Arachne: A Literary Journal. No. 1
Sir,—I think your last editorial pretty tough. From a lofty anonymity, with all the prestige of a University literary journal behind you, you blandly call Columbus mediocre and hold forth as to what you think Denis Glover should publish . . . surely that's his business . . . and deal out a nice little crack at Handicraft Press producing an occasional grubby little volume. You must be the Great Panjandrum himself.
Columbus happened to be ready for publication before the two succeeding volumes. Perhaps it was an unfortunate decision to produce a Caxton Poets Series just at that time. As an odd little book it should have had an odd little format all of its own to prove it was a waif, an orphan, a little stranger from overseas babbling in a foreign tongue. I can't help feeling that had that happened certain unfortunate implications would not have arisen.
But since you produce yet another variation on the theme Why New Zealand Writers don't write, or can't write, or stop writing, or can't make a living at writing, or can't find publishers, may I point out that one of the reasons is that people like yourself have such a happy knack of putting out a big flat hand slap-bang in the face of anyone who begins to do so, or at least in the face of those who have something to say and say it as briefly and clearly as possible and won't cry a wordy and sophisticated woe.
Criticism, from your particular angle, is keen and sharp in New Zealand. Too many would be and might be writers are scared off, not realising the symptoms: too much criticism, too little creativeness.
We in Australia and New Zealand are young enough still to be in the formative stages, a fact acknowledged, to her everlasting benefit, in Australia, thus her warmth of encouragement as against this spiteful, inhibiting chill. But you are old, old before your time, and with all the querulousness of old age. You are spiritually dried up, a kind of human prune. Which is why Columbus can mean nothing to you and why you see it as mediocre. Creatively, imaginatively, intuitively, I have you in the same boat. Intellectually? . . . you're O.K.
Dear Hart-Smith,—Your letter came to-day. I take it to be intended for publication, and it will be printed unless I hear otherwise from you. To answer it point by point would do no more than to confirm you in your dislike, I feel sure; but may I raise a few points? personally, not officially.
Anonymity. Editorials often are unsigned; in this case there is more reason than usually, because there is no editor, but a committee, equally responsible. The names of two of these appear on the contents page. I wrote the first draft of this editorial; then it was rewritten in concert. Thus I am initially responsible for the contentious words 'mediocre' and 'grubby.'
The designation 'mediocre' is a frank opinion, given as part of an argument. I feel that even you, the receiver of the rub, prefer a frank opinion to either silence or dissembling. You may say that there was no need for opinion; I think that in the context of the article, there was. If criticism is soft-pedalled in the interest of tender creativities, silence or dissembling must be the result, and public dishonesty the spectacle. Good for the arts? I think not. Further I doubt if it is possible to 'nourish' the arts thus. I should feel disturbed if any editor, critic or friend saw fit to ease the progress of my 'creativity.'
You accuse us of face-slapping. Of course we don't slap the face of people whose work we think good. And we have the habit of speaking our collective mind or individual minds when we strike what we consider bad. This may be a trifle arrogant, but no more so that the job of editing and publishing a magazine requires. And certainly not as arrogant as your final paragraph.
It certainly is Mr. Glover's business to print what pleases him—similar arrogance but page 23 different tastes? But he occupies rather a public position; his policy is surely subject to public discussion and attack.
It is really no part of my ambition to cause ill-feeling. I do feel however that clarity and discussion are good for the arts. There's a great health in the market-place.
W. H. Oliver.
Dear Oliver,—Considering the tone of mine, your letter is most generous. Mine was in bad taste. Of course I meant it to be; but I am not that kind of person really.
Yes, I do prefer a frank opinion. Had your editorial been just that, then there would been no such letter from me. I quarrel with the fact that it gave offence, not that it stated an opinion. A couple of initials after a giving of offence: then I would have said, "Here's someone who is prepared to say what he thinks and is giving the pot of complacency a good stir."
However, please grant that, even if said in the heat of my letter, there is something true in what I say about face-slapping. Incidently I meant a push rather than a slap, a kind of Rugby (or League) push when the referee's not looking.
