“Katrina, I had in mind a prayer, but only this came,” Bruce Dawe wrote to his infant daughter, new-born, in intensive care, her life in the balance, declaring as poets must that their poems are the best and only real gift they can give.
I did not know Dawe, who died aged 90 on Wednesday, but I knew his poetry from my first years of reading poems. For decades, the first contemporary poems many Australians read were his.
Born in 1930 in Fitzroy, a failed student after attending seven schools, he worked as a labourer like his father, a farmhand, a postman, and spent a year on the University of Melbourne campus where he became a poet and a Catholic. He joined the RAAF in 1959.
As well as publishing a growing list of books, he studied part time until he achieved a PhD. His teaching life at the Darling Downs Institute of Advanced Education and the University of Southern Queensland lasted from 1969 until 1993. By then he was easily Australia’s most well-read and well-loved poet. His death this week is a significant moment for poets and readers of poetry.
A skilled mate
We know that poetry is somehow central to our nation’s soul, but mostly we like to keep its presence at the margins. In living memory, Les Murray and Dorothy Porter managed to bring poetry to wide audiences, but neither of them so broadly, neither of them prompting the passion of Dawe’s many readers.
When it comes to poetry, readers know pretty quickly what is authentic. Dawe’s poems are real enough to talk to you with one arm over your shoulder, or sit beside you, inviting you to look with them at what this whole damned creation is doing now.
But he couldn’t have survived as a poet by simply being genial. His poetry always held a deep steadiness of purpose in its gaze. This was his special skill. He was able to bring us in to seeing for instance how “the spider grief swings in his bitter geometry” (from Homecoming) when dead soldiers are freighted home.
He was uncannily capable of making poetry that talked plainly but still mysteriously about the most extreme of our experiences: funerals and suicides, drowned children, a mother-in-law’s glorious death falling out of her chair at a barbecue, the last nail being driven into the body of Christ (“the iron shocking the dumb wood”), the 1995 massacre at Srebrenica, or the hanging of Ronald Ryan.
You cannot read his poems without finding some personal connection to them too; my grandmother who once held a telegram announcing her son’s wartime death, and whose home was opposite Ronald Ryan’s bloody shootout on Sydney Road, had seemed to me to have had her life marked by images in Dawe’s poems.
In Australia, we know there’s another job requirement for any poet worth their salt, and that is a dry and thoroughly demotic wit. Dawe’s hilarious At Shagger’s Funeral is just one gem that Lawson would have been proud to have chiselled out.
Tests of time
New themes of gender, ethnicity, identity politics, the explosion of poetry since the avant-garde experiments of Fluxus might seem to leave Dawe’s poetry suspended in a historical moment, but this is to say no more than what happens to every strong and distinctive poet.
No one wrote poetry quite like Dawe. Lots of poets took inspiration from him too, many without realising it – the vibrant “street poetry” movement in Melbourne through the 1970s and 80s, morphing into performance poetry and spoken word – each take their impulse from Dawe’s confidence in poetry’s place as a voice for, about, and from life as it’s lived by the most desperate and the most ordinary of us.
The bravery of his poetry, its wit and sensitivity to the world are there in one of the most stark and touching love poems you could imagine reading:
Hearing the sound of your breathing as you sleep,
with the dog at your feet, his head resting
on a shoe, and the clock’s ticking
Like water dripping in a sink
– I know that, even if reincarnation were a fact,
given the inherent cruelty of the world
where beautiful things and people
are blasted apart all the day long,
I would never want to come back, knowing
I could never be this lucky twice …
(from You and Sarajevo: for Gloria)
He has been praised for the technical achievement of blending the colloquial with the lyrical, something he often got “right”. But beyond this deftness, his poems always reach towards our most humane responses to the world.
We know from our present troubles as a nation, as a planet, and as a species, that we need poets as right and true as Bruce Dawe to continue this sometimes visionary and sometimes laughably inadequate work.