Category Archives: Poetry

The Geebung Polo Club

My copy of the collected verses of A.B. “Banjo” Paterson has money as a bookmark. It’s an Australian $10 note, and the reason it makes the perfect bookmark for this collection is that it bears the image of Banjo Paterson, with a sketch in the background of the ride from “The Man from Snow River.” The fact that Paterson is on the money might suggest to non-Aussies the cultural significance of this poet.

While a lot of his poems are gloriously evocative, Paterson also occasionally revealed in his work a classic element of Australian humor: hyperbole. When things are rough, you exaggerate. In fact, Australian humor is kind of a blend of the wild exaggeration one finds in classic tall tales of the American west and the very dry wit of the British–but all modified and a bit twisted by the wonderful peculiarities of Australia itself.

One example of this hyperbolic humor is the following Paterson poem, published in the late 1800s. Interesting to note that it ends with ghosts being heard–since that’s how the even more famous Paterson poem, “Waltzing Matilda,” also ends.

The Geebung Polo Club
by A.B. “Banjo” Paterson
It was somewhere up the country in a land of rock and scrub,
That they formed an institution called the Geebung Polo Club.
They were long and wiry natives of the rugged mountainside,
And the horse was never saddled that the Geebungs couldn’t ride;
But their style of playing polo was irregular and rash -
They had mighty little science, but a mighty lot of dash:
And they played on mountain ponies that were muscular and strong,
Though their coats were quite unpolished, and their manes and tails were long.
And they used to train those ponies wheeling cattle in the scrub:
They were demons, were the members of the Geebung Polo Club.

It was somewhere down the country, in a city’s smoke and steam,
That a polo club existed, called the Cuff and Collar Team.
As a social institution ’twas a marvellous success,
For the members were distinguished by exclusiveness and dress.
They had natty little ponies that were nice, and smooth, and sleek,
For their cultivated owners only rode ‘em once a week.
So they started up the country in pursuit of sport and fame,
For they meant to show the Geebungs how they ought to play the game;
And they took their valets with them – just to give their boots a rub
Ere they started operations on the Geebung Polo Club.

Now my readers can imagine how the contest ebbed and flowed,
When the Geebung boys got going it was time to clear the road;
And the game was so terrific that ere half the time was gone
A spectator’s leg was broken – just from merely looking on.
For they waddied one another till the plain was strewn with dead,
While the score was kept so even that they neither got ahead.
And the Cuff and Collar captain, when he tumbled off to die,
Was the last surviving player – so the game was called a tie.

Then the captain of the Geebungs raised him slowly from the ground,
Though his wounds were mostly mortal, yet he fiercely gazed around;
There was no one to oppose him – all the rest were in a trance,
So he scrambled on his pony for his last expiring chance,
For he meant to make an effort to get victory to his side;
So he struck at goal – and missed it – then he tumbled off and died.

By the old Campaspe River, where the breezes shake the grass,
There’s a row of little gravestones that the stockmen never pass,
For they bear a crude inscription saying, “Stranger, drop a tear,
For the Cuff and Collar players and the Geebung boys lie here.”
And on misty moonlit evenings, while the dingoes howl around,
You can see their shadows flitting down that phantom polo ground;
You can hear the loud collisions as the flying players meet,
And the rattle of the mallets, and the rush of ponies’ feet,
Till the terrified spectator rides like blazes to the pub -
He’s been haunted by the spectres of the Geebung Polo Club.

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In Defence of the Bush

I’ve mentioned both Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson, and shared some of their poetry. The two poets were friends and both contributed to the Sydney Bulletin. However, they took different stances on the outback–at least partly in fun, to stir up discussion on the topic. Lawson traveled in some of the same areas Paterson did, but wrote rather scathingly about it, in contrast to Paterson’s generally adoring outlook. Paterson penned the following to let Lawson know that he disagreed. In response to this “argument” between Paterson and Lawson, other poets of the day jumped into the versified “discussion.”

As a note to those who aren’t acquainted with some items of British or Australian slang: lemon-squash would be lemonade, a selector would be roughly the equivalent of a homesteader, and “push” was slang for “gang,” the Sydney Push being a notorious gang of the time. And for Americans, “defence” is the British spelling of “defense.”

