Gwen Harwood's Poetry
I quite often get requests from high-school students asking for information about Gwen Harwood and analysis of her poems. As a result, I have started to write a small collection of reviews, both for my own pleasure and in the hope of inspiring these students to explore Gwen Harwood's poetry in greater depth. Please note that these reviews are extremely superficial and barely scratch the surface of meaning in each poem! There is plenty of room for further exploration, and I would love to hear your comments.
ATTENTION: I do not currently own a copy of Gwen Harwood's collected poems, and will not answer emails requesting an interpretation of a poem unless you include the full text of the poem in your email.
E-Book in the works: I am slowly writing an e-book of analysis of Gwen Harwood's poems and themes. This book will eventually be available for purchase through this website. In the meantime, please feel free to contact me and suggest poems you would like to see included, or to send me any poems you would like to see added to this page in the meantime. I am always happy to reply to inquiries about Gwen Harwood's writing - or my own!
'Critic's Nightwatch' from Poems (1963)
to rule his ranks of words. They broke
from his planned choir, lolled, slouched and kept
their tone, their pitch, their meaning crude;
huddled in cliches; when pursued
turned with mock elegance to croak
his rival's tunes. They would not sing.
The scene that nagged his sleep away
flashed clear again: the local king
of verse, loose-collared and loose-lipped,
read from a sodden manuscript,
drinking with anyone who'd pay,
drunk, in the critic's favourite bar.
"Hear the voice of the bard!" he bellowed,
"Poets are lovers. Critics are
mean, solitary masturbators.
Come here, and join the warm creators."
The critic, whom no drink had mellowed,
turned on his heel. Rough laughter scoured
his reddening neck. The poet roared
"Run home, and take the face that soured
your mother's lovely milk from spite.
Piddle on what you cannot write."
At home alone the critic poured
gall on the poet's work in polished
careful prose. He tore apart
meaning and metaphor, demolished
diction, syntax, metre, rhyme;
called his entire works a crime
against the integrity of art,
and lay down grinning, quick, he thought,
with a great poem that would make plain
his power to all. Once more he fought
with words. Sleep came. He dreamed he turned
to a light vapour, seeped and burned
in wordless cracks where grain on grain
of matter grated; reassumed
his human shape, and called by name
each grain to sing, conducting, plumed
in lightning, their obedient choir.
Dressed as a bride for his desire
towards him, now meek, the poet came.
Light sneaked beside his bed. The birds
began their insistent questioning
of silence, and the poet's words
prompted by daylight rasped his raw
nerves, and the waking world he saw
was flat with prose and would not sing.
My comments on 'Critic's Nightwatch'
For me this poem captures the ineffable magic of poetry - that no matter how desperately you try, it will not be forced. It may fool others but the writer will always be aware of the gap between the object and the ideal.
We see the critic dissecting the poet's work with clinical precision yet failing to pin down the spark of life. This inspires him - he is certain he can do better - and in his dreams he does. The illusion is fleeting. He wakes to find his mundane self unchanged, unmagical. His prose is polished and careful. He cannot share in the carefree drunken flights of poesy and yet he yearns to do so... I believe anyone who appreciates poetry has moments like this - where the absolute delight of a poem's song in your heart cannot quite shoulder aside your jealousy - why can't I write like that???
There are several ways to read the poem - was Gwen reacting to criticism of her own poems by mocking the critic? Was she sympathising with those of us who can never quite seem to pin down that spark (those who can, write, those who can't, criticise)? Or was she very creatively exploring two different aspects of her own personality as a writer?
'Dichterliebe' from Poems (1963)
craves day and night the pap of praise,
he'll ease his gripes or fingerpaint
in heartsblood on a public page.
The ordinary world must be
altered to circumvent his rage.
He'll tell, with stylish Angst of course,
the inmost secrets of our bed.
Words are far worse than drugs; there is
no hope of surfeit or remorse.
The world lies wide, and warm. No kiss,
no child, no prayer will keep him here.
I'll wash the floors. He'll watch the stars.
I'll salt his life with common sense.
