Monday, August 22, 2011

Cathy Freeman and the poem "Coming Home Strong"

I sometimes get emails from school students asking me to explain a poem of mine that they're "doing".

I tend to be pretty terse with the lazy student who emails "Hello  Mr O'Connor. I've got to write 300 words on your poem. What does it mean?" 

But something in the quality of the questions asked by one Shaya Laughlin, a 16 year-old Year 11 student,  caused me to email back some answers. She was examining one of my poems about  the Sydney 2000 Olympics -- in fact the one about Cathy Freeman winning the 400 metres.
It begins:
Coming Home Strong
for Cathy Freeman, winner of the 400m at the Sydney Games, 25/9/2000
Running into that ocean roar of welcome
with the face of a hurt child striving,

among tense rival queens
whose castles are built of milliseconds,
you came from behind.

Our roar rose till it seemed
sheer decibels must push you clear...

[The full text is quoted below.]

I was at the homebush Stadium on the night Cathy Freeman took out the 400 meters final. I think the race was about 8 pm; and as she ran, and afterwards as she did her lap of honor, I began jotting lines for a possible poem. I was staying with the poet Paolo Totaro in Balmain for the Games. By the time I got back from Homebush to his house it was after 9 pm, and I was fairly sure I had the makings of a poem. ABC Radio's Breakfast Program had been in the habit of interviewing me by phone while I followed the Olympic Torch Relay. So I contacted one of the producers who was still awake, and arranged for them to leave a note for the Breakfast team (who of course are early-morning people) that "Mark O'Connor has a poem to recite for you about Cathy Freeman". I then stayed up till 1 a.m., working on the poem until I thought it would do, and then set the alarm.  Early next morning the Breakfast program  phoned up, interviewed me about the race, and had me read the poem.

It generated an extraordinary response -- in fact they later kindly sent me a compilation of the congratulatory letters they received. One ran "I found myself in the unaccustomed state of being moved to tears as I drove to work this morning - the reason being Mark O'Connor's beautiful reading of his remarkable 'poem-in-progress' on Cathy Freeman and her triumph of the night before. Thank you for broadcasting that interview, and the poem." 

I had feared that having to write poems about the Olympics at such short notice might bring poetry into disrepute; but it seemed instead to increase the popularity of poetry. Many poets complain that poems are not considered news and don't get into newspapers, or at least not the more popular tabloids. Yet this poem was an exception. I received a request to publish it in the most populist magazine of all, the iconic Australasian Post, which was now in the last months of its very long life. So  the poem (with of course a large photo of Cathy)  was first printed there.

--Back to 2011.
A few days later Shayla  sent me her essay, which turned out to be quite brilliant. She can clearly become, if she chooses, a major literary critic. I responded with some more detailed comments, cautioning for instance against seeing the athlete too simply in terms of her racial identity as an Aborigine.  Shayla partly accepted this comment, and others, and incorporated them into a final version of her essay. Her analysis is not the only way in which the poem could be seen -- different readers will of course have different ideas and responses -- but it is such an impressive piece of criticism that I have asked her permission to put it on the Web.  (Take a bow, too, Shayla's teachers!) Here it is 

Coming Home Strong
“Running into that ocean roar of welcome
with the face of a hurt child striving, 
 among tense rival queens
whose castles are built of milliseconds,
you came from behind...”

     Inspired by Cathy Freeman’s gold medal win, Mark O’Connor wrote Coming Home Strong the night of her 400 meter victory. Born in Melbourne in the year 1945, O’Connor inherited the love for Australian nature and sport and was unofficially appointed poet for the Sydney Olympic Games. Within the introductory lines is the message of the poem, portraying Cathy Freeman’s on-going struggle to victory, which invites us to recognize on a deeper level the on-going struggle for Aboriginal recognition in white Australia – a struggle which is still so prevalent in modern society.

The title Coming Home Strong suggests a search for identity. It has an echo of the phrasing of the "Bringing them home" report and the issue of the "Stolen Generation”. Throughout the poem, Mark O’Connor writes on two different levels. On one level, he describes Cathy Freeman’s foot-race, and on a deeper level, her race for identity and recognition as an Aboriginal. The word race itself also has a double meaning and the poet effectively uses this to portray both the struggles of a running race and of an Aboriginal race. The poet states that Cathy Freeman wasn't just an Aboriginal champion; she was Australia's champion, a popular favorite. She had already won over her fellow Australians, but on the night she also needed to win her race -- and for her race. 

The admiration offered for Cathy Freeman’s overall social and personal victory is expressed by the poet by describing, through an extended metaphor, her high leveled rivals as queens and their sporting careers as castles in the first two stanzas. The sporting queens are tense quite literally in that they tense for the starter’s pistol, but also in that their royalty is so precarious, being open to repeated assaults by competitors.

In the second stanza, O’Connor states that Cathy came from behind. She did literally come from behind to win the event, so the statement is again true on the literal level. However through this line the poet also evokes Aboriginal social inequity and reveals that like many Aboriginal children, Cathy Freeman was disadvantaged due to racism and social ignorance. And of course Australians love an underdog, which she almost was, since many doubted she could stand up to both the media pressure and the strong international field. One of her main competitors, the poet recalls, had seemed to collapse under the strain. 
    In the fifth stanza, the reader is shown that the poet was one of many who admired Cathy Freeman. –such sacks of their self esteem you’d carried. So many punted their hearts on you. This focuses on Aboriginals and Australians who idolized Cathy for her strength to overcome barriers that Aboriginals face. There was no obvious reason why winning the women's 400 meters should have been more important to ordinary Australians than many other events, but at the 2000 Games it was so. Many of them admired her and rested their self esteem on her in hope for an Aboriginal social victory nationwide.

