Australian and New Zealand Poetry Analysis


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

When the first Europeans arrived in Australia, they found that the land was inhabited by people who had no written language. Because the Aborigines were preliterate, the settlers assumed that they were also prehistorical. What the new settlers did not realize is that the indigenous peoples did indeed have a rich history as well as a shared system of mythical beliefs, which had been transmitted orally from generation to generation. Though the Aboriginal narratives were poetic in form, they were performance poetry: The stories were sung, danced, or acted out. Because this format was so ephemeral and because the Aborigines were reluctant to admit outsiders to their rituals, many of which were deemed sacred, white Australians had almost no knowledge of Aboriginal writings for the first hundred years that the colony was in existence. Moreover, when collections such as Catherine Langloh Parker’s Australian Legendary Tales (1896) began to appear, even though the stories they contained followed the plot lines of their Aboriginal sources, their form was that of the European folktale.

By the middle of the twentieth century, anthropologists were producing books in which complete Aboriginal narratives, such as song cycles, appeared along with English translations, which reproduced the verbal patterns of the original works as closely as possible. Meanwhile, some Aborigines had begun to write in English, often to protest the treatment of their people. The...

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The colonial period

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The first book of poetry published in the colony of Australia was First Fruits of Australian Poetry (1819), by Barron Field (1786-1846), a judicial appointee from England. Field’s volume contained two poems, “Botany Bay Flowers” and “The Kangaroo.” Field found Australia interesting, but after seven years there, he was evidently happy to return home. Two native-born poets, William Charles Wentworth (1790-1872) and Charles Tompson (1807-1883), were more enthusiastic about their country. In his epic poem “Astralasia” (1823), Wentworth envisioned the colony’s becoming a new, more perfect England, and in Wild Notes, from the Lyre of a Native Minstrel (1826), the first book of poetry by a native Australian to be published in Australia, Tompson pointed out the beauties of the Australian landscape and stressed the importance of preserving the natural environment.

The anonymous bush ballads and convict songs of this period present a very different picture of life in the colony. With wry humor, the writers describe their struggles against oppressive heat and persistent mosquitoes; comment on the difference between the lives of those Australians who have money and those who have none; warn those at “home” to avoid crime, lest they be transported; and clearly regard themselves as exiles struggling desperately to survive.

By the 1830’s, the colony was producing some poets of more than historical importance. Charles...

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Women poets in the colonial period

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Even in this new country, women did not have the freedom of thought and expression that they would a century later. Whatever their private feelings, they were expected to display a ladylike sentimentality in public. Nevertheless, several women managed to publish some creditable works. One of them was Eliza Hamilton Dunlop (1796-1880), who came to Australia from Ireland with her second husband, who was assigned as protector of a group of Aborigines. She was one of the first Australians to make a serious study of the language and the culture of the Aborigines. Her sympathy for them is evident in her frequently anthologized poem “The Aboriginal Mother,” which first appeared in the Australian in 1838.

Louisa Anne Meredith (1812-1895), an Englishwoman who settled in Tasmania, won honors for her illustrated books, several of which were collections of her descriptive, lyric poetry. Another native of England, Ada Cambridge (1844-1926), spent much of her life in rural Victoria with her clergyman husband. A prolific writer, she published short fiction, novels, essays, and autobiographical works, as well as five collections of verse. Though Cambridge’s poems tend to be sentimental in tone and often have a moral, they do sometimes exhibit some intellectual complexity, as when she writes of the loss of sexual desire in “The Physical Conscience” and “Unstrung.” One of her most moving poems is “By the Camp Fire.” In that poem, while acknowledging that God is at his most magnificent in Australia, the speaker still yearns for the organ music of England, where her soul seemed so secure.

A new era

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

During the last twenty years of the nineteenth century, it became increasingly evident that the attitudes and the values of Australians were changing. Because most of the population had been born in Australia, the old nostalgia for England had largely disappeared, and as the fervor of the 1888 bicentennary celebration demonstrated, Australians were taking pride in their own hard-won land. In addition, they were rejecting many of the old ideals, notably individualism, while they exalted mateship or the collaborative efforts of working men—men, not women, for Australia remained dominated by masculine values. The Sydney Bulletin, which was founded in 1880 and soon began calling itself the Bushman’s bible, reflected the new Australia: It was against imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism, as well as Aborigines and Asians, but strongly supported workers, unions, and republicanism.

One of the first poets to emerge in this new era was Henry Lawson (1867-1922), who was born in the goldfields and grew up in rural New South Wales but later joined his mother in Sydney, where she was active in the republican movement. His first poem, “A Song of the Republic,” appeared in the Bulletin. Lawson, who called himself the people’s poet, became known both for protest poetry and for poems about life in the bush. Surprisingly, during World War I, Lawson wrote patriotic poems in support of the war. Although in his later years Lawson wrote a great...

