What I am reading: the poetry of Gwen Harwood

The Poetry of Australian poet Gwen Harwood

In one of the units of my Master of Arts in Creative writing course, I had to read and study the poetry of Australian poet Gwen Harwood. I did a little research on the background and life of Gwen Harwood before reading much of her poetry. Although I had heard of her I had read very little of her work before this last week. I had occasionally dipped into a volume of her poetry I found on my daughter’s bookshelf.

Gwendoline Nessie Foster was born on 8th June 1920 in Queensland into a family whose interests included language, religion, philosophy and music. As she grew she aspired to be a musician because her family had a strong interest in this area. Later she was an accomplished organist and a music teacher. In 1945 she married the linguist William Harwood and moved with him to live in Tasmania where she lived until her death in 1995.

Death is a recurring theme in her work, though it never seemed to cause her distress, even when diagnosed with cancer ten years before her passing. Harwood drew great inspiration from her music and referred to many musical terms in her poems. She invented the character of Professor Krote, ‘a talented European pianist who finds himself in a shallow, stuffy, conservative Australian town where he is forced to earn a living by giving music lessons to indifferent pupils.

Many of her poems written later in life explore the memories and experiences of her childhood in Queensland. These poems cover some distressing moments and an awareness of the innocence of childhood and how her attitude to those events changed as she grew older. If one could summarize her poetry, you would have to conclude that she has consistently poured her own emotions quite freely into many of her poems. She has drawn widely from her personal experiences and people she knew. Gwen Harwood received many awards and several honorary doctorates in recognition of her writing.

She has published her poetry under at least four other names.


  • Harwood, Gwen, 2001, Selected Poems. Penguin, Camberwell.

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