Breaking the Line
Originally published in Islands 38 (December 1987), 142-54. Reprinted in Doubtful Sounds: Essays and Interviews (Wellington: VUP, 2000).
I want to begin with two poems. Each places its writer in a certain relation to a wider community of writers. The first is by Walt Whitman; it dates from about 1860:
The second is by R.A.K. Mason. It was first published in 1925, when Mason was twenty years old:
R.A.K. Mason is the poet we think of as being the first genuinely New Zealand poet. Allen Curnow, introducing Mason’s Collected Poems, calls him ‘his country’s first wholly original, unmistakably gifted poet’. He is certainly the first New Zealand poet I read with enthusiasm (at a time when it was a matter of revelation to me that New Zealand poets existed at all), and at some deep level he remains my favourite New Zealand poet. I have a copy of the first edition of his Collected Poems, which I bought at Whitcombe and Tombs’ annual sale in Dunedin in 1963. I was in my last year at high school. Mason’s best poems, it seems to me now, are wonderfully adolescent, and I read them at a time when I was pretty wonderfully adolescent myself. So it was a very satisfactory coincidence.
It will be easy enough to see, I suppose, how unencouraging a piece like ‘Song of Allegiance’ might be for a young New Zealander who hoped to write poetry. I am sure there is something attractive to the New Zealand temperament in the dogged stoical tone of Mason’s voice, and in its awkward modesty. But that roll-call of great English poets leaves the New Zealand poet no place to be but at the end of the line – bringing up the rear, as the poem puts it, at the end of its own last line. The metaphor is really rather dispiriting. And the further up the line you go, the more dead you seem to get.
One local alternative to Mason’s metaphor exists in Allen Curnow’s often-quoted couplet, ‘Not I, some child, born in a marvellous year, / Will learn the trick of standing upright here.’ But the child projected in that poem is something absolutely special – a figure of redemption and miracle, forever to be deferred, and forever to be deferred to. Unless you are in the habit of confusing yourself with Jesus Christ – and the confusion is sometimes apparent in the world of poetry – you may find Curnow’s lines almost as discouraging as Mason’s.
I was reading Walt Whitman avidly at the time I was reading Mason. I had my own 1900 edition of Leaves of Grass, complete with portrait of the author and a fold-out facsimile autobiography in Whitman’s own hand. I had rescued it from a large heap of books which had been dumped behind the school woodwork room. An old boy had made a gift of his private library to the school, and the school had responded in the only way it knew how – by deciding to make a bonfire of the books.
‘Poets to Come’ was in my bonfire edition of Whitman and it occurs to me now that it must be an extraordinary experience for young American poets to meet that poem for the first time, to find themselves being encouraged and challenged, imagined, by this poet who addresses them directly, who declares that it is from them that ‘the main things’ will come.
I suppose my argument, insofar as I have one, is that New Zealand poetry, in order to begin producing its own ‘main things’, needed to escape from the sense of tradition which is declared in Mason’s poem. It needed to abandon its place at the rear; it needed to step out of line. It had to stop paying homage to the whole metaphor. I think that all of this has happened, and that one of the reasons is that New Zealand writers began to read the work of those American poets whom Whitman addresses in his poem. Those American poets had already abandoned the line that Mason declares in ‘Song of Allegiance’. Theirs was, and is, a world of pluralism and possibility.
I do not think there are signs of Whitman in the poetry I myself write. But he is a wonderfully encouraging poet to read – if you are another poet, or would-be poet. He insists, for example, that a poem can be extremely personal, yet thereby be a public rather than a private statement. ‘Song of Myself’ begins:
Later in the poem he calls himself, ‘Walt Whitman, a kosmos’. Whitman also insists on the importance of inclusiveness and variety:
An emphasis on the importance of contradiction and diversity has been very strong in American poetry. There is a little poem by Louis Simpson, for example, called ‘American Poetry’, which begins prescriptively:
Or there is the idea of ‘impure’ poetry expressed by the Chilean writer Pablo Neruda, who in my mind keeps company with a large number of North American poets:
So poetry can be a bad-taste operation. It can be impure and various, breaching decorum at every point. I think that this is something I first found out about from Whitman.
