Arachne. No. 2
[Letter from John Summers]
In the correspondence between Mr Hart-Smith and Mr Oliver Mr Hart-Smith is airing more than a personal grievance. Like him I believe we should view New Zealand published works not as a demonstration that we publish 'only the best', but as the products of a workshop where a craft is being developed. When the emphasis is laid exclusively on the formal excellence of artistic work in a young country talent withers. With due respect to Mr Oliver, I am therefore glad that Mr Glover published Christopher Columbus. Had this sequence of poems not been published neither Mr Hart-Smith nor your readers would have had an opportunity of discovering where the poem fails. The writer whose manuscript rots in his drawer learns nothing.
Moreover it was not worthy of Hilltop to say 'Hart-Smith's mediocre volume' without substantiating the claim, and if the editorial was not the opportune place for a more fulsome treatment of the book then it had better have been left unsaid. The cheap jibes which some page 37 times take the place of literary criticism in this country do not so much reflect literary integrity as insecurely held values. This view of the matter seems confirmed by the last issue of Arachne. For while Mr Oliver (one of the editorial committee) maintains his position in regard to Mr Hart-Smith, we are presented with an editorial so obscure in its purport that not one of five people who read it could explain what the author was driving at. The same attention was given to, and the same difficulties encountered in, the poems of Mr Spear although it was generally conceded that they showed a command of language and image from which a certain amount of satisfaction was drawn. And for pure subjectivity of outlook, who could beat the note on Here and Now where E.S. naively protects those contributors to it who also appear in Arachne.
It is true as Mr Hart-Smith says that we are a people who can scarcely spell let alone write consistently good prose or verse. The literary lapses of quite eminent 'writers' who appear in various national magazines, when coupled with their pretensions, are worthy of Stephen Leacock. I am advisedly giving neither names nor instances here. It is kinder and wiser to suggest that those who doubt this statement simply be on their toes when they read these magazines.
Literary integrity and an exclusive attitude are not one and the same thing in the way Mr Oliver conceives. For example, let us consider the criticisms lodged by Mr Bertram in Landfall, June 1948, against Mr Hart-Smith's verse. From a different reviewer the same criticisms might have worn a different aspect. Instead of worrying about the failure of the Caxton Press, such a reviewer would have accented the good verses and ended by expressing the hope that in some future volume Mr Hart-Smith would avoid the theatricality which mars Christopher Columbus, and develop that more architectonic form such an epic requires. As it is, Mr Bertram did say Hart-Smith was a dedicated poet and it is this kind of poet we should welcome. There is something to be said also for the mere conception of a poem sequence as long and sustained as Mr Hart-Smith attempted.
Mr Hart-Smith in his letter unfortunately contrasted Australia with New Zealand. Apage 38
better case could have been made by citing the Elizabethans whose splendid passages of verse and prose were set amongst much that was merely florid. The illustration is not unique. A great deal of Renaissance art was not in Arachne's sense worthy of its best. Individuals leap to the mind, Blake, De Quincey, Christopher Smart, etc.
An eye for the best, a feeling for noble vision, and a generosity of temperament towards those who are dedicated to their work will do far more towards furthering New Zealand letters than a mere insistence on literary good form. Please note the qualification, for I have myself benefited too much from informed criticism to suggest that it has no place at all.