Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 28, No. 8. 1965.
Reviews — Mitcalfe: The Poet's Day
Mitcalfe: The Poet's Day
Barry Mitcalfe. Morning, Noon And Night (Poetry Magazine Supplement No. Two), A. H. and A. W. Reed; 50pp.; 5/-.
Poetry Magazine, on its own admission, is directed particularly at teachers and students. Its supplements feature the work of established New Zealand poets, presumably in selections considered suitable for schools. This intention does not result in any lack of forcefulness and conviction in the second and most recent of the supplements, Barry Mitcalfe's; Morning, Noon and Night. Some recent poetry that has been published seems to bear out a belief that obscenity is the golden road to literature, that sensationalism is the chief tree of the sacred wood. Mr. Mitcalfe makes no concession to sentimentality or puritanism, but shows quite clearly that his intention is to create poetry, not to record impressions willy-nilly, regardless of the meaningful use of words or of what is being communicated.
Mr. Mitcalfe is conscious, for example, of form. When he ends a line or begins a stanza, more often than not it is for some distinct purpose. He has brought himself to a sufficient distance from his experience, his donnee if you like, to give it poetic organisation. Even in the simplest and least profound of poems the form has some relevance; it works towards making the poem:
In this stanza from Hiroshima Day March we may illustrate, at the risk of being obvious and pedantic, that the lines carry a unity within themselves—the second and third lines stand apart to direct our attention to their balance and ambivalence of meaning, in their opposing but possibly concomitant attitudes: there may be, we realise, pride in the drabness, and shyness in the defiance. "Together" has a line to itself, because, being the central and final quality of the marchers, it qualifies all that has gone before. Just as important is that the lines lead on from one to the other, and thus allow the poetry to move: this is true particularly in the opening stanzas in this poem, when the coldness of the weather leads, by sound and meaning, to the coldness of the reception from the public.
Such a basic and self-evident principle should not, of course, need to be illustrated at this elementary level. It should hardly be possible to distinguish poets on whether or not they show a grasp of fundamental principles. Yet, in view of much that has passed for poetry, this ability in Mr. Mitcalfe has seemed unusual, and as such must be noted: not that Mr. Mitcalfe is writing great poetry, but that he is writing competently, and to a point with sensitivity.
Mr. Mitcalfe pleases then in his arrangements and patterns of words. Perhaps, however, he is most successful in his evocation of an atmosphere he finds in the New Zealand scene. It is a landscape in which man has lived, and which he has changed: but it is a landscape which is still close to the raw forces of Nature, the "vague tumult" and the "tooexplicit shriek of gulls." It is an "apple-tree world
where summer comes with shrill cries
to climb the branches and quarrel";
it may be ordered, and meaningless—a gesture without an answer, or a wall which will not open. It may be wild, yet gentle, like "the moon that comes like a wild deer
to drink at the edge of the sky . . .";
or it may be extravagantly portentous:
". . . and leaps in terror
As a thousand suns explode around him
and the drops from his muzzle
are charged with fire."
Such an atmosphere is successfully evoked not only because its means of expression are effective; but also because it presents a balanced and not a hysterical view: there is both beauty and ugliness, love and death—and the positives give to and gain from the negatives, a new meaning and vitality. Thus it is a landscape of provincial afternoons, in which the highway is an intruder; but it is a landscape which enables people to touch with each other only for a while, as if by chance —for "night must come"; there an undertone of Doom is creeping. Even when it is most beautiful there may be blind hostility and passive violence:
"The falling stars
Of clematis led me to
This sudden cold
And sightless place."
Morning, Noon and Night is by no means without faults. The worst is probably a weakness and unsureness of imagery, especially of that which is extended in scope.
Some images dissipate their effect and leave only a tasteless remnant of the force they must have had in conception:
"Grey cat morning uncurls, digs in its claws
Licks round the rim of the sky, goes
on velvet paws, tail held high."
This is the sort of stanza that may appeal to the poet, and be saved, treasured even, for all the wrong reasons. Undoubtedly, there is as well the occasional gaucheness, or incoherence, or an attitude that rings false. Perhaps, too, there is overmuch fondness for the rhetorical question.
But there are lines which manage to redeem themselves—as when the awkward opening of Metho unexpectedly snaps tight in a well-caught image, horrible in its childhood echoes:
"For gardens closed at dusk are liable
to open suddenly and swallow you
The success, the lugubrious finality of that long-awaited "up," is symptomatic of the book as a whole: the shortcomings exist, but we have little difficulty in compensating for them. We can forgive a lot for those short, active images which Mr. Mitcalfe uses to such effect—the sun "swirling" out of the sky, the Tasman "pouring" over the land, where
"leaves flutter like unspoken syllables
on the salt air."
Mr. Mitcalfe is most successful where he limits himself in scope: the most that can be asked of minor or of most young poets is that they be prepared to work within their limitations. Mr. Mitcalfe realises this most of the time: and when he does, his work is valuable: he is the sort of writer who can help build an active and healthy literary framework, in which his own talent or that of others may develop.—P.G.R.