Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Woman Problem & other prose

The Poets' Progress

page 113

The Poets' Progress

A review of New Zealand Poetry Yearbook, Volume 4. Edited by Louis Johnson. Christchurch 1954.

In his introduction Louis Johnson says he thinks this, the fourth, is the best Poetry Yearbook so far. He is probably right. In spite of a good deal of misdirection of effort, of which examples are not lacking in this collection, there is a quality of liveliness in New Zealand poetry that is not evident in our fictional prose, which seems to have decided to make a religion of triviality, and is in a dangerous state of complacency about it. When half a dozen fishermen have all got their hooks into the one sprat, those involved may experience a warm feeling of unanimity, of a great goal having been attained in complete harmony of spirit. But if this sprat is to feed the multitude, we shall need a miracle. Our proseguild seems confident of having already defined 'the "New Zealand" thing'. The poets, I am glad to say, are still arguing athletically about it and about.

This general question of the relationship between the poet and his environment is one of those raised in a questionaire Mr Johnson publishes, along with answers from some of the contributors. The matter seems to hinge on a definition of 'environment'; and, beyond that, on what things the poet should allow to influence him in choosing or controlling his environment. In brief, it is the whole problem of philosophy, never completely soluble. Although it is universal, it may present greater difficulties in some circumstances than in others. For the New Zealand writer, as for everybody else, it is essentially a problem of concretion—of bringing together the various elements, traditional, social, physical, and so on—into a living synthesis in which nothing important is left out. From this point of view, self-conscious attempts to page 114mould oneself according to some verbal formula (whether it be 'urban', 'regional', or 'New Zealand') are likely to be misleading. Common sense and one's natural appetites are the best guides.

If New Zealand prose-writing makes one think of Narcissus gazing into a shallow rock-pool, no such general charge can be laid against the poets. They show a much greater diversity of aim and method, and a stronger impulse to extend the range of consciousness. There is a more realistic recognition of difficulties, and of the possibility that some of our 'problems' may either be beyond solution, or not be real problems at all. (In my view the two cases tend to converge. Time and perspective bring greater certainty. But at the growing-point of history that we call the present there must be the highest degree of uncertainty. In view of Mr Johnson's emphasis on 'newness', it is perhaps worth reiterating the commonplace that only by reference to the past can we take our bearings.)

To applaud contemporary New Zealand poetry for its liveliness is not to imply that all, or even most, of what is written is well-done, or even well-conceived. The poets are not advancing in single file into the jungle—nor, what would be worse, staying in one place and holding a ritual sterility-dance over the bones of the Great Tribal Mother. They are moving forward over a fairly wide front. The casualties are of course more numerous. This is simply the cost of gaining greater knowledge of the territory. At the same time, casualties ought to be kept as low as possible, and this is where the critic may sometimes be helpful.

Louis Johnson does us all a service by publishing the Poetry Yearbook and allowing himself to be turned into a battleground once a year. Following what has by this time become almost an old tradition, I should like to have him on about several matters. The first concerns this question of the role of criticism. Mr Johnson seems to be torn two ways, between disgust with arrogant, impudent, or merely ignorant reviewing, and recognition of criticism as an integral part of conscious creation in art. On the first point page 115we can sympathise with him, if he will agree to the qualification that over-sensitiveness is a bad thing. In general, more money is made today out of criticising literature than out of trying to write it. If a man is building, we can be sure that somebody else will set up a racket in sawdust nearby. This sort of thing hardly matters in the long run. The troubleis that life consists largely of living in the short run. The critic who is merely a parasite on literature can be very irritating. But if the hounds suffer from fleas and cannot get rid of them, they should at any rate refuse to be put off the scent by such minor annoyances. Mr Johnson puts this point, of course, in loftier words when he says that the poet 'must not allow himself to be diverted from his dedicated task'. But one cannot help thinking that he lets the fleas worry hell out of him at times.

On the second point—that of the essential role of criticism —I do not think there can, in the end, be any disagreement. The cat that rejects the saucer of sour milk in favour of fresh milk is behaving as a critic. So is Mr Johnson every time he alters a word when writing a poem. I should like him to clarify his mind on this matter. Then he will no longer make such a statement as, 'I believe far more in the least of the poems in these volumes than I do in practically any statement written about them by the critics', and follow it immediately with the judgment, 'I do not believe that everything in them is good—or even true poetry'.

