REDISCOVERING ANNE ELDER: POET AND DANCER
The name Anne Elder (1918-1976) endures because of the poetry prize awarded annually in her name over the past forty years. However, little is known about Elder herself despite her many achievements, firstly as a soloist with the Borovansky Ballet, the forerunner of the Australian Ballet, and later as a poet.
This lack of recognition, so typical for women of her generation, is set to be rectified by the publication of The Heart’s Ground: A Life of Anne Elder by her niece Julia Hamer and The Bright and the Cold: Selected Poems of Anne Elder, compiled by her daughter Catherine Elder (both Lauranton Books).
One of the reasons for Elder’s neglect, according to fellow poet and friend Graham Rowlands, was that nearly all of the poems that would subsequently be published were written in one short burst, from 1967 to 1971, after which her deteriorating health had made writing difficult.
Elder was talented in whatever field of the arts she turned to: dance, writing, drawing, and music. She was a fascinating character, a brilliant talker, with an unusual sense of humour, keen imagination, a person who soaked up the details of experience, an iconoclastic thinker, and capable of great tenderness. She was also a person of contradictions, capable of lashing out when angry, sensitive to criticism, her individualism sitting alongside some conservative opinions.
As the biography details, “Anne was a child of the 1930s and 1940s in Australia, and a young woman in the 1950s, when women were still constrained in what they could say, do and write. Her circle, until she started to meet other poets, was not intellectual”. For most of her life she scribbled when the mood took her and, lacking a room of her own, would stand in front of the kitchen window cutting up dogs’ food in a desultory fashion, composing poems in her head.
Her daughter Cathie comments, “Meals would be dreadfully late. She would be standing there, mooning away at the sink.” It was only in her mid-forties as her children left home that she turned to writing in earnest.
Elder’s first collection of poetry, For the Record, was published by Hawthorn Press in 1972 and the second collection, Crazy Woman and Other Poems, was published by Angus & Robertson in 1976, not long after her death at the age of 58. It was highly commended in the National Book Council awards in 1977. Her poems were also published in a wide range of magazines and journals, including Meanjin, Overland, Southerly and Westerly, and newspapers such as The Age and The Australian.
In the seventies her work attracted positive attention from many critics. The poet and novelist David Martin called Elder “one of the best poets writing in English”. Others tried to belittle or dismiss her work because of its alleged focus on domestic life and its avoidance of overtly political issues but as Rowlands observed, “for all Anne Elder’s tender lyricism, delicate shading and pastel mood, she holds in reserve, often for dramatic ending, the deadliness of a cobra”.
Elder was born Anne Chloe Mackintosh in Auckland, New Zealand, in January 1918. Her parents Norman and Rèna had married in 1917. After a short time together, Norman was sent to the front in France where he was wounded and returned to New Zealand in May 1918.
The family moved to Melbourne in 1921, shortly after the birth of their second daughter April, as Norman had been promoted to the post of Superintendent for Sun Insurance in Australia and New Zealand. Elder was a delicate child and she and her sister were schooled at home by governesses until Elder was eleven. Both girls were book worms, and fond of history and drawing. They led a rich cultural life, learning the piano, going to exhibitions and the theatre, going to the beach at Mentone and playing tennis and golf. In 1933, the family spent six months touring England and Scotland. Back home again, Anne had a special timetable drawn up by her enlightened headmistress to fit in ballet lessons and managed also to become dux of St Catherine’s.
Inspired by Anna Pavlova, her “goddess”, Elder had recommenced ballet lessons, painfully, at the very late age of sixteen, with Jennie Brenan. She went on to have an impressive career dancing with the Borovansky Ballet Company for whom she was a soloist, from 1940–1944. The company was formed in Melbourne in 1939 by Czech refugee Edouard Borovansky and his Russian-born wife Xenia. Edouard Borovansky was internationally celebrated, principally as a character dancer. An important fellow dancer for Elder was Laurel Martyn, herself an exquisite dancer and choreographer and later founder of the Ballet Guild.
The Borovanskys marked the true beginning of Australian ballet and Elder was there from the start. She was admired as a dancer for her classical, cool qualities. In 1940, she married lawyer John Elder but, like her mother, she was soon separated by war. John was posted first to the Middle East and later to North Queensland. All the dancers were unpaid at this time, and during the day Elder did secret work for the Dutch who were trying to retrieve Indonesia from the Japanese, and at night and in the weekends she danced. Elder’s tribute to Edouard Borovansky is included as an appendix to the biography.
In 1944 she was due to tour New Zealand with the company but John, newly returned from war, put his foot down. In any case she was pregnant and gave birth to their son David in early 1945; and their daughter Cathie followed in 1947. Her ballet career, which started relatively late in life, thus came to a premature end. It was only when her poetry began to be recognised that Elder could watch ballet without pain, and she became a knowledgeable critic of what she saw.
The Elder family built a modern house on The Eyrie at Eaglemont, then an outer northern suburb of Melbourne. Julia Hamer says that Elder’s “deepest feelings would with time flow from this house and garden and all the living things they contained. These above all were to be the basis of her poetry”.
Elder was unwell for much of her life and suffered heart problems at an early age. It was only just before her death that she was diagnosed with scleroderma, an autoimmune system disease. It was remarkable that in spite of this, and of the depression it produced, and in spite of her sensitivities, that she had the energy to write her complex, multi-layered poems, the production of which often saw her crouched over the fire until the early hours of the morning.
This finely wrought biography is rich in historical detail as it draws on four generations of letters and diaries and more recently on critical commentary and recollections.
The Bright and the Cold: Selected Poems of Anne Elder captures the extraordinary range and vibrancy of her poetry and includes a number of poems that did not appear in either of her previous collections.
Julia Hamer, The Heart’s Ground: A Life of Anne Elder (Lauranton Books, 2018) ISBN 978 0 9942507 3 5 RRP $40
The Bright and the Cold: Selected Poems of Anne Elder, compiled by Catherine Elder (Lauranton Books, 2018) 122pp ISBN 978 0 9942507 4 2 RRP: $25
Books are available from Lauranton Books
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