Gwen Harwood was a famous Australian poet, known for many thought-provoking literary pieces. She wrote on a great variety of subjects and published over 420 works. The language used in many of her poems lacks a clear rhyme and at times is borderline prose, and yet still it manages to pluck at the strings located in a reader’s heart, painting vivid and poignant pictures in their mind to communicate the message. One of the prominent subjects in her art is one of motherhood and maternity.
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The image of a mother remained somewhat static throughout the history of humankind. From author to author, from poem to poem, we see the same image – it is either a picture of tranquil happiness of successful motherhood or a self-sacrificial portrait of a woman who would gladly and willingly do anything for her children. The motives of happiness and self-sacrifice are often idealized and disconnected from reality (Strauss 1). Gwen Harwood’s poems paint a different picture of motherhood, which revolves around hardship, misery and unwilling sacrifice in order to conform to the societal norms. The readers could clearly see this in her poem called In the park.
The poem is centred on a woman in the park conversing with her past lover about their children. Although at first, their conversation may seem heartwarming, it becomes obvious that the man does not really care about the children. He is happy alone, not shouldering the responsibility of raising so many.
The ex-lover’s conversation with the woman is based simply on familiarity and false sympathies. The mother does not seem to brim with love towards them either, as is indicated in the last verse, where she says to no one in particular that “the children have eaten her alive” (Harwood 23). She is not happy with running the family on her back, alone, and his longing for the life she used to have before this life-long commitment.
This idea runs through many of the author’s poems. In a way, it adheres to the self-sacrificial motive of motherhood; however, it rarely shows it as something willing. The mothers she describes are rarely happy with their lives since they have to sacrifice their own personal lives in order to raise children. Her portrayal of mothers as sad and resentful victims of many circumstances is so unusual and thought-provoking because it antagonizes the traditional image of motherhood (McNeil 2).
Another subject frequently visited by Gwen Harwood in her writings is the subject of race and genocide. This is a painful and disgraceful page in the history of Australia, which mostly revolves around the treatment of the native populace at the hands of the colonists, who forced their culture on them and used their technological and military superiority to force them out of their homes. The tragedy of people’s culture, language, and heritage erased and turned history is addressed in her morbid poem called The Oyster Cove. It is dedicated to the aboriginal dispossession of Tasmania. It mentions the Oyster Bay, or Paredarerme, which was considered the largest Tasmanian nation.
This poem is written in a very unusual way. The language used is almost prosaic. The rhyme is not clearly defined, and the text itself may not seem very coherent, at first glance. It is not structured in a traditional way. In order to understand the message, the reader has to pay attention to the keywords and the mood of the poem as it is read. The reader must also be knowledgeable and aware of Australian history in order to understand the context.
Dreams, barracks, Christian rags, God’s creatures, whores, sick drunks, a lost race, flesh, memory, language, history, blood – these are the keywords that tell us what this poem is about (Harwood 85). These words are meant to represent the sick and fractured mind of a representative of a lost race losing its identity, exposed and defenceless to the vices and sins of the allegedly superior society (“An Analysis of the Writings of Gwen Harwood” par. 1).
Gwen Harwood avoids the classical trap of just telling the reader that something is wrong. Instead, she manages to use the words in such a way to make the reader feel how wrong it is. She leaves them shaken and shocked, using the power of the word to its fullest potentials, conveying emotions instead of dry facts and information. While some contemporary writers viewed the natives through the prism of their own prejudice, Harwood casts aside the notions of religion and culture, instead portraying them as people.
People who are capable of loss, pain, and suffering. The feeling of cultural loss and the sense of being treated like second-class citizens causes degradation. Many of the natives that were assimilated into the white culture became drunks or whores, living their lives in misery and becoming the bottom of the so-called civilized society.
An Analysis of the Writings of Gwen Harwood. Web.
Harwood, Gwen. Selected Poems. Redwood: Penguin, 2001. Print.
McNeil, Andrew. Harwood’s poetry explores the experiences of women in society. Web.
Strauss, Jennifer. “She/I/you/it: constructing mothers and motherhood in the writing of Gwen Harwood.” Southerly: A Review of Australian Literature 52.1 (1992): 1-19. Print.