A Steady Storm of Correspondence : Selected Letters of Gwen Harwood 1943-1995, Edited by Gregory Kratzmann, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, Queensland, ISBN 0 7022 3257 2 RRP $40
Review by Philip Harvey first published in Eureka Street in 2005
In Gwen Harwood’s first letter to her future editor Greg Kratzmann, she pleads ‘As for my life, there’s little to tell.’ This faux-naif, some would even say housewifely, denial is followed with, ‘I’ve never climbed higher than 1270 metres or been out of Australia or divorced or psychoanalysed or pursued by a bear.’ (28.2.91) Suggestive and flirtatious, Harwood’s contrasting qualification is a game her readers recognise instantly. It is the talent of a poet with the skill to excite her reader into wanting to know more. In this brick of a book we get to know much more than we bargained for. If ‘there’s little to tell’, she Harwood finds a hundred and one ways of spinning it magically into full-scale display.
Harwood’s is a tale of two cities, Brisbane and Hobart. Brisbane is childhood and youth, the paradisal garden, the blessed city Jerusalem, made still more glorious by her as it becomes further distant in time and space. Hobart is adulthood, a much more vexed proposition, at times surprising, more often a place of stoical endurance, even horror. “I would like to get out of Tasmania for ever; I loathe the place in spite of its beauty,” (30.3.70) she spits, not for the first time, but though she threatens to go and live in such exotic places as Rome or Melbourne, she stayed in the pendent isle all her married life. The mythic use of these two places is familiar from the poetry, and the letters only confirm the view Gwen Harwood was not using the contrast purely for artistic ends.
Coleridge’s ‘friendship is a sheltering tree’ is quoted as a motif for the collection, steadfast friendship being from first till last the prime motive for her correspondence. News is never just newsy, but opportunity for entertainment or reflection. Her lifelong correspondence with Thomas ‘Tony’ Riddell in particular takes up half the book, an outpouring of candour, concision and sheer joy with life that amply supports her assertion ‘our friendship will always “flow on into the living”’. The extended presentation of the letters to special correspondents like Riddell, Edwin Tanner, Ann Jennings and others, with very rare elisions, broadens appreciation of her devotion as well as her dynamic involvement in the world. ‘The span of time grows shorter,’ she writes to Riddell (1.5.67),’but that means nothing in terms of the inner life where depth alone counts.’
Letters were another extension of Gwen Harwood’s ability to amuse. Those published here are preoccupied with domestic life, social life, and literary life. Little more. Politics barely registers on the Richter Scale. Issues of the day, if mentioned at all, seem incidental to the writer’s glee in making her friends laugh. Her programme will always include space for a divertimento. She learnt early too the skill of keeping consolations brief and practical as possible.
Fifty years move at their gradual, irresistible pace. Home life and family take precedence at all times. Everything is interrupted by the need to get the kids to school or the dinner on the table. Descriptions of boating, gardening, jam making (‘enough for the Chinese army’) break through everywhere. As well as a true portrait of home life, the letters are a mini-history of 20th century Australian gastronomy. ‘I had seafood pie and salad and an alarmingly decorated pavlova pudding which supported such a weight of whipped cream, bananas & strawberries that I thought it would go down like the walls of Jericho. [We] ordered a dessert called ‘Knickerbocker glory’, a real old-fashioned icecream, butterscotch fudge, chocolate sauce, nuts, wafers and alps of whipped cream.’ And that’s a brief report. Harwood’s greedy observations of meals and spreads fill entire pages. Likewise her observation of society, where she is a cunning cross between Jane Austen and Edna Everidge.
Those in search of a nascent feminist before her time will find instead a woman recording the trials and joys of motherhood, a poet up against an accepted hierarchy of gentlemen poets, a secretary very much at the mercy of her employer’s daily moods. Just occasionally she will write to a female correspondent ‘I dream of a world in which there is no insoluble choice for women; not in our lifetime, I fear, but it will come if enough of us refuse ... the male interpretation.’ (2.2.61) At the same time, she seems openly resistant to activism when the movement takes root in the 1970s.
