On my desk this morning* sits “Collected Australian Verse”, “Banjo Paterson’s People” and “Joe Wilson’s Mates” by Henry Lawson. Underneath those, loved but not revered, are “The Plays and Poems of Oscar Wilde” and “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare”. I had to put Ginsberg in the cupboard. Larkin’s on my bedside table and the bookshelves are full. I don’t remember the first poem I read, or even the first poem I wrote. I remember being five or six and reciting Banjo Paterson poems with my Dad while we washed the dishes. These were my earliest lessons in what it means to be Australian.
From my desk I see the hills covered in the grey-green of eucalypts. There is a single stand of banana trees about halfway up. Two clouds hover at the crest, trying to hide from the relentless blue. Just over the other side is the Pacific Ocean, hemmed by kilometres of unbroken white beaches. The air is humid and close, even at night, when the Southern Cross blazes forth and the Milky Way sprays silver across the sky.
This year we are lucky. Rain has been plentiful, but every downfall makes the news. Last year, the city's water supply was below 30% capacity. It was illegal to wash your car, except for spot cleaning. No garden hoses could be used. We had to keep showers to under two minutes and were asked to flush the toilet as infrequently as possible. This is not a country to turn your back on.
These contrasts of bounty and dearth have shaped the Australian consciousness – we are moulded by our land. Though our poetic tradition began in the vein of 18th century Britain, the subjects were so far removed from those green isles that a major break was inevitable. English poets travelling to Australia were evidently quite unable to fathom the differences (this is a source of some perverse pride to Australians):
There is a place in distant seas
Full of contrarieties:
There, beasts have mallards’ bills and legs,
Have spurs like cocks, like hens lay eggs.
The north winds scorch, but when the breeze is
Full from the south, why then it freezes;
The sun when you to face him turn ye
From right to left performs his journey.
Now of what place could such strange tales
Be told with truth save New South Wales?
-- Richard Whately, “There is a Place in Distant Seas”
Those of us born here are infused with these oddities. It gives us pleasure that we may boast the ten most venomous snakes in the world. We take enormous pride in overcoming adversity (although the level of true adversity has somewhat declined since the days of the early settlers). Australia is the only continent (save Antarctica) where you may measure square kilometres per person instead of the other way around. We sprawl. Our speech is slow. There’s no sense hurrying if it will serve no purpose – and in the time it takes for us to make a decision, a remarkable thing happens. We think. Carefully, deliberately, slowly… thoroughly and often with innovative results.
Thus it happened that the poetry of the first generations of Australian-born writers was expansive, infused with respect for the land, wry, matter-of-fact and unfailingly melodic.
The stark white ring-barked forests,
All tragic to the moon,
The sapphire-misted mountains,
The hot gold hush of noon,
Green tangle of the brushes
Where lithe lianas coil
And orchids deck the tree-tops
And ferns the warm dark soil.
Core of my heart, my country!
Her pitiless blue sky,
When sick at heart, around us
We see the cattle die –
But then the grey clouds gather,
And we can bless again
The drumming of an army,
The steady soaking rain.
-- Dorothea Mackellar, “My Country”
The values reflected in Australian literature – “mateship”, hard work, honesty – were inflicted upon the early settlers by the physical nature of the land. It was vital to be able to trust the person beside you; the result of doubt or betrayal could quite literally be death. Legends grew out of ordinary people, the “battlers”; “bush ballads” were born in the midst of drovers and gold miners, recited wherever these wanderers set their fire.
‘Twas hard to earn a bit of bread,
He told me. Then he shook his head,
All the little corks that hung
Around his hat-brim danced and swung
And bobbed about his face; and when
I laughed he made them dance again.
He said they were for keeping flies –
‘The pesky varmints’ – from his eyes.
He called me ‘Codger’… ‘Now you see
The best days of your life,’ said he.
‘But days will come to bend your back
And, when they come, keep off the track,
Keep off, young codger, if you can.
I sometimes think: When I’m a man,
I’ll get a good black billy-can
And hang some corks around my hat,
And lead a jolly life like that.
-- C.J. Dennis, “The Swagman”
Though there’s not a swagman to be seen today and droving tracks are ruled by semi-trailers carrying a dozen CB aerials, these are the “romantic” images of Australia. Globalisation intrudes more every day – we embrace it with caution, taking what we can of it and blending it into what we already have. The voice of Australia remains unique. We draw our inspiration from the red desert sands, from the echoes of the whipbirds in the rainforests, from the secret billabongs that sleep in uncharted ranges – and we draw our music from the generations of poets whose lyrical verse became the heartbeat of the nation.
*This article was originally published by Shakespeare's Monkeys in 2007