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Issue #1646      July, 9, 2014

Vic Williams

A tribute by Dr Hannah Middleton (June 28, 2014)

I acknowledge that we are meeting on Nunga land, always was, always will be, and I pay my respects to their elders past and present.

“Writer and fighter in one human heart”

This was how Vic described Katherine Susannah Pritchard in the poem he wrote for her. The words equally describe Vic himself.

Vic was born on June 28, 1914 and died on April 19, 2011, living almost 97 years as an inspiring example of a passionate and committed comrade. He was born and was raised on a farm, developing a deep love for the land which is reflected in his poetic imagery.

His poems constantly both describe and use as analogies sweet soil, rivers, wind and sun, sea and fire, drought and spring, the trees, plants and insects of the bush, blood and steel,

His close observation of the land and his love for it shine through his poem “ilgarn in the Spring”:

Bees that endure the winds and frosts of winter,
Bushes that fought the gravel and the rain,
Explode together in a storm of flowers,
Dance with the yellow sun across the plain.
And now the breath of earth is steeped in honey,
Gold from a million flowers is hived again.

Vic taught in a country school as well as working in the wheat belt where he saw the struggles of the working farmers to survive. He saw poetry as a means of telling of these struggles. Vic joined the Army for five years during World War II, seeing active service in Darwin, New Guinea and New Britain and rising to the rank of sergeant in intelligence. He wrote poems of the anti-fascist war, of the people’s liberation fight and for peace.

It was during wartime that Vic met and married his wife Joan, a Communist Party member, journalist, writer and poet, active in the struggle for women’s rights and for peace.

They were married for 63 years. It was a marriage of equals, overflowing with love, comradeship and respect. They worked together on social, cultural and political issues. Joan was well known in her own right as a poet and activist.

After the war Vic worked in industry, and then from 1952 until he retired in 1975 he worked on the waterfront as a member of the Waterside Workers’ Federation (now the Maritime Union of Australia). Vic joined the Communist Party of Australia in 1938 and remained a member to his dying day. He was active in his Party Branch and served on the Central Committee for many years.

He described his first experience of activity in the Communist Party as:

“in the countryside, in the struggle of the wheat farmers against evictions, against crippling prices for wheat and wool, culminating in the wheat strike against the Menzies Government.”

Vic knew that the Party, with all its strengths and weaknesses, was essential for the working class and all those marginalised, discriminated and exploited sections of society to win a just, democratic and socialist future.

In “Hold To Your Course” he wrote:

Hold to your course, my Party, weapon of workers,
Give us your sight and your arms as we go to battle.
Their towers upon towers are falling, we build from the rubble.
Can those who killed our millions be ever repentant?
Take guns from the hands of the killers, the spoils from the robbers,
For the sacked, the evicted, the prisoned to make world of the future.
Hold to your course, my Party, our world will prevail!

When Vic made the transition from farm worker to industrial worker he became a passionate and committed unionist, a leader of workers and an inspiration to many. His commitment to the collective struggle of his fellow workers was recognised when he was made a life member of the Waterside Workers’ Federation when he retired.

He wrote many poems about the struggles on the waterfront, the strength of the union and the courage of the workers. In “Delegate” for example he wrote:

But here today their greed is overflowing,
Their richest gamble is the game of war,
And skulls of men are rolled to be their dice,
And in their greed to load, old ship, frayed ropes
And rusted gear; and speed, speed, speed
Is screaming in their whistles.

Time once again to show them we are men.
And one by one they turned, slow and decided;
Nor courts, nor police, nor war could stop their flow,
A river of men from gangway to the shore.

In “Hold To Your Course” Vic wrote:

Hold to your course, my union, the shield of workers.
And every step must be won again and again,
Till the forests of unions shelter the ravaged lands.
You must burst through the batons of laws, the gates of prisons
To win to your rights at the workplace, but for them, the owners,
Each strike is a gun at the head they will not forgive.
Hold to your course, my union, for they bank their hate!

