John Kinsella in conversation with Bruce Dawe

Les Murray has described him as “our great master of applied poetry”. Bruce Dawe has received many awards, including the Order of Australia, the Patrick White Award, the Christopher Brennan Award, and the Dame Mary Gilmore Prize. Dawe is the author of many volumes of poetry, the most recent Mortal Instruments: Poems 1990-1995. The fifth edition of his collected poetry, Sometimes Gladness: Collected Poems 1954-1997, has just been published by Addison Wesley Longman.


JK: Many of your readers originally came across your work at school. I certainly did. Sometimes Gladness is de rigueur on upper-school syllabi. You have also worked as a teacher, and written poems about that process. How do you see the relationship between poetry and poetry-as-it-is-taught-in-school?

BD: I’ve never made any conscious distinction between the two. The teaching of poetry in schools is, after all, variously done, sometimes good, sometimes not so good. I’ve been a visitor at schools where they loved poetry; I’ve also been to schools where they didn’t. Often it’s the false assumptions about it that get in the way, and these are very widespread in the general community, although perhaps less so now than they were when I was a young hopeful. . .

JK: Were your own teachers influential on your writing?

BD: One teacher in particular, my English teacher at Northcote High in the forties, George Stirling. He gave me texts to read (such as Gwendolen Murphy’s The Modern Muse) which were far more interesting than the set texts such as The Poet’s Way, Stages I, II and III.

JK: Should all verse taught in schools be didactic, or is there a place for the poem-in-itself?

BD: No, I don’t think all poetry taught in schools should be didactic. For example, I think there is some wonderful surrealist poetry which is open to various interpretations, and there are numerous poems which invite a range of responses such as Blake’s ‘The Sick Rose’.

JK: Do you feel that the structuring into categories of a book like Sometimes Gladness limits the reading or interpretation of the poems?

The latest editions of Sometimes Gladness are chronologically ordered, as is Condolences of the Season, and the note at the back of Sometimes Gladness reminds readers that categories (if we mean themes) are not mutually exclusive or definitive, in any case. Earlier editions did involve categorisation, but I never really assumed that teachers were likely to be very inhibited by this. Many American prose texts for teaching purposes also set up categories similarly.

JK: In your ‘teens you wrote under a Welsh-sounding pseudonym and are said to have been influenced by Dylan Thomas. Your poetry has clearly steered away from this. What led you to become a more socially-critical poet?

BD: Probably the social criticism of the sixties, although I was much earlier interested in political and social processes, reading Koestler, Orwell, Silone in my late ‘teens. Doing a Political Science sub-major at The University of Queensland furthered this interest, of course; living in Melbourne during the Ryan hanging and the early part of the Vietnam War also helped.

JK:In your most recent collection, Mortal Instruments, you write about the 75th anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli with a critical distance on the media’s attitude. In that poem you write, “There is no need to go to Gallipoli / to see how Gallipoli happens”. In a much earlier poem in Sometimes Gladness, “The Victims”, you refer to a newspaper reader sipping “morbidity’s nectar from the flowers of fact”. You’ve been an ongoing critic of the media-driven age and how it invites us to abdicate responsibility and become voyeurs. How might poetry intervene in this process?

BD:Like many critics of particular things, I’m half in love with the things I criticise at times; I know the appeal such media phenomena as TV have because I’ve felt it, too. This means that the writer will be starting from a position of partial sympathy with the target he/she is attacking. I’m not such a Puritan as to be unaware of my own temptation to be morbidly interested, although Puritans, after all, while aiming at Godliness were keenly aware of the fascinating guises the Devil appears in (see Hawthorne”s ‘Young Goodman Brown’).

JK: Advertising and television also spring to mind as regular points of contention, together with journalists, “snipers in pursuit of an angle”, as you say in the Gallipoli poem (‘On the 75th Anniversary of the Landing At Gallipoli’). You have written of the world as being “a bottle stamped PROPERTY OF THE DISTRIBUTORS” (‘All Systems Go’). Is the language of poetry directly opposed to the language of advertising and the corporate vision it peddles?

BD: Not at all; it may well have to take on, assume some of that same language of Madison Avenue and Mojo if it is to satirize corporate excesses. Some of the most effective strategies for attacking such targets may require the artist to put on the mask of the con-man, the alazon (that’s why Moliere is so wonderful: he enjoys stepping inside the cadaver of the miser, the misanthrope, the charlatan . . . ).

JK: Advertising seems to rely on behaviourist beliefs, that humans are simply stimulus-response creatures a la Pavlov’s dog. How does your vision of the human condition sit in relation to this?

BD: I’ve never really thought about a vision of the human condition, John. That’s too wide a term for me to handle with my limited cutlery, I’m afraid. There are obviously occasions when a mechanical response to external stimuli can be a blessing and/or a necessity. But those who seek to establish total control over human beings on the basis of B.F. Skinner’s assumptions in Walden Two are bound to be disappointed.

