Printer Friendly

Baby and Demon: Woman and the Artist in the Poetry of Gwen Harwood.

Late in 1961, when Gwen Harwood was beginning to gain recognition as a poet, she wrote to her friend and fellow poet Vincent Buckley that her poetic gift was "hateful" to her: "I would rather have been happy," she told him (Steady Storm 136, emphasis in original). (1) A little more than a year later, she repeated the formulation in another letter, insisting that she would "rather have been happy [than a poet], a nice girl, a lovely woman, anytheeng." She adds that the better she gets as a poet, "the worse it gets" (SS 173). Her comments invoke an opposition between "woman" and "poet" that she seems to have taken for granted. They also invoke an unlikely alliance between "woman" and "happiness"--and a corresponding misalliance between "poet" and "happiness." They suggest that the life of the "nice girl," and her close relative the "lovely woman," is one of simple sunshine, while that of the poet is necessarily Sturm und Drang, misery, Angst, alienation.

This Romantic characterisation of the poet is very familiar. As recently as 1995, one psychological study of "literary genius" concluded that to create, writers must "remain loners who are totally dedicated to their creative work" (Hale 113). The idea is that to see into the heart of things, artists must distance themselves from their fellows and from the mild joys and tepid sorrows of the quotidian. Julie Kelso points out the "unstated gender-bias" of this concept, the seeming neutrality of which "actually masks 'the masculine'" (16). Women have traditionally been anchored to the quotidian by childbirth, their lives "woven in other lives," to borrow Harwood's phrase. (2) "Mother (still) is generally understood to be selflessly devoted to the nurturing of family, especially her children," Kelso writes. "As naturally nurturing and unselfish, she stands in direct opposition to the image of the (male) artist, who is generally aloof, passionately devoted to his art, 'an ivory tower type who avoids all responsibilities, including the domestic'" (Kelso 5, citing Lois Rubin). Indeed, the "stereotypical image" of the artist, Kelso writes, is someone utterly removed from the traditional world of the mother, "not just on the edge of society (watching) but outside its very parameters of decency, health and well-being" (6).

This idea of the poet as a dangerous outsider, the masculine "other" of the "lovely woman," is very much in evidence in Harwood's letters. "Rilke fed his genius at the expense of everything else," she wrote to her friend Tony Riddell in 1960 of the great German poet. "[H]e would have scorned utterly my attempts to combine domesticity with poetry" (SS 92). Such attempts, she went on, are themselves proof of a fatal softness towards others--fatal to poetry, that is: "I think that real genius brings with it the necessary hardness; I haven't got the final streak of hardness, and lack the corresponding stratum of talent" (92). To be a "true" poet, her letters often suggest, she would need to be heartless and selfish, to turn her back on the needs of her four young children and her husband. This she was not prepared to do, affirming that, as she puts it in a 1962 letter, "Children are better than the best poems" (SS 160). Yet nor was she prepared to stop writing poetry. Indeed, far from repudiating the image of poet-as-outsider, she identified closely with it, asserting, for instance, of the "mad, bad and dangerous" Lord Byron that "that is what I am really like, even if I am the one who puts the porridge on" (SS 240). Yet she worked hard to keep this potentially dangerous alter-ego contained, afraid of the damage he might otherwise wreak on the "lovely woman" and her supposedly happy life.

In this paper, I want to argue that the struggle evident in Harwood's letters between the competing identities of "poet" and "woman" is enacted in a number of her poems. I am not proposing that either letters or poems give us unmediated access to Harwood's thoughts or identity; I take Liz Stanley's view that "we necessarily work and live within the field of representation" (5). Both letters and more "artful" literary texts exist within this field, and it is here that Harwood's works shed light on the material, social, cultural and linguistic difficulties for women of occupying the subject-position "poet" in the mid-to late-twentieth century. As Kelso puts it, women writers have had to fight not only against "domestic reality which hinders us from writing, or saying what we want" but also against their relegation to "their allotted Symbolic place: the place of silence" (14). For Harwood, to speak as a poet was often to find herself occupying a masculine subject position, which put her in the uncomfortable position of needing to affirm her feminine status--or risk the loss of the privileges accorded to women who fulfil their cultural role. As a woman who was also a poet, she both rejected and identified with the Romantic ideal of the artist as one who lives "outside the parameters of decency, health and well-being." The difficult attempt to reconcile these competing identities and the anguish of their seeming irreconcilability are played out in her poetry.
 
                            ***** 


The phrase"lovely woman" appears often in Harwood's lettersto her friend Alison Hoddinott in the early 1960s. (3) Both women usethe term with mild satire to describe the women in their circles whomeet all the social conventions associated with attractiveness: who arewell-mannered, well-groomed, charming. According to Hoddinott, thephrase was originally that of Harwood's husband, Bill, who usedit approvingly of some women he met. (4) Harwood considered herself--asher letters make clear--to be a "lovely woman." (5)Indeed, in a draft of an unpublished poem that seems to refer to thistime, she describes herself as having been "Mrs Mac theKnife":
 
   chopping carrots for the children
      model of a lovely wife
   while the men were dining elsewhere
      leading the artistic life. (6) 


The"lovely wife" is obviously an iteration of the"lovely woman"--and, like her, excluded from the life ofthe artist.

