THE INVENTION OF NEW ZEALAND
I. The Reality Gang
It’s an old country. One day out in the back of beyond you come across a small town, run-down because many of its young people have headed for the city. In an unpretentious building you discover a local art gallery-cum-museum. A solitary caretaker puffing a pipe turns on the lights and you are startled by the paintings on the walls. You smile at some of the quaintness but basically you are very impressed by this local school. There is a pleasant sense of artists having worked closely together. Here are old images of heaven and hell that now have a surreal air. You’d like to understand this odd iconography but the caretaker has a curiously literal approach – he tells local stories about the paintings as though he were pointing things out to you through a window. Still, he’s a compelling talker, and the small town has changed so little over the years that it’s not difficult to feel your way back inside the artists’ frame of mind.
Reading in the local library gives you a new angle on that eccentric caretaker. He was the one who designed the museum, championed the artists, shrewdly selected and arranged their best work. He starts to seem less like a small town spinner of yarns and more like a Prospero. Or a Wallace Stevens:
Allen Curnow has had a long career as a magician, a maker of fictions, yet always in the language of 'reality' or 'truth'. In The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse he coolly delivered judgments such as 'No earlier New Zealand poem exhibits such unabashed truth to its subject' (p38), or let you know the precise lines in which 'the actual colours and contours do begin to appear' (p34). In later years he has become more interested in talking about 'fictions'.
Some of his earliest poems grew out of his personal struggle to dispel the weighty fiction Christianity. His father was an Anglican clergyman and he had himself started studying for the Anglican ministry. His desire to see the world as it really was gave him a further project: exorcising all the spell cast by foreign magicians over the new islands. Local poetry, for example, was 'ghost poetry, as we speak of ghost towns' (Penguin Book, p32).
(These lines are from a state-of-the-nation poem by Allen Ginsberg, described recently by Curnow as a 'poet of unusual genius'). The Maoris knew all about magic and reality, but their magic was one thing the pakehas could not take from them. Curnow was extremely sensitive to this issue. The pakeha poet had to create his own New Zealand magic, which he preferred to think of as reality rather than magic. The invention was a joint effort. By 1960 there were enough 'possible New Zealands' to be shaped by Curnow into the large Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse. The book begins with a motto from Gulliver's Travels:
Any notion of 'reality' tends to involve a consensus among a particular group of people at a particular time. The Penguin Book included a few poets who felt they had been tricked into the consensus - the older magician was confusing their newer magic. But on the whole the Penguin Book was a wonderfully successful job of consolidation. As I write this, in 1983, I am aware that a new Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse is being prepared by Ian Wedde and Harvey McQueen. Perhaps they will be 'the experts in a more potent magic'. (It's a good omen that one of Wedde's earlier books is called Spells for Coming Out). Certainly no other local anthology has so far exercised as much influence as Curnow's. There is great power in Arthur Baysting's Young New Zealand Poets and Witi Ihimaera and D.S. Long's Into the World of Light, but these are anthologies of a different type - they record breakthroughs rather than sort out the canon. Magic is never easy to explain but some aspects of the experience can be discussed. Unfortunately most of the critical writing about Curnow and his contemporaries has borrowed the same style of curious literalness - the critics have gone along for the ride. Other writers have jumped off the island and gone their own way. It's hard to find a useful account of Curnow as homo faber, maker of fictions, or as venerable magician- an account that is not bored or hostile on the one hand, or on the other hand completely under his spell. I shall mention one later. More accounts of this kind are bound to come, for it is easier now to enjoy the Penguin Book as artifact, as an intricate, stylised genre something like The Western. So many words have sprouted quotation marks.
The New Zealand tradition has never been monolithic - somewhere there have always been alternative styles of reading, alternative fictions. Still, the situation today seems more diverse than ever before, which is a great pleasure. It also makes it easier to think about the processes (such as reading and making fictions) themselves.
