Bruce Dawe, who has died in Queensland at the age of 90, was one of Australia’s most popular poets. His reputation was due in part to his prolific output and the inclusion of his poems in high school and university curricula. He published more than 10 books of poetry, and his signature collection, Sometimes Gladness, which he dedicated to St Maximilian Kolbe, went through six editions between 1978 and 2006 as newer poems were included.
But the pivotal reason for his popularity was his extraordinary empathy with ordinary people, and his gift for giving imaginative expression to their lives.
Dawe was born in Melbourne on February 15, 1930, the youngest of four. His parents were from a farming background, and their move to the city led to much shifting around. By 16, Dawe had attended 10 schools – an experience he evoked in one of his best-known poems, “Drifters”.
Dawe was the first in his family to study beyond primary school. He later completed four university degrees – including a doctorate on the English war poets – and was appointed as a lecturer in English literature at the University of Southern Queensland.
The poetic imagination in Australia has always contended with a secularist culture closed to transcendental meanings. Dawe was a vital example of a counter-tradition represented by Catholic converts – nationally renowned poets such as James McAuley, Les Murray and Kevin Hart.
Like McAuley, Dawe’s conversion took place in the 1950s. He was in his early 20s, seeking purpose and direction in life. He studied initially at the University of Melbourne, which brought him into contact with Catholics, in particular Vincent Buckley and other Catholic poets, which nurtured his interest not only in Christianity but also imaginative writing.
For Dawe, the special attraction of the Catholic Church was the richness of its ritual and the luminous lives of the saints. His interest in ritual was inspired by the beauty of High Church Anglican services, and he gratefully acknowledged the influence of a high school teacher who combined her vocation as a Methodist lay preacher with Sunday morning participation in Anglo-Catholic services.
In his poetry Dawe caught the connections between his Christian faith and the experiences of ordinary life. He captured in everyday language our human yearnings and devotions, our fears and frustrations, our sufferings and grievances. He realised that his faith gave a new centre of meaning and higher purpose to these experiences. “We have to preserve a vision,” he said. “Writing is part of a total moral vision. You just can’t escape that.”
A crucial part of this moral vision was his opposition to abortion. This preceded his conversion to Catholicism, as he longed to speak for “the lost people in our midst for whom no one speaks, and who cannot speak for themselves”.
Inspired by the Feast of the Holy Innocents, he wrote a powerful poem, “The Wholly Innocent”, protesting against the destruction of the unborn by imagining himself as one of the vulnerable:
I never walked abroad in air
I never saw the sky
Nor knew the sovereign touch of care
Nor looked into an eye …
Remember me next time you
Rejoice at sun or star
I would have loved to see them too
I never got that far.
Dawe is survived by his second wife, Liz, and four children by his first wife, Gloria, who died in 1997.