Arachne. No. 2
New Attitudes in New Zealand Poetry
New Attitudes in New Zealand Poetry
The Appearance of a first volume from two of Arachne's most important regular contributors is, for the magazine, a landmark. It means that the view of poetry implied in this work will now be impressed more forcibly on the New Zealand audience. Although Witheford and Campbell are as different as poets can be, their position in the history of New Zealand poetry has similarities. It will be necessary for the reviewer to trace this position briefly, even though this is not the most important point to make concerning the poetry.
I am of course referring to the problem of writing in a largely British tradition at so great a distance from Britain. The former generation found the solution of treating the history and scenery of New Zealand in the same way as the contemporary British poets dealt with new subject matter; this was made simpler by the fact that the techniques of the thirties were largely designed for the purpose of dealing with new subject matter.
Baxter's poetry was not infused with this spirit, nor with the idea of being a species of poetic civil servant, which it implied. Mr Baxter however is attracted by many of the techniques of the thirties and, what is more, is a thorough-bred moralist, which restrained him from altogether breaking with the New Zealand localist tradition.
The break is only complete with the appearance of these two volumes, with their unusual rootlessness and without memories to provide a local backdrop—only a memory of death. Nor is there any home or any reference to the daily experience that clutters up life. One may call the volumes 'unsullied' by all history and social matters. Their purity excludes also, for the first time, any evidence of local impacts. It is only the cold undedicated consciousness of beauty in both books that hints at their land of origin by showing its spiritual contours.
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Mr Witheford must take credit for being the first New Zealand poet able to express his deepest experience through the medium of hard abstract thought illuminated by the poetic imagination. Although the moralists have often attempted this, no New Zealander had yet achieved the level of subtlety and the striking and accurate phrasing of such poems as O ache to turn to words or Now I begin to know, nor the cerebral virtuosity of such lines as these:
This is the trysting place, its certain signs—
The congealed sea, the bones of ancient fire
And in the ruined cliffs a shallow cave.
Only a superior intellect can range symbols with this clarity and economy and with sufficient strength in the imagination not to disturb the apodictic flow of the verses. Such vivid thought directs the spiritual explorations throughout the volume. It is driven along by a number of recurring images rooted in the deepest experience, but used simply as parts of the pattern of the poet's spiritual development. Such images—some are quoted above—have the disadvantage of being rather generalised, but this is often outweighed by the evocative phrasing. The success of this sort of verse often hangs on the precarious question of the evocativeness of a phrase. It becomes like tightrope dancing, or so it seems to me, and there may, in the long run, be no alternative for the poet than a fuller treatment of the experience itself. However the intensity of the quest, and the joy of the discovery save this volume.
The book falls naturally into three consecutive groups, the first, groping part ending at p. 20, and the second small intermediate group at p. 26. In the last part the pace quickens and the poems become thoroughly interconnected; the style comes close to the hymnic, and the volume ends in a strong affirmation.
The inclusion of the first part of the volume is, through what it reveals, an act of courage; the attitudes of these poems are manifestly held in contempt by the poet of the later work. There is an obvious spiritual confusion here, the centre-piece being, I imagine, the Baude page 29 lairean statue of Happiness (p. 13), while the chronicles of dejection form the background. From this ruthless statue the road is open to almost any spiritual progress; with Mr Withe-ford dejection becomes identified with moral impurity; the struggle is then waged as one against impurity to which, I think, all desire for opposites is held to belong.
In the second group there is a somewhat sudden separation of the poet's self from this earlier identity. This is described rather beautifully:
The tempest that drives on his limbs I hear
As pastoral music in Arcadia.
His Questing hands, his dreams,
His onward driven steps,
As drifting clouds in summer pass before me.
During this period the poet can contemplate both his identities and easily move from the one to the other. The newly found and higher form of the self has somehow dragged the lower one along on its quest, as is shown in this tine address to the creative spirit:
Die and I would not grieve
For you, nor for the pride
Laid upon your grave
As once upon my mind.
The hymnic section contains the illumination, which appears to have something final, through its concurrence at the end of the book. In fact of course, it is no more than another intermediate stage, and was clearly felt to be so at the time of writing. It is rather, perhaps, a beginning. The poems are beautiful because they have grown out of a great discovery. It is, however, a dangerous one, as the ancient strengths which are revealed to be behind the scheme of the universe, but only direct us when we will, have to be served in a spirit of sacrifice, which, on the face of the words, means a spirit of entire non-activity.
This is not a quibble; it is the essential question: the poet has eliminated conflict, and in the service of the giant powers appears to have nothing to do. Small matter, one may say. Yet this dullness and non-activity is precisely the starting point of the quest—i.e. it existed at the time before the poet had ever noticed the cruel statue of Happiness in the marsh.
Yet the hymnic part of the volume is the most powerful, one great advance being the concreteness of the visions in some of the poems (O coal black horses and Alone). The most remarkable conception, intellectually, is that the 'giant powers' suffer pain through the corruption of the world and have to await the time when they are 'heeded'. There is still the personal pain due to a consciousness of corruption, at the back of the hymns:
Your patience bears the ruin of the world,
A grain of salt upon a seagull's wing.
It is part of this philosophy that the giant powers are only made visible by the existence of death and destruction. The point is not, as some readers appear to have thought, that the poet is in love with death, but that the 'patterns of glory' (or the giant powers) have arisen from 'the rhythms of mortality' as the poet clearly says (p. 34). This then is a balanced idea of the universe in which beauty and destruction are inseparably one. At the same time this volume is spiritually only a beginning, as I pointed out, and poetically the occurrence of central phrases that are clearly insufficiently plumbed still mars the best verses: 'travailings of the worlds' (p. 35). This is the kind of phrase one only uses before the beginning or after the end.
