Australian Aboriginal songpoetry

A selection

Uluru in Australia’s Northern Territory.

A history of Australian Aboriginal songpoetry in English is a shadow project. Of course it exists as a thing in and of itself. But in translation, as it so often is, songpoetry can be considered symptomatic of an Anglophone poetry project. This is not to suggest there is no exchange between the country of the songs and the poetry context into which they are translated. It is surely a work of collaboration. However, what we do see when we read songpoetry in translation are the changes in Australian poetry itself — there is, for example, strict meter, rhyme, and line in the early nineteenth century, wholly replaced by freer forms of expression 150 years later. The most recent example of Aboriginal songpoetry in mainstream literary publishing is Stuart Cooke’s George Dyungayan’s Bulu Line: A West Kimberly Song Cycle (Puncher and Wattman 2014). Cooke uses changes in font, loose rhyme, minor repetition, and a free, fragmentary approach comprising short lines that recalls some classical Greek and Chinese texts as they are currently presented in the transnational Anglophonic world. In other words, this rendering by Cooke relies on a whole series of poetic choices that are themselves indicators of what is happening in poetry now not just songpoetry in its home location.

Given there are around 150 Australian Aboriginal languages still being spoken today, often by only a few hundred speakers, one reads mainly in translation. Perhaps more than other cultures, where the liberal author function is sacrosanct and where the history of colonial exploitation less pronounced, Aboriginal songpoetry in the archive often neglects the originary poet. These verses are embedded in explorers’ diaries, settlers’ letters, anthropologists’ journals, and country newspapers where the “informants” are mainly unnamed. Such is the ethnopoetic tradition as it stands here. To redefine it one must establish a counterhistory and reveal a secret anthology, which relies on reframing existing work for its sustenance and participating in cultural repatriation projects tailored to the digital era.

In presenting these texts as poetry rather than as lyrics or myth or data, we propose a different way of reading. Habits of reflection, nodes of association, expectations of nature are just some of the ways in which this reframing is discursively productive, without even mentioning the importance of examining poetic devices. The poems I have selected for this piece cover most of the geographic continent and span 150 years, which is the majority of Australian colonization. They offer a wide range of themes, styles, and devices that reorient our understandings of love, settlement, hunting, and the environment. For the most part I have simply copied them as they exist in their original written form; I have not changed line breaks or exempted words in Aboriginal languages, even as it is unclear in some of the sources themselves what those languages actually are. There are three Aranda/Arrernte songs here to demonstrate the changes in one particular language and provide some sort of focus. Similar projects could have been undertaken with songpoetry from the Pilbara, Kimberley, or Arnhem land.

Included in this selection is one poem from Ted Strehlow’s Songs of Central Australia, which is surely the most majestic, complete, and important contribution to songpoetry. I cannot recommend it highly enough for those interested in indigenous life, Australia, songpoetry, translation, and transcription. He and his father, who also translated one of the selections, are incredibly important in Australian letters. I have also drawn on the Berndts — husband and wife Ronald and Catherine — whose considerable publication in anthropological journals over a number of years introduced to readers a varied and rich song life, particularly from Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. They have left behind a very significant archive at the University of Western Australia comprising a large number of papers and artifacts. These poems from Strehlow and Berndt are not intended to be typical of their respective oeuvres, but rather to introduce readers to these interpreters’ works. More recently there have been contributions by editors such as Bob Dixon, Grace Koch, and Stuart Cooke. As I mentioned previously, Cooke’s reinterpretation of George Dyungayun’s Bulu Line stands as the latest in the songpoetry domain while Dyirbal by Dixon and Koch generated much excitement when it was released in 1996. Not all of these works are published by non-Aboriginal presses, however, and for this reason I have included “Bilin-Bilin Song.” This comes from the Pilbara in northwestern Australia, which has a lively and engaged language scene, including songpoetry; Readers may recall a previous article and interview from this area here in Jacket2. The Wangka Maya resource center there offers a number of cultural and language resources that can be found relatively easily. There are other poems, including the untitled first one taken from a newspaper in the mid-nineteenth century, which was a common source of poetry that belies more about its object (the “white man”) than its supposed author. This selection is intentionally eclectic; its aim is simply to present the poems, from which readers may draw their own conclusions and inspirations. 

