by Jefferson Lee
This article was a paper presented to the 14th Society for the Study of Australian Labour History Conference, Melbourne University 13th-15th February 2015. It is first of two articles about Denis Kevans, Australia’s “Poet Lorikeet” that the author has given permission to republish.
This coming August 2015 marks a decade since the death of Australia’s “Poet Lorikeet” Denis Kevans, so named by his many readers and admirers because of the uniquely Australian voice found in his works; the local vernacular employed in much of his rhyme; the keeping within a nationalist tradition in terms of humour, irreverence, rejection of authority and the giving of a voice to the underdog through his verse.
The Poet Lorikeet title to DK was also seen by many as a send up of John Howard ‘s appointment of ‘rival’ poet and Quadrant contributor, Les Murray, to the position of writer of the Australian Constitution preamble and the bestowing on Murray the title of the Queen’s Royal ‘poet laureate’ early in the Howard Government pro-Monarchy reign in the late 1990s. By 2008 at the Melbourne Writers Festival Les Murray was embarrassed perhaps by this association with a failed Liberal? He attempted to steal the more populist the title of “poet lorikeet” at a Q and A session when someone asked him if he was still the Queen’s appointee.
In interviews, Denis Kevans claimed his poetry was inspired firstly by a search for the sacred in life especially as his early education in the Catholic Church gave way to a spirituality drawn from nature and the environment. In his youth he wrestled in his mind over Catholicism, God and Marx. A turning point in his life came here when Dame Mary Gilmore encouraged him, in mid-life when clearly a Marxist, burdened with uncertainty following the death of his mother, to use the opportunity to search deeper for the soul of his own existence. [The poem ‘My Mother’ from AWM was a brilliant reflection here on Australian history, the family narrative and incarnated spirits].
This period of his life coincided with other changes in his life including a partial disillusionment with the straight-jacketed approach of ‘Stalinist’ guidelines for artistic workers emanating from the Soviet ‘Socialist Culture’ mandate that influenced the local Communist Party of Australia (CPA) leaders attempts to interpret and define a local ‘proletarian art’ setting for Australian comrades more narrowly than Denis desired for his own writing. [Footnote : Interview by author with Frank Hardy over history of Sydney Realist Writers, conducted Elizabeth Bay flat 1986,untranscribed, also Doug Jordan book on ‘Trade Unions and the Peace Movement’ for parallel struggles between union activists and the CPA hierarchy from post-war 1940s onwards over peace activism]. Through links with one of his mentors Frank Hardy and others from the Realist Writers the young Denis Kevans matured in the face of his critics from a follower of Lawson’s style with Marxist lyrics into a prestigious, creative and unbounded poet with literary output more inventive than his earlier writing days in the 1960s.
This prompts discussion of the second great truism in the Denis Kevans understanding of himself. From an early age he wanted to write from truth, with a Marxist dialectical materialist outlook, based on direct observation of social conditions around him and ‘learning from the working class’. He said he imbued the sense of class solidarity from his father Mick Kevans, a WW2 veteran and wharfie at White Bay, through week-end post-war ‘keg parties and yarns’ of Mick and his mates that Denis attended as a child. [Source: Interview with DK noted in MA thesis].
His history was an oral tradition in the sense of the unwritten history of the workers, “the whispering ribbons of history” he called the Australian tradition. [See poem ‘Our Tongues’ in GPW]. He saw his own work as part of a continuum of the Australian Tradition, from convict ditties,[‘The Convicts’, ‘Southern Melody’, Fort Denison’ all in GPW] …to bushrangers from Frank the Poet to Ned Kelly, [‘Ned Kelly’s Eyes’ in TBW], to the Eureka Revolt [‘Southern Melody again, ‘Peter Lalor’ in TBW], the turn of the Century bush tradition of Henry Lawson and A.B. Paterson documenting shearers strikes and rural class struggles in verse [ a hundred years on it’s the destruction of the last bushland that “our father’s cleared” that we now wish to save as ‘heritage’, ‘history’ and beauty as in ‘Banjo, Have You Heard Mate?’[ TBW and ‘The Bare Dry, Ugly Gullies of Gallipoli’ and ‘The Anzac’s Incense’].
