Gwen Harwood:

opener

So, you wanted to learn a few things about Gwen Harwood’s poems? Well, you’ve come to the right place! And you’re in for a treat because not only are we going to analyse some of her works, but we’re also going to be looking at the women and men of the 1950’s and 60’s and the media’s influence on society during this time.

A fairly large concept all of this involves is reality versus stereotype.

You’ve heard these words before, but what do they actually mean and how do they relate?

 

Reality: often a bit of a killjoy and not always a walk in the park.

This pretty much sums it up:

sleep

Stereotype: on the one hand, this usually makes things easier to categorise (and sometimes gives you a licence to act a certain way) but they are also usually false. Sort of like the ‘Princess, Criminal, Brain, Basket Case and Athlete’ in that retro movie called the The Breakfast Club; the one with the fist pump song? As a side note, if you haven’t seen it yet, I definitely recommend it.

bc

The point is people are often predisposed to believe the stereotype, when in reality this is far from the truth.

 

In her poems Gwen Harwood focuses on the representation of females, particularly in their role of mothers, in her 1960’s poems ‘In The Park,’ ‘Suburban Sonnet’ and Suburban Sonnet; Boxing Day.” Now, if only there was a way for us to find out more information about these poems…oh wait, there is! Poetic techniques! Don’t worry if you’re not too flash with these my friend, we’ll work through those as well.

 

Think of this as the lowdown on all things poem, Gwen Harwood, vintage women’s roles, men (or at least one view of them) and what the media has to do with why most people believe the stereotype rather than reality. You’re welcome.

 

 

THE BASICS

 

Wait- poems? What are those again?

 

We’re not going to get very far if we can’t answer this question. So I’ll let you in on some structural knowledge; each of the poems we’ll be looking at are written in sonnet form. How do we know this? Well, here are a few hints:

 

  1. They’re all 14 lines with approximately 10 syllables in each.

 

  1. They all contain iambic pentameter (a rhythm of emphasised and understated vowels in each line.)

 

  1. They contain contemporary rhyming schemes.

 

  1. ‘In The Park’ consists of quatrains (4 line stanzas.)

 

  1. ‘Suburban Sonnet: Boxing Day’ involves a volta (a turn in thought, between the 8th and 9th)

 

Okay, so what are these poems actually about?

 

Persona. It’s the word used to describe the main perspective presented to the audience within a text (usually the main character.) One of the things that makes these three poems so interesting is that they all have the same persona; a woman suffering from a loss of identity due to her role as a mother (Pretty deep, right?) There’s no real evidence to suggest it is the same woman in each poem but they do display similar traits; exhaustion, a child oriented lifestyle and the absence of a stereotypical family structure. Basically we can assume this woman is not happy with her life. At all. In order to find out why, we’ll have to take a closer look.

 

 

 

 

WOMEN IN THE 1950s/60s

 

These were the women rocking the ‘pin up’ style; wiggle dresses, elegant up-do’s, pearls and heels. After World War II these women really came into their own; they loved nothing more than caring for the children, doing all the domestic chores, following their husband’s every request and having almost no time to follow their own interests. Every. Single. Day.

Hold on- what? That doesn’t sound right!

Well, try telling that to the societies of the time. Following the end of the war it was considered women’s ‘patriotic duty’ to relinquish their positions to the ‘more capable’ men. Marriage and children became most women’s aims and they adopted the roles of housewives and mothers dutifully. They had everything they could possibly want; husbands with good jobs, healthy children, comfortable houses and large gardens. Who could possibly want more than that?

Flash forward a few years to the 60s and women were beginning to recognise the over-glorification of the roles they were restricted to, questioning their lack of identity and purpose (ABOUT TIME!!!) Sort of like Belle from Beauty and the Beast;

belle

This national crisis commenced the fight for a new feminist ideal.

 

Gwen Harwood’s poems display reference to some time between women’s social conformity and their fight for equality. We can see evidence of this through poetic techniques in the poem.

 

Symbolism (almost anything with deeper meaning beyond it’s literal sense)          represents varying female ideologies of the 1950’s:

  • Child orientation- “she hushes them” and “she comforts them” from ‘Suburban Sonnet’ conveys the support women were expected to provide to their offspring, to the extent of their own detriment.

 

  • Domestic obligations (they were all the fun things like cleaning, cooking and washing) are displayed through the line “woman with a broom” from “Suburban Sonnet: Boxing Day.” Usually when describing someone you identify an obvious feature of their personality or appearance e.g. curly hair. ‘Woman with a broom’ therefore distinguishes this character as having little substance beyond the functional service she provides.

 

  • Inequality- seeing as women were subordinate in this patriarchal society, single parents of this gender were often shunned or frowned upon. How unfair is that? ‘In The Park’ compares “her clothes are out of date” to “his neat head.” Outdated clothes were almost unheard of amongst respectable women during the 1950’s; remember the heels and pearls I was talking about earlier? It’s fair to say the representation of the main character in this attire is therefore negative, especially when the male character contrasts with a ‘neat’ (attractive) appearance.