Vic was involved in many campaigns – for workers’ rights, for peace, Indigenous rights, women’s rights, against racism, for the environment, in the anti-apartheid movement, for refugees and for socialism.

He fought all his life against injustice, exploitation and war. He wrote in one poem:

Make our lives green with revolution of the rain;
Write in our skies with stars the one word peace!

Peace was a particular concern for Vic and Joan. In “Harvest Time” Vic describes peace:

Peace is the fruit of certainty
That fills our strength like ripened ears;
My mind walks firm on all I know
And reaps into the coming years.
I see my land tread out its path
Strong with the freedom our horizons give
Flowing to beauty like our sudden spring;
Born of the sun, she drinks its warm delight:
I see I make her brown skin glow with life,
Her hair wave freely as the windswept wheat,
Her eyes a warmer brown than a boronia bell.

Vic’s poems could be full of anger about poverty, injustice, poverty and suffering. He expresses this in his poem “Human Drought”:

I’ve seen the green hopes wither in young eyes,
Work-heavy days drag on the eager hands;
I’ve seen the sapling brains, fresh with surmise,
Grow gaunt and barren in these barren lands.
I’ve seen the old staunch settlers shrink and shake
As debts tread down the sap from every root:
Dead leaves, dead wood; then they decay and break;
Drought upon men, when will they come to fruit?

And again in “To My Own People”:

I cannot sleep for the crying of your heart,
for all the dead are speaking through the earth,
burdening my ears with dreams they could not live,
calling me fill their hunger with the deed.

However, Vic himself said: “I try to interpret the thoughts and emotions of men I am associated with. I want to express positive aspects, and the advancing progress of their struggles – not merely dreary and disappointing features.”

And his poems are imbued with an unquenchable confidence in the working class, confidence in the ultimate victory over exploitation and war with the establishment of a socialist society.

In “Speak for us Pablo Neruda” he paints this picture:

But suddenly, blazingly, steadfastly many were with us;
Those who looked past us before, were beside us, around us.
Out from the factories they came, up from the mine-shafts
And those who would rob us and goal us swept back from the whirlwind.
How could we smoulder in ash in the great gust of freedom?
No longer the exiles, not spurned as the slag of nations,
We were Australians, the wryness, the drought, the endurance.

Vic was an environmentalist. He wrote that “the struggle for peace is a vital and essential one – especially today where peace must not only be with man but also this planet.”

Vic contributed much to the policies of the developing Greens WA in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Acknowledging this, the Greens included a special clause in their constitution to allow Vic to be a member of both the Greens and the Communist Party. He was also the Greens (WA) first honorary life member, one of only four people to have achieved that honour.

Vic’s aquiline, craggy face hid a man filled with love for his family, his comrades, his class.

In “Gabrielle With A Blue Opal” his love for his daughter shines from the lines:

So much of sky is starless, we forget
How little love can set a life ablaze.
My love for you moves like the Cross, around you
Constant behind the cloud or through the haze.

“I Will Make A Bowl” is a beautiful love poem for Joan:

I will make a bowl for my love of the warm brown wood,
Chiselling the heart with care so the strength endures,
Stroking the curve of grain till it flows in silk.
The bowl has the print of woman, the caress, the love.
It will be deep as the sky on a starlit night,
Filled to the brim with the first kiss of the sun,
Filled with the honey of friends, the flower of song.

In “My Baby Cries” Vic begins with a father’s anguish over children suffering poverty and hunger but ends with happiness and Communist red flags on the streets:

My little baby cries
and sucks her thumbs;
there’s little comfort there
when hunger comes.
She cries, and my hands clench
for her voice tells
How many millions starve
while profit swells.
My little warm one laughs
as flowers of red
nod to her searching hand
and toss their head.
Our people run with joy
and call us when
the red flags toss like flowers
on streets of men

Vic was all of these things, and more but today we are launching an anthology of his poems to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth.

We hope that this anthology collects together all Vic’s poems. However, we did not have access to his private papers so there may be some we have missed. Vic often revised his poems and where a poem was published more than once, we have used the latest version.

