Gwen Harwood’s Sonnets: Love and Romance? Anything But.

There’s always been something enthralling about sonnets, the notions of love and romance they bring; and yet something equally as captivating in the destruction of those very notions, like a disaster unfolding that you can’t stop watching. Gwen Harwood is an influential Australian poet whose sonnets capture this perfectly. Her body of work features a range of poems, mostly sonnets, that show the ugly side to love, the ugly side to the happily ever after that are, more often than not, not enduring. Challenging a range of commonly accepted ideas, such as time tested love lasting, can often be a sticky situation for both the reader and the poet; it can make the reader highly uncomfortable, as well as open the poet up to criticism. So what is it about Harwood’s poetry that makes her dreary scenes and decrepit characters so captivating, while being so mundane? What makes her sonnets so prominent in the Australian poetry scene?

 

Sonnet #1: In The Park

She sits in the park. Her clothes are out of date.

Two children whine and bicker, tug her skirt.

A third draws aimless patterns in the dirt

Someone she loved once passed by – too late

 

to feign indifference to that casual nod.

“How nice” et cetera. “Time holds great surprises.”

From his neat head unquestionably rises

a small balloon…”but for the grace of God…”

 

They stand a while in flickering light, rehearsing

the children’s names and birthdays. “It’s so sweet

to hear their chatter, watch them grow and thrive, ”

she says to his departing smile. Then, nursing

the youngest child, sits staring at her feet.

To the wind she says, “They have eaten me alive.”

 

Written under the pseudonym of Walter Lehmann, “In the Park” tells the story of a woman sitting, in a park, with her three children. She is described in a run-down, lower class manner, showed to us by the quote “Her clothes out of date”. At the end of the first stanza a male character is introduced, as someone she used to love. This is explored more in the second stanza, with the pair amicably chatting, predominantly about the children. This ends with her saying to the wind “They have eaten me alive”.  So what exactly can we draw from these descriptions and ideas?

An analysis of “In The Park” can begin immediately, with the title. When you think of a park, what first springs to mind? To me, the idea of a park carries connotations of either tranquillity, or a connection to children. This juxtaposes against the sonnet itself; the sonnet is anything but tranquil, with the bickering children, and the mother is not revelling in her role as mother, as society dictates mothers should. By setting up connotations of a park as a symbol of relaxation and motherhood, the sonnet itself can juxtapose against the title to drive home the alternate ideologies Harwood presents.

One thing Harwood does not do in contrast with traditional ideologies is the form of the structure itself. She uses iambic pentameter within the octet/sestet form, and follows a Petrarchan rhyming scheme. With the form of the sonnet being so in adherence to tradition, the alternative ideologies truly take place in the topic of the poem itself. Traditionally, sonnets are about true love, romantic notions, and happily ever afters; the kind of Romeo and Juliet, old fashioned wooing. This is where Harwood’s rebellion from tradition truly takes place; she depicts love as fleeting,and imperfect. Consistent enjambment within the text helps in creating this, and example being the line ending with “too late”, and continuing on to the next stanza, conveying the idea of love lost, of times past. This disillusion to romance and love is continued in the second stanza, with Harwood using descriptive language to create imagery of a romantic setting in flickering light. This is an example of irony within the text, as any romance between the two is clearly long gone, alongside the woman’s belief in love, and one can argue even her sense of identity. While these were uncommon at the time, and certainly to the structure, the ideas are far more prevalent now, with imperfect love shown to us everyday, usually in the form of celebrity break ups; Kim Kardashian probably one of the most infamous examples, what with her seventy-two day marriage.

Another trope common to creative texts, especially in pop culture, is finding your own identity. This has been done to the point of overdone; how many movies have you seen with the main character ‘finding themselves’, often with romantic relationships involved? Harwood plays on this too, but from a different perspective, the obliteration of this woman’s identity. The idea of identity and love within the woman’s ideologies are closely interlinked, as the woman’s life now revolves around constant love and care for her children, a life in which came from love. Her life is now dedicated to loving and caring for her children; hence why her clothes are out of date. However it can be drawn from the text that her love for the children is an act put on for society; consistent references to acting are found within the sonnet, such as ‘feign’, and ‘rehearsing’. This suggests that her apparent love for the children, shown in “Its so sweet to hear their chatter, watch them grow and thrive”, is just an act to save face within society. This point is further driven home in the final line “To the wind she says, “They have eaten me alive.”” The final line shows how she has no one else to turn to, save the wind; likely because motherhood is thought to be a blessing, to be a woman’s purpose, and to view it any other way is often looked down upon. Most people feel alone at some point in their life, whether it is isolated from people physically, such as having no friends at school, or isolated by something that makes them unusual, something that sets them apart. If you have ever been ‘the weird kid’ at school then you are likely to identify far more with the identity issues intertwined with a feeling of complete isolation that Harwood presents.

