Poet and children’s author Ruth Dallas published more than twenty books in her lifetime. Her poetry was informed by the landscape and history of the lower South Island, as well the poet’s natural introspection and solitude. In the early 1960s she worked with Charles Brasch at Landfall and in 1968 was Burns Fellow at the University of Otago. Dallas was the winner of several major literary awards and received a CBE in 1989. She passed away in March 2008.
FROM THE OXFORD COMPANION TO NEW ZEALAND LITERATURE
Dallas, Ruth (1919–2008), poet and children’s author, was born in Invercargill. Her working-class settler heritage and the closeness of her family relationships inform much of her writing. For example, her maternal grandmother (a midwife in the 1890s who provided for her family single-handedly) features both in poetry —‘Her strength seemed large and cool, as the rock in the sea / Seemed large and cool in the green and restless waves’ (‘Grandmother and Child’)—and as the model for the mother in Dallas’s popular Bush series of children’s novels.
As the daughter of the entrepreneurial proprietor of an Invercargill petrol-station, Dallas’s background presented neither high educational opportunities nor encouragement to write. She remarks in her autobiography Curved Horizon (1991), ‘I am at a loss to account for the fact that I wrote poetry in an environment where I knew no one who was interested in poetry.’
Yet she developed a love of words that, from the age of 9, manifested itself in poems and stories, a number of which were published in the Southland Daily News’s ‘Little Pakehas’ Page’ (see Children’s Pages). Although she left Southland Technical College in 1935 with just three years’ secondary education, she never stopped reading, be it Shakespeare, ancient Greeks and Icelandic sagas, or critics like Eliot, Quiller-Couch, De Selincourt and Yeats.
Dallas chose her maternal grandmother’s name in 1946 as pen-name for her earliest published poems, ‘Morning Mountains’, which M.H. Holcroft printed in the Southland Times. Her much anthologised ‘Milking Before Dawn’—‘In the drifting rain the cows in the yard are as black / And wet and shiny as rocks in an ebbing tide’—appeared in the NZ Listener the following year, and in 1948 Charles Brasch included her poems in Landfall8, an issue anthologising six new poets whose work he considered important.
Dallas’s first collection was published in 1953 by the Caxton Press, who also produced her five subsequent volumes. The following year she left Invercargill to live in Dunedin. She continued writing poetry, and stories for adults and children, and commissioned bulletins for School Publications. From 1962 to 1966 she worked with Brasch in Landfall’s editorial office, and in 1968 was Burns Fellow at the University of Otago.
Dallas’s first poetry collection, Country Road and Other Poems, 1947–52 (1953) was followed by The Turning Wheel: Poems (1961)—joint winner of the New Zealand Literary Fund Achievement Award, 1963. These two volumes exhibit a striking stylistic and thematic consistency that endures through her later work. The concentration on place—specifically the lower South Island—is intense; reflecting her permanent fascination with the ‘primeval forests and cleared fields, and the history of … settlement’. This landscape, absorbed in childhood, is her ‘World’s Centre’: ‘The circle … of mountain, hill / And curving sea that once enclosed the world.’ Her poems are a record of her love for ‘the bright rain-washed countryside … the forests and inland mountains, [and] the long shell-strewn beaches.’
Yet Dallas’s land- and city-scapes are often empty. In ‘Deserted Beach’ (1953) there is not ‘One gull to circle through the wild salt wind / Or cry above the breaking of the waves,’ nor ‘One footprint or one feather on the sand’. If a poem is populated, its figures are reflections of the settler past, or poems about family that often are about loss: ‘Of all the tools in my tool-cupboard, / I like best those that my father used.… Bereaved daughters have to learn / To come to their own rescue, / Or be entirely overgrown’ (‘Encounter’, 1976).
From The Turning Wheel on, Dallas’s natural introspection, detachment and solitude—‘I don’t like excitement. I like calm.’—combined with her growing interest in Asian philosophies to push her already crisp and concise verse toward even greater ‘brevity and density’, along the lines of Chinese poetry and Japanese haiku. Her collection Day Book: Poems of a Year (1966), was followed by Shadow Show: Poems (1968) and, in 1976, Song for a Guitar and Other Songs: a selection made by Brasch which won the 1977 Buckland Literary Award. Walking on the Snow: Poems (1976), joint winner of the New Zealand Book Award for Poetry, was followed by Steps of the Sun: Poems (1979) and, finally, Collected Poems (1987).
Fiona Farrell comments that when Dallas observes some natural phenomenon, she ‘writes about it with images so fresh that the lens is cleared and we see her subject for the first time’ (NZ Listener, 11 July 1987). Elizabeth Caffin, however, finds her enduring romanticism, for all its intensity and lyricism, ‘increasingly isolated from the whole field of human engagement … and in particular from any contemporary discourse about poetry’ (OHNZLE).
Dallas’s children’s books take her familiar southern landscapes as their settings. The Children in the Bush (1969), The Wild Boy in the Bush (1971), The Big Flood in the Bush (1972) and Holiday Time in the Bush (1983) form a series set in the 1890s featuring a mother raising her children alone. Inspired by Dallas’s own mother’s childhood, the series depicts settler life in some detail, leavened by a fair smattering of adventure. A limited edition, Ragamuffin Scarecrow (1969), was followed by A Dog Called Wig (1970)—about a young boy coming to terms with his dog’s preference for his father. In The House on the Cliffs (1975) a young woman also comes to new self-knowledge, by coming to understand an eccentric, reclusive, old lady’s loneliness and her fear of removal to a retirement home. Shining Rivers (1979), set during Central Otago’s gold rush, tells of the relationship between a disaffected young immigrant boy and a generous old goldminer who teaches him the value of friendship.
Dallas received an honorary doctorate of the University of Otago in 1978, and a CBE in 1989. PM
Ruth Dallas was the 1968 Robert Burns Fellow at the University of Otago in Dunedin.
A new Collected Poems, featuring 15 recent poems, and a new collection of short fiction, The Black Horse and Other Stories were published by the University of Otago Press in 2000.
Five of the stories in The Black Horse and Other Stories have appeared in Landfall, the remainder are previously unpublished.
Dallas had a poem included in Shards of Silver (Steele Roberts, 2006), a book investigating the interplay between photography and poetry.
Ruth Dallas CBE died in March 2008. She published more than 20 books in her lifetime and her last book of poetry, The Joy of a Ming Vase, was published by Otago University Press in 2006.
MEDIA LINKS AND CLIPS
- Listen to the NZSA Oral History Podcast Series for Ruth Dallas
Updated February 2022.