I was too young to feel the impact of Curnow's first anthology (1945, revised 1951), but like many other readers I had the experience of being converted to New Zealand verse by the Penguin Book. As a schoolboy at the end of the 1950s my sense of poetry was based on the Golden Treasury of the Best Songs and Poems in the English Language, selected by Francis Turner Palgrave, one of the best-selling anthologies of all time. Poetry was yuletide logs blazing on snowy evenings, corbies and cuckoos, taverns, ploughmen, bards. I liked lyric poems that carried me as far away from Auckland as possible. I also read science fiction. Arriving at University and being introduced to New Zealand poetry - above all by the newly published Penguin anthology - inspired me with home truths, local adventures, a new canon and a new poetic.
What strikes me about the Penguin Book today are its myths, its quests, its icons; what struck me in 1960 were its realities. To be mature is to be clear-sighted about harsh facts - at least, that's one implication of 'realism', and that's the way I used to read Curnow's sentence - as a reminder that the New Zealander (knight errant) must pay his dues. Palgravian fountains and dragons were playfully conjured up only to see them transformed by the magic word 'reality'.
The best magicians are so subtle they are taken for realists - they seem to be merely pointing to what is there, to powers inherent in things. Notice Curnow's use of the phrase 'I have found myself piecing together ...' as though he too were surprised to see a pre-existent pattern emerging. This 'search' for a pattern made a very compelling project. Baby Sebastian, in one of Charles Brasch's poems, 'sees the strangeness of life, and what things are trying to be' (p186). James K Baxter writes: 'Remote [is] the land's heart: though the wild scrub cattle/ ... may learn/ Shreds of her purpose'/ (p287). Michael Dunn has spoken of the attempt by New Zealand painters and writers to see the features of the landscape as 'art works waiting for the right sensibility' ('Frozen Flame and Slain Tree', Art New Zealand 13, 1979). Adventuring in search of reality was not only a stylistic preference - it also involved a moral responsibility to nature and to the local community. The magician as local minister. This social role is summed up strongly in the poem 'Journey Towards Easter', spoken by 'Peter Radford, priest of a North Auckland parish':
Orthodox Christianity 'is dead' in this priest - Faith is 'a great fogged and empty cavern'. But he continues with his work - 'walking in the way of my craft' - because he believes that a new god may emerge from this 'soil of pain', a new 'dialect for our...communion' (p272-5).
These are serious aims - this secular ministry, this role of 'unacknowledged legislator' (to quote Shelley's 'Defense of Poetry') - and I have no wish to parody them. But I do want to emphasize the elements of choice and of rhetoric, the poet as maker rather than medium. Curnow may 'have found' himself 'piecing together the record of an adventure', but as I read his anthology I am constantly (and pleasantly) aware that a powerful mind is busy shaping it. The poem quoted above is not typical of Kendrick Smithyman but it is easy to see why Curnow selected it. In terms of the older poets Curnow skillfully separated out their serious work. Erratic writers like Glover and Fairburn gained a great deal from this strong editing.
Like Curnow, Fairburn conceived of the role of 'New Zealander' as a total commitment, moral and aesthetic, but he talked about it less subtly. In 1932 Fairburn wrote from England to R A K. Mason:
This 'real culture' of a 'race' that is 'really' different is an odd notion. Fairburn rejects Joyce and then in the following sentence seems to be paraphrasing him ('I go to encounter... the reality of experience and to forge... the uncreated conscience of my race'). From the letter one would think that Fairburn had been exploring the world for years, but he had not been away from New Zealand for much more than a year. He rejected 'modern art' because it was tainted by 'internationalism', and took the Wandering Jew as his symbol for it. At times Fairburn's attitudes are alarming:
Fairburn uses a lot of sexual analogies - international art is masturbation, abortion, or homosexuality (which is something he dislikes almost as much as feminism). It seems that the only healthy artist is the one who marries his country. Conceived as a landscape, the country is a beauty; as a society she's an old nag. But even in that case: 'In the end, every man goes back where he belongs, if he is honest. The rake deserts his harlot and returns to the shrew he has lived with for long years' (Letters, p80).