This exclusion is vividly expressed in a muchearlier poem, "Dichterliebe," first published in 1961, which draws a contemptuous picture of the maleartist through the eyes of his wife. (7) As Elizabeth Lawson points out,this poem depicts the poet as an emotional baby, (8) craving "dayand night the pap of praise," and whose poems are"fingerpaint[ing]/ in heartsblood." The"heartsblood" is not his but his wife's; thepoem's speaker notes bitterly that her poet-husband"tell[s], with stylish Angst of course,/ the inmost secrets of our bed." Indeed, it is herenergy that fuels his work: "He'll suck my sap and vigourdown/ the crude mouth of his private hell." He is a kind ofvampire, draining her essence only to abandon her: "No kiss,/ nochild, no prayer will keep him here." Being outside"decency, health and well-being," however, he will get hisjust rewards, she predicts, dying "of drink and candybars." This poem represents the traditional dichotomy betweenartist and woman in the most direct terms: "I'll wash thefloors," the speaker says, "He'll watch thestars." The woman takes care of the artist's materialneeds, in other words, so that he can focus unhindered on makingbeautiful things. It is a biting analysis, and revolutionary for itstime; Harwood points out the significance of women's labour inthe creation of men's work some years before second-wave feminismwould do the same. (9)

The situation of the woman who has herown artistic aspirations is explored in Harwood's so-called"suburban" poems, in which the wife, and not the husband,is the would-be artist. (10) With no wife of her own to clean thefloors, provide emotional sustenance or offer up parts of herself forconsumption, the woman in poems like "Suburban Sonnet" and"Burning Sappho" struggles to sustain any kind of identityas a poet or musician. Indeed, Norman Talbot identifies the"housewife" of such poems as a "winter, ordefeated-artist, image" ("Truth Beyond" 254). Yetthese women are not defeated--not quite. The housewife in"Suburban Sonnet" continues to practice her fugue, eventhough it seems utterly pointless in her present life for her to playwell. The frustrated poet in "Burning Sappho" continues towrite. Even the writer in "Lip Service," who begins byvowing to cut out her own core (11) so that she can
 
   serve the mild
   Fruit of myself to fill the needs
   Of husband and importuning child 


repudiatesthis self-mutilation in the poem's climax. For her, cutting outher "core" means cutting out the "restless"part of her that "wrestles with words," thus transformingthe Angst-ridden writer into the contented housewife. But when this isdone, she stares into the mirror and realises that she does notrecognise herself. The last lines of the poem suggest that to deformoneself in this way is an unforgivable self-betrayal.

Yet theproblem of how to accommodate one's recalcitrant"core" in a life in which there is no place for it remainsunsolved. It is this restless part of the self that challenges thesecurity, and even the happiness, of the "lovely woman."In "Burning Sappho," this suppressed, inner self findsexpression--and it is murderously angry. In this poem, a woman tries allday to find a few moments to write but is thwarted at every turn by thedemands of her child, friends and household. When, in the quiet evening,she finally sits down with her pen, she is compelled yet again to meetsomeone else's needs: "My husband calls me, rich in peace,to bed." Though she smilingly complies, she is boiling withrage:
 
   In my warm thighs a fleshless devil
   chops him to bits with hell-cold evil. 


This"fleshless devil" is the close kin of the"monster" and the "fiend" who appear inearlier stanzas, threatening harm to child and importuning friend. He isdemonic, performing voodoo on a toddler, pouring "prussicacid" on the visiting Rector, chopping a man to bits. Yet he isalso justified, in the terms of the poem, which cries out in its veryform and structure that this woman, this unsung Sappho, has a right tobe a poet, and that those who fail to recognise this right deserve theirfate.

Nevertheless, the demon, though evoked, is notunleashed. Burning Sappho does not go on the rampage and destroy thoseshe has bound herself to protect in order to carve out some time forherself. Instead, she swallows her impatience, does what she is requiredto do, and waits it out, finally snatching some time to write fromsleep. Harwood's letters suggest that this was her strategy, too.Angry as she often felt at being so completely at the service of theneeds and desires of others, and as convinced as she was that hercalling to be a poet deserved to be respected, she was not prepared tobecome a monster--which is how she saw the woman who turned her back onher roles as housewife and mother in order to serve the Muse. Further,she felt the need--intermittently, at least--to hide her anger."One of my troubles is recurrent respectability," shetells her friend Edwin Tanner in a 1962 letter. "I have fits ofit (unpredictable) and wish I had never written a line but had stayedmaking pies in the kitchen. A lot of good savage work gets destroyed inthese moods." (12) The opposition in Harwood's mindbetween writing poetry and keeping house could not be clearer: thepie-making housewife is "respectable," the poet"savage." This self-division causes an almost intolerableambivalence which leads to the disastrous scenario in which she firstdestroys her own work and then regrets its destruction.

