The Spike or Victoria University College Review 1932
[Review of The Phoenix]
The Phoenix—Published at the University versity Press, Auckland, for the Literary Club of the University.
I hesitate to say all that might be said about this newest venture in University publications. Its promoters and its committee (if indeed such separation is permissible) are much to be congratulated upon their obviously sincere effort to produce a "literary" magazine. Though the first number aroused in me the feelings which usually follow on reading the worst of futurist free verse, I must acknowledge that the second did something to remove them. Something, however; not by any means all. The magazine falls so far short of its ex-pressed intentions that one may be permitted to apply to the backs of those responsible the rod which they so unhesitatingly apply to others. As these Adelphians are obviously not new to journalism I cannot justly be accused of "dusting the bloom off the peach."
"A paper should have both a background and a policy"—I quote from the foreword to the first number. Admittedly this is a sound statement. It may, however, be doubted whether it should also adopt a manner. The Phoenix has unfortunately done this. The conscious superiority of its tone rather destroys the equally conscious semi-humility of expression. Especially when I read Mr. Bertram's criticism of the other University papers does the phrase suggest itself "physician, heal thyself." This precious critic has forgotten that in page 17 each University there are writers who should be given encouragement, even though their work cannot be ranked with the polished though slightly turgid productions of Mr. Middleton Murry. Auckland and The Phoenix may content itself to rely on the old hands, but with all due respect I suggest that it should be the aim of any intelligent committee, with an eye on the future, to help the younger writers in the College. It can do this best by publishing some of their work. It is in my opinion the fault of the superior person who sneers, covertly or otherwise, at "immature" efforts of young students and passes them completely by, that so little of value ultimately comes from the University magazines. I hope that Mr. Bertram and his associates will cease erecting walls of doubtful pseudo-culture, and putting stumbling blocks in the way of those less facile than themselves. Even they are not infallible, and perhaps were once quite young. Somewhat like St. Simeon Stylites, they perch themselves on a pedestal of asceticism and bow repeatedly before the gods of higher criticism. Let me recommend them to get down from the heights and tread the valleys for a while. Those who keep their eyes eternally on the stars so often slip. I should not like to see a promising publication perish of cold on those heights, and would advise the whole committee to read "Jocosa Lyra" and endeavour to understand.
Which brings me to the verse published by The Phoenix. That in the first number, with the possible exception of Mr. Mason's experiment, is very bad indeed. "Two translations" are both so terrible that one wonders why they were considered. Apart from the lack of feeling or meaning in the lines, there is no word-music. Someone has in this issue of "Spike" been "vulgar" enough to show how easy this sort of thing is. I am surprised that the committee allowed themselves to be imposed on. "Cold Music" left me quite cold, and after "Cape Wanbrow" I wondered why either of these pieces of Mr. Brasch's had been written. After all, even a poet it supposed to have something to say. That is also why I am tempted to wish that Mr. Curnow's "Calm" had been also silent.
In the second number there is a slight improvement with 'The Swan," which is quite up to University standard of contemplation without result. On the other hand, if "The Spirit Shall Return" again in this manner, I for one will be sorry. Mr. Curnow has a sense of words, but no words of sense. The artificiality of inverting Biblical phrases is too self-evident to pass as an experiment. We want fewer of these "strivings" and more simplicity; it is not necessary to distort in order to demonstrate.
Unlike most University magazines (from which in its wisdom, I understand, The Phoenix wishes to consider itself removed), the prose is superior to the verse. But here again, I lament the absence of simplicity of style. If a word of five letters can be replaced by a word of sixteen having exactly the same meaning there is only one rule: do not replace it. Also, it is no bad thing for the reader to be able to follow the thought of the writer easily from his words. The aim of all literature should be to express as simply and easily as possible the idea which lies behind the printed words. Where you have to search for the writer's idea amid a jumble of words, technical or foreign phrases, inverted expressions, and involved sentences, it is not literature you are reading. It may be something quite admirable and worthy of any writer of text-books, but definitely nothing more. And if I mistake not, it is that something more that The Phoenix is endeavouring to publish.