Of course Fairburn was not always as bad as this, but even in terms of his best writing it is difficult for me to understand why Curnow chides Baxter for not having 'always that instinct for a reality prior to the poem which protects Fairburn... from losing [his] subject in rhetoric' (Penguin Book, p 62). 'Reality' and 'rhetoric' have a sneaky habit of changing places. But taking the Penguin Book as a whole, I cannot imagine anyone presenting New Zealand literary nationalism to better advantage - the genre is assembled, the aesthetic is argued with outstanding skill and care. Curnow's writing has not started to wear thin as some of Fairburn's and Glover's has. Some individual sentences have, however, become decidedly odd, particularly if you read them slowly. Some readers may prefer them that way. Consider the Yeats' quotation used by Curnow as a motto:
It's easy to see why is was also used as a motto by Robert Bly. Here are a few Curnow sentences that have similarly moved closer to Bly or Margritte:
II. Travels with a Penguin
Flashback: The Penguin Book was ideally sized for my parka pocket. I carried it on hitchhiking trips, reading it over a plate of sausages or a tin of Wattie's fruit salad, introducing the language to the landscape from Curious Cove to North Cape. 1983: the pages are going brown around the edges, and there are some nostalgic stains from various parts of the country. But the tradition is still intact, from 'The Creation' through to 'Afternoon Tea' and 'Dawn'. (The poetry ends with the phrase 'last sad triumph', and in my copy it looks as though the typesetter gave it an ironic tilt downwards.) There are no pictures, apart from symbolic penguins, just chunky poems, few gaps and no frills. The paper seems closely related to newsprint and one can pause in the middle of a poem for a bracing whiff of wood pulp. This is appropriate to poets that aspire to 'be news', or for a book of magic disguised as 'a pine-dark corner of the world'. It's more in line with Colin McCahon's raw canvas than with (say) Thomas Bracken's 'drawing room edition... bound in half-Morocco and gold, dedicated to Alfred Lord Tennyson' (p24). The cover is green, perhaps green for pines or pounamu, but it's ended up as olive green. Were there negotiations? An arty English designer seems to have won the argument since the cover is also covered with rows and rows of an enigmatic symbol. You could see them as eyes ('Snap open! He's all eyes', p214), as disconcerting as Brasch's surreal forests of eyes 'that from groins/ And armpits of the hills so fiercely look' (p183). Or seeds, or olives ('in a strange land/ taking cocktails at twilight', p150). Or a fence, such as Hart-Smith's barb-wired fence around that strange paddock 'sharpened to a point' where you're 'cornered at last' in the heart of the heart of the country (p216). Or perhaps the symbol has no meaning at all. It is, in any case, hand drawn, 1949 versions of the one motif. A few years ago this exhausting pattern began peeling off my copy like wallpaper, exposing the 'real' cover which is plain white cardboard.
The eyes, or whatever you see the pattern as, are interrupted by a window shape. Through this frame are the words of the title. The image is so strong that when I open the book the poems are also shaped like windows, tall or square, some divided into separate panes. Some are exotic French doors or Louvres but most are plain puttied frames. In 'Lever de Rideau' Ursula Bethell looks out the window at 'the plain-town' then observes that
That wind is so real she can see, feel and smell it. Yet the mountains are 'painted' as though the curtains have gone up on a stage set. In 'October Morning' the window reveals what the art critics have called the special sharpness of the New Zealand light:
Perhaps the meaning will be cracked by Baby Sebastian:
One of the best window poems in the Penguin Book is Allen Curnow's 'A Small Room with Large Windows'. C K Stead has said of the 'plunge of the gannet' near the end of this poem:
I agree with Stead that it's a wonderful line, but I don't see any way it's 'set down simply'. In the poem its spaced-out singularity does not say 'clear glass', but 'Imagist fragment'. It sends me to the dictionary to explore the meanings of 'impacting' - the 'impact' of the 'plunge' is only one of them - and to Curnow's essay on Charles Olson to confirm that, yes, 'Imagist principles have been familiar ground for some of us for a very long time' (New Zealand through the Arts: Past and Present, p33).
