Former inmate wins $18,000 poetry prize

Poetry was Robert Adamson's passport out of jail, and now it has won him the 2011 Patrick White Award.

The $18,000 prize is a significant literary award, established by Patrick White with the proceeds of his 1973 Nobel Prize for Literature, for writers who may not have received due recognition for their contribution to Australian literature.

The judging panel described Adamson, 68, as ''one of Australia's truly great poets of place''.

''His place is the Hawkesbury River, north of Sydney, where his grandfather was a fisherman and where he has spent much of his adult life.

''The Hawkesbury operates as both a real and an imaginative homeland in his poetry.''

Adamson said he was ''thrilled to be part of White's marvellous legacy in the company of previous winners like Christina Stead, Gwen Harwood and Randolph Stow''.

Besides 21 collections of poetry, including the prize-winning The Golden Bird and The Goldfinches of Baghdad, he has written an acclaimed memoir, Inside Out, which tells of his troubled childhood and adolescence, leading to his imprisonment in Long Bay jail.

Dyslexic, in the days before the condition was recognised, Adamson grew up in a working-class Sydney family, but the theft of an exotic bird from Taronga Park Zoo set him on the road to a youth spent in correctional facilities.

It was in prison, ultimately, where he discovered the saving grace of poetry. Inspired by the songs of Bob Dylan, he began writing what he thought were songs, only to be told by a priest that they were poems, not songs. The priest then gave him a book of poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins. For Adamson, it was his ''passport out of there''.

His poetry came to notice in the 1960s when, with John Tranter and Michael Dransfield, he was one of the key figures of the so-called Generation of '68 who were committed to experimentation.

As the judges noted, ''For over four decades he has continued to chart new poetic territory. He is a master of his craft ...''

But it is for his links to the Hawkesbury that Adamson remains best known.

''I am lucky to have the actual Hawkesbury, I love it,'' he said. ''It's beautiful; it is the world flowing through my life, full of birds, fish, mangroves, mud and stars.

''I'm fortunate enough to be able to live here because my grandfather gave me the river. And yet it's not the river I try to write; my poetry's landscape is darker. I am writing about the internalised landscape.''