Ron Pretty was a much loved, much admired, poet, publisher and teacher, and a tireless advocate for the importance of poetry within the Australian culture. He died of pneumonia at his home in Farmborough Heights, south of Wollongong, on 30 June 2023 after a long struggle with cancer.
Written by Brook Emery
Ron was born on 16th October 1940, the third of six children born to Arthur Herbert Pretty and Greta Pearl Pretty. The family lived at Engadine until Ron was three years old, when Arthur moved the family to Little Jillaby, near Wyong, to take up share farming. When this venture failed the family moved back to Sutherland, for a time living in a tin shed at the rear of their grandmother’s home. The Pretty Family eventually settled at Helensburgh.
Ron described himself as a late starter but encouraged by his teacher Mr O’Neill completed the Leaving Certificate at Sydney Technical High School and was awarded a Teachers’ scholarship.
He obtained a Teaching Certificate from Balmain Teachers College in 1959 and later an Arts Degree with honours in History and a Masters Degree in Australian Literature from the University of Sydney. Later still he became an Associate of the Institute of Education at the University of London. He taught at various primary and secondary schools in both the country and city before he was appointed as a lecturer at Wollongong Teachers College in 1970. He moved to the University of Wollongong where he served as Head of Writing for 15 years until he retired in 2000 as an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Creative Arts. Subsequently he taught writing at the University of Melbourne from 2003-2007.
Ron once said in an interview that he was ‘frustrated by the fact that there is so much poetry happening at present, but most of it is hidden from the majority of Australians. I don’t think poetry is so much an unpopular art as an unknown one.’ Through his involvement in a staggering number of projects Ron made it his mission to make Australian poetry visible and available to all.
He edited the student magazine Scarp: New Arts and Writings for 15 years. He founded and ran the annual residential Wollongong Poetry Workshop from which six poets were chosen to have their first books published in the New Poets program. Ron then hired a bus and toured the poets around Australia to familiarise readers with their works. Many established present day poets received their start this way. In 1986 Ron was part of a group which founded a publishing cooperative called Five Island Press after the five small islands off the coast of Port Kembla. By 1995 this had become a solo operation with Ron as director, commissioning editor, layout artist, producer, fetcher and carrier. By the time Ron left the press it had published 230 books of Australian poetry, a mammoth and important effort at a time when the large commercial publishers were abandoning poetry.
Ron was instrumental in founding Illawarra Writers which evolved into the South Coast Writers Centre, a place where writers could congregate, read and workshop their work, hold events and advocate for Australian literature. In 2001 he established the magazine Blue Dog: Australian Poetry which was unique in its time as all submissions were considered anonymously – there was no preference for established names. He reached out to schoolchildren by establishing, with Bradley Trevor Grieve, the Taronga Foundation Poetry Prize and tried to lift the standard of poetry appreciation by creating the Blue Dog Reviewing Prize. He was active in the Poets Union based in Sydney, eventually becoming its patron. When he moved to Melbourne he established the Australian Poetry Centre which subsequently merged with the Poets Union to become Australian Poetry based at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne.
Such commitment did come at a cost, financial and creative, and to some extent overshadowed Ron’s considerable achievements as a poet in his own ‘write’. Nevertheless, Ron was remarkably prolific publishing 10 books of poetry beginning with The Habit of Balance in 1988, flourishing after retirement with the publication of What the Afternoon Knows (2013) and The Left Hand Mirror (2017), and ending with 101 Poems in the year before his death.
she said, The music is enough. He said
the branches, the overarching arms, control.
Bach, she said, tempered well, clavier
and violin. But Wittgenstein or Chomsky’s
Black Box, you can’t ignore him – or Said.
Sad, she said, I know. Will you walk with me.
A meeting, he said. How late it is, so late.
There’s Gaza and Tibet, the melting ice caps.
But the roses. Down by the creek the waratahs
are blooming. In the paddocks the children
a kicking toadstools, bottling tadpoles.
Hayek! he cried, stop this feckless frivolity,
the world in crisis and you cry for a cat-caught
bird, a car-crushed pet. While you, my love
play war-games in the wind, calculate the pace
of entropy, the endless march of lemmings.
This daisy chain my lifeline; it’s yours to break
and mine to stitched together. Kiss me, she said.
© Ron Pretty. Reprinted with permission from 101 Poems (Pitt Street Poetry 2022)
Ron began thinking of himself as a poet during the year he spent teaching in England and Greece. His influences, among many, were W B Yeats, above all others (‘Sailing to Byzantium’ his favourite poem), George Seferis, Constantine Cavafy, Walt Whitman and E K Braithwaite. In an interview with Anne Elvey, Ron said that what attracted him to a poem was ‘the verve and excitement of its opening, the freshness and appropriateness of its language and imagery; I value those things, but beyond them I value the world that the poem opens up to me, making connections that I may not have previously seen. I don’t particularly value cleverness for its own sake: I want the poem to lead me somewhere.’
As noted by reviewers, Ron honoured these sentiments in his own poetry which, often concerned with family, relationships, music, myth, history and politics, was always emotionally engaged, humane and generous. Writing of Ron’s last collection in Australian Book Review, Sam Ryan noted, ‘ a coherent and affecting expression of experience that, in its simplicity, is satisfying in good poetry. It shows the confidence of a skilled poet. What is striking here and in many other places in the collection is Pretty’s plain language. Rarely does he lean on obscure references or complex language to create or convey meaning.’
Mention should also be made of his extensive critical writing, especially two handbooks Practical Poetics and Creating Poetry, the second of which is in its third edition and is an invaluable guide to poets just embarking on the craft.
As was the poetry so was the man. Many have spoken of his kindness, his generosity of spirit, his understanding, the unfailingly polite and helpful encouragement and advice he gave to so many poets. Ron was passionate about fairness and equity and wasn’t averse to firing off a missive to the newspapers when he perceive a political injustice was being done.
Late in life Ron was awarded residencies in the Whiting Studio in Rome, the Tasmanian Writers Centre, the Katherine Susannah Pritchard Centre in WA, and at the Hill End Artists Studio. Ron’s achievements were recognised when he received a Special Award for Services to Poetry at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards in 2001 and when, in 2002, he was made a member of the Order of Australia. He was elected a Fellow of the University of Wollongong in 2023.
Ron is survived by his wife Jane, his daughters Alana and Saroja, their partners Luke and Jakub, and grandchildren Alexander, Olivia, Nathaniel, Lachlan, Eliza and Oliver who all supported him strongly in his endeavours. He was 82.