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Bush Poets Forge Tall Tales

Contemporary balladeers reinvent Australia's national character with their colorful stories about historic and mythic figures of the past

THE spirit of Banjo Paterson lives on in outback Australia. Paterson, author of the famous Australian ballad ``Waltzing Matilda,'' would feel right at home with the current group of bush poets.

The modern balladeers are romantics, similar to Paterson and Henry Lawson, another famous Australian turn-of-the-century poet.

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Contemporary bush poets idealize the drovers, the shearers, the ANZAC World War I veterans, and the bush mums.

``They help romanticize the outback life,'' says Hal Cannon, executive director of the Western Folklife Center in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Mr. Cannon notes that the bush poets are similar to the cowboys of the American West, who often sat around the campfire at the end of the day reciting poems or singing songs.

Most of the time the poems are about historical or mythical characters.

One such poem is Ted Egan's ``Matt Savage, Boss Drover.''

Savage, who was a real stockman, was famous for the ways he made enemies around the outback. He once said he preferred ``a good enemy'' to a good friend since he knew what to expect from an enemy.

In his poem about Savage, Mr. Egan writes:

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At the Six Mile in Wyndham the word passed around

Matt Savage the Boss Drover has just come to town.

His plant's on the Common, he's looking for men

'Cos he's taking a mob into Queensland.

He's a legend in the outback, he's a man among men

Matt Savage, the Boss Drover, and he's riding again.

Two thousand store bullocks, wild ones at that

That's the mob that he's taking into Queensland.

Egan, who lives in Alice Springs, Northern Territory, writes, sings, and records his own songs. In concert, he accompanies himself by thumping an empty carton.

Egan is well known as a friend of the Aboriginal peoples and speaks two native dialects.

He is also an expert on many of the characters who tramped around the bush.

He has written three books that incorporate history, song, and poetry about the bush men, the wool shearers, and the ANZAC veterans.

Another bush poet, Bruce Forbes Simpson was a drover most of his life. Egan considers Simpson one of the giants of bush poetry.

Simpson has a wry sense of humor, and one of his poems, ``The Drover's Life,'' makes fun of Paterson's famous poem, ``Clancy of the Overflow,'' which ends with the phrase ``The drover's life has pleasures that the townfolk never know.''

Instead, Simpson writes:

Now the tucker's pretty tasty

On the Barklay track you know.

When the flies have had a gutful

The meat ants have a go.

And, when you cut the babbler's brownie

It's best to shut your eyes,

For it's hard to tell the difference

Between the currants and the flies.

So let this be a warning

To you fellows from the town,

Who want to go a droving

You very soon will know,

That the drover's life has pleasures

That you wouldn't want to know.

Brisbane poet Mark Gliori says his poems are influenced more by the farming area, the Darling Downs, where he grew up.

``I try to write them so contemporary people and kids can listen to them and know the words that I'm speaking,'' says Mr. Gliori.

Gliori also writes with a keen sense of humor.

In his poem, ``The Man from Alabama,'' listeners hear about an Alabamian who loses 1,000 longhorn steers to the outback dust.

Unable to find them, he tells the locals:

I've rode a thousand miles around this access hole to hell,

I've found a local sturdy breed, one you all know well.

I've given up on cattle boys, and surely so should you,

For I'm about to yard and market your Australian kangaroo.

The contemporary bush poetry ``is the continuation of a very old tradition in Australia,'' says Bill Ashcroft, a professor of English at the University of New South Wales.

Dr. Ashcroft notes that bush poetry dates back to the 1880s, when the Bulletin Magazine started printing the poems of Paterson, Lawson, and other bush poets.

``They all lived in Sydney, and very few actually liked the bush,'' says Ashcroft.

Lawson and Paterson actually got into a controversy over whether the bush was good or bad in the pages of the Bulletin.

Some scholars think it was an ``invented'' controversy to insure the poets would continue to get space in the magazine.

Poetry helped form and shape the national character. Professor Ashcroft calls it ``inventing the myth.''

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