Graduation address given by Rosemary Dobson AO

Rosemary Dobson AO, an Australian poet, gave the occasional address at a Faculty of Arts graduation ceremony held on 28 February 1996 following the conferral of the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters by the University.

The following is an edited version of her address which appeared in The University of Sydney News, 14 March 1996:

Rosemary Dobson

photo, The University of Sydney News, 14 March 1996

Graduation address

When I was twenty, I had completed three years as a student teacher and was able to contemplate a period without earning, if I was careful.

I arranged to have lessons in drawing and design and asked Professor Waldock of Sydney University if I could attend courses in his English Depatment, and offered a serious intent to do all the essays and examinations.

This unusual request from an unmatriculated unknown did not faze Professor Waldock. In those faroff days, the student intake was surely minimal compared with that of today. Professor Waldock was flexible as well as helpful and courteous. And so I became a somewhat under-the-counter student of this university. I loved that experience of learning and benefited greatly from it.

I had already determined that poetry was to be my life's preoccupation, with a necessary subordination of painting, my other absorbing interest, to second place. A passion for all aspects of the visual arts has always fed into my writing.

Nowadays, people ask me curiously what it was like then - how conditions for writers differed from those of today. I think of the 1940s, when I started out, as a significant decade for Australian literature generally. But writers then were unassisted.

The Commonwealth Literary Fund, predecessor of the Australia Council's Literature Board, supported literature by guaranteeing publishers of important manuscripts against loss. There were virtually no individual grants and fellowships; a few destitute older writers, like Shaw Neilson, received tiny pensions.

In the 1940s, the scene was so much smaller. In Sydney, where I lived, poets sent poems to The Bulletin or to the recently established quarterly associated with Sydney University, Southerly. In faraway Melbourne - everywhere else seemed far away in those days - there was Meanjin, and in other cities new magazines fluttered in and out of existence. Because of its very wide readership, publication in The Bulletin ensured that one's work was assessed by one's peers. Then, with a sufficient number of ephemerally published poems which had already survived the criticism of magazine editors, one could begin to think of book publication.

Now, although one still progresses towards book publication by the same route, the scene is transformed many ways.

There are many more publications with literary interests, and there are grants and fellowships for the creative arts. Many have benefited from such grants. There are also more awards and valuable prizes. With or without such bonuses, one seeks remunerative employment.

It was possible to find work then. It seems amazing now, but one even had a choice - should one try for work allied to writing or quite unrelated? The poet Roland Robinson was a greenkeeper at a golf course for many years: outdoor work, pleasant conditions, space to think.

I made the other choice, entering the publishing firm of Angus & Robertson through the back door as a proofreader, later moving on to the editorial department. Marriage to Alec Bolton, publisher and printer, has furthered my knowledge of, and enthusiasm for, all aspects of book production, both commercial and creative.

What was it like, people ask, being a woman writer in the 1940s? I didn't then concern myself about this very much, and my lack of
concern was probably not unusual. Gender difference was emphasised occasionally, as when a book of criticism on Australian poetry appeared with a collective chapter at the end entitled, "Some Women Poets". I am sure no conscious relegation was intended by the book's author, H M Green, or perceived by irs readers, even though this was the period in which Judith Wright, whom he praised, was publishing her wonderful early poems.

The recognition of women's achievements was slow in coming. l, myself, was learning from women whose work is much more highly acknowledged now than it was then. But like many others, I had my own ambitions to fulfil, and was not socially or politically active. I was a bystander. Over time, my perceptions have changed and I have come to see that, as well as the right to be a detached observer, one has a responsibility ro report the truth of what is happening.

I formulate my opinions hazily but lately have been much assisted in reading essays on poetry by Seamus Heaney, the recent Nobel Prize winner, whose poetry I have long admired. The essays I refer to are published in his books The Government of the Tongue (1989) and The Redress of Poetry (1995).

In them, I find clarification, a confirmation of some of my thoughts, and also an identity of interest in the same poets for the same reasons - prominent among them the great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, and the post World War II East European poets, Zbigniew Herbert, Holub, Milosz and others.

Heaney's own poetry began as a celebration of delight in a familiar rural landscape and its routines. Then came the Irish troubles, and from 1969 celebration deepened into a desire to be a witness; to be, in his words, "socially responsible and creatively free". It is in affirmation of this need that he cites the poets I have named - the sufferers, whose poetry I define as "hardly-won".

We don't know, most of us, how we would stand if subjected to conditions imposed by oppressive regimes. I speak now of creative people in all areas. We would surely hope to defend our right to be "creatively free" for the free, springing heightening of imagination will not be denied.

Would we also be "socially responsible", "witnesses" for our time? Would we undertake, in Heaney's phrase, "a search for images and symbols adequate to our predicament"?

I would like it to be thought that there is at least a small element of "witness" in my poetry - a wish that grows more urgent with time. I shall conclude with a recent poem of mine, which relates to my theme, called "The News and Weather":

I smoothed the pelt of the
hills with my long looking

And the hills rose up and
stretched in the early light.

In the home paddocks, along
the river-flats

Black cattle doubled their
height with morning shadow.

I heard the currawongs' cry as
they swooped above me

The news they told was You
can't change the weather

And who would want to,
walking out very early

With pink and grey galahs
rumbling for grass-seeds.

I picked a fig from the laden
tree in the garden

And heard a voice that spoke
in a tongue of flame

From the fiery sun behind the
trembling tree-top:

You are lucky to be alive in these
terrible times.

I peeled back the green of the
fig breaking into its centre

Galah-coloured, pink and
grey its thousand flowerlets,

And ate of the fruit of the
garden and understood

The voice that seemed to flash
in the air above.

The message must be
received, taken into one's being

As knowledge is taken, biting
on apple or fig –

Terrible times in the world
that will nor be changed –

And I walking out on such a
morning early.