2, 3, 4,
Williams and Leggott, eds, Opening the Book.
Auckland: Auckland UP, 1995: 266-93.
An earlier version appears in Hecate (Queensland), 20. 2 (1994):
Duggan and Robin Hyde may between them lay the foundation of a New Zealand
— Jessie Mackay[i]
Gillian Boddy in 1991 quotes Pat Lawlor in 1935 quoting Jessie Mackay several
years previously on the subject of her younger contemporaries Eileen Duggan
and Robin Hyde, the voice on the wind seems impossibly distant. To ground
Mackay's statement and its original context is one search among many that
might alter the sense we presently have of all three writers as peripheral to
the founding of a canon of New Zealand poetry. Jessie Mackay — poet,
journalist and critic herself — also announced in 1930 that Eileen Duggan
had written poems 'to lay up in heart's lavender for ever'.[ii]
Somewhere between the desire for foundation (public, communal, conditional)
and the individual, partisan act of preservation lies the story of what
happened to women poets and their work as literary codes were altered just
before mid-century by a cultural nationalism inimical to previous competences.
don't forget the girl is a genius — Pat Lawlor[iii]
Lawlor finished his 1935 cameo of Robin Hyde with a flourish of affectionate
territorial droit (the book was Confessions of a Journalist, published
a year after Hyde's Journalese). Like Mackay, Lawlor was pinpointing a
hope poetry had for its constitution in the 1930s that sounds odd now. We did
forget. Or rather, the forgetting was carefully arranged and now seems like
natural consequence, an outworn mode giving way to newer forces. But ghosts
rise, and that word genius may still draw the fire Lawlor intended for it.
'The girl' was in 1935 a single woman of twenty-nine, author of one published
prose work, two collections of poetry and a substantial body of journalism.
She had also had two children, two breakdowns and two years' residence in an
extramural ward of the mental hospital in Avondale — the same institution
that claimed Eve Langley in the 1940s and Janet Frame in the 1950s. What price
genius in such contexts?
are the words that broke the heart with beauty?
This is the age of the merely clever. — Eileen Duggan[iv]
There is a lost matrix of women poets whose presence in our literature needs
urgent reappraisal. How it was lost, and why, are absorbing questions; but
more important still is the matter and nature of matrix, with its suggestions
of support, nurture, and numerousness. Jessie Mackay (1864-1938), Eileen
Duggan (1894-1972), and Robin Hyde (1906-1939) were prominent figures in an
earlier version of generational descent in New Zealand poetry, and they were
conscious of the role. They knew and corresponded with each other and with the
literary editors of the day who promoted and published them — notably John
Schroder, Alan Mulgan, Charles Marris, and Pat Lawlor. They were vigorous
reviewers and they were eloquent in their support of a wide range of causes
that had in common a compassion for the outcast, dispossessed, or
disempowered. Rights for women and children, the temperance movement, reform
of discriminatory legislation against Maori, the loyalist cause in Spain,
Scottish and Irish Home Rule, or unemployment problems closer to home were
variously part of their brief. As unmarried, educated women supporting
themselves in part — or wholly in Hyde's case — by journalism, they were
culture workers who believed also in a code of social service. Blanche Edith
Baughan (1870-1958) and Mary Ursula Bethell (1874-1945) span the generational
gap after Mackay and before Duggan and Hyde, and suddenly we are looking at a
capacity for shaping New Zealand poetry in the first half of the century as a
politically alert, humanitarian enterprise, diverse in its subjects and styles
but run on sympathetic and highly reticulated energies that took as their
point of departure the socially progressive atmosphere of the late colonial
women made deliberate choices about what they wrote and who it was aimed at.
Their poems became well-known to readers also interested in the emergence
(their patronage assisted it) of local literature and in its links with
British tradition. The same readers could admire Hardy, Housman, Yeats or de
la Mare, and find similar emotional engagement and stylistic clarity in the
work of Duggan, Hyde and the others. They were not populists though they
shared pubishing venues (mostly newspapers) with popular verse, for which
there was a flourishing audience. In December 1935 Whitcombes had in stock 750
copies of The Perfume Vendor by seventeen-year-old Gloria Rawlinson.
Hyde liked the poems and had written an introduction to her friend's book, but
she was dismayed to find that only a dozen copies of The Conquerors had
been ordered by the same bookshop.[vi]
However, Duggan's readership in the 1930s was large — second editions of her
Poems (1937) were printed in England and America — and Hyde's
audience was certainly bigger than the 1935 anecdote implies.[vii]
Both poets were capable of the kinds of simplicity that earned them casual
readers as well as those who took their work more thoughtfully.
such distinctions are at best arbitrary in the face of the powerful effect
their poetry had on individuals in its contemporary audience. I am fascinated
by the trace of a recurrent story which has it that the poems of Duggan and
Hyde were carried to the 1939-45 war by the fathers, uncles, brothers or
friends of those who also remember that such poems were often recited from
memory and/or that the book is still about at home somewhere. Physical,
literal distances the poems travelled, the memory of how and why they
travelled signals a most interesting kind of endurance: passionate and
too, read the moderns. They are clever — particularly Auden, whose work
comes near genius: but great art is democratic. They don't catch the breath.
The difference between cleverness and magic. — Eileen Duggan[viii]
Can the genius of Duggan, Hyde and the others touch us, a readership long
since trained in the pleasures (and prestige) of formal difficulty? Duggan can
mention democracy and magic in the same breath, sensing strategic wisdom
leaping through its beholders as a set of fiery transmissions. Her scholarship
is consequently tactical, blended with consciousness of a vocation almost in
the tradtion of the Catholic teaching orders, and (like that tradition)
astoundingly reflexive. Who is Maro of Toulouse in the title of the poem where
Duggan carves up Modernist predilections for obscurantism not long after
excusing herself from Allen Curnow's 1951 Caxton anthology? Who is L'Écrivisse
Mère of her typescript poem, saying: 'We have not feasted and we have not
basked. / We had the work / And asked no quittance — / We had the work'?[ix]
These two, esoteric Latinist (father) and enigmatic (writing?) mother face
each other across the gulf between publication and archive, teacher and
savant, presence and waiting. Who are we of L'Écrivisse Mère covenant? And
what are we taught outside of it, reading and thinking about that wait?
doubt is is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness
of art. — Henry James[x]
I am working in the dark, trying to bridge the distance between their
tradition and my standpoint, convinced these women have something to say that
I need to hear. I am moving by a kind of textual infra-red, looking for places
that make light of historical distance or heat up connections to the present.
Already we are leaving exposition for the condition of poetry, its partiality,
its ability to leap the abysses it opens. 'Ah not as plains that spread into
us slowly,' Duggan wrote, 'But as that mountain flinging at the skies / And
not as merchantmen which trundle in the offing / But as a privateer that
boards a prize, / Let song come always at me and not to me.' The title of her
poem pointedly conflates beauty with 'Booty' so that its final lines realise
the inherent structural pun: 'For beauty like heaven by violence is taken /
And the violent shall bear it away'.[xi]
Or there is Hyde's coincidental gesture, written in cold and contemplating a
durable fire: 'Flames shall be my jongleurs, / Flames my minstrel wights . . .
I shall be their mad master . . . / Shriller, fiercer than words / Out of my
golden aviary / Shall cry my burning birds.'[xii]
The madness of art. The difference between cleverness and magic. I want to
attend to the metamorphic, control-eluding figures Hyde and Duggan put before
us as first principles of their art.