Review: Susan Sheridanon Gwen Harwood

The Tongue is an Eye

Gwen Harwood is one of Australia’s most important poets, renowned for her lyrical brilliance and wit. Her Collected Poems, published in 2003, earned her praise as one of the finest poets of the twentieth century. She also appears in Roelf Bolt’s Encyclopedia of Liars and Deceivers as ‘Gwen Harwood, Housewife and Poetess’.

And there we have it – a great poet, a housewife, and a liar and deceiver. A woman who, to all intents and purposes, abided by the tenets of mid-century good womanhood while developing as a major artist even under the demeaning epithet of ‘poetess,’ but who, in the process, invented a range of poetic guises, most of them masculine, under which to extend the range of her work, and get it published in places that had shown little interest in Mrs Gwen Harwood of Hobart. Hence the ‘liar and deceiver’, who became famous for perpetrating a scandalous hoax on the Bulletin magazine in 1961: two elegant sonnets, featuring the famous medieval lovers Eloisa and Abelard and published under the name of Walter Lehmann, were found to read acrostically ‘So Long Bulletin’ and ‘Fuck All Editors’ – and were traced back to Gwen Harwood, university wife and mother of four, and emerging poet. This was by no means her only hoax, merely the most notorious.

As if that were not enough, the poems themselves and the collection of her brilliant letters, also published after her death, suggested a life of erotic and romantic adventures that belied the impression of a pillar of feminine respectability. Questions and intrigues abounded. Numerous discerning critical studies of her poetry appeared. Alison Hoddinott and Greg Kratzmann, who were to have been Harwood’s official biographers, edited Gwen Harwood Collected Poems 1943-1995 (2003) as well as several selections of her letters: Blessed City: Letters to Thomas Riddell 1943 (Hoddinott 1990) and Idle Talk: Gwen Harwood Letters 1960-1964 (Hoddinott 2015) and A Steady Storm of Correspondence: Selected Letters of Gwen Harwood 1943-1995 (Kratzmann 2001). In his introductory sections to A Steady Storm of Correspondence Kratzmann managed to include an impressively detailed outline of events and people in Gwen’s life; but what he had to leave out were most of the love affairs, and anything negative about the Harwood marriage. The rumoured biography did not materialise.

Only now, some twenty years since those published books established her literary reputation, do we have a full-length biography of Gwen Harwood. And what a work of love and scholarship it is. The biographer, Ann-Marie Priest, who has published a number of essays on Harwood’s poetry, tells of the generous support she received for her project from both Alison Hoddinott and the late Greg Kratzmann, and from John Harwood, Gwen’s eldest son and literary executor. She also put in the hard yards herself, visiting library collections to read the reams of letters Harwood had sent over the years to poet and musician friends like Vivian Smith, Steven Edgar, Vincent Buckley, Norman Talbot, Rex Hobcroft and Larry Sitsky, to name but a few.

My Tongue is My Own is a classic biography, tracing the poet’s life from her birth, as Gwendoline Foster, in Brisbane in 1920, to her death, in Hobart in 1995, mourned by her four children, her grandchildren and her one and only husband, Bill, as well as by myriad friends and admirers. The book is rich in detail of the passions for people, places, music and poetry that marked her relatively uneventful life, detail drawn largely from the trove of wonderful letters that Harwood wrote to friends throughout her life.

Priest introduces her subject with vivid brevity as ‘the trickster poet’, as ‘an enigmatic figure of wigs and masks’ who from an early age loved to perform different versions of herself, but whose inventiveness ‘was also a form of resistance to being corralled into fixed roles and identities.’ As a young married woman she struggled against the confinements of her life, living two lives as ‘burning Sappho’ the ardent poet and also ‘the Stately Flower’ of female fortitude, as she put it with characteristic irony (and literary allusiveness, taking her epithets from Byron and Tennyson respectively, as Priest records). Here the biographer sets up her task of weaving masses of detailed material into a narrative that traces Harwood’s continuing effort to claim her freedom as a poet, to make good the boast that ‘my tongue is my own’. If the biography places more emphasis on her passions for people than on her artistic development, that is no doubt because of the abundance of such material in her letters, which are its principal source.