Whenshe did not destroy but rather published her "savage"work, she sometimes regretted that, too. As Susan Sheridan has pointedout, Harwood did not like the idea of writing "poem[s] ofcomplaint" (149), and never felt comfortable with her"suburban" poems. "Suburban Sonnet,""Lip Service" and "Burning Sappho" were allattributed to Harwood's pseudonym, Miriam Stone, while the famous"In the Park" was supposedly the work of Walter Lehmann.After "Burning Sappho" was first published in 1962,Harwood withdrew it from a proposed anthology. She also chose to excludeit from her first book in 1963. In a letter to Tanner from that time,she asks if he knows the poem (a typescript of which she is sendinghim), and adds: "Please don't show it to Bill, it mighthurt his feelings. I did publish it in the Bully, but will leave it outof my collection. Too nasty." (13)

"Bill" was, of course, Harwood's husband. Whenshe did finally republish the poem in her second book in 1968, shealtered it slightly to remove the "fleshless devil"between the speaker's thighs who chops her husband to bits (theoriginal lines were restored in the CollectedPoems, published after Harwood's death). (14) Again and again,Harwood's letters show that in her mind, meeting her own needs asa poet would mean neglecting the needs of others--and thus becoming"monstrous" herself. "I am fighting for time atpresent, never seem to have an hour or two to compose myself,"she tells Tanner in a 1961 letter. "I need to have silence. Butit's too unpleasant for the family if I take what I need."(15) Ten years later, working full-time as a medical secretary as wellas doing the bulk of the household labour, she would make very much thesame complaint:
 
   I am defeated not by the grandeurs & miseries of time but
   simply by the necessary housework; [...] I get tired, and as I
   have to go to work it is necessary to sleep. [...] The only
   solution is a kind of selfishness I'm not capable of. (16)


The adjectives are telling: nasty, unpleasant,selfish. They are all highly pejorative, and all designate a potentialfailure on her part to meet the needs of others.

It isevident in letters across thirty years that Harwood experienced enormousinner conflict around this question of how to meet her own needs as apoet while not neglecting the needs of her family. "[Children]need a whole-hearted mother, not a half-hearted poet," she toldWilliams in 1988 of her decades-long submersion in motherhood--though atthe time she had raged in letters to Tanner at the loss of poems she didnot have time to write, and insisted that her own"talents" were just as valuable as those of her children.In the 1970s, she would adopt a feminist perspective--though only everin private--to explain her own incapacity to turn her back on others:"Women [...] (at least of my generation) have to escape theirconditioning," she tells Tanner in 1973, adding that "ithas taken me many years to accept my own gifts (some of them have beendestroyed)." (17) Even at this point, the"acceptance" she speaks of is by no means aswell-established as her statement seems to imply. As late as the 1990s,she would bemoan the strength of her early conditioning: "I wishI could/ be mad and selfish" she says, in one of her occasionalpoems, but "It's no good": her early training wassuch that even in her seventies, she still felt compelled to"rise early and pay every bill" (CP 447-48).

Harwood's conviction that to do what she wanted--to followher own desire to be an artist, and to carve out time for that--was"selfish" and even "mad" was deeply rooted.But at the same time, she believed that such selfishness was essentialto the "true" artist--that if she was to write the greatwork she believed herself capable of, she had to be ruthless."There's a sense in which an artist has to beunmarried, absolutely self-sufficient, alone with his impossible visions,"she tells Tanner. (18) Despite her marital status, she identified withthis solitary figure, wrestling with his demons. In her autobiographicalessay "Lamplit Presences," Harwood recasts thepoet-versus-lovely-woman debate in these terms. "I said once toVincent Buckley, when we were discussing the tension in a poet betweenwhat he can do easily and what the demon urges him to attempt, 'Iwould rather have been happy/" she writes. "He replied,'But happiness can preclude the greatest joys.'"She adds that: "If you are to be a poet you must immerse yourselfin the shades, accept your own death, before you can praise the worldand make some answer to the powers that will grind you small whether youchallenge them or not" (254). In this formulation, it is"the demon" who urges the poet to go beyond what is"easy," and thus into the realms of true art--and it isthis very urging that makes happiness impossible. If Harwood werecontent with what she could do easily--what she could dash off, perhaps,in the pre-dawn hours after a hectic day of childcare and housework--shecould settle comfortably into the identity of the "lovelywoman." But she is goaded towards what is difficult by the demon,who insists on not mere proficiency but greatness, and craves not meretepid happiness but sublime emotion. This idea that the artist lives ina realm of extremes, of not only ecstatic joys but also desperatesorrows, is a settled part of the Romantic ideal, which Harwood invokesin full force when she depicts the poet as engaged in a heroic battlewith "powers" that will "grind you small."From this unspeakable combat, the poet will ideally emerge with a songof praise on her lips--but only if she is prepared first to facelife's darkness.

