Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 2, 2020

Vale Bruce Dawe (1930-2020)

It is with sadness that I share the news that the Australian poet Bruce Dawe, OA, PhD has died aged 90.

Dawe came from a working class background, but he rose to become one of our best-loved and most influential poets.

He was born in Fitzroy in 1930, (not the fashionable suburb it is now) and, the only one of four siblings to attend secondary school, was educated at Northcote High until at the age of 16, he went out to work.  He studied part-time to achieve Matriculation in 1953 while holding a succession of blue- and white-collar jobs, from labourer to factory hand to copy-boy at The Truth and The Sun News-Pictorial within a varied history of employment.

Dawe served in the RAAF from 1959 to 1968, where he transitioned from telegraphist to an education assistant.   He then began a teaching career in Toowoomba, and went on to become an academic with a distinguished career in Queensland universities.  He retired in 1993 and was awarded numerous honours including honorary doctorates from USQ in 1995 and UNSW in 1997.

Just recently I wrote about my love of Bruce Dawe’s poetry when I reviewed Poetry and Ideas, Text and Images, by Raffaella Torresan. His two poems in the chapter ‘Keep It In The Ground’ —’The Way to Chernobyl’ and ‘Going to the Ball’—reflect his abiding interest in environmental issues, but his collections reflect his social concerns as well.

Like thousands of young people across Australia, I came to his poetry first through his 1971 collection Condolences of the Season when it was a set text for secondary school students.  I don’t remember now which ones we studied, but this one had an enduring influence on my attitude towards modern media:

burial ceremony Hungary 1956-62

Bury them deep
under the muffling weight
of six years’ trivia

Heap over them
the shining excrement of those
who feed on forgetting.

Under the bright
inconsequence of headlines
shut them up good.

Under the recurring
tragedy of the football star’s
slipped cartilage,

Under the ticker-taped
processionals of beauty-queens, all
gloriously living,

Under the fretful barrage
of politicians breaking public wind
to ease the embarrassment

Of breathing when so many
better men lie
elsewhere breathless

Under the brute siesta
of nation-states where freedom
remains a quaint local custom…

(Condolences of the Season, Cheshire Publishing, 1971, ISBNL 0701513063, p.50-51)

It’s impossible not to connect the anger and grief which erupts in the rest of the poem with headlines from the tabloid newspapers where he worked at a copy boy.  I can’t imagine what he thought of the media landscape now, where even the ABC and the once venerable Age newspaper resort to tabloid and so-called lifestyle topics in order to lure a fractured readership…

Dawe’s poetry was always uniquely Australian yet it spoke to the experiences of a shared humanity:

the not-so-good earth (This is an allusion to the film of Pearl Buck’s novel The Good Earth, which is set during the Japanese advance on China in the 1930s.)

For a while there we had 25-inch Chinese peasant families
famishing in comfort on the 25-inch screen
and even Uncle Billy whose eyesight’s going fast
by hunching up real close to the convex glass
could just about make them out—the riot scene
in the capital city for example
he saw that better than anything, using the contrast knob
to bring them up dark—all those screaming faces
and bodies going under the horses’ hooves—he did a terrific job
on that bit, not so successful though
on the quieter parts where they’re just starving away
digging for roots in the not-so-good earth…. (p.55)

The ‘not-so-good earth’ is also included in the anthology in The Penguin Book of Australian Verse, along with ‘How to Go On Not Looking’, ‘Life Cycle’ and ‘A Victorian Hangman Tells His Love’ and ‘Homecoming.’

This is the beginning of ‘Life Cycle’, dedicated to Big Jim Phelan:

When children are born in Victoria
they are wrapped in the club-colours, laid in beribboned cots,
having already begun a lifetime’s barracking.

Car, they cry, Carn… feebly at first
while parents playfully tussle with them
for possession of a rusk: Ah, he’s a little Tiger!

(The Penguin Book of Australian Verse, edited by Harry Heseltine, Penguin, 1972, ISBN 0140421629, p.389)

Unfortunately there is none of Dawe’s poetry at the Australian Poetry Library. 

You can see his substantial body of work at Wikipedia:

  • Dawe, Bruce (1962). No fixed address : poems. Melbourne: Cheshire.
  • — (1965). A need of similar name. Melbourne: Cheshire.
  • An Eye for a Tooth (Cheshire, 1968)
  • Beyond the Subdivisions : Poems (Cheshire, 1969)
  • Heat-Wave. Melbourne (Sweeney Reed, 1970)
  • Condolences of the Season : Selected Poems (Cheshire, 1971)
  • Just a Dugong at Twilight: Mainly Light Verse (Cheshire, 1975)
  • — (1978). Sometimes gladness : collected poems, 1954-1978. Hawthorn, Vic.: Longman Cheshire.
  • Selected Poems. (London, Longman, 1984)
  • — (1986). Towards sunrise : poems, 1979-1986. Melbourne: Longman Cheshire.
  • — (1988). Sometimes gladness : collected poems, 1954-1987. Melbourne: Longman Cheshire.
  • This Side of Silence : Poems 1987–1990 (Longman Cheshire, 1990)
  • Mortal Instruments : Poems 1990–1995 (Longman, 1995)
  • A Poet’s People (South Melbourne, Addison Wesley Longman, 1998)
  • The Headlong Traffic : Poems and Prose Monologues 1997 to 2002 (Longman, 2003)
  • Towards a War: Twelve Reflections (Picaro Press, 2003)
  • Sometimes Gladness : Collected Poems, 1954–2005, 6th Edition (Longman Cheshire, 2006)
  • Blind Spots (Picaro Press, 2013)
  • Kevin Almighty (Picaro Press, 2013)
  • Border Security (UWA, 2016)

