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A Book in the Hand: Essays on the History of the Book in New Zealand

Nine: Typography & the great New Zealand pop-up poetry canon

page 131

Nine: Typography & the great New Zealand pop-up poetry canon

The story goes that during the 1920s and early 1930s something worthy of the title 'New Zealand poetry' emerged for the first time, and that it owed almost nothing to the poetry that preceded it. I am going to repeat this story as a detail of contemporaneous perceptions, and link it with another story — about typography, and how it was perceived at the same time. For economy, I am using the term 'typography' to stand in for all aspects of book production, and where I use it in the narrower sense of the disposition of typographic materials, that use will I hope be clear from its context. In a way, this essay might be seen as one of a number of possible footnotes to D. F. McKenzie's phrase 'the book itself is an expressive means'.1 What can be asserted at the outset is that the New Zealand book as an expressive means has been barely accounted for.

McKenzie's phrase can usefully be distinguished from Marshall McLuhan's 'the medium is the message'. The medium that is the book certainly carries with it a good deal of historical, social, economic, political and cultural information. But it is the added data of each book's particulars, its physicality, its materials, its manufacture, its layouts and so on, that make McLuhan's thesis for the present purpose a short one, and McKenzie's thesis an expanding one. For McLuhan, the account of the book in New Zealand has already been written in the story of the origin of the page 132 printed book in Europe. For McKenzie, the account of the book in New Zealand has just begun.

All stories can be made to intersect, but those of the poetry and its typography are not usually paired in local commentary. It is more usual to focus on the poetry and its criticism. Where typography is mentioned, and it is mentioned quite a lot, it is invariably as an adjunct, a matter of presentation, an 'appropriate' means that somehow matches but is not part of the merit, value, or meaning of the poetry. Nevertheless, the poetry of the 1930s will be under-read until it is located at a triangle of attentions whose points are poetry, criticism, typography.


The critical perception that the words 'New Zealand poetry' came to signify a working concept in the 1930s goes back at least to 1940 and E. H. McCormick's Letters and art in New Zealand. 2 There he attributes to the 1930s writers of verse 'a vigour and an intellectual distinction hitherto unknown', and lists Eileen Duggan, Robin Hyde, D'Arcy Cresswell, Evelyn Hayes (pseudonym of Ursula Bethell), J. R. Hervey, J. C. Beaglehole, A. R. D. Fairburn, R. A. K. Mason, Allen Curnow, and Denis Glover as examples.3 A few pages on, McCormick says more about this 'intellectual distinction':

The writing of poetry has been for them not the random activity of inspired moments but a serious and exacting occupation. . . . They have brought critical intelligence to bear on their writing, and they have broken down barriers that divided New Zealand verse from some of the most vital interests of the New Zealand people.4

Nineteen years later, his opinion is unchanged:

In a few agitated years a handful of men and women produced a body of work which, in an intimate and organic sense, belonged to the country as none of its previous writings had done. They created the nucleus of a literature where there had existed before only isolated achievement.5

McCormick's view, first stated in 1940, became general throughout that decade, and still carries a determining force both for how to understand the poetry of the 1930s and for how to assess the page 133 poetry of the present day. This latter position has been deeply contested among New Zealand poets and critics since the late 1960s, but rather than argue the case one way or another here, I want instead to highlight the power of McCormick's position to survive more or less intact in a very altered national and international context in the 1970s through to the 1990s.

But what were others saying at that time? J. C. Reid's Creative writing in New Zealand: A brief critical history (1946) shared McCormick's position: 'In general, New Zealand poetry in the first quarter of this century did not reach that maturity which was promised in the work of W Pember Reeves and Jessie Mackay .... The past twenty five years have witnessed a great transformation in New Zealand verse'.6 Reid's own list of the transformative poets is: Alan Mulgan, Duggan, Bethell, Hyde, Mason, Fairburn, Charles Brasch, Curnow, Glover, Cresswell, Beaglehole, Arnold Wall, Hervey, and Douglas Stewart — all of whom, except Mulgan and Duggan, had appeared in Allen Curnow's Caxton Press anthology, A book of New Zealand verse 1923-45 (1945)-

