Вы находитесь на странице: 1из 19

SOUTHERLY

A World of Difference
Australian Poetry and Painting in the 1940s1
ROSEMARY DOBSON

"THE decade about which I have chosen to speak tonight


doubt seem as far away in time to many here as does Henry
Kendall. It is really Kendall whose poetry is honoured by this
yearly lecture, since this was the wish of Herbert Blaiklock in
whose memory the lecture is endowed. Though the subject varies
from year to year I feel it is important to speak Kendall's name.
Tonight I am honoured to link with it the names of a number of
Australian poets whofirstcame to prominence during the 1940s.
I have chosen to speak about this decade because much was
initiated then which has enriched our literature since. Its signifi-
cance is being emphasized by others. Only last week Dr Vivian
Smith of this University wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald:
"In the growth of modern Australian poetry, the 1940s are so far
the most significant decade, and one of the most important
decades in the development of modern Australian culture alto-
gether".2 Also, as a non-academic I wanted to speak from m y own
experience, and it was at this time that I began publishing poetry
frequently, and brought out my first collections in book form.
When one is young and is setting out to do what one wants to do
one's responses are very keen and quick, and people and events
register with great urgency and vividness. M y education had
equipped me with an eagerness to continue being educated, and
to write—if not to write and paint. I had been an apprentice
teacher at seventeen, teaching art and the history of art. In the
early years of the decade I found myself with enough money to
live on modestly for two years while I continued m y education.
As an unmatriculated student I chose to attend as many courses
in English at this University as I possibly could. Incredible as it
must seem now that there is competition for a limited number of
places, I was allowed to do just that, and I think I attended seven
separate courses in two years. I sat for examinations and sub-
mitted essays as though preparing for a B.A. degree. Professor

1 The third Blaiklock Memorial lecture, delivered at the University of


Sydney on 21 lune 1973.
2 Sydney Morning Herald, 12 lune 1973.

[365]
SOUTHERLY
Waldock remained courteously calm when I proposed as the sub-
ject for m y main essay, "Typographical Design in the Twentieth
Century". It was a curious work into which I pasted all sorts of
ephemera like bus-tickets. Still, I think I was right in choosing this
subject. Architecture m a y be said to be the custodian of the arts,
but typography is the custodian of all arts and of all knowledge.
Picasso is probably the greatest innovator of our time, but the
m a n whose innovations have been most pervasive is surely Stanley
Morison who, as begetter of that great typeface, Times R o m a n ,
and as reviver of such notable types as Baskerville and Gara-
m o n d , has revolutionized the appearance of the printed word in
our time. Consciously or unconsciously w e are all indebted to
him. Typography, which in a peculiar way brings together litera-
ture and art; which demands restraint but which can also allow
for extravagance and eccentricity, is a subject of compelling in-
terest to m e now, as it was then. That old essay is, I believe, filed
away somewhere here. M y whole two-year experience was most
congenial and I shall always be grateful for m y under-the-counter
education at Sydney University.
Meanwhile, concurrently, I went to classes with Thea Proctor
to study design. This part of m y experience is not irrelevant. From
Thea Proctor (admirably disciplined artist) I learnt discipline of
line, which contributed greatly to whatever technical skill I have
in poetry. I believe that a competence in one art can greatly assist
a competence in another. I had no doubt as to which art—poetry
or painting—I wished principally to pursue, but I believe one
throws light on the other, and both engage m y interest.
A s I have said I a m drawing largely on m y o w n experience,
but earlier in the year it occurred to m e to submit a question-
naire to five poets w h o first published in book form during the
1940s and have gone on strongly ever since. They answered most
helpfully and have allowed m e to quote from their answers. The
five I asked, among the m a n y I could have asked, are: William
Hart-Smith w h o m I listfirstbecause hisfirst,but very slight,
collection was published as early as 1943. This was Columbus
Goes West. His most noteworthy collection, Christopher Colum-
bus, was published in hardback by the Caxton Press ( N e w Zea-
land) in 1948. Hart-Smith (who was born in N e w Zealand) tells
m e that the sequence of poems of that n a m e was begun in 1941
and was mostly written in Australia. H e regards himself as an
Australian poet.

