The label “Poet” carries with it many connotations, a certain mystique, which can be both favourable and not-so favourable. People expect you to be brilliant, weave words like thread. You may be classified as “arty”, or “creative” or “romanticist”. Bruce Dawe, however, is a modern poet. He avoids the stereotypical topics that have given this genre of writing a somewhat out-dated feel, and instead focuses on current times. Dawe uses his environment as subject-matter, his work criticising and questioning aspects of our society and standing up for people whose voices go otherwise unheard.
What is Bruce Dawe a great one for?
The answer is quite simple: Questioning, criticising and documenting the life around him.
In the introduction of Sometimes Gladness, Dawe is asked the question, “Why do you write?” He answers, “…because I feel like it. I write out of a need to come to terms with some concern, something bugging [me].”
Indeed, Sometimes Gladness seems like a collection of thoughts on a myriad of issues: Neighbours, local issues and politics, people on the streets, war (Dawe himself served in the RAAF from 1959 to 1968), television, immigrants, etc… all topics we come across and are affected by every day.
Dawe lived through decades of great changes in the lives of ordinary people, which are reflected in his poetry of the time. The 60s and 70s, decades of war and political upheaval. The 80s, a time of technological advancement, and horrible fashions… Finally, the 90s, with the computer taking over vast areas of our private and public lives. Dawe was there, seeing and writing about what was going on, and how it was affecting his life and that of his fellow Australians.
This wide variety of subjects reflects the times in which we are living, and Bruce Dawe’s keen interest to question, criticise and document the life around him.
olitics is an integral part of our everyday life. The decisions made by our governments affect us every day: When we work, how much we are paid (and how much of that we actually get to keep…), where we can park our cars, even to some degree, what we think. In his usual reflective and critical way, Dawe takes a look at the interactions of government and the ordinary citizens.
“News from Judea” is Dawe’s comment of the governments reaction towards public protests. His wonderful way with allegorical language is revealed in this extended metaphor poem, using events and figures from the Bible to illustrate his point. This biblical imagery is found throughout Sometimes Gladness, evidence of the religious influence in Dawe’s poetry.
“News from Judea” begins with a quote from St. Mark II, a description of Jesus entering the city of Jerusalem.
“And they that came before, and they that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna; Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.”
This scene of celebration and happiness contrasts sharply with the first line “And out to meet them about six hundred / officers of the law…”, instantly relating the subject to modern times and events. The police officers move out to break up the gathering. They are sent directly by Herod with the words “there will be no more / political marches”.
By using the character of Herod to represent the combined figures of authority, Dawe makes a very powerful analogy: Herod was a biblical king that ruled during the time Jesus was born. When he heard of his birth and that he was prophesied to be a greater king than he was, he ordered every new-born boy within his land to be killed to preserve his power. In short, he was power-hungry, ruthless and ignorant.
The effect he aims at with using these biblical comparisons is to criticise and ridicule the heavy-handed actions of the police and local governments. Here are citizens who are well within their democratic rights to protest and make their voices heard, yet they are suppressed by the very people they helped elect.
The last 8 lines, Dawe delivers his final stance on the event:
“And in the days to come
the power of the officers of the law
was mightily increased to encompass
detention without charge and also incrimination by silence.
And many more were brought before the courts than heretofore
and Herod said There will be peace in my land…
And the land became exceedingly quiet;
But this was not peace.”
His opinion on the political ‘peace-keeping’ is made clear: you can rule with an iron fist and suppress dissidents, but don’t ever think they are going to just go away.
“News from Judea” is Dawe’s comment on the actions of governments, their misuse of the power they were invested with by the people. Although this analogy is obviously a little exaggerated, he may have wanted to use it as a kind of warning. When I first read through the poem, the line “Clear the streets / of all whose ideas are not those / of the governing party” strongly reminded me of 1984 by George Orwell. This “worst-case scenario” of a police-state may be what Dawe is referring to, warning us that if this behaviour is tolerated, the entire principle of democracy can come under threat.
hile Dawe mostly seems to write didactic poetry, Sometimes Gladness also contains some lyrical and privately reflective poems, which show a completely different side of Dawe’s writing style. It is quite refreshing to find some simple, beautiful poems, which are neither cynical nor satirical but peacefully reflective and observant.
“Happiness is the Art of being Broken” is one of these poems. Its main theme is one of another life’s inevitable fates: Age and death.
At first the title is quite cryptic, not immediately identifying the subject of the poem. Only the second line completes the puzzle and introduces the theme: “Happiness art of being broken / with the least sound”.