Poet D'Arcy Cresswell went further, and named the poet who started it: 'New Zealand wasn't truly discovered until Ursula Bethell, "very earnestly digging", raised her head to look at the mountains'.7 To propose that Cresswell was less than eccentric in this pronouncement, one could turn to Vincent O'Sullivan nearly four decades later: 'Bethell stands with R. A. K. Mason at the beginnings of modern New Zealand poetry.'8 And from there the focus can narrow down even further to McCormick's defining moment of Phoenix: 'One of the first hints of a new impulse in New Zealand letters was the publication early in 1932 of the magazine Phoenix by a group of Auckland students and their sympathisers'.9 Thirty-five years after, M. H. Holcroft repeated the claim: 'In 1932 came the first issue of Phoenix , edited by James Bertram. At this point a new influence entered our writing. Ideas which previously were formed in isolation could now be tested publicly: a literary impulse was for the first time organised, and at a crucial period.'10

These comments by O'Sullivan and Holcroft attest to the endurance of the position outlined by McCormick and supported by others like Cresswell and Reid not long afterwards. A new, intelligent poetry had emerged, grounded in its place of origin, owing little or nothing to the New Zealand poetry that came page 134 before it, and which had as herald the appearance of the periodical Phoenix in 1932. What is not referred to, and is one of the great aporias in our commentary, is that the poets of the 1930s in New Zealand were also readers of a new poetry, a post-Georgian British poetry in the hands of a new breed of poets who also had new things to say and new ways to say them. The list is Allen Curnow's, the date 1981: Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Louis MacNeice, C. Day Lewis, and Stephen Spender.11


The next part of my triangle of attentions is the contemporaneous criticism of the day. Instead of discussing actual critical essays and reviews, I want merely to record perceptions of the critical climate, its milieu, what those present thought about it. McCormick in 1940 is very sharp on the subject: 'Critical writing on New Zealand literature is small in bulk and almost invariably poor in quality.'12 And on book reviews: 'The reviewing of New Zealand books has always been unsatisfactory, partly through the absence of any accepted standards, partly through the lack of journals in which such standards could be defined and maintained.' He avers however that three South Island newspapers, the Press, the Otago daily times, and the Southland times, have 'continuously maintained a tradition of serious reviewing'.13

J. C. Reid agrees: 'Perhaps more than anything else of recent years, New Zealand has lacked able critics to puncture our complacency, to set high standards of endeavour, and to spur writers on to more considerable efforts.'14 Aside from the somewhat parental assumptions about appropriate relations between authors and critics (an assumption one can fairly say, that still holds in a great deal of writing about poetry in New Zealand), and whether critics like Curnow and McCormick fit in to his generalisation, Reid and McCormick expressed very similar general views on the state of criticism.

Curnow disagrees: 'The last fifteen years have seen the beginnings of a maturer, more exacting criticism in New Zealand, parallel with and in part a consequence of the appearance of a more hopeful verse', and cites McCormick as one of those more exacting critics.15

In general, local commentators tended to agree that there wasn't much good criticism at the time, but that which did page 135 measure up was very much in tune and in time with the new writing being published. Of course, that the critics who decried the lack of good criticism were themselves functioning as fully fledged critics is perhaps something we can understand as a kind of modesty which does not really fit with the confidence of their pronouncements.


I have elsewhere elaborated a number of connections between typography in New Zealand under Glover and Lowry and book production as a then recently revived field of scholarship.16 What was signalled in that essay was that New Zealand, as much through the scholarly publicity of the Monotype Corporation in England as anything else, was in some quarters well up with the international play.

Begun at the end of the 19th century through the investigations of Emery Walker, William Morris and Edward Johnston in England, and D. B. Updike in America, a new impetus was given to the study of type, histories of type design, the development of letter forms, and other aspects of typography. Although interrupted by the First World War, this initial energy was picked up by Stanley Morison and others, and quickly translated into the particularities of contemporary book production. The Monotype Corporation's revival of historically based type manufacture, the work of such book designers as Updike, Bruce Rogers, and Francis Meynell, the magazines Colophon, Fleuron, Alphabet & image , and the long running Penrose annual were known about and acted on in New Zealand in the 1930s.

The local typographers — Lowry, Glover, Ron Holloway, Bob Gormack, Pat Dobbie — were not isolated from the larger, international stream of typographical literature and practice. It was not simply a matter that these men were somehow 'better' than other printers. Most printers then, as now, had and have no interest in the history of their business, of the intellectual side of their own activity. What separated our significant typographer/ printers from the rest were not just 'standards' or a more refined kind of sensibility, but standards and a sensibility derived from a specific nexus of historical investigation, scholarly publication, and ever fresh examples of practical results in new books and the articulated values associated with them. Furthermore, they were page 136 not simply part of a new milieu in this country, in which they stood out as outstanding practitioners — there was no such milieu, other than the one they themselves created on their own ground. It was clearly a conscious exercise, undertaken against a background that they knew only too well.

