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Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College, Wellington, N.Z. Vol. 15, No. 15. August 7, 1952

Modern Poetry Expert Reviews Lit. Issue — "Nothing but Praise . . . " — Says Miss Stevens

Modern Poetry Expert Reviews Lit. Issue

"Nothing but Praise . . . "

Says Miss Stevens

Let me first say that I have nothing but praise for the enterprise. It is good that students should be writing and should want a printed outlet for their work; it is good that V.U.C. life includes, besides daily swot and sweat, the Museums, Art Galleries, French Maid Coffee Houses, pub crawling, parties, poetic interests, and Kinsey reading which are reflected in the Literary Issue. It is good that the rest of us are sufficiently interested to buy out the first 1000 copies. If I speak plainly about individual contributors, it is because I believe, with the Editor, that the "most urgent need of New Zealand writing is intelligent literary criticism." You may not think my comments intelligent, but they will be honest, and should provide suitable subject matter for those cosy sessions in the Cafeteria of which Mr. Dronke writes so enthusiastically.

Some things in the Literary Issue would be worth reading anywhere. Mr. Baxter's Moa Hunter for instance, and Mr. Paterson's The Puppet Master. The rest are "creditable" for a" student production." As Mr Baxter is the Senior Author of the Literary Issue, I shall discuss his contribution first.

Moa Hunter is a complete poem, [unclear: logical] and a mood. Its clearly defined form offers a [unclear: sti] logical progression. Mr. [unclear: Baxter] springs no surprises of imagery, but works by exploiting precise detail. The most successful stanzas are the first and the last; the first calls up with vivid economy the necessary "given" picture about which the meditation circles; the last makes the comment which the first has set moving in the reader's mind, and then, with "but passed on to the room that held Scabbards Oriental," shifts to a more distant focus in which we see the episode as a whole. The "wave-burnished seashell" of the final line, by recalling the "sandscoured" bones of the opening, dismisses the skeleton as just another object for that detached contemplation which the poem suggests is somehow inhuman.

The central stanzas do not have sufficient concentration, and leave me uncertain of their emphasis. Stone Age man is at case with death, as never with life? Then should not the primeval life evoked be nesty, brutish, and short—not romanticised? Or is Mr. Baxter merely drawing a picture of that life? If so, his pictures are loose and thin. Has his chosen outward form left him with space that had to be filled?

To continue cavilling—why is November darkness specified? Perhaps this is a private reference, but is November in New Zealand notably either dark, or stormy?

"Lay in swans down a willing bride." I feel there is incongruity here, that an attractive phrase has tempted Mr. Baxter away from [unclear: the] core of his idea. "Barebones, Adam," with his sharktooth necklace is sunken deep in "millenial night."yes—but, "as in swansdown a willing bride"????

There are other infelicities. "Turned, turned to his pallet." Why this repetition? Does the word need emphasis? Is the man turning in a restless tossing? (no, clearly not). Is he turning away from fear to seek comfort? Where does the stress come—on the pallet, the fears, the mate, the sleep—and if on sleep, how is this "otherwise"? And the "kahawai in their green treasurehouse." Isn't this a loose use of words? Is it the hunter's treasurehouse or the fishes'? (Perhaps the twist on the idea is justifiable.)

Other comments could be made, but [unclear: here] are enough to suggest that, good though Moa Hunter is, it is not excellent. Mr. Baxter has weakened the poem by the thin romantic water-colouring of the middle stanzas.

Tantalus, and The Sealion, are equally interesting. Tantalus has the compression which Moa Hunter lacks and is a really good poem. Significant detail, skilfully modulated sound and hythm, all serve the total meaning. There are memorable things—"stonefast in the lock of despair," the image of the bear "Shaggy with death, savaging his rag of pretence," and the Donne-ish intricacy of the last line.

The Sealion is in structure similar to Moa Hunter—contemporary episode, reflections arising from contrast with the past, a return to the present, the poet's comment. The opening quatrain is notable for its consonantal capers, effective enough in suggesting disgust and suffering, and then with another—"Oh, otherwise" we slide into the contrast. This section is weaker. Mr. Baxter makes large gestures, but what do they mean? "Priest of Delphic mystery", "bridegroom of silence" Keats?), maelstrom's cradlesong (who cradles whom?). I do not suggest that romantiac imagery should be logical, but there is an emotive logic, and sometimes the intellect too demands satisfaction. The image of the sealion, "bridegroom of silence, strong to break the grave ice-hymen", born of the immortal sea, his "bride and mother", is an effective contrast to the "clown and hobo stranded on the dunes." But where does the sudden identification with "Truth" in the 13th line come from? Sealions rot, and so does "Truth." Nothing in the first 12 lines however, leads the reader to suspect that this is Mr. Baxter's theme.

No Eliot

I find an easy but unsatisfying emotional rhetoric also in Lament, by Mr. Campbell. It is a poem full of echoes, deliberate no doubt in the phrase lifted from Nashe. "Death has moved across her brow/like mist; and like a swan the brightness/of the day has fallen from the air", says Mr. Campbell. Here is Thomas Nashe:

Beauty is but a flower
Which wrinkles will devour:
Brightness falls from the air;
Queens have died young and fair;

Quotation from other poets is certainly sanctified by the example of T. S. Eliot, but Mr. Eliot wears his run with a difference. He builds the borrowed phrases into his own fabric, draws on some of their significance in their original setting, and develops new Implications in them in their new one. Mr. Campbell uses Nashe's line just as Nashe uses it, as' part of a lament, and moveover weakens it by an explanatory addition.

Lament has good things in it—"lies desolate as unpeopled mirrors", "the heart that was once more than seat to all my drownings", but it is diluted, and has some bad lapses. Does Mr. Campbell intend the stress that falls on—

"Be heard then what
The small waves make. . .."?