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The same general symbols, as untainted with the everyday world, and based upon as narrow a range of experience as Mr Witheford's in his Shadow of the Flame occur in Mr Campbell's songs of the disasters of the sun. In these poems the forgotten terrors of desolation revive; the disinherited boy finds much to admire in an adamant world. The splashed sun illumines the land; on the stony crag the hare and the goat leap and the mountaineer dies. Forgotten loneliness hides in a corner while graceful splendour wastes itself in a thousand performances. And this hardness is life, but as there is also death there flows the sweeter pain of sympathy and gentleness. There is so much grief, so many tears: Man turns to stone or stares himself blind in the sun.
The first verses written by Mr Campbell occur, it seems, in the second section of his work, called "Love Poems". The pain in these poems has everywhere turned into small smooth stones. Mr Baxter has said, very fittingly: "There is no relationship". The love poems page 30 do not imply, any more than Mr Witheford's published verse or Mr Sargeson's early stories, a relationship, but it goes further than that: There is not even direct experience. The grief itself is not expressed: the pride, the very beauty of that which caused the grief, would prohibit that. The pain becomes hardened in defined, torturing images and they become, with time, smoothly polished, and then these images grow into one of Mr Campbell's early love poems, with a show of decorativeness and a view of love as being merely ritual. As long as there is growth towards such a decorative and ritual element from the state of pain, this is remarkable, but in some of the poems a danger is apparent of these things being pursued for their own sakes. Not too often; the pain still trembles, for instance, in the apparently ritualistic "Warm heart, warm mouth" (p. 23). Deceptively stinging is also a line like this one:
Lay cool as a stone against her dress.
The Yeatsian influence has been most fruitful technically, in teaching how the hardness of splendour can be shown through the cadence of the verse. The style grown from this adaptation combines sweetness with a division of the stanza into brief, economical periods, in other words, to develop a modernist form of expression through the pure song tradition rather than through the blank verse tradition.
The carry-over of Yeatsian metaphysic through certain attitudes and phrases was less appropriate, and mars accuracy:
A piece of bronze, more air than bronze
This leads directly to philosophies with which Mr Campbell would not agree.
The best of the Love Poems are, I think, V (Lie on the sand, my dazzling driftwood) and VIII (At the great waters edge). These poems somehow strike deeper levels than the others. V strikes at the spiritual essence of these women with effortless insight; in VIII there is unfettered and profound self-expression. As the themes unfold the entirety of the poet's personality resounds, instead of a selected part of it; the result is a few novel and remarkable poems of far more importance than the general run.
The occasion for the Elegy was a stormy night on a fruitfarm when the poet remembered a friend who died on the mountains. The primeval force of the landscape around the fruitfarm blends with the landscape in which the mountaineer died. The inhuman strength of the Cromwell Gorge (location of the fruitfarm) is even, one may say, a central theme as much as the death: the mountaineer also was grand, serene and inhuman, in contact with those hard animals of speed, as much as the gorge. It is also possible to see a bridge between the mountaineer and the women. He, too, was admired as a ritual. He too was lost. However, the distinctive and appealing quality of the Elegy is that we do not only have these smooth pebbles, the images of pain, but that there is a strong directness:
Dear head, struck down; bright flesh
That made my black night sweet
All bruised and bleeding
The concluding poem is most remarkable in this way and also 'Driftwood'. But I find Reverie especially fine, as it moves in profounder regions than the rest of the Elegy, penetrating through the shell of the general philosophy of the book into the true motivation of these attitudes. I quote in full:
Sleep on, restless heart,
In the wild fruit-tree;
Be growth and all things sweet
Your love-brimmed reverie.
Sweetness at the root,
May the tree climb high;
Close against the sun
Let all its branches sigh;
Pride and glory lost
When hill-streams are dry:
—O lay to your wild breast
Wind's disconsolate cry.
This reminds of James Joyce's poetry in the abbreviated way in which the ideas are indicated. The sun is scorching the fruit trees; the rain will not come in time; the fruit will never ripen. The sweet fantasy and the agony of the fruit tree becomes an image of the death of the mountaineer and all beautiful things.
The great achievement of the Elegy is the sustained tone, the horror of the storm and the rain gripping the reader from poem to poem, page 31 all forms of desolation bound together in a sort of symphony and the images yet polished and careful, obviously long cherished.
The poems in the last section, although on a high level of competence, bring little that is new, after what has been said. They are objective poems, most of them, by far the best being the last, called The Return. The lines concerning the dead Dionysos are among the most beautiful in the book.
Like Mr Witheford, Mr Campbell has made a beautiful book out of that full, but shifting and untidy period of life called adolescence; while Mr Witheford pursued the peace of the spirit, Mr Campbell pursued the grace of the mountain animals. The great question, with New Zealand poets, in the past, has always been what they would do after adolescence. To this Mr Campbell's poems do not give a full answer. However, even if this answer is never found, Mine Eyes Dazzle can stand on its own with its remarkable qualities of rhythm and sound, with its portrayal of the world of storm and desolation, of the ritual of hard animal beauty, and especially, with its capacity to exalt a life into verse.
The Pegasus Press has shown great skill in matching the printing with the atmosphere of the poetry.