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The Spike or Victoria University College Review 1943

Verse Judgments

Verse Judgments

In 1937 when I first judged this competition there were numerous entrants and still more entries. I notice that I commented on no fewer than fifteen poems, and I remember that one competitor alone entered as many as twenty and another nine or ten. This year seven poems have been submitted by, I think, six authors. The war is the main reason for the decline, but not, I should say. the only one. Following the ferment of the Thirties, when a large number of young poets were politically conscious, taking sides actively, and preaching, interpreting and posturing in faulty new verse with the assistance of Frued and surrealism, the war that was expected came, but not quite as page 27 it was expected. This has had an all-over effect to which the poets have had to struggle to adjust themselves. Now that politics has become a subject too uncertain and ambiguous for direct treatment, and its terms and those of popular psychology have got tarnished by familiarity, they have been compelled almost to begin again. For the moment, after making allowance for the physical difficulties of the war, there are probably fewer people writing poetry than usual, and fewer readers also, because they like the poets have had adjustments to make. It is good to find "Spike" still able to have its annual competition and ready to offer its readers the fruits of it, even though these are small.

The best poem in my judgment is "Home Guard."

Acting on the instructions of the Editor, I offer the following criticism on the separate poems:—


It is hard to write a good admonitory poem; the words available are too general and abstract, too worn and impersonal for distinctiveness of expression. "Alliance" is an illustration. A plea for a continuing association between Americans and New Zealanders after the war, it is vigorously declamatory in a pale Whitmannish way, but expresses easy obvious ideas in the dull, familiar English of the politician.


This poem has more to it. It is technically well put together and the movement of feeling and idea is managed with some success. I like particularly "Fascist tank-tracks grind" and the whispers will become a routing din." Still the poem is only moderately successful. For one thing the language is too directly descriptive to evoke the complex responses needed for the theme; for another the piece is studded with lifeless stock terms: Fascists are "turbulent," the betraying officers "smile contemptuously," the people wail "grimly," "there will be flowers with the morning," and so on.


It is a pity that the second stanza is not nearly so good as the first. I cant see that "real" in the first line of this stanza, has much point, and "unnoticed," coming after "Miss," is weak. But the first stanza seems to me good; its rhythm is firm, and the use of the "dying Free" of the feminine consonantal thyme—"sacking—breaking" is very effective.

"Preface to Battle."

The writer of this poem shows a good deal of linguistic resource and has achieved some memorable lines. The opening stanza, repeated to end the poem, is well done (except for "stolid, which doesn't seem right to me). So are some of the lines in the middle section. But the second stanza is a failure, very conventional in idea and expression, and ending with a pointless line. The poem as a whole may be criticised not only for its conventional nature but also for its cloudiness of meaning. Inn-spite of the evidence it gives of the poet's skill in managing language, image and rhythm, it reads—to me anyway—rather like an academic exercise, removed from close emotional contact with the soldier.

"Home Guard."

The deliberate flatness of statement here, I think, more effectively evokes the desired mood than the clamant tones of some of the other poems. I hear echoes of Eliot in the sombre tone and relatively complex rhythms, (if "we toil for six days and on the seventh we must motor to Hind head or Maidenhead ("The Rock ") with the third and fourth lines, and "We know awkwardly, forgetting the lines with Eliot's similar rhythmic devices), but do not think it is a second-hand poem. Even if Eliot is the spiritual and technical tutor, the pupil has successfully absorbed what he has learnt into his whole experience, and speaks with a voice that is authentically his own. Incidentally this is the only one of the seven poems giving any indication that its author is a New Zealander.

I wonder how many people will read the poems in "Spike" this year and feel that it is of some cultural importance that this journal, like a few others, still thinks it worth while to publish poetry. Poets need audiences; they need critics and opposition but what they are for the most part getting is indifference. We could do with a Society for the Prevention of Poetry, which might easily be an offshoot of the Swing Society.

W. J. Scott.