This Harwood aspired to do; she sawherself, as she half-jokingly told Anne Lear, as "an upper-caseRomantic" (11). She was willing to go down into the shades--butonly if she could be home in time to cook the tea. In other words, shewanted to honour her inner Romantic artist, but was determined that thismust not entail neglecting her roles as housewife and mother. She hadwithin herself, she believed, a poet every bit as single-minded andarrogant and demanding and contemptuous of others as theDichter of her early poem. "There is a savage, nasty part lurkingsomewhere down there," she told John Beston in a 1975 interview(88). This is the "demon" who, in "BurningSappho" would readily butcher her nearest and dearest for someuninterrupted writing time. (19) But this "nasty part" wasalso "part of the kind mother too" (88). Neither identitycould entirely dominate, but nor could one entirely suppress or containthe other. It was an ongoing, seemingly irresolvable conflict, playingout across a number of related dichotomies: artist versus mother,monstrous woman versus "lovely woman," serious poet versus"lady poet," sublime being versus happy housewife. Harwoodidentified to some extent with both terms in each dichotomy, yet feltshe must choose between them.

The extent to which this innerdrama is played out in Harwood's poetry is suggested in a 1961letter to Tanner in which she quotes her own poems to explain her stateof mind. "You know, sometimes I feel my talent to be entirelyhateful," she writes, and immediately adds: "Bill hatesit." She goes on:
 
   Sometimes it is agony for me to be in labour with a poem, you
   know how it is: I must speak the truth & the truth is
terrible--see
   "the ripe waste of my heart's decay" and
"the ageing
   choir-boy face" and know the power
      indifferent
      to any lost or ill
      motion of mind or will
   and wish myself rid of the gift that tears me apart. (20)


The "ripe waste of his heart'sdecay" is from "Group from Tartarus," a poem inwhich Harwood's character Professor Eisenbart, a cold andarrogant scientist, is forced to confront his own inner emptiness. The"ageing choir-boy face" is from "I am the Captainof My Soul"--and in private life, one of Harwood'sfavourite descriptions of herself. The power "indifferent/to anylost or ill/motion of mind or will" is from an early poem,"Alter Ego," which describes an "other self"which haunts the poet, implacable, indifferent to her desires, waitingher out in order to have its way at last. Each poem evokes a double lifeof some kind. In "Group from Tartarus," it is anadulterous affair, to whose devastating passion Professor Eisenbartbecomes an unwilling witness. In "I am the Captain of mySoul," it is the secret life of the "soul," who issupposedly in charge of the "ship" of the self butactually has no place within it. In "Alter Ego," thedynamic is reversed: the "self" is steered against her ownwishes and even desires by some secret but all-powerful part of herwhose will determines her fate. Each poem expresses a sense of powerfuland unresolvable inner conflict--a manifestation, Harwood'sletter suggests, of her "gift" for poetry, which istearing her apart.

"I am the Captain of MySoul" is, as John Beston puts it, a poem of the "dividedself" (87). (21) The title is taken from the 1888 poem"Invictus" by William Henley, which declares the supremacyof will in the face of fate. Harwood's poem turns Henley'supside down, declaring in the first line that "the Captain isdrunk" and the ship careering wildly out of control. In the faceof Henley's assertion of a stable, inward point of being whichsteers a life with steady certainty, regardless of externalcircumstances, Harwood introduces a wildly maudlin, half-mad inner selfwho threatens to wreck the ship of the self at any moment. JenniferStrauss argues that the poem dramatises "the potentiallydisastrous results of allowing dominance to the will, the very facultywe need to exercise in making and executing our choices"(Boundary Conditions 52). The Captain, she writes, seeks to ignore or override"impediments or contesting desires," including "thebody which is the site of both" (55)--and thus comes undone. Iwould argue, however, that the poem dramatises the fate not so much ofthe will as of the artist-soul--understood in Romantic terms--subsumedwithin a woman's life. The Captain is drunk, bitter andgrief-stricken because he is unable to take control of the ship, tosteer his life in the direction he would like it to go. Instead, he is aslave to his womanhood (pronouns falter here), which, for all the sweetconsolations it offers him, is not free. For his is, specifically, amother's body. "I have children," Body tells theCaptain:
 
   I grew gross with their stress, I went spinning
   in a vortex of pain. I gave my breast
   and its beauty to nourish their heedless growth. 


It is also, arguably, Harwood's own body, with its"choir-boy face," its piano-playing hands and itspoet's vision of Venetian beauty. (22) Each aspect of thiswoman's life in turn tries to convince the Captain that hers is alife worth having, but the Captain is not persuaded: the choir-boy faceis "ageing," the pianist's dexterity is"facile," the poet's visions of beauty are"hallucinations." He--and they--are lost in a"wilderness of water," and there is nothing to be done butdrink and sing.

In the much later poem "Iris,"a woman sits in the yacht her husband has built and stares out at thewater, seized by a sudden despair:
 
   Beyond habit, household, children, I am I.
   Who knows my original estate, my name?
   Give me my atmosphere, or let me die. 


