(Warning: Indigenous Australians are advised that some of the links from this blog include images or names of people now deceased.)
OODGEROO NOONUCCAL (1920-1993)
The book My People was published by Jacaranda Press in 1970 and was the first poetry book I bought with my own money! I attended university in Canberra in 1971 and I remember feeling overawed when I met Oodgeroo and Faith Bandler at a conference held at the Australian National University.
“In 1988, as a protest against continuing Aboriginal disadvantage during the Bicentennial Celebration of White Australia, Walker returned the MBE she had been awarded in 1970, and subsequently adopted the Noonuccal tribal name Oodgeroo (meaning paperbark).”
The book’s sub-title, A Kath Walker Collection apt because it is not just poems – there is what we would term flash fiction, and also speeches made by the author, a prominent political activist and fighter for social justice.
Judith Wrightwho was Jacaranda’s poetry reader in the 60s recommended the publication of Oodgeroo’s first collection We Are Going, in 1964.
“The work was an immediate commercial success, selling more than ten thousand copies and making Walker the best selling Australian poet since CJ Dennis.
The plain-speaking style of her poetry, and the strong element of protest in it, precluded literary acclaim for her work, but the role of a political ‘protest poet’ was one in which Walker would come to revel.“
It was my passionate support for the rights of Aborigines that led me to seek out Indigenous writers discovering Oodgeroo first, and then later many others.
I’ve already written about West Australian Jack Davis.
Like many white Australians who were immigrants and lived ‘in the suburbs down south’, initially knowledge of Aboriginal affairs came from school and mainstream media. At school, it was more colonial history and the less said about media coverage the better. (In the main, this still produces poor quality information!)
In the mid-60s,Harold Blairvisited Croydon High School and was often in the news. My father who loved singing and had a wonderful tenor voice became very interested in everything Harold did or said. Around the dinner table, we often discussed politics including the plight of Aboriginal Australians.
On page 36-7 as well as a poem, Oodgeroo has written an historical document, prepared and presented to the 5th Annual General Meeting of the Federal Council Aboriginal Advancement, held at Adelaide, Easter 1962:
“We want hope, not racialism, Brotherhood, not ostracism, Black advance,not white ascendance: Make us equals, not dependants…
Must we native Old Australians In our land rank as aliens? …”
Similar to Jack Davis, her fellow writer/activist, Oodgeroo assumed a role of cultural guardian and educator for her people, establishing the Noonuccal-Nughie Education and Cultural Centre at Moongalba, near Amity Point on Stradbroke, her island home. A rich legacy includes Indigenous studies being embedded in Queensland University’s curriculum.
The poems and essays in My People focus on conveying the point of view and plight of Aboriginal Australia to non-Aboriginal readers. The words are not strident but the message is strong. As a member of the Communist Party in the 1940s, because it was the only political party against the White Australia Policy at the time, a universal philosophy of the ‘brotherhood of man’ influenced Oodgeroo’s work.
All One Race (page 1)
Black tribe, yellow tribe, red, white or brown,
From where the sun jumps up to where it goes down,
Herrs and pukka-sahibs, demoiselles and squaws,
All one family, so why make wars?…
… I’m international, never mind place;
I’m for humanity, all one race.
Let us Not be Bitter (page 20)
Away with bitterness, my own dark people
Come stand with me, look forward, not back,
For a new time has come for us.
Now we must change, my people. For so long
Time for us stood still; now we know
Life is change, life is progress,
Life is learning things, life is onward.
White men had to learn civilised ways,
Now it is our turn…
An Appeal (page 3)
Statesmen, who make the nation’s laws,
With power to force unfriendly doors,
Give leadership in this our cause
That leaders owe.
Writers, who have the nation’s ear,
Your pen a sword opponents fear,
Speak of our evils loud and clear
That all may know…
And the poet continues to plea to Unions, Churches, The Press and ultimately All white well-wishers.
However, by the end of the book, there is a change of tone and readers can detect impatience and frustration at not only the slow, if any, change to a system of endemic injustice, but anger at the lack of land rights and respect for her people and country.