Both Stead and Curnow have gone through changes since that poem and essay were written. In 'A Window Frame', a remarkable poem published in 1973, Curnow sets out on his usual 'adventure in search of reality' and ends up in the back of beyond:
III. All Done By Mirrors
And New Zealand in 1967? Gordon Brown and Hamish Keith were working on An Introduction to New Zealand Painting, the classic reading of New Zealand painting in terms of realism and regionalism, and a counterpart in that respect to Curnow's Penguin introduction. But other attitudes were starting to emerge. In October 1967 Peter Tomory gave a lecture entitled 'Imaginary Reefs and Floating Islands'. Tomory was not a New Zealander but during his years in this country he engaged closely with local painting. His lecture noted the prevailing realist approach (taking Eric McCormick as example), then proceeded quietly but subversively to shift attention to emblematic tendencies and to traces of Surrealism (in the use of super-real light, for example). Above all, he set out to show that much of the art considered staunchly realist or anti-romantic could be viewed as 'a New Zealand Romanticism based on English precepts'. This was a lively challenge, but it dropped, as far as I know into 'a silence broken only by a whispering of Pacific winds and surges' (Penguin, p18). Also it mush be added that Tomory revealed some strong preconceptions of his own (on such subjects as 'universals').
In recent years some younger art historians have come along with new readings of the tradition, combining detailed knowledge with a heightened interest in style and symbol, backed by a broad awareness of new art and literature overseas. Despite their obvious commitment to local work, their approach still tends to be considered exotic. Perhaps readers don't like the vertigo of discovering that they inhabit a mobile island.
Ron Brownson's 1977 thesis on Rita Angus begins with a poem by Charles Olson, 'The Lamp':
The painting becomes a film moving in time, the poem has no ending, and what counts is your readiness to catch it as it floats by. Or rather, to 'create' it. Brownson's thesis does not mention Olson again but he develops his study of Rita Angus with a comparable awareness of viewpoints, hers and his and ours. Like Tomory's, his aim is to 'complicate' previous accounts; he proceeds with loving care to unpack the complexities and richness of her work.
Brownson has rewritten one section of his thesis as an essay, 'Symbolism and the Generation of Meaning in Rita Angus's Painting', published in the catalogue of the recent Angus retrospective (which his research had helped make possible). Among other things this essay contains some wonderful attempts to put into words the complex push-and-pull that can now be experienced in this kind of art - art which is trying to 'come to terms' with a 'new ' landscape, busy making human sense of it at the same time as it's acknowledging how raw and strange it is. For example, in Angus's paintings of Cass, an isolated station:
This is Angus's way of being there as the railway station flashes past/stands solid. (Or 'impacts'?). But it is hard to convey the flavour of Brownson's writing by a single quotation because it's the very fullness of his account that is special - he has developed his own kind of 'field' approach.
Brownson is himself a film-maker. He is obviously deeply interested in the relationship between art and place - he has that in common with Brown and Keith, or Curnow (whose anthology he has read carefully) - but his approach is otherwise very different, as we see in Springbok. This brilliant film is (among other things) a meditation on landscape, deeply informed by Brownson's own knowledge of Maori tradition and pakeha cultural politics. It is not 'realistic' - the film seems to be working to develop a new sign language. Robert Creeley once spoke of the American poet having to be peculiarly aware of making language. The same could be said of 'the New Zealand poet' involved in his or her 'generation of meaning'. Indeed it is said from time to time but seldom followed very far - how often do we come across a re-invention of poetry, something truly home-made? 'From Scratch' provides a thorough musical example. While it is probably safer not to revive the fiction 'New Zealand poet' in any form, the most interesting versions stress the need for endless re-invention - 'If you would sing you must become news' (Brasch, p187, a line used anew by Allan Loney in 'Riding the Mantra').
