Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 27, No. 15. 1964.
The Emergence of a National Identity — —The Village Pump
The Emergence of a National Identity
—The Village Pump
Peter Bland, the poet of the suburbs, works as a Journalist on the staff of "The New Zealand Listener". His peotry has appeared in several New Zealand periodicals, including "Landfall" and "The New Zealand Poetry Yearbook". He has recently published a book.
The emergence of a national identity seems to have obvious advantages in the fields of marketing and economics. It's a necessary over-simplification. National identity symbols such as kiwis, ferns, and tikis, are the measure of our recognition abroad. We have to guard them carefully. The Japanese, for instance, have got a postage stamp version of Mt. Egmont! Our Australian rivals stick to kangaroos and Ned Kelly. They play clean. The trouble is that Kangaroos and Ned Kelly are a virile combination. Our national images are somehow noiseless and nocturnal. They don't have a life beyond the butter-packet. They die with the last slice of bread!
In the arts it isn't a case of the emergence of a national identity. We've already had one for over thirty years. It's a question of getting rid of the one we've got. Our poets gave us a national identity in the 30s—that decade of self-awareness, inverted patriotism, and lone voices in the wilderness. The trouble now is that these same lone voices want to go on living in a wilderness. They don't want anything to happen to disturb the local scene. In some ways a national identity is the best protection against a nation's artistic development that I can think of. It excludes so much. It substitutes explanation for experience.
At one stage in our writing it began to look as though our mountains were in danger of being eroded not so much by the weather as by the mass trampling of literary hermits' feet. Our rivers were drying up under the continual bailing of poetic billies and baptismal cups. The Pacific was solidifying under the strain of so many poetic stares. Now, in our fiction and our poetry, we are beginning to notice the shape of our own lives a little more . . . those little wrinkles round the eyes . . .the silences between men and women as well as between river and rock. We are learning to name our "nameless hills" by sharing our lives with them, rather than by asking the landscape to bear the load of our own personal inadequacies. We are beginning to see that the "Isolation" theme, or the idea of New Zealanders as a "race apart" is the product of Isolated individuals who confuse their own remoteness with that of the country as a whole. "When I think of the suburb in which I live," wrote one Auckland literary critic recently, "I am tempted (only tempted mind you) to add our remoteness from each other to my list of (physical and geographical) remotenesses." what could be more remote than that! Nearly the whole of 20th century literature is concerned with "our remoteness from each other".
What we really have in our poetry, and to some extent in our painting, is a state of confused or rival parochialisms. Any impression that an overseas visitor might gain of a national identity in our verse would depend on whether he read an Auckland or a Wellington anthology, If he read both held be even more confused. He might have to forget all about national identities and simply read both lots of poems as poems. Some of us would never allow that! We are often so insecure about our presence here—and, by implication, about our personal identities—that we have to plead for ourselves as being representative of a national identity. What impertinence! Yet look at the number of New Zealand books in which it is claimed that the author is (1) a New Zealander. (2) a gentleman, and (3) a novelist or poet. That is the implied order of importance. And as for our rival parochialisms—well, can we really expect any but the most ardent students of New Zealand literature (most of whom apparently live in Texas) to be interested in sorting out the kind of Incestuous family relationships that get printed in our literary magazines under the name of criticism.
To compare our few genuine poetic talents with, say, Keats and Yeats (as was done recently in a "Landfall" article on Curnow) is actually to exhibit a naive provincialism instead of the academic sophistication that was intended. It often seems to me that our verse anthologies have built up a picture of insular sophistication in order to avoid the embarrassment of having to see ourselves as the raw, subterranean provincials we largely are. This "insular sophistication" is ironically, a very English view of ourselves. It's been the burden of every intellectual New Zealander since the foundation of Christ's College. But we do not, by and large, live sophisticated lives. (Although sophistication is certainly to be welcomed.) We are young, historically, in matters of precedent. If not in spirit (Why do we then, in all fields, so desperately seek the respectability of premature middle-age?) We are emotionally restricted, if not in human potential, then certainly in literary expression. This is reflected in the very flatness of our language, in our dependence on borrowed conventions both in life and art. (Conventions, here, rest lightly—and therefore desperately—on the bubbling mud-pools of a highly repressed libido.) If all these things are limitations on our experience, and consequently on our artistic expression, then they should be faced as limitations instead of apologized for. Our concern with our own history is too often an escape into the past, instead of a remaking of that past in terms of the living present.
When Colin McCahon (surely our most cosmopolitan painter) indicates that there is no need for young New Zealand painters to go overseas, that we have all the requirements for good painting here, he is turning a private truth into a public doubt. Certainly, to judge from his own work, there is no need for Mr. McCahon to go overseas, but not every young painter has his intelligence and sophistication. Mr. McCahon can absorb numerous international influences and make them distinctively a part of his own vision.
This is not because he is a New Zealander but simply because he is a particularly sophisticated individual. Does it matter whether a New Zealander paints good pictures in Auckland or in Alice Springs, so long as he paints them? It is much the same with Allen Curnow's national restrictions on verse writing, Mr. Curnow's own development—for all his talk of "the New Zealand thing"—has rested largely on his continuing ability to absorb English and American influences, He has been much quicker than other poets of his generation in keeping up with the times (Yeats and Auden in the late 30s and early 40s: Dylan Thomas and Wallace Stevens in the 50s), Glover. Fair burn, and even Mason, always remained Georgian in feeling and technique. Nowadays, however, the time lag between something new happening in one country, and—if it's any good—this same impulse sparking off something new in several other countries, is practically non-existent. A good poem written in New Zealand in 1964 will be read with interest in England or America without any concessions being made for its national self-interests. We are just another province in a world where even the cultural centres change with a rapidity that was unknown 20 years ago. Even London is now a provincial capital. We all live in a world of widening human traffic, of shared immediacies. The landscape everywhere is our bed and board.
This world of shared immediacies is particularly apparent in drama. If a good play was written and produced in Wellington, it would be a success in any city in the English-speaking world. It would be as sensible (and probably more profitable) to take such a play to Sydney as it would be to cart it up to Auckland. A good play will have the same response in Rome. London, or New York, as it will in its city of origin. Alternatively, a bad play, a dull play, will not be rescued by its New Zealandisms or its Americanisms, or any other such appeal page 16 to local eclecticism. Nor does the internationalism of modern drama in any way contradict the particularities of origin. Ambition in the arts is not to be measured in terms of representing New Zealand. Nor should the artist waste time building isolation systems to protect him from a supposedly alien society. "In the end," says the poet Rilke, "the only defence is defencelessness." This is also what Robert Prost means in the lines I quoted at the beginning of this script: "Something we were withholding made us weak, Until we found that it was ourselves."
Well, we've talked a lot about New Zealand but my feeling is we've withheld an awful lot. We haven't surrendered ourselves. We haven't dared to find out what is permissible, we've just taken the teacher's word for it. When I was casting an envious eye in the direction of Australian painting recently, a friend explained: "Well, in New Zealand, you can go for only three sections on the bus on a one-section ticket before an inspector gets on. In Australia we can go for ten!" This has something to do with my arguments against national identities in the arts. They assume the proportions of an orthodoxy, and "the trouble with orthodoxies," says the American writer Donald Hall, "is that they prescribe the thinkable limits of variation."
Let's leave nationalism to the politicians. We're still in search of more human particulars.
This selection has been made to show recent individual developments in New Zealand verse. It is representative of nothing but the better work of the poets concerned.—Peter Bland.