The biography is chronologically structured in three parts. Part I covers Gwendolyn Foster’s childhood and youth in a comfortably-off Brisbane family, ending with her marriage and departure for Hobart at end of war. The family nurtured Gwen’s musical talent, as did her later music teacher and first lover, a much older man who also taught her to play the church organ. Through this association with All Saints Church she met and fell heavily for the young curate, Peter Bennie, a believer in celibacy for the clergy. Her passion for him thwarted but her admiration undimmed, Gwen spent six months in an Anglican convent before deciding that celibacy was not the life for her after all. Priest passes over both Gwen’s claim that she was later ‘unconverted’ by reading Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave, and the question of what took the place of that religious faith in sustaining her inner life. However, the more important outcome of what became a lifelong friendship with Bennie was Gwen’s meeting with the two men who came to figure as the mainstays of her emotional life – Thomas (Tony) Riddell and Bill Harwood. With the encouragement of these friends she began to write poems, publishing her first in Brisbane’s new literary journal, Meanjin, in 1944.

Part II covers the years 1946 to 1969: marriage, motherhood and poetry. Gwen and Bill Harwood married after he was demobbed from the armed forces and appointed to a lectureship in English at the University of Tasmania. The early years in Hobart were lonely: the Harwoods first set up house in an isolated mountain cottage, without a car – and no piano either. Passionate as it was, the marriage was somewhat disillusioning. Gwen found she had to adjust to Bill’s dislike of the sociable life she preferred, to his lack of interest in music and art – and to his punishing silences when she displeased him. Those early years of marriage were all the more lonely as she was estranged from Tony Riddell: Bill had demanded, when they married, that she stop writing to his friend.

Gwen bore five children in rapid succession (the second, a daughter, was stillborn), and this left little time for poetry until the youngest, the twins, were at school. By then she had restored her epistolary relationship with Tony; and had become firm friends with another young mother, Ann Jennings, who was also – unusually for the times – studying for an arts degree. Through Ann she met Hal Porter, whose poetry and fiction she admired. Over the next decade Gwen wrote and published at a furious pace, often in a state of rage at editors who showed no literary judgement, or who treated her with casual rudeness.

By 1968 she had published two volumes of her own poetry (some of it as Walter Lehmann, or Francis Geyer, or Miriam Stone, or Timothy Kline) as well as being represented in all the major literary journals and anthologies. She had made interstate visits to give poetry readings. She had established friendships with the professor-poets James McAuley, Alec Hope, and Vincent Buckley. She had begun collaborating with composers Larry Sitsky, James Penberthy and Rex Hobcroft. She also had a brief, passionate affair with Thomas Pick, a Hungarian immigrant she met at the children’s school, about whom she confided in her letters to Tony Riddell.

Part III covers the last twenty-five years of her life, another period of intense activity: as well as her part-time job as a medical receptionist, and her involvement in the All Saints congregation, Gwen attended meetings of the Fellowship of Australian Writers (she became federal president in 1991), and many poetry readings. Her writing continued to be acclaimed, and major triumphs included the production of Sitsky’s opera with her libretto, The Golem, at Sydney Opera House in 1993. There were trips to the mainland but no overseas travel (her husband’s sabbatical leave never included Gwen). She had an affair with poet and academic Norman Talbot, as well as romantic encounters with old loves like McAuley.

During this period the Harwoods had a few years of rural living, when Bill retired from the university and they bought land and built a house at Oyster Cove, across the water from Bruny Island. But despite their pleasures in this life, they both struggled with health problems and depression, and Gwen was glad to move back to Hobart. After diagnosis of the breast cancer that was eventually to bring about her death, she flung herself into activities again. Her final years were enhanced by significant new friendships, with writer Vikram Seth (they had music as well as poetry in common), with Alan Farrell, the rector of All Saints Church, and with Rosemary Cohen, a younger woman friend who visited her daily as she lay dying in hospital. A month before her death in November 1995, a final volume of new poetry and stories appeared, The Present Tense, edited by Alison Hoddinott. It was dedicated ‘to my children’ – the only one of her books not to be dedicated to Tony Riddell.

