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The Spike: or, Victoria University College Review, June 1929

Plunketism For Poets — A Passionate Plea

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Plunketism For Poets

A Passionate Plea

It is a sad thought that in most of us a poet has died young, but it is sadder still to think—and one cannot resist it—that in New Zealand where the infant mortality normally is the lowest in the world, the death rate of the inborn poet is tragically high. Where to-day, for instance, are the adolescent poets of the Spike, of yesterday? There was merit in most of the stuff, talent in not a little and here and there sparks of true genius. One has only to read chance copies of the old Spike, or the collection in the "Old Clay Patch" to see quality here that would grace any similar publication anywhere in the Old World or the New. Here are the seeds of literature, but where is the fruit? Nowhere, to the best of our general knowledge. The poet in the writers died young.

Now if this mortality were universally inevitable, regrets would be vain. But it is not so elsewhere, at least in the older countries. In England and in America the names which appeared in the college magazines of yesterday are often those of the rising stars in the literary firmament of our own present. The writers are not lost to literature, but help to carry on the tradition from generation to generation. Here so far we have hardly a tradition or a literature worth the name. Are there any signs of the creation of either? Scarcely more, perhaps less, than in the early years following the debut of the Spike. Are any or many of the young poets or writers now budding likely to be in full flower ten years hence? The odds, unless there is a great chance in the situation, are against it. This is a plea for such a chance.

To write literature it is necessary to be able to live and to have leisure. In other words, it means that the writer must either earn his living by literature or else he must have private means to ensure a living and the leisure for writing. There is no other alternative, if real results are to be achieved. Persons of literary gifts with private means also are rare in any country. They hardly exist in this. In any case they are only freaks of fortune, the remote exceptions unavailable as examples for a general rule. As for earning a living by literature it is impossible in New Zealand. There is no local market for the finer qualities of literary production and but poor pay for journey work. The daily newspapers, when they do accept "stuff," which is seldom, offer not more than a guinea a column. The weeklies give less, if they give anything at all. Any working journalist could easily satisfy any doubts on this point.

It might be possible to live the Bohemian life, as some of the more notable Australians have done, and carry on for a time, but the atmosphere of this Dominion is wholly alien to that sort of thing and it could not last. Marriage and its responsibilities would needs end it at once for any self-respecting person.

Clear-sighted people, realise this early and. if they have ambitions and confidence in their ability, they shake the dust of the Dominion off page 18 their feet as soon as possible and hit out for London or America. Quite a number of New Zealanders have done fairly well for themselves in this way, but they are lost to New Zealand and to our argument also, which presumes a native literature self-supporting. Thus we come round to an impasse once more.

Is there any way out? In Britain before the days when literature began to pay its way with Scott and Dickens, poets had patrons and posts —sinecures—to furnish food and raiment—such as it was—while the magnum opus was in gestation. Here there are no sinecures, since the Reform Party reformed the Public Service, and our wealthy squatters and moneyed townsfolk prefer to invest in land and property rather than literature and poetry. The Macarthy Trust makes no provision for authors and one doubts whether Mr. Robert Hannah, say, or any of the wool kings would substantially remunerate the dedication of an epic. And yet one might point out to them that to run a poet would not cost much more than running a Rolls Royce, and there is always the chance of an immortality conferred in a grateful epithalamium or an in memoriam ode. What, we would say to them, about establishing a fellowship in literature or the arts for five years to give some of our aspirants in the Spike a chance to make good!

Seriously, though, is it not something of a national disgrace that a country like ours with a century behind it of a brave, eventful picturesque and not ignoble past, with its Maoris, its miners, its missionaries, its pioneers, its railway builders, its soldiers, its wealth of material for fiction and poetry in the conquest of the bush, the floods and fires and earthquakes, the rise and fall of families, the mixture of races-material unequalled in any part of the Empire-should be passing into a middle age of stolid comfort without a worthy record of its gallant adventurous youth? America has celebrated and continues to hymn its West; Australia, even, has produced some literature, but we have-almost nothing. And we shall have nothing until the people who can write can find by hook or crook or through some unforseen beneficence the leisure to do the job. No part time work can ever suffice for the main task, though it may supply the material.

But what does it matter, someone may say, whether we have any literature or not? Well, read what Sallust has to say of a certain little State of the ancient world, a country no bigger than Taranaki with a capital not the size of Wellington (this year's students will be familiar with the passage in the crib):—

The achievements of the Athenians were, as I judge, sufficiently great and splendid, yet still somewhat less than they are by report asserted to have been; but because there were produced among that people writers of great talent, the exploits of the Athenians are celebrated throughout the whole world as the greatest. Thus the valour of those who wrought those deeds is reckoned as high as splendid intellects could exalt such deeds by their word.

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Otherwise, to put it vulgarly, one Aeschylus or Aristophanes would be worth a million Jimmy Parrs to boost New Zealand.

But why worry? If the present trend of education in New Zealand, particularly secondary education, continues for a few years more, there will be no need, for its deadly work among the young poets will have made the race extinct. If one survives the massacre of the innocents in matric, there is still the ordeal of the night school and the cast-iron course of studies at the university with the pursuit of degrees for their cash value in the professions. How can the poet in us live? It is a pathetic struggle and that explains the title, "Plunketism for Poets," to reduce this terrible infantile mortality. All one can do is to present the facts as one sees them, and hope against hope that some new Truby King will arise and do for the mind of the young what the founder of Plunketism did for the body.—"Peto."