These days, successive editions of poets such as the late Kendrick Smithyman and Allen Curnow actually obscure our typographic history at the same time as they act to preserve the poems. One of the sharpest demonstrations of this I have seen was in 1990, at Under Silkwood bookshop in Parnell, Auckland, at the launch of Allen Curnow's Selected poems 1940-1989.17 Within this book, the poet had decided not to keep to the chronological order of the poems' composition. At any point in the book the poem could have come from any time. The book and the life were discontiguous. In the downstairs part of the shop, while the selected poems and the selected guests were milling about upstairs, a small display of books, in a neat, strict chronological order, exhibited almost every single book that Curnow had published in his lifetime. That display, that row of books tracing a single line at a single height around the room, was a row of typographic and print production values on which a history of literary typography from the 1930s to 1990 could be written.

To retrieve the typographic history we have to look again at the early books. They look different, feel different, behave differently in the hands, than current ones. We, in reply, respond differently to them. Yet without them, our usual condition, it is hard even to imagine that a typographic history is there to be written. But whatever we find in the looking, central to the discussion is also what we know — that the new printerly values of the 1930s were introduced by the poets themselves and their friends. The new poetic values, the new typographic values, were in the same hands.

Denis Glover, poet and printer, had a dual role in shaping the canon in the 1930s that is not yet to my knowledge written up large enough for us to see clearly. A February 1941 Caxton Press catalogue linked two of my triangle of coordinates, poetry and typography:

Two objects have been foremost in the policy of the Caxton Press: first, to make available as widely and therefore as reasonably as possible what prose and verse the directors of the Press have considered of interest and value. Second, to see that the work of printing page 137 is as well carried out typographically and technically as has lain within our powers.'18

The critics took notice. McCormick, 1940, on Phoenix: '. . . it revealed an interest in typography rare in New Zealand up to that time'. And on the presses of Lowry and Glover: 'Besides the function they served in bringing out work beyond the range of established publishers, they were partly instrumental in raising New Zealand's deplorably low standards of book production.'19 Nineteen years later McCormick rewrote that last sentence, changing 'partly instrumental' to 'largely instrumental', firming up the view considerably.20 But even in 1946, in Book: A miscellany , Glover was confident enough in the general climate to write: 'That we have not only a more general interest in the appearance of printed matter, not only a few critics of typography but several zealous practitioners, is almost entirely due to the impetus provided by Lowry in the early thirties.'21

The book of poems

The quotes given above on the merits of the new typography need to be seen as markers, more as evidence, as hints of a deeper pattern of behaviour than they are as final assessments (with which one might agree or not) of the work of the day. A particularly good clue comes (as does so much from the time) from Allen Curnow in his introduction to Denis Glover's Selected poems in 1981: 'Traces of the "thirties" here and there perhaps? When we all began reading Pound and Eliot, or shared our modernity with Auden, MacNeice, Day Lewis or Spender?'22 Poets do not 'share their modernity' (a phrase which nicely puts the spanner in any works that talk too cheaply of mere 'influence') with poets of other countries without, not to put too fine a point on it, reading their books. One could say, 'reading their poems' and, ordinarily, that is what we would say. But a modernity, shared or resisted — there were those who resisted (Robin Hyde and Eileen Duggan did not much care for it) — is not a straightforward matter of writing poems, any more than is postmodernity in our own day. A wider practice, a deeper and more comprehensive level of cultural, social and economic engagement was at work throughout the West after the First World War. Modernity then was a general condition, of which New Zealand had its own local page 138 variation. In terms of poetry, part of the new cultural game was in how the books were printed, and the values those books represented as printed objects.

