Wrenched from the alphabet, Mark Williams

Iain Sharp and I were contemporaries in the English department at Auckland University in the early 1970s. In the first year of our masters programme we collaborated on a series of parodies of the poems that had appeared in Arthur Baysting’s The Young New Zealand Poets. Gradually we took on more and more major local poets and began to send the poems away to various magazines – student newspapers, The Women’s Weekly, The New Zealand Farmer – to see which of them would fool gullible editors (they had to be prodigiously gullible as we signed them with the name Errol Dogge). A few were accepted, my favourite being Sharp’s supplement to Baxter’s “Jerusalem Sonnets”, which began, “Tena koe, man, I lie cruciform in the outdoor lavatory”.

After a time the sport began to tire, but was briefly revived by a flurry of enraged letters that appeared in the correspondence columns of the receptive magazines condemning the satires as squalid and disrespectful. It was only years later that I found that the letters were themselves penned by Sharp under another pseudonym.

Iain Sharp’s poetry (and his personality) embody all the qualities of the Errol Dogge hoax – a love of disguise and jokes, a predilection for parody and subversion, a refusal to take himself seriously, even as a hoaxer.

Iain Sharp is chiefly known as a trenchant, sometimes savage reviewer of New Zealand books and as a columnist for newspapers. He was associated with the ill-fated and unlamented New Zealand Outlook. His name figures frequently above the articles in Pacific Way, the inflight airline magazine, and those who read literary journals will also know that he was for a brief period Landfall‘s fiction editor (for a while it looked as though everyone in New Zealand was going to have a five-minute stint as a Landfall editor).

Sharp is less well known as a poet, although those who frequented the Auckland performance poetry scene in Auckland pubs during the early eighties will recall his energetic renditions of his bookishly irreverent poems. He published three slim volumes of poetry in the eighties, Why Mammals Shiver, She Is Trying to Kidnap the Blind Person and The Pierrot Variations, the last two amateurishly done by Hard Echo Press.

Most of the recent anthologies of New Zealand poetry, apart from the separatist ones, have a poem or two by Sharp, but no editor has singled him out for special comment. Too old to be promising (he was born in 1953), too sceptical and self-deprecating to make his name by cultivating an extravagant public persona, too idle and fastidiousness to become one of those poets who triumph by appearing everywhere, Sharp is a minor poet in danger of disappearing into oblivion.

My purpose here is not to argue that he is a neglected Curnow, but to suggest that he is a much more rewarding poet than has been allowed. His poetry is pleasurable, deft, exact and unassumingly expert. It is also refreshingly at odds with official New Zealand poetry from the high-cultural nationalism of the thirties through the egotistical projections of Baxterism to the lyrical counter-culturalism of the late 1960s. In his relentless deflation of the romantic ego and his assaults upon the idea of a New Zealand tradition (along with some of its major examples), Sharp is a poet peculiarly suited to the mood of the nineties. The other notable characteristic of his verse is a penchant for manipulating persona he shares with, and perhaps learned from, Bill Manhire. Reviewing Manhire’s Zoetropes in Landfall, Sharp noted the clown persona working through the narrators. He made the comparison with Buster Keaton, ‘lugubrious master of slapstick, bewildered but deadpan, beleaguered but resilient, irrepressibly curious about the world around him in spite of countless setbacks’.

To some extent Sharp is talking here about his own poetry as well as Manhire’s, but there are some significant differences. In Sharp’s poems the narrators are characteristically Pierrot figures, more victimised and dejected than Manhire’s wry survivors. The speakers are more perplexed, more battered, less hopeful in the face of perpetual defeat than merely resigned. They are active only in their contempt for easy solutions, bargain basement means of escape from the human case. They jeer at romanticism. They despise metaphysics. They are unsure about their private as well as their public selves:

The Iain Sharp Poem

Iain Sharp is a fat parcel
of mixed groceries
tied with a clumsy knot.

Iain Sharp is a black kite
adrift on changeable winds.

Iain Sharp is a pile of scoria
tricking softly to the sea.

Whenever I peep in mirrors
Iain Sharp frowns back at me.
It’s terrifying.

Iain Sharp is a runaway tramcar.
Iain Sharp is a chunk of moonrock.

Iain Sharp is nine letters
wrenched from the Roman Alphabet.

