'Phrases between Us': The Poetry of Anna Wickham
Pender, Anne, Australian Literary Studies
Anna Wickham was a poet, singer, social worker and feminist activist. The American scholar Jennifer Vaughan Jones published, a biography in 2003, a book which reveals a great deal about Wickham s struggle as a poet but which is not widely held in Australia. (1) But Jones shies away from a full analysis of the poetry, and there are almost no recent essays on Wickham's work. (2) In spite of the critical neglect, Anna Wickham's poetry is widely anthologised in the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States, and her distinctive modernist poetic voice deserves close attention. (3) One of the attractions of her poetry is its blend of strength and accessibility, its firmness of tone and conviction. At its best it is tight and highly charged; another feature is its range, the poems being by turns provocative, combative, merry and sensual. Most importantly, it offers an enduring aesthetic purity and resonance, in combination with a questing feminist intelligence. In this essay I want to consider the breadth and achievements of Wickham's published and unpublished writing, particularly in the context of Germaine Greer's criticism of her and her work. (4)
Altogether Wickham wrote over one thousand poems: free verse, comic and bawdy verse, epigrams, ballads and songs, dramatic monologues and confessional poetry. She is claimed as both Australian and English, samples of her work appearing in anthologies such as Two Centuries of Australian Poetry, The Oxford Book of Australian Women's Verse and The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets, as well as The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse, The New Penguin Book of English Verse and many others. It is rare for a poet to be claimed by the literary establishment, or at least by a varied group of anthologists, in both Australia and Britain, whilst remaining relatively unknown in the two countries.
At a loss to explain the lack of critical interest in Wickham as early as 1942, only two decades after her heyday, the editors of Twentieth Century Authors commented that her 'neglect is one of the mysteries of contemporary literature' (Kunitz and Haycraft 1515). Ann Vickery argues that Wickham was a 'displaced alien' who was never quite at home in Australia or the UK (27). (5) Vickery also argues that the fact that Wickham did not belong to any school of modernism had an adverse effect on her reception (27), but it is difficult to pinpoint the main reason for Wickham's neglect, particularly in Australia. Andrew Field argues that there is an 'unmistakably Australian tone' in Wickham's voice, and Wickham's son George also holds this view--but it is a difficult argument to make conclusively. (6) Although Wickham's work appears in many Australian anthologies, at the time of writing the AustLit database did not carry full details of her life and seems uncertain of the provenance of her work; there is no entry for her in the ALS bibliography. Contrastingly, Wickham's poetry was taken up in the US, right from the beginning of her career, and has been taken seriously in that country.
Wickham was one of the most significant feminist poets of modernism and her work resounds with contemporary relevance. Her understanding of feminism and of socially determined regimes of behaviour is not only radical, her thoughts are eloquently argued in both her poetry, her letters and her prose writings. Her writing places her in the middle of intellectual debates about form, place, Englishness and lyricism that are central to formulations of modernism. Just as importantly, there are many threads of connection between Wickham's work and that of other Australians that have gone unnoticed for too long. Wickham's poetry can be usefully understood in relation to that of John Shaw Neilson, Zora Cross and others. The fact that Wickham's biography was published recently in the US by an American scholar makes this 'recovery' all the more timely.
Perhaps something of the neglect of Anna Wickham's poetry relates to the breadth of her oeuvre, perhaps something to her own complex personality. …