Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 27, No. 15. 1964.
New Zealand — Poetry Today
W. S. Broughton is a lecturer in English at Massey University. His poetry has appeared a number of New Zealand publications.
Prophesies about the immediate future in poetry are notoriously useless, and most critics prefer the safer Job of assessing what is going on now in terms of what has happened in the immediate past. If we leave aside the more effusive editorials of the little magazines and anthologies, we find that most appraisals of the current situation in New Zealand poetry describe the verse being written as "promising", but are understandably cautious of seeing it as deeply moving, or startlingly original. The disturbing thing about such Judgments in 1964 is the way in which they echo what has been said in virtually every year since the mid-1950s, and since this is the mid-1960s we might reasonably think about the possibility that New Zealand's literary strength lies now in the field of prose, and that its "promise" lies, though to a much smaller degree, in the work of a few young dramatists whose plays are now finding publication and performance. This short essay will show that I think this is rather less than wholly just to the poetry of today; it will also suggest where I think the faulty critical emphasis has lain for the past eight or more years.
Poets in New Zealand have a habit of grouping themselves (or of being grouped by their critics) into "generations", which habit is useful for the literary historian, but rather unprofitable for the reader for whom the term "generation" will include an idea of similarity that extends beyond mere contemporaneity. If we use the term to group together poets who have begun their productive lives at about the same time, we find in each decade a group of contemporaries, but apart from those whose work began in the 1930s there are few poets whose works suggest unity of either purpose or similarities of technique to any striking degree. What, for example, besides chronology. Justifies our grouping together those poets whom Curnow added in the 1951 re-issue of the Caxton "Book of New Zealand Verse"? What could make us link such dissimilar writers whose first work appeared in the 1950s as Doyle. Bland, Chains. Leeming, Stead. Adcock? The literary historian has a less profitable field to till than has the literary critic in our verse: but if we use chronology to locate those poets whose work has been either "promising" or "significant" (or whatever other vague terms of praise contemporary reviewers nave used) we find, without very much surprise, that the "dropout" rate is pretty high when we compare the starters with those who stayed the course. Time, we feel, should properly take its toll; and indeed there is something rather depressing about the later work of a poet whose early writings possessed real merit, but who has failed to get his second wind. R. A. K. Mason, our earliest important poet, and for some readers still our greatest one is an example—there must be few readers who are not distressed by the small verses that are on occasions published in little magazines and periodicals by the man who gave us "No New Thing" 30 years ago. Among the poets who are a few' years' Mason s Junior, only Charles Brasch in his recent volume "Ambulando" seems to be looking for a new poetic direction, somewhat self-consciously, but with the cool craftsmanship that enhances the sincerity of this re-orientation. Glover continues to write polished whimsies and light poems while Curnow has given us little new since the Mermaid edition of his "Poems 1949-57". I do not doubt the possibility of new and important poetry from these latter two, especially Curnow but the present Indications are that the "thirties" writers have virtually left the scene. This leaves us in the curious situation of finding the now rather long-toothed group of "young poets of the forties" as the grand old men. The critical and editorial Influence of Curnow and Brasch will doubtless be felt for a long time yet, both because of their work in the past, and because of their continuing presence as a University teacher, and the editor of "Landfall" respectively. But it is upon James K. Baxter and Louis Johnson that the mantle of "poetic seniority" now falls. If this seems somewhat strange for two men, the elder of whom is only 40. it is in part a tribute to the continuing, if qualitatively uneven, devotion of these two to poetry, and in part an Indication of the extreme youth of our national verse tradition. But it is worth asking whether "seniority". even in a good poet, has any meaning for the poets who follow him. The period since the second edition of the Caxton "Book of New Zealand Verse" has been notable for the rejection of what many younger poets believe to be legislative criticism from Curnow. In later years the target of the attack has been shifted from the preface to that book to the editorial technique of Curnow's "Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse." and to "academic criticism" in general. We must now ask whether the noisy rejection of an older generation of poets will be repeated by those poets whose tutelage in the fifties was given by the men who are now our "poetic elders".
In the critical debates of the last 15 years, personalities as much as ideas have become involved, to the general detriment of intellectual standards, and it can only be hoped that the rather artificial distinction that a number of poets and critics assume exists between regional-University-academicism and universal-bardic-Romanticlsm (With all the concomitants—wax-effigy-piercing, and visions of citadels at Auckland and Wellington, etc.) will give way not before time, to a situation where the serious lover of poetry can consider the history of his country's literature without being Involved in feuding, and can be permitted to exercise his critical faculties with much the same freedom.
