Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 27, 2019

The Heart’s Ground, a Life of Anne Elder, by Julia Hamer

In 1956. in a letter to her friend Jonet Wilkie, the Melbourne poet Anne Elder (1918-1976) wrote:

Convey deep appreciation to your mother for her remarks in a letter to mine. She puts her finger right on the spot when she says writing verses is something which can still provide satisfaction almost to one’s dying breath.  It is something I have been puddling away at all my life, but only lately have grown confident enough to post them off.  I still get lots of knock-backs & don’t suppose I will ever get very far as I’m too simple minded & about 20 years behind the times as to style.  John [her husband] I suspect is secretly proud of my little successes, but goes cold with fury when he arrives home late at night & finds me with a glazed eye of composition & unwilling to spring up and boil the welcoming kettle.  I get bouts of scribbling which give way to other things more often than not. J. is away for a golfing weekend at the moment, terrified that I will take the opportunity to get out my exercise book & crouch by the fire till 4 a.m., and he won’t get any sense of gardening out of me for weeks.  (Anne Elder’s letter to friend Jonet Wilkie, 1956, quoted on page 189).

Ah, the difficulties of the creative life!  All over Australia and indeed the world, there have been and still are writers and poets and composers of music whose craft is invisible for much of its gestation.  And except for the soloists in a garret somewhere, most of these creatives live with people whose expectations of companionship inevitably mean interruptions.  I write, so does The Spouse these days, and when we were courting, he wrote musical arrangements.  (Both of us had day jobs, of course, to pay the bills).  Even though both of us understand that an interruption can mean that a barely formed idea can disappear forever, there are still times when…

[And would you believe it, the phone rang, completely disrupting my train of thought, just as I was writing that last line? I am not good at valuing my own writing enough to turn off the wretched thing.]

It’s not just women who have this problem.  I can think of an Australian author whose work I much admire, who writes his books in time between work and family life, and I can guess at the compromises that everyone makes for his books to hit the shelves.

The Heart’s Ground, Julia Hamer’s engaging biography of the dancer and poet Anne Elder, does not dwell on these problems, nor on the illness that plagued Anne Elder’s life.  Rather, Hamer focusses on a life of accomplishment which defied all expectations.  But she is interested in the wellsprings of creativity… the possibilities of genetic inheritance and family culture producing the talent and the mental focus, preoccupations and stamina that enabled Anne Elder to fulfil her creative drive.  And what part did her mental instability play in her creative life?

She was extremely emotionally labile at times, and in many situations very thin-skinned; but at the same time she had areas of toughness and was passionate and persistent in pursuing activities she loved. How much did the emotional highs and lows provoke her poetry?  Would she have been capable of entering into the deepest human experiences if she had not suffered anguish over her relations with other people and over the destructive acts that threatened her beloved spaces of natural beauty? In general, does the extremity of the mental disturbance produce an equivalent force in the work of the artist, and at what point might the disturbance rather hinder the work?  (p.xi)

In spite of difficulties that would have crushed a lesser person, Anne Elder had not one, but two careers in the arts. In the 1930s she was a dancer and soloist with the Borovansky Ballet Company which laid the foundations for the Australian Ballet which was formed later on.  The bio includes a reprint of Anne Elder’s tribute to Edouard Borovansky in Overland: this piece shows what a very fine writer she was as well as revealing a crucial part of Melbourne’s cultural history in the 20th century.  Because my music teacher Valda Johnstone was a young concert pianiste at this time, I am fascinated by the history of Melbourne’s emerging arts community in the 1920s and 30s, so I found this section of the bio fascinating.

But Anne gave up this career to have a family and turned to poetry, and despite her pessimism about the knock-backs, had two collections published: For the Record in 1972 by Hawthorn Press and (posthumously) Crazy Woman and Other Poems, in 1976 by Angus & Robertson.  Her poetry was also published in literary journals including Meanjin, Overland, Southerly and Westerly, and in newspapers including The Age and The Australian. Today her name is commemorated by the annual Anne Elder Award, administered until recently by the FAW (Fellowship of Australian Writers) and now by Poetry Australia.

In the Preamble to this biography, Hamer raises the perennial dilemmas that plague life writing, exacerbated in her case because Anne Elder was her aunt.

Being allowed into intimate details of people’s lives, though fascinating, is also a dilemma.  In particular, how much of my grandmother’s and my aunt’s illnesses, both mental and physical, their tortured responses to events and high states of hysteria, should I reveal to a wider public?  I was very much in two minds about writing revealingly of my grandmother Rèna, who was a more private person than Anne.

My instinct is for openness, and I am at one with Boswell’s idea of a certain beauty that lies in the whole truth about a human being.  One of the great values of biographies is what we learn from them about life in general: how it is for other people and how they cope with what they have been given.  In order to have a true picture, we need the detail.  However I am left with a lot of tenderness about my grandmother in particular, and have suppressed detail that was not necessary to my aunt’s story.  (p.x)

[This reminds me of the way some of the papers of Catherine Helen Spence vanished, because among them there were details that offended her literary executor.  I myself am of two minds about this: why should the privacy of others be invaded because they happen to be a friend or relation to someone famous? OTOH what if the suppressed material is relevant and important for future researchers to know?  A dilemma indeed!