I am Proud (page 86)
I am black of skin among whites,
And I am proud,
Proud of race and proud of skin.
I am broken and poor,
Dressed in rags from white man’s back,
But do not think I am ashamed.
Spears could not contend against guns and we were mastered,
But there are things they could not plunder and destroy.
We were conquered but never subservient,
We were compelled but never servile.
Do not think I cringe as white men cringe to whites.
I am proud,
Though humble and poor and without a home…
So was Christ.
Recognition of Aboriginal sovereignty, Oodgeroo assumed would be a given once white people were educated and understood everyone’s responsibility towards the land and the rights of Native Title.
She believed enlightenment, and compassion would also lead to a material change and improvement in living conditions for Aboriginal Australians.
Oodgeroo’s mastery of English and her command of poetic techniques, coupled with deep-felt honesty and her lived experience of Aboriginal Australia has produced memorable verses of varying styles and a powerful snapshot of Australia in the late 60s.
Namatjira (page 64)
… What did their loud acclaim avail
Who gave you honour, then gave you jail?
Namatjira, they boomed your art,
They called you genius, then broke your heart.
The Dispossessed (page 65)
For Uncle Willie McKenzie
… The white man claimed your hunting grounds and you could not remain,
They made you work as menials for greedy private gain;
Your tribes are broken vagrants now wherever whites abide,
And justice of the white man means justice to you denied…
There are also personal poems where we see glimpses of the writer, activist, teacher, woman and mother. Poems about tribal ways, historical incidents, totems, unmarried mothers, the dreams of young women, family past and present, and always the longing and belonging to country:
Artist Son (page 54)
… Paint joy, not pain,
Paint beauty and happiness for men,
Paint the rare insight glimpses that express
What tongue cannot or pen: …
Son of Mine (page 55)
My son, your troubled eyes search mine,
Puzzled and hurt by colour line.
Your black skin soft as velvet shine;
What can I tell you, son of mine?…
My Love (page 50)
Possess me? No, I cannot give
The love that others know,
For I am wedded to a cause:
The rest I must forgo…
The social part, the personal
I have renounced of old;
Mine is a dedicated life,
No man’s to have and hold…
For there are ancient wrongs to right,
Men’s malice to endure;
A long road and a lonely road,
But oh, the goal is sure.
I recommend My People to readers because of the quality of the writing and the narrative of a time past laced with the present and future. The poems, a way of understanding the historical struggle of Aboriginal Australia and the richness of its culture and traditions.
The writer’s voice perceptive, strong, precise in detail, encapsulating a love for humanity and a vision for a peaceful, fairer future. Something we should all wish for!
A Song of Hope (page 40)
Look up, my people,
The dawn is breaking,
The world is waking
To a new bright day,
When none defame us,
No restriction tame us,
Nor colour shame us,
Nor sneer dismay…
To our fathers’ fathers
The pain, the sorrow;
To our children’s children
The glad tomorrow.
Several years ago, I went to ‘Breakfast With Poets and Ideas,’ an event at Melbourne University. A selection of guest poets discussed why they wrote poetry and who or what motivated them.
They discussed the question: Can poets change the times they live in?
Is it okay to philosophise with your pen?
Can writing be political?
Should it be political?
Do poets simply share what they see or think at a particular time?
Are poets revealing their feelings, arousing emotions and trying to change attitudes?
What is the purpose of poetry?
Is it primarily a mental exercise, a playing with words to amuse self and the reader?
Should teaching or preaching be secondary – perhaps non-existent?
Must there be a message -what of the inner child?
This term in class we’ve been looking at how poetic techniques, especially simile, metaphor and personification, can lift writing from the realm of ordinariness to be engaging and memorable, even if the poem is not deep and meaningful.
There are so many poems to choose from, but I’ve stuck with those regarded as classics or my personal favourites.
Metaphor by Eve Merriam
a new sheet of paper
for you to write on
Whatever you want to say
and files it away
The bright words and the dark words
and a new day
to write on.
