Poet Bruce Dawe at home in Caloundra, Queensland.
Poet Bruce Dawe at home in Caloundra, Queensland.

RIP Bruce Dawe: Poet of ordinary Australia dies

HIS craggy features had poet Bruce Dawe dubbed the man with the "map of Australia profile". Which suited him perfectly as a bloke who put poetry on the map for millions of Australians.
Generations of Queensland school students and others all over Australia would have studied Dawe's work and learned a love of literature from the most plain-speaking poet of Australian letters.

Dawe, who died in a care facility on the Sunshine Coast last night at the age of 90, was a revered figure but, like that other towering figure of Australian poetry, the late Les Murray, Dawe was a down to earth bloke.

Poet Bruce Dawe lived in Queensland for many years.
Poet Bruce Dawe lived in Queensland for many years.

I recall being granted an audience with the great man when I was a student at the Darling Downs Institute of Advanced Education (later the University of Southern Queensland) in the mid-1970s.
A colleague and myself, both budding poets, turned up at Dawe's Toowoomba residence to find him in a pair of shorts, eating Saos and watching the AFL football on TV.
Coming from Victoria, as he did, he fancied aerial ping-pong and even wrote poems on the subject, the most famous of which is probably Life Cycle which begins …. "When children are born in Victoria / they are wrapped in the club-colours, laid in beribboned cots, / having already begun a lifetimes barracking."

Author Bruce Dawe was a ‘knockabout bloke’ who wrote about everyday Australia.
Author Bruce Dawe was a ‘knockabout bloke’ who wrote about everyday Australia.

Dawe wrote about ordinary Australian life like no-one else - about the suburbs, backyards, family life, hoons driving up-and-down the main drag in Toowoomba and other slices of life. But he was also a social critic and activist in his work.

The last man hanged in Australia, Ronald Ryan, inspired him to write the grisly but eloquent anti-capital punishment poem A Victorian Hangman Tells His Love. He also wrote anti-Vietnam War poems that included the moving Homecoming about returning the bodies of Australian soldiers who died in the conflict.

"They're bringing them home, now, too late, too early" he wrote.

Dawe was a knockabout bloke in his early years.

After leaving school at 16, he worked in a wide range of jobs - clerk, labourer and copy boy at the Melbourne newspapers The Truth and The Sun News-Pictorial.

Dawe completed his schooling by part-time study in 1953 and enrolled at Melbourne University on a teaching scholarship in 1954.

He left university at the end of 1954 and moved to Sydney where he worked as a labourer in a glass factory and later in a factory manufacturing batteries.

Returning to Melbourne in 1956, he worked as a postman for two years and as a self-employed gardener to support his poetry.

Poet Bruce Dawe in 1992.
Poet Bruce Dawe in 1992.

He joined the RAAF in 1959, initially as a trainee telegraphist but re-mustered as an education assistant. He was posted to Malaysia and returned to Melbourne after six months.

Leaving the RAAF in 1968, Dawe began teaching at Downlands College, a Catholic boys school in Toowoomba.

He went on to teach at the tertiary level and until his retirement to Caloundra where he continued writing and taught with the University of the Third Age.

He was also The Courier-Mail's poetry editor for a period of time.

His many books are considered classics of Australian poetry - Beyond the Subdivisions, Condolences of the Season, Just a Dugong at Twilight, Sometimes Gladness and many more.

Dennis Haskell, author of Attuned to Alien Moonlight: The Poetry of Bruce Dawe, wrote that Dawe's polemical poetry (which included searing critiques of Queensland politics in the Joh years) showed he had great integrity, even if you disagreed with him.

"Intrinsic to his work is a sense that poetry matters in the world and must be responsive to it," Haskell wrote. Dawe loves the details of ordinary life …"

Dawe was a generous supporter of other writers. We had a long correspondence over many years and I'm just one of many writers who owe him a debt of gratitude.

Bruce Dawe's first wife Gloria died in 1997. He is survived by his second wife, Liz and his children Brian, Katrina, Jamie and Melissa.

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