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 We believe this collection of previously unpublished poems will be of great value to students of Australian literature.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
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.
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
[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.
Willy willies are spirit trees
made of dust and sand
Tall trunks they have
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
would suddenly whinny and flare its nostrils
and gallop past behind me
You suddenly come upon,
having left the townsite
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
and did bloody well she yells
sharpening her knife.
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
To recreate the landscape
in the mind’s eye as they say
It is treeless
Boundaries between sea and land
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
eggs of the insulators
an eagle’s nest
a shockhead of untidy sticks
and a Wedgetail standing there
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
and the doors
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
Once these beaches
and the flotsam
gave us good pickings:
rare species and common,
a proliferation of
it was casualties
in thousands and then
cast their leads
from the shore,
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?
They are casts,
pick up on my knees.
They lose their freshness
bleached by the sun
and so soon broken.
It’s a kind of
along the sand,
rolled in wads of weed
among the rocks
where the ocean opens the lid
and spills her gems,
empties her jewelbox.
A Pelican stands on a rock
yellow feet flat on the stone
bulge of its belly
curve of its keel showing
like a vessel in dry dock.
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.
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
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.
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
for Andrew Lansdown
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.
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.
While looking for an appropriate word
beginning with the letter P
in the Index pages of my
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.
One catches the faintest suggestion
of the scent of jasmine
coming from somewhere in the garden,
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
during the night?
Why is everything so still
in the chill
early hours of morning?
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
of the all-night scribblers.
Lights along the foreshore
on the far side of the river
Moon is a dipper of molten wax
making long ceremonial candles.
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.
Five more poems by William Hart-Smith
3. “A Tank Man Remembers Horses”
Behold! wood into bird and bird to wood again.
A brown-winged bird from the hand of a brown man.
Elbow of wood from flexed elbow of bone
to a swift hawk has amazingly grown
that mounts the sky, sun in its wing,
up, up, over the far tree fluttering
where it turns as if seized with doubt in the air.
Looks back down to the man carved there
and, afraid of the gift of sudden blood,
beats back to his hand and melts once more to wood.
Brown out of the brown tussock a darker brown
head rises as if thrust up cautiously on a pole.
A green bird on a feathering grass-stem
that bends under its weight, flutters
and sinks out of sight. It is the only disturbance
except for the reiterated clicking of castanets
and the fife-notes of insects.
One notices the head gone,
pulled down out of sight, like the vanished bird,
but all over the unfurled
map of the landscape minute brown
figures, dots, jump, all diminishing, yet
lines that intersect, making a maze
of crazy map-lines, meaningless angles.
The skin of the land is a deep fur
maddeningly come alive
with deliberate great fleas.
A Tank Man Remembers Horses
Quite suddenly I noticed horses
cropping the grass, standing head down,
one foot forward. They had always been there,
but quite suddenly I noticed them.
That night I went out to look
with a lantern. It was the same thing
all over again, only this time
repeated colourlessly in black and white
and cold, the whole thing repeated over again
according to the night,
horses standing up, heads down,
long necks arched out and down,
cropping the grass.
I liked the entire absorption, the quick tearing
as the head is tugged sideways,
and the crisp sound of chewing,
leisurely, rhythmic chewing,
tearing the grass.
I suppose all night long I heard the noise,
the thud of a hoof put down,
the great rippling nostril-belch of a horse,
because very early in the morning I woke,
and I remembered fumbling at drum-tight canvas
and stiff clips,
remembered a dark bulk looming closely,
almost at touching distance.
I could feel the warmth of its body
a horse, standing there
feeding in the rain
head down to the grass, head down,
still feeding in the night,
in the pouring rain.
There are about fifty of them
on the stony ground,
some standing still,
some moving about.
Nothing much of pink
breast or lighter-hued crest
shows in the twilight
among the stones.
They are standing about
like little grey-coated aldermen
talking in undertones.
The windmill by the water-tank
with his see-through face
and base of latticed iron bars
reminds me of a fisherman
standing ankle-deep in the shallows
of a lake full of minnows
featureless horizon to horizon—
who suddenly enmeshes the water
with a throwing-net of galahs.