Julia Hamer has approached this dilemma frankly:

My feelings about some of the people in my mother’s family create another dilemma that occasionally makes a balanced account difficult.  Taking Rèna again as an example, she was someone I adored, and felt protective about as I got older; but I do now understand how troubling she could be and how much she must have distorted her children’s lives.  Concerning Anne herself, as a I child I had powerful mixed emotions about her.  I have tried to indicate those kinds of feelings at various spots so that the reader can allow for their influence on the writing. (p.xi)

My favourite parts of this bio are Anne Elder’s letters: she was an indefatigable correspondent, and her letters about her travels in Italy, Spain and the UK are a delight (especially since they are often about places I know).  She had a fine eye for detail, and included interesting snippets about, for example, retracing a trip to the UK with her sister April in 1933, when they even stayed in the same B&Bs.  She is fulsome about Scottish wool crafts, delighted by Beatrix Potter’s house, and ecstatic about the Bronte parsonage and her own identification with Emily Bronte, about whom she later wrote a long poem called ‘At Haworth’:

A name: incongruously mild
and maidenly, blown to me
across an exact century from birth
to birth too late for meeting.
But there are the moors
met at last and not misleading.
Still dark gold, I tell you, bronze
in the wind, high in the dark wind of evening
that plucks away a voice, a feather,
so that asking how you are faring
I catch it down.
You took them, the visiting pinions
that came at you once, twice, fierce,
awaited in the hours of stars
over the moors… (p.220)

The whole poem is included in The Bright and the Cold: Selected poems of Anne Elder also published by Lauranton Books, and it ends like this:

Emily
look, I am kneeling
sawing my wrists on the broken glass
of this stammering spring…
and on the words, in envy.

(Excerpt from ‘At Haworth’ in The Bright and the Cold, Selected Poems of Anne Elder, Lauranton Books, 2018, p.32)

Crazy Woman and Other Poems was published after Anne Elder died in 1976 aged only 58.  In her review for Contempa the late Judith Rodriguez (1936-2018) described Anne Elder’s poetry as dark…

‘Her world is dark, and in its turbulence the things of life strive according to their energies; artist and dancer violently, the tiny animal and fainting heart less strongly.  What consolation or hope can be offered, comes clouded with daily checks and mortality’. (Judith Rodriguez’s Review of Crazy Woman and Other Poems, cited on p.287)

… and certainly we can see from Julia Hamer’s biography that she was a troubled soul, but Les Harrop knew no uncertainty:

‘she is one of the best poets this country has produced over the last twenty years, and certainly among the handful of first-rate woman poets.’

Crazy Woman and Other Poems was highly commended in the 1977 National Book Council awards.

The biography is professionally produced and includes notes and a list of sources, an index, B&W grey-scale photos and a generous selection of Anne Elder’s poetry.

Author: Julia Hamer
Title: The Heart’s Ground, a Life of Anne Elder
Publisher: Lauranton Books, 2018, 313 pages
ISBN: 9780994250735 (pbk).
Review copy courtesy of Carmel Shute of Shute the Messenger

Available from Readings Bookstores and direct from Lauranton Books where you can also buy The Bright and the Cold: Selected poems of Anne Elder compiled by Catherine Elder ISBN: 9780994250742

 


Responses

  1. […] work of Anne Elder, the poet whose life is celebrated in The Heart’s Ground (see my review) has been reviewed by some of Australia’s most preeminent poets and she is mentioned in The […]

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  2. The bloody spouse eh! I was thickskinned enough to write software at home for years. Milly did everything else of course and if she was studying would start at 10 or 11 PM when no one (ie me) would disturb her.

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    • Ah well, we all do it to each other…

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  3. Shute the Messenger – haha, love it.

    I also loved her opening letter. Tonight I organised a little get together with my 2017 and 2018 litblogger mentees to meet each other. Funnily, poetry came up and one of them talked about the current “style” of poetry and how her style doesn’t meet it, so I loved her comment that “I still get lots of knock-backs & don’t suppose I will ever get very far as I’m too simple minded & about 20 years behind the times as to style.”

    I was trying to remember why I’d heard of Anne Elder and of course it was via the Anne Elder Award. I don’t think I’ve talked about it on my blog because I don’t do much about poetry, but I have read about her.

    I also love ballet! I’d love to read this but I know I won’t have the time so I’m glad to have read your post.

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    • I have two writing friends who write the kind of short stories that just aren’t edgy enough for today’s market, but they are jolly good reading all the same. You may remember that when I was looking for short stories to read with my father, that I wanted stories that weren’t about drugs and violence and didn’t have structures and narrators who were difficult to follow. I am sure there is a market for this kind of writing – I hesitate to call it old-fashioned because good writing should never go out of fashion. What I will say about the Elder poems is that I understood them: they were elegant and thoughtful but they resonated with me, and I think that some of them would be great with students.

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      • Yes, I was challenged looking for novels for my mother in law to read (and then audio versions) when her sight went. Novels that were written well but had straightforward story-lines as you say that weren’t violent and didn’t have a lot of explicit sex! (You can’t aways tell the latter from the back blurb I remember.)

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        • LOL yes, the sex. My dear old dad did not want his little girl reading sex scenes out loud!

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