There is another small matter I should like to mention. The general tone of Mr Johnson's introduction, and the terms of his questionnaire, convey too strong a suggestion of the ardours of the Nonconformist pulpit, the Bible-class, or even the revivalist street-meeting. He appears to be obsessed with the idea of salvation through poetry. I doubt if anything is to be gained by banging the big drum in the ears of a public that is not particularly interested (but is perhaps, at heart, a little more humble, a little less philistine, than we imagine). Poetry, like everything else that is civilised, is the result of cultivation, but it must originate in a strong natural growth. There must be some bent, or inclination, or appetite to page 116begin with. If people don't respond to poetry, we must not be harsh with them. One doesn't expect cows to climb trees. If the majority of New Zealanders fail to get any direct satisfaction out of poetry, this is surely very much their own concern. Better this indifference than the sort of pretence to understanding that we see so often when Culture becomes a fashionable parlour-game. It is a mistake to over-organise the things of the spirit. The Crusades did little or nothing for Christianity. If there is one thing we should fear, it is that cultural hydroponics should become a national industry in New Zealand.

A sense of being one of the elect; an urge to make a profession of being one's brother's keeper; the compulsion to make hard work of everything in the interests of mortification ('Poetry is not easy—either for the reader or the poet. Its demands are heavy', says Mr Johnson)—these are an infection caught from the puritan-Christian smog that has done so much to discolour our ways of thinking. I can only say, as a matter of personal taste, that I find this sort of thing offensive. I feel that we could do with a little less earnestness. The poets, says Mr Johnson, 'want to take the pulse of the living'—as distinct from the critics, who wish to 'honour the dead—many of whom are still with us'. The fruits of poetry are joy and wisdom, not merely clinical knowledge. The odours of the morgue are unpleasant, but so are those of the hospital.

I do not wish to deny that there are good things in Mr Johnson's introduction. He seems, however, to be the victim of a certain untidiness of thought and expression. It is sometimes said that one test of a poet is his ability to write prose, and I think there is something in this. How well Mr Baxter and Mr Joseph write! A small pointer to the looseness, and the rather breathless quality, that sometimes appear in his poetry may be found in the illogical way he punctuates such a sentence as: 'Time had granted some immunity— and it would seem—a degree of acceptance, to his juvenilia'.

Yet another matter I should like to discuss with him is the obscure question of poetic obscurity. In my view, opinion page 117about this has been led astray during the past few decades. Agreed (a) that there can be complexity, which is not necessarily the same thing as obscurity; (b) that Mr Johnson's 'newspaper critics' are often lazy-minded or only semiliterate; (c) that there is such a thing as what Mr Johnson calls 'assimilation', or the growth and extension of an art-language. In brief summary, this is the defensive case that has been put up (largely in reaction against philistinism) by such people as T. S. Eliot, and by several of the contributors to this book. However sound in itself, it has in my view acted as a protective wall behind which heresies have flourished, and distortions have occurred. Alongside the points I have mentioned above I set down some others, which seem to me to have equal validity, and to have fallen into neglect: (a) poetry should be 'simple, sensuous and passionate'; (b) if poetry is too esoteric, either in its doctrinal basis or in its symbolic method, it will be of interest to only a few people (in the extreme case, only to the poet himself), and will excommunicate that quite genuine character, the Common Reader, or the Ordinary Educated Man; (c) in any field, economy of means is the first principle of effectiveness.

I would put a simple question: Are not clarity and lucidity of the highest value in themselves? The act of expression is, in its purest essence, an act of ordering and making clear what was chaotic and obscure—initially for oneself, and then for somebody else. I am not going to assert that Geoff Fuller's 'Harry' is obscure to him, or that Kendrick Smithyman's 'Now, If Only Now' does not clarify and enliven some part of his experience. In the nature of things I have no means of knowing. I am sure that neither of these poems presents itself to me as anything other than a confusion of words. Occasional shapes may be guessed at in the mist, but nothing emerges that has aesthetic unity and power. I find relief in reading W. Hart-Smith's poems, in which he shows a practical understanding of the nature and purpose of language. Mr Hart-Smith writes a particular sort of poetry, in which the effects are obtained by a carefully-controlled rhetoric and clear-cut diction, and by the use of irony as a co-ordinate of page 118meaning. It is very successful. I have read poems by Mr Smithyman that I have understood and admired, but in too many others he seems to me to bury his talent under a heap of words.

In his reply to the questionnaire, Mr Smithyman, discussing this question of obscurity, makes a number of points, but seems to me to miss others that are of greater importance. We all know that human experience is complex, and that a poem may also be complex without being obscure; we are all aware that apparently simple poems may have buried layers of symbolic meaning. But there is a difference between the complex pattern of a fine piece of weaving and a tangled fishing-line. We can accept the assurance that if the fishing-line is followed through from end to end it will be found to have perfect continuity. The question that presents itself is: 'What fun is there in untangling fishing-lines?'. There can be a sort of satisfaction in it. I suggest that the satisfactions of poetry are of a different and higher order, and that with good poetry there is always some immediacy of impact, whatever additional subtleties may be disclosed later.

