Hart-Smith Feature – Artlook Magazine, July 1979

Artlook [magazine] has initiated a system of inviting guest editors to select material for the Midnight Oil Rig [literary pages] for set periods.


Andrew Lansdown, our first guest editor, has chosen to make his inaugural Rig a special feature on the poetry of William Hart-Smith. We believe this collection of previously unpublished poems will be of great value to students of Australian literature.



Twenty-four Poems by W. Hart-Smith

selected, edited and introduced by Andrew Lansdown


W. Hart-Smith was born in Kent, England, on the 23rd of November, 1911. He lived in England and Scotland for 12 years; then, in New Zealand for 13 years. In 1936 he moved to Australia. Apart from a relatively brief interlude (in New Zealand, 1948-1962), he has lived in Australia since 1936. He came to Western Australia in 1970, where he lived for nearly 8 years. During his stay in Western Australia, he wrote a large number of poems about the places, the flora and the fauna of the State. He returned to New Zealand in 1978 and is currently living in Auckland.

Though Hart-Smith has written many poems in and about New Zealand, the major part of his work is Australian in tone and content. Indeed, the poet claims that when he arrived in Australia, he immediately started to write poetry which sprung from his joy and delight in discovering the Australian environment.

The poems that resulted from this deep engagement with the Australian environment (and from a new-found fascination with Aboriginal myth and legend) brought Hart-Smith into contact with Rex Ingamells, who was at that time (mid 1930’s) establishing the Jindyworobak movement. The Jindyworobaks, generally speaking, sought to empathise with the Australian natural environment and Aboriginal beliefs/life-styles and to place them at the centre of Australian poetry. Hart-Smith claims that he became involved in the movement only because Rex Ingamells was the first to publish him in Australia. By a strange coincidence, he was writing the kind of poetry about which the Jindyworobaks were dogmatizing. He was one of the most competent poets in the Jindyworobak movement; this is illustrated, in part, by the fact that he is one of the few Jindyworobak poets to survive the demise of the movement. No doubt Hart-Smith’s involvement with the movement enriched his work in some ways; but perhaps the most important thing is that he emerged unscathed by the movement’s restrictive view of poetic subject and technique. Nonetheless, Hart-Smith contributed significantly to the Jindyworobak movement; and on that basis alone, he has reserved a place for himself in the history of Australian poetry.

W. Hart-Smith did not become interested in poetry until he was 21 years of age. He was a radio mechanic in New Zealand at the time. One evening he went to the Auckland Public Library to study radio theory. A volume of D.H. Lawrence’s verse had been incorrectly placed among the radio books. Out of curiosity, he read a few poems, then the whole book. This accidental encounter with poetry changed his life. He developed a passion for poetry, began to read it avidly, and soon started to write it himself.

It was not until four or five years later that his first poem, “The Poplar” was accepted and published. “The Poplar” appeared in the Literary Supplement of the Auckland Star in April, 1936. In the 43 years since his first publication, Hart-Smith has published, on average, almost two poems per month.

Dr. Brian Dibble, Head of the English Department at the Western Australian Institute of Technology, is currently working on a bibliography of W. Hart-Smith’s published work. To date, he has listed nearly 700 different poems that Hart-Smith has published since 1936 — and many of these poems have been published and anthologised several times over! This must surely establish Hart-Smith as one of Australia’s most prolific and widely-published poets.

Hart-Smith has published 9 books of poetry: Columbus Goes West (1943); Harvest (1945); The Unceasing Ground (1946); Christopher Columbus (1948); On the Level (1950); Poems of Discovery (1959); The Talking Clothes (1966); Minipoems (1974); Let Me Learn the Steps (1977, published jointly with Mary Morris). He also published a small booklet. Poems in Doggerel (4 pp.) in 1955, and edited and introduced the 1944 and 1951 Jindyworobak Anthology/ies (the 1951 Anthology was edited and introduced jointly with G. Rawlinson). Without doubt, his most important book is Christopher Columbus.