Her cryis, I would argue, another manifestation of the furious grief andbewilderment of the Captain, stranded in a life which somehow excludeshim. "Habit, household, children" in the later work arethe pleas of "hands, eyes, body" in the earlierwork--repudiated in both. In neither poem is there any answer, anysolution or resolution. The Captain must be contained, or he will wreckthe ship and drown them all; the woman must take her husband'shand, accept the life she has helped to build, or sink beneath thewaters. In both cases it is a matter of life or death.

Yetthe banished artist-figure remains a disturbing presence. "I amthe Captain of my Soul" prefigures another of Harwood'spoems of self-division, "Night Thoughts: Baby and Demon,"which Strauss calls "the last of Harwood's bravuradialogues of the divided self" (BoundaryConditions 156). This poem, written in the early 1970s, (23) brings out thecomplexity of the "monstrous poet"/ "lovelywoman" divide--and, more, of the poet's emotionalinvestment in both sides of the dichotomy. In this poem, there are twodistinct voices, (24) each with its own specific cadences. In theopening stanzas, "Demon" tells "Baby" he issick unto death and asks her to nurse him from her breast. InHarwood's own gloss on the poem, she says that Baby is the"simple human creature" while Demon is the"censoring artist" (SS 299). As the poem itself insists,the two personae are twins, "Born under the same sign/ after someclassic rape"; they are mother and child, and also partners in anincestuous marriage, eternally bound together in "Sickness andhealth."

From the beginning, the dynamic between thetwo recalls that of the poet and his wife in"Dichterliebe the poet "sucks" down his lover's "sap andvigour," while the woman offers him solace and service. In thefirst three stanzas, Baby soothes the supposedly dying Demon and agreesto take over his role as poet. She then begins to speak of love inrhyming couplets, using the classic rhythms of iambic pentameter to tellthe story of two lovers who meet in a "shabby beachmotel." Her poetry is sensitive, the language nuanced and attimes exalted as she describes how her lover's "bravurahand/ chimed me to shores beyond time's rocking swell."But before long, Demon breaks in, using the language and rhythm ofnursery rhymes to undercut Baby's carefully constructedsong:
 
   Rock-a-bye Baby
   in the motel
   Baby will kiss
   and Demon will tell. 


Baby persists, writingmore earnest, philosophical, sweetly romantic couplets, butDemon's wildly discordant voice keeps trumping in. The more Babytries to create a conventional romantic idyll, the more insistentlyDemon disrupts it. Against Baby's "voluptuously crumpledsheet," "rose-dark silence" and "grandeclipse," he sets images of corruption, abandonment anddegradation. Baby is not a tender lover contemplating her beloved bycandlelight but "a rocker/ lost on the shore"; she is notthe grand lover of all the ages but a "whore." Finally,Demon breaks into a wild parody of Burns's "A Red, RedRose" in which Baby, far from being a beauteous flower"newly sprung in June," is "an empty beach/that's ravished by the tide."

Demon'spoem is a virtuoso performance, orgiastic in its growing violence, andBaby is silenced. Demon gloats over her, promising to "drink[her] juices dry, my dear" and "grind [her] bones tosand." It is the dynamic of"Dichterliebe" once more--the poet feasting upon the woman--but in this poem, the malepoet and his female lover are both aspects of the same self. The demonicartist-self stalks the "ordinary" human self, absorbingher every move and turning her love and pain into his own extraordinarypoetry. Like the Dichter, Demon daubs his finger-paintings withBaby's heart's blood. There is no escape for Baby; once hehas destroyed her, he brings her back to life so that he can destroy herall over again:
 
   [I'll] sift you through my hand, my dear,
   and find you grain by grain,
   and build your body bone by bone
   and flesh those bones again,
   with flesh from all your loves, my love [...] 


He ends by exalting in his power over her, her knowledge that she"never shall escape/ however fast [she flies]." Thepoem's last lines suggest that no matter what other loves she mayhave, her ultimate love, her only true love, will always be him:"Be sure I'll have your heart, my love,/ when all yourloving's done."

In the terms Harwood herselfsets up, this poem records the triumph of the inner artist, there-dedication of the self to art. But the sheer horror of the work, itsnightmarish, destructive, demonic power, suggests that this is more of adefeat than a victory. Kind, sensitive, thoughtful Baby is destroyed,25while sardonic, obsessive, dangerously out-of-control Demon isunleashed. The poem's loathing for Demon--even as it records histriumph--is the correlative, I would argue, of Harwood'sstatements in letters about her "hateful" poetic talent.It brings with it nothing but misery for her"lovely-woman" self, as this poem dramaticallyillustrates. The demonic artist-self is ferociously male, and grinds tosand all the traditionally feminine aspects of life: love, family,nurturance.