This brief summary inevitably reflects my own principal interest in Harwood as a writer, and after all that is why the biography exists. It means I have left out many of the juicy bits, pleasures that await those who read the whole thing for themselves. But however well the finished product justifies Priest’s attention to the relationships that shaped Harwood’s life, I do think it should have included a full listing of the poet’s published work, surely a basic requirement for any artist’s biography.

Generous as it is, at 400 pages of text, replete with Harwood’s own words drawn from that voluminous correspondence, the biography is best read with the Collected Poems to hand, for there is little room for quotation, and yet the narrative points repeatedly to specific poems drawing on her experiences. For example, to see how a poem such as the blandly-named ‘Sonnet’ springs from her affair with Thomas Pick:

Mystery grows lifesize as I’m brought to meet you.
(Loved, as Donne says, before your face or name …)
A day like any other, with the same
things to be done, and soon after I greet you
I have to take my leave. Others demand
your presence, and I walk, away from you,
on the fine edge of now, as we all do,
with an eternity at either hand.

It is not so much a question of reading the poems as autobiography, or as ‘confessional’ – rarely a satisfactory approach, and one that Harwood specifically denied – but a matter of the pleasure of recognising, for Harwood fans, the wellspring of a poem. But for readers who still have the pleasures of her poetry to explore, this book still offers the strengths of a good biography, the sense of a complex yet coherent life, a life fully lived, with all its pain and joys.

Very often a biographer must shape this complex coherence out of scraps and fragments, of circumstantial, sometimes contradictory evidence. And there is always some evidence missing, for example where certain documents are unavailable, or there are interdictions, as when there is a story in circulation which the family does not want repeated. Where the principal source is letters, as here, there are questions of access: whether letters are kept in the first place (while Tony Riddell kept all of hers, Gwen burnt his early letters to her, on marriage, but kept later ones); whether they are returned to authors or given to libraries (as Tony did to the Fryer Library). In libraries they may be kept in closed or open collections; literary executors may withhold permission to quote from them. When quoting, there are decisions to be made about how to cut and whether to signal this or do so silently.

Biographical subjects pose all kinds of problems for their Boswells. Some of them, even writers, leave little by way of personal reflection on their lives, in the form of letters or journals, as was the case with Karen Lamb’s Thea Astley biography, for example. Others provide such an abundance of personal reflections that their stories dominate the narrative: in My Tongue is My Own, Gwen Harwood gets to tell all the stories, and what she chooses not to tell rarely makes it into the picture. There are few interviews and other sources of opinion about Harwood herself, and so one gets little direct evidence of how she appeared to, and influenced, other people. Yet Harwood’s letters provide wonderful story material, much of it ‘evidence’ of nothing but her mischievousness, her powers of invention. In letters to intimate friends she gives herself licence to complain at length, or to exaggerate for fun and profit, to let off steam over many years of what must have been a difficult marriage.

In this narrative, her husband comes across as a remote and anti-social scholar, who evinced little interest in, or respect for, his wife’s art, and who resented her intense friendships and her sociability. In the expected manner of mid-century middle-class marriages, he expected to be looked after and respected; as the breadwinner, he doled out a housekeeping allowance for his wife to spend on the family’s needs – and when Gwen finally persuaded him to give her a personal allowance, he withdrew it the moment she won a Literature Board grant. Yet the marriage lasted. Their sexual compatibility seemed to survive many vicissitudes, and several friends comment on their intellectual compatibility: the rationalist linguistic philosopher and the believer in intuition and imagination delighted in verbal combat (both were fascinated by Wittgenstein, for example, but for opposite reasons). Divorce never really seemed to be an option.

Yet there is no way Gwen Harwood can be portrayed as a woman to be pitied for persisting in such a traditional relationship. Perhaps, after all, it represented a degree of constraint that Gwen needed to spark off against. She wrote to Tony Riddell about the creative force of constraint in poetic forms: ‘Really I like best to write in strict forms, but I feel that achieving creative tension in a context of liberty (as in ‘Person to Person’) is a real challenge.’ And her life seems to illustrate that constraint in marriage worked similarly in stimulating her creativity: it gave her something very solid to resist, as well as requiring her to put on masks and enact roles.