Christopher Columbus is a sequence of 43 poems. The sequence has been published three times (in Christopher Columbus, Poems of Discovery, and Voyager Poems, edited by Douglas Stewart). Each poem in the sequence is self-contained; yet, each builds upon the other to create an integrated statement about Columbus of considerable insight and beauty. The poems exhibit an economy of statement, a precision of image, a diversity and mastery of form, and a depth of emotional and intellectual insight that rightly marks them out as among Hart-Smith’s finest. Douglas Stewart several times (in the Red Page of the Bulletin) claims that Christopher Columbus is a “magnificent sequence” and a “brilliant narrative poem”. When he first reviewed Christopher Columbus in the Bulletin in 1948, Stewart stated: “the sequence is wholly a delight. It is like colour and music bubbling up out of time; a rare and beautiful achievement …” Norman Lindsay wrote to Hart-Smith personally, stating: “I can’t resist writing to say how impressed I have been by your sequence of poems on Columbus …” It is a great pity that this excellent sequence has been neglected through the 60’s and 70’s: it is certainly Hart-Smith’s finest work, and is an important contribution to Australian literature.

Not only has Hart-Smith’s Columbus been largely forgotten, but also his work in general has slipped into relative obscurity over the past 15 or so years. Two things have contributed to this “decline”. One is that Hart-Smith seems to have submitted very little work to the important Australian journals: apart from a few showers, there has been an extended drought in terms of submissions/publications in major literary journals. The other is that the work that has appeared has often been far from his best. Indeed, a central reason for Hart-Smith’s lack of recognition over the past one and a half decades seems to have been his inability to determine which of his poems are good and which merely passable. Consequently, many of the poems that have been published in journals, and especially in his last three books, have not given the reader a true indication of what the poet is really able to do.

Some people have been deceived over recent years into thinking that Hart-Smith’s poetic powers have been in decline; yet this is not so. While a number of mediocre poems have surfaced here and there, many excellent poems have been languishing unseen in his files.

I hope the selection that is presented here in Artlook will re-affirm that Hart-Smith is a fine poet — a fine poet who has written and is still writing poems as praiseworthy as any that have been written in Australia over recent years.

I have chosen these poems from several hundred of Hart-Smith’s unpublished poems. I trust that the selection will do justice to the poet’s diversity of interest and his versatility and mastery of technique.

Most of the poems that appear in this feature were written by the poet while he lived in W.A. I have not, however, limited the selection to poems that deal specifically with Western Australian places/themes. To do so would be to distort the reader’s understanding of the poet’s work. While poems like “Thirst” and “Monkey Mia” illustrate Hart-Smith’s engagement with this State, poems like “A.D. 61” illustrate that he is not a parochial poet.

Of the 24 poems published in this issue of Artlook, only “The Pleiades” has been previously published. It was published in the Bulletin in December, 1954 and is republished here by permission. “A.D. 61”, “Death of a Craftsman”, “The Silver Chalice” and “The Bell of St. Conall” are 4 of a “series” of what may loosely be called “Anglo-Saxon poems” (see “Scramasax”. Westerly, 1976, “Eathelswith”, Quadrant, 1978 and “Burial”, Quadrant, 1979 for 3 other Anglo-Saxon poems). “Monkey Mia”, “Shark Bay” and “Jurien Bay” are 3 of 7 or 8 poems in a “series” about places in W.A. The poems that appear on the last page of this feature are 7 of 38 “minipoems” that W. Hart-Smith wrote for me in April, 1977. – Andrew Lansdown





The Pleiades

[From Some Myths and Legends of the Australian Aborigines by W.J. Thomas.]


Once there were seven ice-maidens, seven,

seven ice-maidens there were.

The mountain was their father and mother,

the mountain was their parent, the mountain,

the mountain whose head is always hidden.


Like a cold wind, like a very cold wind

wandered across the land the seven maidens,

the seven maidens like a cold wind.


Streamed their hair, behind them

streamed their hair, their long hair,

like storm-clouds streamed their hair.


The sun kissed them, the sun

caressed them, flushed their white cheeks

with his kiss, with his kiss,

the sun caressed them.


But their kiss was as death to men, cold,

cold as death to men.


Wurrunah, Wurrunah set a net, he set a net,

a net he set to catch them,

to capture the sisters, the beautiful sisters.


Two of them he caught, two of them he netted,

Wurrunah by cunning captured two of them,

two of the seven maidens he netted.


Cold they were, cold, their lips, their hair,

cold as the tresses of their parent,

the white tresses of their parent, their parent,

the mountain parent of the seven ice-maidens.


To his camp he took them, to his fire,

Wurrunah to his fire took them, to warm them,

to melt them at his fire, at his fire,

Wurrunah knelt at his fire.


And the icicles melted his fire, melted

the crystals, the ice in their hair,

the while crystals, the ice in their hair,

the white crystals melted, dimming their brightness,

the brightness of the ice-maidens.