Not for a moment would I suggest that our poets should refrain from experimenting with new forms of expression. The Yearbook is, among other things, a record of laboratory work. But the means should not be mistaken for the end. What one looks for in reading poetry is aesthetic pleasure. Poetry is not a branch of psychology. Nor is it a religion, esoteric or popular. Nor is literature in general the raw material of empirical sociology—in spite of Mr Robert Chapman, who devoted sixty-odd footnotes and a massive essay to expanding the opposite assumption in a recent issue of Landfall . Whatever else poetry may be said to be, one can safely say that it is a means of redeeming our experience from chaos and intensifying it, not of complicating it for the sake of doing so. Yeats believed that, in general, poetry should deal with 'the great commonplaces'. The outcome, in his case, was not the sort of commonplace, cliché-ridden verse that I imagine Mr Smithyman finds unappetising. It was a poetry so well-ordered, both as to page 119means and as to its emotive values, that recognition and response on our part are immediate and unmistakable. It certainly did not offer new and twopence-coloured clichs in place of penny-plain ones.

By comparison, I find the poetry of Dylan Thomas (with the exception of half a dozen lyrics of great splendour) verbose, obscure, and over-ornamented. He has, I fear, set a fashion for writing what I think of as milk-shake poetry. To make a milk-shake you take a small quantity of milk, agitate it so as to incorporate a large part of the surrounding atmospheric gases, add a good dollop of flavouring and colouring matter, and offer it to the public at an enhanced price. I am not suggesting that Dylan Thomas's poetry is what Christopher Fry's seems to me to be—that is, a simple misunder-standing about the nature of poetic diction. But the greater part of it does appear to be either over-decorated, or obscure, or (more usually) both.

I agree with Mr Joseph: 'Somewhere, poetry needs page 120eloquence, "the big speech". In this and any other matter, poetry needs to be disciplined by precision of imagery and diction, and by a symbolism which emerges from the poem rather than is imposed on it'. But I think he swallows Mr T. S. Eliot's remarks about obscurity a little too easily. The 'state of consternation on the reader's part' is not always 'needless'. For instance, ambiguity as a poetic principle (based fundamentally on metaphor, on the necessity for perceiving things always in terms of other things) is one thing, but ambiguity that causes needless confusion is another. Where evocation of a wider meaning occurs, well and good. But simple obscurity, resulting from gaps in the pattern, from jumbled imagery, or from arty 'soft-focus' effects, is indefensible, fashionable though it may be among the coteries. Similarly, where images with a high degree of privacy are not articulated in terms of some central image or symbol, with common human meaning, they tend to remain merely private, instead of amplifying and enriching the common meaning for us. I would add, to clarify the matter, that meaning is either public, potentially public, or private. For merely logical reasons I am not interested in what is private, and I don't think anybody else can be. (Self-delusion, analogous to 'label-drinking,' is not unusual, especially in an atmosphere heavily charged with the gases of culture-propaganda.) As for the potentially public, I do not think it is unreasonable of me to suggest that there is a good deal of contemporary poetry that is extremely unlikely to be less opaque for my grandchildren than it is for me— for example, such lines as these of Mr Smithyman's:

Now, if only now, my darling
we should waken what sleeping lay
down long and overlong
unicorn, adorer of purity and
circumspect of charity, or the
congruous beast which led Una
momentary, if only now again,
wakening, should lead the nun
page 121 like contemplative hands of me
overlong against the appalling
prayers which my flesh commends
to devil the whole heart hurt
out of me now if only now…

In M. K. Joseph's 'Girl, Boy, Flower, Bicycle' there are at least two main layers of symbolic meaning beneath the surface. This burden is carried lightly by a well-organised system of images. The poem is not in the least obscure. It is as lucid as water through which one sees fish swimming at different levels. (Denis Glover—not represented in this book —in his own very different way sometimes produces complex meaning without any hint of confusion, though he prefers simplicity and directness as a rule.) And although the meaning of Charles Brasch's 'Rest on the Flight into Egypt' is by no means simple, it reveals itself with great force and clarity. The same thing may be said of Charles Doyle's poems, which are, I think, among the most striking in this collection.

