Excerpts from a reading journal, 2007

February 27th 2007

All truth must conform to music.

—Richard Hugo

In The Triggering Town, Richard Hugo discusses how to get off the triggering subject by choosing words for the quality and sincerity of their sounds, thence allowing the poem to fulfil itself. The triggering subject should be something fractured or glimpsed, an impression stinging with resonance and yet at once secondary to the language that it at once sets off, adhering to sound rather than respect to the ‘grain elevator’. The triggering subject becomes the new awareness of the poem.

Poetry shows the same respect for ceremony as light, while in the mind; the unrelated are tied together by wish with chance and balance in tow. Where does this instinct come from to bathe sound in sounds? Rote learning in childhood, the soul’s love of flight? He writes: ‘Your triggering subjects are those that ignite your need for words.’ He also writes that poetry uses ‘words that have been chosen for you by your obsessions.’ This is nice simply because poets are obsessed individuals; obsessed by honey-roast hills, by mouth-watering foreign languages, by ‘the last honey by the water/ that no hive can find’ (from Austin Clark, ‘The Last Heifer’). Obsession is a psycho-social condition, pursuing the liquidity of the tongue and its cautioning of our early childhood wonder. The idea that all music must conform to truth is an important one and one which I will no doubt arrive at again later. The reality is perhaps that truth must conform to music before music conforms to truth.

Initially I toyed with topics for my portfolio such as ‘myth and dream’, ‘cultural dependency’, and ‘nature as a means of comprehending the psycho-social world’. However, when deciding on a theme the fact of the matter is that I must wait patiently for it to strike or become apparent. My readings will track a path, listening out for the cadences of the heart as it flies from its ribcage in pursuit of joy.

March 3rd 2007

Poetry is attendance upon the world.

—Janet Frame

I like the word Bourneville. It sounds like a place of rebirth with blossoms and breakfast on a terrace for two. Poetry lets language take over. Discovered words arrive like new skin knitting together with old. Their meaning is revealed and connections established according to their sound and their elevated meaning in the context of the sentence or phrase that matters. This is truly listening to the muse, your inner rhythms and your delight in sharing with the first bird of dawn the art of piercing the new air with a sharpness clear enough for God.

Janet Frame is the finest of writers. Her prose is based on a poetry that seeks to resolve a love of language and its power to captivate. She tells Living in the Maniototo (1979) with the intimacy of a companion of New Zealand, of language and of human relations. More important than the idea that people live in a Maniototo (literally a plain of blood), a severe geometrical (grey) landscape, is her idea of the ‘Manifold’, which is the storehouse of collections and recollections into which one deposits and which receives deposits of experience that, perhaps overtime, become weighty and increasingly avoided as it becomes more haunting.

Growing up in Ireland, I have a natural love of place names where the original Irish name (whether a city or the bend in a road) can be unwrapped from its anglicised packaging revealing lyricism and poetry and a story or famed incident lost to time. Examples include a part of the coast named ‘Lissadel’ which translates as ‘fort of the blind man.’ Or Dublin, from Dubh Linn meaning ‘black pool’ or Knocknarae from Cnoic na Ri, meaning ‘hill of the king.’ In this book Janet Frame shows us that place names and thence language and the love of the writer for naming things, are often displaced searches for meaning and stability and a desire to fulfil a dream that parting with would mean severing oneself from ones means of habitation. By habitation I mean what we habitually need, our natural home, the habits that make up our mental constitution, how we qualify, basically, to take up our own lives and our place in the world.

Although I didn’t choose this book to read with any personal poetic theme in mind, it did serve to increase my interest and focus on the issues of dream and nature as a grasp on cognitive reality. Readings often find us as opposed to the other way around.

March 18th 2007

How nature commits us. Perhaps in Aotearoa especially, where birdsong cuts like a knife and green is dark or luminous. We are all colonisers of the natural world, conquerors of landscape, physically and imaginatively. And we love to consume. This is the legacy of the modern age. Anthologies of New Zealand poetry are persuasions of awe drawn from the overwhelming juxtaposition of nature and the social world. The environment of Aotearoa is spirited and tremendous. Remarkably it is made up of elegant, safe forest above a violent and unsafe earth.

Trees, they’re funny things—
They hurt somehow;
I’ve seen the whole sky caught
In one black bough.

—Una Currie, from ‘Trees’ in Kowhai Gold

For us the land is matrix and destroyer,
Resentful, darkly known
By sunset omens, low words heard in branches;
Or where the red deer lift their innocent heads
Snuffing the wind for danger,
And from our footfall’s menace bound in terror.

—James K Baxter, from ’Poem in the Matukituki Valley’

Furthermore, it is a land which, however safe from dangerous species, can equally test human endeavour with challenging terrain and elemental onslaughts of weather. If one were to fall in with Auden’s sense that every poem ‘is rooted in imaginative awe,’ this preoccupation of New Zealand poets is at once understandable and most likely. Its cities, often requiring rebuilding in part every once or so in a lifetime, rest delicately on beds of infernal movement. Its little towns sit uncomfortably beneath the impositions of great flagrant peaks. Where else are you so reminded, not of the history of man but of the history of earth?