Is "inform" in line eight used in any sense the dictionary recognises? (A head can inform a spirit, I suppose, i.e., instruct it, but surely Mr. Campbell means that the spirit informs the head, i.e., fills, animates?)

"The moon is down." Fleance put it that way first, but whether Mr. Campbell's" car remembered the cadence or not, the image works. I am not sure however of the success of the free association sequence, moon-alabaster-tide-mirror-shadow - sun, etc.

Whence The Emotion?

Mr. Paterson's In a Brown Bird is another poem of this Romantic Revival, with the rhetorical weaknesses of which I have noted in Lament.

It is notable for its careful manipulation of sound effects—which I find artificial because I do not see where Mr. Paterson gets all this feeling from. When G. M. Hopkins writes of his "morning's minion, kingdom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-draw Falcon", he is writing of Christ, as well as of a windhover. No such impressive analogy is made in Mr. Paterson's poem, and I think that the emotion conveyed in the sound effects is in excess of what one can be expected to feel for a Brown Bird in the Dominion Museum. If more is intended Mr. Paterson has not made it clear.

The Puppet Master is a different matter. Here Mr. Paterson succeeds admirably. His form is just right; the stanza echoes back upon itself monotonously with the two lines added where the ear expects a quatrain finish, and this reinforces the steady unemphatic movement given by the changing sounds and by the apparently unending grammatical sequences. ("They think not of the audience nor will / While wheel and gasket, sickle and spade, the cogs/That move the wheels that move the strings need oiling still.") The central image of the puppets is not new, but Mr. Paterson explores the cliche afresh, making an application to workaday Wellington here and now rather than refurbishing the old generalisations about Man and Fate. His attention to detail is rewarded by success in all but the last two lines, where vague words and ambiguity suddenly slur the crispness of the presentation. Who are the "patient chained kings"? Who is to praise and sing? And why "lock out every thought of peace"? As I rend the poem, it is lack of purpose, lack of freedom, rather than lack of peace, which makes the puppet world what Mr Paterson feels it to be.

Kinsey By-Product

Mr. Johnson, the other Senior Author of the Literary Issue, has three contributions, two poems and a reported talk. Arrival From North Armoriea is a surge of words, bound together by the Tristran-[unclear: Isolde] reference and the dark [unclear: motive] suggestiveness of the allusions.

Those Thousand Women is a by-product of the Kinsey Report. (We will be due soon for a B. Litt thesis on "The Kinsey Kult in Modern Literature") Both these poems I think protest too much. Mr. Johnson wallows in passionate adjectives, in Swinburnian nouns of emotion, in "poetic" phrases and word whose? power lies in the precision with which past poets have employed them rather than in his lavish undifferentiating use of them—"when sun invaded moon", "Whiteness of dreamheld love", "dragon-need"; "animal flanks". "[unclear: Hpless] Kiss", "kissing lips", "unremembered rain", "great blank breasts", "Suicidal city."

This technique defeats itself. The battered reader ceases to react. He in told too much and too often. Sometimes this violent manner erupts into n fully effective poem, but not I think in either of these, though North Armories begins well A final query about Those Thousand Women, third stanza.

Do gangsters notch up their kills on the barrel of the gun? (If so, what with, a hacksaw?) Or did Mr. Johnson need a rhyme?

Three other writers contribute poems. Mr. Poison's is romantic in impulse and technically immature. The same may be said of Miss Thorn's. Miss Adrock evokes, in the Georgian manner, a self-contained fragment of experience, delicately rendered for its own sake.

Prose Poems

Then there are Mr. Baxter's Prose-Poems. But I have already said so much about Mr. Baxter that he will pardon me if 1 say of these only this, that the modern preoccupation with sin and corruption seems to me to require for its expression more than "prose-poetry" provides. Either you want the internal discipline of poetry, which can suggest more than it says, or you want the extended space and time which drama or the novel offer. In addition, this prose carries for my ear persistent derivative echoes, particularly of Auden. Mr. Baxter seems here to be speaking someone ele's language—a pity, for his thought and feeling are mature.

Other Writers

So much, for "Mrs. Jones's singing. About her prose remarks. Mr. Mitcalfe's abort story has point and shape, moves along smoothly in a relentless present tense, and etches in a wall-known-local character. It is not superbly done. The style has no particular strength, and the story takes too long to tell, but it is as good as stories which have achieved "Listener" publication.

Mr. Cody's notes on Modern Art cry out for the illustrations that accompanied his original talk. Without them, and with an inadequate knowledge of the subject. I cannot presume to criticise. (Perhaps Salient has an Art Expert?) [We have it is Mr. Cody.—Ed.] Mr. Scott's discussion of Mr. Glover's poetry—also prepared as a talk—is interesting and stimulating reading, but surely too unorganised for publication in its present form? It should have been redrafted for readers. The critical material in it is worth a better presentation.

There remains Mr. Hutchings on "Chaucer and Courtly Love." This is a type of academic essay favoured in College publications overseas, and would require an academic discussion which Salient would hardly have space for. Mr. Hutchings has the great merit of taking literature—even that of 1885—seriously as an Integral part of life, thought, and belief. Though readers of the Literary Issue, may have boggled at the article, it was well worth inclusion.

Joan Stevens.

The Editor of the Salient Literary Issue denounces "the prevalent bazaar - committee attitude" towards criticism and illustrates it by quoting the remark, "It is so kind of Mrs. Jones to sing for us—we mustn't be critical." Asked to review Salient's venture, I have taken his warning to heart I do not intend to be soothing about "Mrs. Jones" merely because she burgeons on the local clay patch.