As a Marxist from a young age Australian History was class history. [Inspired by work as a hospital trolley man and builders labourer it was not only war, but industrial accidents, which inspired lines of poetry like “the blood of our class is reddest in death” [see ‘The Dogman’ and ‘Why?’ in GPW]. The spilt blood of his class is evident in the final stanza of the Gallipoli poem “Why?”
In Melbourne the benches [of Parliament] are shouting, roaring,
“the Heights [of Gallipoli] are stormed and won”,
But the red rain keeps on spouting, pouring,
Straight out of that shrapnel gun,
And the sons of the gum and the wattle,
And the red red waratahs,
Have thrown their hearts to the jackals,
And their souls to the burning stars.”
Hence his approach to war history influenced by direct experience of his own family legacy and a collective hatred of war and all its slaughter. His family history was one of participation in imperial wars. His grandfather and uncle were both veterans of the Western Front in World War One. In the poem “The Slouch (of Vietnam)” he says:
I think of my old uncles and their mates who lie bone-white
On the far-off fields of Flanders, now who promoted that fight?
They’ll teach you that life is precious, then brush it aside like dust,
But I won’t giver my life away ‘cause a brasshat says I must.
As through the mists of memory, the slaughtered slouches go”
His father Mick Kevans was a WW2 veteran. Understanding war through family history and his Irish working class heritage gave him his solid grounding to view war remembrance through the perspective of a peace activist and anti-imperialist. In general terms, the labouring classes were the misguided or conscripted ‘patriots’ that the Capitalists and Imperialists invariably used or expended as cannon fodder for the geographical ambitions of their own class. The poem ‘The Enemy” written about the likes of “brass hat” General Haig and WW1 Western Front is classic here; as is ‘The Unknown Soldiers’ from the same anthology.[GPW 1982].
The Kevans passion for Australian history, in particular that of his class, always with a sense of place, was reflected in all of his poetry, but most poignantly in his writings on war. War was perceived as a class evil and object of personal hatred. It had to be resisted to save humanity. This encompassed an anti-nuclear war stand from an early age during his one year of studying Medicine at Sydney Uni in the early 1960s. The photo in his first anthology shows him as one of five students wearing “Ban the Bomb” aprons, about to set out on the ‘Sydney-Canberra March for Nuclear Disarmament’ in 1961. Clearly Denis here was consciously part of the broader Peace Movement, with local CPA’s involvement, in what was perceived in the media as an extension of the British initiative of ‘CND’ and the European nuclear disarmament campaign. This period was the end game of the “duck and cover” decade of the Cold War nuclear threat throughout the 1950s and early 1960s in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, then, the Korean War nuclear threats, Cuba Missile Crisis, SALT One and Two arms race Détente talks, and Western alarm over the successful Chinese nuclear bomb tests.
Ireland aside, Kevans detested British colonialism in our own backyard from his youth. He was aware of the Menzies era British Nuclear tests in the 1950’s at Maralinga in South Australia and Monte Bello Islands off the coast of north west Western Australia [‘Maralinga’, ‘Monte Bello Island’, then later ‘Pacific Wonderland’ over US tests in Guam and French Tests in Tahiti and French Polynesia. All in GPW]. He was active with his protest pen on the nuclear issue again with the revival of the anti-nuclear struggle over Australia’s uranium exports from Aboriginal land in the 1970s in the NT (Ranger) and Roxby Downs in South Australia.
