Lone-wolf poet’s singular voice

An inveterate outsider, David Rowbotham has finally been given the recognition he deserves, writes Stephany Steggall

Weekend Australian January 19, 2008

“DAVID Rowbotham should be nominated for a Patrick White Prize. His work is considerable, impressive, lifelong, and he has not had due recognition for his contribution to Australian poetry.” These are David Gilbey’s words, published in Australian Book Review in 1994. Gilbey was right on every count. Why, then, has it taken so long for recognition for Rowbotham to come, finally, in 2007, with a Patrick White Award?

Rowbotham was born on August 27, 1924, in Toowoomba. After an early boyhood in Breakfast Creek, Brisbane, where his father, Harold, made shoes, the family returned to Toowoomba.

In the poem Cloth and Dirt and Vermin Rowbotham describes their struggles during the Depression: Harold “worked in the quarry; he planted dynamite on the dole; he spaded dirt”; mother Phyllis sewed and scrubbed floors. Their son “sold vermin in old tobacco tins to council men for pennies: penury, for a child”.

On leaving Toowoomba Grammar, Rowbotham worked as a clerk in the Toowoomba foundry, then studied at the Teachers Training College in Brisbane. At 18, he joined the RAAF and served as a wireless operator.

During these years he kept a poetry notebook, because he “urgently wanted to put down in words the country I came from, the Darling Downs, to which I might not have returned … I hated that damned war and realised its dangers and tragedies when I was posted to Bougainville, heard the guns going and saw the wounded.” In The Rattle in the Marquee, written nearly 50 years after listening to a soldier’s death rattle in a hospital tent, the poet wrote: “And the night the rattle stopped,/ The war went so deep it was never removed./ And I know — from diagnosis — that the soldier lived/ in what I did afterwards;/ how I spoke, how I saw, as I versed being urgently.” For the Darling Downs (1948) was a hymn of praise by a survivor.

Of the post-war generation of returned servicemen who started publishing verse, Rowbotham is the only one still alive and practising his craft. Although even the books published recently contain war themes — The Digger’s Lament in The Star of Engelmeer (2006), for example — the earliest collections were the work of a poet of place, in lyric, narrative and portraiture verse.

Ploughman and Poet (1954) and Inland (1958) conformed to “the Stewart model”. Douglas Stewart, then editor of The Bulletin’s literary pages, had a “Bulletin school of minor nature poets flourishing in the ’40s”.

Stewart’s key advisory words? Simplify and clarify. He praised Ploughman and Poet generously: “I can’t think of any other Australian book of poems that sets down a country town so completely and compactly.” Kenneth Slessor’s Country Towns and Judith Wright’s Country Town had their counterpart in Rowbotham’s Hometown, where “The mayor has been ‘in’ for years; the aldermen cough/ Composure, play chess, golf, bowls, well enough,/ And their predecessors austerely framed upstairs/ In ‘the chambers’ put on intolerable airs.” Rowbotham also wrote the memorable Town and City: Tales and Sketches (1956).

At war’s end he returned to teaching and then worked for Angus & Robertson in Sydney, assisting with the editing of the Australian Encyclopedia. He was also an editorial assistant for the Encyclopaedia Britannica in England, where he married Ethel Matthew, a New Zealand nurse. They have two daughters and six grandchildren.

As with Leon Gellert and Slessor, Rowbotham had a long engagement with journalism. Slessor once said that he knew of “no other job where a man can actually be paid to be given so much experience”. Rowbotham started at the Toowoomba Chronicle in 1952 before becoming The Courier Mail’s literary and theatre critic (1955-64) and chief book reviewer (1964-69). In 1970 he was appointed the paper’s inaugural arts and literary editor under John Atherton; and in 1980, when the arts and literary jobs were separated, became literary editor and chief theatre critic. He retired in 1987.

In the 1960s, Rowbotham moved on from nature verse to establish his place as a poet. In the transitional stage some of the verse was thematically too large and structurally too complex; nevertheless, All the Room (1964) won the Grace Leven Prize.

The poet needed such reassurance to continue. In Seven Lustres: On My Thirty-fifth Birthday he spoke of “middle moods/ Where dreams become impatience, doubts a glare”.

By the time of writing The Makers of the Ark (1970), Rowbotham was disillusioned. He regarded the academic fraternity as makers of discord, whose thrusts were parried in the poem Lion’s Gate. He had not fared well as a senior tutor at the University of Queensland in 1965, and retreated wounded to journalism, his parting shots to academe contained in the poison-pen portraits of A Little Bestiary.

The title poem of The Pen of Feathers (1971) was a watershed when he summed up his position as a maker who endeavoured “to mark my age”.

He hoped, defensively, 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”.

Rowbotham was in the surge of post-war fervour in Australian literature, caught between two waves of favourites: the older poets included R.D. FitzGerald, A.D. Hope, Slessor and Wright; the younger numbered Bruce Dawe, David Malouf, Les Murray, Thomas Shapcott and Chris Wallace-Crabbe.

Rowbotham’s group, which included Bruce Beaver, Rosemary Dobson and Gwen Harwood, was overshadowed to some extent by the group that preceded them and eclipsed by the group that followed.

A richly rewarding poet such as Rowbotham can become unfashionable, non-canonical. Thus the “death” of an author occurs. Ironically, Rowbotham was reported to be dying in 1996. He had been in hospital but he was also publishing yet another book of poems, The Ebony Gates: New and Wayside Poems. Since then he has published more books: at the 2007 Brisbane Writers Festival, he read from Rogue Moons, his 15th volume of poetry.

Malouf, who participated in the same festival function, Poetry in the Red Chamber, has been an astute Rowbotham critic, making a detailed, sensitive reading of his work over time. He regarded Permanent Way, about a workman, as one of Rowbotham’s finest poems, seeing a parallel between subject and poet: “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”.

Along the road, Rowbotham has built a consistent publishing history. Maydays (1980), dominated by betrayal and disappointment, also counselled vigilance. His assessment is that he has never compromised his work to fit fashionable movements in literature. He has probably been most effective in personally realised experience, such as that described in Cloth and Dirt and Vermin.

Although he is not identified as a soldier-poet, some of his best poems exposed “the deep unburied blast”, and some were metaphors for Rowbotham. Silhouette, for example, was about a solitary fighter who had fought to gain a prized vantage point, only to admit defeat at the sounding of The Last Post.

Rowbotham’s honours include membership of the Order of Australia and he is an emeritus fellow of Australian literature. In Letter to Jean Chapalain, Rowbotham urged: “Read me again.” Thirty years later, lines from that poem still apply: “Again,/ Read me; amities, my friend!” Rowbotham’s persistence has at long last been rewarded.

The Patrick White Award, which acknowledges Australian writers who have not received sufficient recognition, is a very suitable and satisfying conclusion.