Wit and moral clarity, Hugh Roberts

Whim Wham’s New Zealand: The Best of Whim Wham 1937-1988
Terry Sturm (ed)
Vintage, $34.99,
ISBN 1869417577

 

It is by now no secret that Allen Curnow, a man with few rivals for the title of “New Zealand’s Greatest Poet”, was throughout most of his life the author of weekly satirical squibs published under the pseudonym “Whim Wham” in the Christchurch Press (from 1937) and New Zealand Herald (from 1951).

The name “Whim Wham” comes from an old term for a frivolous decoration or a whimsical notion. It survives today (if at all) in a stock phrase used as a teasing response to a child’s question (“Where are you going?” “To get a whim-wham for a goose’s bridle”). As a name for a purveyor of occasional light verse, it insists upon both the ephemerality and the superfluity of the writer’s wares. Poems printed on tomorrow’s fish-and-chip wrappers could well be said to be the height of whim-whammery.

It’s a risk, of course, to gather up material of this kind into a more sober-sided and lasting form. Terry Sturm’s selection of 200 of “The Best of Whim Wham 1937-1988” (as the volume’s subtitle has it) could have been expected to turn up a succession of “you had to be there” moments: devastating criticisms of long-forgotten politicians and oh-so-witty allusions to now-obscure historical events. New Zealand cultural and literary historians would be bound to find the material interesting, but is there anything here for people who wouldn’t know Sid Holland from John A Lee, or Frank Sargeson from a hole in the ground?

The answer is, unequivocally, yes. Whim Wham’s New Zealand is recognizably our New Zealand still, and Sturm (and Vintage) have given us a genuine treat in producing this selection. It is true that to read the volume cover to cover is to find oneself immersed in a richly revealing cultural history of 20th century New Zealand (did you know that in 1960 there were a maximum of 10 – yes 10 – restaurant liquor licenses permitted for the entire country?), but one never feels as if one is swotting for a test. Sturm cannily chooses works which transcend their originating context, addressing issues which often seem startlingly (or depressingly) contemporary. Where more local allusions threaten to stump the reader, his notes deftly provide the necessary explanations. Whim Wham himself often prefaced poems with a relevant newspaper article, and these usually obviate further comment.

The prefatory clippings are not a bad place to start, either, if one wants to address the inevitable question: what overlap is there between the Whim Wham and Curnow oeuvres? Should we treat Curnow and Whim Wham as heteronymic counterparts, a restrained antipodean counterpart to the Portuguese Fernando Pessoa (who published under a slew of different names, some of whom engaged in bitter controversies against each other)? I think Whim Wham’s very name cautions us against such a move. The Whim Wham poems are satiric epiphenomena. The freedom of writing under such a pseudonym is the freedom of never being “at home” to anyone who comes calling to hold you accountable. Whim Wham has no settled political or philosophical views, his job is to be a gadfly: to puncture pomposity and discomfit the comfortable. He’s as happy to skewer the stifling nanny-statism of New Zealand’s welfare state in 1956’s “For Everybody’s Benefit” as he is the devil-take-the-hindmost shredding of that blanket in 1987’s “The Jolly Roger”.

But insofar as Curnow in propria persona is also a “critical” poet (a poet who comments upon society and the human condition as opposed, say, to a purely “expressive” poet who “looks in his heart, and writes”) there is an overlap nonetheless. Curnow’s poetry maintains an intense scepticism about its own materials, at once charmed by and suspicious of the slipperiness of language. As Whim Wham, Curnow delights in the “found poetry” of political doublespeak and official gasbaggery. Sid Holland’s empty formulation in 1957 – “The Government has to take many factors into account, including the allowance of appropriate time for campaigning and the convenience of the public, in fixing the date of the election” – gets transmuted into this withering first stanza of “Let’s Face Factors”:

Excuse me while I take some Factors into Account.
Wisdom, of which I am so frequently the Fount,
Must wait, and so must my Critics and Detractors:
I am so busy taking into Account so many Factors.

 

Or, in 1987, Curnow uses ellipses to dissolve a news article about Labour economic policy into its dreary buzz of Rogernomic sloganeering: “To allow the regions to take advantage of real opportunites Labour says it will: Get the economic fundamentals right. ‘Investment in productive enterprises will rise dramatically … lower the cost structure … competitive …’ et cetera.” After that, the poem that follows is almost redundant.

