Reprint: Lawson's Latest

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"Stokin' and Other Verses," by Will Lawson, is characterised by vigour and lucidity. It is a relief to get hold of something robust without being exaggerated, and clear without being unpoetical. The union is not a common one. Poetry too frequently has an air of aloofness. One is often at a loss to know what is troubling the writer and what is wrong with the world at large. Also it seems that there is no great concern in life but "passion." Will Lawson has the commonsense to see the proportions of the things of the world as they are; he has seen them with clear eyes and writes of what he understands. The poetic gift cannot be put to any higher use and produce more readable and arresting matter than, for instance, in "Stokin'" and "Trimmin' Coal."

   "For the stoker gets the down-draught,
      And the greasers have the fan,
         But the bunkers
         (Steamer's bunkers)
      Ain't no place to put a man.
   There's the darkness that you see there,
      And the darkness that you feel,
   And the everlastin' grindin'
      Of the coal beneath your heel.
   Up on deck the men and women
      Laugh to feel her easy roll--
   They don't know the way we're trimmin'
      At the cruel slidin' coal."

The contrasted lines that are jumbled together on a steamer are again powerfully suggested in

  "You praise your gallant skipper and skilful engineers;
   The A.B. is a hero who squints one eye and steers;
   The ladies like the moonlight and officers to chaff;
   They haven't any tickets on us, the stoke-hole staff,
   Who keep the boilers hummin' and funnel-flues a-roar,
   With blisterin' steel above us and on a blisterin' floor.  
   They're laughin' on the main deck, but I would like to know
   If they are ever thinkin' of the men who toil below."

The writer keeps his feet on the solid earth all through the book. He has the eye to see, the heart to understand and the graphic pen to describe. Even most people, who say they cannot read poetry would be able to spend an hour or two in Lawson's company with real pleasure and, who knows, some profit-if that is not an objection. The terseness, strength, and condensed descriptiveness of the phrasing is a most prominent feature.    

With the exception of one or two pieces, which are not to be taken seriously, one never, or hardly ever, strikes a weak line. It is not exaggeration to say they quiver with life. Sometimes, too, there are lines like "And her eyes were a song unsung," which is as beautiful as it is suggestive. Lawson has no attention to spare for intangible things. He deals with the things that one feels and sees. Kipling has not a more pictorial quality in his work. There is, by the way, a slight inclination to bring in technical terms in places, which is a good thing to avoid as far as possible. Australian poets have been much enjoined to employ local colours, and the result has been rather too much and too wearisome, an insistence on the eucalyptus flavour. Lawson has avoided this and yet kept his work true to the character south of the line.

"Ladies in the Engine Boom" is just exactly what many and many a dispirited and wondering engine-room man must have thought. The poem carries conviction with it, and is just as good vernacular poetry as it is genuine human nature. There are examples of literary men who have used their gift of insight for nothing more than exhibition purposes -- who in fact seem rather to regard the lives of other people as only given to the possessors for the sake of furnishing authors with copy. But "Ladies in the Engine Room" has that peculiar inward note of identification with the subject of the verses which cannot be assumed. It is nature and art in unusual combination. It is a slight thing, perhaps, but it is perfect of its kind. The whole book has a brisk and gripping quality (Wellington, N.Z., Gordon and Gotch.)

First published in the Western Mail, 20 March 1909

[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on August 19, 2011 7:23 AM.

Great Australian Authors #44 - Will Lawson was the previous entry in this blog.

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