The Woman Problem & other prose
Poetry in New Zealand
Year Book of the Arts, 1945
The problems of the poet living and writing in New Zealand are not much different from those of the poet in any other part of the world. If his work is of any value, his opportunities for being published are better in England or America than they are in New Zealand. But that is a secondary question. Before good poetry can be published it must first be written—and it is in the writing that the real problem exists.
Never before in history have the poets been so worried about their relation to society as in the past two decades. The greater part of the best critical writing during those years has had as its subject matter not poetry in itself, but the value and the purpose of poetry in relation to the general needs of the community. This may be taken as evidence both of sickness and of a yearning for health. The sickness is not in the minds of the poets alone. It is something that is affecting the whole of the modern community. And it is not something new. It has been implicit in society, and therefore in the writing of poetry, for a very long time.
We are aware today of all sorts of intellectual difficulties that did not trouble the Elizabethans. We ask ourselves questions, and cannot find answers. Is poetry (and art in general) only an adornment to life, a decoration applied externally in order to improve the quality of something that has already been accepted as being good? Or is it something more important than that—is it the chief means whereby we may realise the value of life, serving the purpose that in previous ages was fulfilled through religion?
Or can poetry serve both ends? In the seventeenth century it appears in some degree to have done so. It made no explicit page 132pretences to have supplanted religion: but in fact we may say that English poetry did, in that period, provide a means of realising some of the highest values. It was a way of expressing an approval of life and an appetite for experience that were shared by the whole community. At the same time it was accepted at the lower level of adornment or decoration, and helped to refine the thoughts and feelings of the educated classes who dominated the pattern of social life. The poetry of the eighteenth century was less intense in feeling: but poetry was still accepted as having a positive relation to society.
In the nineteenth century a different position arose. Poetry came to be frankly accepted as a substitute for life— not an adornment or a means of full expression. From Keats onward, right up till the time of the First World War, poetry was 'escapist'. It would be ridiculous for us to say that it was on that account necessarily bad. But the change in the relation between the poet and society is too significant to be overlooked.
I have no intention of trying to provide, within the limits of this brief note, an answer to the questions that have been worrying poets and their critics for more than a generation. But a few comments may perhaps be made without incurring the charge of presumptuousness.
With the shattering impact of the First World War, many things that had long been hidden were made clear to those with eyes open and honest enough to see them. It became evident that for a long time past poetry had ceased to have any positive and fruitful connection with the general life of society. The times had changed, and poetry had been left behind. The first impulse, on the part of many good and conscientious poets, was to try to catch up with the times. Attempts were made, in the 1920s and 1930s, to enlarge the subject-matter of poetry. Political beliefs, the feelings of the common people, economic processes, the machine—all these were brought into the field. This was a healthy change, and it produced some poetry that was significant, along with a great deal that was merely experimental. But, after two decades in which the poets made every concession possible page 133to their social environment, it became evident that the fundamental questions remained unanswered. One outcome of this, during the period of the recent War, was a swing back to romanticism on the part of many of the best poets of the younger generation. This, again, may be regarded as a healthy reaction against the poetry of the 1930s. But its chief effect on our minds is, possibly, to underline even more heavily the fact that poetry and social life are still very much at odds with each other.
Now, it is easy to construct theories about the social break-down that is (I believe) implied by this straw in the wind of history. But—renouncing the cloak of the prophet and taking up the position of a mere observer of events—I feel impelled to point once again to the often-noted fact that this malaise of which I speak has come upon us during the period that has seen the rise of industrialism. The application of scientific knowledge to economic production was no doubt historically inevitable. The impulse that makes a man ride a bicycle instead of walking is in itself a rational one, and it is difficult to persuade him (although it may well be true) that walking is better for his health. At the same time, it is tragically clear that the use of machinery and of scientific processes has brought about a state of chaos. It is clear, too, that there is no simple solution possible, such as abolishing machinery, or turning human society into an ant-hill in order to make it fit in with the complete mechanisation of life. Any such solution begs the essential questions: What is man's nature? What is the nature of the world he lives in? What are his needs? And how can he best satisfy them with the means available?