I want to mention one other aspect of Whitman’s poetry which I find important – and this is the way in which he offers what he writes as a conversation with the reader. ‘Song of Myself’, which is a long poem in fifty-two sections, begins with the word ‘I’ (‘I celebrate myself and sing myself’) and ends with the word ‘you’ (‘I stop somewhere waiting for you’). The whole poem represents a transfer of energy from writer to reader; and as reader you are constantly being reminded of your responsibility to be active, to contribute to the whole process by which the poem’s meaning is constructed.
This idea of the poem as conversation, as intimate address from writer to reader, has been very important in American poetry. I think you can see signs of it in the work of several New Zealand writers since the 1960s. James K. Baxter’s Jerusalem Sonnets are a clear example. Much more obliquely, in my own writing, I am struck by the frequency with which I use the word ‘you’. It is an odd, shifty pronoun: it can refer directly to the reader; it can signify a specific figure within the poem, even the writer of the poem; or it can do the generalising job that the English ‘one’ does. I am never quite sure just how the word ‘you’ operates in my poems – sometimes it seems to shift between the various possibilities, rather than opting for any single one of them – but it is certainly there.
So in Whitman, whom I read at the age of sixteen, I can recognise many of the assumptions I was going to find in later American poetry. Poetry could quite properly be an instrument for subjective exploration, yet this subjectivity was not necessarily the same thing as narcissism or solipsism; it might even be a means to a truly public voice. And poetry could be messy, contradictory, various, inclusive. It could also be conversational in its voice, not measured and managed like a newspaper editorial. I do not think that any of these senses of possibility were present in the poetry being written in England during the 1940s and 1950s; and since New Zealand poets were still waiting politely in place at the end of Mason’s English line, the possibilities were not especially evident in New Zealand poetry either.
I find myself asserting New Zealand ignorance of the example of American poetry. But I think I can give an interesting instance of that ignorance.
The most influential figure in New Zealand writing after World War II was Charles Brasch, through his editing of Landfall. Now I do not want to suggest that Brasch was a man of narrow sympathies. He was generous and encouraging to a whole range of younger New Zealand writers (even publishing my own first book of poetry). He translated poetry from Russian, German, Italian and Punjabi. But I think he had a blind spot when it came to the work that had been and was being produced in the United States. Brasch, of course, had a considerable private income and was a considerable benefactor. When I was a student at the University of Otago, no one seemed to have any doubt that he, almost alone, constituted the ‘anonymous group of local businessmen’ who had endowed the Burns Fellowship. One of Brasch’s benefactions at this time was a grant to the university library, which was designed to enable it to buy every book of verse published in Britain and the Commonwealth over a ten-year period. What struck me about this was the absence of American verse.
Others must also have been struck by the very European nature of Brasch’s sensibility. In the December 1966 issue of Landfall, the second-to-last which Brasch edited, there appeared two poems by a certain C.G. Gibson. They had pride of place at the front of the magazine. The first was called ‘Low Paddocks and Light’. Here are the first three of its seven stanzas:
The only problem is that anyone at the time who had read much contemporary American poetry would probably have come across a poem by W.S. Merwin, called ‘Low Fields and Light’. The difference between ‘field’ and ‘paddock’ in the two titles fairly sums up the difference between the two texts. Here are Merwin’s opening stanzas:
Needless to say, Merwin’s poem pre-dates the work of C.G. Gibson.