Another art historian making the tradition new is Roger Blackley. In his 1978 thesis 'Writing Alfred Sharpe' he remarks:
Blackley shares Brownson's acute sense of viewpoint, context, gaps, provisional meanings, and language (textuality). In the second volume of the thesis he hands over Sharpe's images, letters and poems, encouraging us to discover our way of 'writing Alfred Sharpe.'
Francis Pound is engaged in a very effective mopping-up operation, 'deconstructing' the last strongholds of the realist tradition. His style is more argumentative than Brownsons's or Blackley's. In his 1982 essay 'The Real and the Unreal in New Zealand Painting' (Art New Zealand 25) he writes:
Though Pound has an axe (or a lens) to grind, he is scrupulously frank about what he is doing:
I understand that Pound is now working on a book about New Zealand landscape painting entitled 'Frames on the Land'. If 'roots' is one of the key words for the 1930s writers such as Curnow, 'frames' seems to have a corresponding importance today. (A shift from 'seedling trees' to 'timber'!). 'Frame' refers both to the painting as tangible object and to the painter or viewer's frame of mind. Trees, effigies, moving objects - and frames.
Two other art critics - Tony Green and Wystan Curnow - stand behind some of these recent developments. Green's editorship of the Bulletin of New Zealand Art History, for example, has encouraged a wide range of experiments. And Curnow is the outstanding example of someone just as deeply involved with New Zealand art and the questions it raises as any earlier critic, but at the same time able to approach it in new ways. His work has been criticised for too much overseas influence. The old 'frame' of regionalism is so common - influencing the audience in conscious and unconscious ways - that there are writers now in their forties (such as Wystan Curnow and Alan Loney) who are still regarded as exotic, outside the mainstream of 'our' culture, despite twenty years of local involvements.
There is one other kind of new frame that is beginning to transform the view of local art and literature. Jacqueline Fahey has said of her window paintings:
Fahey 'destroyed this ... series of paintings' in 1962 'after they were turned down for an exhibition'. Since then a number of other feminist artists have emerged. Fahey's early work was 'rather Picasso inspired'; feminist art today is very concerned to develop its own language as well as subject matter. In 1976, for example, Carole Shepheard
These quotations are taken from magazines which in 1983 published special issues on 'NZ Women Artists' (Art New Zealand) and 'NZ Feminist Artists' (Broadsheet) - evidence of the shift that has occurred since 1962. A re-reading of the poetry tradition is similarly underway. The 'lady poet' has been a figure of fun in New Zealand (male) literature for decades, symbol for the gentility and amateurishness from which the Reality Gang strove to escape. The Penguin Book was relatively free of this attitude - six women poets were represented - yet even Curnow quoted Montalk's remark with implied approval: 'KM [Katherine Mansfield] has had one most deplorable result - that of giving NZ women a swelled head' (p57).
Feminist art is now a large field incorporating
work of many types. There is art in a realist style; there is art that
is not realist but very concerned with notions of reality; there is ritual and
exorcism (the magician as witch); and there are 'language' experiments.
All this activity has (or should have) made us all more aware of the politics
involved in reading and of the way in which a 'frame' can shape and
IV. Canon and Variations
Poetry and painting are hard to keep separate - Allen Curnow looks out the window and sees lighting by J C Hoyte. A poet/painter (A R D Fairburn) denounces modern art. Two art critics (Wystan Curnow and Tony Green) write poetry. Such links raise the question: has New Zealand poetry been re-invented in the same way as painting?
James K Baxter's approach was one of the first to separate out clearly from the consensus articulated by Allen Curnow. Curnow's 1945 anthology ended with this poem by the teenage Baxter:
As yet, the word 'surrealist' did not have to be taken too literally. But by 1955, when the essay 'Symbolism in New Zealand Poetry' was published, Baxter had clearly developed his own frame of reference, which - while it was not Surrealist - did offer an alternative to the poem-as-window opening onto a daylight world.