He'll suck my sap and vigour down
the crude mouth of his private hell.
Visions have no equivalents.
He'll die of drink and candy bars.
My comments on 'Dichterliebe'
This is a very strong feminist poem. The title is German for "A Poet's Love," and comes from Schumann's lieder cycle, which was in turn inspired by the poems of Heine, telling of the tragic love of a young poet for a faithless girl. Gwen Harwood reverses the traditional masculine focus and makes the poet's wife the speaker of the poem. The persona's voice is bitter with unhappiness and frustration as she describes her husband's mental and physical freedom from the realities of married life - a freedom she is unable to share.
In order to convey the inflated ego of the masculine poet, the speaker describes him in infantile terms, but rather than a cherished baby, he is more like an alien parasite. He clings to the breast of public attention, rudely exposing the intimate details of their daily life to the curious gaze. His wife resents this violation of her privacy, yet there is a hint of her abiding love for him despite his 'betrayal'. We suspect that with all his faults, she would keep him by her side if she could.
In the final stanza, there is a sense of resignation. The wife is trapped by the necessary chores of keeping a house and family, while her husband daydreams. There is no equality in their partnership, as she desperately tries to make him aware of his adult responsibilities, to share the burden which she is bearing alone and which is wearing her down. However, she has no hope of success. He will never be the lover, friend and helpmate she desires. She cannot compete with the fascination of his fantasy world, a world where words are more powerful than drugs. In effect, his lifestyle will ruin her and kill him... and she is powerless to stop him.
The Wound from Poems (1963)
my mirror back. Who knows
how to drink pain, and live?
I look, and the glass shows
the truth, fine as a hair,
of the scalpel's wounding care.
A round reproach to all
that's warped, uncertain, clouded,
the sun climbs. On the wall,
by the racked body shrouded
in pain, is a shadow thrown;
simple, unchanged, my own.
Body, on whom the claims
of spirit fall to inspire
and terrify, there flames
at your least breath a fire
of anguish, not for this pain,
but that scars will remain.
You will be loved no less.
Spirit can build, make shift
with what there is, and press
pain to its mould; will lift
from your crucible of night
a form dripping with light.
Felix culpa. The sun
lights in my flesh the great
wound of the world. What's done
is done. In man's estate
let my flawed wholeness prove
the art and scope of love.
My comments on 'The Wound'
Poems (1963) was Gwen Harwood's first published volume of poetry. Around the time of its publication, she had started writing under the name Miriam Stone. This was Gwen's 3rd pseudonym and first 'female' voice. I don't think 'The Wound' was written under this pseudonym (was it? someone let me know!) but the following quote does give an insight into the concerns with which this poem seems to deal:
"Miriam Stone was a woman with a strong social conscience, angry with the domestic prison which encloses a wife and mother and with the society which presents the traditional female role in falsely sentimental colours. ... images of crippling and maiming abound in the Miriam Stone poems ... Miriam Stone allowed Gwen Harwood to express the painful fact that it is those we love who make the greatest and most consuming demands and that therefore love and hatred are not opposite and mutually exclusive emotions but the two sides of the same reality and same relationships..." (Alison Hoddinot 'The Real and The Imagined World' 98-103)
Is the pain which the persona in this poem feels physical, from the actual operation, or mental, from her perception that "they" have changed her/marred her previous physical perfection (I say that knowing Gwen's ever-present sense of humour - a tongue-in-cheek challenge to conventions of female beauty?) Perhaps this is a real operation... or perhaps a meditation on cosmetic surgery? perhaps both? It is important to discuss Gwen's work by focussing on the persona presented by the poem in question, rather than assuming Gwen is talking about herself, so that is who I mean by 'her' & 'she' (since I feel the persona is feminine... why? the desire to get her mirror back, concern with appearance, the comforting power of love - including self love and acceptance).
The passage of time that starts the poem is obviously important - imagine waking up after an operation and having to brood about it for 10 days without knowing "what the damage is"... suspecting a conspiracy - imagining that 'they' are keeping her without mirrors because she has been horrendously disfigured...
