Poetry Hero: Gwen Harwood

Katherine Gallagher on a poet often in disguise

There’s an element of virtuoso, of dancing on a pinhead, about Australian poet Gwen Harwood (1920-95):  

Language is not a perfect game,
and if it were, how could we play?
The world’s more than the sum of things
like moon, sky, centre, body, bed,
as all the singing masters know.

(from ‘Thought is Surrounded by a Halo’)

Intelligent and intense, her poetry twists and turns in a catch-me-if-you-can verbal chase. And there’s a whiff of the Furies too – edgy, persistent, the passionate drive for truth and justice. A long-time heroine of mine, Harwood deserves to be better known in the UK.

When I started writing poetry in Australia in the late 1960s, there were few role models for women poets. So it was interesting to discover, some time later, that Harwood had been writing under various masks, mostly male. As she said in a 1970 talk, “I like disguises, I like wigs and beards.” Her first poem was published in 1944, at around the same time as another poetry heroine of mine, Judith Wright, was illuminating women’s experience with her work. Harwood, by contrast, little heard of in the 1940s and ’50s, came to prominence only in 1961 after hoaxing a national literary magazine editor.

The struggle for visibility
By taking on pseudonyms, especially male ones, Harwood made strong feminist points at a time when women poets struggled for visibility. Although she continued writing her other poems, she didn’t come out from behind her masks for years. Her main pseudonyms were  Walter Lehmann, Francis Geyer and “young, anti-Vietnam protester” Timothy Kline. Her only female pseudonym, Miriam Stone, was particularly famous for the poem ‘Burning Sappho’, which attests to the tensions Harwood experienced as a poet and mother:

The child is fed, and sleeps. The dishes
are washed, the clothes are ironed and aired.
I take my pen. A kind friend wishes
to gossip while she darns her socks.
Scandal and pregnancies are shared.
The child wakes, and the Rector knocks.
Invisible inside their placid
hostess, a fiend pours prussic acid.

Harwood would later claim back her pseudonymous poems in various collections of her work.

Born Gwendoline Foster in 1920, she was educated in Brisbane, and moved to Tasmania with her husband F.W. Harwood when he took up an academic post in Hobart in 1945. The alienation she felt in venturing from sub-tropical Brisbane to cool Tasmania echoes poignantly through many poems. An edge of this alienation was an anger which she often deflected into her writing. Between 1945 and 1952, she had four children, publishing her first collection at age 43.

Described by the late Peter Porter, in his review of Harwood’s Collected Poems, 1943-1995, as “the outstanding Australian poet of the twentieth century”, Harwood is remarkably versatile, her poetry often formal, biting, philosophical, sharp, feminist, romantic, and possessing great musicality. Through it all, she remains a romantic, always hinting at the dark ironies in the gulf between ‘life’ and ‘art’. I’m sorry that I never met her – brilliant, enigmatic – a great poet to be read and remembered.

Katherine Gallagher’s Carnival Edge: New & Selected is published by Arc.

This article was published in Poetry News Winter 2011/12. To read other articles like it and enjoy the many other benefits of Poetry Society membership, join now. Remember it's cheaper to join online!

"What next? I recommend the excellent selection of Gwen Harwood’s poems, Mappings of the Plane: New Selected Poems, edited by her friends Gregory Kratzmann & Chris Wallace-Crabbe (Fyfield Books, Carcanet Press, 2009)."
– Katherine Gallagher