Paul Grano - Updated!

Paul Grano (1894 -1975)

Underrated lyricist and wit. 

Late in her life, the poet and playwright Gwen Belson Taylor was telling a story about Paul Grano,  whom she knew when she was very young, and he was in his poetic prime.  She said, 'He was a good poet who improved as he got older, and he was very kind to me, but... there was something about him... I don't know'. 

What was it about him that makes everyone who praises his poetry qualify their praise of the poet? 

Paul Langton Grano (pronounced ‘Granno’, at least in Australia) was born in the gold mining town of Ararat, Victoria, in 1894, the fifth child of a well-known Victorian barrister. From the outset, 3 interests dominated his life: literature, the Catholic Church and politics.

Like so many successful writers Grano began with the urge to write, and gradually found subjects that suited his talents and temperament. He was editor of his school magazine[1], and his first poems were published in a University magazine edited by his law school classmate, future Prime Minister Robert Menzies.[2]

By the age of 20, he had become secretary of the Newman Society, the University of Melbourne’s Catholic spiritual society. However, his political views,  did not always align with those of his Church (or at least his Bishop). Though a bout of typhoid may well have prevented him from enlisting in the first AIF[3], he appears to have been in favour of the conscription of other men[4], in spite of the active anti-conscription campaign waged by the Archbishop of Melbourne, Daniel Mannix.  

His work life began its meandering course with his admission as a barrister early in 1918[5]. Everything seemed promising; during his first case he was called ‘the worthy son of a worthy father’[6]. But the same report noted ‘he had entered the office to assist his father’ and many a career has been unhappily launched out of a sense of filial duty.  

For a few years he combined legal work with the management of a motion picture business in his home town of Ararat, then moved with his wife and young family to Perth, where he worked full-time as publicity manager of a movie theatre.[7] He served very briefly as secretary of the Victorian ‘Film Renters Association’ before relocating to Sydney[8], then back to Victoria. In the late 1920s he was co-owner of a theatre in Rushworth (population 1500)[9]

All the while he kept writing. In mid 1932, he had his first poem published in the Bulletin, then Australia’s most prestigious literary journal.[10] By then, he had relocated to Brisbane, where he ran a bookshop in George Street[11], and continued with free-lance journalism.

While living in Queensland he began to make his public reputation, first in Church and political affairs, then in literature. Writing to the Brisbane Telegraph in 1933, he made both his political and religious views clear:

It is clear, then, that while Labour [sic] retains its socialistic objectives it must lose the support of all Catholics… The Pope has spoken and I do not believe that any Catholic can in the future conscientiously vote Labour.’[12]

He brought this Catholicism and conservatism to his literary endeavours. He founded the Catholic Poetry society in around 1936, and edited the one edition of its periodical ‘The Southwellian’ (1938). In 1946, he founded the Catholic Writers’ Movement and co-edited its journal ‘View’ (which lasted two issues). In the same year,  he produced an anthology of Australasian Catholic poetry ‘Witness to the Stars’

Between Catholic literary societies, he ventured into secular literature. In 1940, he co-founded Meanjin (at first called Meanjin papers), with CB Christensen, Brian Vrepont and James Picot, and the patronage of the Queensland Authors and Artists’ Association. Meanjin was destined to become one of the great Australian literary institutions, but he soon fell out with its co-founders. After Meanjin’s second issue came out, Grano wrote to The Bulletin effectively ending his relationship with his colleagues:

Paul Grano asks that it be made clear that C.B. Christesen is solely responsible for the publication of the series, that the contributors aren’t a group, and that ‘I do not gather now, have never gathered and will never gather around Brian Vrepont or any other poet’.[13]

That’s a good way to annoy the people who should be your allies. He also had problems getting on with his fellow Catholics. Martin Haley wrote that Grano:

should have been my closest literary friend, but there are things about him I’ve never understood … Paul, like Clem. Christesen, is something of a dictator, and as he himself confesses, hard to work with’.[14]

Whatever his flaws, during the 15 year period up to 1950, he was certainly one of Queensland’s most influential literary figures, and acquired a genuine national profile, in particular through his association with the Jindyworobak movement.

He published his first commercially available book of poetry, ‘The Roads’ in 1934, and over the next 11 years published 3 further volumes: ‘Quest’ (1940), a book of light verse ‘Poet’s Holiday’ (1941)  and ‘Poems New and Old’ (1945), which selects from his earlier work and adds some new poems.

His poetry, particularly his later work, reveals a fine mastery of technique, though in general it shows the influence of the Georgians, Wilfred Owen and Hopkins, rather than Eliot or Pound. His interests are wide ranging, from poetry of place, love and spirituality, to some very enjoyable light verse, parody and satire. Almost all of it is quite readable today, though for some readers the pervasive Catholicism of his work may prove challenging, and occasionally, he lets a love for obscure (if exact) expression mar the clarity of his work.

In the decade up to 1950, his work would have been regarded as worthy of critical study, and it was included in all the major anthologies published in the 40s.  Despite this, he would now be regarded as a minor poet, and his work has hardly been anthologized in the last 60 years, even in books of religious verse. Why is this so? Of course all anthologies are to some extent the product of the tastes of their editors, but I think that in Grano’s case the reason he has been so often overlooked is probably due to the fact that his overt Catholicism is not fashionable, that he published very little after 1950, and that he was not universally liked. Once he was overlooked in Judith Wright’s Oxford Book of Australian Verse (1956) and Thompson Slessor and Howarth’s Penguin Book of Australian Verse (1958), subsequent anthologists do not seem to have sought him out.

The poems I have selected for you are characteristic of much of his work. ‘Praise for Little Things’ is a gentler, more accessible version of Hopkins’ Pied Beauty,  ‘In a Chain Store Cafeteria’ reminds me of the old Coles and David Jones cafeterias in Queen Street, Brisbane,  and ‘Retrospect’ is a delicately executed later life love poem, a curious work, because his first marriage appears not to have succeeded.

The story of 'A New Shirt, Why?' is told on the Gwen Belson Taylor page of this website. The last poem I have selected, ‘Waiting’ is a remarkable work, published posthumously, which vividly recreates the life of a man who I like to imagine is a war veteran, whose work as a caretaker at a gold mine recalls his shell-shock.

Best book to buy: P Grano: ‘Selected Verse of Paul Grano 1894-1975’ Melbourne, The Hawthorn Press, 1976.

[1] The Kilmore Free Press, 18 January 1912, p2

[2] Brisbane Diary The Courier Mail 13 May 1939, p6.

[3] Ararat Borough Council, The Ararat Advertiser 18 February 1915, p2.

[4] ‘To the Editor’, Ararat Chronicle, 24 April 1917, p2.

[5] ‘Personal’, Stawell News and Pleasant Creek Chronicle,8 March 1918, p3.

[6] ‘Personal’ Stawell News and Pleasant Creek Chronicle, 27 March 1918, 03.

[7] ‘Publicity man from Perth’, Everyones 20 January 1926, p6.

[8] Ibid

[9] The Showman’s Corner Everyones 13 March 1929, p35.

[10] ‘And a little verse’ The Bulletin 8 June 1932, p5.

[11] Review of ‘The Road and other Poems’ Courier Mail 16 February 1935, p18.

[12] ‘Labour and Communism, Position of Catholics’ Telegraph 14 January 1933, p8. However, by 1942=, he seems to have been a staunch supporter of Labor Prime Minister John Curtin.  

[13] ‘Red Page’ The Bulletin 16 April 1941, p2

[14] Haley, M, ‘Autobiographical Sketch’, Haley Papers, Fryer Memorial Library, University of Queensland.



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