Yet his victory is not entirely a matter forregret. The abusive, possessive love the poem depicts resonatesstrongly, once again, with the Romantic ideal: it is very much of theHeathcliff-and-Cathy type. It has nothing in common with the"respectable" love of the "lovelywoman"--and despite her own "respectability," itseems to have held a certain appeal for Harwood. In a 1973 letter toTanner urging him to pursue a love affair, she actually adoptsDemon's voice, quoting from "Baby and Demon" as sheexhorts him to "drink [her] juices dry, my dear,/ and grind [her]bones to sand" (SS 284)--as though Demon's murderous mode of love was highlydesirable. Not only that but the "truth" to which Demonseems to aspire is also, arguably, the "terrible truth"Harwood herself felt compelled--but also forbidden--to speak. It is thekind of truth that, as she puts it in another poem, "will dashyour teeth out"--the kind that sees in Burns's grandpassion a stalkerish obsession and in Baby's great love only atawdry affair.

In her own discussion of the poem, Harwoodsays that the rhyming couplets Baby uses to describe her love affair are"a parody of my formal style" (SS 299). This suggests thatHarwood aligns her own poetry not with the artist persona in the poembut with the "lovely woman"--the "simple humancreature" Baby represents. If Harwood-as-poet is Baby in thisscenario, it would seem that Harwood sees her poetry as largely that"easy" work of which she speaks so slightingly in"Lamplit Presences"--as opposed to the difficult work the"demon" urges her to attempt. The implication seems to bethat she needs the vicious, excoriating presence of Demon--one of those"powers that will grind you small"--to write the greatworks that will break her out of the formal perfection of her style tothe "terrible" truth.

To some degree, I thinkHarwood did believe that great art was necessarily difficult andpainful--indeed, agonising--and thus could not be the province of the"lovely woman," whose role is chiefly to soothe and charmand console. "Night Thoughts" suggests that the poet mustin fact destroy the "lovely woman" in order to write thetruth. And yet both voices are present in this poem--Baby's, withher beautiful, orderly couplets, and that of the evil, rampaging,sing-song Demon. They find no kind of rapprochement here, but in a laterpoem, the terms of the dichotomy are re-cast yet again. "Dorothy,Reading in Hobart" is part of a sequence Harwood wrote forDorothy Hewett, whom she met in the early 1970s. It begins byapostrophising Hewett as "Lustrous angel," but could justas easily call her "Demon." Like Harwood's Romanticartist-figure, Hewett comes "out of Tartarus singing/ the worstof truth in [her] voice of shadow." Hewett's truth isurgent: "the last tram/ you have to catch,/ and straphang, or notget home." It is unwelcome: the "watchman running to KingDavid/ with news to weep at." It is unpleasant: a "motelroom where nymphs and satyrs/ howl for nembutal." It is violent:it "will dash out our teeth." Yet though the territory ofHewett's "Angel" is very much that ofHarwood's "Demon," this poem is not a litany ofhorrors, like "Night Thoughts," but a paean of praise.When the "lustrous angel" speaks the truth, juices are notsucked and bones are not ground. The only destruction is that of the oldconventions that held the "lovely woman" in herplace:
 
   A woman still as a Dutch painting
   takes her pen, the old-gold light
   cracks itself to mirror-splinters. 


Thereference is to Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott,"who was condemned never to look at the world directly but instead toweave her tapestry from reflections in a mirror. Hewett herself mademuch use of Tennyson's poem in her work, so Harwood'sallusion is a kind of tribute to Hewett's construction of herselfas the Lady who left the tower. But the real significance of this poemis its depiction of a true artist--that is, a truth-teller, inHarwood's terms--as neither "Demon" nor"Angel" but "woman." Harwood seems to beimagining at least the possibility of woman as artist--speaking theRomantic truth without needing to butcher her "simplehuman" self to do it. She is gesturing beyond the seeminglyeternal division between the "lovely woman" and the"demonic" artist.
 
                            ***** 


"It's hard enough to be a poet," Harwood wroteto Tanner in 1973. "[T]o be a woman too--old Nobodaddy must belaughing his head off." (26) It is easy to underrate the effecton a poet of having no antecedents--or, at least, very few--of the samesex. (27) Harwood's letters suggest that in the early 1960s, shewas genuinely unsure whether women were even physically capable of beinggreat artists.

In a 1961 letter to Vincent Buckley, she saysthat she is afraid that "women's creative span"coincides with "their natural reproductive years," andthus that when she reaches menopause, she will find she can no longerwrite. (28) She adds that she has discussed her fears with Jim McAuley,who, far from assuring her that there was no reason why sheshouldn't go on producing good poems into old age, told her thatit wouldn't matter if she stopped writing as it was much betterto "bring persons to maturity than poems." McAuley seemsto have been a strong advocate of the "lovely woman,"telling Harwood on another occasion that it was "better thatpoems should be unwritten if their cost is the least unkindness"(SS 136). The irony of this view coming from one of the architects of theErn Malley hoax seems to have been lost on Harwood, who repeatedMcAuley's advice approvingly in interviews.

