Excerpt from Thesis on David Rowbotham by Stephany Louise Steggall

Death Of An Author

David Rowbotham: A New Kind Of Introduction

(“…a kind of case study for considering deficiencies in Australian literary criticism in the period since World War II”)

by Stephany Louise Steggall

from a Thesis entitled: “WORTHY OF MY LIFE’S TIME”: A CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF THE POETRY OF DAVID ROWBOTHAM IN TERMS OF HIS REASSESSMENT OF HIS CAREER – undertaken for Postgraduate Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in English, University of Queensland, 2000

David Rowbotham (1924-) is a complex and sophisticated Australian writer with an extensive output of poetry, prose-fiction and journalism in a writing career that began just after the war. He is, above all, a poet – and one who has continually attempted to define his situation. As a result, he presents an opportunity to investigate the way a poet redefines himself and his work and reacts to prevailing models of criticism and theory. He has completed this definition in his poetry at various, crucial stages of his career and, since he has had very little assistance from Australian poetry critics and scholars, he can also be regarded as a kind of case study for considering deficiencies in Australian literary criticism in the period since World War 11.

Although he is the subject of a monograph by John Strugnell (Focus on David Rowbotham), published in the University of Queensland Press’s Artists in Queensland series, valuable critical material is limited to Kenneth Slessor, David Malouf, Martin Duwell, James Tulip and Thomas Shapcott, whose appreciation of his development remedies in part the inadequacies of many cruder views of his books. In particular, Malouf’s extensive article in Australian Literary Studies, May 1982, looks closely at his career and puts it in perspective. Malouf uses the poem “Permanent Way” (from the volume The Pen of Feathers) to explore the poet’s sense of his position and purpose:

“‘Permanent Way’… one of Rowbotham’s finest, offers a clue perhaps to how we should see him: he keeps moving, but in the one line, and that line a public and established one. How much can be achieved on the way the poem itself demonstrates. The last lines, which in their tone, but also in their imagery, may have offered a hint to Les Murray, are achieved with great delicacy and discretion. He is speaking of a workman he has seen earlier:

Later, I passed his way again.

He sat in the shade of the rock beside his lunch-box,

And waved a hand, which held a sandwich, in greeting.

I liked him.

There was a humility in him,

And some kind of permanence.

“Without meaning in any way to qualify the generosity of the poet’s tribute by reading it as self-reflection, we might nonetheless recognise in Rowbotham what he praises in the workman. It is a kind of humility and permanence in himself that makes him sensitive to those qualities in the other and leads him to see them both, equally, as workers along the road.

“What is it in David Rowbotham that makes him central to a tradition, and how far has he moved?

“A concern with permanence is certainly one of the characteristics of that tradition, a belief that the best values are quiet, common, even commonplace and that they are best spoken for from the centre rather than the extremes. There is also humility in it: a belief that the poet ought not to claim too much for his own insights and that he should speak sociably, using common language and the middle voice; a belief too that he reflects things, and reflects upon their significance, but does not use or change them.”

David Malouf’s assessment is used in this thesis as a basis for an extended appraisal of Rowbotham, whose work is even more complicated than Malouf realises. But a cue is taken from Malouf’s awareness of Rowbotham’s “concern with permanence” and used to trace the shape of a long writing life.

Rowbotham’s poems number 400 in his books alone, and his reputation is based on a consistent publishing history. National appearance of his poetry began with the Sydney Bulletin in 1946 and the Jindyworobak Anthologies in the late 1940s. He has been published regularly in anthologies of Australian verse through the past five decades and occasionally in overseas publications: conservatively, a total of 200 representations. He has published ten books of poetry and another is due for publication in 2000. He has had recent publication in major Australian newspapers, as well as in The Bulletin and Southerly; which signifies his continuing commitment to his craft despite the poverty of criticism and acknowledgment.

A survey of his representation in major anthologies and literary histories shows, as James Tulip has remarked, that he is a figure “whom fashion has eclipsed and who may be waiting to be rediscovered”. The histories focus briefly on his association with the tradition established at The Bulletin by its Red Page editor and literary critic Douglas Stewart and include him in lists of those who continue to produce significant work since the 1960s rather than in according independent recognition. Thomas W. Riggs’ Contemporary Poets (1996) and The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature (1994) provide synopses of his work and status.

