Garry Lyle (1918-1984)

Disappearing poet  

Garry Lyle 
Garry Lyle, ca 1943 (NLA Image)

Though Garry Lyle lived most of his life away from his native state, there was never any doubt that he was a Queenslander. When his only book of poems was published, the reviewer in Brisbane’s afternoon newspaper The Telegraph made the mistake (then fatal to a Queensland readership) of calling him a ‘young southern poet’[1] in an otherwise encouraging review. A few weeks later a letter to the editor appeared:

True the poet at present resides in Victoria but he is a Queenslander by birth and has spent the greater part of his life in Queensland. ….. I feel that Queensland has the prior claim to a poet whose roots are so obviously in northern soil. [2]

There is no such thing as an ex-Queenslander. 

Lyle was born Garnet Walters Lyle in the Esk valley township of Lowood in 1918. He spent his early years in Lowood, then at Stanthorpe, and for a time in Brisbane, where he studied teaching[3]. He worked as a teacher in Western Queensland (probably at Longreach[4]) before transferring to Victoria, where he ‘spent 18 months working on slum clearance and studying theology’[5].  

He enlisted in the second A.I.F in 1940, serving first in the Medical Corps, and then in Papua New Guinea, in the army education corps. Upon discharge from the army, he went to the Workers Education Association (the WEA), a body which, as it names suggests was (and is) established to bring educational opportunities to working people, especially manual labourers. There he spent 3 years teaching literary subjects to railway gangs and to mine workers at Broken Hill.[6]

By 1952, he was editing the journal ‘The Australian Highway’, and supplemented his income by freelance journalism. From there I can find nothing of his life until, according to one researcher, Lyle died, in London, in 1984. Perhaps a reader of this article will be able to fill in the blank 30 years. 

Like so many authors, Lyle’s first urge was to get published, and he spent much of his literary career in search of a subject.  His first published work, a short story, appeared in the Brisbane Telegraph when Lyle had just turned 15.[7] In the years leading up to the war, many of his poems were published in the Telegraph, under the guidance of its then editor, Colin Bingham. 

Lyle’s first book of verse, 18 Poems, was published in late 1940, while Lyle was training at Balcombe Camp, on the Mornington Peninsula.  It was generally well received, and a handful of new poems appeared in the social realist publication Dawnfire, in 1941, with the works of other poets including the socialist Mona Brand, the Jindyworobak Flexmore Hudson, and the eccentric Harry Hooton.  His work appeared in realist anthologies through most of the 1940s, but after that, he seems to have published no verse. 

The few poems Lyle left us, though, are certainly worth reading now.  They are modernist without being obscure, show the benefits of wide reading, and deal with contemporary subject matter:

Over our church a lovely steeple 

is being built……

Behind our church are filthy rows of hovels 

and filthier lanes, 

where unloved children live

their stunted days 

among the wine and crime. 

                       From Receding daylight (1940). 

His work also shows a command of traditional forms:

Travelogues, radio have made 

those “west beyond the sunset” lands

that boyhood fancy glamorized

familiar as Noosa sands 

                                         From Nomad (ca 1939)

Lyle kept good literary company. He was a member of Melbourne’s ‘Bread and Cheese’ club, a ‘males only’ literary fellowship, whose motto was ‘mateship, art and letters’, presided over by ‘Knight Grand Cheese’ J.K.Moir, and he published a short lived magazine with the young A.D. Hope. So Lyle had no shortage of boosters to promote his work.  His poems are included in 5 anthologies on my shelves, so he was popular in his own time. 

With one exception[8], however, none of Lyle’s poems has been republished in 70 years. His political loyalties may have played a part in this decline from public view.  The introduction to his section of Dawnfire says Lyle:

is interested in literature, music, and progressive politics – wanted to join the International Brigade in Spain,  but was prevented. Loathes Jingoism, Wowserism, Pseudo-Modernism and all forms of hypocrisy. [9]

But I’m inclined to discount this as the sole cause. After all, people still read (and prefer) the WH Auden of the 1930s.  In Lyle’s case, though, sometimes, his urge to make a political point led to an emphatic directness that made it difficult to distinguish poetry from prose. 

(Don’t speak to that dirty old abo

on your way to school, Johnny!)

                              From Outcast (1939)

In addition, his work may sometimes be just a little too self-revelatory to accommodate an external reader. The introductory piece to 18 Poems concludes:

                                                    But these 

struggle-born songs are my own, 

best that my life can bring forth

from its wounds and its beauty; its sole

justification, and I

giving them, give you myself. 

                           From A Dedication (1940).

 

Lastly, as he drifted away from poetry in the 1940’s, he probably separated himself from the literary establishment, and his work may simply have been overlooked in the seminal Australian anthologies of the 1950s.[10]

In any event, at the very least the poems I have selected for this website deserve attention now.  Two of the poems in particular, The River, and To my brother in the navy, form a clear and moving perspective of the separation of families in war time, that should be read ahead of the Jingoistic tripe that we seem to be given every April. I commend them to you. 

Best book to buy: Lyle, G. 18 Poems, Melbourne, Cloister Press, 1940. 

Click here to read poems by Garry Lyle. 

 


[1] The Telegraph, Saturday 11 January 1941, p11.

[2] John Cremin, Queenslander Poet, in The Telegraph Thursday 27 February 1941, p8.  Cremin was in fact his publisher.

[3] The Telegraph Friday 20 October 1933, p30. Apparently Lyle was a ‘promising’ swimmer.

[4] Scouting in France in The Telegraph, Monday 6 May 1935, P15.

[5] Lyle, G. in Dawnfire Melbourne, John Cremin, 1941, p38.

[6] Special thanks to the Sydney branch of the WEA for their assistance in research on Lyles time as an educator.

[7] Lyle, G, Tragedy, on the bridge at Midday, in the Telegraph, Brisbane, Saturday 30 December 1933, p 9.

[8] ‘Rainmaker’s Stone’ (1940) republished in Brian Elliott, ed, The Jindyworobaks, St Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1979, p161.

[9] Dawnfire, op cit.

[10] See for example Wright, J. A book of Australian verse, London, Oxford University Press, 1956, and Slessor, et al, The Penguin Book of Australian Verse¸ Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1958.