I was recently asked by my younger son Chris to read with him some Australian poetry. Chris wrote a critique for two of the poems for his Year 12 English studies. Chris and I found Critically Acclaimed Gwen Harwood’s words and her life fascinating so I wanted to share her story. Gwen Harwood also grew up in our neighbourhood in Brisbane’s western suburbs. Below is part of Chris’s critique.
Gwen Harwood was born in 1942 and grew up in Taringa, in Western Suburbs Brisbane. She went to Brisbane Girls Grammar School and All Saint High. Harwood had studied music and completed a Diploma to teach music but found herself in a typist job at the War Damage Commission. Although early in her life she had developed an interest in literature, philosophy and music, she was limited to what the society enabled her to do in her career. She would later be described in our time as brilliant but was understated.
Harwood’s father taught her music and her grandmother introduced her to poetry. For years, Harwood could not publish her work under her own name because she was a woman. The society, male editors mostly, thought a woman should not be a writer or get published. As a woman poet in a largely male dominated place, Harwood used Pseudonyms to be allowed or belong to the publishing world. A local Brisbane publisher, Minjiin first published her poem in 1944. From 1960s, Harwood started to publish more of her writings in journals and books. Her discreet life in the literary world reflected the place expected of a woman during that time (from 1940s). Poems such as the Suburban Sonnet reflected Harwood’s strong views about how the society’s view of women was.
Generally in a sonnet, the poem is about a beautiful woman in love. In this case, Harwood depicts a woman in a chaotic household in contrast to the traditional rule of a sonnet.
Drawing from her own experiences, she wrote poems that question the status of women and the right to be whatever a woman aspired to be. She portrayed the suburbia woman to boring and ordinary. In the Suburban Sonnet, Harwood showed the restricted society she and other women belonged to by challenging the norm of the social and cultural ideologies on suburban women, especially mothers.
The dead mouse could be interpreted as her dream of teaching music being dead. In her society, a woman’s artistic ambitions may as well be dead, because her society expected her to do things in certain ways. “The Stale bread” could refer to a woman’s domestic life, which she saw as boring. Harwood was accepted as belonging to the male dominated publishing world only after she made a startling publication. 1961, The Bulletin accepted a sonnet from Walter Lehmann, and after it was published it was brought to the editor Donald Horne that the initial of each line formed the phrase “Fuck All Editors”.
The Suburban Sonnet : Boxing Day (Gwen Harwood)
She practices fugue, though it can matter
to no one now if she plays well or not.
Beside her on the floor two children chatter,
then scream and fight. She hushes them. A pot
boils over. As she rushes to the stove
too late, a wave of nausea overpowers subject and counter subject
drain out with soapy water as she scours
the crusted milk. Her veins ache.
Once she played for Rubinstein, who yawned. The children caper round a sprung mousetrap where a mouse lies dead.
When the soft corpse won’t move they seem afraid.
She comforts them; and wraps it in a paper
featuring: Tasty dishes from stale bread.