[366]
SOUTHERLY
John Blight's first collection was published by D y m o c k s in
1945. This was The Old Pianist. Blight has gone on to compile
his impressive and extensive body of poems about the sea; a
unique and, I think, somewhat underrated contribution to Austra-
lian poetry.
James McAuley comes next, chronologically, with Under Alde-
baran published by Angus and Robertson in 1946. H e has pub-
lished six collections of poetry since, the most recently published
being his "retrospective". It seems hardly necessary to add that
he has since attained eminence as well as critic, teacher, editor,
and administrator.
Francis W e b b published A Drum for Ben Boyd in 1948 and
since then five more collections. Of these five poets his work has
probably had most influence on subsequent writers. Note, for
example, tributes paid to his influence by the younger poets
Thomas Shapcott and Rodney Hall in their book New Impulses
in Australian Poetry.
Last of these five contemporaries and friends is David C a m p -
bell w h o published Speak With the Sun in 1949. H e has brought
out five collections since, and continues to diversify and extend
his range. I add myself as the sixth poet. I published a slight
collection called In A Convex Mirror in 1944. In m y question-
naire I asked if any poets considered that they would have been
wiser to wait longer before publishing in book form. William
Hart-Smith, John Blight and I all feel w e would have been wiser
to wait—the three w h o brought out the least substantial collec-
tions.
I had recalled the decade of the forties as a particularly in-
teresting and stimulating period. Yet I began to feel that after all
it was a rather dark period. This is not to refer to the Second
World W a r , but rather to the climate of opinion about Australian
literature in general. There was a lack of public confidence in our
literature, perhaps even an indifference to it, even total ignorance
about it. I recall a story about Miles Franklin, most eager of
nationalists, w h o found herself sitting next to a locally based and
eminent professor of foreign studies at an English Association
dinner. W h e n he asked what was the subject of her speech she
replied that she was proposing the toast of Australian Literature.
" O h " he said, " A n d is there such a thing then?"
I think it is true to say that a national regard for Australian
writing began to emerge during the decade, but it is significant

[367]
SOUTHERLY
that, for example, in bookshops the Australian section would be
right at the back somewhere and fairly meagre. There was still
the feeling that the local product was not good enough to be taken
seriously.
Situations obtained then which would be impossible now. For
example in 1946 Lawson Glassop's novel, We Were the Rats, a
novel of serious literary intent about Australian soldiers in Tob-
ruk, was alleged to be obscene and offensive on the basis of one
passage that today would probably pass unnoticed. Author and
publisher were convicted and the conviction was upheld in spite
of an appeal. T h e counsel for the defence observed that the pro-
secution would m a k e Australia "the laughing-stock of the world".
In the same year Robert Close, author of the novel Love Me
Sailor, was handcuffed in court and sent to gaol for obscenity
between conviction and sentence. Close was sentenced to three
months' prison and a hundred pound fine. His publishers, Geor-
gian House, were fined five hundred pounds. The Court of Crimi-
nal Appeal later reduced this to three hundred pounds and set
aside Close's prison sentence.
O u r m o o d n o w is surely more astringent and questioning and
realistic than ever it was in the forties. There were fewer plat-
forms then for dissenting literature and dissenting opinion. The
Australian magazine Observer, remember, wasfirstpublished in
the latefiftiesand this was the precursor of the irreverent, ques-
tioning journalism that later led to publications like Oz.
I think it is not possible to imagine that an affair like the court
action over William Dobell's Archibald-award winning portrait of
Joshua Smith could take place now. Briefly, Dobell's portrait was
declared by two disappointed competitors to be not a portrait but
a caricature, and they brought a court action to uphold their opi-
nion. They failed, but meanwhile Dobell himself had been put
through the ordeal of public examination on his art. It was a
distasteful affair from which nobody benefited. But that this could
actually happen tells us a good deal about existing prejudice and
opinion, and the muddleheadedness of public views on art at the
time. James Gleeson, artist and critic, called the case "a trial of
strength between conservatism and modernism", and if this is true
w e m a y usefully date the establishment of modern Australian art
from 1944, the year the case was heard.
Nevertheless, it should not be forgotten that Australia was
singularly isolated from n e w thought and n e w developments, par-

[368]
SOUTHERLY

ticularly in painting, at the time. Appreciation and interest in


painting could generally be furthered only by looking at reproduc-
tions. T h e idea of travelling to view the realities in the galleries of
Europe and America was still something of an exception, a matter
of privilege. Loan exhibitions reaching Australia were still very
rare. The Melbourne Herald exhibition financed by Sir Keith
Murdoch to bring modern French and English painting to Aust-
ralia in 1939 aroused unprecedented interest and controversy. It
included paintings by Matisse, Modigliani, Cezanne, V a n G o g h
and Dali.
Robert Hughes in his Pelican book on The Art of Australia
reports that John Perceval was strongly influenced by Tintoretto
whose works he studied in faulty and fallible reproductions in
Life magazine. H e says: "It is an ironical c o m m e n t on the way
the schemata get formed in isolation that one feature of the 'Tinto-
rettos' which Perceval painted in 1947 was based on an error of
printing—their uniform yellow tone".
There was hardly a comparable difficulty for poets w h o found it
easier to obtain the material they required. William Hart-Smith
notes that in the early forties he was reading modern American
poetry, the poems of Ezra Pound, Rilke's "Elegies" and other
poems, Australian and N e w Zealand poetry, Arthur Waley's
translations and whatever Arabic poetry in translation he could
find.
A few American poets, a m o n g them Karl Shapiro and Harry
Roskolenko, came to Australia with the American forces and
established communications between writers in the two countries.
but in general there was a hiatus in the natural processes of
exchange with contemporary writers elsewhere.
Perhaps because of the impossibility of extending outwards in
these matters in wartime, people of courage and initiative began
to look inwards and to produce literary magazines in which Aust-
ralian poets could find a voice. In any case it was high time for
the establishment of more places for publication. In his book on
Australian Little Magazines, 1923-54, John Tregenza notes that in
August 1939 there were only two Australian little magazines,
Bohemia and Venture. Three more came into being before the
end of the year (including Southerly) and others followed in 1940,
notably Meanjin Papers as it was then called. In hisfirsteditorial
for Meanjin Papers Clem Christesen wrote:
W e believe that it would be a grave error to suppose the nation
can drop its mental life, its intellectual and aesthetic activities for

