Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume. 34, Number 14. July 21, 1971
Poetry Housemaids Knee
Poetry Housemaids Knee
Frank McKay's hopes for Poetry New Zealand are that "it will publish the best poetry being written in this country and the work of the most promising new poets"... If these have been realised with this volume, then we are in la pretty bad way. Except for very few poems, this anthology is uniformly without penetration into life and uniformly without dynamism. Add to this the uniformity of vision (the city creates nostalgia for the sea; the sea reminds of a long dead love; the hills are vaguely wild and somehow mysterious; lovers meet by the sea; I am uneasy that everything has been seen before, the meaningless echo of the shell) and a uniform poetic language ("kelp", I think, seven times; for girls are flowers; numerous place names -Milan, Gubbio, the Rhine, Damascus, Eden - are stirred in for exotic flavour; while Sydenham, Ponsonby, Albert Park, add the touch of puha) and you have the same dreary, monotonous goo that distinguished New Zealand poetry twenty years ago.
The poetry can be considered, for the sake of convenience, in four rough sections: portraits; descriptions; love/personal; relationships/religious; and jokes, the latter comprising about half the poems in the volume.
In the portrait gallery we may include such as Dorothy Parkes's 'Old Man'. He lived (as we could expect) on a pension (as we could expect) in an old leaky shack. Well, he caught pneumonia and went to hsopital, and the kids got in and broke all his collection of clay pipes.
"After that there could only he relief
at the news that the old man had died."
Or Sam Hunt's Torirua Friday Night', about a pimply girl working in a supermarket and dreaming of "her man". Very capable, this, but when you think of it not at all penetrating, one you could comfortably tackle with, say, a fourth form (see Cynical Observations). Bruton's poor old man, Petrus van der Velden, the failed, harassed artist, ironically grows to poetic grandeur by comparison, when he concludes, in his ultimate failure.
"the heart pinched and dry
Auckland, Nov 10, 1913
'colour is light - light is love -
love is God & when you understand
this you are an artist'"
In a country like Godzone, where scenery, natural or man made, has forced interpretations from the beginning of civilisation (Cook, 1769), it is no wonder that the art of simple description has become our most distinctive form of art. This phenomenon expressed itself at best at a slide showing, preferably with distinguished overseas visitors, at worst with a nostalgic camera of words.
that mountan, six months ago?
You sat in an alpine hut
sketching scoria, red
rusted outcrops in the snow.
I climbed some southern peak
and made up the sort of song
men climbing mountains sing:
how, no longer your lover,
I knew it was over."
(A White Gentian' - Sam Hunt)
Or, to come back to a dominant theme of the book, ozone, kelp, spuming waves, seagulls and love songs, I could, were it not so long, quote the whole of Frank McKay's 'Le Bon's Bay', a simple, pleasant ramble along the beach. Or, not to leave out the bellbird, large parts of K.O. Arvidson's more adventurous circumloqaciousness. But more in the line of twentieth century poetry is the cliche perpetuated in the ghastly jingle, 'Little Boxes', or in the words of Louis Johnson's Thoughts on the Graren Image' "each man lives in the same house or another like it". In this group we can put Dorothy Parkes's soggy 'Demolition - Auckland':
Ours is an ordered ruin, making way
for highways of tomorrow. Does it seem
that platitude has a familiar ring?"
and Gloria Rowlinson's The New Motorway', that takes hold of the stereotype from the other end. From the numerous suburban bore poems I must extract Kendrick Smithy man's long, meandering 'An Ordinary Day Beyond Kaitaia', which, despite its rather indiscriminate use of poetic language does substantiate the New Zealand alienation myth.
"If we live,
we go. You go. They, a common gender, go.
I am a stranger. Too facile, to say
We are all strangers. The land is made
To our liking".