My assumption at the time was that someone had set out to make a point. Perhaps C.G. Gibson was really one of the poets anthologised in Charles Doyle’s 1965 anthology, Recent Poetry in New Zealand. Perhaps C.G. Gibson was ‘C.G. Gibson’. More recently, however, I have realised that the dust-jackets of an expatriate novelist, Colin Gibson, offer a biography (born in Invercargill, advertising copywriter in London and New York, etc.) which accords with the Landfall note on the poet C.G. Gibson. Presumably novelist and poet are closely connected.
Whatever the origins of C.G. Gibson, Landfall itself never acknowledged that it had printed a pair of American poems in error. I believe Charles Brasch thought there was nothing to apologise for. He had accepted the poems in good faith: that they turned out to be, more or less, by well-known contemporary American poets merely confirmed the acuteness of his taste.
The Brasch view – which was Eurocentric, and which essentially affirmed, I think, Mason’s roll-call – was what I met at the University of Otago. The very first written exercise I faced as a first-year student of English was clause analysis of several stanzas from Spenser’s Faerie Queene. In a note on the magazine Freed, Murray Edmond has pointed out the importance of Auckland University’s American poetry course to writers associated with the magazine. Alan Brunton, Ian Wedde, Jan Kemp, Russell Haley and Edmond himself took the course. I do not recall that sense of focus and revelation at university at all. In fact, I think it was somehow important to me that American poetry, or the part of it that I was reading, was not taught in the Department of English, and would not in any case submit meekly to the analytical techniques I was being trained in as a student.
I had grown up reading comics, many of them American. Once I sent to America for a Phantom skull ring. This glowed in the dark. If you were ever placed in a situation where it was necessary to despatch some evil-doer with a clean, well-timed blow to the jaw, you were well equipped. Your opponent woke up with a head full of clouds and asterisks; on his chin was the imprint of a skull – sign of the Ghost Who Walks. I read American comics, watched American movies, listened to American music. American poetry therefore connected quite comfortably with the rest of my imaginative life – though not with my formal education in English literature. To read it was normal – but also a mild defiance, a private excitement. American poetry was hard to come by, too. You might have to send away for it, just like a Phantom ring.
My life then, as now, was made up of all kinds of incongruities and disjunctions – not grand or dramatic but the stuff of everyday experience. There was a continuing gap, for example, between the university, where I studied the Faerie Queene, and my home life. ‘Home’, in my case, meant a central-city hotel, which was run by my parents. The gap between pub and university was obvious enough. But it had none of the romance that James K. Baxter attributes to it. For me it was normal; I made the journey every day as a matter of course. Because the hotel sometimes displayed in the bar posters for travelling music shows, there were plenty of free concert tickets. So I went to show after show in the Dunedin Town Hall. That seems pretty incongruous in retrospect, too. On the one hand, I would go happily to Del Shannon or the Everly Brothers. On the other hand, I would go just as happily to Jimmy Shand and his band or the Howard Morrison Quartet. Or there might be a Mozart opera at His Majesty’s Theatre.
In fact, that musical world was mixed in ways that the literature we were taught and could buy in bookshops was not. The reason American books were unobtainable in local bookshops was tied up with the convenient way in which British and American publishers had carved up the English-speaking world. The London publishers owned the Commonwealth, and in many respects still do. This meant that British poetry was well distributed here, while American was not. Even more insidiously, it tended to mean that American poets first had to face the test of English taste. Those of them who became known in New Zealand had to be anthologised in London, or be taken on by a firm like Faber and Faber.
The anthology of American poetry which is sometimes said to have transformed poetry in English is Donald M. Allen’s The New American Poetry, published by Grove Press in 1960. In New Zealand and Australia poets seem to compete as to who was first to read it. I am sure I was not one of the first although I remember encountering there the Beat poets, the Black Mountain poets, the New York poets, and a whole range of statements and manifestos. I remember poring over Charles Olson’s essay on projective verse – it was busy and somehow badly behaved, like much else in the book.
