Australian poem 2008 series #13 — Roland Robinson (1912-1992)

09 May

There is the following brief but fascinating account of this poet in an unexpected place — well, unexpected by me because I had not realised the connection:

Born in County Clare, Ireland, writer and poet Roland Robinson came to Australia in 1921. His formal education was brief and he worked in various jobs, mainly in the bush as a rouseabout, boundary-rider, railway fettler, fencer, dam-builder and gardener.

In the 1940s he took classes with Helene Kirsova and appeared in a number of productions by the Kirsova Ballet. He wrote about his dance experiences in the first part of his autobiography, The drift of things: an autobiography, 1914-1952, published in 1973. During the 1950s and 1960s Robinson was dance critic for The Sydney Morning Herald.

Robinson’s first published poetry appeared in Beyond the Grass-Tree Spears published in 1944. His love of the Australian landscape and everyday scenes were inspiration for his poetry and he was committed to the Jindyworobak Movement. He also wrote extensively about Aboriginal myths and legends.

— on the Australia Dancing site.

I first encountered Robinson’s poems in the 1960s through anthologies; Beyond the Grass-Tree Spears was one of the first “slim volumes” of Australian verse that I ever bought, attracted because there were some rather good poems in there about places I knew in the Royal National Park south of Sutherland. He did not figure in the small pantheon studied at Sydney University in the nascent Australian Literature course taught by Gerry Wilkes, but I liked his work nonetheless. The Jindyworobaks too were looked on as eccentrics at best, and there was something a bit too fervent about them at times, not to mention that most of them were fairly minor poets. Mind you, they had something worth saying; I suspect they will be seen as forward-looking in our current climate on Indigenous Australia.

This example of Robinson’s work is the only one I could currently find on the net; later I may add another.

The Drovers

Over the plains of the whitening grass
and the stunted mulga the drovers pass,
and in the red dust cloud, each side
of the cattle, the native stockmen ride.

And day after day lays bare the same
endless plains as the way they came,
and ever the cloven ranges lie
at the end of the land and the opal sky.

With creak of pack and saddle leather,
and chink of chain and bit together,
with moan of the herd with hobble and bell
they come to the tanks at the tea-tree well.

And through corroding blood-red hills
by sanded rivers the Gulf-rain fills,
far, where the morning star has shone
and paled above, their tracks are gone.

On the Jindies, see the Wikipedia article linked in the biographical note above. The last few paragraphs raise some of the issues people have had with them:

Ivor Indyk has suggested that the Jindyworobaks were looking for a kind of pastoral poetry, harking back to an Arcadian idyll which was removed from the early pioneer period, back to the pre-colonisation era. He claims that “they overlooked the fact that Australian novelists have been there before them”, but that unlike the Greek original this Australian “Arcadia” is not full of dryads. fauns and happy shepherds but is “haunted and usually overwhelmed by the spectres of death and dispossession”, i.e the atrocities, betrayal and misunderstandings of white contact with the natives. He also says of Judith Wright that she is “oppressed by feelings of ‘arrogant guilt’. Guilt, as a burden of white history, is felt again in the division between the settlers and the land itself, despoiled by greed and incomprehension”, in spite of her trying to inaugurate a “white dreaming“, while the landscapes of Ingamells are:

“aflame with energy, but they are also uninhabited, save for the ghostly remnants of Aboriginal tribes, and more frequently, the cockatoos and parakeets whose bright colours and raucous cries express both the power and the alien character of the land. There is little that is really social or cultural about this use of an Aboriginal perspective, and no real sense of history.”

It is thus arguable in certain cases whether the poetry is aiming at an indigenous consciousness in whites or possession of the land, which the indigenous Australians are seen as being in close contact with.

The great native influence on the Jindyworobaks was literature which had been taken down by white folklorists and anthropologists. Written, as opposed to transcribed, indigenous literature did not appear in print until the 1920s when David Unaipon, a Christian from Point McLeay mission, South Australia, published a large body of work. Unaipon was publishing into the 1950s, by which time the Jindyworobaks were in decline. Unaipon was the sole published indigenous Australian writer during their heyday, and indeed it was not until the 1960s that a second was published – Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker). This is because until the 50s and 60s, classroom education was mostly vocational, or directed towards Christian missionary work. Unaipon, despite coming from South Australia, is not mentioned in the works of the Jindyworobaks, so it is hard to say how much of an influence, Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines was.

The Jindyworobaks have been accused of appropriating native culture, but such a criticism comes with an uncomfortable response – i.e.that if indigenous Australian write/paint in European-derived forms, such as the novel or Impressionism are they themselves appropriating? This criticism is based on the notion that people should only indulge in cultural forms developed by their own ethnic group, and that anything else, including cross-fertilisation, is appropriation. However, by exchanging one culture, for another, as A.D. Hope pointed out “the poet who tries to write like a second hand abo [sic] is no more likely to produce sincere work than the poet who writes like a second-hand Englishman” (Note, Hope uses the term “Abo”, which is usually pejorative.) *

Other criticisms of the Jindyworobaks have been on a different racist basis, i.e. of the supposed inferiority of indigenous culture, and thereby the Jindys. Such a mindset is less acceptable in the modern day, but was commonplace in mid-20th century Australia.

* I doubt that A D Hope was in any serious sense racist; but he certainly was dismissive of the naive nationalism he would have seen in the Jindies, and was a European-oriented anti-modernist classicist himself — and a very fine poet. He also famously dismissed the work of Patrick White, of course, as “verbal sludge.” The word “Abo” is of course no longer desirable, but until the current generation was very widely used. There is no doubt Hope is using the word dismissively in what he said, but weigh that against “second-hand Englishman”, also dismissive. He was saying, in the language of the mid 20th century, that the Jindies could not aspire to authentic Aboriginality, and that is an issue.

Comments Off on Australian poem 2008 series #13 — Roland Robinson (1912-1992)

Posted by on May 9, 2008 in Australia, Australia and Australian, Indigenous Australians, OzLit, poets and poetry


Tags: , ,

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: