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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 36, Number 10. 23rd May 1973

Left Hand/Right Hand Writing

page 21

Left Hand/Right Hand Writing

Bumped into myself in street the other day Well!
Fancy meeting me!
One finds oneself all over the place!
Did someone put a mirror in the street?
After a lifelong search at last I have found myself.
I look put like me.
But am I writing with my left hand or my right?

So Dennis List, writing in his first published collection of poems. Dennis List is my alter ego, and I am his. We first met as students eight years ago, and from the start I had a very high regard for Dennis's literary potential. I have said so many times since, and critical opinion has come to agree. (The critics always come to agree with me in eight years or so, which I find off-putting, because who wants to be only Eight or Nine years ahead of the mob?)

But I was not content years ago to expect much of Dennis, I took over as much of his literary strategy and personal emotions as I could. The result of this was a burst of creativity on my part which manifested itself as Books 8 to 31½ of my epic, "The Alexandrians". This takeover was not one sided, because Dennis in his turn has also taken over much of my literary strategy and personal emotions, with a result shown in the volume under review. Dennis has done me proud.

This literary cannibalism, incest, is not uncommon on the NZ literary scene. A good example of it was the Louis Johnson-James K. Baxter complex, Baxter authoring (this is not an accusation of any malpractice) a considerable proportion of Johnson's vast corpus. And Dennis and I are not alone in this complex of ours. With us, is also J.H.E. Schroder in two volumes. Ruth Gilbert in one and a forthcoming volume, on an honorary basis, the admirable James Bertram with one volume. John Hales represents the critical side of the complex.

Dennis has written a book of epigrams Most of them were written in a few nights of sleeplessness, but others are earlier stray pieces. Books of epigrams are not fashionable. Dennis is following my own performance, in "Beyond Nonsense" and preceding volumes of mine. These are not the Coleridge-Fairburn style of epigrams, those essetially frivolous pieces who's existence is only justified by a terminal joke. No, he and I write the classical epigram, which I will here explain.

A poem cannot consist of a single word. Otherwise, what Nobel Prizes the lexicographers would win. But a poem can consist of two words. Dennis says this plainly in his opening poem.

'Take two words after each meal' is what the instructions said.
But one day I dared and took three.
I thought I should be eloquent but safe.
'These words are too weak'
I thought the next day.
My dictionary dwindles alarmingly.

So Dennis. This epigram refers to my instructions that poetry consists of writing two-word epigrams, and then combining them into larger masses. A poem of any length is just a mass of epigrams; from which it follows that a poem can never really be complete or incomplete. Hence why not write epigrams or epics? Epigrams are just bits of epics, and epics are just masses of epigrams. Homer equals Martial. I doubt if Dennis has read much of Martial or of the Greek Anthology that stands behind Martial. But I have, and by artistic empathy he shares my knowledge. So it is that his book of epigrams is intensely classical. In fact, he has succeeded in writing the most intensely classical collection of verse in NZ literature, in which just that is the hidden ambition of all our poets.

But Dennis works an interesting switch on the classical epigram by giving it a patina of nonsense. His book is the classical epigram turned into a joke, not frivolously but essentially. His epigrams are mirror-images of classical epigrams, with sense and nonsense apparently reversed: left hand right hand writing. The classical epigram has become absurd. In this he shows his all-round literary technique. In capitalist society, sense appears as nonsense and nonsense as sense. Dennis has raised this condition to an aesthetic principle, and so to social criticism. It was this literary technique that I adopted from Dennis at Book 8 in my epic, but in my case the technique operates through rhyme, that blatant assertion of the absurd interconnection. In Dennis's case, the technique operates through imaginative jux-taposition. Very often Dennis pulls it off by this means, and this is his great merit, as is everywhere recognised.

Drawing of nude women

Epigram (ii) has Dennis a la Van Gogh complaining about (he clash of literary and scientific cultures. Dennis is a person with a thorough-going scientific background, from which he wilfully dropped out but cannot escape.

Epigram(iv) is another reference to alter ego relations, and (vii) is a parody of my poem "The Remembrance" in Book 22. In (xii) Dennis is stating his bloody-minded mercenary attitude to poetry. Make it worth his while or he will write the Great NZ Novel instead.

Number (xiii) is the finest of the epigrams:


Your mind is a gridiron of burning streets, your Detour Closed.
Unthinkable signs ablaze.
You're gazing so much
I can't see you.
Somebody, bring me a blind, protect me from these burning eyes.

Epigram (xxiv) is a classical piece in all respects:

Three great men are hoeing
by the great stone wall
that splits my field of vision.
I hope they do not kill
the creeper I have planted there.

Image of a cherub writing

Dennis is not responsible for any misprints introduced here. His own text, produced by the Amphedesma Press London, is accurate. About 120 copies of the volume came on the market in NZ. You may still find one. Otherwise, Xerox copies are available from the author or his friends. I conclude with an epigram of my own.

On Writing Epigrams

Twelve books of epigrams I wrote
To Martial's patterns.
My heart was bitter and irate.
Twelve books of epigrams I wrote,
though few the match of his I rate
Among the Muse's combatants.
But even though I cannot match all
Twelve books of epigrams he wrote
For numbers and for competence,
still the Napoleon in Niel Wright
In every epigram I write
As much as every soldier's satchell
Sees Marshalls' batons.
Twelve books of epigrams I wrote
to Martial's patterns.

* * *