Donald Bruce Dawe, 15 February 1930 – 1 April 2020
Bruce Dawe was the youngest son of a story-telling farmworker and a mother who declaimed Scottish poetry by heart. He attended six schools, finally leaving Northcote High without matriculation, and then worked as a labourer, a mailman and in a dozen other jobs.
He tried for a teaching qualification in 1954 but dropped out. More years in professional wilderness followed until he joined the Air Force in 1959. He met his future wife, Gloria Blain, on station in Toowoomba, and they married in 1964.
‘I’ve been terribly lucky. I mean one looks around and sees that it’s not always the case. In fact, less and less the case. So there’s nothing to say that I deserved any better than lots of other people who didn’t get as good.’
He found that he was, by the end of the 1970s, Australia’s best loved and most read, and perhaps most awarded, contemporary poet. For many years he taught at Darling Downs Institute of Advanced Education, which later became the new University of Southern Queensland. On retirement he was honoured as Professor Emeritus and with the Order of Australia. His endearing simplicity of heart is well on display in a 1997 interview with Robin Hughes in the Australian biography series.
His poetry is a delight to teach because it is very funny much of the time, immediate to every reader, and lends itself to performance. Les Murray described him as ‘our great master of applied poetry’.
‘Let’s try and do what we can with a certain sort of modesty,’ he says in interview, and not surprisingly, he places himself down the batting order in a list of poets.
‘I could point to people that I think are far better, far more skilled practitioners of verse forms than myself: Les Murray, obviously, for one. Alec Hope for another. Gwen Harwood is a third. Rosemary Dobson is a fourth. Judith Wright of course. Not necessarily all in that order. I’d put them all within … they’re all in a first four or five of my sort of Oz Australian Eleven.’
Where he bats in the team is a matter of taste, but to my mind he is the Adam Gilchrist, the absolute crowd-pleaser of Australian poets.
I was a new English teacher standing at the back when Bruce Dawe came to Pittwater High School, in Sydney, to talk to the senior students in 1982. Later I contacted him. He told me that he wanted to leave his listeners not just poetry but ‘something for life’.
In later letters he wrote that some people had accused him of being a ‘sort of Cassandra (“Woe, woe, and thrice woe…!!!”)’ because of his social critique. He preferred to think of himself as a blue heeler ‘when we need to have our heels nipped’.
Dawe runs from pretension: ‘I used all the camouflage I could, linguistically.’ But he is a master of rhythm and stress, calling on various poetic forms and alluding subtly to other writers with powerful effect. ‘A Victorian hangman tells his love’ is a dramatic monologue spoken by Ronald Ryan’s hangman. We hear not the menacing Count in Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’, but the bureaucratic instrument of the state:
‘Allow me to adjust the canvas hood which will enable you
to anticipate the officially-prescribed darkness
by some seconds.’
The disconcerting result, superficially banal but subtextually sinister, is a potent critique of capital punishment.
There are resonances of Kenneth Slessor and Rupert Brooke at the heart of his desperately sad ‘Elegy for Drowned Children’, all repackaged in Dawe’s trademark harmless-seeming whimsy.
‘Tender and solicitous must be his care
For these whom he takes down into his kingdom one by one
…The little heaps of clothes, the futures carefully planned.’
He delights in colloquial surprises. ‘Life cycle’ pokes fun, from within, at our national distraction for sport:
‘…-the elderly still
Loyally crying carn… carn… (if feebly) unto the very end,
Having seen in the six-foot recruit from Eaglehawk their hope of salvation.’
Ultimately he presents humanity in all its hopes and foibles. His ability to capture nuances of emotion was all but peerless. For example, ‘Drifters’ describes his mother’s resignation at the family’s rootless existence. Told from her perspective, the start is an already defeated ‘One day soon he’ll tell her it’s time to start packing’, and offering imagery of ‘green tomatoes’ and ‘shrivelled fruit’ the poem ends with desolate irony:
‘she’ll only remember how, when they came here,
she held out her hands bright with berries,
the first of the season, and said:
“Make a wish, Tom, make a wish.”’
The delusions of petty consumerism are a recurring motif. In ‘The not-so-good earth’:
‘For a while there we had 25-inch Chinese peasant families
famishing in comfort on the 25-inch screen…
we never did find out how it finished up… Dad
at this stage tripped over the main lead in the dark
hauling the whole set down smack on its inscrutable face,
wiping out in a blue flash and a curlicue of smoke
600 million Chinese without a trace…’
He was unpredictable. He penned a stinging elegy to the victims of the Hungarian uprising forgotten by the West and was bitterly opposed to Communism: (‘I think it’s a disaster’). He was arrested for marching against the Vietnam War, and yet wrote immensely moving lines in honour of fallen Australian soldiers. He also wrote against the mean treatment of asylum seekers and he condemned torture in Abu Ghraib prison.
