An inside look at the tumultuous life of one of our fiercest poets

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An inside look at the tumultuous life of one of our fiercest poets

By Morag Fraser

BIOGRAPHY: My Tongue Is My Own, A Life of Gwen Harwood, Ann-Marie Priest, Black Inc Books $37.99

Gwen Harwood’s legacy from her prescient grandmother, Maud Jaggard, was the gift of noticing, and a capacity for delight.

Gwen Harwood at home in Tasmania in 1978.

Gwen Harwood at home in Tasmania in 1978.

“Now remember this,” Maud would say, “you won’t see such a thing again,” and she’d point to an odd shaped cloud. Once, it was the total eclipse of the sun. Years later, Harwood recalled the experience precisely – Thursday, September 1922: “I can remember the apocalyptic light and the glimmer of the corona through smoked glass, and the birds all going to rest.”

The memory is a distillation of all the poetry that was to come.

My Tongue Is My Own, A Life of Gwen Harwood by Ann-Marie Priest.

My Tongue Is My Own, A Life of Gwen Harwood by Ann-Marie Priest.

Ann-Marie Priest, author of this comprehensive biography (the first) of the poet, traces much of Harwood’s energy and spirit back to her grandmother’s early adjurations: “All her life she would believe that moments of beauty, pleasure and human connection, no matter how fleeting, had a life-transforming power.”

For Priest, one hopes there were comparable moments of transforming joy in her research and writing about this mercurial woman, this “trickster-poet” of multiple personae and noms-de-plume, because the obstacles in Priest’s path were formidable – briar-patch entanglements of mutable personality and spousal sensitivities. They had defeated earlier aspirant biographers, including Priest’s dedicatees, Alison Hoddinott and the late Gregory Kratzmann (who did, however, each publish volumes of Harwood’s letters, and together edited her 2003 Collected Poems.)

During her life Harwood herself was alternately encouraging and ambivalent. “Little to tell,” she would tease. “I’ve never climbed higher than 1270 metres or been out of Australia or divorced or psychoanalysed or pursued by a bear.”

What she had done, by the time of her death in 1995, was write more poems (and libretti) than anyone had reckoned, and of a quality and blazing intensity that finally earned her national and international acclaim. Peter Porter, reviewing her Collected Poems for the Times Literary Supplement in 2003, evinced no surprise when he wrote: “Gwen Harwood turns out to be the most accomplished poet the country produced in the twentieth century.”

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Born in Brisbane in 1920, Gwendoline Nessie Foster grew up in a confident, entrepreneurial family where music and social engagement were prized. While her parents competed in duets, 10-year-old Gwen took piano lessons and dreamed of the concert platform. Schooling left its scars; a compensation was an enduring attachment to her visual arts teacher, Vera Cottew: “From the day I walked into her studio… my way of looking at the natural world was reformed.”

Gwen bypassed university, fell in and out of love, entered a convent, left, began – and sustained – passionate friendships and correspondence, notably with naval lieutenant Thomas (Tony) Liddell.

She was 40 before she learned to drive, and never travelled overseas.

Her Brisbane life closed with war’s end and Gwen’s marriage to naval lieutenant Frank William (Bill) Harwood. Harwood was introduced to Gwen by Tony Liddell. The Harwoods moved to Tasmania (“exile” as Gwen, in pained mood, would call it). They settled in Hobart, Bill to an academic position in linguistics and Gwen to motherhood (four children) and huswifery, which she undertook with energy and satirised with zest (“playing the stately flower of female fortitude” when “Burning Sappho seems a more desirable role.)

She was 40 before she learned to drive, never travelled overseas and ventured out of Tasmania only when literary prizes and grants made mobility affordable.

But nothing, not the domestic role ordained for women post-World War II or her husband’s strictures (the Harwood marriage is the biography’s unresolved conundrum) could have trammelled up the fierce poetic energies that drove Gwen Harwood. All of her tumultuous life – her many loves (“polyamorous”, Priest calls her), her obsessions and affinities (music, Ludwig Wittgenstein), her acute eye for the shifting, symbolic moods of the natural world and its denizens – was sieved through a ferocious intellect and transmuted into poetry.

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The “zany gamin girl” whose demise she once lamented in correspondence with Tony Riddell was reanimated in Harwood’s toying with Australia’s literary establishment. But even as she gamed editors with her nom de plume submissions and her infamous acrostic (“F--- all editors” spelled out in the first letters each line of a poem submitted by ‘Walter Lehmann’ to The Bulletin), she made friends of many (not all) of her targets, aware herself of human vanity, human frailty.

Read this meticulous biography with Harwood’s poetry in hand, and chase down every poem Priest cites. Savour but don’t get snagged in the fugal complexities of an ardent life (thank God we still know so little about Shakespeare). It is the poetry that licenses our curiosity, and will be the poetry that ultimately satisfies it.

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