[369]
SOUTHERLY
three, five, or more years, neglecting them and those trained to
minister to them, and then pick everything up again as though
nothing had happened . . .
W e must applaud the courage and faith of the people w h o
launched these publications and kept them going through all the
difficulties of wartime and the post-war period, often subsidizing
them from their o w n resources. Here are some, beside those al-
ready mentioned, but by no means all, of the magazines initiated
during the forties: The People's Poetry, Western Writing, Angry
Penguins (of which more later), A Comment, Poetry, Barjai,
Number and Australian New Writing. Poets whose work was re-
presented in these included: William Hart-Smith, John Manifold,
Geoffrey Dutton, James Devaney, Paul Grano, Laurence Collin-
son, Barrie Reid, John T h o m p s o n and M a x Dunn.
Of all these magazines only Southerly and Meanjin have sur-
vived to become the powerful vehicles for creative and critical
work that they are today. Their continuance n o w is guaranteed by
government support that only began to operate in the 1940s with
emergency grants to Meanjin from the Commonwealth Literary
Fund.
I remember feeling that I expected no financial remuneration
for poems I published then. I was so m u c h an apprentice to m y
trade that to see something that I had written actually in print was
satisfaction enough. For a while one received perhaps ten shillings
for a short poem published in the Bulletin. I didn't regard this as
a pittance, but I was irked for one reason. M y poet grandfather,
Austin Dobson, w h o died the year I was born, earned, so family
folklore held, a guinea a line for every p o e m he wrote. I thought
the discrepancy unjust since I was already beginning, with un-
dutiful pride, to be confident that I would write better poetry than
he did. But this is by the way. W h a t is important is that writers
should be paid, and that editors should be able to pay. In the
1940s acceptances of poems were often accompanied by apolo-
getic notes from editors unable to pay contributors. O n e editor
sent a copy of some recently published book of Australian poetry
as payment.
Those poets w h o were emerging in the 1940s n o w receive re-
quests for "worksheets" from Universities as far afield as Buffalo
and Texas, and their M S S are sought after by libraries in Australia.
A s with the history of our poetry, the history of our art
abounds in ironies. During the early 1940s the emerging painters
in Melbourne (Melbourne rather than Sydney was the centre of

[370]
SOUTHERLY
new developments in painting) were Albert Tucker, Sidney Nolan,
Arthur Boyd and John Perceval. These m e n viewed their art as
a weapon of protest—a weapon with which they would change
society. They would wrench Australian painting in a few years
from the pastoral simplicities that had obtained, more or less,
since the end-of-the-century period of the Heidelberg painters.
Tucker, Nolan, Boyd and Perceval were innovators, and as such
their work was generally regarded with suspicion, even in some
cases for its violence with aversion. It was unregarded and un-
bought. However, this state of affairs was not peculiar to
Melbourne. F r o m S a m Ure Smith (of the firm of Ure Smith, pub-
lishers of Art and Australia) I have heard of William Dobell,
returning to Sydney from London in about 1938, and displaying
at Sidney Ure Smith's tiny office paintings which people came and
viewed casually and carried away for a few pounds or even for a
few shillings. Subsequently as w e know, these same paintings
have changed hands for m a n y thousands of dollars. O n e must
admit, however, that the same situation could obtain with today's
emerging painters.
The experience of World War II may have hindered the deve-
lopment or changed the direction in the careers of individual
poets. T o m y question: "Did the period of the war influence you
at all in determining the kind of poetry you wrote?" Francis
W e b b replied, disguising his serious intent with humour, "I began
with a series of innocuous little poems telling the world to cheer
up, but soon became a little m o o d y myself". H o w m u c h in fact
did the war influence the poetry of the decade? It was a time
when people read avidly and uncritically—in fact looked for far
more than could be supplied. Of all the collections of verse aris-
ing directly from wartime experience, n o w browning and yellow-
ing as the poor quality of the wartime paper is revealed, few are
notable. A s has so often been the case in wartime in the past,
people were emotionally stirred, and m a d e that emotion articulate
in poetry. F e w of the names of the poets in Ian Mudie's antho-
logy, Poets At War (Georgian House, 1944) have lived beyond
the covers of the book. I seem to be doing scant honour to the
writers in not naming them, but little of this honest and deeply-
felt verse, idealistic or sardonic in temper, was of a standard to
survive. A s notable single poems of World W a r II I mention only
Slessor's "Beach Burial" and "Dog River" and David Campbell's
" M e n in Green". A n d of course both these m e n were already

