Lives of the Poets
Victoria University Press, $25.00,
HeadworX, $24.99, ISBN 9780473160401
Walls to Kick and Hills to Sing from
Auckland University Press, $24.99,
When he began publishing poems in the early 1980s, John Newton (born 1959) was swiftly recognised as one of the most promising talents of his generation. During the past two decades, he has produced excellent critical articles and a fine book on Baxter as bicultural guru, The Double Rainbow (2009), but his poetic output has thinned to a trickle. What happened? Why can he not point to a string of poetry books and a swag of awards, like his near contemporaries Michele Leggott (born 1956) and Jenny Bornholdt (born 1960)? The enemies of promise are multiform and surreptitious. Rumour has it that in his quest for a legitimate and pertinent mode of expression Newton thought himself to a standstill and became paralysed by his own high standards and integrity.
He addresses the 25-year gap between Lives of the Poets and his previous collection, Tales from the Angler’s El Dorado, in a startlingly candid back-cover blurb to the new book. “The romantic inheritance may be poison,” he remarks disconsolately, putting romanticism on a par with botulism:
but it’s all we have. When I first began writing I didn’t think in these terms, which made being a poet, and writing poetry, easier. Ever since that time I have been trying to teach myself how to write again. This has felt mostly like a kind of beachcombing, fossicking beyond the high-tide mark of expressivism, never entirely giving up hope of discovering something that might still be useable.
The lovely self-mocking wit of that beachcombing metaphor helps clarify for me why Newton has been so sorely missed from the local poetry scene. But what exactly, we might enquire, does he mean by “the romantic inheritance”? The most prominent legacy from romantic forebears has been, for several decades, the brief autobiographical lyric highlighting the self in search of epiphanies. There might be ironic shading, but poets continue to pursue moments of personal revelation and most slim volumes of recent years are, at heart, diaristic recordings of a particular sensibility’s (ie the author’s) experiences.
Yet, gazing back two centuries, I am struck by how various poetic projects were during the first flourish of romanticism. Everything back then was not just I-fillet, I-lashes and I-candy. Blake concocted long religiose fantasies populated with demigods of his own devising. Byron devoted much of his writerly energy to hilarious novels in verse. Shelley dashed off “Ode to the West Wind” in a day but laboured long over The Cenci, his five-act tragedy about a murderous and incestuous Roman family. Keats did not just pen odes to autumn, an urn and a nightingale but also the skilfully constructed verse novellas “The Eve of St Agnes” and “Lamia”. Even Wordsworth, vilified as the epitome of self-centredness, did not wander lonely as a cloud all that frequently; more often, in his Lyrical Ballads phase, he functioned as a sociable rural reporter, keen to extract tales of socio-economic woe from hard-pressed country folk encountered on his rambles.
One can favour story-telling over the lyrical registering of one’s emotions, I believe, and still remain a romantic inheritor. Newton takes the opportunity in Lives of the Poets (its title ironically gestures to Dr Johnson’s great biographical enterprise in the 18th century) to gather together fugitive pieces from the past quarter of a century, generally lyrical in timbre, often addressed to a nebulous “you” who seems more the poet’s mirror-image than confidant. Among these is “Opening the Book”, Newton’s much-anthologised meditation on the blurring of real and imagined versions of the New Zealand landscape, already regarded as a minor classic. The chief interest of the new book resides, however, in two narrative sequences.
Set in Sydney’s sleazy Darlinghurst and Kings Cross districts in 1979 and subtitled “a novella”, “Lives of the Poets” has an unresolved Luke Davies-like plot and a cast of characters who include 20-year-old “hippie boy songster” Hank Fortune Jnr, his shoplifting teenage sweetheart Shona , their slatternly friend Samantha, a half-sinister half-ridiculous huckster in a white suit who goes by the improbable Pynchonesque moniker of Carlos Imbroglio and a gone-to-seed academic known only as the Feral Professor who wolfishly circles the youngsters, offering boozy advice: “Slatternize! Botanize! Leave with the circus!” Although doomed Sydney poet Michael Dransfield is name-checked at one point, Hank is just a drugs-and-booze dilettante, far more likely to sober up and head home to New Zealand than overdose in his mid-20s.
Newton, I observe, was the same age as Hank Fortune in 1979 and his name has the same rhythm and syllabic count as Fortune’s, but more than just a disguised memoir “Lives of the Poets” deftly encapsulates an under-documented experience common to a great many young New Zealanders: the first taste of big city life in Sydney (rather than London, New York or Paris).
The second sequence – a series of 14 sonnets – might also have been titled “Lives of the Poets”, but it is dubbed “Stations”, playing on various senses of that word (stopping places, radio frequencies), including a nod towards the Stations of the Cross. Each sonnet, apart from the last, depicts a moment of breakthrough or collapse in the career of a renowned creative figure. Although several choices relate to Newton’s professional reading as a lecturer in American literature during his years at the University of Canterbury (1995-2008), the line-up is somewhat arbitrary: Kenneth Koch, Malcolm Lowry, Edmund Wilson, Jack Kerouac, unstable singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt, country rocker Gram Parsons, Hilda Doolittle, Sylvia Plath (the subject of Newton’s PhD thesis), David Foster Wallace, physicist Mitchell Feigenbaum, F Scott Fitzgerald, Joni Mitchell and Anna Akhmatova (perhaps the most surprising inclusion, since all the other vignettes take place on the North American continent). The final sonnet, “The Senior Year Of High School Hypothesis”, eschews all the foregoing and focuses instead on Newton’s youthful discovery of T S Eliot and Robert Lowell.