When New Zealand poets read Auden and his contemporaries, what books, what sorts of books, did they literally have in their hands? What were they looking at, one might say, while they were looking through the texts for meaning? During the 1930s Auden was published by Faber & Faber (several times), Oxford University Press, Michael Joseph, and in the United States, Random House; MacNeice was published by Faber; Day Lewis by Oxford, Jonathan Cape, and Leonard and Virginia Woolf's Hogarth Press; and Spender by Faber, Hogarth, Jonathan Cape, and Victor Gollancz. All these publishers had wide, positive and well-deserved reputations for the design and typography of their books as well as for the interest, value and merit of their texts. And it was precisely these books that became models, thereby, for Glover and Lowry in the printing of New Zealand literature. The prospect of being printed at Caxton to the same standards as Auden had been by Faber was as much a part of the achievement of publication for any poet as any other factor. And the family resemblances between the British book and the New Zealand book should not be any more lost on us than the family resemblances between the British and the New Zealand poem of the day. When McCormick, Reid, Curnow and others asserted a new poetry, a specifically New Zealand poetry (without, it is important to bear in mind, sliding into anything like a 'nationalist' poetry) in the 1930s, they tended to do so by stressing the local achievement, while eliding the international character of the move to a national verse.

Presentation or content?

Because we are able to discriminate between a text and the book we read it in, it does not follow that the distinction is absolute. For the latter assertion, we need other evidence. Yet, that the distinction is absolute, is as primary an assumption in New Zealand letters as any other. Book reviews, essays, academic articles, surveys and so on of New Zealand poetry are relentless in their focus on disembodied texts, except as some aspect of book design might draw attention to itself. But we are only able to engage with texts because we have bodies, and we are only able to page 139 experience them because there are books. Reading is not an 'out of body' or an 'out of book' experience.

Nevertheless, the distinction can be supported. After all, a poem can appear in a number of contexts — a literary magazine, as a quotation in a review, in a book, in an anthology, in a selected poems or a collected works and so on. If in each case the text is unchanged in all its formal aspects (for example, line-breaks, punctuation, word sequence, spelling) then we do have some justification for saying that it is the 'same' text or poem, regardless of context. And, on one level, it is. I would not want to disallow the evidence presented to the seeing eye. But why should we read poems 'regardless of context', when context is what provides us with the world outside the poem which permits us to read it in the first place? And we have all, have we not, had occasion to complain that we have been quoted 'out of context'? It seems to me abundantly clear that a poem that appears in a 'selected poems' of a single author will be capable of very different readings from the appearance of the 'same' poem as it appeared between two pieces of unrelated prose in a magazine twenty years earlier. But this is not the only kind of complication we might have to deal with when we come to notions about the stability or instability of texts.

Textual editor Thomas Tanselle maintained:

Every verbal text, whether spoken or written down, is an attempt to convey a work .... The act of preserving .. . documents . . . does not preserve works but only evidences of works .... Those texts, being reports of works, must always be suspect; and, no matter how many of them we have, we never have enough information to enable us to know with certainty what the works consist of.23

Here he locates a work of literature as being not only independent of the document it is written or printed on, but of any document whatsoever. There is never a definitive version or document that could ever tell us that the work could even be the 'same' as itself. For there is no identifiable template or paradigm that any other 'version', even an exact one to the seeing eye, could be compared with to establish 'sameness'. Printing scholar and typographer Stanley Morison, however, believed that a report on a work, the document that carries it, can certainly be reliable, if only the skills of the editor and the typesetter are reliably accurate. Tanselle's view, however one wants to argue with its neo-Platonic sense of page 140 the text (and many have, notably Jerome McGann), is of interest to me here because he is also implying that each version of a text is only an approximation of a work, and therefore must be capable of different readings.

Another kind of question is raised by poet Susan Mitchell:

Whenever I read Walter Benjamin's 'A Berlin Chronicle', I experience the world of his childhood through my knowledge of what will happen to him in later life . . . Could I learn to read it in a more innocent way? Or will Benjamin's Berlin always be a ruin for me? But doesn't this also happen when I reread a novel or a poem and know how it ends? If the work ends tragically, then when I reread it, its end is always present for me in its beginning.24

Context, as poet Robert Creeley said somewhere, is everything. And the book, as D. F. McKenzie said somewhere else, 'is an expressive means'. These issues, and there are many others relating to textual stability, the text or the poem, are important certainly, but I want also to say that they are also part of the normal, everyday, non-esoteric, common or garden business of living with a single text in a single edition that is read and reread over a considerable period of time. Why do some of us only like to read this text in that edition? Reading it in another we are apt to say that it's just not the same thing. And when we do say that kind of thing, we generally mean it.