[371]
SOUTHERLY

practising poets. That is to say they were not created as poets


by the war.
For information about the wartime publishing of poetry I con-
sulted George Ferguson, long associated with A n g u s and Robert-
son and thefirm'spublishing director during the fifties and sixties.
H e replied in part:
I don't think there was any "slump" in poetry after the war or that
publishing interest declined. I should think that interest in poetry is
fairly constant. Wartime figures in any case for books were terribly
misleading. T h e fact that a book which might have been either good
poetry or the worst in the world sold thousands of copies was just
a symptom of the times. The same happened with works of prose.
Indeed almost anything between covers was saleable. I think the
publishing of poetry did proceed steadily and successfully during the
decade of the forties. In fact, as you well know, they were years in
which a number of important poets either m a d e their appearance or
consolidated their positions.
T h e relationship between our universities and our literature is
relevant to the economics of publication. In 1940 the C o m m o n -
wealth Literary F u n d established the scheme of subsidizing an
annual course of lectures in Australian literature in each Univer-
sity. In his inaugural lecture as Professor of Australian Literature
at this University in 1964, Professor Wilkes noted that through
the forties andfiftiesit was c o m m o n for B A Honours and M A
theses to be submitted on Australian topics, and for Australian
writers to figure in the courses taught at Sydney University. H e
surveyed the role of the universities in the study of Australian
literature and discussed that area of controversy to which m a n y
writers of the forties were sensitive—I refer to the matter of
nationalism in literature.
At this stage in the preparation of this paper I broke off to do
some fresh thinking and reading. O n resuming I was dismayed by
the need to write about Nationalism which had seemed to be such
a literary issue of the time. Well, I chose to by-pass the challenge
of writing further about it. I had m a d e m y o w n choice instinc-
tively a long time ago in writing poetry about medieval and
Renaissance paintings, in Australia, in the forties, though it is only
recently that this decision has, so to speak, rested happily in m y
mind. I a m an Australian poet, and I write best and most pro-
lifically in Australia, even though I m a y be writing poems about
Greece in the second century A.D., as I a m doing at present.
I cannot do better than to quote James McAuley's answer to
m y question, which was: "Were you conscious of the need to

[372]
SOUTHERLY

express yourself as an Australian? Did nationality m e a n m u c h to


you?" His answer: "I was aware of the problem and assumed that
it was best solved by writing as authentically as possible out of
what interested m e most, letting Australian material emerge as
appropriate. I thought programmatic nationalism pernicious in
either author or critic". His answer was one that I would have
agreed with then, as I agree with it now.
David Campbell's answer to the same question was a definite
"No". H e added "I had a love of English and Scots ballads and of
early lyrics from A n o n to Shakespeare's. Half-consciously I
wished to couple the old ballads and bush ballads and to add a
new dimension to early lyrics by giving mine m y natural (i.e.
Australian) setting."
David Campbell further illuminated this in his answer to ano-
ther question of mine. I asked "Did you gain stimulus from other
arts? If so, which of the other arts most drew your attention?" H e
replied:
Mathematics is akin to the arts and an early liking for geometry
influenced m y attitude to poetry. I liked poems that had the precise
progression of a theorem with the rounded-off Q E D feeling at the
end. This led m e perhaps to ballad forms and the sonnet. In later
more complicated poems I found it necessary to m a k e a conscious
break from this rigidity. A slowly-won love of European paintings,
particularly Matisse and Degas, added colours to m y poetry and a
new sense of form. M o r e recently I have been influenced by abori-
ginal rock-carvings in the Sydney-Hawkesbury area.
For Francis W e b b music was the most important of the other
arts. For John Blight music and painting. For James M c A u l e y
music, painting and cartography. For William Hart-Smith paint-
ing: as also for myself, to which I add the interest in typography.
This information proves nothing, I suppose, nor is it meant to do.
But it does indicate, I think, though in an unprofessional and
random manner, that the Australian poet of the forties was sensi-
tive to a wide diversity of influences and stimuli.
This very diversity was used by Douglas Stewart as an argu-
ment to disprove the critic w h o described poets publishing in the
Bulletin under his editorship as "minor nature poets". Stewart's
influence was far-reaching. A s literary editor of the Bulletin he
published n e w poetry, and gave encouragement to a variety of
talent. H e referred m a n y of these poets to publishers, recom-
mending publication of their collections. A n d on publication he
brought the work before the notice of a wide public in his reviews.

[373]
SOUTHERLY

It is a strange experience to return to the Bulletin of the forties,


as I have been doing lately. It was, of course, a completely diffe-
rent paper from the Bulletin of today. Its famous opening Red
Page was, in fact, at that time Pink, and here Douglas Stewart
published every week two or three reviews, with a generous insis-
tence on Australian books. Very often there was a column of
verse—one, two or three poems. Appropriately thefirstp o e m of
the decade was Eve Langley's "Native Born". It became terribly
important to be published on that page. Besides those poets I
have already mentioned here are some of the poets whose work
was published in the Bulletin in those years: Kenneth Mackenzie,
Ronald McCuaig, N a n McDonald, Ethel Anderson, Roland
Robinson, Nancy Keesing, Eric Irvin, Peter Hopegood, Nancy
Cato, Elizabeth Riddell, Val Vallis, R a y Mathew. I have omitted
distinguished names, but I a m not trying to m a k e a comprehen-
sive list.
Imagine what a fine thing it was to buy the week's issue of the
Bulletin early on a Wednesday morning and read for thefirsttime
atfirstpublication:
South of m y days' circle, part of m y blood's country,
rises that tableland, high delicate outline
of bony slopes wincing under the winter,
low trees blue-leaved and olive, outcropping granite—
clean, lean, hungry country. T h e creek's leaf-silenced,
willow-choked, the slope a tangle of medlar and crabapple
branching over and under, blotched with a green lichen,
and the old cottage lurches in for shelter.
Judith Wright's "South of M y Days" was published in the Bulletin
of August 1945.
Think what a pleasure it was to hear a n e w distinctive voice
for thefirsttime:
I sat beside the red stock route
A n d chewed a blade of bitter grass
A n d saw in mirage on the plain
A bullock waggon pass.
Old Harry Pearce was with his team.
"Thefliesare bad," I said to him.
David Campbell's "Harry Pearce" was published in the Bulletin
in 1942.
Douglas Stewart notes that Francis W e b b first came to the
Bulletin's notice when he was seventeen. Later, on leave from the
Air Force in Canada he called at the Bulletin offices with a

