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Dorothy Hewett (1923 – 2002)

Dorothy Hewett, Perth, with her children, photo courtesy the Estate of Dorothy Hewett Dorothy Hewett, Perth, with her children, photo courtesy the Estate of Dorothy Hewett

Dorothy Hewett was born on 21 May 1923 in Perth, Western Australia but spent her early years on a isolated farm in the Western Australian wheat belt. Until she returned to Perth at the age of twelve to attend secondary school she was educated through correspondence lessons.  She began to write poetry while she was still a child, with the aid of correspondence lessons in poetry appreciation and writing skills. In 1938 one of her poems, 'Dreaming', written when she was nine years old, was published in an anthology of work by school children. A collection of Hewett's juvenilia, including poems and a play, was published in 2009 as The Gypsy Dancer and Early Poems. After completing her schooling at Perth College, Hewett commenced an Arts degree at the University of Western Australia. She continued to write prolifically and a poem by her was published in the leading Melbourne literary magazine, Meanjin, when she was nineteen. She left university without completing her degree, marrying lawyer and communist writer Lloyd Davies in 1944, with whom she had a son, who died from leukaemia at the age of three.  In 1945 she was awarded first prize in a national poetry competition conducted by the ABC.

In 1945 also, Hewett joined the Communist Party and continued to be an active member until 1968 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, when she resigned in protest. In 1948 after the breakdown of her marriage to Davies, she moved to Sydney to live for nine years with Les Flood, boiler-maker and fellow communist, with whom she had three sons. During this time she also worked at the Alexandra Spinning Mills, drawing on this experience for her novel Bobbin Up (1959). Hewett returned to Perth in 1960 and married Merv Lilley, merchant seaman and communist, that same year; they had two daughters. After completing her Arts degree at the University of Western Australia, Hewett taught in the English Department there until 1974. After receiving a grant from the newly-established Literature Board of the Australia Council, she returned to Sydney, where she lived until moving to the Blue Mountains some years before her death in 2002.

Hewett's first collection of poetry to be published, What About the People! (1963), contains work by herself and Merv Lilley and includes mainly political and proletariat poems, often using the ballad form. The title poem from The Hidden Journey (1967) was written in 1966 after her second and final trip to Russia.  Hewett's first major collection, Windmill Country was published the following year; it includes some of the poems from her first two collections as well as poems about her family such as the much-anthologised 'Legend of the Green Country'. After her return to Sydney, Hewett came in contact with younger poets such as John Tranter and Robert Adamson, sharing their interest in the new American poets such as Frank O'Hara and Robert Creeley.  The highly autobiographical Rapunzel in Suburbia (1975) shows the influence of American confessional poetry. It includes four poetic sequences: 'Memoirs of a Protestant Girlhood', 'Ah! Those Dead Ladies', 'O! Baby, Baby it's a Wild World' and 'Rapunzel in Suburbia', each preceded by a quote from Tennyson's poem 'The Lady of Shalott'. Greenhouse (1979) includes further sequences as well as some shorter poems.  Alice in Wormland (1987) is made up of nine continuously numbered sequences, among them 'The Alice Poems', 'The Nim Poems' and 'Alice in Wormland', and relates in particular to Hewett's experiences in Sydney during the 1970s and 80s. A Tremendous World in Her Head: Selected Poems appeared in 1989 and won that year's Grace Leven Poetry Prize. A further Selected Poems, selected by Irish critic Edna Longley, appeared shortly afterwards in both England and Australia.

In the last decade of her life, Dorothy Hewett continued to produce major new works, including Peninsula (1994), which won both the Western Australian Premier's Poetry Award and the National Book Council's Turnbull Fox Phillips Poetry Prize.  Her Collected Poems:1940-1995, published the following year, once again won the Western Australian Premier's Poetry Award.  In 2000 she published Wheatlands, co-written with fellow Western Australian poet John Kinsella, and in 2001 her final collection Halfway Up the Mountain, its title reflecting her home in the Blue Mountains, its contents focusing on both a return to her childhood and her continuing preoccupation with mortality.  A new Selected Poems, the selection now made by her daughter, poet and academic, Kate Lilley, appeared in 2010, with a substantial introduction.

