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Five Classic Australian Poems

a radio series produced by Lyn Gallacher
The Book Show—ABC RN—May 2008



Five Classic Australian Poems is a series of radio features, produced by Lyn Gallacher for the The Book Show.


Each program focuses closely on one much-loved Australian poem, giving deeper insight into works that may or may not already be old friends.


The variety of perspectives ranges from actors, to archives, to literary specialists, and offers us a richer understanding of Australia’s poetic tradition.


The five poems are—Five Bells by Kenneth Slessor, Rockpool by Judith Wright, The Glugs of Gosh by C.J Dennis, The Continuance of Poetry by Rosemary Dobson and Death of a Bird by A.D Hope.

Five Bells by Kenneth Slessor

As well as writing poetry for most of his life, Kenneth Slessor had a long career in journalism and was appointed an official war correspondent during WW II. He also edited newspapers, magazines and poetry anthologies. Slessor’s writing career began early. He was only 16 when his first dramatic monologue was published in 1917 in The Bulletin magazine. It was spoken by a Digger, dying in Europe, and remembering Sydney Harbour and Manly Beach.


Some years later Slessor became friendly with Norman Lindsay and was influenced by his philosophy and ideas—although unlike Lindsay, Slessor was committed to experiment in poetry. In 1927 he joined the idiosyncratic satirical magazine Smith’s Weekly and stayed with it for almost 15 years—part of that time as editor.


It was during those years that he wrote most of his major poetry and light verse, as well as articles and film reviews. In 1939 a small paperback called Five Bells appeared, with drawing provided by Norman Lindsay. It’s a meditation prompted by the death of Joe Lynch, who drowned in Sydney Harbour. And it’s generally agreed to be Slessor’s finest poem. It placed him among Australia’s foremost poets. It’s this poem that begins our week celebrating great Australian poetry.


In this program you’ll hear from Ivor Indyk, publisher and academic from the University of Western Sydney, and producer Lyn Gallacher, who’ll be our guide throughout the series. the program begins with Robert Menzies reading Kenneth Slessor’s masterful and much-loved Five Bells.

The Book ShowFive Bells by Kenneth Slessor



Ivor Indyk


Emily McGuire


Robert Walker





Lyn Gallacher, Presenter

Rockpool by Judith Wright

Judith Wright’s biographer, Veronica Brady describes Wright’s life as a match against the current of the times, against technology and the destruction of the environment, against war and its violations of our common humanity, and against the historical amnesia that condemns the past and the original inhabitants of this country to oblivion. These were also the central concerns in her poetry.


The poem we’re focusing on today, Rockpool, is one of Wright’s later works, written not long before she died. It’s an unsentimental meditation on the approach of death and facing up to mortality with dignity.


In order to unveil the poem’s secrets and face up to its challenges, Lyn Gallacher speaks to academic Michael Ackland, biographer Veronica Brady, and eco philosopher Val Plumbwood. Sadly, Val Plumbwood died shortly after this interview was recorded, so it’s with strange prescience that we hear her reflecting on the nature of death. We begin with Belinda McCaurie reading today’s poem, Rockpool, by Judith Wright.

The Book ShowRockpool by Judith Wright



Veronica Brady


Val Plumwood


Michael Ackland





Lyn Gallacher, Presenter

The Glugs of Gosh by C.J Dennis

C.J Dennis is best known for his work The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke but for many people, The Glugs of Gosh is a favourite. Rhyming words like Gosh with splosh; profundity with rotundity and Ogs with podge—and the delight in reciting such full-bodied words might explain the joy people take in this work.


You’ll hear more of how these words come together in The Glugs of Gosh. It’s a political satire with direct targets and more oblique symbolic references. For instance, the Glugs climb trees rather than greasy poles, but the meaning is the same.


The Glugs of Gosh was published in 1917, after the phenomenal success of Dennis’s The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke and its sequel, The Moods of Ginger Mick. Throughout this program you’ll hear The Glugs of Gosh as it was performed by actor John Derum in his C.J Dennis stage show called More than a Sentimental Bloke.

The Book ShowThe Glugs of Gosh by CJ Dennis



John Derum


Phil Butters


Perry Middlemiss





Lyn Gallacher, Presenter

The Continuance of Poetry by Rosemary Dobson

Rosemary Dobson was born in Sydney in 1920—the daughter of English immigrants and the grandaughter of poet, critic, biographer and essayist Henry Austin Dobson. She is the only one of the five featured poets in this series who is still living. Her first collection In a Convex Mirror was published in 1944. Altogether she’s written 13 collections of her own work and edited several anthologies. Her work has attracted many awards over the years and in 2000 Rosemary was given an honorary Celebration by the National Library of Australia.


The work we’re focusing on today, The Continuance of Poetry, is both an elegy and a celebration. It’s a meditation on the nature of friendship and loss, which Rosemary Dobson wrote in memory of her friend and fellow poet David Campbell. This series of 12 poems was composed on the occasion of his death. They were written more as a private memorial than a public statement of grief. The series is in fact an intimate reflection on what happens when two minds meet and share together the richness of their mutual poetic heritage. And in this case that heritage has as much to do with Chinese literature as it does with Australian poetics.


As usual Lyn Gallacher guides us through and we begin with part one A Goodbye, a piece which captures the moment directly after David Campbell’s funeral.

The Book ShowThe Continuance of Poetry by Rosemary Dobson



Mary-Louise Ayres


Paul Hetherington


David McCooey


John Hughes





Lyn Gallacher, Presenter

The Death of a Bird by A.D Hope

The Death of the Bird, by AD Hope (Alec Derwent Hope) is the final in our series of great Australian poems. AD Hope is probably the most world famous of the five poets we’ve featured this week. And as well as being a poet he was a critic, an academic and a satirist. He was born in New South Wales in July 1907 and died in Canberra in July 2000. His most famous poetry collection, The Wandering Islands, came about when he was quite young, and it was this collection that established his reputation.


The Death of the Bird is one of his more straightforward poems. It is, quite simply, about the death of a bird. But it has also become a controversial example of how to read a poem which has been part of the purpose of this series. Like each one of our examples this program features a close reading of the poem and gives different possible interpretations. We’ve spoken to AD Hope fan, Clive James and visited a poetry conference in Canberra where a quarrel over the poems meaning broke out. And to pin the bird down we added migratory bird expert John Barkla into the mix. The Death of the Bird is a fitting end to this extraordinary series by Lyn Gallacher.

The Book ShowThe Death of the Bird by AD Hope



Clive James


John Barkla





Lyn Gallacher, Presenter



© 2008—Lyn Gallacher & ABC RN

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