Again with the failure of the British Government commitment to act honourably in the wake of the McClelland Royal Commission findings that they should clean up the contaminated Maralinga site and compensate the affected Aboriginal traditional owners his epic poem “Ah White Man Have You Any Sacred Sites” was taking shape. [Yama Lester’s blindness from the nuclear fallout has been celebrated in poem, song, his own public performances, theatre, along with that of the now diminished in ranks ‘Australian Nuclear Veterans Association’ were all background material for Kevans. On “Ah White Man” the late Aboriginal poet Kevin Gilbert said to Denis “I wish I had written that poem. It says all I have been struggling for over the years”.]
The Kevans commitment to the indigenous land rights struggle and cultural self-determination ran through these anti-nuke and anti-war writings with such poems as “Talk of Auschwitz” and “Ah White Man Have You Any Sacred Sites”. [GPW published in 1982, it was a poem from 1960s and secondly AWM 1991 anthology,] This second poem was completed in 1984 and first released in response to Western Mining Corporation’s Hugh Morgan claiming Aboriginals were “pagan” with no religion when disputing their claim over a sacred site in Noonkanbah in West Australia. It reads in part
What is sacred to you brother, what is sacred to your heart?
Is Australia just a quarry for the bauxite belts to start?
Where the forests are forgotten, and the tinkling of the bell
Of the bellbird in the mountains, is just something more to sell?
In the silence of the grottoes of Australia’s sunny land,
Stand together with the Kooris, stand together hand in hand,
Open eyes to endless beauty, and to spirits, far and near,
For Australia is my country, hey it’s sacred to me here.
Ah white man I am searching for sites sacred to you,
Where you walk in silent worship, and you whisper poems too,
When you tread like me, in wonder, and your eyes are filled with tears,
When you see the tracks you’ve travelled, down your fifty thousand years.”
In response to the then superpowers, the USA and the USSR, in the 1980s, threatening annihilation over Western Europe with hundreds of US Perishing Cruise Missiles and Russian SS-20 nuclear missiles aimed at either side over the Fulda Gap in Germany (East and West) the peace movement had a general resurgence globally. Here in Hyde Park, Sydney Australia Denis Kevans recited “Century of the Child” in front of 200,000 people on a platform with Tom Uren, Patrick White and Helen Caldicott. Meanwhile Peter Garrett from Midnight Oil was settling out of court and reimbursing Denis for using the anti-nuke Three Mile Island incident poem “Harrisburg! Oh Harrisburg!” as a title track for the Oils ‘Red Sails in the Sunset’ album without any acknowledgement of Kevans as the author or any song royalties.
Kevans used the money to produce his next anthology following on from “The Great Prawn War” and “Ah White Man Have You Any Sacred Sites” entitled “The Bastard That Squashed The Grapes In Me Bag”. It continued the theme of the early ones, support for Aboriginals, workers struggle, anti-war, anti nuke, pro Irish Republic, South American struggles, human rights and free speech, the environment, the rights of immigrants and humour in verse and ditties in the Australian vernacular. Now based in the conservation Wentworth Falls area of the Blue Mountains the Kevans output of verse also reflected heavily, but not exclusively, on local conservation issues.
(2) The “Frontier War” and “Black Diggers” Campaign
In “Albert Namatjira” Kevans paints the famous painter as a true Australian whose “canvas is a hangman’s noose”, as he was jailed when his family illegally drank the alcohol that he and he alone was given a white man’s permit to consume. The second and third stanza read
Desert winds are scratching dust,
And whirling vapours from the sand,
Colours sift into my mind,
Australia grips my shaking hand,
Down desert tracks my memory tramps
And in the heat of desert noon,
I see the dead in blackened camps,
I hear them chant a people’s doom.
“I watch as squatters ride them down
With rifle-butt and stirrup-iron,
I watch the legions of the Crown
That rape the land I thought was mine,
The screams of children fill the air,
Crows and eagles crowd the grass,
Unbuttoned tunics stuck with hair,
Smell bloody as the troopers pass.