In theabsence of a critical mass of respected female peers and role-models,(29) Harwood was very much at the mercy of such views. (30) For thisreason, I think it is impossible to overstate the importance of theappearance on the Australian poetry scene from the 1970s onwards ofwomen like Dorothy Hewett--and other friends of Harwood such as FayZwicky and Judith Rodriguez. Their very existence must have helped tochallenge the idea that the artist must always be dangerous in awoman's form--that if given its head, her inner-artist would turninto a demon and destroy everything she cherished. But this belief, bornof the Romantic idea of the artist, had deep roots. Harwood'spoems of the divided self seem to enact to some degree the conflict herletters expound between her desire to be a "lovely woman,"a wife and mother whose life is "woven in other lives,"and her desire to be an artist. This conflict was not solely, or even,perhaps, primarily, a psychic one: as a "housewife,"Harwood faced material obstacles in the form of constant demands on hertime and energy as well as social and cultural ones in the form of alack of interest in and support for her identity as an artist.Nevertheless, the psychic conflict is perhaps the most evident in herpoetry. Both letters and poems suggest that Harwood was at times stymiedby the seemingly eternal divide between the "lovely woman"and the artist, afraid to unleash her inner "demon," yetsuffering great anguish when she suppressed its anarchic energy. Thisinner conflict led, as she admits, to her sometimes destroying"good, savage work." But it did not keep her silent. Overher long career, she was able to find not just one voice but many withwhich to give poetic form to the very conflict that threatened tosilence her.

Works Cited

Quotations from Gwen Harwood's unpublished correspondenceare from the Alison Hoddinott (UQFL332) and Gwen Harwood papers (UQFL45)held by the Fryer Library at the University of Queensland, and thePapers of Vincent Buckley 1952-1986 (MS 7289, Series 1, Folders 1-3) andDorothy Hewett (MS 6184 Series 1, Box 1, Folder 7) held by the NationalLibrary of Australia.

Beston, John. "An Interview withGwen Harwood." Quadrant 19.7 (1975): 84-88. Print.

Hale, Carl S."Psychological Characteristics of the Literary Genius[Abstract]." Journal of HumanisticPsychology, 35.3 (1995): 113-34.

Harwood, Gwen. CollectedPoems: 1943-1995. Eds. Alison Hoddinott and Gregory Kratzmann. St Lucia: U of QueenslandP, 2003. Print.

--."Lamplit Presences."Southerly 40.3 (1980): 247-54. Print.

--.A Steady Storm ofCorrespondence: Selected Letters of Gwen Harwood 1943-1995. St Lucia: U of Queensland P, 2001. Print.

Kelso, Julie."Representing Mothers." Hecate 32.2 (2006): 4-20. Print.

Lawson, Elizabeth."'They Trust Me with the Axe': The Poetry of GwenHarwood." Poetry and Gender: Statements and Essays inAustralian Women's Poetry and Poetics. Ed. David Brooks and Brenda Walker. St Lucia: U of Queensland P, 1989.145-64. Print.

Lear, Anne. "Interview with GwenHarwood." SPAN 26 (1988): 1-11. Print.

Schwartz, Susan. "Between TwoDeaths: The Love Poetry of Gwen Harwood."Southerly 56.4 (1996-7): 234-48. Print.

Sheridan, Susan."Suburban Sonnets: 'Mrs Harwood,' Miriam Stone andDomestic Modernity." Australian LiteraryStudies 23.2 (2007): 140-52. Print.

Stanley, Liz. "Is ThereLife in the Contact Zone? Auto/Biographical Practices and the Field ofRepresentation in Writing Past Lives." RepresentingLives: Women and Auto/Biography. Ed. Alison Donnell and Pauline Polkey. Houndsmill: Macmillan, 2000.3-30. Print.

Strauss, Jennifer. BoundaryConditions: The Poetry of Gwen Harwood. St Lucia: U of Queensland P, 1992. Print.

--."She/You/I/It: Constructing Mothers and Motherhood in the Writingof Gwen Harwood." Southerly 52.1 (1992): 1-19. Print.

Talbot, Norman. "TruthBeyond the Language Game: The Poetry of Gwen Harwood."Australian Literary Studies 7.3 (1976): 241-58. Print.

--."Two Figures of theArtist: John Shaw Neilson and Gwen Harwood." SouthPacific Images. Ed. Chris Tiffin. St Lucia: South Pacific Association for CommonwealthLiterature and Language Studies, U of Queensland P, 1978.145-57.Print.

Williams, Barbara. "Interview with GwenHarwood." Westerly 33.4 (1988): 53-58. Print.

Woolf, Virginia. A Roomof One's Own and Three Guineas. Ed. Michele Barrett. London: Penguin, 1993. Print.

(1) Hereafter, A Steady Storm of Correspondence: SelectedLetters of Gwen Harwood 1943-1995 (ed. Gregory Kratzmann) is cited in the text asSS.

(2) The line is from her poem"Littoral," in which the poet insists that as a woman,"I choose my life, choose to be woven/ in other lives"(Collected Poems 187).