Allen Curnow's sequence of poems 'In Memory of Dylan Thomas' perhaps raises the question of obscurity in a small way. For instance, in the first line, 'Never a talking but a telling breath', the setting of one participle against the other leaves a halting question in my mind; and there are other moments of uncertainty. In the main, however, I would not call these poems obscure. The final impression left on the mind is by no means unclear. The most important thing to be said about them concerns the question of rhetoric—also touched upon in Mr Johnson's questionnaire. I don't know why he should have bothered to raise it. One might as well ask whether painters ought to do without paint. Rhetoric, in the old schoolroom meaning of 'heightened utterance', is inseparable from poetic expression. Mr Curnow's poems (if I may use very simple language) have the ring of poetry. They are not merely a pleasing (or unpleasing) arrangement of images and symbols in a pattern (or without a pattern).

page 122

They have weight, momentum, rhythm, and a strong verbal texture—in short, they have those concrete physical attributes the lack of which prevents some other poems in this book from quite coming off. Even when I feel, as I do here and there, that there is too much compression of meaning, or too heavy a manner, or too much owing to Hopkins or Thomas, I do not feel that the poem is somehow slipping through my fingers.

James Baxter shows his usual power over words in the contributions he makes to this book. One could wish that words have a little less power over him. His danger is that of virtuosity. One sometimes feels that his very powerful engine is racing, for lack of a sufficient 'load' of content. I feel that he would be well-advised to tauten his verse a little, and to aim at a greater economy of effect. Too often a poem of his will convey the impression of being a highly professional job, while lacking the sense of urgency that would carry full conviction. He appears to have some of his roots healthily planted in Burns and the ballad-writers, but he is swayed to some small extent by contemporary acrostic-mongers and interior decorators, and by a hankering for plush-lined damnation—which at once suggests the parlour-diabolists of the 'nineties, but is possibly only one of the by-products of Mr Eliot's incumbency. His reply to Mr Johnson's questionnaire is an excellent contribution to the multiple debate.

Robert Chapman's poem on Dylan Thomas is, I think, the best he has so far published. But 'To a Poet Speaking of Being in Hell' is tough going. The last stanza is like eating damp blotting-paper:

And so put off as a man
Of no promise
Having no expectations anymore.
And here re-engaged to do as before,
Having no expectations,
But in possession now
Of that place in the slum
You do dignify too highly
With this word.

page 123

Ruth Dallas and Gloria Rawlinson both seem to me to be poets writing under proper control, and saying something. And J. R. Hervey's 'Honeymoon Scene Revisited' is a poem that takes hold upon one.

Louis Johnson continues to disappoint me by writing poems that just miss coming off, or are flawed by infelicities. Such lines as 'Wraith-grey and trailing veils of ventral chill' and 'breathing coarse vapours in a dorsal kiss'—not to speak of 'ominous as their unchanged bloodstreams pass'—suggest to me a too-energetic striving for effect. Yet where a greater simplicity is aimed at, the arrow falls short of the mark. The line 'Love can be won', for instance, in 'A Song for High Altitudes', misses its impact—perhaps because of uncertainty as to whether the first, the second, or the fourth word carries the emphasis. (One feels, in any case, that it is the sort of thing Middleton Murry or Stephen Spender would say.) And the second stanza becomes obscure, and glances off the mark. His 'Lovers' seem to me to be too metaphysical for their own peace of mind. Better to be more physical; or, if relations become so painfully tangled, break the thing up. (I am going to be a philistine and ask Mr Smithyman how much of Donne and the other metaphysical poets is really enjoyable today, except by literary archaeologists. Ten per cent? How enjoyable that is, of course!)

Pat Wilson's 'Echo and Narcissus' is a poem with some originality and point. But I see no justification for using up three and a half pages on his 'Lavender Hill', which just goes on and on. Robert Thompson's two poems are much too obscure for me. In 'Featureless the Lovers Lie' he begins well enough with—

No fire now in the thighs
to warm the night of doom,
nor tinder in the womb

—and then lets the metre and meaning of the poem collapse like an Egyptian mummy when air is let into the tomb:

strikes spark from the dark
furred upright with fear,
page 124 featureless the lovers lie
frosted with symbolic tear

His 'Dark Lovers' also turns out to be a semantic clot, after twisting the reader's tongue uncomfortably.

All told, the amount and variety of poetic talent displayed in this collection is remarkable. Of course, it does not always result in good poems (although about thirty out of the eighty-five have, in my estimation, high qualities of one sort and another). But the ability to write poetry is evident in a much wider number of poets today than was the case twenty or thirty years ago. In spite of this, what we seem to lack today are really memorable poems, which make an indelible impression. They are not completely lacking: but they are rarer than one might expect when the ground is so rich. I may be quite wrong about this. It may be that age and some sort of mental astigmatism have overtaken me. But I have in my mind constantly, when I am reading poetry, a saying of Dylan Thomas's: 'Poetry consists of statements we make on the way to the grave'. In my view, not all of his practice accorded with it. The remark might better be applied to Yeats or Hardy. But it is a fine saying, if one does not interpret it in the spirit either of a messiah or of an undertaker.