Robert Wood: on Bruce Dawe

  Robert Wood

  Bruce Dawe, suburbanite

  ‘I’m happy… in the general suburban environment’

Robert Wood: the suburbanite tendencies of Australian poet Bruce Dawe
‘I’m happy in that, in the general suburban environment’


Paragraph 1 follows:

It’s almost a cliché that the fundamental divide in Australian poetry is between the city and the country. Yet there is a third space here, an unacknowledged and under-discussed hybrid that is the majoritarian existence in Australia, namely the suburbs. For poetry to avoid being ‘a narrow kind of talk’, the suburbs must be considered more extensively. The suburbs moreover are not simply Australian.


Australian poet Bruce Dawe, courtesy The Australian Review
Australian poet Bruce Dawe, courtesy The Australian Review
The suburbs can be understood as a type of life that mediates the city and the country. To be certain these are not two autonomous zones, but have always existed in each other. They are dialogic, heuristic, interacting, porous, dynamic, various, ideal. We are dealing then with spaces as relations and relations as spaces.


Some Romantic poets express this, to my mind none better than Blake, whereby the idyllic, bucolic, natural, innocent green of nature is juxtaposed with the coal black, acrid smoke filled, orphaned city of experience. In trying to yoke, rope, contain the capriciousness of such things as Romantic and Modern though, we pummel, beat them into a certain shape. It is though less controversial to suggest that both things exist. But as yet there has been no appreciable body of work that would consider itself as Suburbanist.


Indeed, what of people who write in between the country-city divide, who would in a Paul Gilroy approximation trade in between these two safe harbours? There has long being this negotiation and there will long continue to be this expression, but the suburbs as the self conscious creation of a type of life post-Romance and post-Modern seem to have arisen most completely after World War Two.


They are not though a peculiarly American institution, or even found only in other settler societies from Australia and New Zealand to Canada and South Africa. Suburbs, in their common sense expression, in their everyday shorthand language game, are to be found wherever there are people. There are the newly rising suburbs of Gurgaon in New Delhi that come as a response to the urban, and there are the older established suburbs that have seen the built environment come up around them, such as Wesley Heights in Washington DC and most parts of peripheral Canberra.


Jo Gill, book cover
Jo Gill, book cover
The suburbs though are not often considered as places for the creation of art, or rather, the art that responds to the suburbs is often dismissed. Although this may be challenged by particular American novelists from John Updike to Richard Ford, we lack a well considered poetry and poetics of the suburbs that does not simply re-inscribe the political shortcomings of this way of life. That Australia is particularly suburban is an important point to make, but the nation is a false consciousness that needs be critiqued in order to understand this as a truly global phenomenon. Hence, Jo Gill’s work The Poetics of the American Suburbs needs to be re-imagined whereby America, or any other work, does not consider this lifestyle as exceptional but as having corollaries and cousins across nation states.


There is a long tradition of disparagement about suburbia in Australian poetry. Common to this is the view that it is ‘god forsaken’ and ‘ugly’ in the poetic imagination. [See Note 1]  The suburbs are, more damningly, essentially dead and soulless. We see something like this across a range of formal styles and timeframes. It exists in Jamie Grant’s ‘Yacht Harbour – Stillness’ (‘silence embalms/the suburbs’); S.K. Kelen’s ‘Saturn’ (‘suburbs died of fright’); Robert Adamson’s ‘Drawn With Light’ (‘suburbs of living dead’); Tim Thorne’s ‘Advice’ (‘waste’, ‘sick’, ‘cancer’); Henry Lawson’s ‘Interlude. Next Door’ (‘a suburb that hasn’t the soul of a louse’); John Kinsella’s ‘Conspiracy’ (bird death), ‘Exotica at Lake Joondalup’ (‘empty circulatory systems’) and ‘Letter to Anthony Lawrence’ (‘raven garrotes/the suburbs’); Dorothy Porter’s ‘Gossip’ (‘death/is a boring smell/in a room/in a suburb’); Alan Gould’s ‘Kosciusko Essay’ (‘downward,/deathward’); David Rowbotham’s ‘The Birds of Berkeley’ (‘the suburbs of stoned Stephens’); and Ouyang Yu’s ‘Sex Notice’ (‘your suburb is too dead’) [Note 2]. And yet, as Peter Uwe Hohendahl writes, in reference to Adorno, ‘the negation remains linked to and engaged with what it negates.’ [Note 3] What then is the negation of this third space? It is not the country-city divide, but rather the theoretical failure to see how that binarism means there is a vested interest in maintaining such a narrative, to which we could propose an internal negation. In other words, this is a poetic genealogy that sees life in the suburbs.


One has to work hard to discover this however. Poets now do not cognise themselves as suburban, let alone suburbanist, poets even as many have spent and continue to spend the majority of their time in spaces that are suburban. They are, to my mind, an unacknowledged and extensive network that can help us re-frame and re-organise the apparently natural groupings that we think of and through in poetics. The material then can alter our theoretical frames of reference.


When I spoke with colleagues about suburban Australian poetry everyone agreed that the greatest exponent was Bruce Dawe. It seems that Dawe stands apart, if not alone, for many people in considering this as a type of life. What though are we to make of Dawe’s oeuvre? Not every consideration of the suburbs could be said to be suburbanist, and Dawe’s antipathy to ‘the left’ warrants consideration as we try to unpack what it is to be suburbanist rather than suburbanite.


Suburbanism is the determinate negation of the suburban as it exists in the uncritical imagination. In other words, it is an immanent form of self-critique that aims to recapture the original geist of the suburbs, the ‘country living, city benefits’ mantra that was configured as utopia. If Les Murray has advocated for sprawl, from this moment now we might want to retrofit in light of eco-poetics and the post-pastoral. This is not however to suggest there is an ahistorical space from which we can access the suburban. Rather that there are possibilities in the suburban that can allow us to refuse the idea that they are ‘god forsaken’, ‘ugly’ and ‘dead’ without necessarily lapsing into an uncritical, Dawesian championing that assumes a politics that might be inimical to a future project.


Bruce Dawe’s suburban aesthetics are rooted in his own understanding of his material circumstances and early life. As he writes:
I grew up sometimes, and my family as well, my brother and sister, sometimes in the country, sometimes in the city. And my earliest recollections in fact are divided between city and country, and I think that’s something that’s always stayed with me, that I don’t have a very clear choice of one or the other.
This sense of being in a middle ground, of negotiating the spaces that are coded as separate, suggests on the one hand a reification of the distinction between city and country but also undercuts John Kinsella’s idea that this is a divide at all. In other words, Dawe acknowledges the separation but does not choose either.


Of his boyhood, Dawe suggests in the same interview that:


I remember playing long… for days at a time with stick men. You know how you make stick men. You take a branch and you leave the top part for where the neck, and presumably head would be. And I would put the vertebrae from – well, whatever – ox tail soup or whatever, as heads, and then the arms would be twigs, those extended lateral twigs snapped off, and leave longer twigs later down on the branch, for the legs. And I would play wars with them. And I can remember talking to myself and going through in a kind of Caesar’s commentary of the Gallic Wars, you know, and having great fun at it. And I think my own sort of identification with military history and so on was a romantic one, I must admit, [and] comes from those many days and many hours of playing on sandy loam soil on my own, with these little stick figures. And I’d project rocks from one side to the other as my kind of artillery barrages. And they were… I’ve mentioned I think in one of my poems, too. And they were amongst my earliest memories. So when it came to the British Boys Book of Battles, and I read about Sandalwana and Rorke’s Drift and the thin red line of British troops fighting against the Zulus, of course I was only re-enacting again, at a literate stage, what I’d already gone through as a younger child.


Dawe then has a certain idea of what constitutes play. This is play as a type of uncommodified self-sufficiency, the submerged ‘can-do’ we ascribe to a nationalist, self-sufficient mythic tendency all within a transnational frame (Gallic Wars, British books, Zulus). However, we would do well to cite Walter Benjamin when he wrote:


A child is no Robinson Crusoe; children do not constitute a community cut off from everything else. They belong to the nation and the class they come from. This means that their toys cannot bear witness to any autonomous separate existence, but rather are a silent signifying dialogue between them and their nation.


Dawe as a child at play suggests both a military propensity in line with ‘Australian’ masculinity at the same time as well as his working class background (note the ox tail and the self fashioned, rather than bought, toys). He is cognisant too of how this influences his later aesthetic output, particularly in relation to his militarisation. In that way, in his anti-pacifism, Dawe is an uncritical suburbanite. Dawe is essentially at peace with the heroic myths of a settled nation, which one can see in his poems about Gallipoli.


