Australian poem 2008 series #10: Peter Skrzynecki "Summer in the Country" (2005)

28 Mar

Jim Belshaw has made my choice of Australian poem today a foregone conclusion, though I would call Skrzynecki a Strathfield poet rather than a New England poet. 😉

Summer in the Country

Summer in the country
was brushing away
flies from your face
and wiping sweat from your eyes—

watching grasses and grains
shimmer in paddocks
or sheep and cattle
grazing beyond a windbreak of pines.

Galahs clanged over the homestead.
A windmill turned
when a breeze sprung up.
Cockatoos screeched from the pepper tree.

Only crows frightened me
with their sorrowful cries
and the way they flew slowly
like black crosses.

The old slab-split shed
was a treasure-trove
of harnesses, bridles, farm
machinery, forty-four-gallon drums—

its walls covered
with cobwebs that housed
unimaginable spiders
but where it was cool inside.

I didn’t miss Europe
like my parents did—
nor a Christmas without snow
I’d hear them talking about.

Summer in the country
was being given a glass of cold lemonade
and falling asleep
under a red-gum’s shade.

Peter Skrzynecki

Do read Jim’s affectionate commentary.


Walter Withers “The Last of Summer” [1898]

Ballarat Fine Art Gallery


Posted by on March 28, 2008 in Australia, Jim Belshaw, nostalgia, OzLit, poets and poetry


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9 responses to “Australian poem 2008 series #10: Peter Skrzynecki "Summer in the Country" (2005)

  1. Jim Belshaw

    March 28, 2008 at 1:36 pm

    Hi Neil, glad you ran this. On the issue of what makes some be, or claimed to be, a “local”, I make a very preliminary comment on this here. I think that the general issues are worth teasing out.

    Now on New England vs Strathfield, I quote:

    Peter Skrzynecki is a graduate of UNE (BA, 1975 and MLitt, 1986).

    For 20 years, Peter Skrzynecki was a primary school teacher with the NSW Department of School Education. His first teaching appointment was to a small school at Jeogla, near Wollomombi Falls, in 1967. He describes his return to Armidale as something of a “homecoming”, and wants to make the most of his visit by delivering a series of poems in Armidale about Armidale to the Armidale people. He says the area has a special place in his past life as a teacher and burgeoning writer. He is now an Associate Professor at the University of Western Sydney.


  2. Neil

    March 28, 2008 at 5:53 pm

    He describes that first appointment in the poem “Leaving Home” — and the feeling is ambivalent to say the least. (Sorry, the poem doesn’t appear to be on line.)

    His autobiographical notes say:

    …After a four-week sea journey on the “General Blatchford” the family arrived in Sydney on 11 November [1949]. They lived in a migrant camp in Bathurst for two weeks before being moved on to the Parkes Migrant Centre, a former Air Force Training Base. It is this camp, in central-western New South Wales, that the poet regards as his first home in Australia.

    In 1951 the family moved to Sydney, to the working-class suburb of Regents Park, where a home had been purchased at 10 Mary Street. Feliks Skrzynecki worked as a labourer for the Water Board and Kornelia as a domestic for a number of families in Strathfield. The parents worked hard and had the house paid off in four years. They grew their own vegetables and had a magnificent flower garden. Peter attended the local Catholic school,Saint Peter Chanel’s and then, in 1956, began school at St Patrick’s College, Strathfield, where he completed his Leaving Certificate in 1963. Brian Couch, his English teacher in those last years at school, engendered in him a love for literature.

    After an unsuccessful year at Sydney University in 1964, he completed a Primary Teacher Training Course at Sydney Teachers’ College in 1965-66 and began teaching in small schools in 1967. During the next three years he taught at Jeogla on the New England Tablelands, Kunghur on the Tweed River and Colo Heights in the Colo River district.

    In 1968 he had recommenced his university studies as an external student at the University of New England. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1975. Postgraduate studies include a Master of Arts from the University of Sydney in 1984 and a Master of Letters from the University of New England in 1986.

    From 1967 to 1987 Peter Skrzynecki taught in various primary public schools in the western suburbs of Sydney, in the inner-west and the south-west….

    So he had his “unsuccessful year” at Sydney U the same year I was doing my English Honours year in the same place, and we must have coincided at Sydney Teachers College, but we didn’t have anything to do with the Primary Sections… Rather better known than me though, isn’t he?

    Strathfield figures very large in “Immigrant Chronicles” and recurs in recent poems; but so do Poland and the Ukraine. I have no doubt New England is part of the mix, as Wollongong is for me, but he is not a New England poet in the deep sense Judith Wright was — even if most of her active life as a poet was in Queensland and Braidwood.

  3. Jim Belshaw

    March 28, 2008 at 8:15 pm

    I think that’s right, Neil, so far as Judith is concerned. Yet I would classify him as and New England writer in the same way that I count Patrice Newell. It’s the New England influence, broadly defined.

    Because of the way we define things in this country, there is (I think) very little country/writer analysis so far as the relations between varying locations and writers is concerned. There is also little focus on making writing with specific locale connections accessible.

    One of the things I talked about with Michael Sharkey and others many years ago was a book linking New England poetry and art. In both cases, we were thinking in broad terms. The idea was to break through the barriers created by conventional forms of classification and analysis to show the effect of environment and history in a way that would appeal to and be understood by those with a connection to area.