Inevitably, not all of the 14 stations are of equal heft and incisiveness, but there are superb touches throughout the sequence. My favourite sonnet deals with the faux assassination of New York poet Kenneth Koch during a reading he gave at St Mark’s Church in the Bowery in January 1968. Having identified Koch as “a symbol to us of this totally bourgeois, dandy world”, anarchist painter Ben Morea and his cronies disrupted the gathering and one of them fired a pistol loaded with blanks at the poet. Accounts of what happened next vary. Holding to the conception of his target as a pusillanimous fop, Morea maintains that “Koch fainted and everyone in the audience assumed he was dead and started screaming.” Others say the poet recovered his composure quickly and came back quipping. I prefer Newton’s version, whereby Morea yells “Death to irony!” and Koch replies:
Oh grow up, you have the wrong man, I am a
from Cincinnati, the child of Keats. Why, the
city is teeming
with calculating and unhappy poets. Shoot one
One connective tissue between Newton and the other two writers under review, apart from the biographical coincidence that all three are white New Zealand males over 50 who have earned their living as educators, is that Harvey McQueen and Murray Edmond would almost certainly concur that a Morea-like insistence on the separation of ludic and lyric impulses, irony and authenticity, is not very grown-up. Life is too mingled and muddled for such simple-minded poetics. All three poets have a robust sense of the absurd.
The most senior of the trio, McQueen (1934-2010), sticks closest to the humanist lyric tradition and the prevailing mode of poetry book as journal of self-discovery. Too modest by temperament and too low-key in style to declare himself “the child of Keats”, he would nevertheless acknowledge romantic progenitors in his spiritual whakapapa. In one extraordinary excursion, “Return”, he adapts the persona of a newly emergent sea-creature that scrambles back to the water after the first violent encounter with humankind. Generally, however, we come to little harm if we equate the “I” of the poems with McQueen, although in surveying his own history he encourages us to reflect on the ways in which an identity is constructed over time and to consider what Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman termed “the presentation of self in everyday life”.
One of McQueen’s strengths is his ability to look beyond immediate circumstances to the wider context of national and international politics. If, as he ages, his opinion of mankind at large tends increasingly to the Goya-esque, picturing a world ruled by carnage, concupiscence and mass hysteria, his amiability revives whenever he recalls specific friends, family members or past pupils. Nor can he altogether abandon the hope, inherited from William Pember Reeves, of creating a “just, compassionate, prosperous people”.
In “One Problem with Poetry”, he admits that “There’s an ignition/issue; it’s been an/unadventurous life.” Like many suburban poets, he compensates for the lack of biographical incident by turning to his bookshelves and commenting on a lifetime’s reading. And there are always the pleasures and distractions of nature. Where Wordsworth would stride off on half-day peregrinations to restock the treasury of images to comfort him in his “vacant or pensive” moods, McQueen steps into his generally restorative garden. The final lines of Goya Rules, in which the wheelchair-bound poet watches white butterflies demolish his rocket seedlings, are especially poignant.
Edmond must have confronted occasional ignition issues too, since all writers do, but the impression made by Walls to Kick and Hills to Sing from is of ease, fecundity and boundless inventiveness. If we apply Newton’s beachcombing analogy to Edmond, he emerges as the kind of ingenious scavenger who returns from a stroll along the sand with a sackload of miscellaneous booty and finds some use for every variety of driftwood. Rather than fix on a single methodology and pronounce death, à la Morea, to all others, he seems content to let all genres thrive and exhibits an invigorating willingness to have a crack at anything that takes his fancy. Thus we discover in his latest collection several mini-dramas (including one in which 26 characters appear, each reciting a single line), a miniature film script, warm-hearted New Year greetings to old friends, elegies to recently deceased comrades, disquieting dream narratives, rhymed nonsense and dizzying verbal badminton such as this:
Is it this? Is this it? Is it? Is it? Is it? That there?
This. This. This. This? That. It is.
This is it. There it is … that’s it there. This that?
That that. This is that there. It is this
that there. That’s it. Is it? This? That? There.
One sequence, “Narrow roads to the east”, which describes a bicycle trip through Poland with Polish sculptor Jacek Bakowski, consists of 19 haiku. The title spins Basho a quarter-circle into a new compass direction. When Edmond performed the sequence at Auckland’s Translate Café in September 2007, he accompanied his reading with a slide show so that it functioned like a pecha kucha presentation. Why, one might ask, is a New Zealander applying Japanese techniques to an Eastern Europe journey? Well, why not? Look at the horror generated in wartime Poland by insistence on racial purity. There are glancing allusions to Poland’s dark past in the sequence, but Edmond and Bakowski decline, as they ride along, to be overwhelmed by history. Theirs is mostly a fun trip – as, indeed, is the book as a whole. Goya does not rule, but neither does Pollyanna. The wily subtitle of the book is A Comedy with Interruptions.
Edmond has always been a poet who delights in nuances, layers, ambiguities and uncertainties and resists being pinned to any one interpretation. Still, I think I can get away with saying that notions of freedom and restraint are one axis of interest in Walls to Kick. For each poem Edmond establishes a different set of rules (or “walls”, one might say, to kick against). The formal restrictions, such as three-line stanzas of 17 syllables or fewer, seem to liberate his imagination rather than stymie it. He is at such a productive stage of his career as he hits 60 that I feel confident there will be another Edmond collection before long. I hope, too, that Newton gives us another before 2035. Sadly, the same will not prove true of McQueen who died on Christmas Day last year.
Iain Sharp is an Auckland writer and librarian.