[374]
SOUTHERLY

bundle of poems, eight of which were accepted at once. W e b b


has gone on to write splendid poetry since which eclipses his early
work. I choose to read one of those early poems. It is a somewhat
wayward choice but I love the p o e m for its light, gay, extravagant
touch, and because it recalls the period of the early 1940s.
IDYLL
At noon the sun puffed up, outsize.
W e saw a township on the rise;
lack croaked " A pub", thenfilledhis throat,
Spat out an encroaching horde of flies.
One-headed Cerberus near the door
Bit off the fag-end of a snore,
Allowed us a red eye'sfilmygrace
And veiled the awful sight once more.
Sad barman showed a yellow fang;
Sweat was dirt-cheap, the whole place rang
As six-foot told a ten-foot yarn;
One chap was under, and one sang.
I'd bottle up that song without
A licence, just to serve it out,
A ballad, long and cool for days
Of epics, dry canteens, and drought
W e shouldered through the cork-tipped fog.
Paid several zacks and downed the grog;
Then like the brown fox of copperplate
M a d e exit over the lazy dog.
I well remember m y o w n first contact with the Bulletin and
with Stewart as editor. I had been publishing rather immature
poetry here and there, and then I wrote a p o e m called "Austra-
lian Holiday, 1940"; a p o e m about the war and Australia's isola-
tion, and the isolation of the individual also. I thought I could try
the Bulletin with it, and sent it in. T i m e passed without any reply
and at last, burning with impatience, I called at the Bulletin offices
prepared to say proudly that I wished to withdraw the poem. I
actually spoke to the literary editor through a kind of wire grille.
I was terribly, visibly nervous. But Stewart was very kind and
told m e he had accepted the poem. Newly appointed then, he was
I later learned, having tofightfor the space in which to publish the
poetry he received. W h e n he published thatfirstp o e m of mine in
the Bulletin he also chose it for the first issue of Angus and
Robertson's yearly anthology, Australian Poetry. The fact that
other poets represented in thatfirstvolume included M a r y Gil-
more, Shaw Neilson, Furnley Maurice and H . M . Green shows

[375]
SOUTHERLY

clearly that the decade of the forties is the real mid-point of our
twentieth-century poetry. Some of the new poets were M a x
Harris, John Blight and James McAuley. I a m pleased to think
that I too was in that inaugural number. George Ferguson says:
"I think Australian Poetry was an immediate success. It excited a
lot of interest at the time. The printing number was always 1000
— s o m e years it might have been as high as 1500".
During the decade I had joined the Editorial Staff of Angus and
Robertson. W e worked in a cell of attic rooms at the top of the
building which housed Angus and Robertson's old shop at 89
Castlereagh Street. T o m y great profit and pleasure I learnt edi-
torial procedures from Beatrice Davis: and I a m always grateful
for the gain and enjoyment of working with N a n McDonald, poet,
w h o was publishing in the Bulletin and assembling her o w n first
collections. M a n y poets called in from time to time—I recall with
particular pleasure the appearances of Peter Hopegood and Ken-
neth MacKenzie. O n e had a sense of companionship too with the
poets one did not meet, and I have always valued this very
greatly. Others, I know, feel as I do. T o m y question: "Did you
feel the need for companionship with other poets?" Francis W e b b
replied: "I revered those I met and spoke with. But they, like m e ,
had a solitary streak".
N o r m a n Lindsay came occasionally to A & R, as did Percy
Lindsay, painter, a most delightful visitor. M o r e often I recall
seeing N o r m a n at the studio in Bridge Street, or on occasions at
Springwood. At one stage N o r m a n became interested in painting
and drawing portraits of poets—FitzGerald, Stewart, David
Campbell. I sat for two portraits in oils and one drawing, and was
fascinated with the experience of watching N o r m a n at work.
Sometimes H u g h McCrae came in and talked while N o r m a n
worked and I listened. While he talked he bounded round the
room. I think I looked rather bizarre wearing a hat and gloves
which were Norman's choice, not mine. H e painted m e against a
lowering, stormy sky. That particular portrait is lost but the other
two were most generously given to m e .
Looking back I feel I was most fortunate to sit for both
N o r m a n Lindsay and Thea Proctor, neither of w h o m liked each
other at all, but both of w h o m I liked enormously and admired
very m u c h for their most divergent qualities.
So far, it seems, I have been skirting about m y subject, en-
deavouring to give an idea of the temper of the times, poetically,