A neglected area in Harwood criticism is her religion and here we are given an expanded sense of the reasons for her subscription to High Church Anglicanism. Clearly she goes to church ‘for the music there’, acting as organist in different places, but her theological interests are hinted at and her need for an ordered liturgy is vital. She is quite familiar with Jesus and talks about him in every manner from the childishness of her ‘Jonquil Jesus’ in folding yellow robes, through to the deeply reverential, then to the blase and ribald, a characteristic of church-goers that non-church-goers find perplexing, if they are aware of it at all. Her favourite festival is Corpus Christi. Jesus gets more time than Wittgenstein but is not listed in the index. At the same time as being a regular and dedicated worshipper though, Harwood confesses seeing no point in organised religion, making her perhaps more typical of many Australian church-goers than is generally acknowledged. Alternatives are never suggested.
The letters are a cornucopia of mischievous, irresistible and erudite English, the timing impeccable. Her skill with a running gag is equal to her skill with irregular feet. Poetry came early and these letters confirm that writing verse was simply something she knew she was good at. It was enlivening. For this reason she bemoans ‘the fate of many a poem’, her own included, ‘becoming an object of study, not of artistic enjoyment.’ (23.6.71) Hence her fascination with forms, how they work, how to make something original with them. Such pleasure in the making of poetry inevitably came into trouble though when she decided to engage with the literary world.
Harwood catalogues rejection slips, misplaced manuscripts, ignorant editors - all the details of a poet’s life that don’t change - grinding her teeth at the thankless vocation of poet. ‘It is to me a hateful talent. I cannot bury it. I would rather have been happy’, she confides to Vincent Buckley (30.8.61). Elsewhere she writes:’It’s assumed that poetry in Australia is a substance of no commercial value that can be produced anywhere in odd moments.’ (9.5.67) Meanwhile her own creative life continues with energetic playfulness. The letters contain many marvellous poems dashed off on the spur of the moment. This acrostic sonnet to Tony Riddell (20.7.60), for example, in response to Meanjin editor Clem Christesen’s rejection of her highly-structured work in favour of a poem of dwindling returns and eminent laxness entitled ‘Goods Train’:
ON A SECOND READING OF ‘GOODS TRAIN’
When I consider how I used to write
Rhythmical verse, and keep my meaning wed
Ever to form; and see the rubbish spread
Carelessly through Meanjin: all the spite,
Knavishness, nastiness, readiness to fight
That mar my lovely nature, make their bed
Here. I resign poetic maidenhead.
A-whoring I shall go, this very night.
There’ll be no peace for Editors who take
Things like ‘Goods Train’. I’ll prostitute my art.
(Reserved exclusively for CBC
Are several ‘translations’, each a fake.)
I’ll tout myself all round, a lyric tart.
No one will know who is or isn’t
G did indeed have high poetic standards, quoting approvingly James Merrill’s ‘stiff rhythms, gorgeous rhymes.’ Even this squib has echoes of John Donne. The letters reinforce what we already know about Harwood’s handful of prosodic tenets: the poem must have form, must entertain at some level, must convince, must achieve creative tension. She had no time for poetry that seemed to have been written by a typewriter. Like many poets, she envied the purity and immediacy of musical expression and, unlike many poets, she had great musical ability. Harwood did very little if any reviewing in her life (her comments about critics, editors and academics are the bitchiest in the book, also her publisher Anguish & Robbery), so these letters are our first real exposure to her critical thought. She ‘always enjoyed’ what Bruce Beaver said, but found ‘his style porridgy’ Buckley’s Arcady & Other Places is ‘quite simply ... the best book of Australian poetry in existence.’ Francis Webb is ‘unmatched, but there’s a kind of mad privacy that defeats me.’
A collected Harwood letters would swell to Boswellian proportions. At the same time, the craving for more will not abate. The thematic collection is one solution. We see glimpses of her passion for German Romanticism, especially in the maddeningly delightful letters to Norman Talbot, that could be expanded to a volume. Glimpses too of her philosophic amour Ludwig Wittgenstein, source of her other religion, ‘the language-game’. A collection of the epistolary verse would be a treat. Or individual correspondences could be a solution. A collection of the letters between Harwood and Buckley or Harwood and her musical collaborator Larry Sitsky would be both entertaining portraits of friendships and the focus of special conversations on vita brevis, ars longa that we only guess at with the present selection. It must be said, envy is the sin that besets a reader when thinking of the editor with ready access to ten times more correspondence raging above the same signature.