At his fire Wurrunah dimmed their fire.

Cold was Wurrunah, Wurrunah

sitting by his quenched fire.


Heard the maidens, the singing of the maidens,

the singing of the sisters, high in the sky, the five,

the five wandering maidens.


Wurrunah went hunting for food, for food

Wurrunah went hunting, told the maidens, the two

maidens, gather me pine-bark, pine-bark gather

to make me a gunyah.


To a tree they came, to a pine-tree,

they came to a pine-tree, their totem,

and climbed into its branches, climbed, climbed,

into the branches of their totem-tree they climbed.


Grew to the sky did their totem, the tree, the pine

grew to the sky, to the sky

grew the totem-tree bearing aloft the lost maidens.


Twinkle in the sky the seven maidens, the seven

stars, the five bright stars, very bright stars.

Twinkle in the sky the sisters, the two

wives of Wurrunah, the two

stars dimmed of the bright seven.


Weep the sisters for the earth, weep,

weep the sisters, the sisters,

letting down their hair.

Falls the hair of the bright sisters,

the hair of the sisters, like snow, like snow

is the falling hair of the seven sisters, weeping,

weeping for Wurrunah weeping, weeping for the earth.


William Hart-Smith





Willy Willies


Willy willies are spirit trees

made of dust and sand


Tall trunks they have

without roots


They are always searching for somewhere to stand and grow


They spin like the shaft of a fire-stick

in a man’s hands


but the point skids

on the hardwood surface

unable to bite

to find a groove


overturning stones

sucking up leaves

making the sky rain sticks


They snatch a man’s hearth from between his knees

They eat up his wurley and spit out the bits

They fill his mouth with sand

and make of his eyes hot stones


When the women see

a willy willy coming

they can hear the spirit-children

crying inside them

looking for mothers in order to be born



on the horizon

there walks a tall red tree.


William Hart-Smith





A.D. 61


And we who were drawn up in two ranks,

two rows of fifty men each, each man

with broadsword unsheathed, shield

in left hand, shield overlapping shield,

waited for them to come

in motley disarray upon us.

And a third rank in front, kneeling,

their spears butted into the soil,

pointing at an angle

to pin, transfix, impale

the first to charge.


Were horrified at what we saw. Some of us

shivered and trembled. It was their chariots

come out in front of their host and playing about

the open ground as if it were a game

to see who could outdo the other

in daring and manoeuvring. Some ran out

along the shaft between the horses

while at full gallop, even stood upon the yoke,

hurling more insults than missiles at us.

A cool contempt they demonstrated,

showing their skill to shake us.

They displayed the same inconsequence

in driving their chariots down the slope of the hill:

all done with streaming hair, and scream, and yell.


It shook me, I can tell you!


There were women too in that host,

also with weapons, who danced and weaved

in and out among the fighting-men. And priests

who stood in front of all, in long white robes,

arms uplifted, praying to their gods for victory.

Fires they lit. Torches they lit

and brandished. It was terrible.


But we stood fast, and silent, staying firm

in outward appearance, if not inwardly.

And when at length they came screaming upon us

we took the shock, as Romans should, upon our shields –

even our Gaulish mercenaries, who had trembled most.

More of a show it was to frighten us.


Our discipline prevailed. More wood!

More wood, more wood, to burn their pitiful dead.


William Hart-Smith





Death of a Craftsman


Hard to decide what is rightfully ours

of his crafthoard

and what we shall let him keep.


Let him have what he needs

to set up in business again

in the land of shades.


Let him take the anvil,

one round hammer

and one hammer bladed for cutting,


a selection of chisels,

a mould for spearheads

and a handstone for trimming.


Will he skin his knuckles there

as he did so often here?

Put into the urn also


some unworked ore of tin and copper.

It may be hard to find

where he is going.


William Hart-Smith





The Silver Chalice


Seventeen feet down in the gravel

near Trewhiddle in Cornwall

while searching for tin in a streamwork

itinerant miners found a silver chalice


in a deposit of loose stones

in which the relic had been buried

filled with coins of gold and silver, silver pennies,

some of Alfred and some of Ceowulf


of the Kingdom of Mercia,

with a slab of slate on top

to cover over the coin-hoard

against the heathen Danes. A longship


oared herself into the cove.

We saw her from the hilltop

and ran to tell Brother Tristram

as she spilled men forth on the shingle.


