Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Vol 35 no. 11. 31 May 1972
The Elaboration: poems by Bill Manhire, drawings by Ralph Hotere. Square and Circle Publishers. $1 .75
"One asks but never adequately answers the question : why write?" says Bill Manhire at the end of this small booklet of poems. A poet's poems should always be themselves the answer to this question. Here they are not. The booklet's title The Elaboration is a warning that here is intended a gulf between life and the poem, so wide as to be almost academic. Manhire, again in the small paragraph which serves as a declaration of intent at the end of the book, proclaims his determination to create "fictions elaborated out of the truth of this or that situation" which are somehow transformed into "arbitrary facts". This kind of metaphysical distinction between truth and fiction, art and reality comes from too much conversation with the Otago University English Department.
It is therefore praise of this booklet to say that it fails to fulfill its author's intentions. These are not academic poems, apart from the title poem, the worst in the book except perhaps for Watching Alison in Winter. Most poems are a young man's poems, about his love affairs which are offshoots of no literary theory. Manhire writes best when he is not writing about personal experience, and a recognition of this may account for the inferiority complex which is the bastard child of the unhappy affair of his theory and practice. A Hope for Frank and Anne is the most consistent and successful poem in the book, though it embodies Manhire's faults, an addiction to a set 'poetic' vocabulary (words like 'pitchy' and 'moon') and a pointless repetition of epithets. The world Brian Dew has painted has seldom been caught so well as in:
"It is the pitchy night. She has
The palest neck. She munches
Chocolates, she stares at flowers."
This is how the middle class ought to be written about, with simplicity. The complex poetry of anti-philistine satire, like Eliot's, pays too much honour to its enemy.
But although such poetry may be one of Manhire's futures, it does not represent the achievement of the book. Within a fairly closed circle of images — all poets have private worlds, but some worlds are more private than others — there is an imagination of an almost surrealist quality at work which I have not seen equalled in New Zealand writing. (Not that this is a standard anyone ought to write to.) Phrases like :
And you kneeling among sand
pardoning the fishes
"Scarred like a
" a tree climbed back in its leaves."
A poem like The Spell which has no single good line every image almost succeeds and ends by just failing is nevertheless in conception a poem which could break through completely the chains of humanist formalism which imprison poetry in New Zealand. What Manhire needs, in one sense, is less discipline — his poetry need not and should not be tied to occasions or to people. In another sense, he needs more discipline — in this book there is buried the raw material of a poem capable of overshadowing any single poem here included as finished work. What one regrets here, are the too many echoes, of Glover, of Auden, of Dylan Thomas, the 'poetic' archaisms, the impossible refrains in poems which reject them, and the prosaic qualifications of emotion.
The other reviewers will say that Ralph Hotere's drawing adds considerably to the poetry. I cannot see that it does, but it is interesting and good to have in the same book.
— Owen Gager