Ten dollar poetry

Robert Graves once said “there’s no money in poetry, but there’s no poetry in money either”. I think that, like the best poetry, there’s a lot of truth in this quote, but one institution that seems determined to prove it wrong is the Australian mint.

When I was a kid, the nearby town of Gulgong announced with pride on signs at the edges of town that the main street was featured on the old paper ten dollar note alongside a portrait of local poet Henry Lawson. With the change to plastic notes in 1993, both Henry and Gulgong were ditched (those signs are still there, mind you) but replaced with two more poets – Banjo Paterson and Henry’s one-time lover Mary Gilmore.

I appreciate that there’s room for something as fiscally unproductive as poetry (Lawson in particular died broke after a lifetime of alcoholism and interpersonal conflicts) on our national currency, and there are many wonderful things in the writing of all three of these Australians. But the one that got me thinking about money and poetry the other day was the sight of a serious looking Mary Gilmore.

mary gilmore

I don’t know that much about Mary Gilmore. I’ve read a few of her poems, and I know, as one of the many pieces of trivia that float around somewhere in my brain, that she was part of a socialist utopian experiment called “New Australia” which was set up in Paraguay in the last decade of the 19th century.

So it’s a bit strange to squint at those two lines of poetry printed on our ten dollar notes and to note that their tone is distinctly un-utopian and not seeming to have much to do with socialist ideas of “a brotherhood of man”. Those lines, in tiny cursive, read “no foe shall gather our harvest, or sit on our stockyard rail.”

So I went and read a bunch of Mary Gilmore’s poems. They are great. Eve-song is a feminist poem, though it’s not a suffragette rallying cry. Rather than political, the tone and subject matter is personal. Like the best art can do so well, the poem finds the significance in everyday relationships:

I span and Eve span
A thread to bind the heart of man;
But the more we span the more we found
It wasn’t his heart but ours we bound…

He said he was strong. He had no strength
But that which comes of breadth and length.
He said he was fond. But his fondness proved
The flame of an hour when he was moved.
He said he was true. His truth was but
A door that winds could open and shut.

The Waradgery Tribe documents the dispossession and murder of Australia’s original owners:

Emptied of us the land,
Ghostly our going,
Fallen, like spears the hand
Dropped in the evening.

We are the lost who went
Like the cranes, crying;
Hunted, lonely, and spent
Broken and dying.

Old Botany Bay meanwhile, is a reminder of another part of our history we so easily forget – that Australia’s cities were initially built on the brutal and torturous enslaved labour of convicts.

I am he
who paved the way,
that you might walk
at your ease to-day;

Fourteen Men is harrowing, like an Australian version of Billie Holliday’s Strange Fruit. The poem depicts 14 Chinese gold miners hung by a racist mob, observed with the dispassionate eyes of a child.

Honest poor men,
But the diggers said ‘Nay!’
So they strung them all up
On a fine summer’s day

Nationality was the first Mary Gilmore poem I ever read, and it is indeed a wonderful piece of writing, in two short stanzas making no dogmatic statements but laying out the contradictions of parochialism and patriotism that all of us in the human race have to grapple with:

I have grown past hate and bitterness,
I see the world as one;
But though I can no longer hate,
My son is still my son.

All men at God’s round table sit,
And all men must be fed;
But this loaf in my hand,
This loaf is my son’s bread.

So with this kind of repertoire, how do we end up with the line that we have on our currency? Isn’t its grandiose flag-waving at odds with the subtlety of a poem like Nationality?

No Foe Shall Gather Our Harvest was written in 1940, during the second world war. The war presented a challenge for pacifists and communists in the Allied countries (Mary’s socialism wasn’t just youthful folly – even into her 80’s and 90’s she wrote a regular column for the Communist Party newspaper The Tribune). If you opposed the war, it seemed like you were siding with the fascist governments that were spreading across Europe and Asia. Never mind the fact that those Allied governments hadn’t lifted a finger when communists were the early resisters and the first casualties of the fascist regimes. Activists were forced to choose between the lesser of two evils – war or tolerating fascism. Woody Guthrie’s iconic decorating of his guitar with the words “this machine kills fascists” was one response to this dilemma.

Another response, I suppose, is Mary Gilmore’s patriotic poem. At this stage 75 years old, she published the poem in the Women’s Weekly with a note saying she was too old to fight, but writing was her contribution to the war effort.