The masks are a key to her creativity as well as a clever ruse to get published. Lehman, Geyer, Stone and later the young Timothy Kline (‘Tiny Tim’) were pseudonyms of poets, each with their own style, while Professors Eisenbart (imaginary nuclear scientist) and Kröte (imaginary musician) were personae whose emotional and spiritual encounters Harwood could dramatize.

Her creativity also encompassed the arts of complaint and satire to a quite sublime degree. Most often, her targets are ignorance, and incapacity to recognise quality, to discriminate – failings that result in the offences that anger her. Her anger is expressed against insults to herself, rather than any social injustices. Like most women of her generation, she did not see the constraints she experienced as a woman as the result of social, and therefore changeable, arrangements, but rather of the ‘natural way of things’.

As well as getting to tell all the best stories, Harwood the letter writer gets to play as many roles as she wishes with her friends. As Joy Hooton has pointed out, the letter form ‘involves donning a mask, thus offering dual conditions of privacy and intimacy’. It also has ‘an elastic conversational shape’ that ‘places the interlocutor at the writer’s disposal’ more than a conversation does. In epistolary mode, Harwood presents herself in many different guises to different friends. To Tony Riddell, the gay man whom she met when she was only twenty, and whose life was in the theatre, mostly in Melbourne or London, Gwen wrote throughout her life about everything – music, poetry, religion, sex, marriage, the daily round, literary gossip. He was her most constant interlocutor and in a very real sense her most constant love.

In one letter to him, in 1960, she tells of how, on leaving one of the first public readings of her poems, she purloined ‘the nice hand-done poster with my name on, and have it in my living room. The children, especially Mary, were rather distressed about my having it and I realised how little they know of my nature; naturally I have brought them up to respect public property’. The words ‘my nature’, ‘naturally’ and ‘respect public property’ slyly bounce off one another. A few lines later she writes that she is:

trying to weld content and form into a closer unity, so that in the end it will appear that one is looking straight at the spiritual content of the poem without mediation: at what is, not what is said.
The tongue is an eye — Wallace Stevens
It is the continual recreation of reality from metaphor that gives poetry its life, and I must have enough confidence in myself now to start again (I think this is the real feeling behind the masks; a wish for a new start).

What strikes me about these segues is the depth of unspoken connections, and the ease with which she moves into a statement about her own practice. This surely says something vital about her relation to her ‘dearest Tony,’ her ideal correspondent.

‘A letter is the gift of a spontaneous soliloquy to the person in whose presumed presence it is made’ writes Barbara Blackman. A soliloquy, a monologue addressed to oneself, is nevertheless a theatrical term: it assumes an audience who is made privy to the speaker’s innermost thoughts. As in her correspondence, so in her poetry, Harwood always assumes an audience: apparently private perceptions and feelings are expressed in public. Her lyric art is also dramatic, eloquent, not solitary.

Unlike some other significant writers of her time, Harwood continues to attract the attention of readers and critics, and there has been a steady stream of articles on her work over the past decade. Ann-Marie Priest’s biography is an invaluable addition to the literature on this writer. A biography of a major Australian writer is a significant event – and all too often a rare one, especially when the writer is a woman. Hazel Rowley’s Christina Stead (1990) consolidated a new tradition of feminist biographies that appeared following Drusilla Modjeska’s Exiles at Home; Australian Women Writers 1925-1945 (1981). It is good to see that Priest was a recipient of the Hazel Rowley Award, which has enabled the completion of a number of these time- and energy-hungry literary projects. It would be wonderful, next, to have an edited collection of Harwood’s prose pieces.

Works Cited

Barbara Blackman, Glass After Glass (1997).

Roelf Bolt, Encyclopedia of Liars and Deceivers, (trans. Andy Brown) Reaktion Books, London (2015).

Bryony Cosgrove, ‘Fragments of a Life in Letters: the elusive Gwen Harwood’, Hecate 40.2 (2014), 52-66.

Gwen Harwood, Collected Poems (2003).

Joy Hooton, ‘Life Lines in Stormy Seas: Some recent collections of women’s diaries and letters.’ Australian Literary Studies 16.1 (1993): 3-13.

Gregory Kratzmann (ed.), A Steady Storm of Correspondence: the selected letters of Gwen Harwood 1943-1995 (2001).

Susan Sheridan, Nine Lives: Postwar Women Writers Making their Mark (2011).