This sentence is not enough in itself to establish the differences - one needs to read his essay as a whole, to see him search for 'symbolism' so energetically that familiar poems look new and odd. He was not deterred by the thought that some of the authors would be surprised or alarmed by his 'findings' (p57). Rather than rejecting the idea of 'reality', he re-interpreted it as a kind of super-reality, deeper and more primitive:
This wonderful essay opened up a lot of new territory, but apart from some of Baxter's own poetry, it is hard to find much that has been done with it. 'Deep image' writing or anything resembling it has never been very welcome in this country. (Consider the out-of-focus reviews of the work of Michael Harlow and Russell Haley, for example). It would be interesting to try putting together a New Zealand anthology based on Baxter's sense of 'symbolic ritual' - something like Jerome Rothenberg's collections. It would provide a very different view of the tradition.
One way to interpret Baxter's essay is as an attempt to bring pakeha poetry close to the spirit of Maori poetry. It's an aim that serious pakeha poets have always acknowledged, but they have not known how. The Penguin Book opened with a selection of Maori poetry but the gap remained. Baxter pointed out some new possibilities. We can link his work, in this respect, with the paintings of Colin McCahon, for example, or Tony Fomison. In recent years Maori writers have been thoroughly exploring the gap from their side. In 'The House with Sugarbag Windows', for example, Witi Ihimaera talks of the complexity of being able to look through the same window with either Maori or pakeha eyes. 'The hardcase thing about windows was that one could... fill the landscape with the figments of one's own imagination, colour it... and animate it as one wished. Hardcase?' (even the choice of adjective implies a frame of reference.)
Baxter's talk of landscapes 'alive' with 'animistic force' has Maori associations but he is also influenced by pakeha writers such as Jung. Baxter remarks:
This still involves a pure reality prior to the poem. It's a way of talking that starts to fade out or to become more complicated in the next generation. Curnow's strong awareness of cultural politics ('Attitudes for a New Zealand Poet') is still valued, as is Baxter's interest in the unconscious mind, but today the most unusual 'islands in the air' have other energies propelling them also. Leigh Davis's 1980 thesis on the work of Allen Curnow is one of the best examples of a new reading. Davis approaches the literary tradition with some of the same sophistications as the art historians Francis Pound and Ron Brownson. Davis (who is himself a poet) does not feel the need to struggle against Curnow's ideas as Baxter understandably did - he is so far outside them that he can relax and enjoy Curnow's poems as a genre, to be admired for their complex development of certain codes. To a realist, this sort of account probably sounds 'formalist' or 'aesthetic', traditional terms of abuse in this country. Back in 1945, for example, Allen Curnow was delivering this warning to Ngaio Marsh:
'A work of art,' he added, 'is a piece of life, at the very least a piece of real and immediate experience about life' (p6). This emphatic comment now sounds ornately rhetorical. What is and isn't 'life'? What is 'a piece of real experience about life'?
A piece of life, a piece of experience, a piece of work, a piece of my mind, a piece of the action, a piece of music, a piece of poetry picked by Peter Piper for his Penguin paperback, a piece impacting.... Today it's not so easy to 'piece together' the pieces as a single reality.
Davis's criticism seems more subversive than Brownson's but what they (and some other new writers) have in common is a heightened sense of style (or stylization) and of texts-as-texts. It is frustrating that such original work remains buried in university libraries in the form of theses. Davis has tried to find a publisher but his manuscript apparently strikes its readers as too far outside the mainstream. There is a lot more to be said about this amazing piece of work but I decided not to re-read it for this essay - it does its job so well I was afraid it would take away my own impulse.
