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The Spike or Victoria College Review 1942

Verse Judgments

Verse Judgments

I Cannot Tell how much in my own notion of the poet's job in New Zealand is personal myth, not transferable, so I hesitate to make general observations on the kinds of experience which have seemed important to the writers of poems for Spike. To me, for instance, the struggle of the New Zealander to be born in a situation full of destructive possibilities—at times I would say probabilities—is so urgent a challenge to imagination that I do not see how it can escape the kind of perception we are entitled to expect of a poet. All the more, when it is less and less possible to disentangle personal from social situations, I should have thought a New Zealand writer would welcome this challenge, as a way to real responsibility. Naturally, then, I am disappointed to find in the more serious of these poems only such generalised attitudes as might occur to young men anywhere in the world; not borrowings or imitations, strictly, from contemporary poetry abroad, but abstractions from the big movements of notions a New Zealander can entertain without incongruity. The particular stimulus seems to be evaded. The throwing off of the naive journalistic fancies about "New Zealand" poetry will have been wasted effort if it is replaced by an idea of poetry as neutral ground, like scientific inquiry, in which significant work may be done without regard to place and people. I am afraid of our repeating, in modern guise, the pioneer cycle of pallid derivative verse, followed by a sentimental local reaction.

I could have wished that "—a", who uses New Zealand place-names so unaffectedly, had managed a complete poem; but in four of his pieces I see only sentiments juxtaposed, one seeming always a device to support another. His images are prosy, lacking the single direction of energies a poem requires. His "England's Green and Pleasant Land" tells less than the title (there were "dark, satanic mills" in Blake's day), the rhythms straggle, and the hyphen becomes a vice.

I could have wished, too, that the poem I choose as most satisfying, most solid (H. Witheford's 'Remembering Nietzsche") was less an example of the trend I have already criticised. But its strong and confident rhythmic patterns distinguish it clearly, and there are no assertive devices. It is not a remarkable poem, but does succeed in conveying something of a contemporary mood through the dolorous blast of abstractions. The transition in the first line of stanza 4 is a little worrying. The fault may be mine, but I cannot make the symbols of Mr Witheford's sonnet hang together; and in "Theophany" the images are out of control—"Ghosts writhe beneath the pulp." And the last line of stanza 2 has a grossness which he cannot intend. Such strong medicine as the half-rhymes "pulp, yelp," can be taken only by a poem of really powerful constitution, and then only with a shudder. This over-insistence of the device seems to me a notable fault of Mr Meek's "Power." In "Can strangle the Word/Or wrangle with Reason," the device is too heavy; the rhythm sustains it, but the statement is uneasy about it. For within the metaphor, "bomber or sword" etc. may very well be said to wrangle with Reason—unsuccesfully, Mr Meek means to say. I think that throughout this poem the devices have been bought too dearly, failing a corresponding subtlety of mood and statement. Both Mr Vogt's poems end where a poem might begin. Certain comparisons and categories are noted down, as it were, in verse form; one is aware of tensions, but of no imaginative development or exploration. "Death is Neither Here nor There" is mostly self-deprecating clowning, and some of the rhymes are really bad. "The Liberal: Last Phase" is interestingly constructed, but has page 22 alarming collapses into cliche:" ...the onward march/Of great events." However, it has some of the single direction and purposiveness which I am making my tests.

"Remembering Nietzsche," then, is my suggestion for an award; the others I have discussed are those which I feel call for a defence of my preference.

Allen Curnow