"Who knows / how to drink pain and live?" I can feel her steeling herself to look, determined to know the worst... but there is no terrible scar, just the "truth ... fine as a hair." All that almost insupportable pain and mental anguish - for nothing. Her appearance is unchanged... it is only her mental perception of herself that has been distorted, and it is that inner torture which she has had to struggle against to survive.
The sun's "round reproach" I think is to her mental agitation - it is her sense of herself, her thinking, that feels "warped, uncertain, clouded" - possibly affected by medications / painkillers, as well as the pain of recovery - as her shadow on the wall shows, she is reassuringly "simple, unchanged, my own." The experience of being in hospital, of a world of artificial lights, where procedures are done to you, where you are totally dependent on others to meet your needs can be very depersonalizing, disorientating.
I think Gwen herself would have felt this very keenly, given her cherished independence right to the last. Quoting Barry Oakley ('Pugnacious poet' The Australian 29 December 2001) about Gwen's final illness:
"She goes to hospital for palliative care but it was the loss of privacy that was more painful, and she went home again. "I'll just stay here and have aspros if necessary."
Then, the poem changes to third person - moving away from the inner "anguish" to a more balanced self assessment - a recognition that it is not the current physical pain that really hurts, but the thought that the persona has been changed forever, "that scars will remain".
By separating body and spirit, she emphasises the redemptive power of the mind... "You will be loved no less." No small consolation - referring to her love of herself, the love of others (perhaps she had feared that 'no-one will love me, now that I am scarred and ugly?'), the love of God (Gwen came from an Anglican background and delighted in playing the organ at church when young... though I am not sure how strong her faith remained in later years.) There is a definite Christian / resurrection theme here... on a secular level - mind over matter - strength of Spirit "will lift / from your crucible of night / a form dripping with light". Lovely resurrection image! Also, what doesn't kill you will only make you stronger?
"Felix culpa" - blessed fault, fortunate fall, original sin... Quoting Wikipedia:
"O felix culpa!" wrote medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas, meaning that this loss of innocence was a fortunate fall because of the good that would come from it: Christ's Second Coming, Judgement Day and the eventual hope of Heaven. In the traditional Latin Mass and during the Exsultet of the Easter Vigil the priest says at one point: "O felix culpa quae talem et tantum meruit habere redemptorem," "O blessed fault that earned us so good and great a Redeemer." In a literary context, the term "felix culpa" can be used to describe how a series of miserable events will eventually lead to a happier outcome.
What is the great wound of the world? I wonder... how about vanity? Adam and Eve were ashamed to appear naked before God... the idea that females must be physically perfect to be accepted? sexual discrimination, double standards - a reference to the themes of 'Suburban Sonnet: Boxing Day' (a Miriam Stone poem) - the distorted image of the woman in the christmas baubles, the notion of maintaining your looks to "keep your husband's love"...
"What's done / is done." A new acceptance of her changed appearance, coming to terms with her scars, her 'fall from grace' in terms of traditional representations of beauty, the loss of her innocence in terms of unscarred 'virgin' skin. No 'vain' regrets, feeling at home once again in her body - a reinhabiting of herself.
"In man's estate / let my flawed wholeness prove / the art and scope of love." I read this as a challenge to the world, especially the masculine members of it - you will have to love me as I am - and the persona's faith that it will happen - that love is large enough to overcome / overlook any imperfection.
Barn Owl from Poems (1969 - 1974)
I rose, blessed by the sun.
A horny fiend, I crept
out with my father's gun.
Let him dream of a child
old no-sayer, robbed of power
by sleep. I knew my prize
who swooped home at this hour
with day-light 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.
My first shot struck. He swayed,
ruined, beating his only
wing, as I watched, afraid
by the fallen gun, a lonely
child who believed death clean
and final, not this obscene
bundle of stuff that dropped,
and dribbled through the loose straw
tangling in bowels, and hopped
blindly closer. I saw
those eyes that did not see
mirror my cruelty
while the wrecked thing that could
not bear the light nor hide
hobbled in its own blood.
My father reached my side,
gave me the fallen gun.
'End what you have begun.'