Written in 1960’s “Namatjira” was followed by the protest note of “Ah White Man’ in the 1980s discussed above. Then the stronger fight back tone was found in “Death Squads of Australia”, written no doubt over black deaths in custody and Royal Commissions that changed little in terms of our indigenous people. In the latter poem:
Kill the blacks, now kill’ em one by one,
Kill the blacks and this is how it’s done,
In stony prison cells, you won’t hear their tortured yells,
And kill ‘em with your boots, not with your gun.
They have no millionaires to buy them Justice,
They have few politicians on their side,
For Minerals and Oil they rule in Canberra,
Angelic parents of Black Genocide.
But round Australia, tides of red are raging,
The names of murderers are passing round,
And soon Kadaicha armies will be suaging,
Our thirst for Justice, with murderers in the ground
Since Denis Kevans death in 2005, mainly in the past five to seven years, the issue of “black diggers” has moved centre stage. A television documentary by ABC-TV’s Seven Thirty Report by Matt Peacock exposed the pathetic reasons why the Australian War Memorial will not countenance (to date) any display of the hundreds of deaths in battle in Australia’s “Frontier War” so well documented by historian Henry Reynolds and others. Compare this to the lavish display for the Boer War which only claimed to lives from the NSW Colony, neither on the actual battlefields. With the Gallipoli Centenary approaching, it was obvious the establishment sort ways to quell the disquiet.
In Sydney a campaign initiated by Reverend Ray Minniecon saw the commencement of “Black Diggers” Anzac Day marches and commemorations. Part of this was for the establishment of a permanent memorial sculpture. Although the City of Sydney originally commissioned a wonderful work “Dancing With Strangers” by celebrated Australian sculpturer Antony Symons from Rydal NSW, near Lithgow. This was altered when the Australian War Memorial became involved and a commission in 2007 shifted into a “competition” by 2010 with the $800,000 prize being bestowed on a young Aboriginal sculpture working at the AWM who had a grandfather who was a POW in Singapore in WW2. Peter Cosgrove himself gave the nod of approval while Symons claims skull-duggery has been at work when his work was passed over for a more simplistic and militaristic design.
About the same time peace activist Graeme Dunstan initiated the Anzac Eve “Lantern March and Vigil for Peace” which surrounded the War Memorial as part of the anti-war and arms race campaign and incorporated Aboriginal diggers demands as a centre peace of the struggle. Geoff Bagnall’s article in 2012 “Use Anzac Day to also remember the colonial wars, says (Michael)Anderson”, from the National Indigenous Times, [18/4/2012, p.6 ]. sums up the coalescing of two issues of remembering the anti-colonial war as well as the diggers that served in Australia’s armed forces overseas that has become a media mainstream constant over the past three years of official Anzac celebrations.
(3) Gallipoli and World War One in Denis Kevans Poetry
The story of Henry Weston Pryce was told on ABC ‘Radio Helicon’ as a 41 minute documentary called “A Forest of Crutches”. It was a mammoth task for Kevans involving musicians, readers and actors and sound bites to reconstruct the army life of soldier Henry Weston Pryce, a Western Front digger in 1916-17; from embarking from Australia, to wounded in the field, from combat, to the return journey where all the wounded on the return boat held up their crutches as Australia came into sight so that it resembled “A Forest of Crutches” his poetry told it all.
There is just one copy of the Pryce’s 1924 anthology on sale on-line. It’s price? $825.00! All the poetry in it was read by Denis Kevans when he did his English Literature theses at Sydney University under Leonie Kramer in the 1980s and received first class honours. Kevans would argue that Pryce, a front line soldier, would be up there, or ahead in quality, with Sassoon, Owen and the rest of the celebrated anti-War Western Front WW1 poets. Yet at the panel last year on War Literature and WW1 at the Adelaide Writers Festival 2014, there was the usual claim that Australia had no anti-war poets from the Western Front. Just the usual praise for Owen and company was on offer.