Also explored within “In The Park” are issues of gender roles within society. Consider the issue of teenage pregnancy; who is made to feel responsible? Who is told their life is over? Or let’s look at it from a different perspective; who is in no way held accountable if they walk away from the situation? Your answers to these questions are very telling about society’s expectations for women and men; you most likely see teen pregnancy as debilitating for the woman, but no real issue for the man. This extends into adulthood also; women are expected to give birth at some point, this is their job, their purpose on the Earth. For a woman to reject this, she is met with harsh criticism. A man however, can be a bachelor all he likes with no obligation to procreate. Harwood draws upon these societal expectations, and other aspects of stereotypical femininity, to build her sonnet.  The woman is presented stereotypically in terms of clothing; it is a typically trope, especially within popular culture, that women’s main concern is, and should be their appearance. However another typically held belief is that women’s main purpose is to become a mother. A combination of these two shows that mothers should be interested in keeping up appearances; once more, Harwood presents an alternate, and possibly more realistic, viewpoint to this. The mother’s life and identity is completely consumed by motherhood, and appearance hardly factors in her life.  This juxtaposes directly with the male character of the sonnet, especially with “his neat head” and “departing smile”. The two quotes show that the male figure is less tied down in parental roles, and is far more able to keep up appearances; yet is less required by society to do so. It is, seemingly, a direct contradiction of the two notions; a mother is expected to raise children and keep up appearances, where as a father, or male figure, has far less obligation to do either. The double standards are presented as is in Harwood’s sonnet, subtly challenging the gender roles of society.

Sonnet #2: Suburban Sonnet

She practises a fugue, though it can matter

to no one now if she plays well or not.

Beside her on the floor two children chatter,

then scream and fight. She hushes them. A pot

boils over. As she rushes to the stove

too late, a wave of nausea overpowers

subject and counter-subject. Zest and love

drain out with soapy water as she scours

the crusted milk. Her veins ache. Once she played

for Rubinstein, who yawned. The children caper

round a sprung mousetrap where a mouse lies dead.

When the soft corpse won’t move they seem afraid.

She comforts them; and wraps it in a paper

featuring: Tasty dishes from stale bread.

 

Suburban Sonnet is another sonnet about a mother weighed down by her role; while it is never stated that it is the same mother, the similarities are striking. The sonnet follows a mother, two of which her children are bickering, who is weary of her role of mother, and has had her identity overcome by the children.

The title carries its own connotations of the sonnet’s content. When you think of the word ‘suburban’, what do you picture? It is typically a word symbolic of a nuclear family unit, of being middle class, and a mundane kind of happiness. The word sonnet follows this, telling the reader not only what kind of poetry it is, but also to expect themes of love and romance. The poem clashes with these connotations terribly; it is a tale of a lower class single parent family, the mother of which is not happy in there semi-mundane, semi-chaotic home, and destroys any romantic notions held by the traditional sonnet. Even the love displayed by the mother for the children seems fabricated, forced. Everything you would expect from a sonnet, this is not.

Like “In The Park”, “Suburban Sonnet” plays with the ideas of identity and purpose in life, and the link between the two. In the first line the concept of rehearsal is immediately introduced, running parallel to “In The Park”. This time Harwood combines the concept with a cliché; a musician who can not follow their passion due to other commitments or obstacles, with the children being considered both in this case. The cliché of a struggling musician is common in pop culture, with the musician always following their passion and becoming successful in then end. This is not the case here. The mother does not become a successful musician, and sets the reader up to believe that she never will. This idea is followed on later in the sonnet, with “Once she played for Rubinstein, who yawned”. This does two things; one, it provides a break in the chaos unfolding in the home, suggestive of the mother pondering what she could have down with her life if it wasn’t for the children, and two, it immediately breaks that notion by suggesting a lack of musical skill on the mother’s part. This can be linked to Harwood’s own context; music was always a large part of her life, and she aspired to be a musician, turning to poetry only when she decided she would never be a great one. Harwood takes her own disillusionment towards the idea of follow your dreams and you will be successful, and places it in the ideologies of the mother. Harwood’s own context demonstrates and obstacle leading to pursuing your dreams; one she transcribed into the sonnet with a twist, the obstacle being motherhood. This presents yet another link to “In The Park”, with the alternative ideologies pertaining to motherhood being identical; that it is not a woman’s sole purpose, and she is allowed to have other aspirations. Yet the mother is still consumed in her role as mother; the line “matter to no one” demonstrates this; similar to “In The Park”, she feels as though she has no one to turn to. A metaphor introduced in the final stanza appears to contradict this; Harwood uses a dead mouse, of which the children are afraid of, to symbolise the Mother, and how the children would be lost without her. This seems to say that she does matter to someone; her children. However this is just an extension of her role, and how the children need her to love them, not particularly that she wants to. Linking the two sonnets creates a sense of aestheticism linking to pop culture; who doesn’t love a well-planned out franchise?