Bruce Dawe won awards too numerous to list here (see Wikipedia) but more importantly he won the hearts of Australians with his incisive, accessible, powerful poetry.

Update, the next day: thanks to a heads-up from Sue at Whispering Gums, here’s a link to an article about Dawe at The Conversation.  (I recommend turning the sound down (or off) before watching the video).

Sources:


Responses

  1. Hi Lisa, that is sad news. I will go read some of his poetry from his book I have, Sometimes Gladness.

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    • There is no better tribute IMO…it’s what I’ve been doing too…

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  2. Oh Lisa that is sad. We seem to be losing so many of late or is it an age thing? I will also read Sometimes Gladness Meg.I have given copies to members of my family that I have picked up in Op Shops over the years. One of my favourite poets.

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    • I think it is an ‘age thing’… and I think that Dawe is irreplaceable.

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  3. This is a lovely tribute, Lisa! The only thing I would change is in your second sentence, where I would use ‘and’ instead of ‘but’. It’s not at all unusual for a poet to emerge from a working-class background – think of John Shaw Neilson, just as one example. I’m sure there are many more. In fact, working-class poets would be a great subject for a blog…

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    • You may be right, Teresa, I know almost nothing about the background of the poets I’m fond of.

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      • John Shaw Nielsen is probably my favourite Australian poet, and he grew up in extreme poverty, as did Les Murray. And Henry Lawson, of course. I felt a bit uneasy about that ‘but’ of yours, Lisa, as it implied some surprise on your part that a poet could have a working class background. I’m also thinking of D. H. Lawrence, whose father was a coal miner. I always want to know about the backgrounds and childhoods of poets I love, and to see how this influenced and shaped their view of the world and thus their poetry. I think it’s a fascinating topic.

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        • Teresa, the use of ‘but’ was not intended to imply anything of the sort you suggest. It was intended to acknowledge the difficulties Dawe faced in getting an education and achieving what he did.
          His triumph over the adversity of his background is analogous to my own father’s triumph over his very disadvantaged background, and I take pride in his accomplishments. And indeed, to some extent my own, because I left school at 16 too, without even my Leaving Certificate, and spent many years studying part-time as Dawe did.

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  4. I remember that very edition of Condolences of the Season from secondary school. The first time I really connected with poetry.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mine is very battered…
      It was my sister’s before it was mine, but fortunately I was spared her adolescent marginalia: she’s only written an essay question on the flyleaf…

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      • I don’t have mine any more. I did have for 20 years though.😊

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        • This is what happens, eh? You hang onto a book for decades and then decide that no, it has to go, and then … you want it back again!
          Let’s hope it found a good home.

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  5. Sad for his family and the community but what a legacy he has left, thank you for the tribute, Lisa. I have a couple of favourite books of his I used often in my classes. His poems of the Vietnam era will live in my memory for a long time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was just reading ‘homecoming’
      “They’re bringing them home, now, too late, too early.”
      What a perfect final line…

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  6. Ah, sad news indeed.

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  7. Thanks for this tribute. I’ll search out his work.

    Stay well

    Regards Thom

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  8. Thanks for that tribute, Lisa. It helps me to remember, and to realise how much I loved his work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes. I was awash with things to do last night, but I took out the books I have, and just read his poems.
      It was a reminder that the world has been in a mess before and we have come through it.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. So saddened to read this news. His poems transcend three generations of poetry lovers in my family. RIP Bruce Dawe.

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  10. There’s a nice little article about him on The Conversation today.

    Am late replying to your email Lisa due to circumstances but will be in touch shortly! Thanks so much.

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  11. I am very interested in “Leviathan; For the Love of Whales”

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    • Australia was/is very active in the campaign to end whale hunting. The Sea Shepherd is based in Hobart Tasmania, and Japanese ships doing their so-called scientific whaling are not welcome here.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. […] later: Sue at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog has blogged at more length about Bruce Dawe, and there’s a write-up in the Sydney Morning […]

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  13. Those are beautiful and powerful verses. I can see where he would have been able to reach young and old readers alike with such overarching themes. Thank you for bringing attention to his work at this time.

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    • We really need poets like him. Unfortunately too much of contemporary poetry that I come across is too obscure for me to digest.

      Like


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