But language does charm as well as deceive, and here too one can see how “Whim Wham” feeds into “Curnow”. I doubt there is a more sustained exploration of traditional poetic form in New Zealand poetry than one finds in the Whim Wham poems (unless it be the work of another composer of light verse for newspapers, Allen Curnow’s father Tremayne). Sturm rightly mentions Pope, Byron, Lear and Carroll as models for Whim Wham in his brief but useful introduction, but the figure who came most often to my mind was the W S Gilbert of the “Bab” Ballads. Like Gilbert, Whim Wham restlessly tries out different stanza forms, both traditional and invented. From a slightly modified form of Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott” stanza in “After All That” to Gray’s “elegiac” stanza in “Our Sober Senselessness” to such complex nonce-structures as the following, savagely picking up on the bureaucratic normalisation of horror in an American admiral’s description of a bomb tested on Bikini Atoll as a “perfectly normal Nagasaki-type bomb”:

Oh this was a perfectly normal Bomb,

Not one of your Freaks or Duds;

It did just What was expected from

A normal and well-balanced nuclear Bomb –

No Waves, or ‘Quakes, or Floods,

No dreadful terrestrial Paroxysms,

No Chain Reactions, no Cataclysms,

No Disintegration

Of Ocean or Nation,

Oh Nothing you’d call at all out of the Way.

 

For disposable poetry, this stuff is radically over-engineered; it is as if one were to find a jeweller expending all his expertise on constructing a daisy-chain. Consider, in the stanza just quoted – taken almost at random, I should add – the way the way the initial ABAAB rhyme scheme works; it’s perhaps obvious enough to make the almost-onomatopoeic “Bomb” the A-rhyme, giving dull thudding weight to the absurdity of the idea of its “normality”; but consider the way the fourth line trips us up: we expect an echo of the short three-beat second line (“and something something ‘–uds’”) but suddenly we find the ghastly phrase being repeated and amplified – “A normal and well-balanced nuclear Bomb.” The poem’s very form tells us that this claim is unassimilable to a rational order, that it is the antithesis of “well-balanced”. The sprung-steel exactness of Curnow’s “Curnow” poems must have owed a lot to these weekly explorations of form.

If Tremayne Curnow gave his son a love of highly wrought poetic form, he also imparted his clergyman’s devotion to moral correction. Some of the most enjoyable Whim Wham poems are in a purely Juvenalian strain, attacking the egregious abuses of the day with that “voice of honest indignation” which Blake tells us is “the voice of God”. A series of excoriating poems on the “White Australia” policy of the ‘40s seems only too up-to-date:

Australia is a Happy Land
Where Colour of all Kinds is banned.
They scrub their Doorstep Day and Night,
To keep it White, to keep it White.
(“White Man’s Country”)

 

But lest New Zealanders feel too smug, consider the fact that in 1945 the New Zealand RSA passed a resolution demanding that all European refugees who had fled:

Germany, Austria, Hungary, or Italy since 1939 must return to their own countries within two years after hostilities cease with Germany, and that they be allowed to take out of New Zealand the same amount of money or property, or both, that they declared to the Customs Department when entering New Zealand.

 

There is a divine anger in Curnow’s response:

Let’s put the Alien in his Place.
Let’s show him Who’s the Master Race.
Hitler, alas, is dead and gone:
But (Heil!) his Soul goes marching on.
He wrecked their Homes, He bade them pack,
He chased them here.— Let’s chase them back!
On with the Dance! It’s none too soon:
They know the Steps, They know the Tune! …

Let’s start at once, at the Expense
Of Those who have the least Defence
(Mein Kampf tells how): and after Them
It will be easier to condemn
Some other Section of this Reich
Whose Race or Face we do not like
And have Them summarily evicted,
Until New Zealand is restricted
To Those self-guaranteed as fit
To govern and inhabit It.
(“Alien Ways”)

A similar tone can be found in his poems on nuclear testing (British, American, and French) and on the NZ-RFU’s dogged determination to maintain sporting relations with a racist South Africa, among other topics. More often, though, Whim Wham writes with an amused exasperation at the follies of this “whimpering second unlicked self my country”: its simultaneous desire for “overseas” recognition and prickly resentment of outside criticism; the quaintly horrifying rituals of the “six o’clock swill”; its absurd overrating of its significance on the world stage; its unsteady lurches from one brand of political snake-oil to another.

Reading this immensely enjoyable volume, my overwhelming feeling was how desperately we need a voice today to confront a world gone mad with such subtle wit and unsanctimonious moral clarity: “Whim Wham! thou shouldst be living at this hour:/New Zealand hath need of thee”, to adapt Wordsworth’s famous salute to Milton. But if that can’t be, then this collection gives us the next best thing: a model for maintaining sanity in the face of its opposite – and a rollicking good read to boot.

 

Hugh Roberts teaches in the Department of English and Comparative Literature, University of California, Irvine.

 

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