In Defence of the Bush
by A.B. “Banjo” Paterson

So you’re back from up the country, Mister Lawson, where you went,
And you’re cursing all the business in a bitter discontent;
Well, we grieve to disappoint you, and it makes us sad to hear
That it wasn’t cool and shady — and there wasn’t whips of beer,
And the looney bullock snorted when you first came into view —
Well, you know it’s not so often that he sees a swell like you;
And the roads were hot and dusty, and the plains were burnt and brown,
And no doubt you’re better suited drinking lemon-squash in town.
Yet, perchance, if you should journey down the very track you went
In a month or two at furthest, you would wonder what it meant;
Where the sunbaked earth was gasping like a creature in itts pain
You would find the grasses waving like a field of summer grain,
And the miles of thirsty gutters, blocked with sand and choked with mud,
You would find them mighty rivers with a turbid, sweeping flood.
For the rain and drought and sunshine make no changes in the street,
In the sullen line of buildings and the ceaseless tramp of feet;
But the bush has moods and changes, as the seasons rise and fall,
And the men who know the bush-land — they are loyal through it all.

But you found the bush was dismal and a land of no delight —
Did you chance to hear a chorus in the shearers’ huts at night?
Did they “rise up William Riley” by the camp-fire’s cheery blaze?
Did they rise him as we rose him in the good old droving days?
And the women of the homesteads and the men you chanced to meet —
Were their faces sour and saddened like the “faces in the street”?
And the “shy selector children” — were they better now or worse
Than the little city urchins who would greet you with a curse?
Is not such a life much better than the squalid street and square
Where the fallen women flaunt it in the fierce electric glare,
Wher the sempstress plies her needle till her eyes are sore and red
In a filthy, dirty attic toiling on for daily bread?
Did you hear no sweeter voices in the music of the bush
Than the roar of trams and buses, and the war-whoop of “the push”?
Did the magpies rouse your slumbers with their carol sweet and strange?
Did you hear the silver chiming of the bell-birds on the range?
But, perchance, the wild birds’ music by your senses was despised,
For you say you’ll stay in townships till the bush is civilized.
Would you make it a tea-garden, and on Sundays have a band
Where the “blokes” might take their “donahs”, with a “public” close at hand?
You had better stick to Sydney and make merry with the “push”,
For the bush will never suit you, and you’ll never suit the bush.

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Daylight is Dying

Back to Banjo Paterson again, who so beautifully captures the attraction of the Outback, either lyrically or humorously. I love this poem because I do still occasionally hear the echo of the “song” it describes.

Daylight is Dying

The daylight is dying
Away in the west,
The wild birds are flying
In silence to rest;
In leafage and frondage
Where shadows are deep,
They pass to its bondage –
The kingdom of sleep.

And watched in their sleeping
By stars in the height,
They rest in your keeping,
Oh, wonderful night.
When night doth her glories
Of starshine unfold,
‘Tis then that the stories
Of bush-land are told.

Unnumbered I hold them
In memories bright,
But who could unfold them,
Or read them aright?
Beyond all denials
The stars in their glories
The breeze in the myalls
Are part of these stories.

The waving of grasses,
The song of the river
That sings as it passes
For ever and ever,
The hobble-chains’ rattle,
The calling of birds,
The lowing of cattle
Must blend with the words.

Without these, indeed, you
Would find it ere long,
As though I should read you
The words of a song
That lamely would linger
When lacking the rune,
The voice of the singer,
The lilt of the tune.

But, as one half-hearing
An old-time refrain,
With memory clearing,
Recalls it again,
These tales, roughly wrought of
The Bush and its ways,
May call back a thought of
The wandering days;

And, blending with each
In the mem’ries that throng,
There haply shall reach
You some echo of song.

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The Sick Stockrider

If you’ve read my book–or if you grew up in Australia–you will have encountered the stories about Adam Lindsay Gordon. He is among Australia’s greatest poets, and among those poets who celebrated the wide open spaces. He actually wanted to be known as a great horseman, which he was, but it is his poetry that lasted past his sad end. Actually, I have quoted him previously in this blog, as well. Excerpts from his works have become almost proverbial in Australia.

Because of his melancholic inclinations, little of his poetry is cheerful (in pretty sharp contract to Banjo Paterson). My book only included a few excerpts, because Gordon’s poems tend to be long, but here, I can give you a full-length work that reflects both his love of the bush and his melancholy tendencies.

The Sick Stockrider

Hold hard, Ned! Lift me down once more, and lay me in the shade.
Old man, you’ve had your work cut out to guide
Both horses, and to hold me in the saddle when I sway’d,
All through the hot, slow, sleepy, silent ride.
The dawn at “Moorabinda” was a mist rack dull and dense,
The sunrise was a sullen, sluggish lamp;
I was dozing in the gateway at Arbuthnot’s bound’ry fence,
I was dreaming on the Limestone cattle camp.
We crossed the creek at Carricksford, and sharply through the haze,
And suddenly the sun shot flaming forth;
To southward lay “Katawa”, with the sandpeaks all ablaze,
And the flush’d fields of Glen Lomond lay to north.
Now westward winds the bridle path that leads to Lindisfarm,
And yonder looms the double-headed Bluff;
From the far side of the first hill, when the skies are clear and calm,
You can see Sylvester’s woolshed fair enough.
Five miles we used to call it from our homestead to the place
Where the big tree spans the roadway like an arch;
‘Twas here we ran the dingo down that gave us such a chase
Eight years ago — or was it nine? — last March. Continue reading