My hope for Australian Aboriginal songpoetry is that there is an increase in readership, which helps create a consciousness that changes the everyday material circumstances of indigenous Australians today. Songpoetry is simply the first step in reinvigorating remote and urban homelands. Recognizing and celebrating this work also changes our ideas of what poetry has been or could be, especially with regard to translation, and the ecosystem of writing as a whole is improved by such diversification.

For more on the history of songpoetry see Stuart Cooke, “Tracing a Trajectory from Songpoetry to Contemporary Aboriginal Poetry,” in A Companion to Australian Aboriginal Literature, ed. Belinda Wheeler (London: Camden House, 2013), 88–106. There is also good work by Linda Barwick, Alan Marett, and Sally Treloyne.

Effort has been made to contact the relevant communities from which these songs come. I understand the delicate cultural practices around songpoetry and it is not my intention to disrupt this. If I have done so I apologize unreservedly and would also like to make it apparent that the presentation of these works is wholly for educational rather than commercial reasons. — R. D. Wood





The white man dropped from the sun bright sky,

For he envied the blackfellow’s land,

With greed and revenge in his restless eye,  

And disease and death in his hand.

And he grasped the forest, and he seized the strand,

And claimed the blue mountains high;

And he scours the bush with a ruthless band,

’Till its denizens trembling fly —

And his pigs and his cattle pollute the land

’Till it stinks, and the blackfellows die.


— Anonymous (source language unnamed), “Untitled,” Bendigo Advertiser (Victoria), September 26, 1855, page 4.



Aranda Song

These acacia seeds

They crunch with their teeth.


The cold wind runs

Through the cane-grass bushes.


The acacias have white flower buds.

They are decked with white flower buds.


He has a bent back,

With his hair standing up he does with a bent back.


— Anonymous, trans. Carl Strehlow (from Aranda/Arrernte), Die Aranda and Boritja-Stamme in Zentral Australien, vol. 3 (Joseph Baer and Co: Frankfurt am Main, 1907–1920), 17–18, in Primitive Song, C. M. Bowra (Weidenfeld and Nicholson: London, 1962), 168.



Aboriginal Song and Its Interpretation

Nung Ngun

Nge a runba wonung bulkura umbilinto bulwarra

Pital burra kultun wirripaug buntoa


Nung Ngun

Nge a runba turrama berrambo, burra kilkia

Kurri wi, raratoa yella walliko

Yula moane woinyo, birung poro bulliko


Nung Ngun

Nge a runba kan wullung, makaro, kokein,

Mip-pa-rai, kekul, wimbi, murr ring kirrika

Nge a runba murra ke-en kulbun kulbun murrung


Our home is in the gibber-gunyah (1)

Where hill joins hill on high,

Where the turrama (2) and berram bo (3)

Like sleeping serpents lie

And the rushing of wings, as the wangas (4) pass,

Sweeps the wallaby’s (5) print from the glistening grass.


Ours are the makoro (6) gliding

Deep in the shady pool;

For spear is sure, and the prey is secure.

Kanin (7) or the bright gherool (8)

Our lubras (9) sleep by the bato (10) clear

And the Amygest’s (11) track hath never been near.


Ours is the koolema (12) flowing,

With precious kirrika (13) stored;

For fleet the foot and keen the eye

That seeks the nukkung’s (14) hoard;

And the glances are bright and the footsteps are free

When we dance in the shade of the karrakon (15) tree.


— Anonymous (source language unnamed), “Aboriginal Song and its Interpretation,” trans. J. E. Irwin, Dungog Chronicle, October 1, 1943, page 4.