[376]
SOUTHERLY

in the 1940s. A s yet I have given no more than a mention to the


most important poets and I have not yet set up for your viewing
a tableau of the conflicting sets of literary ideas which were then
so very apparent.
Obvious though these were it was clear that m a n y poets were
uncommitted. T o m y question: "Were you at all influenced by the
conflicting ideas of the Jindyworobaks and the Angry Penguins?"
five poets out of six answered " N o " , although all expressed some
degree of interest. For example James McAuley replied, "Mainly
negatively, i.e. I was stimulated to define m y rejection of their
characteristic notions". William Hart-Smith, the exception, re-
plied, "Yes", adding, candidly, "I was closely associated with R e x
Ingamells and the Jindyworobaks generally, but with reservations.
I was N.S.W. Editor for a time. I liked what the Angry Penguins
were trying to do and was influenced, but didn't let on".
The poets w h o grouped themselves under the n a m e of lindy-
worobak (the word means to "join") were m u c h misunderstood,
and very vocally represented themselves as misunderstood. S o m e
critics were not well informed and some used the movement as an
excuse for their o w n wit. Briefly the Jindyworobaks wished to free
Australian creative art from alien influences. They felt that the
modernist influence stemming from England and Europe would
bring Australian writers and artists into a state of intellectual
colonialism, and advocated that they should be brought back into
proper contact with their material. Additionally, they called for
improvement in the general level of descriptive writing about Aus-
tralia. These reforms seem reasonable and constructive, but the
trouble was that their limits were not defined so that it was pos-
sible for Bernard Smith to attack the movement in his book,
Place, Taste and Tradition (published in 1945) as follows:
Taken literally, the lindyworobaks are asking us to destroy the
pastoral industry—for domestic sheep certainly belong to an alien
culture . . . T h e lindyworobaks have rejected such an extreme in-
terpretation of their position several times before, but it is, never-
theless, the only logical one. O r are w e asked to assume that cultural
traits that have proved useful are to be considered as owing their
origins only "indirectly" to other cultures? T h e lindyworobaks have
asked Australian painters to follow the ait tradition of Streeton and
Heysen, yet the art of Streeton and Heysen is inconceivable without
the technical innovations of the French Impressionists.
The Jindyworobaks published an annual anthology from 1938-
1953, but though their sincerity, and particularly that of their
leader, R e x Ingamells, was unquestioned the movement did not

[377]
SOUTHERLY

produce any remarkable poetry. Other poets outside the move-


ment, said Douglas Stewart summing up in effect, practised what
the Jindyworobaks preached but with more restraint.
The Angry Penguins magazine was published from 1941-6.
M a x Harris, its founder, wrote a retrospective article about it
which was published in Quadrant in 1963.
It expressed a noisy and aggressive revolutionary modernism. It
represented the new language and the n e w painting of Australia, de-
manding to be heard and seen. Angry Penguins tilted vigorously at
the political and social windmills, thefiercelyentrenched art estab-
lishments of the day, the tired and mediocre nationalism which
passed for poetry, the pedestrian bushwhackery which gave Australia
a novel of unequalled verbal dullness. It is to be remembered that
Australia was in the 1940s still a 'frontier' culture in Professor
Crawford's sense of the phrase. Cultural illiberalism was an accepted
component in the social framework. Modigliani nudes were as much
prohibited imports as Port Said photographs.
In this article, written with candour, Harris describes the
breakdown of the movement:
A s with any experimental movement there were excesses, absur-
dities and intolerable posturings a m o n g the Angry Penguins . . .
the avant-garde ranks were too tight and too exclusivist. W e were
not critically appreciative of such lone and magnificent talents as
those of R. D. FitzGerald, Kenneth Slessor, or the early Patrick
White: nor were Nolan and C o . appreciative of the creative stature
of Russell Drysdale. The same shortsightedness and exclusivism pre-
vented us from observing that a breakdown of Australia's dead
traditionalism was also being essayed by the academic poets. Sophis-
ticated form and intellectual depth were poetic properties being
cultivated by A . D. H o p e and lames McAuley—they were develop-
ing the high traditionalism of the poetic craft in opposition to the
prevailing gum-leaf romanticism.
I am assuming that everyone knows that the poets James
McAuley and Harold Stewart invented the poet Ern Malley and
his poems and submitted these to M a x Harris w h o accepted them
and published them in 1944. A n d that later, after the hoax had
been exposed—to the hilarity of a large public both here and over-
s e a s — M a x Harris was prosecuted for publishing indecent matter
(that is, in these poems). This was far beyond the intention of the
hoaxers. John Thompson of the Australian Broadcasting Commis-
sion compiled a feature on all this which was subsequently pub-
lished by Clement Semmler in his book, For the Uncanny Man,
and this is undoubtedly the best account of the affair. I bought
that number of Angry Penguins (Autumn 1944) with its Nolan
cover and a m glad that I have it still. At the time of publication I