Kevans was just twenty when the slaughter of World War One and the Western Front compelled him to write many fine poems like “The Unknown Soldiers which was “highly recommended” when entered into the Mary Gilmore Award competition in 1962. On Anzac Day he roneoed off over 20 of these poems and handed them out at the annual parade. His poem “Gallipoli Gallipoli” criticised the new Australian War Memorial for originally sanitising the war:
Gallipoli , Gallipoli, you’ve often heard them say,
Gallipoli, Gallipoli, Australia’s glory day.
They gathered up these hats and bags and guns,
They shipped them home across the boiling sea,
They let the Anzacs sons, and their’ sons
See only what they wanted them to see.
They didn’t want the pain to be displayed,
The anger or the loss, they scoured the mud
And filth from relics, holy-water sprayed,
They scrubbed off every drop of tell-tale blood.
Gallipoli, Gallipoli it’s on the kiddies lips,
Gallipoli, Gallipoli, the lovely battleships.
This poem made reference to the AWM having dozens of “Yes” badges amongst the hundreds of WW1 buttons and recruiting posters for the ‘home front’. But not one “Vote No” badge. Kevans wrote “Badges of the First World War”:
To help save the Empire from the German “beast”,
You’ll see the Back to Bingara badge, and the Girls
Of Gulargambone Welcome Home Our Boys;
You’ll see hundreds of badges, drumming money
And here, in the fleur de lys that honours France,
Here, in the mausoleum to all who died for freedom,
Here among the hundreds and hundreds
Of badges of the “Great” War
Will you find one “No!” badge? No, not a one.”
There are many other fine poems on WW1 including the song from the trenches whenever a missile was whistling overhead, entitled cynically, “They’re Ours!” and the POW lament based on a true story of an Australian loaned out after capture to a German farmer who ironically lost his on son at Bullecourt called “Mitchell Won’t You Stay And Be My Son?”
In “The Race” based on the recruiting drive pitched to swimmers and life savers on our beaches, Kevans explores the link between sport and war. The “Sportsman’s One Hundred” recruiting poster has featured as a free give-away card in the National Museum of Australia when I was there last in 2012. No doubt it is available as part of the WW1 memorabilia elsewhere. A single verse in the famous poem “The Roar Of The Crowd”, recorded by Gary Shearston in 1962 and by The Fagans in 1987 reads:
A passing footnote here on our means of remembering WW1 today. Having read Kevans I was astounded by the use of the “Anzac Day Football Match” between traditional rivals in VFL/AFL (Collingwood/Essendon) and ARL (St George/Souths) as promotional tools of the ADF recruiting and as a prop for pro-war Federal foreign policy. Either “war heroes” from current servicemen or past conflicts feature prominently, to weapon technology flyovers to demonstrate we are “safe”, to ‘big brother’ television monitors panning the crowd to ensure all 90,000 people in the MCG are actually standing at attention and mouthing the words (albeit silently) to our imperial National Anthem. Team Rivalry is depicted as a tradition and part of our national sporting culture. Keeping faith with the military’s exploitation of the same is also part of our national tradition we are now told. Just as in WW1. Both are where “heroes” are made and “legends” grow!
Later poems on WW1 reflect the Kevans environmental concerns like in “The Anzac’s Incense” and “The Bare, Dry, Ugly Gullies of Gallipoli” where
“…..The bare, dry, ugly gullies of Gallipoli,
Have vanished long ago, and far away,
But the lush and evergreen,
The most beautiful ever seen
Rainforests are bulldozed here every day.”[TBW page 43]
And the historical continuity of the rulers is derided in “Captain Lalor”:
Haven’t you lost your way?
What are you doing here,
Four hundred yards
From the peak of Chunuk Bair?
Peter Lalor’s sword by your side,
Your grandfather’s pride;
What are you doing here
Four hundred yards
From the peak of Chunuk Bair?….”
