As Ecclesiastes 3:1 tells us, ‘there is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens’. Just as surely, there is a poem for every one of these times and seasons.
In 2021, I put this premise to the test. When I wrote my weekly email to my siblings, I sought out a poem to reflect the spirit of the day. Sometimes the poem related to the physical season, sometimes to political events, and sometimes it captured past/present synergies.
Here’s a taste of my poetic journey through 2021’s times and seasons.
January – ‘On the Pulse of the Morning’ by Maya Angelou
January 2021 saw the inauguration of a new president in the US. The occasion witnessed a powerful poetic statement from Amanda Gorman (‘The Hill We Climb’), but I chose to acknowledge the event by going back a few decades to Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993. On that day, it was another black poet, Maya Angelou, who addressed the crowd with her words – ‘On the Pulse of the Morning’.
Angelou’s poem ends like this:
Here, on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes, and into
Your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
Beginning a new year with grace and civility seems like a promising idea.
February – ‘The Summer Day’ by Mary Oliver
Summer in the southern hemisphere drew to a close. I had begun my poetic month with Macbeth’s rather depressing view that life is ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’ (Act 5, Scene 5, Macbeth, William Shakespeare), but I ended it on a more uplifting note – Mary Oliver contemplating the culmination of the season in ‘The Summer Day’:
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?
March – ‘I Am Woman’ by Helen Reddy
Joining a groundswell of grief, pain and frustration, I attended the #March4Justice Rally on the lawns of Parliament House in Canberra on 15 March. Helen Reddy’s anthemic ‘I Am Woman’ was belted out with gusto – no harmony, just full-throated unison.
You can bend but never break me
Cause it only serves to make me
More determined to achieve my final goal
And I come back even stronger
Not a novice any longer
‘Cause you’ve deepened the conviction in my soul.
Later in the year, on 30 November, the Australian Human Rights Commission tabled Set the Standard: Report on the Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces. It remains to be seen how many of the 28 recommendations, aimed at making Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces ‘safe and respectful’, will be acted upon.
April – ‘Eternal Father, Strong to Save’ by William Whiting
In April, I watched the live telecast from St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, of the funeral of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. One of the hymns sung during the service was the naval hymn, ‘Eternal Father, Strong to Save’, a melancholic prayer ‘for those in peril on the sea’.
Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm does bind the restless wave,
Who bids the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
O hear us when we cry to Thee
For those in peril on the sea.
On the eve of the funeral, soprano Alexandra Stevenson sang the hymn in an empty Portsmouth Cathedral, in a tribute to the prince.
I know the hymn’s focus is on endangered human life but, whenever I hear it, my thoughts turn also to imperilled marine life.
May – ‘Last of His Tribe’ by Oodgeroo Noonucaal
First Nations peoples were on my mind in May.
I was the proofreader for Larry Brandy’s Wiradjuri Country, a children’s book published by the National Library of Australia. Brandy’s beautiful picture book weaves connections between landscape (and skyscape), plants, animals, peoples, and stories in the region centred on three rivers: Wambuul (Macquarie River) in the north, Marrambidya (Murrumbidgee River) in the south, and Milawa (Murray River) through its heart.
Also in May, I attended a book launch for Anita Heiss’s Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray, an historical novel set in Gundagai and Wagga Wagga in the mid-19th century, told from the perspective of Wagadhaany (Wog-a-dine), a young Wiradjuri woman.
When Aunty Elaine introduced Heiss’s book at the Canberra launch, she asked us to remember all the Aboriginal writers who had gone before. I thought of Oodgeroo Noonucaal and, later, of her poem ‘Last of His Tribe’ about Geerbo (Willie Mackenzie), the last Darwarbada man. It is a poem that speaks of great loss:
I asked and you let me hear
e soft vowelly tongue to be heard now
No more for ever. soft vowelly tongue to be heard now
No more for ever.