[3781
SOUTHERLY

was mildly interested in the poems but felt that I couldn't be more
committed to the Angry Penguins than I was to the Jindyworo-
baks. Barrie Reid, poet, was then, at the age of seventeen, editing
Barjai in Brisbane. Here are some of his reminiscences recorded
by T h o m p s o n in his fascinating programme. Reid spokefirstof the
valuable criticism he received on submitting some poems and
continues:
In about a year's time I got the news that a couple of m y poems
would be printed in A.P. Well that, as it so happened, was the issue
in which the Ern Malley poems came out, and after I got over the
excitement of seeing m y work in such a big and resplendent journal
I turned to the Ern Malley poems.
Well, it was like an explosion, I was very moved, mainly because
of the absolute freshness of the language, the imagery and, more
than either of those two things, the sense of a personality behind the
poems ... so I went right in, hook and line, and sinker, for the Ern
Malley poems. I thought they were marvellous poems.
Reid later described the effect on him when the hoax had been
blown:
Nowhere did you see the poems. All you got was a lot of excited
press comment. N o w , for a very young poet of that time, that was a
very damaging experience. Immediately friends, relatives became not
so m u c h agin the poems as agin the kind of person w h o could read
such poetry or believe in it, the kind of experimental mind that
wasn't conformist. N o w , this didn't knock m e out, it didn't shake
m e because I was a pretty tough boy, but a lot of m y friends w h o
were writing poetry at the time, it did shake them. Quite obviously.
They began writing in iambic pentameter, or in some other "respect-
able" verse form. They began to be cagey about their emotions in
their writing. S o m e of them became so extremely conformist as to
join the Communist Party immediately.
In support of his enthusiasm for the poems he added:
[The poems] are an attempt by the two poets to escape from the
rigid intellectual and poetic disciplines with which they had been
associated, into a newer and more fecund field of inspiration. I
think it was a definite working experiment to try and produce poetry
out of stone. Water gushed from the rock.
So the real division of opinion was between those w h o thought
that Stewart and M c A u l e y had written fine poetry u n a w a r e s —
Herbert R e a d in England, Sidney Nolan, and Barrie Reid, for
example—and Stewart and M c A u l e y w h o declared this to be
impossible.
T h e Ern Malley affair has given rise to a good deal of discus-
sion since the 1940s, and opinion it still divided as to whether it
was salutary in effect, or whether it hasn't rebounded to the dis-

[379]
SOUTHERLY

credit of the hoaxers. However, it did at least cause a number of


people to think about matters with which they had not concerned
themselves before, and brought others to alignment and commit-
ment.
Y o u will have noticed that M a x Harris referred to the "lone
and magnificent talents" of Robert FitzGerald and Kenneth Sles-
sor. In answers to m y questionnaire Francis W e b b stressed his
indebtedness to FitzGerald, and in particular to the influence
FitzGerald's p o e m "Essay on M e m o r y " had on his work. That
p o e m was first published in book form in the collection Moonlight
Acre in 1938. Though m u c h of FitzGerald's work was available
during the decade I think it is right to say that the poetry which
revealed his true stature was still to come with Between Two
Tides and This Night's Orbit in 1952 and 1953. FitzGerald's
examination of character revealed in action, and of m e n in his-
tory, has been extended since the 1940s. Though I n o w estimate
his poetry very highly and acknowledge, with Francis W e b b , a
grateful indebtedness I did not, I think, fully grasp it during the
forties. Perhaps I needed to look at eminence from a distance.
T w o of A. D. Hope's poems appeared in issues of Australian
Poetry during the forties. It seems strange n o w that so many
younger and less capable poets should have preceded him in book
publication. The Wandering Islands was not published till 1955,
and so I have not taken his poetry into consideration at all in this
talk. It should be remarked, however, that both James McAuley
and David Campbell referred to Hope's important influence, but
with the reservation that it was then still "underground". H o p e
and McAuley were thefirstAustralian poets to give an intellectual
lead to their generation; a role which both were to exercise more
and more during later decades—McAuley especially through his
editorship of the magazine Quadrant. A n d they foreshadowed, as
I have indicated already, the m o v e of poetry away from its "ama-
teur" status to the "academic" period of the subsequent decade
when most influential poets were associated with universities.
William Hart-Smith offered voluntarily a comment that puts the
case for the "amateur" status of the poet of the 1940s:
. . . not being an academic, although I think they are very neces-
sary, I feel it's better for those w h o make literature to live out their
lives like any other citizen, coping with everyday affairs from mar-
riage and domesticity to earning a living and getting along with other
people, rather than trying to find some special niche or position
from where they merely sit and observe . . . and write books. In
other words I a m , in the strict sense of the word, an amateur.