Contentment in life is achieved by accepting fate with dignity and without making a fuss. Dawe here mainly refers to the elderly who “…very often / practise it to perfection”, living out their last days gracefully.
The second stanza describes the process of aging. “Always the first fragmentation / stirs us to fear…” refers to the first stage, when we first realise we are getting old, and refuse to believe it. (A perfect example of this is the character Roo in the play Summer of the 17th Doll by Ray Lawler. Roo has simply not noticed or acknowledged that he was growing old, until the facts were staring him straight in the face.)
After that first stage of shock and fear follows acceptance. The acceptance that there is nothing one can do to hold back time. “We learn where we belong, in what uncaring / complex depths we roll… / tumbling in anemone-dazzled fathoms…” The saying “With age comes wisdom” holds true here, finally understanding that we are just one in a billion, buffeted by the fates of life, just like an ant in a tornado.
The third stage of aging is mental weakness and decay. “We seek innocence in surrender / senility an ironic act of charity / easing the agony of disparateness…” These lines bring up the image of a nursing home. Many of these elderly have just given up on life, tired of the “disparateness” and chaos of life
The final lines of the poems also are the final stage of life: death and renewal. After the old comes the new generation, following in their footsteps, “…viewing the same green transitory world we also knew.”
I do not know in what motivated Dawe to write this poem. Maybe he himself was beginning to feel a little old. Yet this may be unlikely, because he was only 32 at the time this poem was written. I believe, Dawe wrote this for someone else: perhaps his parents, or some anonymous elderly couple who live across the street.
When Dawe was younger, he worked in a variety of jobs, such as an office clerk, labourer, postman, and many other professions. It was during his work as postie, that he had developed the habit of taking along a mouth organ and playing sentimental tunes to old ladies. I could well imagine that the idea for this “ode to aging” could have been conceived there.
Whatever the motive, “Happiness is the Art of being Broken” is a beautiful poem about aging, death, and the acceptance of this inevitability in life.
ince the 1950s, a new invention has taken root in our lives: Television. In the decades leading up to our present time, this technology has transformed a good deal of our social behaviour. Thanks to the numerous TV stations around the globe, we are informed and entertained around the clock 24/7.
Especially the younger generations of the 80s and 90s are affected. With both parents working, they need hire no-one to look after the kids, as long as trusty old nanny Loony Tunes is flickering coloured storylines.
Dawe has taken up this phenomenon, and used it as the central theme in his poem “Televistas”. The poem tells of two teenagers, who fall in love in front of the TV. Their entire relationship moves to the rhythm of the TV programs running: cartoons such as Bugs Bunny, Sylvester and Tweety-Pie, comedy shows by Carol Burnett and Dick Emery and the popular WWI based series World at War.
Although there is quite a sombre message in the theme, the poem itself is witty and light-hearted. Even the co-incidence of their meeting is predestined by the omnipotent television:
“She was Sanyo-orientated,
He was Rank-Arena* bred,
A faulty tube led to their meeting:
‘Watch with me a while’ she said…”
(*Sanyo and Rank-Arena are television manufacturers. Rank-Arena went bust during the mid-eighties, but Sanyo still exists today.)
Dawe is ridiculing the huge role TV plays in our lives. Instead of choosing the paths of our lives ourselves, we live them in time with television series. Dawe once commented on this issue in an interview given to the Sydney Sunday Herald in 1978:
“My aunt used to follow every new series that came out religiously. She …felt with the characters, railed against their antagonists and … went through 6 boxes of tissues a week…”
With “Televistas”, Dawe is again taking a piece of ordinary life, and with his critical, questioning way gives us an insight into our own lives.
‘m not one for blood-red sunsets,” says Dawe. No, he isn’t. But neither does he need to be. In fact, one could assume that a large part of his popularity is due to that fact. Dawe takes the ordinary things that are all around us, and presents them in such a way that they are novel and appealing to us. The object itself is unchanged; Dawe has only changed our attitude towards it.
Life is a sum of all its parts: conflict, sadness, aging, joy, unhappiness, love and death. Bruce Dawe does not need romantic natural spectacles to write meaningful poetry. He uses his impressions of the world around him to question criticise, reflect, joke and poke at, all the while writing down his thoughts into the poetry that I, and surely we have come to so respect and enjoy.
Dawe has contributed a large part towards the large and beautiful patch-work quilt that is Australian identity. His work is already now in turn serving as inspirations for many other poets following in his footsteps.
As my final statement I would like to quote some lines from his poem “Happiness Is the Art of being Broken”:
That day when, all identity lost, we serve
As curios for children roaming beaches,
Makeshift monocles through which they view
The same green transitory world we also knew.