JK: The idea that television and home are a cushion against the facts of brutality is a recurring motif for you. You also strongly object to the commodification of history, of courage etc.

BD: I’m not sure what you mean by “commodification” here. Certainly, all those ways in which the stuff of human endeavour is seen as potential selling-points for this or that commercial product is lamentable, and the extent to which this trivialises the sacred and the profound is sad, too, but there has always been an Uncle Festus at the coronation, hasntt there?

JK: Ken Goodwin, in Adjacent Worlds, says that for you, central to the human condition are “imprisonment, emptiness and frustration, which exist in equal quantities”. It seems this emptiness, especially with reference to Australian society, is often a spiritual one. You often use sport, particularly football, to explore this void, to look at the Australian rituals that replace spirituality. Do you think secular practices can bear the weight of a nation’s spiritual needs?

BD: No, I don’t. But then, what we do is to deify the secular in one form or another, isn’t it? Great is Diana of the Ephesians; great is Diana of the works of charity; ELVIS LIVES! Gary Ablett is God . . . I believe there is a desire for the transcendent in human beings which will manifest itself, willy-nilly.

JK: Have you ever been directly involved in football or is it an outsider’s view? After all, you are a Victorian . . .

BD: I played a game or two, in my late ‘teens, for a local team in Fitzroy called the Fitzroy Legion (or was it the Fitzroy Stars?). I was enthusiastic but that’s about all, running myself into the deck very quickly. Cricket was the game in post-school years which I most enjoyed: I played with a V.J.C.A. team called the Merri Park Cricket Club for some years, as an opening bowler.

JK: Your vision of human behaviour seems sometimes almost fatalistic, drawing on images from nature to convey human failings and experiences, such as the fall of a tyrant being the fall of a tree in a forest (‘Mortal Instruments’); “the spider grief springs in his bitter geometry” (‘Homecoming’). How inevitable and natural are our evils and our suffering?

BD: I’m Augustinian rather than Pelagian in regard to human nature, and honour, courage (personal and collective) above everything else. Too often we build, metaphorically speaking, our homes on the slopes of Mt Vesuvius and then are startled at the result. I am full of admiration for the person who takes citizenship seriously (the cost can be very high). “What is this Athens of which all men speak?” the Persian Empress enquiries of a messenger. “They bow to no man and are no man’s slaves”, was the reply.

JK: Could you comment on the concept of the phrase “Mortal Instruments” as you use it from the quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar?

BD: The quotation is from Brutus before the assassination of Julius Caesar, reflecting on the momentous question of the planned killing. One of my great heroes is Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, leader of the July 20 bomb plot against Hitler – for me he represented all those who have fought against tyranny, ancient and modern, from Brutus to Aung San Suu Kyi and Ken Saro-Wiwa. Von Stauffenberg, incidentally, and perhaps not coincidentally, played the part of Brutus in a school version of Julius Caesar as a boy at school . . .

JK: Your poems on the Vietnam war are regarded as classic anti-war poems. You have also written more recently on the Gulf War. Has the poet’s role changed as the nature of war has changed, and the nature of how we receive information about it? (CNN filming arrival of American troops in Somalia). [Poems: ‘The Gift of the Gods’, ‘Homecoming’, ‘The Dark Room’, ‘Situation Report . . . “]

BD: Well, yes. Vietnam was rightly called “the living-room war”, because of the extent to which telling images of that war were relayed to us nightly on television. The American military learnt much from the media coverage of that conflict and its impact on Middle America. Poets and others wishing to dramatize aspects of future conflicts where there is media censorship on Gulf War levels will have to sift the sands more diligently for less . . .

JK: How legitimate is commentary by the non-participant?

BD:I don’t see the problem . . . Stephen Crane never fought in the American Civil War, but that doesn’t invalidate his imaginative recreation of it in The Red Badge of Courage. Shakespeare didn’t live in the times of, or participate in the struggles of Coriolanus, Caesar, Mark Antony, etc. And even if you question Plutarch’s objectivity or that of Froissart or Holinshed, these figures are still vivid interpretations without which mere facts would leave us all the poorer.

JK: Getting back to the role of the poet, in Mortal Instruments you have a poem called ‘Reading Poetry in Public: Two Metaphors’. In that piece you talk of the “poem sleeping under the ashes of type-face” and how is can be rekindled in each experience of reading. You remind the poet that he or she is not the fire, and that the interference of the ego will “chill” the life of the poem for the reader. How do you see this in the light of the cult of personality that is required to attend literature in the modern world?

BD:I don’t see any close relationship necessarily exists between having a certain sort of personality and being possessed of artistic ability. But I’ve taken part in enough poetry readings to understand how easily one might be lured into thinking that the ego, with a little stretching here and there, ought to be elastic enough to cover all sorts of otherwise obvious shortcomings in the works themselves. And there is no question that many poems which seem flat and lifeless on the page, take on added dimensions and new life when presented by an adept performer. Roger McGough, for example, has to be heard rather than merely read, to be fully appreciated.