Lone- wolf poet’s sin­gu­lar voice

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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

AVID 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

DStew­art, 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.

A kind of hu­mil­ity’: David Row­botham, win­ner of the 2007 Pa­trick White Award, in his Bris­bane home

Pic­ture: David Sproule

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