Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College, Wellington, N.Z. Vol. 14, No. 7. June 25, 1951
Notes on "A Book of New Zealand Verse'
Notes on "A Book of New Zealand Verse'
Allen curnow's "A Book of New Zealand Verse" (now in a new, revised and supplemented edition), has received many comments and commentaries. It is beyond, doubt that the poems are, on the whole, excellent, and that Curnow's introductory essay is the most important N.Z. literary criticism yet written. But there seems little point in making a summary of all this book's reviews to date, coloured by my personal favouritisms. Rather, I shall discuss some of the new poems, and make an assessment of the principal influences on them.
The chief influence on recent N.Z. poetry has been that of R. A. K. Mason and the late Mary Ursula Bethell. Mason's style is unique in combining the discipline, precision and concise intensity of Classical verse with the assonance and rich rhyme of lyric poetry. It has been the usual thing to tag him "thorough classicist" and to point oat his spiritual affinity to the post-World War I poets. But his is no abject bitterness with its end in the "blind alley" of despair, but a dramatic and existential quest for love by as romantic a notion as the brotherhood of man, almost at times by "dragging in the infinite." His satire is trenchant but passionate, and full of romantic "extravagances." Nor is his poetry the unresolved conflict of words and meanings of modem classicists, but, as with Keats, imagination rarefies and fuses emotions. In his translation of Horace's "O fons Bandusiae," he has even romanticised a severely classical poem! That a generation later James Baxter should begin "The First Forgotten" with the same line, "O fons Bandusiae." gives some indication of his poetry's effect. He has, in fact, put N.Z. poetry on the map.
Miss Bethell's poetry, on the other hand, is important because of its awareness of N.Z. scenery and the baptism, as it were, and dedication to God of a rugged pagan land. In the austerity and nobility of her attitude, Miss Bethell is in spirit more of a classicist than Mason—she conceives of God as the great Scientist, the great Architect. Her control of rhythm, also, is superb, and her use of intellectual terms in lyric poetry gives it colour and rich meaning.
Measures of Greatness
Some of the tendencies and dangers which have arisen in our poetry will now perhaps seem inevitable. Maybe all modern poetry is still in the middle of a struggle to reconcile the diversities of form—organic form, which Herbert Read defines as (the product of) "inherent laws, originating with . . . invention, and fusing in one vital unity both structure and content." This has often led to vagueness in description, to over-frequent abstraction, and to the stifling of poetry in a forest of verbosity. The compelling advantages of modem technique have made these faults the harder to overcome. Although N.Z. poets have never indulged that poetry of spiritual iconoclasm which, though dynamic, made Ezra Pound and the early Eliot esoteric, they have been all too prolific in "refining" modem poetry into a more of less daring, more or less metrical abstraction of Nature and Man in terms of a semi-spiritual society. An analogy, at times uncomfortably close, may perhaps be made to the neo-classical period which followed the Age of Pope.
Poetic tradition, ultimately responsible for these traits, can also show us where they fall short, and what is lacking. Primarily it is the vitality and passion which have been as essential to all great poetry, which made heroic verse stirring and gave dramatic force to the poetry of the Elizabethans. Nor is it a mere chance that Donne's religious poetry has the passionate drive of his love poems or that Goethe wrote philosophically and symbolically in "pure poetry" in his seventies, when already a master of lyrics and of poetic drama.
The Two Most Important . . .
This digression implies that much of the best N.Z. poetry so far, which despite complexity of form has not in its awareness of Nature neglected the human and dramatic elements, will have the semblance of a "tour do force." This implies particularly to the work of two of our most important poets, A. R. D. Fairburn and Denis Glover. Fairburn has undoubtedly a great lyrical gift and a rich and flowing style, but he is sometimes in danger of shallowness, as of trying to make a striking effect from a conventional theme. Nevertheless at such times as sincerity is combined with irony or vivacious satire, he "pulls off" a compelling poem. Glover, on the other hand, scarcely plays with words, but always searches the "mot Juste" while using them sparingly, to express deeper truths in virile verse tinged with bitter sarcasm which, clever as it is, tends to give the impression of the harsh "cracks" of a "wiseguy." But the very toughness of his poetry emphasises its magnificent insight.
