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Donald Bruce Dawe (1930–2020)

by Stephen Romei

from Australian

Bruce Dawe, by Virginia Wallace-Crabbe, 1995

Bruce Dawe, by Virginia Wallace-Crabbe, 1995

National Library of Australia, 11678576

Bruce Dawe would have been wryly amused that death arrived on April Fool’s Day. The much-loved Australian poet, who died just before midnight on April 1, liked a joke, loved puns and was fond of irony.

In his poem At Shagger’s ­Funeral, the mourners think “What could any of us say that wasn’t a lie / or that didn’t end up in a laugh / At his expense — caught with his britches down / By death, whom he’d imagined out of town?’’

Dawe would also have liked that he made it to 90. He celebrated that milestone on February 15.

He died in a care facility in Queensland, the state the Melbourne-born poet called home for most of his adult life.

He is survived by his wife, Liz, and his four children from his first marriage. His first wife, Gloria, died in 1997.

“It has been my privilege to share in Bruce’s life for the past 20 years,’’ Mrs Dawe said.

“In public, he was a literary giant. At home, he constantly amazed me as he sat writing a complicated poem while watching footy on TV.

“He had a rare combination of intellect and kindness. His ­stoicism during these last few months has been extraordinary. He leaves behind a huge hole in the hearts of all who loved him.’’

That image of Dawe mixing ­poetry and footy echoes a poem that shows his warmth and humour, Life-Cycle: “When children are born in Victoria / they are wrapped in club-colours, laid in beribboned cots / having already begun a lifetime’s barracking.”

“His command of Australian vernacular was unrivalled, and his popularity with the reading public peerless,’’ said Geordie Williamson, The Australian’s chief literary critic.

Dawe was known as the poet of suburbia. He was a champion of the underdog and an opponent of authoritarianism and militarism. As he wrote: “I’m for the little blokes.”

“It’s an end of an era in Australian writing,’’ said West Australian poet John Kinsella. “He taught many of us that poetry had a role to play in society, that it’s not an entertainment or decoration but part of the conversation of life.’’

Dawe was in the RAAF from 1959 to 1968, as an education assistant, and this led to memorable poems about the Vietnam War, such as Weapons Training “ ... a brand-new pack / of Charlies are coming at you you can smell their rotten / fish-sauce breath hot on the back / of your stupid neck ...”)

Queensland poet Sarah Holland-Batt said Dawe’s “greatest legacy will be his blistering anti-war poems, which started in Vietnam and expanded their gaze to take in the Iraq wars, the Bali bombings and other ­conflicts’’.

Around the same time, Dawe wrote another of his best-known poems, A Victorian Hangman Tells His Love, in protest at the 1967 execution of Ronald Ryan at Melbourne’s Pentridge Prison.

Dawe was a rare poet in that he garnered critical acclaim and sold well. His works have long been on high school curricula.

He received the Patrick White Literary Award in 1980 and was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1991 [1992].

“Dawe’s influence on Australian poetry in the 1960s and early 70s was enormous,’’ said Canberra poet Geoff Page.

“He also brought many lifelong readers to poetry who might not otherwise have come.’’

Such recognition is a far cry from his difficult childhood, marked by his family’s poverty and itinerancy. He was much younger than his brother and two sisters and his father was often ­absent. His brother George became a sort of foster father.

His first poetry collection, in 1962, was titled No Fixed Address. While at the RAAF, he started external university studies. He completed a doctorate in English literature, writing not about ­poetry but about English novelist Graham Greene. He went on to teach and focus on poetry.

Asked in a 1990 interview about his approach, Dawe said: “Writing a poem is a bit like chasing a greasy pig. You end up falling on your face a lot while you’re trying to catch it.”

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Citation details

Stephen Romei, 'Dawe, Donald Bruce (1930–2020)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 21 April 2024.

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