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Jindyworobaks, Angry Penguins, and lyricists

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

In the 1930’s, Australians were again moving toward isolationism and nationalism, which had their most extreme expression in the Jindyworobak movement. In 1938, the Jindyworobak Club was founded in Adelaide, and that same year, the first Jindyworobak Anthology of poetry appeared. Poets associated with the movement sought inspiration from Australian history, from the outback, and from Aboriginal art. They urged becoming more closely tied to the environment, and some sought spiritual enlightenment through the Aboriginal “dreamtime.” The practice that many Australians found objectionable, however, was the use of Aboriginal words in English-language poems. Even though the final anthology appeared in 1953, the Jindyworobak movement continues to exert an influence on Australian writers through its recognition of Aboriginal art and its environmental emphasis.

The Angry Penguin movement of the 1940’s was very different from the Jindyworobak movement. It began in Adelaide with a quarterly journal called Angry Penguins, which opposed nationalistic socialism and was devoted to the avant-garde in film, the visual arts, and literature. Max Harris (1921-1995), one of its editors and a major contributor, was a target of a hoax perpetrated in 1944 by the conservative writers James McAuley (1917-1976) and Harold Stewart (1916-1995). The two wrote some nonsensical poems that were supposedly by a poet named Ernest Lalor “Ern” Malley and had...

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Infinite variety and international recognition

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

During the 1960’s, a number of Australian poets had voiced their conviction that Australian poetry needed to develop new themes and settings to reflect the urbanization of the nation or to experiment with forms as the American postmodern poets had. One of these would-be reformers, Thomas Shapcott (born 1935), chose an unusual subject, life in a provincial town, for his Shabbytown Calendar (1975). Another, John Tranter (born 1943), used fragmentary, disjointed forms in his early poems, thus illustrating the kinds of changes he had advocated in his introduction to The New Australian Poetry (1979), though his later poetry was more traditional. As the editor of the magazine New Poetry, Robert Adamson (born 1943) was another influential force for change. In The Clean Dark (1989), Adamson demonstrates that postmodern forms can be just as effective as a more traditional format in the communication of profound feelings, such as his love of the Hawkesbury River area, where he made his home.

Among the many experimental poets who attained recognition in the final decades of the twentieth century are Anna Walwicz (born 1951), Dorothy Porter (born 1954), Ken Bolton (born 1948), and Ross Clark (born 1953). Jennifer Maiden (born 1949) combines fiction, fictional autobiography, and autobiography with family memories and references to current events in her poetic works, which, though often puzzling, richly reward intensive study.

Others pursued very different paths. Though in the twenty-first century they are still as highly regarded as they were thirty years before, both Bruce Dawe (born 1930) and Les A. Murray (born 1938) continue to eschew postmodernism, believing that poetry can be significant only when it is accessible to ordinary readers. Thus the poems in which Dawe takes up the cause of the ordinary person against tyranny are written in colloquial language, and the poems in which Murray urges a return to the values of the early settlers, to what he calls the true spirit of Australia, are as straightforward as the rural people about whom he writes. Both Dawe and Murray have won numerous awards. In 2000, Dawe received the Australian Council for the Arts Emeritus Writers Award for his lifelong contribution to Australian literature, and in 1998, Murray was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, leading many to call him Australia’s leading poet. When he was given Germany’s Petrarch Prize (Petrarca Preis) in 1995, it was evident how much Murray has contributed to the international recognition of Australian poets.

New Zealand poetry

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Like the Australian Aborigines, the Polynesian people of New Zealand had their own mythology and rituals expressed in poetic form, and many of them were recorded by European scholars late in the nineteenth century. However, the first Maori poet to produce high-quality poetry written in the English language did not appear until well into the twentieth century. Hone Tuwhare (1922-2008) published his first collection of poems, No Ordinary Sun, in 1964. A playwright and short-story writer as well as a poet, Tuwhare proceeded to win many honors, including being named New Zealand’s Te Mata Poet Laureate in 1999. His poems are routinely included in anthologies of New Zealand poetry. Another frequently anthologized Maori writer...

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The twentieth century and beyond

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Some of the most gifted poets of the twentieth century were women. In Shingle-Short, and Other Verses (1908), Blanche Baughan (1870-1958) experimented with open forms and unusual imagery, innovations that would not be seen again until the advent of modernism. The traditional lyrics of Eileen Duggan (1894-1972) brought her international acclaim. The serene poems that Mary Ursula Bethell (1874-1945) wrote during her years at Christchurch, many of which appeared in From a Garden in the Antipodes (1929), reflect her religious faith and her appreciation of natural beauty. Another important poet was Iris Guiver Wilkinson (1906-1939), who wrote striking poems under the pen name Robin Hyde. Though her present reputation...

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(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Bennett, Bruce, and Jennifer Strauss, eds. The Oxford Literary History of Australia. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s discussion of “Poetry and Modernism” and Dennis Haskell’s “Poetry Since 1965” provide an interesting perspective on modern Australian poetry. Bibliography, chronology, and index.

Bornholdt, Jenny, Gregory O’Brien, and Mark Williams, eds. An Anthology of New Zealand Poetry in English. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. This extensive collection won the 1997 Montana New Zealand Book Award for Poetry. The editors’ introduction provides an excellent overview of the...

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