Poetry played a prominent part in the founding of Australian literature. The concept of the Bush became an iconic part of Australian poetry. Bush refers to any sparsely inhabited region and Bush poetry often tells stories of life in the wide open country of Australia. Among the earliest important Australian poets were Adam Lindsay Gordon, once referred to as the “national poet of Australia”; Henry Lawson, who became the first Australian writer to be honoured with a state funeral; and Banjo Paterson, who wrote some of the most popular Australian verse. The poetry of Paterson and Lawson was instrumental in shaping the Australian nation’s psyche and, with time, these two were regarded as giants of Australian literature. In the 20th century, several Australian poets experimented with modernism while some also continued the tradition of Bush poetry. Prominent Australian poets of the 20th century include Judith Wright, Gwen Harwood, Kenneth Slessor, Les Murray and Bruce Dawe. Know more about the rich tradition of poetry in Australia through the 10 most famous Australian poets and their best known poems.
#10 Kenneth Slessor
Lifespan: March 27, 1901 – June 30, 1971
Kenneth Slessor was one of the leading Australian poets of the 20th century. The bulk of his poetic work was produced before the end of the Second World War and he wrote the famous poem Beach Burial as a tribute to Australian troops who fought in World War II. His best known work is however Five Bells, a poem which reflects on the death of his friend Joe Lynch who drowned in Sydney Harbour in 1927. Kenneth Slessor made several important contributions to Australian poetry including introducing modernist influences. Slessor applied numerous technical innovations to Australian themes. He utilized unconventional rhyme, lyrical experiments, rich imagery and dramatic techniques. The poetry of Slessor is characterized by melancholy and disillusion; as well as individualism and a zest for life. His favourite themes include time, the sea and reflections on memory. In the honour of Kenneth Slessor, the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry is awarded annually.
Five Bells (1939)
Beach Burial (1944)
Five Visions of Captain Cook (1931)
#9 Adam Lindsay Gordon
Lifespan: October 19, 1833 – June 24, 1870
Wild and aimless as a youth, Gordon was sent by his father from England to Australia to make a fresh start there. He joined the South Australian Police but soon resigned the force and instead became a horsebreaker and gained a reputation as a fine steeplechase rider. In 1867, Gordon published his first two volumes of poems titled Sea Spray and Smoke Drift and Ashtaroth. In 1868, he suffered a serious riding injury and also lost his only child. This was followed by him suffering from depression. In 1870, Gordon published his third volume of poetry, Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes. However, the day after its publication, Gordon committed suicide by shooting himself on the beach near Brighton. Adam Lindsay Gordon was one of the first poets to write in a distinctly Australian idiom and several of his lines have been adopted into the Australian vernacular. With time, his poetry became popular in Australia and his poetry collection Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes is now regarded as one of the most important pieces of Australian literature.
The Swimmer (1870)
The Sick Stockrider (1870)
How We Beat The Favourite (1870)
#8 Dorothea Mackellar
Lifespan: July 1, 1885 – January 14, 1968
The Bush Poetry or Verse is “poetry having good rhyme and meter, written about Australia, Australians and the Australian way of life.” It often explores the themes of Australian folklore including bush-ranging; droving; droughts; floods; life on the frontier; and relations between indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. The poetry of Dorothea Mackellar is usually regarded as quintessential bush poetry, inspired by her experience on her brothers’ farms near Gunnedah, in New South Wales. The best known poem of Mackellar, My Country, was written by her in 1904 at the age of just 19, when she felt homesick while travelling in England. My Country has since become one of the most famous poems in all Australian literature. In 1968, during the New Year’s Day Honours, Dorothea Mackellar was awarded the title of Dame as she was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for her contribution to Australian literature. However, unfortunately, she died just two weeks later.
My Country (1908)
The Waiting Life (1926)
#7 Gwen Harwood
Lifespan: June 8, 1920 – December 4, 1995
Regarded as one of the finest poets of Australia, Gwen Harwood was a prolific writer who published 386 poems during her lifetime. Her first poem was published in 1944 but it was not until the 1960s that her work began appearing regularly in journals and books. The first collection of poetry of Harwood was published in 1963. One of the dominant themes in her poetry was motherhood. Her poems often treat motherhood in a complex way and the stifled role of young mothers is explored in several of her poems. Other prominent themes explored by Harwood in her poems include music; and the Tasmanian landscape and aboriginal dispossession of that landscape. Gwen Harwood won numerous poetry awards during her career. After her death in 1995, the Gwen Harwood Memorial Poetry Prize was created in her honour. The poetry of Harwood is taught in schools and colleges throughout Australia.
In The Park (1961)
Barn Owl (1969)
The Glass Jar (1960)
#6 Bruce Dawe
Born: February 15, 1930
Son of a farm labourer, Bruce Dawe never got the chance to complete primary education and instead, from the age of 16, he took up a number of jobs including that of a labourer, clerk in firms, sales assistant, office boy etc. After working as a postman, Dawe joined the Australian Air-force and while he worked there, the Vietnam War was fought. Bruce Dawe was opposed to the Vietnam War as he believed that it lacked sense and was futile. It was as an anti-war poet that Dawe gained fame. After the Vietnam War, Dawe continued to explore further conflicts and acts of senseless violence, including the massacre of protestors in Tiananmen Square, the bombing of the Sari Club in Bali and the Iraqi wars. Also, due to working in a wide variety of professions, Dawe has empathy with people of various backgrounds and this reflects in his poetry. Bruce Dawe is one of the highest selling as well as one of the most influential Australian poets of all time.