(3) These letters are soon to be published asIdle Talk (Brandi and Schlesinger), edited by Hoddinott.

(4)Conversation with Alison Hoddinott, 20 February 2015.

(5) Forexample, in one letter she includes her own name in a list of"lovely girls" at a party, who were distinguished by beingogled by Alec Hope (to Alison Hoddinott, 15 Oct 1961, UQFL332, Box 1,Folder 1), and in another speaks of wearing her "lovely-girldress" to a university party (to AH, 20 Dec 1961, UQFL332, Box 1,Folder 1). In this second letter, she also speaks of "lovelymen," whom she finds irresistible.

(6) The draft is inHarwood's blue Prescriber's Journal (UQFL45, Box 29) andseems to date from the early 1990s.

(7) As Hoddinott andKratzmann point out in their notes for the CollectedPoems, "Dichterliebe" ("the poet's love")is also the name of a Schumann song cycle based on a series of poems byHeinrich Heine, "which tell of the tragic love of a young poetfor a faithless girl" (574). All quotations from Harwood poemsare from the Collected Poems.

(8)Lawson notes that Harwood mockingly equates the"sensitivity" of the poet in"Dichterliebe" with "infant demand-feeding" (152).

(9)Writing of Harwood"s use of "domestic" material inher poems of the early 1960s, Susan Sheridan comments that it"may be hard to credit how disfavoured such subjects were in the 50s and 60s, when high modernismdisdained the popular and the domestic" (150).

(10)Sheridan has described Harwood's "suburban poems of theearly 1960s" as concerned with "the plight of creativewomen imprisoned in social definitions of the housewife and mother.These poems are structured around violent contrasts between thewoman's past aspirations and hopes for love and creativity, andthe distractions and demands of her present life as the houseboundmother of small children" (145).

(11) Harwood uses thesame phrase in the 1961 letter to Vincent Buckley cited above: "Iwish I could be cored like an apple" (SS 136).

(12) 21August 1962 (UQFL45, Box 6, Folder 21).

(13) Undated (UQFL45,Box 6, Folder 21). The poem was published in theBulletin, 84 no. 4297 (23 June 1962): 61, with the pseudonym of MiriamStone.

(14) Having been republished in her 1968 collection,the poem was then omitted from the Selected Poems of 1975. Talbot points out that all the Miriam Stone poems were omittedfrom the Selected except "Suburban Sonnet" ("Truth Beyond"252).

(15) 20 Feb 1961 (UQFL45, Box 6, Folder 21).

(16) 27 April 1971 (UQFL45, Box 6, Folder 21).

(17) 13April 1973 (UQFL45, Box 6, Folder 21).

(18) 13 April 1973(UQFL45, Box 6, Folder 21).

(19) Strauss argues that"Burning Sappho" embodies the "savage, nastypart" of Harwood ("She/I/you/it" 159).

(20) 5 September 1961 (UQFL45, Box 6, Folder 21).

(21)Strauss also refers to this poem as a "drama of the dividedpsyche" ("She/I/you/it" 156).

(22) Inaddition to the "choir-boy face," Harwood herself was apianist, and the marble fan described in the poem is something herfriend Vivian Smith saw "with his poet's eyes" (CP578). Strauss raises the possibility that the poem represents "anautobiographical psychic debate in which the Captain represents thepoet's own animus or masculine principle, contending with reasons for living which, whilecapable of sustaining generalised significance, are quite specific tothe poet's own circumstances and preoccupations"(Boundary Conditions 57).

(23) It was first published in 1975 in Harwood'sthird volume, Selected Poems, but seems to have been written by 1973, as Harwood cites it in a letterof that year to Tanner.

(24) Strauss argues that there arethree (Boundary Conditions 157), while Talbot sees only one ("Two Figures").

(25) As Schwartz puts it, ""Baby" is victim,lover and ghost, figures associated with Gothic romance"(242).

(26) 26 Sept 1973 (UQFL45, Box 6, Folder 21).

(27) Virginia Woolf did not, of course, pointing out in ARoom of One's Own that "we think back through our mothers if we are women"(69).

(28) 26 September 1961 (MS7289/1/1, NLA).

(29) There were other women poets publishing in the 1950s and1960s, but they were not necessarily well-regarded by male critics andpoets, as Harwood's anxiety around the term "ladypoet," evident in her letters at this time, suggests.

(30) She did challenge the idea that a woman's creative lifewas over at menopause, however, writing to Riddell in 1960 that"[Women] seem to have a kind of second flowering in theirforties: when the children are no longer eating them alive," andgiving several examples of friends whose art has become more seriousrather than less in this phase of their lives (SS 98).
COPYRIGHT 2014 Hecate Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2014 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Priest, Ann-Marie
Publication:Hecate
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Nov 1, 2014
Words:8476
Previous Article:Fragments of a Life in Letters: The Elusive Gwen Harwood.
Next Article:Gender in Purple Threads: An Interview with Jeanine Leane.
Topics:

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters