Gwen Harwood AO, née Gwendoline Nessie Foster, was an Australian poet and librettist. Gwen Harwood is regarded as one of Australia's finest poets, publishing over 420 works, including 386 poems and 13 librettos. She won numerous poetry awards and prizes. Her work is commonly studied in schools and university courses.
Gwen Harwood is the mother of the author John Harwood.
She was born in Taringa, Queensland and brought up in Brisbane. She attended Brisbane Girls Grammar School and was an organist at All Saints Church when she was young. She completed a music teacher's diploma, and also worked as a typist at the War Damage Commission from 1942. Early in her life, she developed an interest in literature, philosophy and music.
She moved to Tasmania after her marriage to linguist William Harwood in September 1945. Here she developed her lifelong interest in the work of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein "which informs her entire opus".
Her father played piano, violin, guitar and the flute. Both Gwen and her brother were given piano lessons, and originally Gwen wanted to be a musician. Gwen's grandmother introduced her to poetry; this inspired her and became her life long calling and passion.
Gwen Harwood had written poetry for many years, and her first poem was published in Meanjin in 1944, but her work did not start appearing regularly in journals and books until the 1960s. Her first book of poems, titled Poems, was published in 1963, followed in 1968 by Poems Volume II. Other books include The Lion's Bride (1981), Bone Scan (1988), and The Present Tense (1995). There are also several versions of a Selected Poems, including one from Penguin in 2001.
Harwood used a range of pseudonyms in her early work, such as Walter Lehmann, W.W. Hagendoor (an anagram of her name), Francis Geyer, Timothy (TF) Kline, Miriam Stone, and Alan Carvosso.
She also wrote libretti for composers such as Larry Sitsky, James Penberthy, Don Kay and Ian Cugley.
She corresponded over the years with several poet friends, including Vincent Buckley, A. D. Hope, Vivian Smith, and Norman Talbot, and served as President of the Tasmanian Branch of the Fellowship of Australian Writers.
Her poetry has been used by many students who are completing the Higher School Certificate (HSC) in New South Wales, Australia, and by Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) students in Victoria, Australia.
Literary Themes and Style
Harwood's poetry has recurring themes of motherhood and the stifled role of women, particularly those of young mothers. Her poem "In the Park" established a certain feminist reputation but others of her poems treat motherhood in a more complex and nuanced way. Music is another recurring motif. The Tasmanian landscape, and Aboriginal dispossession of that landscape, form another theme in much of her writing. She also wrote series of poems with recurring characters, two of the most notorious being Professor Eisenbart and Kröte. Many of her poems also include biblical references and religious allusions.
The style and technique of Harwood's poetry has led to several of her works being employed by the New South Wales Board of Studies as prescribed texts for the High School Certificate. Primary focus in the English course is placed on the analysis of the themes expressed in Harwood's poetry, and how such themes are relevant in modern society. Her work is also used as a text for the Victorian Certificate of Education and West Australian Certificate of Education Literature Courses in the poetry section for its literary value and complex themes.
1942: The Pancake Manor
1958: Meanjin Poetry Prize
1959: Meanjin Poetry Prize
1975: Grace Leven Prize for Poetry
1977: Robert Frost Medallion (now known as Christopher Brennan Award)
1978: Patrick White Award
1980: The Age Book of the Year Award Book of the Year and Non-fiction Award for Blessed City
1988: University of Tasmania Honorary D.Litt
1989: Officer of the Order of Australia (AO)
1989: Victorian Premier's Literary Award for Bone Scan
1990: J.J. Bray Award
1994: University of Queensland Honorary doctorate
1994: Latrobe University Honorary doctorate