Today is World Poetry Day. To celebrate, we’re not going to attempt our own versions of verse. Instead, here are five Australian poets who can weave words into wondrous shapes.
Andrew Barton ‘Banjo’ Paterson was born in 1864 on a property just outside Orange, New South Wales. Home to one of Charles Sturt University’s (CSU’s) campuses, Orange holds an annual poetry festival to celebrate Banjo’s word skills. Besides writing verse, he also worked as a solicitor and as a correspondent during the Second Boer War, and served in the army during World War I. He died in 1941.
Paterson is often referred to as a ‘bush poet’ and much of his work celebrates and romanticises the figure of the bushman at home in the Australian wilderness. His poems frequently highlight the independent spirit and heroic underdog status of the bushman. This is one reason why his poetry has become so well loved. And his ballad ‘The Man from Snowy River’ certainly has a claim to be the most well-known Australian poem. Not many poems can claim to have inspired a movie.
I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges
Of droughts and flooding rains
Generations of Australians are familiar with these lines from Dorothea Mackellar’s poem ‘My Country’. The poem has been taken to the country’s heart, particularly so during World War I when feelings of patriotism ran high, as did the longing for home among Australian troops and the longing for their return among their families.
Mackellar was born in 1885 and travelled widely throughout her life. However, her work showed she was particularly adept at evoking the Australian landscape, and with it embodying the emotional connection Australians have to the land – even though that land can sometimes be a hard place.
Lionel Fogarty was born in 1958 at Barambah, now known as Cherbourg, in Southern Queensland. He has been intimately involved in the political struggles of the Aboriginal people, including the land rights movement, establishing Aboriginal health and legal services, and the issue of black deaths in police custody.
This political engagement has informed much of his writing and is combined with the innovative use of Aboriginal English language to usurp traditional cultural assumptions. His engagement is evident throughout the nine collections of verse he has published, and was fully formed even in his first book, Kargun, published in 1980, which announced a voice that was truly unique.
Translated into 11 different languages and winning countless awards (including the prestigious T.S. Eliot Prize), Les Murray’s poetry engages not only with contemporary questions, but also with the act of writing and the linguistic potential of poetry itself. At once dense and engaging, Murray explores themes such as religious values, democracy, the contradictions in Australian society and the influence of Aboriginal culture on not only his own thinking but on the nation’s psyche as a whole. He also has a deft feel for small-town Australia, those rural places where the Australian notion of independence abuts the realities of carving out a meaningful life.
Born in 1938, Murray grew up in a one such rural location, and the proximity to Australia’s wilderness imbued him with a love of nature that is also evident in his verse. Murray published his first solo poetry collection, The Weatherboard Cathedral, in 1969, while his latest, Waiting for the Past, was published in 2015.
Oodgeroo Noonuccal was born in 1920, and named Kathleen. Her father belonged to the Noonuccal people, the traditional inhabitants of Minjerribah, and worked for the Queensland Government as part of a poorly paid Aboriginal workforce. His campaigning for better conditions for his fellow workers would have a lasting impact on Noonuccal’s life and work.
She didn’t start writing verse until she was in her forties, having spent her career thus far in secretarial and domestic service roles while raising her children. Her first collection, We Are Going, was published in 1964. By all accounts it was a publishing sensation, selling more than 10,000 copies – a volume rarely achieved for a poetry book.
In her verse, Noonuccal engages with her Aboriginal heritage and the political imperatives of Aboriginal rights, social justice and conservationism.
Do you have the write stuff?
If you’re inspired to begin your own adventures in verse, CSU’s Booranga Writers’ Centre supports new scribes in the local as well as student community. Or if you want to dig deeper into the history of poetry, consider specialising within a Bachelor of Arts.