The humour and dexterity of New Zealanders is brilliantly noticed in Brian Turner’s ‘Alp’ which begins;

The alp at the end of the street
is known to all
as His Imperious Majesty

4th April 2007

Sounds are flooded river valleys whereas fiords are valleys carved by the tremendous pressure and power of glaciers during successive Ice Ages, then later flooded by the sea as the ice melts and the sea levels rise.

Eyewitness Travel Guide to New Zealand

Reading Bill Manhire’s essay ‘Dirty Sounds’ this evening has spurred thought on the words pure and impure. I was interested to see raised ‘the notion that the world of nature has its own pure, ultimately transcendental music — and that poetry, more than the other language arts, can aspire to make such music, or be a part of it.’ I have heard on many mornings in this country the utterances of the first bird pierce that still calm uprising of light. It is at this stretching moment that we feel we are in our small happiness and also a figurine in the universe. I agree with Manhire that ‘Poets yearn for purity, but the really interesting ones practise impurity.’ The impurity that the poet employs must be like the human ability to flaw and flaw well. It must, unlike the desensitised socially-adjusted word, rejoice in its difference and its unexpected presence in a room full of associates.

The differences between sounds and fiords, as words in the first instance and metaphors in the second, is much the same as the differences between poetry that comes out of sound and poetry that is carved ‘under tremendous pressure.’ It could be argued that the latter, manipulated by its environment, eventually evolves into the state that the other achieved effortlessly by flooding, ie. by allowing in unhampered the natural flows and rhythms of voice and textures of sense. It is fiords that excel in grandeur, etched out in magnificent detail.

The wind and indeed all the elements of nature have something of this purity/impurity alliance and it is in their deployment that poets often give up resisting to the pull of purity, almost like stopping a run on a sunny afternoon to enjoy a glass of chardonnay. Take Manhire’s poem The Wind (II):

The Wind (II)
A wind goes out over the fields.
A shadow grows where I touch you.
What is this distance?
Whose hand is quietly waving?

21st April 2007

I am tired of personifying everything in order to make it fit in with my need to find poetry in the habitual, the banal. Most useful, these loutish days of stagnation, is Lorca’s lecture on ‘duende’ that Dora gave the class to read. Apart from making you want to go out and blow your mind on tequila and stamp your feet in ritualistic dance, his words rarefy, by isolating into a comprehensible state, the rough impetus of masterful, fortuitous inspiration. It is a mysterious dark power, ‘in the remotest mansions of the blood’, that the artist must wrestle to extract spontaneous creation, that has perhaps travelled from the darkest lair of earth. Unlike the muse or the angel, the duende is destructive, and in the very act of invention has the ability to destroy by consuming the artist.


7th July 2007

Experiencing exotic things while awake and ordinary things while asleep is not uncommon. In a way, this is the wayfarer’s elation. There is no such thing as terra firma when abroad, only terra incognita. Especially when the land has a tendency to move as though a tremendous sea lurked not far below. This is also the mental experience of being away from home, attempting to delve deep into the subterranean psyche to discover how far perception goes, and where it comes from. Turning these small awakenings into poetry is one way of inviting them into reality, treating them to royal honours in the everyday.

The poet has to be everything: philosopher, scientist, painter, auditor, logographer.


30th August — 6th September 2007

Poetry is the imagination of life. A poem is a particular of life thought of for so long that one’s thought has become an inseparable part of it or a particular part of life so intensely felt that the feeling has entered into it.

—Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel

Experience is something which is accumulated through time and which perhaps becomes both more terrifying and easier to endure. If poetry is truly the ‘imagination of life’ then both are rarely (preciously, incomparably) one and the same, they are one and the same and they are not. How powerful or relevant the imagination is to existence is unascertainable in the extreme. It may rely lightly on creation and the creative process. I don’t believe, at this point in time, that frustration at the inadequacies of human reason is altogether a bad thing. Frustration is simply a search for the right instinct. Poetically, frustration is highly enjoyable at the best of times. It’s the what is the word? that confronts the diametrically opposed inconveniences of language in an exploration of the human psyche, mantled and dismantled by many allusions to conspicuous facets of identity (such as nationality, ethnicity, religious beliefs, and I might add, persuasions).


The physical reality of the exterior world is where the image is originally based before becoming worked upon through poetry.

When the idea which comes from individual life marries the image that is born from the people, one gets great art, the art of Homer, and of Shakespeare, and of Chartes Cathedral.

—WB Yeats

So the idea with all its superlatives is ariki, paramount chief, of poetry, the triggering subject, the subconscious movement of voice and the will to conceive. The poems I have written this year all begin with an idea rooted in language itself. Herman Melville, in Moby Dick, wrote of ‘the infixed, unrelenting fangs of some incurable idea’. This is the verge on which we rest perceptibly to behold the convergence of the possibility of flight and the sustaining impetus of the soil.

More from The Reading Room:
Pip Adam | Sarah Bainbridge | Rachel Burt | Eleanor Catton | Lynn Davidson | Brent Kininmont | Chloe Lane | Lawrence Patchett