Look there and there!
Bits of bright confetti
blow from chapel to chapel.
I chase them with outstretched hands.
They might be Iain Sharp

 

Behind this poem lies a whole tradition of New Zealand poets constructing themselves in terms of various persona: the mournful exile (Brasch), the demonic mystic/ prophet (Baxter), the bardic larrikin (Hunt). Each of these inventions allows the reader to confront a recognisable and stable sense of the poet when reading the work. Sharp’s poem shows the poet unable to find any reliable self to present. He’s as confused about the nature of the person signified by the nine letters IAIN SHARP as we are.

It has become a kind of cliché that modernist writing destabilises the unitary self and that postmodernism has carried this further. The “I” of poetry has become more and more unstable since the seventies. But Sharp isn’t being modishly postmodern; I don’t think he felt any peevishness about being left out Murray Edmond’s and Mary Paul’s The New Poets. He starts from the obvious (Poundian) point that we meet words not poets when we read a poem, but he frets against the obviousness of the cliché. The voice in the poem wants to find itself attached to a self and can imagine more agreeable selves than the ones it is obliged to confront in memory, mirrors or the alphabet.

The poem works because it refuses to apply the doctrinal point about the decentred self in a doctrinaire fashion. Like Manhire’s poems, “The Iain Sharp Poem” both denies and gestures towards a world outside language, contains emotion and refuses to be confessional, reveals the self only to snatch it away again. The poet is genuinely bewildered about his condition in language and in the world, and it is this bewilderment that captivates us and corresponds to our own experience as readers.

Compared to a Curnow poem, say, “At Dead Low Water” or to Baxter’s “Jerusalem Sonnets”, “The Iain Sharp Poem” is obviously minor. But that’s part of the point of Sharp’s poem. He isn’t aiming for greatness; he isn’t interested in what Manhire in “Allen Curnow Meets Judge Dredd” calls “electoflare stuff”.

The carapace of attitudes and assumptions that had accumulated in New Zealand poetry since the thirties is the object of Sharp’s satire. He isn’t aiming, Baxter-like, at dramatising the self in a universal way that makes us all acknowledge that, yes, the heart is essentially Catholic, or at least sensitive and metaphysical.

He loves to remind the eminent founders of the New Zealand Tradition that there are worlds apart from those where books are taken seriously, where cultural mandarins dream of a New Zealand in which the inhabitants will at last walk upright (as though they are all crippled by geography). He mocks Charles Brasch for his nostalgia, his high-cultural hopes, his Platonism, his high-mindedness, his distance from the recalcitrant life of the place.

Care for a meat pie, Mr Brasch ? Fancy a jug of brown,
a joint, and a
cuddle? Could you go a dozen piss? Say, let’s get lively.
Let’s hire two gorilla
suits and discuss Chinese philosophy in nude rap studios.
Let’s hot-wire a
cop car, an army truck, a pie-cart tractor. Let’s pull off
our trousers, paint
dirty phosphorescent Greek and Latin words all over our
underwear, and cartwheel
down K Road. You’ll love it, Mr Brasch. It’ll buzz you.
Quit fretting. Let’s
throw some frisbees in Tanfield Potter’s crockery shop.
Let’s climb lamp-posts.
Yeeha! Mind if I call you Charlie? Suits you. Let’s cha-cha
Charlie. Let’s
chuck clumps of manure at marching girls. Let’s sniff glue.
Let’s abuse solvents.
Let’s snorkel our way through city sewers, surface noxiously
in the Sheraton
john, and frighten the holy Jesus into high financial
penguins. Rumour has it
your own tribe of Brasches, de Beers, and Hallensteins
shovelled up a mighty
dune of shekels, but what the hell. I like you anyhow,
Charlie. I like the
withered banana look of you. Have a snort of Jim Beam.
Have a hot dog with
mustard. Here, grab this ghetto blaster. Know how to bop?
Well, C’mon then. Get
down and get with it. Shake your rhythm thing. Slay me,
Charlie. Boogie till you
puke. What’s that? You’d rather not? You prefer to walk
invisible through the
city of nowhere, the grey semblance, the fragments we
mistake for life, muttering
about dreams, shadow, veils, the air, the sky, the pure light of heaven? Oh well.
To each his own. If you bang into Plato or Shelley, give them
a wet smack on the
kisser from old Doc Sharpie. Catch you later, chum.

 

Here the pace is easy, colloquial, fast not simply because of the “performance” nature of the poem. The poem adopts the voice of the streetwise, hip kid taking on the tweedy gent, the punk (for whom even sixties and seventies rock is now passé) taking on the classical buff.