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Song of the Pen

I’ve mentioned A.B. “Banjo” Paterson a number of times previously, most especially in relation to “The Man from Snow River,” one of the most famous poems in Australia. It’s highly enough revered that I have an Australian $10 note that pictures both Paterson and a horseman making the “terrible descent” celebrated in the poem. Paterson also wrote “Waltzing Matilda.” But he wrote a lot of poems, and many of them have become favorites of mine.

This one I particularly love because I have found it so often to be true. Writing rarely offers reward commensurate with the amount of work done, and yet the work itself is why one writes. So here is “Song of the Pen,” another in a continuing series of Aussie classics.

Song of the Pen

Not for the love of women toil we, we of the craft,
Not for the people’s praise;
Only because our goddess made us her own and laughed,
Claiming us all our days,

Claiming our best endeavour–body and heart and brain
Given with no reserve–
Niggard is she towards us, granting us little gain;
Still, we are proud to serve.

Not unto us is given choice of the tasks we try,
Gathering grain or chaff;
One of her favoured servants toils at an epic high,
One, that a child may laugh.

Yet if we serve her truly in our appointed place,
Freely she doth accord
Unto her faithful servants always this saving grace,
Work is its own reward!

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Smashwords

For those of you who prefer electronic books but don’t have Kindles, Waltzing Australia is now available at Smashwords. That means it is now in forms that will work in Nooks, iPads, and any other device on which books can be downloaded.

If you’re interested, you can find it here: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/143849

So now, everyone can have access to the adventure, the joy, the history, nature, and lore of Australia that flows through the pages of Waltzing Australia. I’m pleased that the delights of the land Down Under can now be shared with an even wider audience.

Of course, I’ll still keep posting peripheral material here — all the things that wouldn’t fit in the book. So you can continue to enjoy and learn about Australia, even if you don’t latch on to the larger story. But, of course, I do hope you’ll join me on my 20,000-mile trek around and across a country I found so enchanting.

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Henry Lawson

Australia has always been a place where writers were valued, and where writers were often also quite adventurous. I’ve introduced you to Adam Lindsay Gordon, who preferred to be known as a daring horseman than as a poet (and he is indeed remembered for both) and A.B. “Banjo” Paterson, who celebrated life in the bush. Another of the important early writers in Australia was Henry Lawson.

Unlike Paterson and Gordon, Lawson was as famous for his short stories as for his poems. The son of Norwegian immigrants who came to Australia in 1855 during the gold rush, Lawson was born in 1867. His family might most generously be described as dysfunctional and generally in financial straits, his education was uneven and frequently interrupted, and a serious illness when he was 10 left him partially deaf. He was brilliant but usually lonely. Both because of the hardships he experienced as he grew up, and because of his experiences as an adult during a particularly horrific drought, Lawson’s works and his view of the outback tend not to be as upbeat as those of Paterson in particular.

Lawson was immensely popular in his day and is still considered one of Australia’s greatest writers. Reading poems and short stories aloud was a common entertainment in the mining camps, cattle camps, and small towns of the late 1800s, and Lawson’s works were among the most commonly read. The humorous short story “The Loaded Dog” was among the most popular then and today is considered an Australian classic.

While they disagreed in their estimation of the bush, and occasionally sparred in verse on the topic, Lawson shared with Paterson an admiration for the hard-working, give-it-a-go Australians who people their world. That admiration is reflected in the following poem, which also reminds us that Lawson was living during an era when Australia was still being opened up and settled.

An Australian Advertisement

WE WANT the man who will lead the van,
The man who will pioneer.
We have no use for the gentleman,
Or the cheating Cheap-Jack here;
We have no room for the men who shirk
The sweat of the brow. Condemn
The men who are frightened to look for work
And funk when it looks for them.

We’ll honour the man who can’t afford
To wait for a job that suits,
But sticks a swag on his shoulders broad
And his feet in blucher boots,
And tramps away o’er the ridges far
And over the burning sand
To look for work where the stations are
In the lonely Western land.

He’ll brave the drouth and he’ll brave the rain,
And fight his sorrows down,
And help to garden the inland plain
And build the inland town;
And he’ll be found in the coming years
With a heart as firm and stout,
An honoured man with the pioneers
Who lead the people out.

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