[380]
SOUTHERLY
John Blight reinforces this in giving as his opinion that the
"memorable poetry of the forties was written by a host of Aust-
ralian poets, m a n y of them producing only one or two good
poems".
I have omitted m u c h in this evocation of the forties. However,
plenty of people—critics and literary historians—supply what is
chiefly lacking here: considered appraisals of the work of the most
important poets of those years, some of w h o m I have scarcely
even mentioned so far.
There are, however, two poets about whose works I wish to
speak a little more. They both published books of poetry during
the forties which were seminal—one was his crowning achieve-
ment: the other, her first published collection. I refer to One
Hundred Poems by Kenneth Slessor and The Moving Image by
Judith Wright. A n d I want also to refer to the paintings of an
Australian artist w h o m I have hitherto only mentioned in passing
—Russell Drysdale.
Drysdale had chosen to paint in Sydney during the forties
rather than in Melbourne where he had earlier studied under
George Bell. In 1944 he was commissioned by the Sydney Morn-
ing Herald to cover the disaster of a drought year in the western
district of N.S.W. The paintings that resulted consolidated his
style and established his reputation. "It is no exaggeration to say,"
wrote Robert Hughes, "that, between 1940 and 1947, Drysdale
m a d e it possible for other painters to react freshly to their en-
vironment by showing them n e w relationships with it."
Nowadays when Australians overseas are asked about their
country the landscape thatflashesinto their minds and which they
begin to describe m a y well be that of a Drysdale painting: re-
ceding planes of dried-out country, animated by lean figures of
m e n and dogs—the landscape of "Deserted Out-Station",
"Sofala", "The Drover's Wife", "The Cricketers". Such paintings
have been reproduced widely, have become currency, in fact, and
like currency perhaps a little worn.
I remembered the book on Drysdale's work published for the
Art Gallery of N.S.W. for his retrospective exhibition in 1960,
and noticed that the blurb for the book s u m m e d up his achieve-
ment admirably. I decided to quote a passage from it and found to
m y great pleasure that it embodied a few words from a p o e m of
mine. Here, in part, is the blurb:
The paintings of Russell Drysdale have enlarged the Australian's
experience of his o w n country. Here certainly are the desolate land-
[381]
SOUTHERLY

scapes; the vacant, glowing streets of country towns; the few, spare
people in their isolation. But here also is a vision of experience, for
each of these reticentfigures,station black or drover's wife or danc-
ing child, seems to express the h u m a n condition, to 'know himself,
separate and alone'. It is a sombre and yet a touching vision, and it
has disclosed to the Australian fresh aspects of truth about the heart
of his land and the life it barely nourishes.
Afterwards I noticed that the book was published for the Art
Gallery by the firm of Ure Smith. M y husband Alec Bolton was
Editor for Ure Smith at that time. Yes, he remembered writing the
blurb!
I repeat Alec Bolton's last sentence there and apply it to the
poems of Judith Wright. "It has disclosed to the Australian fresh
aspects of truth about the heart of his land." M a n y have paid
their tributes to Judith Wright's work since The Moving Image
first appeared. I put mine on record remembering particularly that
shock of pleasure received in reading her poems atfirstpublica-
tion—"Bora Ring", "Bullocky", "South of M y D a y s " — a n d so
m a n y more. B y the end of the decade she had also published
Woman to Man which m o v e d away from the landscape of her
country to a landscape of heart and mind, no longer sunlit but
dark and mysterious. Her contribution to our literature is unique,
pervasive, and enduring.
I take this public opportunity of acknowledging a great debt to
Kenneth Slessor. The publication of One Hundred Poems in 1944
was surely the major event of the d e c a d e — a conviction which
grows stronger as one returns again and again to the poems. Here
I could quote from m a n y poets and critics—Hope, McAuley,
Vincent Buckley, Brissenden, Douglas Stewart, Leonie Kramer,
Robert FitzGerald—all these and m a n y others pay their tributes.
I have purposely avoided quoting from any of them. W h a t I want
to try to say is that, as Drysdale and Judith Wright each gave us
a landscape to which w e could belong, so Kenneth Slessor gave
us a time to which w e could belong. It is a different dimension
altogether and I believe he was thefirstto grasp it and to create
poetry from it. I think mostly of "Five Bells" and the sense of
time it expresses, and the mystery, which is as strange and new
and enlarging as anything in this century has been:
I looked out of m y window in the dark
At waves with diamond quills and combs of light
That arched their mackerel-backs and smacked the sand
In the moon's drench, that straight enormous glaze,
A n d ships far off asleep, and Harbour-buoys

[382]
SOUTHERLY

Tossing theirfireballswearily each to each,


A n d tried to hear your voice, but all I heard
W a s a boat's whistle, and the scraping squeal
O f seabirds' voices far away, and bells,
Five bells. Five bells coldly ringing out.
Five bells.
Finally, ladies and gentlemen, I end on an emotional note.
Sometimes one can feel, with Robert FitzGerald, a sense of loss,
I regret I shall not be around
T o stand on Mars
but one can also feel, as I do often and as I do at this moment,
a joy in belonging to one's o w n time, and implicit in this is a
sense of gratitude to the poets w h o have been, and are, m y friends
and contemporaries.

Crows
Crows ring the sky's bell.
Their cry brings drama, evil,
Eyes snow-blue, cool, still.

At lambing time, crows


Wait in black dustcoats on posts
For ewes to go down;

Then they move in. Nice


Feeders, crows relish the eyes
Of a new-born lamb.

Ah crow! lambs leap, run,


In sunlight. Your death-bell tongue
Lends depth to the scene.

DAVID CAMPBELL

[383]

Похожие интересы