(1) A cave in the rock; (2) a war weapon; (3) ibid; (4) a species of pigeon; (5) of the kangaroo species; (6) fish; (7) eel; (8) mullet; (9) women; (10) water; (11) white man; (12) Some tree; (13) honey; (14) wild bee, stingless; (15) oak tree.



From “A Drama of North Eastern Arnhem Land”

The white gidgid bird is hunting fish,

It stabs the fish with its beak and calls as it flies,

It stoops low over the water looking for fish,

As the fish leaps away in fear,

“You and I, mother seagull, we fly.”

The bird saw the east wind blow as it hunted fish,

And the fish leapt forward in fear,

Leaping away from its beak as the wind came blowing.


— Source language not specifically stated; probably Yolngu from Milingimbi-Yirrkalla. “A Drama of North Eastern Arnhem Land,” trans. Catherine Berndt, Oceania 22, no. 4 (June 1952): 285.



Hunting the pelican

bilarinin baninga energandan


waram goba nimalgun

nungur nungur indun

sword an powder

warama goba nimalgun

nungur nungur indun

sword an powder

Pelican about they walk on
              the mud flat
put on powder hands on
smoke smoke rises
              sword and powder
              put on powder hands on
smoke smoke rises
              sword and powder.

“Pelicans are stalking on the mud flat.”

“Put powder in the cap, finger on the trigger”

Clouds of smoke arise

“Sword and powder!”

“Load the muzzle. Fire!”

Clouds of smoke arise

“Sword and powder!”


— Buluguru Dabudabu Nguringurin (source language unnamed), The Poetry of the Yaoro and Bad, North-Western Australia, trans. Ernest A. Worms (Citta del Vaticano: Tipografia Poliglotta Vaticana, 1957), 219.



From ‘Ankota Song’

Nomabaue rerlanopai

Nomajatin tjelanopai

Nomabaue rerlanopai

Nomaalbe tinjanopai

Nomabaue rerlanopai

Nomatnjenja lbelanopai

Nomaarkwe rkarlanopai

Nomatnjenja lbelanopai

Nomakante kantanopai

Nomatnjenja lbelanopai

(Bauerela nopanama;
Jatintjala (or tintjala) nopanama.)
(Bauerela nopanama;
Albantinja nopanama.)
(Bauerela nopanama;
Tnjanj’ [sic] albala nopanama.)
(Urkurkala nopanama;
Tnanj’ albala nopanama.)
(Kantakanta nopanama;
Tnanj’ albala nopanama.)

I am red like a burning fire:

I am covered with glowing red down.

I am red like a burning fire:

I am gleaming red, glistening with ochre.

I am red like a burning fire:

Red is the hollow in which I am lying.

I am red like the heart of a fire:

Red is the hollow in which I am lying

A tjurunga is standing upon my head;

Red is the hollow in which I am lying.


— From Aranda/Arrernte,* Songs of Central Australia, trans. T. G. H. Strehlow (Angus and Robertson: Sydney, 1971), 110.

*This rendering does not include Strehlow’s version of the original language. I have omitted it because of its technicality and difficulty. If readers are interested copies of this book can be found in many major institutions.



Bilin-Bilin Song

Bilin Bilin ngarri thurru wungkunta Thaawirdi
I karba yawurri bayharnulawa Bilin Bilin

I ngarri thurru wungkunha wa

A Thaawirdi karba yawurri bayharnula


A yawurri bayharnula

A yalarra mayhaku karla nyirndinyirndi ngundangunda

A arrinha banyirna waralani ngurra yirribinyanha yalarra

A mayhaky karla nyirndinyirndi

I ngundangundarrinha banyirna waralani ngurra yirribinya


A ngurra yirribinya

A yirdinha ngali mirndulula barni yirdiyarri

I inha warala baarlmarrarinha yirdiinha

A ngali mirndulula barni yirdiyarri nha warala baarlmarraui


A warala baarlmarrari

A yirndarnarri bawa warrujbari wirna jinbingayirnanha

Ngalkari wulawulala ngarri wa yirndarnarri

I bawa warrujbari wirna

A jinbingayirnanaha ngalkari wulawulala



I was camping on Bilin Bilin, a strong wind blowing

I see Thaawirdi Gorge

I take flight

The wind over the coast is rushing through

Over the Bilin Bilin.