Most critical work involves a medley of readings. For someone to come up with a sharp new reading is very rare - it is likely to be resisted as too extreme or theoretical, but it carries the impact of a new way of seeing things. To talk about readings in this way is of course to invent a fiction, but such fictions have their uses provided they are seen merely as a way of raising contemporary questions.
V. Faery Lands
This essay began as a detailed study of the Penguin Book but it has gathered up so much history the details have been crowded out. Let me end with a few Penguin pleasures, not as tests or examples of anything above but as pure play.
1. First Lines Poem
A teaser-trailer from the 'Index'; 14 ways of looking at a Penguin; and a version of what Baxter calls 'the general ideograph' of New Zealand poetry (there are many more lurking in the backmatter).
2. Love Poetry
There is a shortage of human love poems in the Penguin Book, as I discovered one morning in 1962 when I found a copy beside someone's bed and went from cover to cover looking unsuccessfully for a suitable poem - something tender, sexy, a little crazy. One or two poems almost qualified but what I needed was Arthur Baystings's anthology (not published until 1973). Curnow's summary of the 'deserts and dragons' genre omits 'fair maidens' - in their place we find the 'fine prospects' (p17). Love poems in the Penguin Book are involved with the country or landscape.
Sexual surrealism is the chance meeting of a mountain, a tiger and a woman on the dissection table. It is also this ménage a trois:
Or this troilism:
3. The New Zealander
'The New Zealander' stands tall 'in an unusually tough spot' (p316). He may be one of the hermits in the hills (p257, p288), a patient courtly lover, a wily old magician, a survivalist, or a poet-cowboy. In Horizons West Jim Kitses lists the motifs that provide the central 'dialectic' of The Western:
As the Penguin impacts, it gains the density of a genre. Kitses talks of the rich associations of icons, such as the resonance of a church in a western landscape. Or Cass, a railway station on the Canterbury plains?
The countryside is the setting in which to get back in touch with one's 'real' feelings: 'we came down slowly having crossed/ a hundred hills from .../ our premeditated city responses' (Sinclair, p258). And Curnow wrote in 1953 in support of M H Holcroft:
He added: 'There has been talk ...of a 'South Island myth' ... but 'myth'... is a curious term for what is simply a way of looking at history....'
In addition to what it tells us about Courtly Love, the anthology could be seen as our Emblem Book. Curnow notes with approval the 'attitude' in Fairburn's lines about the young man
Here is The Realist as allegorical figure, encouraging others to learn the trick of staying upright. In general, however, it is more interesting to look for Metaphysical images than Medieval ones - the emblem developed into the conceit. This is not surprising since Metaphysical poetry was a strong influence on American poetry and English literary criticism (via Eliot and Empson) during the main period covered by the Penguin Book. Indeed, poets such as Baxter discussed it. But the idea that local poets were pushing aside overseas models to concentrate on the raw realities confronting them helped to conceal this Metaphysical influence. It is present in many of the quotations in this essay. Often 'New Zealand' exists in poetry as an elaborate conceit - the country as microcosm ('We are our own New Zealand'), as antipodes ('our opposite isles/ Chase each other round till the quiet Poles/ Crack') , or as alter-ego ('our second body', 'This whimpering second unlicked self my country'), etc.
5. Anxiety Rituals
Certainly this is true of many of the poems in the Penguin Book - they have 'grown' from a sense of suffering, anxiety, and absence ('what great gloom / ... in a land of settlers / With never a soul at home' p202). Whether or not one agrees with what Curnow says, 'New Zealand' was clearly a fruitful way for him to talk about the particular energies that propelled his type of poetry. Today it seems easier to recognise also a different set of possibilities - poems, paintings, music, etc, which have calmness at the centre and a heightened sense of presence rather than absence. Such art may seem non-political or 'art-for-art's sake', but in its own way it stands apart from mainstream culture, in implied opposition to its neuroses.