Finally, to show that, as Allen Curnow says, "we start now from a better vantage," I shall try to make apparent that at least five of the new poems, though there is a world of difference between their individual styles have somehow inherent in them that vitality either in personal or in natural symbolism which is a fundamental of great poetry.
The Vitality of Greatness
Charles Brasch's "Waitaki Revisited" is probably the most successful reflective poem written by a New Zealander. It is made compelling by its harmonious linkage of thoughts, by the brilliant interplay of the symbols of natural objects, and by their assessment in terms of a life's experience and of the absolute "Comfort, Certainty, Knowledge." The sight of the Waitaki school takes the poet back to a time of "terrible asking" about "distant worlds." But now he realises that
In the time of the heart man is alone
And to those he longs to confide in, the nights, the wind,
He is but surface and texture."
His own spirit's "solitary passage" is
"Swept by a vast wind, and the wintry, perpetuad
Flashing of violent stars."
The Sapphic stanza form is ideal, and in this poem Charles Brasch shows himself the spiritual heir of Holderlin and the Rilke of the Duino Elegies.
Basil Dowling's "Canterbury" shows that the experience of Nature is not only compelling in the imaginative reconstructions of poetry, but can also be an almost visionary experience. Canterbury, bleak and indifferent, takes on the richest Significance for him—the vision of the distant hills which seem to justify his calling it his "holy land of childhood" is at the same time "colourless and thin," and, paradoxically, the city is "a friend" only when seen at commonplace close range—"Sight rides on power-poles." Dowling is a true Canterbury poet, for in language stripped of all ornaments he has caught the essence of the scene.
Allen Curnow's difficult poem "At Dead Low Water" embodies a complete symbolism showing death and corruption in relation to time and to individual experience. Cumow has perhaps the most powerful intellect of all our poets, but tho force of the torrent of his poetry seems to be broken as it comes out of the depths by a barrier of words. His brilliant images can become sterile through their modulations, but this very sterility shows his reluctance to give way to any facile or inexact form of expression.
The theme of the first movement of this poem is that "All drifts, till fire or burial." Decay has a link with a time before Creation, but time itself means an interplay of birth and death. The second movement shows one instance where the tide absorbs the memory of a fresh life, and so taints it with death. In the third, time is seen to fossilise and heave up all experience, which has 'meaning only in the approach of "individual pain."
"Sing all things sweet or harsh upon
These islands in the Pacific sun,
The mountains whitened endlessly
And the white horses of the winter sea,
"Letter to Noel Ginn (II), a poem to a friend In a defaulters' camp, is by James Baxter, the most remarkable of our young poets. Its solemn six-line stanzas are full of selfmockery and cynicism, a cynicism of compassion, if such a thing is possible. The poem Is discursive, but the imagery is so well built up that tho speculations about himself and other men, the philosophising and prophesying, the childhood reminiscences and the expression of landscape all have relevance and sincerity, all share in "the vision splendid." The Letter makes a bitter contrast between futile dreams of youth and a wretched life. Shakespeare's sonnet "The expense of spirit In a waste of shame. Is lust in action" ls more than a quotation—it is, I feel, the core of the poem, and in it the literary and personal experience is completely fused.
"Letter to Noel Ginn" is one of the last poems In this book, and it was written over three years ago. Since then Baxter has written more poems of this calibre, and we have become acquainted with the work of other young poetn llko Alistair Campbell, P. S. Wilson and W. H. Oliver—all this seems to demand yet another book of New Zealand verse, and so, I foci sure will a reading public which has been brought Into contact with vital poetry of high standing.
By Peter Dkonke