The Second World War changed many things: the face of Europe, the balance of world power, and, perhaps less notably, the perception of the common Australian. From Federation day to the 1940s, most poets wrote about the ideal ‘aussie’; the strong, silent outback-dweller; the Man from Snowy River or the Man who went to Ironbark. The 1950s were a time of change, and Australian Literature changed too, from aggrandizing the increasingly rare ‘Dundee’s, to noting the average Australian living in suburbia with the other four-fifths of the population. This essay will cite specific examples of poems of a man commonly regarded as Australia’s greatest living poet from 1950 to 1990. Through Bruce Dawe’s poetry the true Australian persona has arisen to global knowledge.
One of Bruce Dawes most famous poems, written in the 1950s, is Enter Without So Much As Knocking. In this poem he highlights the plight of a ‘modern’ man who slowly comes to realize and embrace the façade surrounding suburban life and its incessant consumerism. “Well-equipped, smoothly-run, economy-size”
These terms give the feeling of mass production – just as well-equipped, smoothly-run, economy-size cars; these sorts of households must have been very common. Again the fact that these people lack individuality is being focused on and it is disputed whether this is correct. The rest of the family are presented as stereotypes. Whereas in the days of The Man From Snowy River, where individuality, rebelliousness and going against the grain are commonplace and celebrated as courageous, in this world, it would seem ‘inefficient’. The poem itself is discussing a man’s journey from birth to death and how all around him life is interpreted by material possessions.
A famous quote from this poem shows the change that mechanized and money hungry living brings to man. “Anyway, pretty soon he was old enough to be realistic like every other godless money-hungry back-stabbing miserable so-and-so”. This is a dramatic transformation from the poems of war and outback mateship, of jumping on a grenade to save your friends in the foxhole. Now, “It’s Number One every time for this chicken, hit wherever you see a head and kick whoever’s down”. Clearly, Dawe is conscious of the changes affecting Australian persona.
Bruce Dawe often uses humour to devastating effect. In Pigeons also are a way of life, a city councilor is mocked for his petty-mindedness, highlighting the utter bureaucracy that society and everyday life has become. “The problem was, he brooded overmuch, and took things personally that were not meant, so that each juvenile delinquency of nature seemed an outrage aimed at him” This quote encapsulates the trivial nature of the councilor, that he considered nature juvenile, and that he was too puffed-up in his self importance to respect habits that have and will outlast him, his city and certainly his civilization. This is done to bring to light the incredible conceit of man in relation to the environment. Whereas the bushman lived off the land, respecting it, modern man destroys it contemptuously to make room for suburbs and cities, and it’s men like this who are responsible.
Homo Suburbiensis is a poem about a man, a regular man, with a garden that represents his escape from the demands of his existence. “Homo Suburbiensis” uses one man’s escape from his life to represent our universal need to contemplate and resolve our own uncertainties in life in our own special place.
This poem speaks about suburbia, and escaping from it into nature, Bruce Dawe illuminates the plight of this man and how the tolls of modern life are affecting him. “One constant in a world of variables” represents how this small garden in is his only avenue for escaping into order, his order. Whereas the outback is constantly described as freedom, this man’s only freedom is a small vegetable patch.
A little known poem from the 1980s era of Bruce’s writings, Looking Down from Bridges, takes a look back at the world of his childhood, from the perspective of nostalgia. “Looking down we see an earlier world living on in the interstices of the present, like green wheat in the gutters of the bulk feed store or the odd shy weatherboard holding out between factories” This citation details the vision of the past through the mind’s eye to childhood, showing the simplicities of an earlier time where there were fewer factories, where “troops of tiny children tentatively skipping” played in the street. This is Bruce where he is his most grandfatherly, regaling tales of how life used to be, and how it has changed, from small wooden houses with bush on either side to sprawling conurbation without room to breathe or, in the children’s case, to play in the streets.
‘Life-cycle’, is one of his well-known poems that dramatises how the common ‘Aussie bloke’ is influenced by football. It ridicules the fact that football for people has become like a religion. Not speaking of a specific event, this poem describes the general cycle of life of a resident of suburban Australia. From birth people are encouraged to barrack for their teams, and build a life around football.
This ‘religion’ is implied on the ‘innocent monsters’ by their parents and surroundings. “they are wrapped in the club-colours, laid in beribboned cots, having already begun a lifetime’s barracking” Dawe is showing that this will be the purpose of the child’s life. He will grow up living and breathing football, and worshipping it without giving a second thought to the true purpose of life. Using simple structure and simple language, he is able to best convey his morals to the common people that it affects. Gently mocking people with his vibrant expression of the game, with Christian symbolism he compares it to the bible – highlighting that it is, but shouldn’t be regarded of the same importance as Christianity.
“They will forswear the Demons, cling to the saints and behold their team going up the ladder into Heaven” Dawe describes the actual important things in life – marriage, proposals, as just a sidetrack to football, done quickly in between games. Football is the focus of these people’s lives – anything else is merely a diversion to football and should be taken care of quickly so that they can get back to the game. “- the reckless proposal after the one-point win, the wedding and the honeymoon after the grand-final…”
We almost begin to pity these poor people, to whom living their lives has taken second place in importance to football. By using triumphant words such as ‘behold’ ‘passion’ and ’empyrean’ Dawe is showing great sarcasm, as he did with the Christian symbolism. It is like he is asking the readers why football is now as important to the Australians as their religion, and highlighting the fact that it is not supposed to be like this. From this quote: “having seen in the six-foot recruit from Eaglehawk their hope of salvation” Bruce Dawe purposefully makes the last word of the poem salvation, this word, generally associated with heaven, and the fact that living a good, Christian life will supposedly lead to our salvation and we will go to heaven, not hell. But it is not from God that these people gain their salvation – they see salvation in the recruit, the strong football player who has come to play for their team and could bring the team victory. With that Dawe makes obvious the skewed priorities of these people, and how futile and pointless their existence is. ‘Carn, carn’ they cry, from birth unto death, never knowing anything else, never living.
As is evident, Bruce Dawe truly has highlighted the changes in Australian literature. Changes brought about by himself, for he is truly the most influential Australian Poet of this century. By departing from the common norm of Outback mythology to discuss the curve of a man’s life, his passion for sport and the ways in which suburbia has taken over Australian lives, he earns his title of the ‘People’s Poet’. Bruce Dawe has changed the perception of the average Australian worldwide.