Gender roles also factor into “Suburban Sonnet”. The woman cooking is an aspect of life that is stereotypically feminine, hence part of her role as housewife and mother. Once more, this ties in with her sense of identity. The cooking is not going well, with the pot boiling over, and the enjambment used with the line carrying over to finish with “too late”. This juxtapositions against “In The Park”; that one began with too late, to show how her life ended up, where as this one finishes with too late, to show that nothing can be changed, and to bring a sense of finality. The use of the word “overpowers” emphasises this; her life has been completely overpowered, and there is nothing she can do to change that. Following this however, is a suggested Volta. The change begins with enjambment of the line “zest and love”, which brings the passion and romance typical of a sonnet. This doesn’t last. The next line immediately finishes with drains out, crushing the hope brought, while showing that the passion and romance doesn’t last. Instead she pours all of her love, all of her time and life into caring for the children, feeling like she is watching it drain away without point. This is driven home with the short and sharp punctuation of the next sentence, “Her veins ache”. Some of Harwood’s sentences seem oddly placed, this being one of them. They serve as interjections to her life, of the errant thoughts that make up her existence, between caring for the children. It makes her seem more realistic; I don’t know how many times your productiveness is offset my distracted thoughts, but mine certainly is on a regular basis. This errant thought is no exception, and while seemingly randomly placed, it flows on from the zest and love draining away, with veins carrying connotations of one’s life force. Veins have a deep symbolic impact on pop culture, specifically indie and alternative music drawing inspiration from them. They combine with bones, together forming the structure and soul of the body. This line bypasses bones, it bypasses structure; unlike the indie band who can ‘feel it in their bones’, her pain and anguish runs far deeper, into the very essence of her soul. By combining these, Harwood shows how the mother’s life force is draining away, due to the children, and the gender roles that bind her to her position.

Sonnet #3: Suburban Sonnet: Boxing Day

Gold, silver, pink and blue, the globes distort her,

framed in the doorway: woman with a broom.

Wrappings and toys lie scattered round the room.

A glossy magazine the children bought her

lies open: ‘How to keep your husband’s love’.

She stands and stares, as if in recollection,

at her own staring acid-pink reflection.

The simple fact is, she’s too tired to move.

 

O where’s the demon lover, the wild boy

who kissed the future to her flesh beneath

what skies, what stars, what space! and swore to love her

through hell’s own fires? A child stretches above her

and, laughing, crowns her with a tinsel wreath.

She gathers up a new, dismembered toy.

 

“Suburban Sonnet: Boxing Day”, like the other two, tells a story of a mother beaten down by her life, cleaning, caring for children, and other housewifely duties. The main ‘plot’ of the sonnet is a mother cleaning up the children’s mess after what is presumed to be Christmas. It is assumed that it is the same mother, at least as in “Suburban Sonnet”.

The title carries the same connotations as ‘Suburban Sonnet’, for obvious reasons, with a few additives. The repetition of ‘Suburban Sonnet’ shows that this is a continuation of the last tale. In addition, it had added ‘Boxing Day’, which, as the day after Christmas, is the day for cleaning up after the chaos and joy of Christmas itself. Boxing Day is a day open to interpretation by the reader; what do you think of Boxing Day? Some see it as the ending of Christmas, back to normality, a bad thing; this carries the notion that Christmas, and by extension joy, never lasts. Some however, see it as a break from the festivities, a return from the madness of Christmas, and hence a good thing.

Just like the other two sonnets, this one plays around with traditional ideas of love and sonnets versus the ideas Harwood is presenting. Love, lust and romance are far more prevalent in this sonnet than the other two; however still adverse to the idealistic themes usually portrayed by sonnets. The first stanza briefly touches on this, especially with the line “lies open: How to keep your husband’s love”. This is in reference to a magazine article; it’s pretty realistic of real life magazines as well. This suggest that she didn’t keep her husband’s love, and also uses a double entendre of the word ‘lies’; it gives the idea that the magazine is lying about the article, that there is no way to keep love, and that love itself is a lie. This gives an insight into the mother’s ideologies pertaining to love, and hence the ideologies Harwood is presenting. While introduced in the first stanza, the themes of love and romance truly come alive in the second. The Volta from the detached mundane in the first stanza to the anger and passion shown in the second demonstrates the mother’s shattered illusions of romance; how once she believed in it, now seeing it as a lie. The cliché of the bad boy, the lover found in nearly every romantic storyline, is used to describe the presumed father of the children, with descriptors such as “the demon lover” and “the wild boy”.  The former carries biblical connotations of lust and the seven sins; while the mother may have enjoyed herself at the time, the punishment for her actions now is tenfold. This allusion is continued through the sestet, with the line “through hell’s own fires”, which connects to “a child stretches above her”. The connection between the two shows that what she is facing is akin to hell, and the father ran at the first sign of parenthood, leaving her to face hell alone, despite his promises. Through creating this Harwood shows that the mother is completely disillusioned to love, and considers it all a lie.

