Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Hart-Smith, William (Bill) (1911–1990)

by Brian Dibble

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

William (Bill) Hart-Smith (1911-1990), poet, was born on 23 November 1911 at Tunbridge Wells, Kent, England, eldest of three children of George May Coleridge Hart-Smith, assistant bank manager, and his wife Florence Amelia Gomer, a household servant known as `Gypsy’ and said to be of Spanish descent. He had a difficult childhood and received a modest education; in 1924 the family was `sent out’ to Auckland, New Zealand, his father’s syphilis-induced erratic behaviour having caused embarrassment. Bill began work as a radio mechanic. Inspired in his twenties by H. G. Wells’s First and Last Things (1908) and D. H. Lawrence’s Birds, Beasts, Flowers (1923) to write poetry, he was given direction by imagist poets represented in Louis Untermeyer’s Modern American Poetry (1921). In 1936 he left for Australia; after nearly two years in Tasmania, he settled in Sydney and found employment as a radio copywriter. On 7 October 1939 at St Jude’s Church of England, Randwick, he married Mary Lola Wynn, a library assistant. He developed a strong sympathy for Aboriginal culture and from 1940 published as a Jindyworobak. Enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force in January 1942, he did not go overseas and was discharged in August 1943 as a sergeant in the Australian Army Education Service.

Although a communist sympathiser in the 1940s and 1950s, Hart-Smith was apolitical in his poetics: the Bulletin published a hundred of his early poems and Quadrant a hundred later ones. An element of mysticism in his work was derived from his reading of Gurdjieff, Ouspenski and the sufis. Poetry, he said, was his `prime obsession’. His `free’ verse resulted from firm control; his poems were lapidary, acutely observed, sharply rendered, and wry rather than ironic. He edited the Jindyworobak Anthology in 1944 and in 1948 published what several critics considered his masterpiece, Christopher Columbus: A Sequence of Poems. Douglas Stewart called it `a rare and beautiful achievement’; Bruce Beaver described it as `probably one of the best verse sequences in modern Australian poetry’; Henry Mackenzie Green said that if his development continued in range and quality he would be `among the leaders in the poetic world on this side or the other of the Tasman’.

In 1946 Hart-Smith returned to New Zealand and became an adult education tutor and organiser in South Canterbury. Divorced next year, on 8 January 1949 at Chalmers Presbyterian Church, Timaru, he married 19-year-old Patricia Anne McBeath. They had two sons and a daughter. In 1960 he was awarded the Australian Literature Society’s R. A. Crouch gold medal for Poems of Discovery (1959) and in 1966 the Grace Leven prize for The Talking Clothes, published that year. He had moved back to Sydney in 1962 and in 1963-64 was president of the Poetry Society of Australia. Separating from his wife, he moved to Perth in 1970 with Dorothy Donnelly; they had had a son in 1968. A handsome, well-groomed and well-spoken man, Hart-Smith attracted women ever younger than he into relationships that never lasted.

For some years Hart-Smith was a senior tutor in creative writing at the Western Australian Institute of Technology and in 1976 was briefly writer in residence at the University of Western Australia. In 1973 and 1977 he won Commonwealth Literature Board fellowships. From 1978 he lived in Auckland with Joan Dale, a friend from childhood. Over the course of his career he had written thousands of poems and published some 650. He called himself `the first Australasian poet’, but he often seemed a poetic expatriate from both New Zealand and Australia. In 1985 he won the Christopher Brennan prize for Selected Poems 1936-1984 (edited by Brian Dibble), and in 1987 the Patrick White award for authors who `have not received due recognition for their contribution to Australian literature’.

Hart-Smith’s interests included philately and conchology; a species of cowrie, Notadusta (now Notocypraea) hartsmithi, was named after him in 1967. Survived by his wife and Joan Dale, and by his four children, he died on 15 April 1990 at Whangaparaoa and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Petrie (ed), William Hart-Smith, Hand to Hand (1991)
  • B. Dibble, `“He Will Be Lonely in Heaven”: Australasian Poet’, Southern Review, Nov 1990, p 191
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20 Apr 1990, p 4
  • ArtsWest, Nov-Dec 1992, p 4
  • Hart-Smith papers (National Library of Australia and University of Sydney Library)
  • personal knowledge.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Brian Dibble, 'Hart-Smith, William (Bill) (1911–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hart-smith-william-bill-12603/text22701, published in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 23 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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