'Seven Painters/ The Eighties' - one of the best New Zealand painting shows in recent years - may be set against the imaginary museum show at the beginning of my essay. The general effect of its paintings is calm, centred, extraordinary, subtle. There are certainly plenty of 'tensions' but not 'anxieties' of the usual type. This is also an anti-realist show- any sense of the canvas as door or window has been carefully painted out.
The little iconography that there is has been developed in a very conscious way - Killeen's cluster of signs being the most explicit example. (Still, a generation from now, viewers may discover other codes that we are not aware of, in the same way that the impact of the Penguin Book has changed in twenty years from reality to myth). This is essentially a city form of art, and it may be said that what's happened is simply a change of sides from 'wilderness' to 'civilization', with all that that implies. But the new attitudes to realism and to anxiety indicate a shift in the very nature of art, not merely in its subject-matter.
Poetry tends, of course, to be less 'abstract' than abstract painting but it has moved in similar directions. The aim is not to be meaningless but to explore a new awareness of meaning itself, of all the elements of meaning - the window, the window-as-mirror the glass, the frame, the viewer; and not to 'talk about' the complexity but to find ways of working with it. Meanwhile, the champions of 'common sense' will continue to demand that we get back to The Real Business.
6. May the Force Be With Us
My approach to the Penguin Book is a non-anxious reading of anxious poems. It may seem a cheeky reading but I hope my basic respect for Allen Curnow is clear. He has been celebrated often enough as a realist - I wanted to celebrate him as a maker of artifice. 'Old father, old artificer, stand by me now....' Alchemists have always concealed most of their secrets, though today Curnow does talk more explicitly of 'fictions'. He still has many tricks and poems up his sleeve - it is unwise ever to underestimate the magician of Tohunga Crescent.
Allen Curnow, ed, A Book of
New Zealand Verse 1923-50, Christchurch, Caxton, 1951.
(Thanks to Ron Brownson and Roger Blackley for permission to use quotations from their unpublished theses.)
Since I wrote the above essay several months ago, Hamish Keith and Francis Pound have each brought out an interesting book on the subject of nineteenth century New Zealand painting - Images of Early New Zealand (Keith) and Frames on the Land (Pound). Keith has reviewed Pound's book in Art New Zealand 28, attacking it for its lack of what he calls 'patient and scholarly research and mature reflection'. He has also suggested that Pound's 'half-baked' ideas are those of a fin-de-siecle aesthete. The arrival of the two books at the same time should help to extend the debate presented in my essay. 'Street-fighting' of this kind (as Keith describes it) is now happening in all the arts, though the point seems not yet to have sunk in that it is a shared debate, the end of a common hegemony. Of course this hegemony has been under strain for many years but it has still continued to dominate our thinking. 'Revolutions' have swept through the land, rattling the windows but in most places leaving business as usual. In poetry, for example, the rebels who shook up the late 1960s were a very mixed band. Some were genuine wild ones, but many were quick to settle down. Yet critics continue to lump them all together, or else they ignore the lone wolf (Alan Loney being the classic case) while making far too much of all the sheep in wolves' clothing.
Wystan Curnow's essay 'Seven Painters/ The Eighties: The Politics of Abstraction', published with Hamish Keith's review in the latest Art New Zealand, does much to further the sorting-out process in the visual arts. Curnow suggests that the local debate has been slowing down because it is riding along on the same terms (old warhorses such as 'realism' and 'abstraction'). He proposes a new category, 'the expressive realist', a painter who 'appropriates elements of modernist style for expressive purposes'. This begins innocently as a new label but expands into an unsettling view of art history that emphasizes unfinished business. One of Curnow's phrases is 'Not mimesis, kinesis'. As Gulliver said of the floating island: 'I ... chose to observe what Course the Island would take; because it seemed for a while to stand still.'
If things are moving again today it is not merely a matter of criticism catching up to writers and artists, and it is not a re-run of Freed. Something freer is proposed, proposed and already on the go in the work of the critics I have mentioned above who are also poets or film-makers, and elsewhere in the most free-wheeling ('kinetic') forms of local art and literature.