Rowbotham’s poems appear in several important anthologies of the 1990s: Phillip Neilsen and Helen Horton, Jennifer Strauss, Kevin Hart, Thomas Shapcott, and Peter Porter. Significantly, he is well represented in those anthologies edited by Les Murray. Contrary to this, he is not published in anthologies edited by Vincent Buckley, John Leonard, Robert Gray and Geoffrey Lehmann, and John Tranter and Philip Mead; these were mainstream anthologies of the 1990s. Nor does his name appear in anthologies edited by Rodney Hall, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, and Harry Heseltine in the 1980s.

The accumulated material on individual authors is not always proportionate to the volume or veracity of their writing. The ALS Cumulative Guide to Australian Literature edited by L.T. Hergenhan reflects fashions in criticism: the worth of the lower profile writer is subordinate to the acceptance of those writers with an established international reputation. The merit of a rich and rewarding poet like David Rowbotham can lapse. Such a poet can become an unfashionable, non-canonical writer. Thus the “death” of an author occurs: implicit in the veil of forgetfulness that descends over the less popular poet, in the denial of individual performance, and in disregard of the poet’s right to a detailed sensitive reading of his work over time.

This thesis seeks to redress the omission of Rowbotham from the list of Australian writers whose critical reception has supported their continuing engagement with poetry. A considered analytic statement of the poet’s complete works is made, laying the emphasis on primary texts rather than advanced literary theory. Access to some personal correspondence has assisted the research. Reference is also made to Rowbotham’s journalistic output as Arts and Literary Editor, later Literary Editor and Theatre Critic for the Brisbane Courier-Mail for seventeen years. A comprehensive profile of the poet and his work is available on the World Wide Web. The National Library of Australia, which lists details on its Internet site, holds most significant papers – correspondence with fellow writers, drafts of published and unpublished works, articles and lectures – in its Manuscript Section.

In the absence of adequate critical material, questions such as the poet’s cast of mind and his relationship to the reader are derived from his books of published verse in chronological order. A point of reference is also made to the poem “The Pen of Feathers” (from The Pen of Feathers).

Most, I didn’t presume, and never do,

Though I write this for possible future view,

That you or the world would necessarily come

To deem my work worthy of my life’s time

Or worth the span of breath I put to it;

But compulsion in my pen of feathers set

The travelling station of the seeker’s role.

You, if you find me, have also been my goal.

This poem expresses something of the poet’s awareness of being overlooked or underestimated. It warrants reading again. It is an important poem that highlights Rowbotham’s endeavour to monitor his own development and his attempt to understand himself.

A preoccupation with his identity as poet and person dominates the verse, which moves away from poetry of place to broader perspectives, yet returns to the poet’s primary origins. The influence of his war experiences and later his extensive travels in the 1970s and 1980s often directs his voice. But apart from his earliest work he is not a follower of particular schools of fashion. His is “an individual flight” (The Pen of Feathers) or, to use a common refrain in his poetry, the life work of a “survivor”.

Of the postwar generation of returned servicemen, including David Campbell and Francis Webb, who started publishing verse, David Rowbotham at 75 is the only one still alive and practising. It is time to restore his poetry and gain a better understanding of his considerable contribution to Australian literature by investigating the poems themselves, and the nugatory – the trivial, the invalid – critical response, and his own developing sense of the shape of his career.

*Published on the Internet with the permission of the author, Stephany Louise Steggall, July 24, 2000.

Report on Stephany Steggall’s Dissertation on David Rowbotham.

By Dan O’Neill
Senior Lecturer, English Department, University of Queensland.

Stephany Steggall tackled a difficult subject in her attempt to sum up and critically analyse the poetry of David Rowbotham. In the first place, there is very little
precedent in our ongoing public intellectual life for comprehensive assessment of the whole writing life of twentieth century writers. There are therefore few models for the sort of project undertaken here. Secondly, the work of David Rowbotham has not presented any spectacular contours to would-be commentators. His various books have been issued at intervals of a long career and his development has not, until fairly recently, challenged critics to distinguish its phases. An overall impression seems to exist of a quiet persistence of solid worth that calls no particular attention to itself. Even the studies cited and quoted from in this dissertation don’t do much to disturb this impression. So there is not much out there that is helpful to someone looking at Rowbotham in toto for the first time.