The anthology which meant more to me, however, and which made a context for Allen’s anthology, was a 1962 Penguin, Contemporary American Poetry, edited by Donald Hall. Inside my copy I have written (unusually) the date of purchase: 1963, my last year at high school. It was a rather more catholic choice of contemporary American verse than the Allen anthology. As well as sampling New York, San Francisco and Black Mountain, it documented a range of other initiatives: Robert Lowell, for example, and writers like Galway Kinnell, James Wright, Robert Bly and W.S. Merwin. (In fact, ‘Low Fields and Light’, the poem pirated by C.G. Gibson, is printed there.) Donald Hall’s was a less polemical, less single-minded anthology than The New American Poetry. In some ways it was more decorous. But it also let more performers into the concert hall – quite deliberately. In his introduction, Hall speaks of an orthodoxy which has ruled in American poetry, and then suggests that the control of this orthodoxy has recently been broken (he is writing in 1961):
I took all this very much to heart. ‘Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes).’ I think I probably had a go at writing like every American poet I came across: I could show you my John Crowe Ransom poem, my John Berryman poem, my John Ashbery poem, my Robert Bly poem, my Gary Snyder poem, my Denise Levertov poem, my W.S. Merwin poem, my Allen Ginsberg poem . . .
In fact, here is one of my Robert Creeley poems. Creeley is probably the American poet who meant most to me when I was learning to write. He seemed American and Elizabethan all at once. What I particularly liked, though, was the way he could get syncopated, musical effects by playing the pauses of his line endings against the more conventional cadences declared by the poems’ syntax. I found the hesitant, delicate rhythmic system of his poems very attractive. My poem is called ‘The Proposition’, and I will place against it a typical piece of early Creeley.
Let me show you one more theft, from the Jamaican-born American poet, Louis Simpson. He is one of many American poets who have engaged in a kind of verse conversation with Walt Whitman: ‘Where are you Walt? / The Open Road goes to the used-car lot.’ He is what is sometimes called a deep image poet, but with a Chekhovian edge. ‘I have the poor man’s nerve-tic, irony,’ he says in one poem. The first poem is Simpson’s; the second is mine.
American poetry was read by a whole range of New Zealand writers in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but for those of my generation it had an absolutely transforming effect – partly because it made sense in the context of all those other American influences to which we were being exposed as a matter of course. It would have been abnormal not to read American poetry. Arthur Baysting wrote in his introduction to The Young New Zealand Poets (1973) that ‘. . . the Americans are producing work which is more interesting and exciting than that of any others writing in English.’ Most of the twenty or so poets in the anthology would have been happy to agree with him.
There are dissenting voices, of course. One argument runs that New Zealand poets were simply being derivative in a thoroughly shallow way, that they were learning only to be fashionable. The poet Brian Turner, for example, says in a recent interview that, when he began writing, other New Zealand poets were impatient ‘to be seen to be writing in a style that was up to the minute. Anything that gave off even the faintest whiff of the Georgian was abhorred. Most English poetry was insufferable: stodgy, pedestrian, dull, and so on. Beat and Black Mountain was what we should be responding to. I found it all rather shameless, silly and a bit weird. Adolescently arrogant.’
Yet, a little later in the same interview, he himself acknowledges considerable influences. ‘Personally I have been attracted by a good many overseas poets, especially Americans. In particular I might mention W.S. Merwin, Galway Kinnell, James Wright, Philip Levine, Donald Justice, Charles Wright, some of William Stafford and Wendell Berry.’
The inference I draw from this is that Brian Turner has read American poetry as avidly as any other New Zealand writer of his generation. Some parts of it speak to him, other parts do not. The real value of American poetry is the number of parts it has. And if you look at ‘the young New Zealand poets’ you are struck as much as anything by their diversity. If I put my own poetry next to the work of three other poets also born in 1946 – Alan Brunton, Sam Hunt, Ian Wedde – I find the differences between us far more striking than the similarities.