 

Metaphor (the comparison of two aspects through the suggestion that one is the other) represents the loss of identity women began to feel towards the end of the 50s and early 60s:

  • Exhaustion- despite the stereotypical perfection of the ‘housewife’ role, the repetitiveness of this lifestyle in reality was quite tiring. “Her veins ache” and “She’s too tired to move” from ‘Suburban Sonnet’ and ‘Suburban Sonnet: Boxing Day’ consecutively, supports this fact through the emphasis of her fatigue.

 

  • Dependence of children- due to the responsibility of women to care for their children, partnered with the little time women had for themselves, women of the 60’s came to recognise the negative effect their children’s absolute dependence was having on them. “They have eaten me alive” from ‘In The Park’ depicts this influence of children on the loss of women’s identity, suggesting the children are killing her, erasing her existence. (This is pretty deep; nice one Gwen.)

 

Motif (a recurring symbol or concept) and Enjambment (the continuation of a sentence over a line) displays the reality of the role of motherhood for these women:

  • ‘Children’ and ‘loss of love’ form motifs in the poems to display the child oriented nature of these suburban lifestyles and the reduction in women’s capacity to receive love due to their subordination.

 

  • Stress- enjambment in ‘Suburban Sonnet’; “A pot…boils over,” and “two children chatter…then scream and fight” conveys the demanding nature of this role of motherhood, contrasting to the stereotyped ‘perfection’ of this position.

 

Unlike the social stereotypes, it’s fairly obvious that the lifestyle of the 1950’s housewives was not all smiles and rainbows.

 

Check Point: Okay so we’ve looked at the structure of the poems, examples of some poetic techniques and the influence women of the 1950’s had on the persona of these poems. So how do the stereotypes of women at this time compare to the stereotypes of men? Lets find out…

 

 

MEN IN THE 1950s

 

With all the negative aspects of women’s lives compared to men, you could almost assume the men had it easy right? But this wasn’t necessarily the case.

The men who had fought in battlefields during the war had returned home only to be forced into the stereotype of the ‘perfect’ American man. Politically, this could be viewed as an attempt to fight threats of communism that existed at this time. This social expectation provided men with little ability to cope with the emotional effects of their war involvement.

So what did being a ‘perfect’ man in this patriarchal society involve? First and foremost it was essential they were not considered feminine in any way; it was all about strength and masculinity;

gas

Okay, so maybe it wasn’t exactly like this but you get the idea. Men were the sole providers for the family and were viewed to be good decision makers, capable, assertive and intelligent, particularly when compared to women. This hyper-masculine mould added to the devaluation of women in society.

On the flip side of the dominance men practiced, they experienced a lot of pressure to maintain the strength their role demanded of them, often ridiculed for any behaviour that could be considered feminine.

 

Similarly the conformist nature of this post war society could be considered a “Grey Flannel Trap.” For the white-collar men that the majority of the stereotypes were focussed on, their daily schedule consisted of commuting from their families to office-based work, to the point where they were not necessarily in control of their own existence. Social expectation left many men standardised and domesticated.

 

Gwen Harwood’s representation of stereotyped male expectations in the 50s can be interpreted through poetic techniques within her poems.

 

Conceit (an unusual comparison which usually can be viewed as a sort of metaphor) displays men’s influence on women’s subordination in the 1950s:

  • Dominance- “Once she played for Rubenstein, who yawned” in ‘Suburban Sonnet’ uses conceit to convey men’s dismissal of any female practices outside of their domestic roles. Fun fact: Arthur Rubenstein was an actual pianist who Harwood played in her youth. The concept of ‘yawning’ forms a metaphor to suggest this female character was not talented, which can be assumed then of all women in society in comparison to men (in reality this is obviously not true!)

 

Allusion (mythical/ religious/ historical/ literary/ social/ cultural symbolism) represents male ideologies of this era:

  • Stereotype- (i.e. caveman grunting, comparing of muscle tone and competition of who ate the most ‘Weet-Bix’ for breakfast)

“O where’s the demon lover” in ‘Suburban Sonnet: Boxing Day’ displays the stereotypes of men during this time period (strength/ power/ dominance.) Generally demons are considered to be more powerful than ‘mere mortals’ and typically are portrayed as having the ability to seduce and control women, therefore conveying men’s stereotypical power through the suggestion that the main character’s male love interest is a ‘demon.’

 

Check Point: Okay so by looking at some more examples of poetic techniques we know now that although women had it worse (it was a patriarchy after all), life as a man in the 1950s wasn’t all that great either.

Major stereotypes of ‘perfection’ existed during this time period and we’ve found that these were really far from the truth. So how were these stereotypes created- what really caused them?

 

 

THE MEDIA’S INFLUENCE

 

A study conducted in 2015 found that Australians watch an average of 89 hours and 28 minutes of TV per month. Combined, that’s more than three full days of pure TV! Think about it; for a lot of people their daily routine consists of going to school or work, coming home and watching TV until bed. All those hours add up to influence us in different ways, largely through the use of stereotype.

And it’s not just television shows; movies, magazines, posters, adverts, even songs present major stereotypes that we have been exposed to since childhood and in some form are continued to be exposed to every single day.