The sphere in which our breakdown has occurred is that in which the most important of human activities takes place —the activity of defining and relating means and ends. We have ceased to make any attempt to erect a comprehensive scheme of means and ends. We have even come to adopt the attitude that this is not possible—that history is a blind process, with laws of its own over which we have no control; and that we must resign ourselves to it. This particular kind of mysticism is at the back of a good deal of page 134'progressive' thinking. Its irrationality can be proved. And, with the arrival of the atomic bomb, its dangers need no proving.
Finally speaking, the ends of human life can be stated only in religious terms. It is not for the poets to attempt such a task. If it is the rational end of human life to live ad majorem Dei gloriam (a phrase that needs bodying out with doctrine and experience), then poetry is an important part of the means whereby we may fulfil that end. The poet will best serve society, then, neither by compromising with the strongest forces in his environment nor by withdrawing into himself; neither by appeasement nor by isolationism. All he can and should do, at any time, is to try to realise all the particular values that are generalised in that Latin phrase, and to let them work in and through him. If the landscape is so murky and disordered that only a few of these values can be descried, he must still continue to make do with whatever is revealed to him. His usefulness to society will not be very great in that case. But that is not his fault. He is bound only to do his best.
The writing (and the appreciation) of poetry in New Zealand are inextricably mixed up with the course of life in Western civilisation. On the other hand, we should never forget that poetry, whatever its traditional origins, must always derive its nourishment from a particular patch of soil. There is not much good poetry being written in New Zealand today. If we don't think poetry is important (and the fact that the majority even of 'educated' people take that view is one symptom of our general malaise), then we shan't be worried about it. But if we are really concerned about poetry, we shall be wasting our time if we merely scold or exhort the poets. The enervation of poetry is a sign of the enervation of life in general; and that involves deep consideration, and the abandonment of any get-rich-quick hopes of a 'cultural revival'. Cultural hydroponics won't work.
It is not the duty of the poet to save society. In any case, there can be no such thing, in any real sense of the words, as 'saving society'. Society can be ordered, and brought into harmonious relationship with the natural world—and the page 135poet can do little, by direct means, to bring even this much about. What is always within his power, at all times, is the recognition of a certain sort of truth, based on understanding and emotional honesty. It is, for example, the chief merit of Mr Curnow's poem 'At Dead Low Water' that it is a true and moving statement of a particular mood, experienced directly by the poet—not a capricious mood, but one that derives from a very wide context of well-digested experience. With his great metrical talent, Mr Curnow could easily have jazzed up for us an 'Ode to Peace', or a poem celebrating the building of the new hydro-electric works. But in drawing on a personal experience that has moved him he has successfully avoided any of the heresies, old or new.
We have a right to ask of our poets that they shall not accept briefs; that they shall not consent to become propagandists, either for a political programme, or for a new literary fashion, or even for the Absolute. Whatever we demand of them must be based on personal honesty as an irreducible minimum. The worst poetry that has been written during the past two decades is propaganda of one sort or another—either 'proletarian', 'escapist' (indirectly supporting the status quo), or 'religious'. The best is that which has been based on personal experience that has moved the poet strongly. When all is said and done, I think that is all we can ask for at the present time, in an age of spiritual anarchy. The enlargement of the horizon of meaning must await the return of order to the world. The poet's part in helping to restore order is to stick to his honesty—to ignore the blandishments of the street-walker (even when her father is a clergyman), and to refrain from trying to usurp the functions of the politician, the economic planner, the theologian, or the tourist agency.
If anybody should think that my claims on behalf of the poet and his functions are unduly modest—or that I have left any loopholes through which quislings may creep into the camp—let him examine the implications of the sort of simple honesty I have prescribed as the duty of the poet. They will be found to provide a heavy enough burden for any one pair of shoulders.