Weapons Training (1970)
Enter Without So Much as Knocking (1992)
#5 Oodgeroo Noonuccal
Lifespan: November 3, 1920 – September 16, 1993
Born Kathleen Jean Mary Ruska, Oodgeroo Noonuccal was an Australian Aboriginal woman who emerged as a prominent political activist and writer during the 1960s. Among other things, she was a key figure responsible for removing discriminatory, anti-Aboriginal sections from the Australian constitution. As a writer, her first collection of poetry, We Are Going, was published in 1964. The first book to be published by an Aboriginal woman, We Are Going was highly successful making Oodgeroo one of the highest selling Australian poets. The critical response to the book was mixed with several critics criticizing her poems as “propaganda” rather than real poetry. Oodgeroo responded to this by embracing the idea of her poetry as propaganda and describing her own style as “sloganistic, civil-writerish, plain and simple.” Her poetry remains highly popular for its heartfelt, moving evocation of the dispossession of the Aboriginal people, their plight and their future. Oodgeroo Noonuccal she was awarded the M.B.E. (Member of the Order of the British Empire) in 1970 but she returned the award in 1988.
We Are Going (1965)
No More Boomerang (1985)
Understand Old One (1978)
#4 Judith Wright
Lifespan: May 31, 1915 – June 25, 2000
A short story writer, an environmentalist and a campaigner for the land rights of the Aboriginal people of Australia, Judith Wright is still most famous for her poetry. Her first collection of poetry, The Moving Image, was published in 1946. Her fame as a poet grew in the 1950s and 1960s; and she went on to become one of the leading poets of her time. Judith is known for her concise, traditional verse which was in keeping with the latest poetic trends in the west and which often captured the landscapes and lifestyles of Australia. Wright viewed the relationship between mankind and the environment as the catalyst for poetic creation. The most prominent themes in her poetry include overcoming the challenges of life; loneliness; negative aspects of materialism; environment; and the relationship between settlers and indigenous Australians. Judith Wright was awarded numerous honours during her life including the Christopher Brennan Award for lifetime achievement in poetry in 1976; and the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1991.
Woman to Man (1949)
South Of My Days (1946)
#3 Les Murray
Born: October 17, 1938
Described as “a traditional poet whose work is radically original”, Les Murray has published around 30 volumes of poetry and is often called Australia’s Bush-bard. After graduating from the University of Sydney, Murray worked as a writer in residence at several universities throughout the world. His first collection of poetry, The Illex Tree, was published in 1965 while his latest collection, Collected Poems, was published in 2018. The poetry of Les Murray is rich and diverse. Among other things, he is known for capturing Australia’s rural landscape as well as its mythic elements. On the prominent themes in his poetry, literary critic Lawrence Bourke writes that Murray “promotes republicanism, patronage, Gaelic bardic poetry, warrior virtu, mysticism and Aboriginal models; and attacks modernism and feminism.” Murray is universally praised for his linguistic dexterity, his poetic skill and his humour. He has won many literary awards including the Petrarch Prize (1995); the prestigious T.S. Eliot Prize (1996) and the Queens Gold Medal for Poetry (1999). Les Murray is Australia’s leading poet of his generation and one of the greatest contemporary poets writing in English.
An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow (2000)
The Meaning Of Existence (2001)
The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle (1976)
#2 Henry Lawson
Lifespan: June 17, 1867 – September 2, 1922
The childhood of Lawson was hampered by poverty in his family and the estrangement of his parents. On top of this, he suffered an ear infection at the age of nine which left him with partial deafness and by the age of fourteen he had lost his hearing entirely. Due to these difficult experiences in his early years, Lawson developed a vivid realistic way of writing which was marked by pessimistic blend of pathos and irony. Unlike other writers who depicted the rural life of Australia as exciting and beautiful; Lawson instead chose to write about the grim realities of the harsh terrain leading to the revival of Australian realism in writing. The first published poem of Lawson was A Song of the Republic which appeared in 1887 when he was 20. He followed it with other poems and the 1890s was the period when he was at his peak as a writer. After this his output declined partly due to his struggles with alcoholism and mental illness. Although more known for his short stories than his poems, Henry Lawson is still one of the most influential and popular poets of Australia. Such is the impact of his writings that he featured on the first Australian ten dollar note issued in 1966.
Up the Country (1892)
Andy’s Gone with Cattle (1888)
Freedom on the Wallaby (1891)
#1 Banjo Paterson
Lifespan: February 17, 1864 – February 5, 1941
Andrew Barton Paterson published his first poem El Mahdi to the Australian Troops in 1885 in The Bulletin, a literary journal. The Bulletin provided Paterson a widely read platform for his poems, which appeared under the pseudonym of “The Banjo”, the name of a racehorse owned by his family. In 1895, Banjo Paterson published his poetry collection The Man from Snowy River and Other Verses, which was hugely popular and sold more than 100,000 copies before his death. Paterson was a Bush poet who, more than anyone else, established the bushman in the Australian consciousness as a romantic and iconic figure. His numerous poems presents the Australian bushman as a tough, independent and heroic underdog; and these qualities became the ideal qualities underpinning the national character. Along with Henry Lawson, Paterson is regarded as a giant of Australian literature and like Lawson, he has featured on the $10 Australian note. Paterson has written some of the most famous Australian poems including Waltzing Matilda, regarded widely as Australia’s unofficial national anthem. Banjo Paterson is undoubtedly the most famous Australian poet.
Waltzing Matilda (1895)
The Man from Snowy River (1890)
Clancy of the Overflow (1889)