Dawe engages too in culture industry entertainment without a thoroughgoing unpacking of the economics and aesthetics of these works. Nowhere is this clearer than in his understanding of television, where he has professed a love of genre crime and The Simpsons. This is television as consumption not as symptom of system. Dawe then is concerned with being a participant in middle Australia rather than an observer of its customs, rituals, entrainments.


If in his militaristic and culture industrial pre-dispositions Dawe is a suburbanite, his lack of shame, guilt and embarrassment about being from the suburbs suggests a future possible path for those with an interest in re-claiming a positive identity from this style of life. In other words, if one cannot learn a critique from Dawe one can most certainly learn that there is life there that need be retrofitted and re-claimed. To Hope et al., he says quite clearly, ‘in fact, as urban sociologists have proven in their studies, suburban living and urban living, is as varied and fascinating as any other form. And in the past in Australia, we’ve had more than our share of it.’ The suburbs for Dawe are full of life then and he seems genuine when he writes that ‘I’m happy in that, in the general suburban environment.’ It is not a question of happiness though, even as after Roman Jakobson, the emotion quotient is always present in language. The question is rather one of representation and access to economies and systems that suggest we can think through the material conditions of life that dominate Australia and are present in a great many other countries.


While Dawe’s attention to this, his basic sight of suburban life, need be acknowledged, his boosterism of it is problematic, and essentially non-suburbanist. Indeed, Dawe writes: ‘I don’t believe for example that suburbia’s just full of crummy little people, who make love to their cars on Sunday morning. I think that’s a crazy sort of view of life, and it’s a simplistic left-wing view that I never did share.’ He may be correct to suggest that suburbia is more than a place for ‘crummy little people’, but in then claiming, without substantiation that ‘it’s a simplistic left-wing view’ he Orientalises the Orientalists. Indeed, the dismissal of suburbia as a site of potential and life in Australian poetry is no simple ideological trick. It is far more consistent and persistent then that. It is, if anything, an absent centre and a great silence that needs to be theorized, unpacked, problematized in order to be understood further.


Australian poet Fiona Wright
Australian poet Fiona Wright
Although Dawe seemingly stands alone as the interpreter of suburban Australia, there have been successive generations of poets who have thought through and considered this form of life too. To take Fiona Wright’s work Knuckled as only one recent example we might see a more critical idea of the suburbs emerging without lapsing into the idea of their deadness.For Wright, Western Sydney is, like for Lachlan Brown and an emerging suite of Giramondo poets, a type of Bunyah to put it slant. It is a ‘place’, in other words.


Consider for example, Wright’s ‘We drove to Auburn’. In its entirety it reads:

We drove to Auburn


It certainly felt like a Food Safari, such a long way from Kirribilli.
I’d googled Moroccan grocers, there wasn’t anything,
so I figured that Turkish would do. Auburn. We drove to Auburn.
I didn’t know it’s so economically challenged.
The shops had no window displays. No proper signs.
The coffee tasted bitter. But we bought orange-blossom water.
And pomegranate syrup. So much cheaper than over here.
Although we had to pay for petrol. It’s a long way from Kirribilli.
They served our pastries on a plastic plate.
The waiter wouldn’t tell me what they were. He just said biscuit,
and sweet. And I’m intolerant of tree nuts, anyway.
We spent sixty dollars on wholesale Turkish Delight.
I know it’s not to theme,
but we can have it with our sticky later on.
I think my off-the-shoulder embarrassed them. It’s a long way
from Kirribilli. There was a Torture Rehabilitation Clinic
right next to the delicatessen.


fiona-wright-small-acts In it one notes the destabilisation of the ‘I’ or at least the recognition that the poet is a persona, mocking the Kirribilli sensibility; Kirribilli being, of course, a location for one of the Prime Ministerial residencies and a repeated location that anchors us to a place. The flatness of the observation, the kind of dispassionate watching throughout, is combined with self-centred yet doubtful opinions (see, for example, ‘The coffee tasted bitter’ and ‘I didn’t know’). That the poem references Food Safari (a television show) allows us to enter into an economy of mediation and representation from the outset and there is a palpable tension throughout between the voice as one of pre-digested soundbitten phrases with disconcerting possibility. That the final two lines both locate us (‘from Kirribilli’ and then ‘the delicatessen’) in benign environment but sandwich a traumatic trope, rendered capitalized (‘Torture Rehabilitation Clinic’) suggests some of the ambivalence and magnitude of shopping outside of one’s home. This quotidian drama contains within it the political reality of contemporary Australia, all with line-breaks that call attention to the direct address and prosodic quality. Not all is as it seems in Western Sydney.