You singer of ancient tribal songs,
You leader once in the corroboree,
You twice in fierce tribal fights
With wild enemy blacks from over the river,
All gone, all gone.
In the work of authors like Larry Brandy and Anita Heiss, and through the dedication of people like Dr Stan Grant and Dr John Rudder in the Wiradjuri Dictionary, some words and languages and understandings are being restored.
June – ‘To Know the Dark’ by Wendell Berry
Autumn turned to winter, and with the change in seasons the mornings grew darker. Wendell Berry’s ‘To Know the Dark’ reminded me that there is much to be learnt from the darkness. Like the light, it, too, can bloom and sing.
To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
And find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
And is travelled by dark feet and dark wings.
July – ‘The Olympic Games’ by J. W.
The COVID-delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics kicked off in late July 2021, and I unearthed a piece of doggerel published in The Bulletin on the eve of the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. The writer welcomed the ‘athletes undaunted and well-tried at home’ to the ‘land of the blossoming gum’ and expressed the hope:
And when all is over – the laurels are won
And the athletes return from the games –
Then Melbourne will be, when the cheering is done,
Among the most cherished of names.
Whether the poet’s vision was realised or not is a matter of conjecture. Sydneysiders would surely disagree. But, in Melbourne’s defence, I would note that the southern city was named the World’s Most Liveable City for seven successive years (2011–1017).
August – ‘Life Cycle (for Big Jim Phelan)’ by Bruce Dawe
By late winter, Australian Rules Football is getting down to the ‘business end’ of the season. No poet has better encapsulated the place of Aussie Rules in the hearts and minds of Victorians than Bruce Dawe in ‘Life Cycle (for Big Jim Phelan)’. (Although much of Dawe’s illustrious career was spent in rugby league country (i.e. Queensland), he was born and raised in Melbourne.)
When children are born in Victoria
they are wrapped in club-colours, laid in beribboned cots,
having already begun a lifetime’s barracking.
They will not grow old as those from the more northern states grow old,
for them it will always be three-quarter time
with the scores level and the wind advantage in the final term.
I claim iconic status for Dawe’s ‘Life Cycle’. It was first published in The Age newspaper in 1967 and still appears regularly in Australian poetry anthologies.
September – ‘Foreign Lands’ by Henry Lawson
With many Australians unable to leave even their local communities, international travel was the stuff of dreams, so I tapped into Henry Lawson’s ‘Foreign Lands’. When Lawson wrote the poem, in 1897, he harked back to even earlier (frankly, imperialist) times when ‘the world was wide to travel, and the roving spirit strong’. He thought those days were long gone, but he did suggest an alternative:
Ah, my girl, our lives are narrow, and in sordid days like these,
I can hate the things that banished ‘Foreign Lands across the seas’,
And with all the world before us, God above us – hearts and hands,
I can sail the seas in fancy far away to Foreign Lands.
Adventuring ‘in fancy’ remained the lot of most travel-starved Australians.
October – ‘Home’ by Warsan Shire
My movie club, restricted to free-to-air streaming services, watched Rosemary’s Way on SBS on Demand. The documentary tells the story of 2021 Australian of the Year Local Hero Rosemary Kariuki’s volunteer work among migrant and refugee women in Sydney. From people experiencing trauma and isolation, Kariuki coaxed shy and hopeful smiles. There was a glimmer of hope that their journeys to Australia would lead to new friendships and a new place to call home.
‘Home’ is the title of a poem by Warsan Shire, a British poet born in Kenya to Somali parents. The poem begins with these words: ‘no one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark’. It ends like this:
you have to understand,
no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
who would choose to spend days
and nights in the stomach of a truck
unless the miles travelled
meant something more than journey
November – ‘An Alternative Geometry of the Universe’ by Maggie Wang
The United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (commonly referred to as COP26) was held from 31 October to 13 November. As a conference tie-in, young poets were asked to respond to the UK’s COP26 presidency theme of ‘Nature’. The winning entry was Maggie Wang’s ‘An Alternative Geometry of the Universe’.