A number of poems I have placed in the love/personal relationships/religious section should be relegated to the jokes department, the tears have fallen so many times before. Fleur Adcock's child-nightmare-poem 'Bogyman' and her nostalgic-sentimenatl 'On a Son Returned to New Zealand' ("He is my bright sea-bird on a rocky beach"); Alistair Campbell's 'Blue Sunhats, White Horeses' and 'Rain in January'; Marilyn Duckworth's 'Karori Cemetery'; Sam Hunt's 'A Young Girl Watching Mist' are just a few of the many poems that, in groping for answers, finally hit upon inanity. But as well as producing rubbish, this section also hits upon some of the best poetry in the anthology. Rhys Pasley's 'Lost Crusades', simple and bald compared to much of his writing, nevertheless towers impressively over most of the volume. And Ian Wedde's unabashed dream-love sequence of 'Ruth' poems provides a welcome break. Instead of churning out emotions Wedde describes all in flashes and silvers of life, at first quite disjointed, but later unifying in a great call of longing.
Ruth how long before
you cover me again,
simple & small as something done.
The red factor canary turns
out its wings, the cat goes daintily
across the garden, the
wind touches my face."
The religious verse of Ruth Gilbert, Frank McKay, and Christopher Strom is not worth more than this R.I.P.
It is as well that Hilaire Belloc is dead. He would not, I feel, have been honoured at the unconscious tribute paid to him in the first poem. 'The Three-toed Sloth' by Fleur Adcock. For what he would have executed ingeniously in three lines, here takes a painful eighteen. However he might have been amused at the irony that this poem actually builds up seriously and even the punch line is likely to be considered a problem rather than something to laugh at. Patricia Godsiff has a trifling piece, 'Signal', that talks of "Radio Heaven", and Alan Roddick comments inanely about Balloon Trees. Other than that all the jokes follow the same old pattern - a painful description of some scene, capped by ironic comment. The only person in New Zealand who can do this consistently well is Barry southam. His 'Development' contains a conciseness and a quiet cynicism which the others lack.
I should, in all fairness, also exlude from the formula one person well known in New Zealand. The inimitable Denis Glover has a number of light pieces that could well match Belloc for brevity and wit.
"Man with a tuft of hair
On his head, not everywhere
Else, must cause the ape
To scratch and gape.
The man-animals also fail
In hanging by the tail."
('On Looking Into Darwin)
There are others that deserve mention because they stand out like oases in the barren desert. Dennis List has four superb poems (though two have somehow been run together under the title of The Landmark') 'The Hedgehog's Gift of Parody' is the most imaginative poem in the entire collection, and his absurd logic of words murders Shakespear in This Poem Consists of 79 Dried Spiders'. Mike Doyle stuck me initially through his incisive, staccato style, so different from any other poets in the book, (I later found from the Biographical Notes that he was Canadian). He seems to be the only person that shows the influence of current overseas writing in his poetry. (In the Introduction McKay deplores the "Preponderence of sprawling free verse and the ignorance of what contemporary poets in Britain and America have done".)
At the end of an almost incomprehensible paragraph in his Introduction Frank McKay states "One should, I think, be generous to emerging writers". The "emerging" writers in this volume, by and large, show much greater talent, versatility and relevance than the older "established" writers. Frank McKay perpetuates the fault of considering no writer fully fledged until he writes with great aplomb in the "New Zealand Tradition". That this tradition has no relevance, that this tradition is lifeless as a biscuit tin lid, he does not realise. The poems that he has accepted from people like Wedde and Pasley are, in the main, untypical of the sort of poetry written by these people. I must conclude that they have been chosen because they deal with the innocent/romantic style of poetry that pervades the anthology. That they can still be strikingly effective is a tribute to their skill and versatility. That the editor can consider himself "generous" to include them only reflects on the editor.
I hope the pallid unifromity of this volume has not already rung the death knell of Poetry New Zealand. McKay mentions that "almost two thirds of the submissions were from New Zealand housewives". I feel that his editorial criteria are displayed so ably in this volume that he could well outstrip this proportion next time. I hope this is not so. An anthology like this is worth supporting, but should never become the crust that feeds a few mean sparrows while the peacocks fend for themselves.