Some things to find we left them

to appease them: folk too old to fly

to flesh their swords in, bread,

a cask of ale, and meat still cooking,


the gilded cross above the altar,

too great for us to carry; and the alter-cloths,

the reredos for burning. But the Cup

which had Christ’s blood in it, we buried.


William Hart-Smith





The Bell of St. Conall


From the windswept crofts

out of the drifting peatsmoke,

from their huts of sodbrick,



from the caves in the hillside,

the people come, emerge,

on Sunday, on the Lord’s Day

in ones and twos and threes,


humbly, obediently, dutifully,

to the ringing of a cowbell,

converge on the church in the hollow

to the summons of a bell


in the bony hand of a monk

in his habit of homespun,

cowl pulled over his ears

against the aching wind


and the knives of sleet in the rainsquall,

to the insistence of a handbell

ringing in the congregation

from shieling and shelter,


out of the marshes in the dawnmist.

The Bell of St. Conall

was later enshrined

in a cairn by the wayside,


the bell protected

in bonds of riveted iron:

a relic very sacred, miracle-working,

upon which oaths were taken.


William Hart-Smith







Not wind enough to turn the windmill blades

above the water-tank.


Lemons fallen from the lemon tree

lie green and useless.


A row of empty petrol-drums

is talking to itself;

and the tamarisks listen.


The back of my shirt

sticks to the seat-cover

and my trouser belt is soaked with sweat, the heat

is a wall one walks into.


Everyone is looking up

at a swarm of zebra finches

circling above the roadhouse

like a swarm of bees.


Round and round and round they go



Some have fallen from the flock and lie

on the tarmac

in a splash of pathetic feathers.


Now the swarm pours

into the branches of a thin gum

and vanishes.


I stand beneath it

and find the tree has grown a fur,

a fungus of hysterical birds


red beaks agape

treading on each other’s heads

for a foothold.


William Hart-Smith





Maori children, Ngunguru


Without saddle or bridle

the horse returned alone


At high tide

side-stepping the waves


At low tide

printing deep footprints in the sand


Three Maori children rode its back

on then way to school


No stirrups, no girth

The hands of the eldest


clutched in the hair of its mane

and the children barefooted


and the horse shod with steel

striking sparks from the rocks


On its return

it would look for me


stop where a spur of rock ran out

and peer cautiously over it


to see what I might be doing

and seeing me sitting


innocently fishing

would suddenly whinny and flare its nostrils


and gallop past behind me

sand-thundering home


William Hart-Smith





Money Mia


You suddenly come upon,

having left the townsite

before dawn


pale dawnlight

dimming the headlights

turning the brown

wattlescrub to green


the caravan village,

almost a town,

right on the beach.


Already a couple of kids are down

at the edge of the water.

Tent flaps are up,

breakfasts are cooking.


Loud, shouted g’days.

Where ya bin all night?

Chuck a bucket of water over ya,

if ya don’t get crackin’.


Another fishing day

is about to begin.


And on a high platform

slab on the beach

a twelve pound kingfish

with its belly slit open

and the red guts spilling. Jim


an’ Bob were out all night

she says

and did bloody well she yells


sharpening her knife.


William Hart-Smith





Jurien Bay


By the light of a torch

you try to read the roadmap on your knees


Twinkling lights ahead

in a cluster on the coast

are receding south


We are lost


The road controls us

is diverting us north again


and the lights are gone


Under the full moon

the night unfolds a map


a parchment of stars


William Hart-Smith





Shark Bay


To recreate the landscape

in the mind’s eye as they say


It is treeless


Boundaries between sea and land

are indeterminate

and there’s a long groundswell

all the way to the horizon


and why one selects

these slightly leaning telegraph posts

of railway iron


with their twin looping wires

moaning in the wind


and on every other one

high on the crosstree tucked between

the porcelain

eggs of the insulators


an eagle’s nest

a shockhead of untidy sticks


and a Wedgetail standing there

in silhouette.


William Hart-Smith





Original Homestead


Wouldn’t you think the cattle

would eat the lush grass

that grows so tall around the original house

down in the hollow


or lie in the shade

of the overgrown trees


They won’t go near the place


Went inside the husk

the mudbrick shell

to find the floorboards



ripped out

and the doors

the window-frames


except a mantel still

hanging by one nail


it rocked when I touched it


The living-room was stacked with bales of hay

rusty with a dry grey



the house was irritable

scratchy in a broody kind of



I felt the presence that the cattle know




Stepped out and walked away


William Hart-Smith







Once these beaches

smelt salt-sweet

and the flotsam

gave us good pickings:

rare species and common,

a proliferation of

abundance. Later

it was casualties

in thousands and then

nothing. Silence.