Many of his poems come back to injustices that we ourselves commit or suffer:
‘one of my terrible, or great concerns that I’ve written about often, in terms of the unemployment, is how much it impinges on family: happiness and family hopes.’
His opposition to abortion was well known. In ‘The wholly innocent’ his indignation is scathing:
‘As absolute as blood
Now down in the bucket thrust
Anonymous as mud’
His courage in public readings of this poem lost him contracts and prestige in the eyes of many. Unapologetically he states,
‘I’m all in favour of the unborn having rights too. I don’t believe that simply because the unborn happened to be located where they are, gives the woman all the rights and the unborn child no rights.’
In the Australian Biography interview he speaks too of his deeply held Catholic faith. It sat perfectly with things he held dear.
‘I had been writing about abortion long before I became a Catholic. It’s something that went with my belief in the sacredness of life, and so it’s consistent with a generally anti-nuclear view of the world, and a pro-environmental view of life.’
He entered the Catholic church during his 1954 university year. The example and words of one fellow student were instrumental in changing his life.
‘I was very fond of a Roman Catholic girl there, who presented me one day with a whole series of tabulated responses to some Anglican document, which said why you should be Anglican and not Roman Catholic. And she’d gone through the whole lot and come up with answers to all of them. … there was a whole combination of influences. I suppose the Lives of the Saints was probably the most particular and extensive one…. I’ve been immensely moved by reading the lives of the saints.
But he is careful not to have tickets on himself. In 1998 he said,
‘I’m a practising Catholic in the way that some people are goof golfers. I don’t, as it were, carry a kind of halo round with me or anything like that. I sort of … I see myself always as a kind of converted pagan.’
And perhaps not surprisingly for a poet who seeks reality, he insists on the importance of doctrinal truth.
‘I still believe in doctrines, which many people these days would like to think don’t exist. They want everybody to be equally woolly and vague about everything, so that we can all be sort of together in some nirvana, where nobody believes in anything much except each other, which is a pretty dreadful thing. I don’t hold with that…. I don’t think people should change their doctrines, and accept or modify teaching simply because they think the young people will be fooled by that. That’s kind of coffee-in-the-cathedral-crypt religion, and I don’t happen to believe in that.’
In the Australian Biography he speaks eloquently about holiness in the middle of the world.
‘I think (Suburbia)is as full of saints as anywhere else. I don’t have a kind of view that you have to be in a monastery to be a saint, though it’s obviously not a bad sort of training place.’
In a letter to me, he wrote that religious beliefs ‘are usually under the skin; they’re more likely to work better that way’. In his poetry these convictions are just below the surface. His homage ‘Homo suburbiensis’, ends with the words:
‘…hearing vaguely the clatter of a dish
in a sink that could be his, hearing a dog, a kid,
a far whisper of traffic, and offering up instead
Not much but as much as any man can offer
– time, pain, love, hate, age, ware, death, laughter, fever.
The whole sonnet, so unassuming and commonplace to this point, turns on the redemptive significance of ‘offer’.
And even ‘The place’, which is a mock-heroic celebration of the moment time stood still when he discovered his balding pate, finds its purpose in transcendence, yet in the most disarming idiom:
‘The day I happened upon that still place…
Rejoicing quietly at the double-barbering flood
On whose littered waters I bobbed with all of mankind,
Being grateful for such a reminder,
So early on in the piece.’
He said he wrote poetry to help people ‘see ourselves and our world more clearly’. He insisted: ‘Life comes first, art comes second’. He was not lost in the self-indulgent, self-justifying, and subjective, which are the marks of so much contemporary art, literature, and cinema. His goal was to reflect reality, to better understand it and himself. He was naturally courteous, reflective and never surrendered his optimism.
And, as if advising those of coronavirus times, he wrote to me of his desire to draw meaning from everything that happens,
‘Wilfred Owen clearly held the same view – that what he was experiencing on the Western Front was “unsurpassable”.’
He insisted that cynicism had no place in the hearts of the young.
Bruce Dawe taught me that poetry has the urgent mission of presenting truth: I think this is the deepest reason for his relevance and appeal. I immensely admire his body of work, and his character. The two are inseparable. I write this obituary in heartfelt tribute to one who indeed has given our nation ‘something for life’.