The Feminine Voice: Gwen Harwood

Essay by dylan_bHigh School, 12th grade August 2008

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The identity and voice of the central figure within a poem influences the reader’s view of the world. The symbolic depiction of societal roles from the point of view of a central character’s experience articulates social and cultural traditions, allowing the poet to endorse or critique the naturalized values of his or her culture. In her two sonnets, “In the Park,” and “Suburban Sonnet: Boxing Day,” the Australian poet Gwen Harwood uses the generic conventions of poetry to construct a central persona who, through their voice, conveys the social expectations of women in 1950s suburban Australia. Both sonnets centre on a mother dealing with the everyday challenges of motherhood and through the use of the poetic techniques of the sonnet form, imagery, irony, tone and symbolism, socially define the mother figure in Australian Culture. The development of the woman’s identity empowers the feminine voice of the poem to portray cultural values in a way that positions the reader to develop an understanding of the poet’s world and interrogate Australia’s patriarchal society’s marginalization of motherhood.

The feminine poetic voice of “In the Park,” and “Suburban Sonnet: Boxing Day,” describing the burdens of motherly life ironically contradicts the conventions of the Elizabethan sonnet. Instead of a masculine voice professing undying love to a woman, Harwood’s ironic gender reversal in both poems, casting the voice as a woman disrupts the naturalized idea of the elegant sonnet woman. In “In the Park,” this contrast is emphasized by the mother’s “out of date” clothes and spiritual pain thereby encouraging the reader’s understanding of the mother’s hardship. It immediately develops the voice of the poem to critique the expectations of motherhood. In “Suburban Sonnet: Boxing Day,” the organized order demanded by the sonnet juxtaposed with the total chaos described in the mother’s life challenges the...