It is to Stephany Steggall’s credit that she is able, in these literary-critical circumstances, to produce a very interesting and coherent overall account of a career that moves through about four distinguishable and critically significant stages. Someone coming to Rowbotham’s work for the first time, and even a mildly puzzled seasoned reader of it, would find this account of his poetry very helpful in trying to understand it and come to terms with it as a whole. In a way, it constitutes the sort of junction between literary history and critical biography that lays the basis for fruitful critical discussion of a poet’s whole corpus in place and time.

Stephany Steggall identifies some of the central and continuing themes (viz. people in their landscapes, borders, moving on into wider worlds, the war, survival, return to the everyday) that organise a lifetime’s poetic effort. She also distinguishes the motifs that indicate significant movement and change as Rowbotham’s work matures: his identity as, precisely, a poet, one of “the makers of the ark”, travel, the impulse to sum up, the sense of time elapsing, betrayal.

But I have the strong feeling that more could have been done with this material. I am sure Stephany Steggall has looked with close attention at all Rowbotham’s poems and knows them in detail. But, apart from the very fine commentary on the poem quoted at the end, “Silhouette”, there is not nearly enough close reading. The dissertation is very interesting to read because the author is able to quote so illustratively and in a way that really clarifies general assertions made. The long quotations follow one another in a way that makes the reader see Rowbotham’s capacity for development. But the categories used and general propositions advanced could have been made much more sophisticated and useful, and much more exploration and cross-referring could have been done, by selecting crucial poems at regular points and reading them with close responsiveness to vocabulary, syntax, rhythm and other stylistic features. I had hopes of this when, early in the dissertation, the author quoted some of David Malouf’s assessment of Rowbotham, saying that this assessment would be used as a basis for “extended appraisal”, but then going on to assert that Rowbotham’s “work is even more complicated than Malouf realises”. This last remark seemed to be pointing in the right direction, but the close attention was not really forthcoming.

The dissertation tends to rely a little too much on formulations coming from influential sources within the critical establishment, not for its opinions, but for the categories in which they will be shaped. Rowbotham’s early work is said to be informed by “a Romantic model”; another influence “may be termed the Stewart model”; Stewart is quoted referring to “a Bulletin school of minor nature poets flourishing in the forties”. These sorts of categories needed to be treated less descriptively, more interrogatively, more evaluatively. They could have been tested more on the detail and process of the poems themselves, as could the later categories emanating from Malouf and Shapcott.

In general there was not quite enough critical independence, or, when there was something approaching this, it was not followed through sufficiently. A poem quoted on p.21 is said to be “the definitive Australian statement”. On p.34 it is declared: “Some of his poetry is cryptic”. Then: “some of the verse is theoretically too large and structurally too complex”. All these are interesting claims. But it is what would have justified them that is then lacking. This would have been the element of close engagement with the text that would have given the whole dissertation another character.

I come back to the concluding commentary on the poem “Silhouette”. This forwards the case that Rowbotham’s whole body of work needs to be seen as determined by the feeling of a solitary fight for “a prized vantage-point” which turns out to be a sort of holding of one’s ground and, in the inevitable and paradoxical defeat, belonging. This is a particularly rich and complex assertion, and the technique of strategic quotation (the poem occupies two and a half pages of the text) is reinforced ably by the deft and subtle remarks that elucidate the quoted poem. In my view the balancing of illustration of general assertion by detailed analysis (and even more detailed analysis than this) should not have been left so late. In fact it should have been continual throughout. I think Stephany Steggall would have been quite capable of doing this well.

* Published on the Internet with the permission of Mr Dan O’Neill, who holds all copyright, and by agreement with Stephany Louise Steggall who was awarded BA High Honours for the first thesis ever written on its subject – David Rowbotham, Brisbane, Thursday, November 1, 2000.