“Life in one’s mouth”, Peter Bland

Louis Johnson: Selected Poems
ed Terry Sturm
Victoria University Press, $29.95,
ISBN 086473350X

There’s a short poem by Louis Johnson which I’ve always admired. It’s called “Intemperance” and it tells us a lot in a very short space, both about the poet and the period (early 1960s) in which it was written:

The lights have all gone out in our suburb
and still we make no move to go to bed
or run the bath we overlooked yesterday.

I have tamped out my forty-fifth cigarette;
we have reached the end of the wine.
And sometimes I write poems against the State.

 

Johnson often dramatised the self, or simply reported autobiographical events, in order to highlight social insights or explore moral dilemmas. The use of the “I” as a persona in its own right, isn’t currently fashionable. In these deconstructive post-Ashbery days, we like to keep a more ambiguous distance between what’s seen and said; afraid, perhaps, of being compromised by any hint of self-regard, and distrustful – after a century of power-hungry dictatorships – of the individual ego. Johnson wrote to me once, saying that he was well aware that his “I” persona was viewed as being too earnest and that “I probably need a more obvious mask” – something he found in his “True Confessions of the Last Cannibal” (although even then the voice remained the same). And it’s the development of that voice, from one tinged with an Audenesque public tone, to a final intimate, almost dreamlike talking to itself, that accounts for much that is distinctive in Johnson’s work. The life of Johnson’s poems – as Terry Sturm highlights in his excellent extended introduction – is always in the voice. The poet looked and talked at the same time: “We live for such a moment: life in one’s mouth / the pulse at lightning-strike.”

Johnson produced some fine 1950s poems where the tone was more public and the social comment more formal than in his later work: poems such as “Song in the Hutt Valley”, “Poem in Karori”, “Magpie and Pines”, and “Here Together Met”. Work that anthologists over the years have felt safer with, rather than risking his later looser narratives, some of the ruder stuff, or the short, funny, language-centred verse that is often underrated – poems such as “Kinky” or “’Mary Poppins is a Junkie’” or the fine middle-period, domestic poems like “The Sitting Room” or “A Sense of Style”, which share childhood, family, and social concerns. Even as early as 1955, he could master little gems of social comedy, such as “At Verlaine’s Funeral”.

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Terry Sturm was both a close friend and a close reader of Johnson’s work. He acknowledges the struggle that many New Zealand critics – including himself – had in coming to terms with “the unevenness of his poetry, with what were felt to be stylistic, formal and tonal weaknesses.” This didn’t lessen Sturm’s growing appreciation of Johnson’s importance as a poet who “extended both subject matter and methods in New Zealand”. His selection includes important poems from major unpublished collections such as Re-union at Kiwi Grove (1975), and the privately published photocopied collections, The Glassy Mountain (1965), and the early (but largely unknown) Selected Poems (1974).

Sturm’s introduction is a model of close reading and well-researched biography, outlining the major developments in Johnson’s life and work over a lifetime of changing circumstances and residences. His notes on the individual poems highlight forgotten source material and remind us of the importance of little magazines such as Numbers and Argot. We have, at last, an extremely well-edited nucleus of the life’s work, with particular emphasis on Johnson’s creative struggles, both as poet and editor, within a government-dominated and often self-censoring society (New Zealand in the late 1950s and early 1960s). It was during this period (1964) that the New Zealand Poetry Yearbook finally collapsed, after the Literary Fund threatened to withdraw its grant because of six “objectionable” poems. But even two years earlier Lou and I had been blackmailed into removing the word “fucking” from my poem “The Nose” – otherwise the Yearbook would have gone under then, along with the work of that year’s contributors. New Zealand had its own brand of McCarthyism and the then prevalent Cold War climate was blatantly used to keep a centralised censor’s lid on both life and the arts. Poetry seemed particularly important at that time as it was the one place one could go to find a dissenting voice.

Of particular interest is Terry Sturm’s understanding of Johnson’s later achievements, his exploration of “an underworld of repressed wishes, desires, fears, guilts, and personal terrors whose ‘dark angel’ (Smithyman’s phrase) visits and shadows the most ordinary events and experiences.” He writes that “no NZ poet was to write so candidly, so vulnerably, about commonplace feeling of failure, humiliation, and shame – sites of the most elementary repressions.” In Johnson’s later poems the self is explored with an emotional nakedness that may well turn out to be an act of poetic bravery that has for too long been misinterpreted as some sort of hubris. As Sturm points out, his later poems are “shadowed by dimensions of the self beyond the merely personal”.

In 1962 I wrote two longish poems, “Lines on Leaving the Last Reservation” and “My Side of the Story”, together with a group of poems about my children, “House with Cat or Sun”, “The Building”, and “The Happy Army”, in which Lou took an encouraging interest. At the same time he was experimenting with longer narrative poems of his own. We both tried notching up the tension on our more surrealist images, and we were, perhaps, influenced by the whole surrealist notion of (almost) automatic writing. Certainly, we wanted to “let our poems go” in a much less formal way than previously. It was a period of close mutual discussion. Lou was a marvellous off-the-cuff talker. His passion, openness, and insights into the imaginative process were a constant source of argument and inspiration. We “borrowed” each other’s ideas with merciless abandon, and I always came away from our meetings with a heightened sense of poetic mission.

It was a great disappointment to him when I broke off from poetry for a time in order to help start a Wellington-based professional theatre. Lou distrusted the public arts (unlike Baxter, who soon put on a double-bill of Baxter/Bland plays at Downstage). Lou, I think, felt compromised by having to take an audience into account. Public taste – and its official arbiters – had been his enemy for so long that he more or less felt I was betraying my muse for the sake of public applause. Things got quite heated at an opening night party for my play Father’s Day, and we both fell down a bank on Brooklyn Hill and ended up in Dr Sutch’s garden – where we were promptly apprehended by several policemen who seemed to be hiding in the bushes. The experience merely heightened Lou’s sense of social injustice (he thought they were spying on him) as well as severely damaging his one good suit. Within a couple of years we’d both gone our separate ways, Lou to Australia and myself to the Bristol Old Vic. Our friendship soon rekindled, and we corresponded regularly until his death in England in 1988.

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Re-reading these poems reminds me of that friendship. At their best, they are those lovely extended moments when the voice slows down and almost forgets itself. As, for instance, when lying on a Coromandel beach, he writes:

                                                     I can think then
of the few I love or admire. Those who have not
gained a sense of self by bleeding others. But
it is not of these in particular I have been
thinking. You can say I’ve not been thinking
at all.

 

Moments of just being are strong in Johnson’s verse, in spite of his reputation for moral outrage.

Humour, too, plays a bigger part in his work than I’d realised. Nothing camp or airily witty, but the odd well-placed banana skin and a sheer childlike sense of wonder that he never lost and that, in retrospect, is one of his greatest gifts. In “‘Mary Poppins is a Junkie’”, he muses:

I owe the information
to a lavatory wall…
it makes sense:
what else so well accounts
for her feeling so high,
her capacity to fly
above the pinpricks with her mouth
full of sweetness, her hands
distributing parcels of bright light?

 

Or, in “Kinky”, the mocking self-depreciation of

 

           the trouble is that for some occasions
i find i have lived only a sheltered life
playing with words as an idiot sitting in the sun
might finger his dick or unwind a yoyo.

 

One can only hope that this splendid selection of Johnson’s poems will encourage a new generation of readers to discover an important and authentic New Zealand voice.

 

Peter Bland’s Selected Poems appeared in 1999.

 

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