While many poets can chart the trajectory of their success or recognition along a line leading directly to winning a prestigious literary prize or award, very few go on to have their name attached to such an honor. Among that select few is Tasmanian poet, Gwen Harwood. The Gwen Harwood Poetry Prize was established posthumously in 1996 to honor her memory and achievements.
Harwood was born in Tasmania in 1920, but would not begin publishing poetry for almost another forty years. In the interim, her focus was primarily music and German philosophy. A classically trained musician, Harwood was taught music, play the organ at the All Saints Church of England in Brisbane, wrote opera libretto and even spent a brief period as a novice in a convent.
Even just the most cursory scanning of Harwood’s poetry collections quickly indicate which of the many German philosophers had the most influence upon her. The notoriously abstruse and difficult maestro of language Ludwig Wittgenstein permeates Harwood’s poems, sometimes by osmosis and sometimes with direct address or reference. No better indication of the depth of Harwood’s intellectual gifts can be demonstrated than by her assertion that she first came upon the philosophy of Wittgenstein as a result of her randomly picking up and “leafing” through a copy of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. That major philosophical work by Wittgenstein is routinely regarded as one of the most impenetrable works of philosophy in existence. One does not merely “leaf” through that work and spot a soul mate unless one is truly gifted with mastery of the written word as well as more philosophical matters.
By the time she had worked her way through the tome, she’d found a new religion and the primal significance of the German’s philosophy upon her poetry should be considered the way poets look to the Bible or ancient Eastern religious texts. Along with the metaphysics of philosophy, Harwood’s poetry is also suffused with references to music, life down under away from the focus of England and America and nostalgia for his rural upbringing as a child.