Sharon Olds, Gwen Harwood and Dorothy Hewett: Truth, Lies, Poetry

1 November 2016

This is something many other writers have experienced. Poets, in particular, are notoriously cagey about their private lives. Australian poet Gwen Harwood raged about the way readers insisted on conflating the ‘I’ of her poems with herself, ‘Gwen Harwood, of 18 Pine Street, West Hobart’. Her particular bugbear was the much-anthologised poem ‘In the Park’, in which a woman laments the loss of her youthful promise to motherhood, and which ends with the line: ‘They have eaten me alive’ – the plural pronoun apparently referring to the woman’s children. Since the poem’s publication under Harwood’s own name (it initially appeared under the pseudonym Walter Lehmann), critics and readers alike insisted on conflating the woman in the poem with Harwood herself – to Harwood’s chagrin. The problem was that readers assumed the poem was Harwood’s own, personal complaint about her life as a housewife and mother. ‘People still regard this as a great confessional poem,’ she told an interviewer almost thirty years after its original publication. ‘[They say] ‘I have read ‘In the Park’ – did you really love those children?’ I say, ‘why don’t you read it, it says ‘she sits in the park’, ‘her clothes are out of date’’. It is a great fictional construct, and the sonnet form alone should tell you that the poem is a formal poem, and the people in it are in a comedy of manners, this is not a confessional poem.’

For a reader to draw inferences about her life from her poems was for Harwood an impertinence. Her use of pseudonyms, both male and female, was in part a means of short-circuiting such readings and maintaining her freedom to publish what she liked without fear that it would be used against her. She also took shelter in the forms she used (she felt it was self-evident that no-one would try to express themselves in an acrostic poem, for instance), foregrounding a poem’s artifice to counterbalance its apparent candour. And she defended both her own and other writers’ privacy with great energy. In a memorable review of Dorothy Hewett’s Alice in Wormland, she explicitly addresses such questions, insisting that the identity of Hewett’s Alice ‘is not the same as the author’s in the objective world. Poets are always being asked silly questions – were you the most promiscuous girl in the school? did you shoot the owl? – by those expecting a truthful answer from an image seen in an imagined mirror by an invented character.’ Nevertheless, Harwood’s letters show that there were many times when she was the mother of four young children that she did indeed feel that her children were eating her alive. She uses these exact words, both before and after the publication of ‘In the Park’.

The reference to promiscuity in Harwood’s review relates to Hewett, but the reference to the owl is her own. In her popular poem ‘Barn Owl’, a first-person narrator tells of shooting an owl in a barn as a child, and Harwood felt herself to be persecuted by readers wanting to know whether she herself was that child. In a letter to a friend, she recounts herself deflecting this very question: ‘I said in a horrified tone that I would NEVER be so cruel.’ In a late occasional poem, she is more playful, implying first that she did indeed shoot the owl, and then that she only tried to do so:

But fiction glitters on fiction
and truth was clerical grey.
I really was not a remarkable shot
and the real bird got away.

The ‘real bird’ is precisely the problem. Was there such a creature? Was it a finch, as Harwood suggests elsewhere? Was it made up entirely? The story the poem tells is plausible – as is all the best fiction; it is certainly not beyond the bounds of possibility that what is narrated in the poem had a basis in fact. The poem is also deeply felt. Perhaps this is why so many readers have wanted to know that she did not ‘make it up’. Yet for Harwood, the question itself was offensive and she refused to answer. It was more important to her to insist that the poem (this poem, any poem) was not the life than to establish the ‘facts’ – or lack of them – behind the work.

This was for her a matter of principle rather than of instinct. At the end of her review of Alice in Wormland, she all but undoes her careful defence of the gap between the world of a poem and the author’s ‘objective world’ by confessing that her ‘first response’ to Hewett’s book was avidly biographical:

In what city, in what room
tell me who did what to whom. 
Let me be bewitched and smitten, 
let me have my nipples bitten.
Let me feel the sheer fatigue
of screwing in the Balmain league. 
Citizens, beware! beware!
of flashing eyes and floating hair.

The ‘flashing eyes and floating hair’ – borrowed from Coleridge – are those of the poetic ‘front man’, the performer who is conjuring a vision of themselves to bedazzle the poor reader and distract them from the truth. Harwood often referred to this figure in interviews as a warning against equating her poetic personae with herself.

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