The Spike or Victoria College Review 1937
Of The Caxton Club
Of The Caxton Club
"It is the aim of The Caxton Press to encourage New Zealand literature." says the first brochure of the Caxton Club. This Club, modelled fairly closely on the lines of the various Left Wing Book Clubs that have arisen recently in England and America (and we presume in other countries where Left things are tolerated), was formed about a year ago and has to date published half of its proposed annual quota of eight books. These are issued at half the ordinary price to all club members, the annual subscription being 6/6.
The four books published so far are Parliamentary Portraits, a volume of caricatures by J. T. Allen; Enemies, poems by Allen Curnow; Caxton Miscellany, "poems by many hands"; and Verse Alive No. 2, being again a selection of poems from To-morrow.
The young caricaturist, Allen, has in his second publication, given a shrewd but facile analysis of the more prominent features in our legislative assembly. Caricature, to be successful must be good-humoured. To that extent Mr. Allen has succeeded admirably, expressing the essential humourogenic qualities of his subjects and delineating them with a bold and expressive line. Especially in his drawing of the eyes—that part which stuns or quickens any portrait—Mr. Allen has by skilful draughtsmanship caught the essential expression of his subjects. On the other hand, Mr. Allen seems less at home with chins—there are apparently three or four standard patterns under which all our parliamentarians can be classified, so that Messrs. Jordan. Langstone, and Armstrong are given a megalocephaly which we scarcely feel they possess in common.
The writers contributing to the three volumes of verse issued by the Caxton Club form a group of the most vigorous and skilful young New Zealand poets—a group which represents the most hopeful development in local literature at the present time. In keeping with this swift-moving age, the most noticeable characteristic of their verse is its transience. Especially is this marked in the latest publication Verse Alive No. 2. It is verse alive, in that it is freed from the trappings of sentimentality and the formal "beautiful" subject matter that was not so long ago the only acceptable topic of poetry; it is alive also in that it takes the rhythms and the diction of ordinary current speech, gives them sometimes a rather startling connotation, but in so doing seeks to stimulate the unperceiving mind; or to condense an image into an easily-viewed form.
But verse alive is not necessarily immortal verse; nor do its authors claim it to be. That by the way is another well-marked characteristic of these writers—they are not only well skilled in their technique but very clear in their own minds about the purpose and the scope of their art. If we presume that Mr. Curnow may be taken as the spokesman of the group, they say "Poetry is made for the pleasure and stimulation of the mind. It has a direct relation to human needs. Human needs (in terms of language) can only be well served by things made out of the language with which human beings (including the artist) are familiar." For this reason their transient verse when it pleases and stimulates, is fully justified. In Verse Alive there is a considerable amount of bitter-flavoured humour which serves on first reading to stimulate rather than to please, but, read again proves a little irksome; and. examined closely, reveals often clever twists of composition that are too slick to satisfy. Worse still, one is left with the feeling that its dogmatism is too emphatic to be entirely true, like scientific theories evolved by the suppression of conflicting facts. That is always a danger when poetry strives to be logical in its argument, and propaganda verse, which stimulates the mind to an idea without necessarily justifying it, is all the more suspect. The Caxton Club writers are largely of one political caste, their verse is inevitably coloured by their social creed and by their disillusionment. Yet we do not think anything published in the three books under review will kindle any new revolt in the minds of those whom it reaches. To this extent the propaganda value of such verse is negligible; its merit must lie rather in the exactness with which it reflects the poet's experience, and in the wealth of that experience. This political alertness is further evidence of the vitality of such verse, but a restriction upon its appeal.
Quoting again (from Mr. Glover this time), we find that poetry has lost its popularity "because it has been too detached, too remote from the interests of the people." With this statement we are entirely in accord; but does the page 52 new poetry come very much nearer the people? Granted that it is concerned with human problems, chooses them for its subject matter, is often inspired by a genuine sympathy for the people; but is it any more intelligible to the untutored mind than say, Wordsworth, Browning, or Bridges? The "average man's" conception of poetry is cut off fairly definitely at this point with perhaps a jingle or so of Kipling or Masefield thrown in. He is capable of "appreciating" only those poems the anatomy of which has been explained to him at school; and even when instructed to reverence them in dissected ugliness, he still fails to grasp their real import. While should he meet with any verse using only the rhythm and diction of the common language he is inclined to apply his conceptions of literary standards and dismiss it as "unpoetical." The poet who sings for the common ear to-day has a task harder than that of the bards of old, for he sings not to a simple and receptive mind but to one twisted by false ideas of poesy. In brief the present production of these modern poets cannot achieve the effect they desire unless something is done about the education of their public. In this respect some critical work or the suggested bulletins would be useful for Club members. The reflection upon the system of teaching literary appreciation in New Zealand is obvious.
So we find after all that the Caxton poets are often speaking only to a small circle capable of appreciating their particular style of word juggling. That some of them, at least, realise that a poet's consciousness of his audience is essential before his appeal can be effective is the one fact which can prevent this group from running into a cul de sac such as too often traps "schools" of literature. Because they have so much in common—youth, economic adversity, a revolt against conventional standards—they may tend to close into too tight a group. In the corresponding class in English letters to-day we find Spender writing in praise of Auden, Auden in praise of Day Lewis, and Lewis dedicating a volume to Spender. The old story of members of little cliques—S.C.M. or Communist Clubs—confirming one another in their own faith. It is to be hoped that the Caxton Club will not narrow its outlook or its personnel too much, for if the circle closes too tightly its field of influence will be lost.
