Woven among the lines, Elizabeth Caffin

Mike Doyle: Collected Poems, 1951–2009
Ekstasis Editions, $55.95,
ISBN 9781897430637

 

When I moved to Auckland in 1985, I found the literary world was haunted by ghosts. There was Rex Fairburn and Maurice Duggan and Frank Sargeson and Mike Joseph and Bob Lowry, all remembered with affection and anecdote. There was one legend however who was not dead – indeed he lives still – but far away, in Canada. This was Mike (Charles) Doyle, who had worked in the university English department from 1961 to 1968, and two of whose collections of poetry had been published by the university press. He was an Irishman, brought up in London, who joined the Royal Navy after the war and washed up in Wellington in 1951. He stayed, went to teachers’ college and university and became a poet.

This book, called a collected poems, is actually a generous selection of his poetry from that time to this. It charts a life, from an Irish past, through bleak post-war England, to New Zealand in the 1950s and 60s, to British Columbia; and through the joys and pains of three marriages and four children and many friendships. Repeated themes and poems of memory thread through the somewhat choppy chronological structure, giving it the coherence of a single personality. It’s an engaging one, open, fluent, generally accessible. As a poet who is also a critic and teacher, he is watchful over his own behaviour, literary and otherwise, and alert to the pervasive mood and particular detail of the world around. Here he has helped the reader enormously by very full notes, including an extensive interview by Charles Lillard, who edited an earlier selection.

New Zealand, he says, was “a country which witnessed the birth of my true self”. Arriving in Wellington at 22, he quickly fell in with the poets of Hilltop and Arachne, Louis Johnson, James K Baxter, Alistair Campbell, amazed to find such a lively, dedicated and opinionated community. Johnson had just begun the New Zealand Poetry Yearbook and went out of his way to encourage Doyle: “it was from him that I first got my sense of poetry as a world … it was important to me to be around someone who made poetry the centre of his life, who fought for it and promoted it continually.” He soon had a poem in Landfall, then only a few years old. From 1954 he was, with Baxter and Johnson, an editor of the small irreverent magazine Numbers and in 1956 his first collection appeared from Pegasus.

He could not avoid the famous tensions and debates of the 1950s and 1960s that were seen especially in Wellington as a conflict between Auckland and Wellington poets. Though Doyle himself appears to accept a contrast between nationalists and internationalists, craftsmen and prophets, academics and romantics, it seems to me now to have been less about ideology or practice and more about personalities. Johnson’s over-generous editorship of the Poetry Yearbook had been met by two negative reviews by Curnow; and the long-drawn-out row about the latter’s Penguin anthology (1960) exacerbated ill-feeling. Johnson’s encouragement of younger poets may well have influenced their choice of domestic topic and personal voice. Likewise the dominant and distinctive character of Baxter’s verse validated rhetoric and prophetic statement. The complex and subtle arguments of Curnow’s anthology introductions had been too easily interpreted as a call for a simple nationalism of land, sea and laconic utterance. Doyle, a recent immigrant well-acquainted with its Irish and British manifestations, had not much truck with nationalism, nor with arguing about it. He was careful not to get embroiled in a personal way and respected Curnow’s poetry and his critical analysis. But his anthology, Recent Poetry in New Zealand (1965), he describes as “a salvo in the local literary wars, Auckland vs Wellington” by placing some value on younger poets excluded or undervalued by Curnow and by suggesting it was time to move on from the prevailing focus on the 1930s poets.

Doyle’s early poetry is traditional in form and slightly portentous (his word) in manner. Feelings of rootlessness and alienation are pervasive and continue for many years; even more constant is a worrying about the role and purpose of poetry, well explored in an early poem, “Empirical History”. It’s a young man’s poetry taking itself too seriously, but it flows easily, and the poems are well made. He early showed a facility and taste for capturing as far as his words could the sensations of the physical and very ordinary world and winding them up to a reflective conclusion as in “Starlings and History”. Influences declare themselves thick and fast, Existentialism, Jungian psychology, Yeats, Dylan Thomas, none unexpected at that time. Messages for Herod (1965) was his fourth collection and shows a more confident less anxious persona, well established on the local scene. A poem like “Walking on Stilts”, subtitled “Auckland 2064”, envisages a New Zealand future: “We shall be those who bury/our fathers’ bones here, call/this home.”

But since the late 1950s he had been reading voraciously in the American poets and in 1967/8 he had a visiting fellowship at Yale to work on a PhD on William Carlos Williams. Like other New Zealand poets, he was caught up in the iconoclasm and excitement of those years and his familiarity with Williams, Pound, Stevens, Creeley very soon affected his poetry. A five-part sequence written at Yale, Earth Meditations, is a classic demonstration: a long loose poem, in energetic pacey fragmentary lines splaying out over the page, shouting, teasing, shocking. It mocked the poetic and joked with its audience. Full of New Zealand allusions and references, it gave the poet a freer, more discursive mode to revisit the local literary debates, to broaden their frame of reference, to allow the presence of irony and wit. The big topics, God, love, naming (a favourite), displacement and exile (another favourite) are all treated. The second part, which is constructed around some thoughts of the painter Magritte playing with image, object and word, spars with Curnow:

… T.F. buzzed
his electric saw: “He
cracked a word to get
at the inside”. It will

ocCUR
NOW (AC not DC)

 

This was published almost immediately in New Zealand, was mentioned in the introduction to the Wedde/McQueen Penguin anthology to be swiftly dismissed as outdated in its preoccupations, and reappeared years later in the anthology Big Smoke where its demotic language and self-confident subversive tone make it a perfect fit.

It was some years before Doyle could find a willing Canadian publisher for the whole sequence. He moved to Canada in 1968 but he went on writing about New Zealand which did not make publication easy in another fiercely nationalistic climate; he resisted again requirements for a specifically local poetry, and it was not until 1982 that he had a full collection published there. Another long ambling sequence on the character of Noah followed but the poems in general became shorter, tighter and more poised; less ambitious, they work better. A 1983 collection, A Steady Hand, published simultaneously in Canada and New Zealand, included English versions of poems in other languages, Doyle always keen to extend himself by trying something new.

A prolific and notably well-read poet, he has gone on writing into his 80s. He sees his absence from the Penguin anthology (1985) as marking his farewell to New Zealand, and his omission from the third edition of Vincent O’Sullivan’s Oxford anthology (1986) is another valedictory gesture; so that his name has largely been forgotten here. But the later poems, having worked through a variety of influences and psychological disturbances have the sound of a mature and settled voice, dwelling on memories, reflections and occasions:
… improvisations
wrought from loves and deaths, language and
memory,
ways the spirit has sorted, how it has talked to
itself
from infantry to approaching senility.
If you seek a thread, it’s woven among the
lines.
(“Inventory: notes towards a poetics”)

 

Elizabeth Caffin is a former editor at Auckland University Press.

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Posted in Literature, Poetry and Review
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