How To Eat A Poem by Eve Merriam
Don’t be polite.
Pick it up with your fingers and lick the juice that
may run down your chin.
It is ready and ripe now, whenever you are.
You do not need a knife or fork or spoon
or plate or napkin or tablecloth.
For there is no core
to throw away.
Poetic language gives us life experience through the words, the poet’s power of transcendence can be magical and powerful. The images created take us to a world of enchantment, exuberance, entertainment and yet have us reflect on living and life’s ‘big picture’.
The Daffodils by William Wordsworth, 1770 – 1850
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the Milky Way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced, but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A Poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
From breakfast on through all the day
At home among my friends I stay,
But every night I go abroad
Afar into the land of Nod.
All by myself, I have to go,
With none to tell me what to do —
All alone beside the streams
And up the mountain-sides of dreams.
The strangest things are there for me,
Both things to eat and things to see,
And many frightening sights abroad
Till morning in the land of Nod.
Try as I like to find the way,
I never can get back by day,
Nor can remember plain and clear
The curious music that I hear.
Poets can sway thinking and emotions, especially of influential people and can encourage social progress and justice. (WW1 poets) The diaries of POWs and journals of soldiers examples of carefulness and mindfulness of word choice and meaning. The fragility of the human condition.
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares, we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Poets notice detail, they don’t pass or ignore the every day. (Emily Dickinson)
How happy is the little Stone
That rambles in the Road alone,
And doesn’t care about Careers
And Exigencies never fears—
Whose Coat of elemental Brown
A passing Universe put on,
And independent as the Sun
Associates or glows alone,
Fulfilling absolute Decree
In casual simplicity—
Every year Emily Dickinson sent one friend
the first arbutus bud in her garden.
In a last will and testament Andrew Jackson
remembered a friend with the gift of George
Washington’s pocket spy-glass.
Napoleon too, in a last testament, mentioned a silver
watch taken from the bedroom of Frederick the Great,
and passed along this trophy to a particular friend.
O. Henry took a blood carnation from his coat lapel
and handed it to a country girl starting work in a
bean bazaar, and scribbled: “Peach blossoms may or
may not stay pink in city dust.”
So it goes. Some things we buy, some not.
Tom Jefferson was proud of his radishes, and Abe
Lincoln blacked his own boots, and Bismarck called
Berlin a wilderness of brick and newspapers.
So it goes. There are accomplished facts.
Ride, ride, ride on in the great new blimps—
Cross unheard-of oceans, circle the planet.
When you come back we may sit by five hollyhocks.
We might listen to boys fighting for marbles.
The grasshopper will look good to us.
So it goes …
Poetry won’t teach us to live well but incite us to try to do so. (Judith Wright) Many poets immerse themselves in the natural and cultural environment, their perception of life and love laid bare in their words.
Under the death of winter’s leaves he lies
who cried to Nothing and the terrible night
to be his home and bread. “O take from me
the weight and waterfall ceaseless Time
that batters down my weakness; the knives of light
whose thrust I cannot turn; the cruelty
of human eyes that dare not touch nor pity.”
Under the worn leaves of the winter city
safe in the house of Nothing now he lies.
His white and burning girl, his woman of fire,
creeps to his heart and sets a candle there
to melt away the flesh that hides from bone,
to eat the nerve that tethers him in time.
He will lie warm until the bone is bare
and on a dead dark moon he wakes alone.
It was for Death he took her; death is but this;
and yet he is uneasy under her kiss
and winces from that acid of her desire.
The free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wings
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.
But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings
with fearful trill
of the things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill for the caged bird
sings of freedom
The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
Poetry will make space for your inner life. (WH Auden) We need the poet’s eye to make the familiar extraordinary. Poets have words to remind us of the daily beauties of nature, we are too busy to notice.
… rain bubblewrapping the window… its squirting glance… rustle of descending silk… streetlights tumbledown gloom… skyline of gold muted glow… rain wetting its own socks… rain grumbling across awnings and rooftops… tomorrow’s weather haunts a small room…
And some say “Shame” when we’re talkin’ up
And “Shame” for the way we are
And “Shame” cause we ain’t got a big flash house
Or a steady job and a car.
