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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Vol. 34, No. 18. October 6 1971

An Interview about N.Z. Poetry & other matters

An Interview about N.Z. Poetry & other matters

William Wordsworth

Following the worthy precedent of having an overseas jud, consider the Rothmans poetry awards, we have invited the founder of the English rheumantic movement of the early 19th century, and observer and critic of poetry for many years now, to have a provate and exclusive interview with Salient about the state of New Zealand poetry. Mr Wordsworth, who has outlived two world wars and the industrial revolution, is now nearly blind, due, he says, to excessive prognostication in his youth. However he is still lively, for a 201 year old, and the irascibility he occasionally portrayed was more likely to have been caused by the presence of a large and frightening fire-extinguisher accidentally pointing in his direction throughout the proceedings, than by weight of years. Indeed it was painful to see how insubstantial Mr Wordsworth now was, a ghost, or perhaps pure spirit...

Salient Mr Wordsworth, what do you think of the notion that an overseas judge can judge New Zealand poetry?

Wordsworth Let me consider for a moment, I recall a similar situation with regard to Emerson, that fine old man from the States, back in the 1850's. He made a pilgrimage to England to have a chat with me. He desired to know my opinion of American literature. Well, I could not say a great deal, as I had not, at that stage, read anything of American literature. I told him he was doing a great job. He was disappointed that I was no more enthusiastic - I discovered the reason later. He was my fervent admirer and well known for his paltry imitations of me. Er, what was the question?

Salient Do you consider it necessary for an overseas person to judge New Zealand poetry?

Wordsworth There are a number of problems here. He would have to have the experience of world literature, which you would lack here in your pioneering isolation. But this would not necessarily be of any value in judging your poetry, for which you would need to apply New Zealand standards. It would be even more dangerous had he perused a small proportion of New Zealand poetry, as then he would surely be prejudiced in favour of those poets he knew. It would not be entirely satisfactory for an overseas judge to consider work produced in such a sauvage, pioneering country as this, forlornly remote from the reaches of civilisation. It is not satisfactory for me to be here by the like token. However if you cannot produce a notable critic of your own it could be justified. It would probably be of more value, though, to an ethnologist or anthropologist than to an upright scholar of the poetic muse.

Salient A number of people regard as selfevident the choice of prizewinners, not because they were the best - it is always hard to consider the best in this field - but because they reflected the views favoured by the group, occasionally known as the Paremata Prophets, and dominated by three people - Sam Hunt, Jim Baxter, and Frank McKay, who review each others work, edit and criticize, and in their spare time write couplets to each other.

Wordsworth My boy. I do think you are the slightest bit vicious in your attitude towards this proselytizing. After all it was when pacing the meadows at Stowey or climbing the mountains around the peaceful lake Gresmere with such hardy companions and disciples as Coleridge and my brother John (who is now dead and buried - God bless him) that I formulated the creed that stood as the basis for the rheumantic movement. Were it not for just such a circle of enthusiasts the frail and timid youth John Keats would never have brought his gentle masterpieces to light. Of course, your friends could never produce such a movement as mine - nobody else could be blessed with two such intelligent and sympathetic mentors. I mean, of course, Sam Coleridge and my dear sister Dot, who, though oft confused in their congitations, nevertheless contributed immeasurably to the formation of my early philosophy.

Salient So you think that there really is some merit in this cabalistic approach to poetry?

Wordsworth I certainly would not venture to judge this instance, but may I be permitted to discuss the question in a more general way? I have oft discovered that in such a band of aquaintances there will exist vastly differing areas and gradations of talent, and commonly vastly differing influences at work on the poets. They must influence each other to some extent and this can be most beneficial. Byron was a great friend of Shelley, but yet their poetry is readily distinguishable. Byron received his training from Schiller and other contemporary Teuton writers; Shelly was influenced to a much larger extent by me. One can also compare Sam Coleridge with me. Of course I influenced both his thinking and his writing style immensely, but nevertheless he still produces a distinctive poetry showing, I feel, his greater idealism, and the obtuse impress of Swedenborg and Hartley.

Salient To an extent I feel that is also true here. Sam Hunt and James Baxter write in very distinctive manners, except when they are corresponding in doggerel. Don Long and Gary Langford are also quite different in their approach to poetry, Don Long being more, and more openly, influenced by minor American writers. However this is not the aspect that concerns me. I am disgusted with the way these people build up each others' reputations out of all proportion to their respective talents. Now Baxter is considered the best poet in the country...

Wordsworth ...Oh, I thought that honour was shared between Gloria Rawlinson, William Morris, Rowley Habib, and others, the names of whom I cannot recall...

Salient ...You have, I see been looking through the International Who's Who of Poetry...

Wordsworth ...I happen to be on the selection panel for next year...

Salient Congratulations!

Wordsworth I disapprove of the whole tenor of the book. It gives its poetry prizes to parrot pieces that are valiant attempts of little ladies with Pekinese dogs. All trying hard to be called rheumantic.

Salient That leads us to another important topic. New Zealand poetry is often dismissed as being rheumantic. As the leading exponent of the attitudes that have been associated with rheumantic poetry, such as the search for simplicity, the extolling of nature, and the probing of the exotic, would you say that the New Zealand poetry you have read justifies this name?

Wordsworth I would consider that definition a slur that grossly maligns me and my poetry, were I not convinced that you have never read my later, better work. True, I did applaud simplicity, and still do to some extent, but in those early days of my youth that was making a virtue out of necessity. Lucy Grey and The Thorn were written honestly and sincerely then. Now I feel embarassed by that sort of poetry. It is similar to the adolescent poetry that is so prevalent among the magazines that you so kindly lent me -Argot, Mate and Arena in particular. I presume there is a great volume of such poetizing written in England, but I cannot recall it ever being regarded as serious writing, except among a few groups, amongst them, I am ashamed to say, the English compilers of the International Who's Who.