For there is a type of response to criticism that seems to cut across any artificial Ideas of "generation." and which is at least silly and possibly artistically dangerous when encountered In any writer over the age of 19. This is the type of argument that was epitomised by two talks in the August Issue of the YC "Poetry" programme—talks where James K. Baxter and Richard Packer Inveighed against poetry criticism in general, and in the process produced many of the all too common confusions of Romantic anti-intellectualism. As any teacher know's the function of analytical criticism is not to provide an end in itself but to train the reader's sensibility in the understanding and evaluation of the poem. Whether this is successful or not will, of course, depend on the quality of the teacher or critic, but I assume that the ultimate aim of all criticism is to make every reader a critic, and therefore a better reader and Judge of poetry. Yet Mr. Baxter continues to bring out the rather battered example of a C. K. Stead review of 1956 as evidence to prove that analytical criticism is a type of intellectual oozle-bird which files into the position which that creature is wont to assume, with the expected result. Mr. Baxter's contention seems to be that criticism destroys poetry, a difficult thesis to prove when it is possible to show that he has failed to understand the intention of the example he cites as proof. From these premises Mr. Baxter laudably, but erroneously, assumes that since poetry will prove too fragile to survive criticism, we should therefore drop criticism. Mr. Packer, in his talk, added to this the cry that what the poet needs is not advice nor criticism, but encouragement. Given the ease with which verse can be published and the sizeable buying-public for it in a fairly small population. Mr. Packer cannot be referring to the "market" in his plea: and we must assume that by "encouragement" he means "freedom from criticism." The Romantic thesis that the poet is a fragile reed which the critical winds may break irreparably is about as silly as the thesis that the poem itself can be "destroyed" by criticism. The world of which Baxter and Packer dream is one in which the reader surrenders his right to discrimination. Mr. Packer has on several occasions made great play of the term "fascism" in describing the local critical scene, yet I should have thought that the ignorance and indiscriminate insensibility that he seems to see as the desirable state of mind of the poetry reader is far more susceptible to fascism than any society in which "the common pursuit of true judgment" is acceptable.
In spite of assertions that there are deep clefts between "schools" of poetry and critical thought in this country, the evidence suggests that the divergences between oft-associated writers are in just about every instance greater than the similarities. A purely linguistic analysis might, for example, group the work of Keith Sinclair and Kendrick Smithy-man together—age, their city of residence, and the early manifestos of "the mudflat school" might seem to confirm this—yet a careful reading would probably show' us that Sinclair is nearer to Alistair Campbell in his themes, notwithstanding many differences of style, or that Smithyman is in many ways similar to the younger poet Gordon Challis. So the grouping could go on endlessly, subtly, unprofitably, since every such grouping needs such qualification and modification that the original ideas of "grouping" become virtually lost. In the face of this, the literary historian can do little more than lament for the apparent "mappability" of the thirties (since it is only here that Curnow's thesis, derived and modified as it was from Cresswell and M. H. Holcroft and applied to the verse of the time, can be said to be fully substantiate.) Literary historians working in the post-war period may be forced to agree with Glover that "the general situation remains fluid, though there are some who would describe It as bloody fluxy."
If we seek for classifications of the ways In which the post-war poets differ from those of an earlier generation, we may find a hint in Peter Bland's review of "The Hulk of the World's Between" ("Education," May, 1962) where he notes that C. K. Stead's minimal concern with "remoteness from each other" may not be shared by "Mr. Baxter and others." We can accept the point as being valid without necessarily denying the strength of the poetry that has concerned Stead and critics of similar bent: what I think is undeniable is that what-ever thematic concerns our critics discern in verse written here, they will continue to find that the good poetry here (as anywhere) has its source of inspiration and verbal realisation in the immediate experiences of the poet—that any idea of "universalism" will be subsequent upon the well-grounded Images rather than assumed by them a priori.
A criterion such as this doesn't automatically prove the worth of poetry which conforms to it but it is likely to provide a standard by which we can judge whether the poet has done the least that we can require of him. Beyond that, we should require that his language becomes more than a communicative adjunct to a metaphysical but disembodied "meaning": we should assume that in a good poem words and "meanings," sound and sense, form and content are inseparable. I suggest that with this in mind we can look at the poets writing at the present time and, without much more than a passing concern for historical and thematic ciasslfications note those poets who are writing good poems with some regularity. Then hierarchies of quality do start to emerge as patterns though whether we can extrapolate them into patterns of prophecy is another matter. For myself, I find that Smithyman emerges as a poet far superior to Sinclair or Campbell, that Challis and Slater seem to write consistently with a care and quality that makes the greater part of their verse efficient, if not yet perfected in either form or statement, while the failure to achieve this same linguistic or inspirational level makes the higher-reputed Bland seem a lesser, more emotionally shallow versifier by comparison. I feel, too that Father J. E. Weir's recent publication reinforces the earlier impressions of a slight verse-talent, with cliched Romantic images overflowing with spontaneous (or are they rote-learned?) emotions. In general, my impression Is that a number of the poetic reputations of the fifties have been inflated beyond the warranty of the verse, and that what has emerged in the way of new writers in the 1960s is in fact far more interesting and hopeful than was the widely-praised wave of "new poets" of or so years ago. At this point we are hindered by a lack of material to enable us to make more than tentative judgments, yet the verse of Chris Duval Smith, K. O. Arvidson, Vincent O'Sullivan, Max Richards. Norman Bilborough. Mark Young, and the more recent work of Hilaire Kirkland, makes me more confident that we may have a substantial amount of verse worth reading from the mid-1960s, than anything except Stead. Challis or Fleur Adcock in the previous decade.
In writing in this vein I realise that I am modifying my Initial suggestion that prophecy is to be avoided. I am also Indulging in what could be accused of being the "labelling" that I deprecated ("promising" etc.) in the first paragraph of this essay. Nevertheless, I believe that there are promising poets (and that without any Intentional condescension) writing in 1964. and that they, together with a few of the older ones Who are continuing writing will probably give us more of lasting value than did the rather over-rated "new generation" of the 1950s.