Sunday, August 19, 2007

Australian Poetry - a few meanderings

For his second Friday poem, Neil (Ninglun) chose The Poor, Poor Country by John Shaw Neilson. Ouch! The poem does capture one element of Australian mythology, one that I have much sympathy for, but I have always found it personally to be cringe-makingly bad!

Neilsen's first line begins:

Oh ’twas a poor country, in Autumn it was bare,
The only green was the cutting grass and the sheep found little there.
Oh, the thin wheat and the brown oats were never two foot high,
But down in the poor country no pauper was I.

Now compare this with the first lines of Judith Wright's The Hawthorn Hedge.

How long ago she planted the hawthorn hedge -
she forgets how long ago-
that barrier thrown across the hungry ridge;
thorn and snow.

Both poems are designed to be read aloud and do, I think, capture the rhythm of the Australian language. But they are very different.

It is, I think, increasingly hard for Australians to get their mind back into this country's past.

At the time Nielsen was born in 1872 the population was much smaller and also very dispersed. Most Australians received very little formal education. This was the age of the autodidact, the self taught man.

By the time Judith Wright was born in 1915, not only was the population much larger, but education was now widespread. Further, Judith grew up in a world of wealth and relative privilege. There is an enormous contrast between the formal world of the New England Girl's School where Judith received her secondary education and the two and half year's schooling that John Nielson received.

Both wrote because they had to. But Nielsen was part of a different school, the Bulletin school. This provided an outlet for a constant stream of bush and nationalist poetry.

Australians today struggle with the Bulletin school because of the racial attitudes built into the magazine and its writings. Neil captured the problem here rather well with his comments on Edward Dyson's A Golden Shanty. How do you handle something when it contains sets of attitudes now classified as unacceptable?

I accept that this is a problem. I also know that many of the attitudes now held in Australia will be classified as odd, quaint, unacceptable in the future. I just don't know which ones!


ninglun said...

While the Neilson poem I used is not his best one -- perhaps "The Orange Tree" or "Let Your Song be Delicate" qualify -- I don't think it all that bad. It is in the Bulletin mode, but with some significant variation, especially the almost free-verse falling rhythm in the last line of each stanza, deliberately breaking the pattern. It must be deliberate because he does it in every stanza.

I have grown more fond of the poem because I do think it works reasonably well, especially when read aloud. And there are some very good lines.

I just love Judith Wright's work; my mother, funnily enough, didn't, even though she and Judith were in their childhoods "rival poets". Too modern for Mum, I'm afraid.

Jim Belshaw said...

All that's probably fair, Neil. I did read the poem out loud, I always do that with poetry when alone, and in fact thought about softening the comment.

I probably have a particular problem with Neilson because I did not like him as a child as compared to say Patterson, Lawson or some of Gilmore's poems.

With Judith, I find it interesting that the Queenslander's claim her for themselves, whereas to me she is very much a New England writer.

Interesting about your mum's reaction. So much in the eye of the beholder.