Reviewed by Ian Lipke
The title of Ann-Marie Priest’s biography of the gifted Australian poet Gwen Harwood is a fine metonymic description. This poet is renowned for the brilliance, the intellectual toughness of her verse, while being as well known for her sense of the ridiculous and her capacity for hard physical labour. By the end of her life, she had addressed misogyny of the most blatant kind and carved a place for herself and other women poets in serious writing. This biography follows the poet from her childhood in 1920s Brisbane to her final years in Hobart in the 1990s. If determination is the key to survival against entrenched opposition, Harwood had it in spades blasting her way into the patriarchal strongholds of 1950s Australian poetry.
Publishing more than 420 works of poems and libretti, she became the recipient of numerous awards, refusing to be bound by convention, ‘liberating’ herself from the shackles of convention that refused to recognise ability in women. She was a passionate letter-writer, and it is through this medium that Priest can build the detail in the portrait that is Gwen Harwood.
Priest provides a balanced picture of the poet. Not only poetry but also music play a significant role in Harwood’s life. Priest considers the young girl and her first taste of music as a discipline and follows this contact until the two parted company. Her intelligence is made manifest with her academic achievements in music and later in the skilful ways she satisfied such composers as Larry Sitsky. Harwood is revealed as both a serious composer but also a trickster.
Priest writes the Walter Lehmann-Francis Geyer-Miriam Stone story with relish and excitement. It is as though the biographer is re-living the plots that Harwood hatched to draw attention to the plight of women writers. Priest describes the communal shock that a housewife would use the profanity that Harwood employs, and writes that Harwood’s letters (many still not published) made her ‘laugh aloud … but for all her merriment, it was evident that she felt painfully trapped’.
Priest explains how Harwood met the man who was to be the poet’s husband. She tends to explain away his inadequacies. She claims that Harwood thought him handsome, tall, blonde, and marvellously intelligent. However, as the biography proceeds, it becomes obvious, even to Gwen, that Bill was to present a problem that would not go away. It is made clear that her husband had no interest in Gwen’s writing, and eventually became inimical to the very idea that his wife was more famous than he was. Still, she wrote when she could, sending her poems out and receiving ‘nothing but rejections’. She wanted to leave Hobart, but Bill didn’t want to and she had no money of her own. She was trapped in the oldest game there is. Bill believed that poetry was ‘just one language game among many’ whereas for Gwen, poetry was capable of true communication— the ‘truth beyond the language game’.
If there is one criticism I have of this marvellous book, it is this. A huge amount of the text is devoted to what I would call an extended account of material that fits the mindset of the Woman’s Day reader. There is gossip and over-dwelling on affairs primarily of interest to women. There is extended treatment of Gwen’s extra-marital affairs, even to the inclusion of a lesbian relationship. This could be read as a picture of a woman seeking desperately for love. Readers would have to decide for themselves whether Gwen Harwood’s name is tarnished by these revelations.
by Ann-Marie Priest
La Trobe UP/Black Inc Books
ISBN: 978 176064 234 1