In “Thesis One” and “Thesis Two” the title’s a dig at academia’s irrelevance to the bigger issues of life…….[”academia” are again derided in “Gallipoli” as paid “scribes” of the establishment. Examples of what DK would see as “defend the Empire” WW1 revisionism are the conclusions drawn by Brian Fletcher, ”Historic duty to share fruits of scholarship”, a review of ‘Australia and the “Kaiser’s War” 1914-1918’, in Campus Review Weekly 20/05/93 and Robin Prior, “Fighting on the beaches”, review of ‘What’s Wrong with Anzac?’, Australian Book Review, May 2010 from page 12]. ……Kevans struggles with his Catholic upbringing…and asks why does god let war happen…He argues in “The Empty Church” and elsewhere that God remains silent in the face of war and atrocity as though God is consenting to it. As Kevans studies the history of war in South America in more depth his Catholicism influence are rarefied as he identifies with the Paolo Friere ‘Liberation Theology” of the activist church in “Bishop Romero”[AWM] but rejects the established Catholic Church in “The Shroud of Santiago”[TBW].
The question of whether Kevans comes back to religion at the end of his life as some on the Left who have deserted the church do when approaching the end of life was answered by his non-Church burial. But even then the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald obituary column could not accept my testimony that Denis was both spiritual and a Marxist. So a cheeky remark from his father’s death bed was attributed to Denis himself. His father Mick when asked on his death bed ”If he had made his peace with God?” replied “I never knew I had a quarrel with him” leaving it ambiguous as to whether he died as a believer in the Catholic faith. [In my obituary in penned for the SMH the editor deliberately attributes the comment from Denis about his father Mick as his own. It is on the website <deniskevans.net> ]. This led to a latter query to me from the librarian at St Joseph’s College at Hunters Hill. As stated above, the Denis Kevans funeral in Leura NSW was a moving, but non-religious, ‘ashes to ashes’ burial.
Clearly poems like “Monuments” express his sense of longevity after death, with a faith in the people who follow him. It concludes with:
And one day when these cities are but dust upon the air
The pollen from our fighting hearts will bloom again somewhere.”
Similar, some may say with Padraig Pearse 1915 verse, quoted in Matthew Carr’s ‘Unknown Soldiers’ book where he says:
“Life springs from death; and from the graves of patriot men and women spring living nations.”
[p. 165, Profile Books, London, 2006].
(4) World War Two in Denis Kevans Poetry
From Denis Kevans friend in Tasmania, the singer Kerrie Maguire that Denis learns of her father’s post WW2 nightmares and traumas as a former Singapore POW and writes a poem “The Flowers of Trowutta” [AWM] about a flower of remembrance from this part of Tasmania. A poem that folk singer Sonia Bennett with Denis recorded in song.
When his mates were starving,
Dying of disease,
He stole them food and medicine,
They beat him down to his knees;
At night (back in Tassie) I heard him crying,
As the war danced in his brain,
Opening the tins of food for them,
Being beaten again……”
A recent book “The Story of Billy Young” an 86 year old WW2 veteran from Allawah in Sydney from the same camp was profiled in the Daily Telegraph by Ian McPhedran under the heading “Survival in the face of true horror”[DT 8/8/2012, p.17]
When Denis wrote poetry on WW2 it was oral history gathered from the sons and daughters of veterans and the veterans themselves. WW2 It was his father’s war was always on his mind. His politics explored the war as part of his denial of legitimacy of the Vietnam War. He refutes that the Vietnam War was a continuation of ‘The Anzac tradition’ in our armed forces with the lines:
“The Slouch of brave Gallipoli that blinded the diggers’ eyes,
The slouch of bloody Passchendaele where the shell-shock case still cries,
The martyrs hanged in Changi, the heroes killed in Lae,
But the slouch of the jungle paddies is a slouch I cannot pay.”
The crimes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki also featured prominently thoughout the DK war cannon as monstrosities that he would always come back to in his literary works.