Surviving The Winter Of Discontent

By Adrian McGregor

Weekend Australian – October 25-26 2003

David Rowbotham had this vivid opening line for a poem: “The hawk dived in his body …” And then, and then. The poet was stumped. He had a vague image of mental illness, of a person deprived of speech, of a bird that had flown directly into a body and taken possession, Each morning he brought up the line on his computer screen and let it sit there, glancing at it three or four times during the day. Frustrated, he eventually conceded, “Whatever I have in mind here, it’s not going to work.” His mind thus cleared, the line provoked an unexpected sensuality. “The Hawk dived in his body to reach hers,” he typed, and read it back. Not a bad image for the beginning of a love poem, he mused. Sometimes poets need luck. Then he worked hard to sustain it. “She felt it strike and then begin to pick./ Her convulsion was the epitome of quick/ flight: what the hawk did was make her seizure his.” Hawk was published in this newspaper in October 2001 and included in his book Poems for America, published last year. A powerful evocation of desire, “an instinct as old as the sun”, the poem moved Nicholas Hasluck, then chairman of the Literature Board of the Australia Council, to write to Rowbotham praising Hawk as “one of the most memorable poems I have read for many years”.

So here’s Rowbotham, 79, one of Australia’s most eminent postwar poets, hard of hearing and worse of sight, but clearly agile of mind and lusty of spirit. Yet in Poems for America he is described as “the most major of our neglected poets”. It’s a curious phrase, begging the question whether he is most neglected or whether it is he who most sharply feels any such neglect. His evidence is that he was not invited to last month’s Brisbane Writers Festival, the 16th consecutive year he has been thus ignored.

Festival director Rosemary Cameron says she cannot speak for previous directors but doubts any suggestion of a vendetta. “I don’t carry in my head a list of Brisbane poets,” she says. “The way festivals work is that directors rely heavily on publishers and agents. It may be simply that he has nobody actively barracking for him, but I have told him we’ll make next year’s festival his 80th Birthday Party.” That excuses this year’s festival – Only 15 to go.

It is no exaggeration to describe Rowbotham as the erstwhile maverick of Queensland’s literary world. Teaching at the University of Queensland in the late 1960′s he rebelled against the courses, antagonising many of his English department colleagues. “The department had a dogmatic view of literature, whereas I, as a writer, had far more liberal ideas.” he says. Though that was 30 years ago, Rowbotham says, “the melody lingers on. They have never forgiven me and I have never been invited back.” He acquired more enemies when reigning for 17 years as the powerful literary editor and theatre critic for Brisbane’s daily bible, The Courier-Mail newspaper. He wrote 4000 theatre and book reviews, and then occasional acerbic critique ensured that those who could remember would.

The bitterest complaint levelled against him was that he would no review local authors, to which he replies, “The academics got angry because I wouldn’t review their books. But I had to run readable pages and their books were so dull they couldn’t be reviewed. If I did offend in those days, I was only ever honest.”

Against this, novelist David Malouf recalls Rowbotham as supportive of local poets and generous with his time and criticisms. “In 1975 my novel Johnno received some terrible reviews and he was one of the first, and in some ways the only, reviewer to give it [a] warm and admiring review.”

Rowbotham concedes that part of his problem may have been never hiring an agent to promote his name as a poet among publishers and the public. “Never had anyone to charm me into sending my poems off to festivals and prizes.” he says. “You have to be prepared to push yourself forward and, frankly, it embarrasses me. I’ve tried it, but it comes unstuck and I pull out because it sounds so immodest. So these festivals always get the same people, Bruce Dawe, Peter Poter, Judith Rodriguez, Rodney Hall, none of whom are backward in coming forward. I’m not knocking these fellows, good luck to them, they deserve whatever exposure they get.”

Rowbotham impressed audiences reading at the Brisbane Poetry Festival last month and also at this years NSW Writers’ Centre autumn festival. But in the centre’s monthly journal he subsequently vented his feelings about poets who behave like celebrities. “The danger of celebrity circuits are compounded when just a few poets are chosen, often by their own bidding, to be stars,” he wrote. “Stars. frequently at one another’s throats … have divided Australian poetry and the true spirit has fallen out of it.”

In an interview with an American poetry editor last year, Rowbotham, while expressing his admiration for Les Murray’s poems, voiced doubts about Murray being seen as the incarnation of Australian poetry worldwide.

“We agreed it is unwise when this happens to any national literature,” wrote Nicholas Birns, general editor of Antipodes, the journal of the American Association of Australian Literary Studies, Birns concluded that Rowbotham’s poetry has not received the recognition it deserves. “By the mystical, if not arbitrary, laws of literary trendiness, Rowbotham’s verse is not in,” he wrote. “Sometimes writers are underrated just for living long lives and are punished for continuing to produce long after the spot light has shifted to younger generations and movements.”

Yet Rowbotham does not lack for lifetime recognition, his CV is a thunder of literary medals, awards and prizes stretching back more than half a century. In 1987 he was awarded a lifetime emeritus fellowship in Australian literature by the Literature Board and it was a grant of $1400 that enabled him to publish Poems for America.

Malouf praises this collection as the poet’s best for 20 years “They are very powerful, and it shows the strength of sticking around and not being diverted from what you do.” he says. “He writes these quite idiosyncratic poems which no one else could ever produce and people who care about poetry recognise that.”

In some ways Rowbotham’s discontent with the contemporary scene may be him projecting his never having resolved trading the freedom of more artistic life for the wages of journalism.

“I grew up during the 1930′s Depression, my dad used to make boots in the wash-house and I felt the insecurity very deeply,” he says. “I had a family to support so I needed a day job.” Unable to deliver himself holly to poetry, for nearly two decades his time was compromised by the demands of newspaper editions.

Birns rates him a classic Australian poet. alongside Judith Wright, A.D. Hope and Kenneth Slessor, the last of whom Rowbotham lauds as “the greatest Australian poet”.

In a grey moment recently he declared his writing innings closed, but this decision is not foregone. As he says, so lyrically, in a poem on the Trojan War, “Stories never stop when ships drift home.”