  4. Neil

    March 28, 2008 at 8:28 pm

    Michael Sharkey I met some time in the 1980s, as he had a friend in Glebe. He I would agree is definitely New England.

    I think we each have our own private Idaho, to steal a title from a movie I rather like. In my case it really is The Shire, and similarly my brother, though neither of us has lived there for close on forty years! In my father’s case it was Shellharbour. In my mother’s, Braefield. Perhaps, provided it was not horrendous, it is wherever we were around age 12. For M, world citizen though he has become, it is Shanghai.

  5. Jim Belshaw

    March 28, 2008 at 9:11 pm

    Interesting comment, Neil, and I’m sure that it is true. In my case, I am trying to delineate a world that I valued and which is now lost. Yet that does not make the attempt less valid.

    There is a broader issue. If we are going to attempt to delineate the thought and culture of a place, then we have to address the question of what constitutes that place. The particular S poem you found had obvious appeal.

    Because no one now writes about some of the things that I care, the past gets lost. How can you interpret your own history and culture if you cannot access its past?

    A tradition exists as a tradition only so long as people have access. I strong tradition is interpreted and re-interpreted to meet current needs.

    One of the things that I find interesting is just how different you find some elements of my past from your own experience. I know that this is true. There is an enormous difference between the worlds we sometimes describe.

    One difference, I think, is that I lived in a world of privilege whose extent I am only now coming to judge.

    If we go back to our joint interest in bringing things alive, and I am cautious about this comment because I do not know enough about the whole field of PS’s writing, then PS is interesting (among other things) because his writing brings out different elements of a past that spans so many elements of recent Australian life and history.

    How do we bring this across to kids in the context of, say, imaginative journeys? One could argue that the poetry should stand on its own, a launching point for the student drawing from their own experience.

    I would argue that the journey can be enriched by context. This is especially important where the poetry links in some way to a specific tradition.

    If you look a PS’s life, the NE connection is very important. This gives him a local connection that can make him very real. Yet I would bet you London to a brick that NE school teachers do not draw this out. Assuming that this is true, I would also suspect that they do (cannot?) select poems that have an NE connection.

  6. Neil

    March 28, 2008 at 10:33 pm

    The poet Robert Gray, very much a North Coast/Coffs Harbour/Bellingen poet, but with the Buddhist element and Japan experience and Sydney in there too, has said his poems are analogous to a photograph album. This is true too of Peter S. Of course some of those photographs will be of places where he spent much time. In Peter S’s poetry one of the most interesting facets is his rediscovering the world of his parents — Poland, Ukraine, Europe — and seeing how that fits in with who he is. I get the impression he needed to rediscover aspects of being the child of migrants which perhaps he had rejected, or merely been embarrassed by, when younger. The first collection wasn’t called Immigrant Chronicle for nothing. However, he resents, I feel, being pigeonholed as an “ethnic” poet.

    You can see why his verse is such a good resource for a unit on Journeys. You will have seen too on my other blog that the students who have commented, even when being refreshingly irreverent, do seem to appreciate his work and relate to it.

    I am sure teachers around Armidale would mention the connection, just as I have had students visualise Central Station really carefully to elucidate one of the poems we study, and of course given that most of the students I have worked with on Peter S’s poems are of migrant background and also tend to be familiar with Strathfield — even at SBHS whose student “geographical centre” is Strathfield rather than the Eastern Suburbs despite the school’s location — naturally we draw on that. Whenever D H Lawrence was on the agenda when I was teaching in Wollongong, you can be sure I raised the Thirroul connection, even read his rather excellent descriptions of the area. (Kangaroo is a rather messy novel though, as a whole.)

    I tend to explain about Parkes, and migrant camps, and country teaching. The poem above, of course, almost certainly is based on New England, but it could be a hundred other places in Australia, though climate details limit this a bit; but I am sure students at Dubbo or Parkes or Cowra would have no problem recognising what he is talking about. One hopes of course that it would also be of interest to readers in London or New Delhi…

    Come to think of it, if the poem is autobiographical at all — always a dangerous assumption in reading a poem if probable in this case — the age of the persona at the end, and it does seem to be a child — if it is Peter S — rules out New England. It would have to be Parkes.

    Of course a slight irony here, Jim, is that you are filtering the poem through your own experience, or should that be filtering your own experience through the poem. But not to worry: that is part of reading poetry…

  7. Jim Belshaw

    March 29, 2008 at 6:34 am

    Neil, you are of course right about the filtering through experience, and the locale of the poem could well be Parkes. I found your other points very interesting, too. I am going to pick some of these issues up In Saturday Morning Musings.

  8. Neil

    March 29, 2008 at 11:51 am

    I am pretty sure it is Parkes now. Such a nice poem, isn’t it? Talking about it has deepened my enjoyment of it. 🙂

  9. Neil

    March 29, 2008 at 11:35 pm

    One thing is puzzling me, and I checked the original published version…


    I didn’t miss Europe
    like my parents did—
    nor a Christmas without snow
    I’d hear them talking about.

    Surely his parents would have been talking about a Christmas with snow? Of course “with” would affect the rhythm…

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