Poetry is something many of us usually come to resent in our early years. Nursery rhymes are arguably the first exposure many have to this realm of couplets, stanzas, metre and metaphor, but it is perhaps not until high school English class that we either come to love it, despise it, or simply maintain an indifference to it.
Poetry is often viewed as some elitist form of communication – little used words bundled into lines and verses, meant to provide the reader with the form of an idea, but in no clear or accessible manner. ‘But I just don’t get it,’ is what many of us lament. A fair thing to admit; there is much poetry that even the most literate struggle to appreciate or understand (no matter what they might tell you). But it is still a sad reality that poetry is perhaps not as appreciated as it once was in our sunburnt country. Many art forms in Australia struggle to get the attention they deserve, but poetry more so than most.
Although it may be no wonder that we cannot or will not bother to appreciate what is often a nonsensical jumble of words on paper, it is vital to remember that so much of Australian history and culture is embedded in the phrases, folklore, and meanings exemplified by Australian poems. The bush ballad ‘Waltzing Matilda’ by Banjo Paterson is considered by some to be our nation’s unofficial national anthem – whether that’s a good thing or not is difficult to tell. Music and song dominate our lives, and what many forget is that these too involve poetry. It is deemed more acceptable to read poems to our young children than is it to read them to other adults or to ourselves. So I thought it appropriate to reveal a few gems of the Australian poetry industry – some poets that have stood out to me – in the hope that more of us will come to read and appreciate this ‘bygone’ medium.
Sometimes referred to as ecopoetry, poems that explore various aspects of the natural world can offer readers new perspectives of native wildlife and landscapes, and the way we as humans interact with them. Nature has always been a common theme of Australian poetry; words can describe the unique elements of our country’s environment in ways that other mediums cannot. Plumwood Mountain, the distinguished Australian ecopoetry journal, was named for the mountain from which Val Plumwood, one of our nation’s most renowned ecophilosophers and environmentalists, took her name. It is a publication worth reading for those wanting to learn more about ecopoetic wonderings.
Below, I have included a selection of Australian poets – some well-known, others not – with references to how their work inspires a connection to nature, and a perspective of Australian landscapes and wildlife. It is worth noting that living in such a multicultural nation, it is difficult to truly encapsulate the variety of artists who contribute to Australian poetry scenes. There is an immense diversity of poets who write and publish on the theme of nature, and it would not do to assume that the examples provided here are completely representative of every poetry community. There are so many poets out there to discover and appreciate, and forming a personal taste for certain structure and theme in poetry can be a joy for those just beginning to understand this incredible art form. Take my taste as an example, but by no means limit yourself – there is too much to miss out on if you do.
Formerly known as Kath Walker, Oodgeroo Noonuccal was a poet and political activist. Her poetry collection, We Are Going, was published in 1964 and sold more than 10,000 copies, making her the best-selling Australian poet since C.J. Dennis. Her work highlights the strong relationship between Indigenous people and their country, and the importance of native wildlife and landscapes in their everyday lives and culture. The poem ‘We Are Going’ – the piece the collection was named for – vividly describes the thoughts of Indigenous Australians as their land was being taken from them. Bringing together aspects of Indigenous rights and environmental protection, Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s work has been incredibly influential in the realms of poetry and social justice.
Responsible for producing one of the most renowned and oft-quoted poems in Australian history, ‘My Country’, Dorothea Mackellar and her work represent what many consider to be quintessential bush poetry, typical of many artists of late 19th to early 20th Century Australia. ‘My Country’ was written by a 22-year-old Mackellar whilst she was living in England, pining for the unique beauty of Australia, her home country. Mackellar’s famous piece provided a way for many to express their love of Australia’s unique landscape, and the often inexplicable sentiment that comes with calling Australia home. You can read ‘My Country’ in full as well as more of Mackellar’s works here.
