Reality Rhymes – blog by Susan Francis
Who’s your favourite Australian poet? This one’s easy! Because I think the ideas explored in Australian poetry, post colonisation, are more unconventional than some of the broader subject matter written about in our fiction. Since settlement, there’s been a long tradition of poets reflecting on marginalised experiences (Robert Southey, the first poet to write about Australia, focussed on the plight of convicts). Later, think of Lesbia Harford, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Komninos and the Avant Garde movement: writers who all sought to capture more intimate, more diverse aspects of Australian life.
Therefore, in the spirit of the unorthodox, let me introduce you to the Australian poet I admire most: a gentle giant of a man, who, in creating a style combining 17th century French lyricism with modernism, set out to examine the lives of quiet desperation led by Sydney women in the 1930s. He represented the battered women; the lonely, frail, discarded women, and the typist from the bank conducting an affair with her boss. The poet is Ronald McCuaig. Born right here in Newcastle.
McCuaig grew up in Mayfield, a few streets away from where I currently live. In 1915, when he was seven years old, his mother died. Afterwards, father and son relied more than ever on each other and his father used to read Ron the poetry of Banjo Paterson. Later, much of McCuaig’s working life, was spent in Sydney, as a newspaper journalist. For many years he worked at The Bulletin and at Smith’s Weekly. He was also a literary critic, editor, short story writer, and poet. These days, most people, if they know of him at all, know of McCuaig because of the two children’s books he wrote, Gangles and Tobolino and The Amazing Football Boots. He was also admired for the light verse he wrote, and the work he produced at The Bulletin under the pen name ‘Swilliam’.
I began a post graduate degree on McCuaig’s work over twenty years ago. During one interview in 1997, with the late, great Geoffrey Dutton (another extraordinary Australian writer), Dutton told me he believed McCuaig had come earlier to the modernist style than Slessor. I was happy with this response because for me, the power of McCuaig’s portrayal of women in his book Vaudeville broke with the idea of representing the mainstream.
McCuaig wrote the Vaudeville poems between 1933 and 34. But the collection was considered too controversial for Australian audiences, and refused by seven traditional publishers. So, in 1938, McCuaig hand printed the book in his living room. Peter Kirkpatrick, writing in Southerly in 1991 states … the sexual candour of many of these poems of urban life meant they were unacceptable to the conservative literary journals and presses, so after four years of trying to find a publisher the author decided to publish them himself…
When you read the following poem from Vaudeville, titled The Letter, it’s clear why McCuaig was forced to publish his own work.
The opposite flat is dark and dumb, Yet I feel certain he will come Home to his love as drunk as ever And, in a slowly rising fever, Noting the whisky bottle gone, Will trip and curse and stumble on Into the bathroom, pull the chain, Fumble the cabinet, curse again; Will ask the slut where she has hid His toothbrush; blunder back to bed, Find his pyjamas tied in knots And give her, as he puts it, what's Coming to her. She won't escape Her deeply meditated rape.
Betty by the Sea, another poem in the collection, offers a frank comment about women and old age through the figure of Betty, living a life no longer perceived by society as meaningful.
Her drooping flowers dabble upon Drooping breasts of crisp cretonne The thirsty sun has drained her breasts of milk of human interests…
McCuaig only published 150 copies of Vaudeville and I’m lucky enough to own one. Lucky, because I think it’s remarkable, the way McCuaig draws attention to marginalised women by employing irony to evoke empathy. And once again, I’m remined, of Henry Lawson – in this instance, his poem about the prostitute standing under the street lamp.
Australian literature. Does such a thing exist? Absolutely!
[picture of McCuaig sourced from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ronald_McCuaig]
Susan Francis’ memoir is to be published by Allen and Unwin and will be available early next year. She discussed a brief part of this book on ABC Conversations. You can listen to that here:
Susan has been published in various anthologies, most recently The Newcastle Short Story Award 2019. Her work has been short and long listed for competitions around Australia, including the E.J. Brady Award and the Margaret River competition. Susan has a Masters Degree in Australian Literature and a half finished PhD sitting in her garage. She is a former High School English teacher. Susan is currently working on her second book.