Mr. Lowry's article on literature and philosophy is a case in point. It is excessively prolix and its conclusion (despite the headnote) quite comprehensible and not quite satisfactory. The author has yet to learn two things : first, that you cannot put literary products into tins and label them, and secondly, that the dictum of Sir Arthur Quiller Couch that you cannot be wise about literature in a category to which it does not belong, is axiomatic. That is, you cannot be wise about literature in terms of philosophy. But all the argument could have been put in two pages, and in a magazine with the ideals of The Phoenix it is very distressing to have to wade through the mudflats to get a glimpse of the far ocean, only to find after all that a fog has risen.
Then again, Russia challenges to the tune of seven pages. I suppose that it expresses the international desire, but I wish it could have been expressed at less length. Why, page 18 oh why, can we not have some terseness in place of this treacly flow of words? This is not the way to establish a New Zealand tradition. A young nation should at all costs learn to express itself vigorously.
The second number also shows improvement in the prose, though the stories are rather affected in tone and sombre in thought. The influence of the younger American school, which seems to be developing a turn of this kind, is too noticeable. Can our story-tellers not get away from introspective studies and give us some meat? We incline to the merely pretty; striving too much for polish when there is no substance, and too little for the human touch. Now a yarn about those much-discussed bargees might have possibilities— perhaps we shall see it next time.
I am rather in agreement with Mr. Cook in his criticism—the great New Zealand novel is not yet written. (Perhaps it will come from a southern pen grown tired of poetry). We do need more of energy and less of the arm-chair in our literary matter. This is where The Phoenix lacks the necessary vitality to lift it above the purely contemplative. Let it seek for something virile to publish, and let polish alone for a while. There is far too much of what Conrad deftly called "the vulgar refinement of modern thought" in its pages.
The sponsors of the paper have nothing to be ashamed of, even if they have much to correct, but as they are out to set standards they should not complain if their standards are attacked. It is with that thought in mind that I have been outspoken. I have too much respect for the enterprise to think that these doughty souls wish to be patted on the head. Let them, however, show that they are indeed doughty. I do not wish to see this paper slide gracefully into oblivion as yet another attempt at a New Zealand "literary" magazine. With a little heed to current affairs, a more catholic taste, and, above all, no touch of the superior attitude, it should attain virility.
But there is one thing more. 'The best test of the permanence of a man's writings has always seemed to me to be the answer to the question whether it comes from his heart," says Stephen Coleridge, and this is a dictum which our University writers particularly would do well to hang above their desks. There is a tendence to substitute fireworks for fire, intellectual gymnastics for thought, and a nebulous cultural attitude for definite purpose and meaning. Let us have less form and more substance. It is the lack of substance in the literary outlook of The Phoenix (and not the idea at the back of the undertaking) that I deplore.
I note that the idea is protean. Well, as a "primordial protoplasmic atomic globule" of the literary variety The Phoenix has made some sort of a start, and though it is yet but a globule it may one day develop wings, put upon itself feathers, and fly regally. I, for one, hope in all sincerity that it will.
"It Still Goes On," a pamphlet by one "Jack Nag," and published for the Labour Defence League .
A refreshing little effort this, which shows that the days of the pamphlet are not yet numbered. Jack has a bright style which attracts; he never proses, and if some of his arguments are somewhat specious, they are at least attractively put. A few of these endeavours will do no harm to the community. I particularly liked his "tapping" story. There are few enough jokes in these times, and this one was good enough to have been taken in the spirit in which it was meant. But he is wrong if he thinks that suppression of freedom of thought and speech is confined to special places or arbitrarily enforced on one section of the community. His own examples show that it is not. Though I cannot subscribe to his political views I must heartily endorse his championship of the right of freedom of expression. It is a right worth fighting for. and has found a trusty champion in this courageous pamphleteer.
—H. R. Bannister.
The prize offered by "Spike" for the best original poem was awarded to I.M.L. for the poem "The Idealist."