Debbie Lim’s poetry seems to combine elements of both the natural and the mythical. One piece in particular, titled ‘The Fossil Maker’, caught my eye due to its exploration of mermaid mythology within the constraints of the observer’s scientific perspective. It is a beautiful piece that emphasises the physicality of nature and its influence over human stories and culture. Similarly, Lim discusses the connections between the human and the animal in her chapbook, Beastly Eye, published in 2012. I have only just discovered this work thanks to Leah Jing McIntosh of Liminal, and hope to explore more of Lim's poetry soon.
Primarily interested in non-fiction poetry, Michelle Leber describes her work as existing ‘in the space between stylistic execution and historical inquiry’. One of her poems included in The Weeping Grass, published in 2010, was described by The Sydney Morning Herald as an example of how ‘Australian poets lead the way when it comes to the poetry of flora and fauna’. Her ability to capture the essence of a natural place and reveal the human connection with it is indeed profound. She is currently working on a collection of poems regarding 19th Century women and their contributions to natural history, the arts and sciences in Australia. Leber’s work is also the cornerstone of a new project in development at Wild Melbourne – so please stay tuned for updates as we reveal more down the line. Visit http://www.michelleleber.com/ for more information on her work.
Perhaps an obvious choice, Henry Lawson is most renowned for his depictions of colonial Australian life, yet was not one to promote a romantically idyllic picture of the Australian bush. However, his poetry is still imbued with a strong sense of the natural. I recently discovered one short poem from Lawson, quite unlike his celebrated ballads, that briefly but aptly describes living alongside native possums, and the perspective of these creatures versus those of the human. With only two stanzas, ‘In Possum Land’ is a great little poem to introduce yourself or your children to Lawson’s work. What is perhaps less well-known about Lawson is that he was the son of poet and suffragist Louisa Lawson – a name that many would not recognise, whilst Henry’s own writing legacy is comparatively much more prominent.
Judith Wright is known as both an environmentalist and a poet. She was responsible for establishing the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland in the 1960s. Her passion for protecting Australian landscapes from further destruction also led to her increased awareness of the lack of Indigenous land rights in Australia. Her poetry covers a vast array of topics, but her pieces regarding Australian birds are particularly notable. Wright was able to convey the peculiarities and prejudices of the human relationship with birds in a more profound way than many others have since been able to achieve.
Some examples include her piece ‘Parrots’: a poem that reveals that the sacrifices we make (in this case, loquat trees) in order to enjoy native wildlife are small prices to pay for our connection with nature. In another titled ‘The Wagtail’, Wright questions whether we should view the bird’s song as something simply for us to enjoy – instead, she wonders, what purpose does it serve for the bird and are we just incidental listeners to this necessary aspect of nature?
Hailing from Bundanoon in NSW, Lorne Johnson is a big fan of punk rock, classic American cars, Blade Runner and birding – perhaps not what you’d consider the typical interests of an Aussie poet, but, as I said, they’re a diverse bunch. His work has appeared in many publications including Australian Love Poems, Prayers of a Secular World, Meanjin, Island, and Mascara Literary Review, amongst many more.
Morton - his tribute to Morton National Park in NSW - is out now from Pitt Street Poetry and is a poetic collection that I’ve been meaning to immerse myself in for some time. It is fantastic to see a publication that unashamedly associates itself so strongly with a single natural area – one that is so clearly important to its author. In poetry, the layers of meaning can be endless, but, as in the case of the above poets, Johnson’s discussion of nature also facilitates an exploration of human societal issues as well. His poetry not only discusses the wildness of nature, but also Indigenous detachment from land, hunting, mining, and the search for home.
Interested to learn more about ecopoetry or the work of Australian poets? Here are some useful resources to enjoy and explore:
Rachel is an Arts and Science graduate and a freelance writer who is passionate about communicating the importance of the natural world through literature. She has completed an Honours year in Literary Studies, involving research into environmental philosophy and the significance of the non-human other. She is an editor and the Publications Manager for Wild Melbourne.
You can find her on Twitter at @RJFether.
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