A tree touches me, I see fire light

I am loaded full with power.

I see them dancing, stamping on the wet broken ground

I see the dancing ground now

I near a great beating rhythm

I see two of us traveling together through a whirlwind of fires,

I rest.

Then again I see the road follow

The world touches me, the world touches me with fire

I am loaded with power, dancing, dancing


Dark pools of water standing on Jingingayirnanha

I feel tired now

I give my dreams to the water

The wind is blowing hard across Jingingayirnanha

Where the water stands.


— Toby Wiliguru Pambardu, carried by Yilbie Warrie (from Yindjibarndi), Know the Song, Know the Country: The Ngarda-ngali Story of Culture and History in the Roebourne District, trans. Frank Rijavecv (Roebourne, Western Australia: Ieramugadu Group, 1995), 3.



Water Hen Chicks

1. ya-gu-n                                                               guri-gu                                                     bulindal-gu

HERE-DAT-FEM                                 chick-DAT                                 waterhen-DAT


2. waga       gijar-gu                                                            gurrmulu-gu

calf               prettily striped                                red-DAT



Look at those water-hen chicks

With pretty red and white stripey legs 


— Jimmy Murray (October 26, 1963, from Dyirbal [Girramay dialect]), Dyirbal Song Poetry: The Oral Literature of an Australian Rainforest People, trans. R. M. W. Dixon and Grace Koch (St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1996), 82.



Kaporilya Song


Kaporilya, pentja marr’ inthorra
Kaporilya, kwatja kumia inthorra
Altjirra thalalhama



Imanka Ntariala nitjata
Wirritja kngarr’ panpala
Tharrka pa marna itj’ intharra
Kelha kngarra iluka


Missionary inurra etlarraka
Jes-urna kngarr’ingkaka
Knarripata lela angkarraka
Relha nyhingalauwuka


Pipeline tjenya mparraka
Kaporilyanga Ntaria-urna
Parta urltanta pa arna pulya
Ekarlt ‘inhorra tnyakala


Armstrong, Ratara, pa Inkamala
Rabaraba, Emitja
Malbunka, Ngalaia, Pareroultja
Ingkarrak’ urrapuka


Kwatja pitjika, re ‘arrkana
Nurn ‘lyarta jes’-urna dangkilama
Era kwatja etatha


Kaporilya, such a beautiful spring
Kaporilya, its water so sweet
God in heaven makes it flow



A long time ago in Ntaria
Severe drought gripped the land
The ground was bare and no food
Many people died


Missionary Albrecht thought deeply
And earnestly prayed to Jesus
Together with all the old people
They saw the suffering of everyone


They built a long water pipeline
From Kaporilya to Ntaria
Through hard limestone and soft sand
The men worked long and hard


Armstrong, Ratara, and Inkamala
Rabaraba, Emitja
Malbunka, Ngalaia, Pareroultja
All the men were working


The water came, the people rejoiced
Everyone became well and alive
Today we all thank Jesus
He is the water of life

— Glen Auricht (from Aranda/Arrernte), Arrernte Past, Arrernte Present, trans. Diane Austin-Broos (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 271.



‘Verse 2’ of Bulu Line


guwararrirarri yinanydina
dyidi yarrabanydyina
nanbalinblai yinanydina


a flock of snipes

flying toward us

wait! they’re rai

   fast approaching

we nearly collide

                    their bellies like birds’

wait their flying


becoming rai

racing through sky

flying towards us

from far away

birds becoming rai

      no more distance

nearly on top of us

     watch out!

the snipes are

  flying toward us

we watch snipe become rai

   flying belly up …


George Dyungayan (from Nyigina), George Dyungayan’s Bulu Line: A West Kimberly Song Cycle, trans. Stuart Cooke (Sydney: Puncher and Wattman, 2014).