Vic belongs in the mainstream school of Australian literature from Henry Lawson to the present day realists. Writer and actor Peter Ustinov noted that Australian realist writing reminded him most forcefully of Maxim Gorki.

Vic said: “I set myself the task of writing the poetry of the working class, their total experience in industry and the class struggle – not just verses, but poetry, sensuous, personal and emotional, that could take its place in the class and political struggles.”

In a speech in May 1988 Vic said: “Socialist poetry written by workers in capitalist society is part of the struggle for socialism and has the function of helping the emotional feeling and understanding when facing the difficulties of the class struggle ...”

He saw writing socialist poetry as Party work, and set out to make his poems express the suffering, the anger and the will to struggle of working people. He expressed this in his poem “Into Battle with a Song”:

“I am going into battle with a song!”
But they told me, “No, you’d better watch your step.
We are going into war with profit. Art is too frail
And beautiful to face the mud and slime.
Here’s a petition, a pamphlet, or a strike.
But you mustn’t go into battle with a song!”

But a man with a spade came by and called to me.
“Give us a song to lift our leaden feet,
Sparks on our lips to leap across the dark!”
I will go into battle with a song,
I will make a song to hurl in Profit’s face.
We will march into battle with a song.

But Vic also had a wry sense of humour. In “The Practical Poet” he writes:

I am a practical poet:
When I go to friends and relations
They ask me to set mousetraps,
They ask me to mend wire door screens,
They ask me to clean turkeys,
They want me to pick locks.
    But not to read poetry!
I am a practical poet:
When I stay at home
They expect me to wash the dishes,
They ask me to make the coffee,
They demand I fix the furniture,
I’m left to darn my socks,
    But not to read poetry!
I am a practical poet:
And when I go to work
My workmates expect me to work;
They ask me about the award,
They want me to chat the foreman,
They ask me what will win the fifth race,
They ask me about metals and rocks.
    But why doesn’t anyone ask me to read poetry?

Katharine Susannah Pritchard wrote:

“There is, I think, a high, rare quality in Victor Williams’ poetry. He fuses a passionate and sensuous vision of the earth he knows and loves with thought, direct and forceful, about the everyday life and work of men and women. He does this with a condensed imagery and a rhythmic facility which gives an impression of the dynamic vitality and the broad humanism inspiring most of his poems. “

Vic’s poem “By the Avon” is an example of this sensuous vision and of the lyrical quality of many of Vic’s poems:

Do you remember by the Avon,
Where the oranges nestle among the river gums?
Where the red soil swells between the rounded rows
And the bee at the blossom hums?

Did you see them flower,
Row on row, in a dance of scattering white?
Have you heard them murmur to the bees around them,
Or felt their slow scent drifting across the shadowy night?

Have you seen them ripen,
Fleck the green with gold, when the river flecks with foam?
When the bough bends, offering to the moist earth,
The fruit fulfilled by the rich red loam?

Did you help to gather them?
Feel their risen ardour, firm on fingertips?
You must know the taste of them, bursting down the thirsty throat;
Warm as sun, sweet as rain, with fire of human lips.

We hope that you will buy copies of the anthology for yourselves and your friends, not just to help us recoup the printing costs, although we do need the money! But much more so that you have always beside you these poems to move, to strengthen, to encourage, to inspire you to love and action.

Vic Williams was a man who stood true to his beliefs. He was compassionate, intelligent, thoughtful and insightful, a fighter, a worker, a thinker and a poet. In a way he is best summed up in his poem “The Undivided Heart”:

I would not trust in a divided heart;
A lost bird fluttering between yes and no,
A flame in the wind twisting from lust to horror;
Salt tears on seeds will never let them grow.

I do not live with a divided heart.
One love, one aim, one class my loyalty.
I’ll face the rain when the first thunder shudders,
Keep to the path my people showed to me.

I will not write from a divided heart,
Nor dig in ashes till my flag is grey.
My words are green wheat through the blackened scar,
My songs the first red of the blossoming day.

Next article – The superpower and the caliphate

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