Wang’s poem traces a cycle of the natural world from the purchase of cherries to clouds that ‘tessellate … across the mountains’, and from salmon-chasing bears to the bees that follow them. Eventually, the poem comes full circle and returns to the ripening cherries:
On the way, they [the bees] will have passed an orchard beginning to bloom
and dipped their tongues between the petals as they flew.
In their wake, the sky will have swarmed heavy with pollen
and the scent of sugar thickening into cherries.
December – ‘Simeon’s Farewell’ by Norman Habel
Summer returns at year’s end and, with it, the approach of Christmas. Australians are used to Christmas carols and stories with chilly, northern hemisphere settings, from Christina Rossetti’s ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ where ‘frosty wind made moan’ to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol where Scrooge is compared to bitter winds, falling snow and pelting rain.
In 1980, Norman Habel published a poetry collection, to accompany paintings by Pro Hart, that set the Christmas story in the Australian bush. One of these poems is ‘Simeon’s Farewell’, an account of the aging prophet’s vision on meeting the baby Jesus.
Being a prophet is rough
and bloody lonely at times.
We are called to shock people
into seeing the cold truth,
the ugly selfish ways they live,
knocking others to boost themselves,
grabbing power by crushing hopes,
and hunting blacks as vermin.
God says some people are bastards,
stuck-up heartless bastards.
And we get no thanks
telling people truths like that…
Perhaps the close of the year is a time to seek out today’s prophets and listen carefully to ‘the cold truth’.
A Poem for Every Time and Season?
Yes, I did find a poem to add to my sibling-email each week in 2021. The selected poems weren’t all serious. I included a good smattering of nonsense from Edward Lear and Spike Milligan, and I re-visited childhood with selections from Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, A A Milne’s When We Were Very Young and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
And now, it’s time to sail into a new year. I might join Edward Lear’s Jumblies (‘They went to sea in Sieve, they did, / In a Sieve they went to sea’.)
Links and Sources
- January: ‘The Hill We Climb’ by Amanda Gorman and ‘On the Pulse of the Morning’ by Maya Angelou
- February: ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ from Macbeth by William Shakespeare and ‘The Summer Day’ by Mary’s Oliver
- March: March4Justice, ‘I Am Woman’ by Helen Reddy, and Set the Standard: Report on the Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces, Australian Human Rights Commission
- April: ‘Eternal Father, Strong to Save’, J. B. Dykes (music) and William Whiting (words)
- May: Wiradjuri Country by Larry Brandy (2021, NLA Publishing), Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray by Anita Heiss (2021, Simon & Schuster), ‘The Last of His Tribe’ by Oodgeroo Noonuccal from My People (5th ed., 2020, Wiley), and Wiradjuri Dictionary (available as an app or online)
- June: ‘To Know the Dark’ by Wendell Berry, from The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry (1999, Penguin Random House)
- July: ‘The Olympic Games’, The Bulletin vol. 77 no. 4006 21 November 1956 p. 24
- August: ‘Life Cycle (for Big Jim Phelan)’ by Bruce Dawe, The Age, 23 September 1967, p. 22 (available via the Footy Almanac)
- September: ‘Foreign Lands’ by Henry Lawson, Australian Town and Country Journal, 6 March 1897, p. 28
- October: Rosemary’s Way and ‘Home’ by Warsan Shire (one of six refugee poems published on the Freedom from Torture website)
- November: COP26 and ‘An alternative geometry of the universe’ by Maggie Wang (published on the Poetry Society (UK) website)
- December: ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ by Christina Rossetti, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, ‘The Song of Simeon’, Luke 2:25–35, and ‘Simeon’s Farewell’ from Outback Christmas by Norman Habel. (In this YouTube clip, Habel explains the origin of his collaboration with Pro Hart in developing the poems for Outback Christmas.)
And, not forgetting those brave seafarers, ‘The Jumblies’ by Edward Lear.