Salient Would you say that most of the poetry you have seen has the rheumantic attitude?

Wordsworth On the contrary, I consider that the earlier writers that I have had acquaintance with were decidedly Victorian in their expression, regrettably much too Victorian in many cases. No true rheumantic would discuss fairies in the bottom of the garden.

Salient Who are you referring to?

Wordsworth To whom am I referring? Why, to Katherine Mansfield. She is one of your poets, is she not?

Salient (aside) Oh, Her!

Wordsworth What is that? Speak up, my boy! I cannot page break comprehend the manners of young people nowadays.

Salient I said "Why did you say 'too Victorian'?"

Wordsworth Yes, with your exotic mountains, jungles and waterfalls, and your sauvage natives, I feel you would have had grand opportunites for creating a new folk-idiom.

Salient But have we not done so, to some extent?

Wordsworth What I have read seems to much an imitation of the fine stuff of the great minds of England, made by pioneers with thinking blunted by the dull thud of an axe or the coarse stain of a convict curse.

Salient What would you consider a folk-idiom appropriate to New Zealand.

Wordsworth In the earliest days of this country's discovery, it would have afforded a superb opportunity to observe and emulate the primitive native in his own innocent naked splendour. I could have imagined such an unspoilt vista radiating great amanations of pristine bliss. I would have expected the settlers to raise a new community, free from the prenicious stains of civilisation. Instead, apart from a few self conscious references, the aborigine appears to be a dead person as far as your poetry is concerned. You have civilised and educated the poor sauvage to the point where some are, judging by the names in some of these magazines, writing to imitate the decadent English styles rather than the other way around...

Salient An article appeared in Canterbury's student newspaper, Canta, the other week, talking about the infusion of Chinese culture, in particular poetry, into New Zealand, by three Chinese artists. The poet who was considered, Stephen Chan, seems to me to write fairly distinctive poetry, but one that is not recognisably foreign.

Wordsworth Of course, anybody could be influenced by Chinese writing without anybody noticing - the Chinese have been literate for much longer than any Western culture, and have been most prolific writers. However I have been unable ever to distinguish between a great deal of Chinese writing in translation and Western poetry. Japanese poetry seems much more distinctive. But many people have been profoundly influenced by Chinese poetry, among them the French symbolists.

Salient Would you not say that the infusion of different cultures, and a wider knowlege of modern overseas trends will give greater relevance and expressiveness to New Zealand poetry overseas.

Wordsworth If you write to be well known, this is true, however I do not consider this the best reason for writing poetry. Poetry is meant to exprss one's inner self, and must be prompted by the urgings of God in your consciousness. You suddenly feel in the presence of your superior, as I did one memorable day, many years ago now, while strolling on Mount Snowdon. A huge mist was swirling up and around me, and suddenly I was transfixed by a blinding light. It was then I became convinced of the existence of a deity, one I could put my trust in...

Salient What do you think of the new writers in New Zealand? The ones represented in the magazines I gave you?

Wordsworth I would never consider them new. That is going too far My opinion is that these people, instead of copying English styles of the 1880's, have just discovered Continental literature of the turn of the centruy, in particular French symbolism and the Russian experiment in sound. These range from Apollinare's celebrated, but rather inconsequential, II Pleut to Marinetti's Bombardment of A drianople. Marinetti called what he was doing 'liberated words'. You would probably call it something similar. Alesksei Eliseyevich Kruchonykh was experimenting in the 1910-20 period with something he called universal language'. Perhaps this would be close to what you call 'concrete poetry'. I have seen no developments further into this field of idiocy than these people attempted. Salient Would you go so far as to discount these as valid poetry?

Wordsworth I have not the slightest notion of what you might mean by 'valid poetry'. You must realise that I was brought up in a very different cultural climate from the present one, and very much pleasanter I must add, so these changes come as a bit of a shock. Now in the 1900's these experiments were intended primarily to shock - their impact as a congitative mechanism out wieghed to the utmost any poetic message. But nowadays they are just an excuse for writing without talent.

Salient I am obliged to disagree with you on that point. However we must not get involved in arguments at this stage Would you agree, though, Mr Wordsworth, that people tend to think and create more imaginatively while young, and get recognised only after they are past their prime?

Wordsworth Certainly not. I am most ashamed of my early work - Descriptive Sketches. Lyrical Ballads, and even the Prelude. And Tintern Abbey, which I believe is used with tiresome regularity in poetry classes at school, is much too cloudy and obscure I did not write intelligently or well until after I was forty. I consider that nobody should make themselves heard in this world until after they have settled down and can take an objective view of matters. In one's youth one must occasionally blow one's safety valve, and we blew it in Lyrical Ballads. I was unpopular, as it deserved to be. But the young people of today, the bodgies and widgies and so on, have gone too far. They are attempting to take over a world before they have the maturity to control and guide it. People are nowadays like lost sheep, being led astray by blind Iambs. It is worse than the situation I warned about in Michael. Man needs a spiritual basis for his life. Poetry wshould be the guiding light, inspired by emanations from the Lord. Nowadays this prime, religious purpose of poesy has been lost in a deadening concern for form. Poesy should be the wings of the angels of God. It should uplift people and show them the true way....

Salient Well, thank you, Mr Wordsworth, for coming along today and having such an informative discussion with us. We hope you still have a long and healthy existence ahead of you. And don't forget to buy an Argot as you leave. Only thirty cents.

Wordsworth ...for ever and ever, Amen.

John Hales