As well as writing her many collections of poetry, Dorothy Hewett was one of Australia's leading playwrights. Her plays, which combine a unique mix of symbolism, poetry, and music, and were often highly autobiographical as well as experimental in form, had a mixed reception, the most successful being The Man from Mukinupin (1979), commissioned for the sesquicentenary of Western Australia. She also published two further novels, The Toucher (1994) and Neap Tide (1996), and a prize-winning autobiography Wild Card (1990), as well as numerous articles and short stories. She was writer-in-residence at universities in Australia and the USA, and awarded eight fellowships by the Literature Board of the Australia Council as well as a lifetime Emeritus Fellowship from the Literature Board. In 1986 Dorothy Hewett was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for services to literature.

Poetry Collections

[with Merv Lilley], What About The People! ([Brisbane]: [National Council of Realist Writers], [1963]

The Hidden Journey (Newnham, Tas: Wattle Grove Press, 1967).

Windmill Country (Melbourne: Overland in conjunction with Peter Leyden Publishing, 1968).

Rapunzel in Suburbia (Sydney: Prism, 1975).

Greenhouse (Sydney: Big-Smoke Books, 1979).

[with Rosemary Dobson, Gwen Harwood, and Judith Wright], Journeys (Carlton South, Vic: Sisters Publishing, 1982)

Alice in Wormland (Sydney: Paper Bark Press, 1987).

A Tremendous World in Her Head: Selected Poems (Sydney: Dangaroo Press, 1989).

Selected Poems (Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 1991).

Peninsula (South Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 1994).

Collected Poems: 1940-1995
(Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 1995).

[with John Kinsella], Wheatlands (Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 2000).

Halfway Up the Mountain (Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 2001).

The Gypsy Dancer and Early Poems (Sydney: Juvenilia Press, 2009)

Selected Poems (Crawley, WA: UWA Publishing, 2010)

Suggested Further Reading

Bruce Bennett, 'Dorothy Hewett,' in Selina Samuels, ed., Australian Writers 1950-1975 (Detroit, USA: Gale Research Co., 2004), pp. 121-31.

Pamela Brown, 'Cover Girl,' Overland no. 146 (1997), pp. 73-75.

Jenny Digby, 'Coming to Terms with the Ghosts,' A Woman's Voice: Conversations with Australian Poets
(St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1996), pp. 218-40.

Jenny Digby, 'Representations of Female Identity in the Poetry of Dorothy Hewett,' Southerly 53.2 (1993), pp. 167-89.

John Kinsella, 'Dorothy Hewett in Conversation with John Kinsella on the Release of her Collected Poems,' Westerly 41.3 (1996), pp. 29-44.

Rose Lucas and Lyn McCredden, 'Making the Self: Myth, History and the Body in Dorothy Hewett's Poetry,' in Lucas and McCredden, eds., Bridgings: Readings in Australian Women's Poetry (South Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 68-81.

Lyn McCredden, 'Imaging Dorothy Hewett,' in Bruce Bennet, ed., Dorothy Hewett: Selected Critical Essays (Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 1995).

Geoff Page, 'Dorothy Hewett,' A Reader's Guide to Contemporary Australian Poetry (St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1995), pp. 119-24.

Peter Rose, 'The Poetry of a Lifetime,' Australian Book Review no. 178 (1996), pp. 30-31.

Gig Ryan, 'Dorothy Hewett D.Litt. (UWA), OAM, 21.5.25-25.8.02,' Southerly 63.2 (2003), pp. 7-10.

Jennifer Strauss, 'A Ride with Love and Death: Writing the Legend of a Glittering Girl,' in Bruce Bennet, ed., Dorothy Hewett: Selected Critical Essays (Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 1995), pp. 53-69.

John Tranter, 'An Interview with Dorothy Hewett,' Southerly 63.2 (2003), pp. 11-19.