The pattern repeats itself

It might be thought, still, that the adoption of new standards in book production that accompanied new standards in New Zealand's poetry in the 1930s remains simply a coincidence: that the twin histories merely ran parallel, that the new poetry could easily have happened without the typographers. One could point out that the new British poetry of the 1930s also came with a new standard of book production, based very much on the technical and scholarly achievements of people like Stanley Morison and companies like the Monotype Corporation and Cambridge University Press which was the first major client of the Monotype historically based type revival of the 1920s. One could also point out that the poets and the enthusiasts for the new kind of book in New Zealand were the same people. At least as interesting, from page 141 my perspective, is the first major challenge to the poetry of the 1930s and their readers and their publishers in 1969-70. The challenge was radical, and one of its primary signs was a radical change in the way poems looked on the page — in both the typography of individual poems, and the context in which those poems appeared on the page, especially in the layouts of the new periodicals: Freed, Edge, Frontiers, Cave. To compare the pages of Landfall with those of Freed, or any Caxton book with David Mitchell's Pipe dreams in Ponsonby , or with A charlatan's mosaic is to see, first-hand and directly, before any reading as such is done, that something very different had happened.25 This shift was exactly the same kind of shift that had taken place in the 1930s. A rejection of or reaction against the poetry of prior generations, the taking over by poets of the means of production, and a sharing of the postmodernity of writers from Europe and the United States, but not at all from Britain.

Where the 1930s poets completely displaced their predecessors, the later shift had the effect of polarising the literary community, an effect that has lasted to the present, and which remains divisive. In a climate where approval or disapproval operates in a general sense, it is difficult I grant to see that the emergence of both sides of the divide might have been produced by the very same kind of historically contingent patterning. Why that might be valid in one case and not in the other has yet I think to be addressed.

1 D. E. McKenzie, 'Typography and meaning: The case of William Congreve', in Buch and Buchhandel in Europa im achtzehnten Jahrhundert, Fünftes Wolfenbütteler Symposium, 1977 , ed. by Giles Barber and Bernhard Fabian (Hamburg: Hauswedell, 1981), pp.81-126.

2 2. E. H. McCormick, Letters and art in New Zealand (Wellington: Department of Internal Affairs, 1940).

3 Ibid.,pp.182-8.

4 Ibid., p.188.

5 E. H. McCormick, New Zealand literature: A survey (London: Oxford University Press, 1959), p.108.

6 J. C. Reid, Creative writing in New Zealand: A brief critical history (Auckland: Printed for the author by Whitcombe & Tombs, 1946), p.21.

7 W. D'Arcy Cresswell (1948), quoted on front fly of dust jacket of Mary Ursula Bethell, Collected poems (Christchurch: Caxton Press, 1950).

8 Vincent O'Sullivan, in Ursula Bethell: Collected poems , ed. by Vincent O'Sullivan (Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1985), p.xii.

10 M. H. Holcroft, Mary Ursula Bethell (Wellington: Oxford University Press, 1975), p.43.

11 Allen Curnow, in Denis Glover, Selected poems, introd. by Allen Curnow (Auckland: Penguin, 1981), p.xiv.

13 Ibid., p.201.

15 Allen Curnow, A book of New Zealand verse 1923-45 (Christchurch: Caxton Press, 1945), p.14.

17 Allen Curnow, Selected poems ip^.o-i()8p (London: Viking, 1990).

18 Caxton Press, A catalogue of publications from the Caxton Press, Christchurch, up to February 1941 (Christchurch: Caxton Press, 1941), p.[7].

20 McCormick, New Zealand literature , p.i 10. The roles of Lowry and Glover were accordingly elevated from 'important' to 'vital' in the two editions.

21 Denis Glover, 'Typography: Bob Lowry's books', Book, 8 (1946), p.[35-9] (p.[35])

22 Allen Curnow in Glover, Selected poems, p.xiii.

23 G. Thomas Tanselle, A rationale of textual criticism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989).

24 Susan Mitchell, in The poet's notebook: Excerpts from the notebooks of contemporary American poets , ed. by Stephen Kuusisto, Deborah Tall and David Weiss (New York: W W Norton, 1995), pp.200-1.

25 See David Mitchell, Pipe dreams in Ponsonby (Auckland: Association of Orientally Flavoured Syndics, 1972) and A charlatan's mosaic , ed. by Stephen Chan and E. S. Wilson (Auckland: New Zealand Universities Arts Council, 1972).