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Salient: Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Vol. 32, No. 7. 1969.

Prayer, Prose and Poetry with Trevor James

page 6

Prayer, Prose and Poetry with Trevor James

Return to the Fountainhead

Mr Schroder was a respected student poet at Canterbury University in 1919 when he wrote under the pseudonym Olla Podrida as well as under his own name.

Now 50 years later, Mr Schroder has produced his second volume of light verse, Yet Once More

In the interval, Mr Schroder was a literary editor on two newspapers and director of broadcasting, and the friend and critic of many New Zealand poets in the process.

An association with poetry of such distinction, duration, and power must receive our attention today. I think Schroder inherently deserves our attention because of the role he has played and the merit of his verse. I think the role and the verse are more closely related than has been realised.

As a critic and editor of verse Schroder seems to have made himself very unpopular in the 1930s. The hostility which is still felt towards him by the New Zealand poets of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s is surprisingly great. It is understandable only when one realises that for four decades Schroder was able to deny avenues of publication and withold recognition from poets in very influential quarters, namely the Christchurch Press and the NZBC.

But among New Zealand writers of the 1960s Schroder is differently esteemed. For instance, he was patron of the Victoria University Literary Society in 1965-66. The publication of his two volumes of verse in the 1960s also allows younger writers to assess the man on his work, and so to see him in a new light.

The truth of the matter, I think, is that Schroder has some very definite ideas about what poetry should be when he has seen New Zealand poets falling short of his standards, his response is a pained one. I think it is just this realisation that New Zealand poets all too often fall short that has got Schroder into hot water. He has refused to compromise his critical, editorial or personal integrity by publishing or approving what fell short.

Now unquestionably most of what Schroder objected to is inferior, and it is rather interesting to note that some of the poets involved have failed to collect much of the offending verse. For instance, Curnow's collection omits most of his verse of the 1930s.

Indeed, inferiority is the great failing of the greater amount of New Zealand verse since 1930. So Schroder was right.

But Schroder's standards have not remained a critic's secret. Schroder has tried to indicate what he values in verse in his own verse, now available in two collections, the first, The Secret, mostly presenting his verse up till 1930, and the second, Yet Once More, his verse since 1962.

Schroder, I think, would be the first to admit that he himself is not the great writer of whom he has some conception, although the desire to have been that writer himself had been able is doubtless his. And his friends would readily admit that his verse is limited in various ways.

There is a part of Schroder's verse that draws on the rollicking song. Schroder does it well, but the whole tradition is, I think, degenerate.

For instance, this verse from "Party Town", in Yet Once More.

We argued and argued for years,
This was right. No, thoroughly wrong.
The think had us all by the ears;
But we could sing a jovial song—
Ours really are marvellous parties.
Or this form College Rhymes.
The Board thought of getting a man
As rector (an excellent plan)
To buck up the College, and ladle out knowledge,
And so their advertisement ran:—
"We want an illustrious
Very industrious
Rector for C.U.C."

But, the really valable part of Schroder's verse is that in which he uses spoken speech as a base to his language.

For instance, these, the opening verses of "Lines to the Drama Society in The Street.

It's several years now since a few of us,
Interested in contemporary drama,
Would sometimes be so bold as to discuss
Producing something; but in moments calmer,
Our courage dwindled. Now the thing we planned,
(And would have failed in, if we had begun it)—
Young wearers of the buskin, noble band,
You've gone and done it!
At best we hoped to stage a single play:
Hobbling in unimaginative strictures,
We never dreamed of heights achieved today,
Of lectures helped by magic lantern pictures,
Of meetings every other Wednesday night,
Of papers, readings, regular discussions,
Of Brieux, Strindberg, Ibsen, and the quite
Delightful Russians.

This is very finely done.

I think this spoken speech base is the staple of Schroder's verse. Personally, I think New Zealand verse must develop out of this base. And I'm prepared to assert all that is good in New Zealand verse can be related to this base. Indeed, I would say that New Zealand poetry written on any other base has been abominable. I wish to say that New Zealanders have nothing else but the spoken speech of their environment to develop their verse from. Schroder, incidentally, is a West Coaster, and I think knows the authentic New Zealand voice.