I fired. The blank eyes shone
once into mine, and slept.
I leaned my head upon
my father's arm, and wept,
owl blind in early sun
for what I had begun.
My comments on 'Barn Owl'
This poem has a strong, personal narrative tone. Reading it is like overhearing a private confession. It makes the reader squeamish and uncomfortable with its literally visceral detail, but it is compelling storytelling. You can't look away. You have to know how it ends.
It is a poem of opposites, of contrasts, of growth and change, of discovering that acts have consequences. As night turns to day, a young girl moves from innocence, pride and self-confidence to guilt, shame and self-doubt, just as the owl is transformed from powerful hunter to powerless victim. (NOTE: to me, the narrator of the poem feels female - but the child's gender and identity are deliberately left ambiguous. As Alison Hoddinot points out, Harwood herself said that "she thinks of the child in 'Barn Owl' as a boy." Gwen Harwood: The Real and The Imagined World at page 72. You might like to think about whether your reading of the poem changes depending on whether you think of the child as a boy or a girl.)
It is a poem of power relationships. In the beginning the child sees herself as a golden girl, "blessed by the sun," stepping outside the shadow of daddy's little angel (spoiler of fun, old where she is young, "robbed of power / by sleep"), escaping his authority, giving free reign to the devil of mischief, made powerful because she is the only one awake.
It is a poem of thresholds - "Daybreak: ... I crept / out with my father's gun." We feel the sneakiness of it, the heart-in-the-mouth as she opens the door, praying that it won't make a sound, that she won't be caught before she has the chance to do what she has planned.
We can tell that she has gone over this moment again and again in her imagination, rehearsing her role as the "master of life and death," the "judge whose law / would punish beak and claw." The owl is the cruel bringer of death to small, soft, scurrying creatures. We feel her identifying with the mice and rabbits which are his prey. She is going to avenge them. To kill the killer. In her own mind, as she crosses the yard, she is jingling-spurred and white-hatted, a wild west hero, on her way to the showdown, certain of victory.
Entering the barn is another threshold. The "urine-scented hay" makes us gasp. It is a factual detail, unremarkable in the circumstances, but it disturbs the mischievous-hero tone that the poem has established, makes us question the assertions that follow, adds a scent of fear, a touch of reality to the child's self-image. The description of herself as "wisp-haired" emphasises her youth, the insecurity behind her new-found power.
In the fourth verse, the reader is brought to the threshold between life and death, but not allowed to cross it. The owl does not die neatly and without fuss, as it had in her imagination. It shocks her by surviving, maimed and in pain. In this stanza, the middle of the poem, the masks of power fall away. The ruined owl and the lonely child face each other, powerless, the scene in slow motion, frozen in time.
The next verse is sickening in its detail. We cannot step back and avoid it. The disembowelled owl hops closer, forcing the girl to look at what she has done, to face the messy, heart-breaking, terrible consequences of her actions. She is now the cruel bringer of death, worse than death, bringer of pain and suffering. The mighty hunter is a "wrecked thing" trapped on the threshold between light and dark, between life and death, no longer in control of its own destiny (am I talking about the owl or the child?)
At this point, the child's father arrives and takes control, but rather than putting the owl out of its misery himself and absolving her of responsibility, he puts the forbidden gun back into her hands and tells her to finish it. She is returned to his authority, but it has changed. He is not protecting her, sheltering her in quite the same way. In stepping outside his rules, she has taken a step towards adulthood, and there is no going back.
The owl's death is a release - it ends the bird's suffering, and it breaks the horrible trance, the emotional paralysis, that has gripped the child since she fired the first shot. She sobs in her father's arms, blinded by tears of shame and lost innocence, of knowing that the sleep which robs the owl's eyes of light is final and permanent, and that she was the cause, awakened to a new knowledge of her own - and her father's - mortality. The heroic quest for justice which she embarked on so confidently is now a cause for endless regret. She will remember it for the rest of her life, with equal sorrow for the death of the owl and the death of her childhood innocence, that golden, unquestioning belief in her own power. Nothing will ever be the same again. A threshold has been crossed. There is no going back.