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RUTH DALLAS 1919-2008

Southland poet saw meaning in landscapes

Last updated 21:38 25/03/2008

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Ruth Dallas, poet, children's author and unassailably one of Southland's best writers, died in Dunedin, aged 88, last week.

Though she chose her maternal grandmother's name as her pen-name, she lived under her family name, Ruth Mumford.

They were a close working-class family.

Frank Mumford ran an Invercargill service station and died when she was 18. Her mother Minnie ran her own shop until the Depression.

Ruth was deeply influenced by the long narrative poems her mother would recite, by ballads sung at the family piano and books her grandmother gave her.

Her earliest published work appeared when she was still a schoolgirl, in the Southland Daily News' Little Pakehas Page.

She left Southland Technical College in 1935 with three years' secondary education, but having already developed what proved an ardent, lifelong reading habit.

Though engaged at 19, her fiance broke off their engagement while serving in Britain during World War 2 and she never married.

During the war she worked in an army office and also as a milk tester -- perhaps her most famous poem remains Milking Before Dawn.

Her poems, Mountain Mornings, were printed in 1946 in The Southland Times, under the editorship of Monty Holcroft.

Two years later she was one of six new poets whose work was anthologised in Landfall8. Her first poetry book, Country Road, was published in 1953.

The following year she moved permanently to Dunedin.

In 1968 she was Robert Burns Fellow at Otago University and soon began a celebrated series of children's writing, notably The Children in the Bush, and its sequels.

For four decades she wrote for School Publications.

The provincial history Murihiku: The Southland Story puts her in tandem with Dan Davin as two of Southland's best writers, noting that when the two were young, signs of the early pioneers were everywhere.

Stories she heard as a child had given the landscape meaning.

In her biography Curved Horizon she wrote: "I knew the fields and their history, the bush, the milling, the burning, the dynamiting of gigantic stumps, draining, ploughing, sowing and stocking. The hills behind Riverton kept the trunks of burnt trees till they were weathered grey like tombstones." Near Longbush she drove past her mother's old home and saw "the lichen-covered boards of the old footbridge on which the children had crossed the frequently flooded river-beds on their way to school.

Anna Jackson, of Victoria University, wrote in The Literary Encyclopaedia that early recognition of Dallas' talent was perhaps not surprising, "given how well her modern language, formally crafted verses and attention to local detail fitted the ideals for New Zealand poetry as they had been established by Allen Curnow" .

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"Dallas is indeed still best known for her evocation of place, her lyrical descriptions of the sea and bush, often compared to each other." Since her teenage years she had also developed an acute appreciation of old Chinese poets, which in turn led to an interest in Eastern philosophy.

Blind in one eye from the age of 15, her eyesight deteriorated seriously in her later years and at age 80 she was given A Blind Achievers' Award. In 1989 she received a CBE.

Ruth Dallas (Mumford) died in hospital after a fall in her home.

 

- The Southland Times

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