Of Wright’s other poems in this volume (Knuckled), there is dialectical thinking in the presentation of contrapuntal images (city, country, but neither, see ‘Inner West’ for example). Perhaps though this is nowhere better expressed than in the poem ‘Scratch’ with the phrase ‘feral engines’ – in that single precise phrase the country-city is expressed. We see the boar; we see the car. It is an image that locates us by suggesting its negotiation of these two supposedly oppositional spaces. In drawing attention to this though, it is necessary to highlight how important dialectics is for suburbanist poetry. In trying to find a language not only do we need to think about the country and the city as they are re-expressed in this location, but also what words and forms of life are autonomous to it already. Wright has a suburbanist edge to her work in the form of specific phrases and images, which puts paid the idea of their deadness. It is there too in the work of Jill Jones, Dorothy Porter and others and warrants further and ongoing investigation quite simply because it is the form of life that most Australians live in.


Australian critic Robin Boyd
Australian critic Robin Boyd
We might want to ask though what makes a work especially suburbanist rather than suburbanite. I think an essential quality of the work relates to Robin Boyd’s idea of featurism. He claimed ‘it may be defined as the subordination of the essential whole and the accentuation of selected separate features’ (19). This is to say there is no structural thinking in featurism and it aims to appeal through eclectic mash-up and tasteless ornamentation. This is what the suburbanite unwittingly proffers. Suburbanism as aesthetics and politics negates this. That is to say there are no specific words that stick out, which is not to suggest ‘uninhibited flow’ is a characteristic. For example, one can maintain a sense of anti-featurism while maintaining tough enjambment and disjunctive line breaks. Anti-featurism too might suggest that the work does not seek, at the level of narrative, a turn at the end. There is no gate at the beginning or the end that turns, twists, surprises much like a plaster cast lion that welcomes you onto the private property.


Suburbanism as opposed to the suburbanite is a poetry that engages critically with the suburbs. This is mainly at the level of content, even as we cannot neglect the issue of form or style or ideology. What I mean to suggest though in formulating it is that suburbia in Australia has yet to be adequately cognized as a place of thought. We need to keep asking ourselves what does this base composition and set of relations mean for our aesthetic projects? How can we re-imagine the possible through re-presenting the suburbs as a place of life in contrast to their apparent god-forsaken-ness? What might a poetics and form of criticism that is immanent to the suburbs look like? And how might we use this as a point of connection with American suburbia, gated communities the world over and the unrealized dreams of those who see the culture industry standards of The Real Housewives of Orange County, The Sopranos or any other such form that is set in this third space? These are questions we need to keep asking ourselves if we are to more fully recover our poetic history and to chart a course for what we might consider our very identity and inheritance.


Endnote links: If you click on the number that identifies the endnote, you will be taken back to the point in the text where the endnote anchor occurs; and vice versa.
[Note 1]  See Australian Poetry Library, quotes come from A.D. Hope’s ‘A Northern Elegy’ and Evan Jones’ ‘Leaving Again’.
[Note 2]  See Australian Poetry Library online.
[Note 3]  Hohendahl, Peter Uwe ‘Theory of the Novel and Concept of the Novel in Adorno and Lukács’ in Georg Lukács Reconsidered : Critical Essays in Politics, Philosophy and Aesthetics (ed. Thompson, Michael) p. 76. See also Orwell: by fighting against the bourgeoisie he becomes a bourgeois. — See more at:; See also T.S. Eliot when he wrote in a letter: ‘the people in Cambridge whom one fights against and who absorb one all the same’.

Robert Wood, 2015.
Robert Wood, 2015.

R. D. Wood has previously had work published in Best Australian Poems, Southerly, JASAL, Interdisciplinary Literary Studies and Foucault Studies. RD Wood holds degrees from ANU and the University of Pennsylvania. He has had work published in Foucault Studies, Interdisciplinary Literary Studies and JASAL. See his work here.



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