a famous epistle by Alexander Pope (1688–1744), Eloise to Abelard. Acrostically, they read: “So Long Bulletin” and “Fuck All Editors.”



Read more: ‘The Red Witch’: How writer, intellectual and communist activist Katharine Susannah Prichard helped shape Australia


“The Fantasies of Poets”

Ann-Marie Priest reconstructs a vivid account of the Bulletin scandal from a variety of sources.

Identified as a “housewife” in most press reports about the scandal, Harwood claimed it demonstrated that she was not taken seriously as a poet. The reception of her poetry was not separated from discussions of her gender, unlike the work of her male counterparts, so she sought ways to expose, escape and undermine the restrictions of patriarchal society.

Unable to face a woman – a “housewife” – who is orchestrating a major hoax by the male-dominated literary establishment, the Bulletin, with new poetry editor Vincent Buckley at the helm, sought to discredit her subversive act.

In his detailed account, Priest discusses an article, “The Hoax That Missed”, published in the Bulletin, which attempted to undermine the hoax in the wake of the scandal. It was written by journalist Peter Coleman in collaboration with Buckley, Harwood’s friend and fellow poet. Buckley betrayed her, arguing that

despite Mrs. Harwood’s best efforts, [the sonnets] had two flaws that made them unsuitable for their deception: they had real meaning and they had limited but certain literary merit.

The article concluded condescendingly. Harwood, writes Buckley,

apparently imagined that the acrostic would forever remain his secret […] Such are the fantasies of poetesses.

Harwood’s biographer, Ann-Marie Priest.
Black Inc.


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An accessible account

Priest’s biography is an accessible account of Harwood’s life, often filtered and framed by an examination of Harwood’s complex relationships.

John Harwood, the eldest child and literary executor of Gwen Harwood, revealed in a recent issue of Australian Book Review that he initially went against his mother’s wishes to “tell it all” and had embargoed much of his correspondence. After his father’s death, John Harwood granted Priest access to this material.

Priest’s reconstruction of events synthesizes a plethora of sources, including a massive amount of letters, diaries, and interviews with Harwood’s friends and correspondents. She combines this with an analysis of Harwood’s poems to create a gripping narrative, exploring Harwood’s private and literary life.

She brings Harwood’s love affairs to the fore, beginning the biography with the phrase:

When Gwen Harwood was in her 50s, she sent childhood photos to a young poet who had recently become her lover.

This brings to the fore Priest’s frank discussions of Harwood’s marriage, which Harwood’s correspondence characterizes as tense and difficult. Priest’s biography also reveals the names of various lovers, starting when he was seventeen with composer, conductor and scholar Robert Dalley-Scarlett.

In her recent review of My Tongue is My Own, Stephanie Trigg comments that the biography “does not challenge the genre”, but praises the way Priest does not “prominent her own voice”, putting “Harwood’s voice – or rather, its many voices – at the heart of this volume.

Sometimes, perhaps, it’s at the expense of delving deeper into Harwood’s role as a self-confessed “notorious trouble-prankster.” Indeed, many of Harwood’s published letters reveal his penchant for entertaining disguises and games.

Taking Harwood more or less at his word, and his correspondence and discussions with people mostly at face value – without significant authorial caveats, qualifications or challenges – tends to prioritize the sometimes questionable narrative that Harwood wrote for herself.

John Harwood notes that when his mother was alive, she simultaneously courted two separate biographers and

led them a merry dance […] My mother’s plan was to oversee the writing of her own life.

Perhaps Priest invites his readers to read against the grain and identify the times when they think Harwood’s claims may not be reliable.

Unreliable narrators

The subversive character of unreliable narrators is explored in Edwina Preston’s Bad Art Mother, alongside mainstream contemporary discourses on motherhood and poetry. Significantly, Preston includes a statement about the Bulletin hoax and Harwood’s commentary on it as an epilogue to his novel:

someone I thought was a friend said… “I thought no woman would ever use that word,” and made it clear that I was cut off from decent motherhood.

Bad Art Mother centers on a group of female artists in 1960s Australia struggling with their ambition and seeking to establish themselves in the male-dominated art scene. The characters are based on Melbourne artists and writers Georges and Mirka Mora, Joy Hester and Heide founders John and Sunday Reed.

At the heart of the book is not just a Bulletin hoax-like scandal, but lively, compelling letters, not unlike Harwood’s famous correspondence. Preston reconstructs the life of its protagonist in a series of shattered and searing vignettes, clever epistolary writing and retrospective reflections.

In Bad Art Mother, Veda Gray aspires to be a poet but struggles with society’s expectation that women have a duty to be wives and mothers rather than artists. This leads him to allow the famous chauvinistic poet, Mr. Parish, and his wife to become the legal guardians of his child, Owen – a character based on Sweeney Reed, who was adopted by John and Sunday.

Veda is shown as making this decision so she has more time to write, and asks her sister, “What kind of mother chooses a book over a child?”

But the stakes are more insidious than that. Preston demonstrates in subtle prose that none of the men question whether they are good fathers or husbands. She exposes the ways even Veda’s son undermines her by choosing, prioritizing and praising the most conventional mother figures in her life.

When her manuscript, The Poems of Veda Gray is accepted for publication, Veda explains to her sister that the publisher wants

reconsider the content and reassess the sequencing of the book […] another opening poem is required (perhaps a sonnet? They suggest, as didn’t Shakespeare write many?)

This is when Veda becomes “an inventor of plots to outsmart publishers”.

Edwina Preston.
Author provided

In My Tongue is My Own, Priest describes how Harwood’s use of the word “kiss” was considered repugnant largely because Harwood was a wife and mother. Veda is also labeled “obscene” and indecent for its literary intervention. The title, “End of Line for Disgraced Lady Poet” is similar to headlines about Harwood after the Bulletin scandal. The same term – “lady poet” – had been used to undermine Harwood.

Priest declares that Harwood

understand that men are wary of women who aspire to write […] and too ready to send them back.

Priest and Preston’s books – one a biography with strong narrative thrust, and the other a work of fiction with strong biographical underpinnings – explore a comment made by Harwood in a concise interview with John Beston:

I have the impression that I have sometimes been handicapped by the fact of being the poetess-housewife; you know, how she can make a beautiful apricot sponge and write poetry too. There’s a wild, mean part lurking somewhere there, and yet that’s also part of the kind mother.

Both works provide an opportunity to reflect on the relationship between patriarchy and women’s artistic endeavors, including their ambitions and the reception of their work. It is salutary to consider how difficult it can be for creative women artists to obtain real opportunities to make art and also the recognition they deserve.


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