It's going to be difficult not to sound maudlin, and difficult to prevent this from becoming a long letter, but I'm going to try and say something I've been wanting to say for a long time. Shouldn't there be more emphasis on productivity just now in New Zealand and less on criticism? Criticism here is good and may there be no lowering of standards for the sake of the tender susceptibilities of people like myself. But people do also want encouragement and look to the more culturally responsible and gifted members of the community for it. Why? . . . because we are very ordinary people, people who can't spell, can't even phrase a decent sentence, people who left school so early that all we ever wanted to do in art or music or literature had to be left in a state of appetite and ambition while energies went into other things. There are tens of thousands of us and, you will say, maybe so, but what about those who, in spite of similar difficulties, still had that extra something that marks the difference between the true artist and the tiro? I know my work, Columbus, anyway, is mediocre; in some ways. It is as writing; just that. But it does have something to say and tries, rather desperately, to say it. There is no proper uniformity in the style and treatment of the poems that go to make the sequence; the work is uneven. The reason may be that some of the poems were written eight years ago, and some a few months before the book was printed. You must have considered though (1) that mediocrity in li terature (or any art) is not confined to writing as writing, but must also include what is written about. Columbus does have something to say, something hopeful, something affirmative. I said somewhere else that Columbus as a man was a fool, but as a visionary sublime. Briefly, if the first part fits and the vision is hardly sublime, the sequence says, among other things, that to have poetry is another way of saying The world is round, my masters; only this time it's a question of metaphysical geography. And (2) Columbus is a rather patently deliberate attempt to make poetry mean as much as possible to as many as possible. In this I feel I have succeeded. My aim may be quite wrong; I'm willing to grant that; and yet, when I find a certain kind of New Zealand poetry obscure, wordy, self-conscious and sometimes very morbid, praised sky-high from certain quarters, then I'm rather glad my own work fails to be granted more than a brief adjective from this or that quarter, or if the ship sinks as writing down goes the cargo too.
At the time I left for Australia, what few poems I'd written were so bad I'm certain that within a year or so I would have "grown out of it." I left behind me several friends, one a recognised New Zealand writer, at the time, and whose work made mine look like the prattlings of a sentimental school girl. Somehow though, in Australia, there was a different attitude towards that odd sheaf of poems poked away among the shirts and collars. If in a wad of poems handed out on request there was one good one or promising one, or if the whole lot collectively gave my critics and friends a chance of saying something encouraging, out it would come. I gained enormous confidence, wrote a great deal, most of it rubbish, but now and again hit the jackpot. Without that boost to my confidence it wouldn't have happened. The result has been that out of what was, as late as my twenty-eights and twenty-nines, nothing but a wierd product of too much introspection, has come four books page 24 of verse, and a shelf of periodicals, magazines, journals . . . one edited by myself . . . and a collection of. anthologies, in which poems appear, and not to very great disadvantage. Are standards lower there? Perhaps. But the emphasis is on productivity, and I think that's important. In such an atmosphere one can create. Here, frankly, I'm afraid to. I stop writing; I stop developing.
I return to New Zealand and find, almost without exception, those very talented people I left behind so completely flattened that I am . . . well, afraid it's not just because they didn't have the goods.
What has happened? I have several letters on my files that would interest you. Here is a line or two from a man I sought out because I was curious to know where he'd got to. Listen to this: "I am sorry to discourage the mystery name viewpoint—I think the explanation is that nobody has thought me worth bothering about. I belong .to a working-class family . . ." And: "I feel something of an interloper writing poetry, lacking the necessary background, and it was a surprise to me to realise just what the names hemming me in on the title page of New Zealand Best Poems represented in Academic circles."
I don't know what you think, but I think someone's Rugby pushed this bloke and he's stayed down.
No, let's have plenty of grubby little volumes and lots of experiment, and work that calls from ordinary people such a voluntary opinion as: "I am quite pleased to be able to praise this and that quite sincerely, because I was almost sure that I would be running into sets of mannered, sequinned and spangled stuff so like conscious cleverness fully aware of itself."
Well then, it seems Australia makes a poet and gets a poet, mediocre perhaps, and New Zealand loses one. Or am I being arrogant?