[Editor: This article by Rex Ingamells was published in The News (Adelaide, SA), 21 March 1951.]
Australia is the hero of his epic verse
How S.A. man wrote 8,500-line poem
By Rex Ingamells
I was given a Commonwealth Literary Fund Fellowship to aid me while writing an epic poem. I’ve written the poem — called “The Great South Land” (Australia) — and now I’ve been asked what it “feels like” to write such a poem.
Trying to answer this question isn’t easy, and the word “I” crops up too often for my liking.
But here goes….
First of all, I suppose one writes poetry because one wants to write poetry, and because of a belief that real poetry (if one can achieve it) is among the finest things of life.
Australian research — study of all manner of things Australian from history and geography to natural history, geology, and the aborigines — had been a special interest of mine for some years, when it suddenly occurred to me that in all this existed one grand idea for a poem.
I pondered the idea for many months before actually setting to work on it. The Commonwealth Literary Fund Fellowship assistance made a start possible.
N.T. launch trip
I did feel very strongly that here was a chance to present Australia to the world and to Australians themselves, as a vast and heroic subject, possessing a story worthy of more admiration than has been given it.
To put my idea for the poem into practice I needed to travel to certain parts of the continent which I had never seen.
One of the most important parts for my theme was the Northern Territory coast, because here occurred certain early Dutch contacts with Australia.
So I flew to Darwin, where I stayed for a while with my friend, W. E. Harney (“Billarney” to the blacks).
Mr. Harney and the Administrator of the Territory (Mr. Driver) arranged for me to go with a Government launch on a trip out of Darwin nearly as far as Cape Hotham.
This proved a most colorful experience, and provided, I believe, some of the best material in “The Great South Land.”
I was fortunate, too, in being able to travel as far afield as New Zealand. At Wellington I discussed my plan with one of the most outstanding authorities on the old explorers of the Pacific, Dr. J. C. Beaglehole.
Capt. Cook, remember, sailed from New Zealand to discover New South Wales.
It was a vivid experience to fly back from New Zealand in a few hours over, roughly, a course on which Cook and Banks were for a time becalmed in mid-ocean.
The poem-to-be took shape as my salient conception of the varied aspects of a new national tradition — the Australian.
Wrote at night
Our national traditions are twofold. As a people, we have a world heritage, for the past history of civilisation is ours. We have made our home on a continent which is the oldest land mass on earth; and, with each passing generation, the roots of our culture go deeper into its soil and its own particular traditions.
I decided Australia itself was to be the hero of the poem. The actual writing of the poem was, like most literary endeavor — whether the result is good, bad, or indifferent — mighty hard work. It took, in fact, six months of night work — work which was given stimulus by occasional bursts of excitement when I was struck with what seemed, to me at any rate, a happy thought.
Having presented my conception of the young-old continent, in its pristine isolation from the rest of the world, I went on to outline the successive stages of civilisation’s approach to its shores.
The first exterior approach was one of imagination only, for scholars of the ancient world, surmised and speculated about a great southern continent, supposed to balance the land of the Northern Hemisphere.
During the Middle Ages, Marco Polo and other European travellers, visiting the East, bore back to Europe rumors of a fabulous country called Java Major.
With the Renaissance, Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal sent sailors to find a way by sea round Africa to India and China, and during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French, and English found their way into the seas that washed about Australia.
The enterprises of these various nationalities are described in narrative verse, the highlights being, perhaps, the actual contact with our shores by the Dutchman Willem Janszoon and the Englishmen Dampier and Cook.
The eleventh of the 14 parts of the poem is devoted to Capt. Cook and his examination of the east coast of New Holland.
After that follow two parts descriptive of European settlement and history here, and a final section called “The Timeless Covenant,” in which I have tried to sum up the significance of liberal Australian nationhood.
While naturally the poem seeks to set out the discovery of a continent in a spiritual sense, as well as a geographic sense, I have tried never to be high-falutin’, and always to keep in touch with things that in some way or another we know and appreciate. For instance, at perhaps its simplest, the poem says:—
The sunlight comes to city offices,
in early days of Spring, from skies of blue,
and warms the ordered desks and littered files,
and turns the hair of typists into fire.
The sunlight strikes upon the shopping windows,
and warms the faces of the football crowds.
Anyway, the poem in length is about as long as Milton’s “Paradise Lost” — some 8,500 lines.
“The Great South Land” is being published by Georgian House, Melbourne, and some copies are expected in Adelaide next week.
Then the rest will be for readers of the poem to decide. For all kinds of reasons, I hope I have contributed something to the literature of English-speaking peoples.
The News (Adelaide, SA), 21 March 1951, p. 12
Capt. = an abbreviation of “Captain”
high-falutin’ = pompous, pretentious (especially in speech or writing); artificially elevated or heightened in style in order to seem impressive; fancy (also spelt “highfalutin”)
salient = conspicuous, prominent, of notable significance, noteworthy, most important, most noticeable, something noticeable compared with its surroundings (may also refer to: jutting, pointing, projecting, or protruding outward or upward; jumping, leaping; in heraldry: an animal standing on its hind legs with its forelegs raised, as if in the act of leaping; an outward bulge of a military position on its front line with the enemy)