I do not believe that American poetry made the poets of my generation into American clones – despite the sample thefts I have indicated. What it did do was make diversity and possibility available, and, in so doing, it freed New Zealand poetry from the single line represented by the English tradition. None of the poets listed by R.A.K. Mason in his ‘Song of Allegiance’ was discarded. But the long line in which they stood was broken. Somehow all the poets were present in a single room, and you could walk across and interrogate the ones you found most interesting. A literary tradition was something you might construct for yourself; there was no need to place yourself at the rear of a chronological metaphor.
In the 1960s and 1970s, one of the ideas that writers worked with (I expect it was an American idea) was that each writer had to find her or his own voice. I do not know very clearly what my voice is, but I do know that it is composed very much of other voices. The idea of the artist which most attracts me is that of the bricoleur – the figure who lurks around the edges of the human settlement, scavenging all the bits of tribal junk and discards, constructing something new from them. The work of art is composed out of used and second-hand items; yet the finished piece is ‘new’ and ‘original’, however old and derivative its parts.
My own poem, ‘The Cinema’, is actually composed to a large extent from a list of ‘common English idioms’ which I once came across in a book for foreign language students. I put some of them together, along with a few of my own devising, and found that it was possible to imply a narrative. And I found that phrases which originally bordered on cliché, in combination took on a quite new life.
When the film Utu was reviewed in The Times last year, the reviewer made the observation that ‘an ability to move freely between dark drama and banal comedy’ characterises New Zealand and Australian films, and perhaps the New Zealand and Australian temperament. I do not want to speak for other temperaments, but I am happy to speak for my own and say that the remark strikes me as true. The poetry I write is strongly marked by tonal drifts and lurches, and I think that these come mainly from the diversities, disjunctions, juxtapositions and incongruities which constitute my experience. Much of my experience is derivative, a matter of influence and imitation. I think that is a fairly normal thing, not a matter for apology. An important part of my experience has been an avid reading of American poetry, which itself is full of diversities and incongruities.
Perhaps I can put my own case best, however, by placing one of my own poems alongside Whitman’s ‘Poets to Come’ and Mason’s ‘Song of Allegiance’. It deals with one of the ways in which a writer might go about acquiring an ‘authentic’ voice:
Perhaps as an afterword I can say that the influences from America are still making themselves felt in New Zealand poetry – but not in the overwhelming, transforming way that used to be the case. This is partly because American poetry itself is at a low ebb at the moment, and partly because of the current confidence of New Zealand literature. Two very specific influences are the Language poets, who are closely associated with recent developments in theory, and the poets associated with the women’s movement. For me, however, a ‘young New Zealand poet’ just turned forty, it is over. The excitement of reading American poetry finished about fifteen years ago. The most interesting American text I have come across recently was in the men’s room of a Chicago restaurant a couple of months ago. I looked at my face in the mirror and saw, inscribed on the glass above the face that was staring back, a thoroughly conspicuous message: NO WONDER YOU"RE GOING HOME ALONE.
The passage from Pablo Neruda is quoted from Selected Poems of Pablo Neruda, edited and translated by Ben Belitt (Grove Press, 1962); the Louis Simpson passages are from his Selected Poems (Oxford, 1966); Robert Creeley’s poem is quoted from Poems 1950–65 (Calder and Boyars, 1966).
Murray Edmond’s essay on Freed is in SPAN 16/17, 1983. A good example of Baxter’s view of the pub and the university can be found in his 1948 poem, ‘Envoi’ – ‘Lost, one original heart and mind / Between the pub and lecture-room’. On Australian poets and American poetry, see The American Model: Influence & Independence in Australian Poetry, edited by Joan Kirkby (Sydney, 1982). The interview with Brian Turner is published in Talking About Ourselves: Twelve New Zealand Poets in Conversation with Harry Ricketts, (Mallinson Rendel, 1986). The review of Utu is in The Times of 26 April 1985.