Fishermen still

cast their leads

from the shore,

standing ankle-deep

in rotting sea-grass

and all sorts of obscene

things washed in.

There’s an awful

stench of ferment, dead

sea-flesh and a reek of iodine.

Waves butt these weed-cliffs

like angry goats.

Is the sea

building up a levee

against us, against us?


William Hart-Smith







They are casts,

external skeletons,

I pick up on my knees.


They lose their freshness

so quickly,

bleached by the sun

and so soon broken.


It’s a kind of

salvage operation,

gathering shells


along the sand,

rolled in wads of weed

or lodged

among the rocks


where the ocean opens the lid

and spills her gems,

empties her jewelbox.


William Hart-Smith







A Pelican stands on a rock

close inshore



yellow feet flat on the stone

bulge of its belly

curve of its keel showing


like a vessel in dry dock.


William Hart-Smith







We know

although we don’t say so:

the clean bright freshness of things

is passing, is doomed.

You and I are relics

who go looking for relics.

No small bright shells

on the beach today.

We know

although we don’t know how to say it

that if time were

a straight line

as it would have us believe,

we too would join the idiot-dance

and set about making ourselves secure,

O so very secure. Dearest,

it is a bit ridiculous

but it was lovely, lovely,

the lovely confirmation that time is,

damn it, curved

and sweetly

in the sweet pure curve of your neck

when you put your hands behind your head

and lifted up your black hair

and held it

in a knot

on the crown of your head

because it was so hot, hot.


William Hart-Smith







A grey heron in the twilight

is flying low over the tree-tops.


His legs trail behind him like thin straws

and his neck is double-curved like the letter S.


His beak is a radar needle pointing him home.

He is making for the reservoir in the hills


and must get there before nightfall,

his roosting-place where he sleeps standing.


Before I wake tomorrow morning

he will have flown over the trees again


out over the plain towards the city

and the lake in the park there


where he will tread his own reflection

and prick the water with his pointed stick,


Lift and put his feet into the water

without the slightest disturbance


for all the world like a sleeper rising early

and stepping into his trousers


William Hart-Smith





Seven Minipoems

for Andrew Lansdown



1. Clown


I once watched a drunk

on the top deck of a ferry

put a cigarette into his mouth

the wrong way round


and either unaware

or very well aware

of the attention he was getting


go through an entire

box of safety-matches

one by one

the wrong way round


and with his feet

in a litter of matchsticks


ask his neighbour for a light.




2. Kangaroo Paw


A Kangaroo Paw

by the roadside


with scarlet trousers


is thumbing a lift

with a vivid green thumb.




3. Cicada


When a cicada

comes up from the ground

after seven years of mining


it carries its wings

in two crumpled paper bags

one under each arm.




4. “P”


While looking for an appropriate word

beginning with the letter P

in the Index pages of my

Roget’s Thesaurus


the cover split with age

and stained with thumbing


I found a poppy petal




and so transparent

I could read the small print through it.




5. Jasmine


One catches the faintest suggestion

of the scent of jasmine


coming from somewhere in the garden,

a taint,

a delicious hint

of exquisite perfume


diffused in the warm summer night.


There’s a feeling of nostalgic sadness.


One is tempted

to trace the source.


White stars in the trellis?


and bury one’s nose

and turn a virtue into vice.




6. On the Dunes


Why does the wind

always drop

during the night?


Why is everything so still

in the chill

early hours of morning?


The wind

at dusk

sends long white scarves of sand

stinging along the beach


making of every mollusc

stone and stick

an anonymous mound of granulation


The paper of the dunes is being prepared

smoothed clean and pure


to take the runes

the footprints

of the all-night scribblers.




7. Image


Lights along the foreshore

on the far side of the river


Moon is a dipper of molten wax



making long ceremonial candles.


William Hart-Smith



This biographical essay and selection of poems was first published in Artlook magazine, Vol. 5, No. 7, July 1979.

Essay and selection © Andrew Lansdown, 1979.



Read more William Hart-Smith poems on this website:




Read Andrew’s review of Hart-Smith’s book, Hand to Hand:




Read Andrew’s tribute to Hart-Smith’s, “A Legacy of Joy”:






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