 

A leading culprit in this indoctrination of stereotypes is the internationally loved Disney incorporation. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as much a fan of Disney now as I was when I first sang along to Cinderella telling me “if you keep on believing, the dream that you wish will come true” but there’s no denying the romanticised illusion this creates.

 

We all loved the damsels in distress and dashing Prince Charmings’ as children, awed at the love at first sight and happily ever after. But what about what comes after that? After marriage, after children; is life as perfect? Does love require no work or is this an unrealistic expectation?

 

Similar to the women of the 1950’s, the adored princesses of these films present similar traits. We have grown with these stereotypic perceptions of behaviour and the role of females. Marriage and love is viewed as a main goal for Disney heroines such as Snow White and Ariel in their search for a fulfilled life, the desired attributes of women displayed through females such as Cinderella; grace, beauty, charm as well as domestic abilities and submissiveness. Cinderella also displays the stereotyped improvement of life upon finding Prince Charming and marrying him (talk about a transformation!);

cin

But it’s not only Disney. Many movies often display men as dominant figure compared to women, such as Grease (1978) and more recently, dare I say it; Twilight (2008.)

 

In the 1950’s, many adverts were printed as posters and incorporated in magazines to display the stereotyped ideologies of families. (This is where the rest of the media comes in.) This involved the ‘ideal’ family, seen through traditional family structure; two biological parents and their children. Parents ought to be wise and supportive with little serious conflict (yeah, that’s so realistic) and conforming behaviour. Stereotyped sibling relationships emphasised their efforts to resolve conflict and maintain positive emotional ties. (I’m not sure if that’s before or after the hair pulling, endless battles and screaming. Seriously these editors must have either been only children or seriously in denial.)

 

The most commonly referred to stereotype of this era, particularly in America, but also present in Australian society, was “The American Dream” that was born after the war. This consisted of marrying your perfect other half, purchasing a nice home in the suburbs surrounded by a white picket fence, raising a few children and maybe buying a dog. Male superiority and female subordination was impressed, with women expected caring mothers and serving housewives.

 

Here are some examples of the adverts depicting expected roles of women in society during this era;

ads

Wow; don’t you just love a bit of sexism?

I don’t know about you but this really rattles my feminist bones. Phew!

It wasn’t just women though, television shows of the time conveyed men’s standardised expectation to provide financial support. They typically represented as working men who left in the morning and came home in the evening for dinner. Examples of these include; I Love Lucy (1951 – 1957) and Father Knows Best (1954 – 1960.)

Anyway- how does all of this tie in with Gwen Harwood’s poems? The easiest way to find out is with; you guessed it, more poetic techniques!

 

Title connotations (sort of like symbolism in the title) represent stereotypes created by the media at this time:

  • The American Dream- suburban living and it’s relevant ideologies are displayed through the titles of Harwood’s poems; ‘Suburban Sonnet’ (that’s fairly straightforward), ‘Suburban Sonnet: Boxing Day’ (again fairly obvious, this time with the added bonus of a family holiday) and ‘In The Park’ a location often considered a part of suburbia; a place to walk the dog or play with the children with a general sense of community.

 

Satire (Making fun of something with the purpose to criticise) presents Harwood’s criticism of female representation in advertisements during this patriarchal era:

  • Magazines- As I mentioned before, advertisements played a large role in the cultivation of female stereotypes. Satire of “A glossy magazine…lies open: How to keep your husband’s love” in ‘Suburban Sonnet: Boxing Day’ depicts criticism of the messages these advertisements enforced, suggesting women need assistance to maintain the love of their husbands, perhaps with the subtle purpose of suggesting their husband’s devotions may be wandering to another.

 

Check Point: Okay so we’ve looked at men and women of the 1950s/ 60s and the influence of the media at this time through an analysis of Gwen Harwood’s texts. How did we do this? Through those super handy things called poetic techniques! Just before I wrap up, here’s my own attempt at Gwen Harwood’s poetry:

 

Once Upon A Reality

 

She removes her apron, pearls clasped round

her neck. Two children dance about her feet,

giggling. He arrives home, suit sharp, neat.

Her welcoming is a gentle sound.

Eyes shining, she returns to dinner.

She ignores her aching feet, no time to

wait or rest. Crying children fill her view

beside her, as the doorbell calls to her.

She runs to answer. Suit straight he enters

the hall, empty smiles, nothing is spoken.

He walks on. She cries internally.

Perfect and devoid of love; two centres

of life called ‘home.’ These two are in fact one,

two views; only one the reality.

 

 

What does any of that mean? Well, I used Harwood’s rhyme scheme from ‘Suburban Sonnet’ (abba,cddc,efg,efg) as well as the same location; a kitchen with children and a mother figure. I however displayed this from two perspectives of the same family; the first the stereotype of mothers and families during the 1950’s, the second a perspective of what the reality may have been. Now it’s your turn; what poetic techniques can you find in this poem? Maybe there are some that we looked at earlier or others you can see. Can you relate any of this to the 1950’s?

Have fun!

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by S.M-R.

 

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