Fair enough, but the poem certainly seems to sit a little uncomfortably with some of Mary’s other poems.  In response to the first world war she had written a number of poems mourning the deaths of soldiers, and an explicitly anti-war poem in The Measure (which in its “not friend and foe, but man and man” refrain, seems to sit as a polar opposite to the later poem). But beyond that, when did this land become “ours forever”? It seems to forget the dispossession of aboriginal people and the enslavement of convicts that Mary had once written about so passionately. “We are the sons of Australia,” boasts the last stanza; “of the men who fashioned the land; we are the sons of the women who walked with them hand in hand.” What happened to the feminist critique of men “who had no strength but that which comes of breadth and length”? And that delicate paradox between believing in equality but caring for your own that Nationality had laid out for us is seemingly thrown out the window, replaced by the two line refrain that ends each verse: “No foe shall gather our harvest, or sit on our stockyard rail”.

Suffice to say, this is not my favourite Mary Gilmore poem. And not just ideologically. While other poems are full of acute observations and deep with meaning for the reader to unravel, this one’s about as subtle as the machine guns it celebrates. But you know, I’m glad that this is the one that adorns our currency; because I think it says a lot about these little bits of plastic and metal that we carry around in our pockets.

The Australian government could have gone for a line from Nationality to make us consider how we spend our earnings, but maybe that’s a bit too ambiguous. It could have gone for a line from Old Botany Bay or The Waradgery Tribe to remind us where most of our wealth, both historically and presently, comes from. They could have chosen Fourteen Men to warn us what can happen if we get too obsessed with money.

But instead we get No Foe Shall Gather Our Harvest, and fittingly too. Because it’s amazing that even in times of austerity, we are always able to find enough cash to keep others out – our recent budgets are perfect examples. While Joe Hockey claimed “the age of entitlement is over” and cut all kinds of social services, nobody dared question the $30 billion a year we spend on the military, or the $2.3 billion on locking up a few thousand asylum seekers.

On a smaller scale, we replicate this by paying for insurance and security. There’s a lucrative industry based on convincing people we need to spend money to protect our money, not to mention the fact that protecting your own harvests and stockyard rails means that we each have to own one of everything, even though our neighbour might have a perfectly good one that could easily be shared.

That one line says something even more pertinent about the function of money. And it’s funny that it actually uses the words “no foe shall gather our harvest”. Because before money existed, the harvest we all gathered would have been limited to what we could actually use, or at least store. Even with a barter system, there are physical limits to how much wealth you can possibly accrue.

But with the invention of money, the metaphorical wealth-measurer, there is no limit to the amount of riches you can hoard to yourself, no matter how much you need or whether, as Mary Gilmore once wrote, “all men at God’s table sit and all men must be fed”. And so we get today’s world, where the gaps between the richest and poorest are unimaginably vast, where the majority of the world slaves away producing luxury products for the richest third, yet barely manages to survive. A world of debts and debtors, bosses and slaves, shareholders reports, structural adjustment.

Even the seeming incongruence with Mary’s other poems I think is full of meaning. Because isn’t it so true that when it comes to money, all our principles and strongest beliefs can so easily be forgotten or dismissed as impractical idealism.

Our $10 notes are remarkably honest, really. The two lines printed on them are an ugly statement of protecting yourself at the expense of others. But maybe, like the best art, they have revealed a truth about this object that we don’t always recognise.

Mary Gilmore wrote poems about Australia. Honest, perceptive poems that invite us to examine who we are and to imagine what we could be. I’m not sure what she would have said had she known that this line from one of her poems would today pass through the hands of millions of Australians each day. But I think that regardless of what these words were originally intended for, they can still inspire us to question and challenge the society around us, just like the young utopian poet would have hoped. That is, if we stop and try to see the poetry in our money.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Ten dollar poetry

  1. oidentifierad

    Thanks Andy! A great and thoughtful read.

  2. Reblogged this on Workers BushTelegraph and commented:
    Dame Mary Gilmore once wrote:
    “Shame on the mouth that would deny the knotted hands that set us high”.
    An excellent essay by Andy Paine.

  3. Dear Andy (and readers),

    You might enjoy this blog of old rare Australian folk music with download links.

    http://australianfolk.blogspot.com.au/

    Culley

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