Some call it “Shame” when our kids they die
From colds or from sheer neglect
“Shame” when we live on the river banks
While collectin’ our welfare cheques
“Shame” when we’re blind from trachoma
“Shame” when we’re crippled from blights
But I reckon the worstest shame is yours
You deny us human rights
Poetry can be successfully political by going inwards first before going outwards to create profound images that make the message universal. (Pablo Neruda)
An odor has remained among the sugarcane:
a mixture of blood and body, a penetrating
petal that brings nausea.
Between the coconut palms the graves are full
of ruined bones, of speechless death-rattles.
The delicate dictator is talking
with top hats, gold braid, and collars.
The tiny palace gleams like a watch
and the rapid laughs with gloves on
cross the corridors at times
and join the dead voices
and the blue mouths freshly buried.
The weeping cannot be seen, like a plant
whose seeds fall endlessly on the earth,
whose large blind leaves grow even without light.
Hatred has grown scale on scale,
blow on blow, in the ghastly water of the swamp,
with a snout full of ooze and silence
The function of poetry is to raise deeper awareness, not necessarily encourage activism, but encourage thought and an inward change. Poetry will not or should not ignore evidence – it may be ephemeral, but must be authentic and truthful. Although poets use words, poetry is the art of images, the art of languages – metaphors, similes, alliteration, assonance, allusion, repetition, personification, irony, motifs, senses, parody and prophecy…
They came into the little town
A semi-naked band subdued and silent
All that remained of their tribe.
They came here to the place of their old bora ground
Where now the many white men hurry about like ants.
Notice of the estate agent reads: ‘Rubbish May Be Tipped Here’.
Now it half covers the traces of the old bora ring.
‘We are as strangers here now, but the white tribe are the strangers.
We belong here, we are of the old ways.
We are the corroboree and the bora ground,
We are the old ceremonies, the laws of the elders.
We are the wonder tales of Dream Time, the tribal legends told.
We are the past, the hunts and the laughing games, the wandering campfires.
We are the lightning bolt over Gaphembah Hill
Quick and terrible,
And the Thunderer after him, that loud fellow.
We are the quiet daybreak paling the dark lagoon.
We are the shadow-ghosts creeping back as the campfires burn low.
We are nature and the past, all the old ways
Gone now and scattered.
The scrubs are gone, the hunting and the laughter.
The eagle is gone, the emu and the kangaroo are gone from this place.
The bora ring is gone.
The corroboree is gone.
And we are going.’
Yeats shows us how a single word can change meaning – when the beast (donkey) ‘slouches towards Bethlehem ‘…
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Songwriting and music’s poetic sensibilities lead to powerful messages and songwriters are less inhibited about being political. (Bob Dylan, Joan Baez) Joni Mitchellwrote Slouching Towards Bethlehem warning us like Yeats that a reckoning, a revelation is at hand!
A good poem is intrinsically musical. There is a rhythm, an innate musicality of the words so that poets don’t need the extra layer of music. However, if you include songwriting as poetry then poems can have a wide-ranging impact!
Poets always have anxiety about how the world is changing, and this century is no exception. Issues like war perennial, but now we have global warming and the effects of climate change to worry about! It is disconcerting to consider ‘this broken thing we call the world’ but poetry does it admirably and we are enriched.
Slavery, racism and social injustice were considered the norm not that long ago. Poets, songwriters and other artists who despised racism and slavery, who believed in the ‘brotherhood of man’ persuaded people to change their beliefs. Poets like William Blake (English), Walt Whitman (American), William Butler Yeats (Irish) and Robert Burns (Scottish). International condemnation prophetically and eloquently phrased urging reform and their fellow citizens to embrace equality and tolerance.
Where would we be without poetry and the lessons we learn?
Do you have a favourite poem or a poem that has impressed you, motivated you to write, or introduced you to a technique you can use in your own writing? Please share and I will add it to my repertoire for class.