We have discussed at length this idea of bringing poetry back to the people because we feel it is one of the major aims of the Caxton Club. That the work produced is not, on the whole, successful in this object is not entirely the fault of the writers, for after all. the very fact that they write verse shows them to be apart from the class to whom they attempt to communicate their ideas; and a poet can write effectively only of what he has himself experienced. The chief fault of such verse as might appeal to the multitude, is the sophisticacation of its satire. Curnow's poem Enemies, The Rubbish Heap by Amen, Fairburn's Keynes Chorus are clever in a manner that excites antagonism in the reader's mind. On the other hand, Fairburn's Subsequent Engagement, Sargeson's Anomaly, and Glover's Major Francis Francis succeed because of their terseness and luciditiy. The wordy obscurity of Apocalyptic, Poison Cas and the Old Men Look at Death requires no little effort to wrest out their message. And when found it scarcely justifies the trouble. The same thing could have been said in a few lines or in prose. A similar criticism can be applied to the two pieces of Robin Hyde. Pacifist and Husband and Wife. These contain carefully considered lines, vivid images, touches of starkness; but neither music nor imagery is sufficient to warrant spending the amount of time and thought required to decipher the rather trite meaning. In this way, poetry will soon find itself back in the wilderness from which the Caxton writers profess to be leading it.
Judged however from a more "cultured" point of view there is some verse of a high standard in these collections. Of them all Mr. Curnow is the most accomplished in his ability to command diction and to crystallise the image into a few selected words, while still retaining an easy flow. His style does suffer at times however from over concentration—words used in too strained sense. Mountain Rhapsody (probably his best, certainly his most ambitious work in these collections) conveys an atmosphere rather than an image—height, distance, rarity, detachment, something of that indifference when a new grief numbs. Unlike much of the Caxton verse this poem brings a new pleasure at each reading. Of Curnow's other poetry the sequence A Woman in Mind possesses an unexpected ingenuousness comparable in its simplicity and restraint with the Elizabethan lyrics. These stanzas are the more remarkable by contrast with the intensity of hatred in Enemies, or the bitterness of Honour.page 53
Mr. Glover is like Mr. Curnow in the study and polish of his more serious contributions, but we are more aware of his technical devices than with Mr. Curnow. In Landing Field for example, his frequent compounded words (sun-lustrous, sky-refuse altitude-eager) obtrude on the reader, while the vowel variation and stopped consonants with which he achieves his effects are obvious. On the whole his poems are smooth flowing and easily read. His philosophy is more rounded, more subtly worded than that of most of his fellow writers; but we doubt the idealistic origin of the fraternity implied in Scab-loaded.
Mr. Fairburn is undoubtedly clever, in fact so slickly clever that we want to read once and pass on. To jest in rhyme, as he does m Keynes Chorus and Newsrag Newsreel is an amusing exercise but he does not go across with his satire nearly as well as Glover does in Rotary. For sheer terseness and grim effect, Prelude, by R. A. K. Mason, is outstanding. Its apparent, slightness may cause it to be dismissed more easily than it deserves.
Apart however from the literary matter of the Caxton Club publications, these small books are distinguished by the excellent way in which they are produced. At a time when a revival of interest in printing as an art is manifested in the original, often bizarre, layout of many periodicals and books published abroad, the Caxton Press is working, almost alone, along similar lines in New Zealand. The first essentials of good printing are that the book as a whole must present an attractive appearance, and that the type should be easily and comfortably read. These requirements are very well exemplified in the Caxton booklets. By the use of clearly defined types untrammelled by too much serif, and plenty of white, with wide margins, and careful arrangement on the page, the Caxton Club verse is presented in a manner refreshing to eyes that are tortured by newspapers and text books. Although perhaps a slightly bolder type could have been used to advantage, the layout and format of Enemies is especially good. When it is remembered that the early Caxton publications were handset in a windy sack-shuttered barn on a vacant lot just off Colombo Street, all the more credit is due to Messrs. Glover and Drew for their work.
For the immediate future the Caxton Club is to publish a long poem, Dominion, by A. R. D. Fairburn, then as a relief from the satiric mood, some light verse by R. G. Park. A collection of pen drawings by Leo Bensemann is also projected. Remembering that the first brochure of the Club suggested that publications would include "fiction, poetry, drama, critical writings, and perhaps art work, in judicious proportion", we feel that a little drama or prose or at least some of those critical works are overdue. Criticism of social, literary or art topics is a more direct means of communication with a society for whom verse is still too elevated. There is surely material enough for it, and judging from the keen social consciousness of the group, the necessary talent is available.
In its brief existence the Caxton Press has already encouraged the growth of an endemic literature paralleling modern advances in other countries; a literature which, since it is not acceptable to the sales-bound conservatism of our well established periodicals, was formerly quite unknown to the public. The Caxton Club is a conscious effort to continue this work and to present it to readers in an attractive and convenient manner. Whatever the future policy of the Club, its development deserves the attention and assistance of all interested in contemporary literature.