‘Having Fun with the Professors’: Gwen Harwood and Doctor Eisenbart


This essay examines the role of Gwen Harwood’s Eisenbart poems in helping to establish her career as a serious poet. It argues that Harwood had more trouble breaking into the male-dominated world of Australian poetry than is generally acknowledged, and that the Eisenbart poems, which centre on a fictional scientist, represent a turning point in her literary fortunes. In the 1950s, Harwood struggled to get the kind of attention she sought from a number of influential poetry editors and reviewers, many of whom were also academics. Chief among them for her were A. D. Hope, Vincent Buckley and James McAuley. Her Eisenbart poems, which both play up to and satirise the cultural icon of the god-professor, were an attempt to subvert expectations of so-called ‘lady poets’ and beat the ‘professors’ at their own game. They also gave literary expression to the debate between positivism and humanism that dominated some aspects of academic life in the 1950s, and to the anger and frustration Harwood experienced at repeated rejections of her work.

A. D. Hope begins his 1972 essay on Harwood with the line: ‘Gwen Harwood is always having fun with the professors but the professors seem rather wary of her’ (227). This wariness, he explains, is because Harwood’s brand of fun is ‘disturbing, if not [. . .] terrifying’, and ‘is apt to be aimed at critics, professors, editors and the literary menagerie in general’ (227). But Harwood’s terrorising of ‘the professors’ through literary jokes, hoaxes and biting satire is only one aspect of her multi-layered and highly ambivalent relationship with the Australian literary establishment in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when she was developing an identity as a professional poet. She herself was ‘not academic’, as she told John Beston in 1975,1 although as the wife of a Reader in English at the University of Tasmania, she knew many academics She was also, contrary to contemporary expectations of the…

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Published 26 February 2017 in Volume 32 No. 1. Subjects: Australian Women Poets, Australian poetry, Gwen Harwood.

Cite as: Priest, Ann-Marie. ‘‘Having Fun with the Professors’: Gwen Harwood and Doctor Eisenbart.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 32, no. 1, 2017, doi: 10.20314/als.14734bc905.