Early in the second of the “Four Letters in Verse” that make up Alistair Te Ariki Campbell’s Poets in Our Youth, the poet is recalling for Harry Orsman how as
a boarder at
Weir House, I found myself in the company of
young men who felt about poetry as I did.
Bill Oliver and Pat Wilson ….
Both men taught me
a great deal, but it was Pat who became
a close friend, and with whom I discussed
the mysteries of prosody. Fresh from
studying Horace, I wanted to write poems
with every word in its place and pulling
its weight, but it was years before
I accomplished that aim.
Is there, to apply its own test, a word out of place in those lines? I can’t find one. They move along with disarming modesty, informal and apparently casual, yet every word does indeed pull its weight, taking the strain: “company”, “young”, “poetry”, “friend”, “fresh”, “Horace”, “poems”, “word”, “years”, “aim”. They are unpretentious but indispensable. They work, accruing meaning beyond themselves. Most of them will recur and resonate later, if you listen carefully, through the quiet, almost hypnotic pulse of the four poems.
Or here is another test, a similar set of (to use a fashionable term) performance indicators for poetry:
of the poem shall say just what now needs
just now to be said, reserving a good many things
and leaving them out for the present ….
Show a nice judgment and care
in threading your words together; your style will be
uncommonly fine if you take a familiar word
and by skilful arrangement with others make it a new
That piece of poetical coaching is not from Poets in Our Youth, though in tone and content it nearly could be. It is from a similar letter in verse by a much earlier poet, who also was offering comment about how to write good poetry in a small but committed literary community – in Rome a few years BC. It is by Quintus Horatius Flaccus, Horace, whom the youthful Campbell studied, as he tells us in the lines I began with. In “Ars Poetica”, “The Art of Poetry”, as that verse letter is usually known, Horace comments on the qualities that make good poetry, and the process of learning to write it. In Poets in Our Youth Campbell does the same. That’s not all he does in the new book, but the similarity, and the source, if that is what it is, are helpful to notice.
How does Campbell meet Horace’s test? The language of these four verse letters is plain and modest, in Horace’s word “familiar”. It says just what needs to be said. It is casual and colloquial, and utterly (in another poet’s phrase) the language of ordinary men. It has not even a touch of that self-consciously Crumpy Kiwi idiom that is sometimes our local brand of poetic diction.
By “skilful arrangement” – which is an understatement for how these poems work, but I’ll stick with Horace – even a cliché can take on a sharp edge and revitalised meaning:
I heard no more
about these works and what Lilburn thought
of them, but there was a cooling of
their friendship that was positively frosty.
Or, when he introduces Baxter with a catalogue of dead poets:
Of our own
generation, Smithyman, Sinclair, Johnson,
Witheford, Wilson, and Edmond have since
died, the last two recently. The Old Man
with the scythe has truly cut a swathe
in our ranks, and is far from done.
An uncommon fineness of style achieved through taking familiar words and making them new by skilful arrangement – those two passages pass Horace’s test. Is Campbell the first New Zealand poet to make such fineness, such plangent resonance, from a list of our poets’ names?
To think of Campbell in terms of Horace may help explain the enigma of his recent work. The great melancholic lyricist, the resonant self-castigator, has gone plain, speaking now, not singing, saying what needs just now to be said, reserving a good many things. His preceding book, Maori Battalion, is also colloquial almost to the point of seeming perversely understated, given its heroic subject. With the two, Campbell has added something unexpected to the overall picture of his work. The surf-loud beach and thundering sand of “The Return” are revisited here, but in an anecdotal, understated reminiscence of the book
launch of Mine Eyes Dazzle:
Lilburn demurred when I suggested
it be held at his seaside cottage, but gave in
reluctantly when I convinced him
it was ideal for the celebration
with its views of the island, the beach
and the waves rolling in – images
at the heart of my poems, and which, it seemed
to me, characterised his music.
This quiet backward glance identifies the distance travelled by the impassioned romantic lyricist, who was once thought, perhaps by those envious of his subtle cadences, to be out of touch with contemporary idiom.
These are not the things we expected to be saying about him 10 years ago, when he seemed to have redefined himself poetically and culturally with the publication of Stone Rain: The Polynesian Strain. But Campbell’s work has always been inclusive not exclusive. Stone Rain helped us to recognise that “The Return” had always been in part a Polynesian poem. And Poets in Our Youth helps us to recognise that he has always been in part a Horatian poet. The two co-exist just as they did in the minds of those who 53 years ago witnessed the launch of Mine Eyes Dazzle at Lilburn’s cottage – a partly Polynesian book with its title taken from a 17th century English play, launched within sight of Kapiti Island and sound of the surf; or in the minds of those in December 2002 who helped launch a book of verse letters in English that echo a Latin poet, with the same beach and island view outside.
I don’t think it’s fanciful to hear the Polynesian strain pulsing like faint surf under the discursive Horatian surface of these epistles. It’s hard to define because it is now so subtle and implicit in Campbell’s voice, but the surging thundering sand, having passed through the tortured angular discords and arpeggios of the Kapiti poems of the 1960s, has be-come a subtle, subdued rhythm of calm, lapping like distant waves or beating like soft drums.
John O’Connor, who is working on a study of Campbell’s poetry, kindly shared the thought that the narrative and discursive material of Poets in Our Youth could perhaps be likened to tukutuku panelling, varying its motifs while repeating them. Certainly these verse letters are digressive yet also recursive: exploratory and never simply chronological, yet organic and expressive of growth. Characters, settings, moods and topics reappear, while the shaping of a consummate craftsman gives them the quality of motifs, almost of pattern.
Yet how do you describe language and rhythms that outwardly are so ordinary and unpoetic? One way is to say what I say to students struggling to appreciate the spare and apparently casual plainness of Persuasion or much of The Winter’s Tale or the late poems of Yeats or Hardy. Sometimes really good writers no longer trouble with the things that once enabled them to get to the things that really matter. Yeats and Hardy, those masters of senescence, remind me how few poets have ever flourished and developed in their seventies in the way Campbell is doing, with his five books in seven years since his 70th birthday – Death and the “Tagua”, the Pocket Collected Poems, Gallipoli and Other Poems, Maori Battalion, and Poets in Our Youth.
It is probably not coincidental that he has now made his collected poems look like Horace’s. What I mean is that an early body of richly metaphoric and deeply felt odes – in Campbell’s case, richly metaphoric and deeply felt elegies, lyrics and short poems – is now complemented by a later group of wry, wise, discursive, colloquial, epistolary verses. Anguished introspection has modulated into reflection on friendship and its loss; passionate melancholy into poignant retrospection. Literary egos strut and fret about these letters only for their hour, and in the perspective of time past. It is all strikingly reminiscent of the later Horace’s satires and epistles, the words threaded with care, the rhythms quiet, the scene social.
Roger Robinson teaches in the Department of English at Victoria University of Wellington.
This is an edited version of his remarks in launching Alistair Te Ariki Campbell’s “Poets in Our Youth” (Pemmican Press) at Pukerua Bay, December 19, 2002.