The child stretching above her is symbolic of her identity; the children dominate both her identity and purpose. The sonnet begins with the idea of self-image, connected to various colours. “The globes distort her” shows how her identity as been distorted through her life, and the combination of “gold, silver, pink, and blue”, show her progression through life has not been positive. The connotations of the colours mentioned are most important at the beginning and the end; her life began with gold, a colour symbolic of riches, wealth, and the best things in life, yet progressed to blue, a colour symbolic of depression, and also the phrase ‘black and blue’ suggesting she has been beaten by the turn her life has taken. As the turn her life has taken is entirely due to her children, it can be read from the sonnet that she views her children as a burden, a reading supported by the quotes “she’s too tired to move” and “woman with a broom”. Both quotes are taken while she is cleaning up after the mess children have left after Christmas, with the once pristine wrapping now scattered and ripped, and show how her self-image has been devolved into nothing more than a housewife and a mother. Consider it from the woman’s point of view; how would you like to be delegated to clean up lady for the rest of your life, and told to enjoy the blessing? This idea clashes greatly with society’s idea that motherhood is the greatest gift of life; another example of Harwood taking traditional sonnet structure, and using it to convey non-traditional ideologies. The descriptive language of “acid-pink reflection” ties intertextually with ‘In The Park’; acid carrying connotations of being eaten away, linking it with the line “They have eaten me alive”. This is further suggestion that the mother in the text is the same one, especially since these views on motherhood were so uncommon, driving home even further how unusual Harwood’s use of the sonnet structure was. The wrapping and toys are also highly symbolic; only a day before were they new and pristine, yet the final line showing the “new, dismembered toy” shows that the children have already broken them, just as they have broken their mother. This shows that Christmas never lasts; Boxing Day always comes, and the aftermath of joy is always faced, just like her relationship with the children’s father.

Harwood’s Style

The structure of Harwood’s sonnets is very traditional; she follows iambic pentameter, the octet/sestet structure traditional to sonnets as well as often following a Petrarchan rhyming scheme. Enjambment is a common poetic device found in Harwood’s sonnets, giving the impression of hidden meaning behind words, to make you question everything you read. Bearing these techniques in mind I attempted a sonnet of my own mirroring Harwood’s style, to demonstrate how these techniques are used to convey ideologies often alternative to common place ones and to place centreline topics often avoided. I drew heavily upon ‘Suburban Sonnet’, with the topic of mental illness, to create the following:

She practises her face, though it can matter

to anyone now if she gets by or not.

Lying flap on the floor the voices chatter

then scream and fight. She ignores them. She ought

to try. As she breathes, scared of

self-hate, a wave of panic undermines

logic and counter-logic. Hope and love

drain out with thin blood as she winds

the cursed rope. Her veins ache. Once she dreamed

of holding on; not anymore. The thoughts creep

to the surface where she wants to lie dead.

When she could not do it she screamed.

She cries out, then collapses in a heap

to get up; and clean today’s bloodshed.

 

Like Harwood, I used the idea of rehearsal and acting as a way of lying to society, in order to fit in. This is a common trope within popular culture; how many times has it been used in teen dramas? Often not seen in teen dramas is the ugly side of it; rather than pretending to be someone else to fit in, the girl is pretending to be someone else to stay alive, and it is failing. I ended the sonnet in this way, with her cleaning up the remains of her anxiety attack, a way of hiding her true self. By putting in a suggested Volta, like Harwood, I tried to show the brief glimmer of hope that is often there in any dire situation; like when a book is nicely resolved and you’re only half way through. This kind of hope is clearly not meant to last, and often hits back with double the force.

Gwen Harwood’s sonnets are traditionally structured with a modern twist, dragging old fashioned romantic notions kicking and screaming. The modern twist is a dark one, reflective perhaps on the state of modern society, or perhaps highlighting the ignorance and idealistic tendencies of times past. Which meaning is true? Like any text, sonnets, poetry and fiction alike, that is entirely down to you to decide.

 

by C.H.

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