    In the next stanza, the poet stirs the reader’s imagination by use of load to refer to the Aboriginal self esteem Cathy was “carrying” on her shoulders. Yet it wasn't just the self-esteem of Aborigines but of millions of white or non-Aboriginal Australians (including many battlers for whom identification with sporting kings and queens provides self-esteem that is hard to find in their daily lives)  that she carried, with of course the risk of being rejected if she disappointed them. The poet uses the powerful word sack to create a vivid image in the mind of the reader to appeal to the senses, it also gives a sense of heaviness to the phrase. By this line, O’Connor shows that in Cathy’s victory she obtained for her people an acknowledgement so desperately ignored over the centuries.

 The enormousity of Cathy Freeman’s achievement is bought home to the reader in the eighth stanza; You have entered Dawn Fraserdom. Beware! During the Olympic opening ceremony,  although Cathy Freeman hadn't yet won her race, Cathy was given the same iconic status as Dawn Fraser.  By using beware the poet is suggesting that Cathy has entered and been accepted in the ‘White Man’s World” which is personified in Dawn Fraser. But yours was a victory that meant in the eleventh stanza also emphasizes the importance of this particular victory for Aboriginals. Mark O’Connor, coming from a white- Australian discourse, suggests that one reason Cathy was so popular is that white Australians so badly want Aborigines to do well and get ahead. He believes white-Australians are frustrated that very often it doesn't happen, no matter how they try to undo the disadvantages of the past (and present). Cathy was seen as a successful Aboriginal, which was surely one reason her win mattered so much to the media and to Australians. She was also liked as a person, and as a gutsy competitor who was known to be under great pressure, who though obviously shy allowed the media to probe her feelings, and who did not complain about the media and other pressures upon her.

   The message of the poem is also vividly presented in the last stanza. Last night at least one lost child came home makes reference to the “stolen generation”, a time when Aboriginal children were taken away from their mothers and never reunited again. On a deeper level, O’Connor portrays Cathy Freeman and overall Aboriginal children as lost socially and searching for their identity in society, yet when Cathy Freeman won that race, suddenly hope was raised for indigenous cultures, a hope for Australia to finally be integrated.

    In this lyrical poem of blank verse, which has a definite rhythm created by alternate long and short lines, there is no rhyme which brings out a sense of struggle in the poem. In the second and ninth stanza roar appears, alliteration is then noticeable in the same line for both cases.
Our roar rose       and

our huge roar was harmless

This gives the reader a sense of a rising sound and helps create images of a stadium filled with people cheering. Apart from this alliteration, the poet uses no other poetic devices of sound. This once again raises the sense of struggle as the poem is not read melodiously. This sense of struggle is present throughout the poem and terms such as hurt child, push, pain and load all add to the tense and hopeful mood.

Mark O’Connor reflects that poetry is memorable speech, on subjects of general importance. Within an Australian discourse, O’Connor thinks highly of the importance of sport; this can be seen in his other Olympic poetry such as "Thorpedo" in which he recalls Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe’s race, while making a comment on Australian pride. Mark O’Connor believes that “although Cathy Freeman did identify as Aboriginal, she had an American husband and her reality was the international world of a well-funded elite athlete traveling the globe to compete at international events. There is sometimes an excessive politically correct tendency to identify people with, and only with, the "minority" elements in their heritage and their daily life. This can be patronizing or even reductive. Yet despite saying so, I doubt that a non-Aboriginal athlete could have so captured Australia's heart.”

  The poet is still alive to this day. After his Sydney Olympic poetry, he has decided to concentrate on raising environmental issues in his poems. However his sporting literary legacy to Australian poetry has offered Australian literature a sensitive and insightful understanding of Australian social issues by using creative approaches to engage audiences.

[End of Essay]

Here's the full text of the poem:

Coming Home Strong
for Cathy Freeman, winner of the 400m at the Sydney Games, 25/9/2000
Running into that ocean roar of welcome
with the face of a hurt child striving,

among tense rival queens
whose castles are built of milliseconds,
you came from behind.

Our roar rose till it seemed
sheer decibels must push you clear.

Go Phantom!
Our own corroboree-striped Phantom,
ghost who runs in pain
- to a lap of honor with a double flag.

Your face was a book
of relief and awe that you'd won
that you hadn't cracked.
Then the pain of great tears about to start.

So tense you could scarcely see your fans
- such sacks of their self-esteem
you'd carried. So many
had punted their hearts on you.

Once you laid down that load
you knew how heavy it was
and how lonely you still could be
-but Cathy, only if you choose.

You have entered Dawn Fraserdom. Beware!
Whatever befalls, you can't hide from our love!

Happiness includes trust
in others - that gold-medal smile
when you finally twigged
our huge roar was harmless.

May some day the ghost who runs
run for pure joy!

A mob's howl can be cheap,
and athletes mere entertainers,
actors with only one line.
But yours was a victory that meant.
And what it meant will grow.

But as you sang Advance Australia Fair
I think you finally knew
that Australia would be fair.

Last night at least one lost child
came safely home. By the time
you found your mother in the crowd
you had found a family too.

P.S.   For other critical accounts of Mark O'Connor's poems see and especially Rachel Turner's Study Guide.