That offer of a cuddle alludes to Brasch’s homosexuality not because Sharp is anti-homosexual, any more than the line about shekels indicates that he’s anti-semitic. He simply wants to introduce playfully aspects of Brasch that couldn’t be spoken about. Brasch is not the literary gentleman but the gay scion of successful merchants. Sharp writes of (and to) Brasch in Allen Ginsberg strophes – exuberant, long, busy with information, full of tonal shifts. The easy demotic voice he has chosen mocks the whole genteel preoccupation with tradition and standards that still gets into print.

The poem is irreverent but not antagonistic. There isn’t any ideology at work which condemns Brasch as the rich-white-male – the silliness that allows Stevan Eldred-Grigg to damn a generation. Sharp is taking the piss, as Cockneys say, but it’s all part of game in which the piss-taker himself is continually taken down. He doesn’t set himself on a moral pedestal (as Eldred-Grigg does), but teases and deflates the pretensions and blindnesses of previous poets all the while drawing attention to the ricketty structure he himself stands on. Similarly, he continually deflates romanticism while owning the romanticism that is worked into his own writing.

In our university days Sharp was preoccupied with the contradiction between his rather retiring and scholarly nature and what he saw as his pugilistic appearance. His poetry often turns on a dramatisation of the conflict between a sensitive, “romantic” self and the world’s perceptions. In “Watching by Moonlight” two lovers on a viaduct see “a truckload of turnips” headed for Auckland, followed by “a carload of nuns/ all eating hamburgers”.

The poet as lover is once again defeated by reality with its derisive ordinariness. Yet the language of the poems, however ironically, is charged with romanticism: “The darkness every winter/ surprises defenseless Pierrot,/ yet, look, the Milky Way murmurs,/ the lachrymose moon persists./ Its small messages richochet/ from countless urban windows,/ against the seething ocean/ among the churchyard leaves”. Such moments of romantic expectation continually surface in the poetry as thwarted epiphanies that can neither be wholly expelled nor ever realised. They can never dispel the wretchedness of the actual.

Leaps of Faith
My grandfather often
wished he could jump
up and never come down.

I laughed when he told me
on my Sunday visits
as a spruce three-year-old,

Combed, buttoned, and shone,
my legs fat pink sausages,
joined with a twist at the knees.

My grandfather shovelled furnaces
for half a century.
Soot whirled and swam in his sweat.

Global war and depression
consumed his prime.
TB consumed his womenfolk.

A wife and two daughters
buried within a year.
two small boys to care for.

My grandfather often
wished he could jump
up and never come down.

He drank hard. He worked hard.
He lurched home exhausted
to buggerall dinner.

He scorned the notion
of any afterlife.
Religion was mumbo-jumbo,

earth his one existence.
He drank. He worked. He went on.
There was nowhere else to go.

My grandfather often
wished he could jump
up and never come down.

I laughed when he told me.
I laughed every Sunday
till my parents gasped and hushed me

and my grandfather sat dead
in his battered armchair.
He gripped the evening paper.

His blue eyes gazed unafraid.
He was smiling, smiling.
He’d finally jumped.

 

The grandfather, of course, is as much “Iain Sharp” as is the narrator, at least what we are allowed to see, or construct, of him. He has the familiar Sharpian sense of the world as painful, laborious, and meaningless. This is different from Curnow’s sense of absent meaning which goes with a need to accept the limits of the real. For Sharp the world is simply what there is, a puzzle of words and things. It’s not what the thinking subject sees and makes sense of mediated by memory and reflection. It’s not fallen away from anything. It’s bloody well there, unavoidable. It’s shit basically. But you carry on, not simply out of Beckettian resignation or responsibility to others but because in spite of all there’s a sense of fun that won’t be repressed, and that sense of fun is mostly found through the exercise of language.

It’s seems curious to me that Iain Sharp has been so neglected as a poet. I don’t mean that we should start regarding him reverentially and canonising his scant work. It’s not time for a Collected Works. But a lot of worse poets – some unreadable ones – get prizes and tours and reverential treatment in The Listener. Some even get carted round schools. I find it depressing.

 

Mark Williams is a senior lecturer in English at Canterbury University. His most recent book, Patrick White, is reviewed in this issue.

 

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Posted in Comment, Literature and Poetry
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