But with Schroder this spoken speech verse is combined often blatantly, with a very rich literary knowledge. For instance, in the first stanza from Lines to the Drama Society'. Schroder is always up to it. And this amalgam of New Zealand speech and high literacy is a remarkable thing, very sophisticated, very elegant to those who can appreciate it.

But Schroder requires more of verse than just the speech base and the literacy. He requires vitality, freshness, novelty, inventive variety. The variety of poems included in Schroder's two volumes is just astonishing. He never repeats himself. He is always able to come up with something that is new and just as good as anything he has done. I suspect that this constant originality is just that literary quality that Schroder thinks highest of and finds too infrequently in New Zealand poets. It is, I think, the top-flight characteristic of the very great poets, such as Shakespeare.

Schroder is predominantly a humourous poet often decidely comic in his phrasing or insight. Once again, this may be a desideratum for New Zealand poetry. Some of the best New Zealand poetry does show this also.

Schroder has helped many of the finer New Zealand poets into print. These include Eileen Duggan, Robin Hyde, Fair-burn. Ursula Bethel, Clover, and Ruth Cilbert. Probably the poet with whom his personal contact has been longest is Ruth Gilbert.

But I think Schroder's influence has perhaps lately become more significant still. His influence is now being felt among the writers of the 1960s. For instance, I am aware that the Schroder sound underlies a pood deal that is central to my own verse. Indeed, I think this influence has been decisive in my own verse, and I know no one whose verse is so like my own as Schroder's.

I think his influence is indirectly coming to bear on other poets in turn through my work. I have no doubt that other young poets will increasingly go back to Schroder as the fountainhead of this New Zealand verse idiom.

The finest work in this idiom is, I think, at present being done by Ruth Gilbert, Ruth Gilbert is successfully producing an amalgam composed simultaneonusly of spoken speech, the lyric, and many novelistic techniques, in the dramatic poem sequence.

I think the dramatic poem sequence, which exploits the techniques of the novel in a verseform, and which looks back to Tennyson's Maud and The Shropshire Lad for prototypes, will become not only the dominant New Zealand form of poetry but the dominant English form of the 20th century. And I think on the local scene that Schroder's highly literate, varied, speech-based verse is a superlative first shot at the kind of medium needed for this form. As it happens, the people who want to use this medium are the people who learn from Schroder.

To conclude, let me quote a lengthy passage from Dryden's Essay on Dramatick Poesie, which takes the same view as Schroder regarding vitality and, vigour Dryden has described one kind of bad poet. Now he describes the opposite kind of bad poet.

"He is one of those who having had some advantage of education and converse, knows better than the other what a Poet should be, but puts it into practice more unluckily than any man; his style and matter are every where alike; he is the most calm peaceable writer you ever read: he never disquiets your passions with the least concernment, but still leaves you in as even a temper as he found you; he is a very Leveller in Poetry, he creeps along with ten little words in every line, and helps out his Numbers with For to, and Unto, and all the pretty Expletives he can find, till he drags them to the end of another line; while the Sense is left tir'd half way behind it: he doubly starves all his Verses, first for want of thought and then of expression; his Poetry neither has wit in it, nor seems to have it .... He affects plainness, to cover his want of imagination: when he writes the serious way, the highest flight of his fancy is some miserable Antithesis, or seeming contradiction; and in the Comick he is still reaching at some thin conceit, the ghost of a Jest, and that too flies before him, never to be caught; ...."

I think Schroder has heeded this comment. I think we all should heed it.

At Paraparaumu

On the way up the zig-zag path
the concrete crosses had seemed
insecure, leaning at odd angles
in clumps of onion flowers
as though the rain-soaked clay
had nudged them in discomfort.
And only the first two had
their mosaic picture complete.
This at least made sense;
the via crucis is no easy
commission. And the hardboard
signs too, decaying and coming
to grief, exhorted us to pray
and to next time bring a friend.
Now to the summit, to discover
the climb empty of achievement.
A sense of panic spins me round
to face the sea, to find with
relief the black hulk of Kapiti
beached and barring my sight.
Later as we drove towards Otaki
my memory kept recalling
that massive white statue haloed
with electric light bulbs and
anchored to the ground with wires
against the wind's taunting.
My cousin remarked off-hand
that it looked like a coffin.

P. F. Ireland