Poet, novelist and critic C K Stead recalls his first books
I published two books in 1964 when I was 31, a collection of poems, Whether the Will is Free, and The New Poetic (in later editions The New Poetic, Yeats to Eliot), which was my Bristol PhD thesis. I don’t know which came first that year. During the preceding decade I had been publishing poems and reviews, and had won the first BNZ Katherine Mansfield short story prize, so I had already some kind of presence on the literary scene, and it seemed rather late for a first book. Published by Blackwood Paul, the poems were printed at the Caxton Press by Leo Bensemann, a typical “fine book” of its time, with 30-plus well-worked poems. It was a young poet’s assemblage in differing styles and forms; a record of finding (and sometimes losing) ways forward. It was full of echoes and influences – Donne, Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Auden, Stevens, Larkin, Hardy, and James K Baxter.
The New Poetic was a study of 20th-century poetic modernism, published first in the Hutchinson University Library Series, then as a Pelican, and in America as a Harper Torchbook. It was a book which revised the standard view of the Georgian poets, dividing them into two distinct groups, and spoke up for Yeats against the Leavisite (negative) view of him. Bristol University’s was a Leavisite English Department, and I had begun my work on a scholarship there with a graduate seminar paper taking to task my professor and supervisor, L C Knights who, in an essay in Scrutiny, had described the refrain in Yeats’s “Easter 1916” as “an escape from realisation”. I set out to show the poem’s strong intellectual framework. Professor Knights, a wonderful teacher and mentor, accepted without complaint or demur that he’d failed to do justice to the poem, and when I prepared that part of the thesis for publication, I took out all direct reference to the essay which had occasioned my new reading.
But The New Poetic’s most original contribution to Eng Lit studies was its reinterpretation of Eliot, rejecting the academic orthodoxy of the time which accepted his own self-characterisation as an anti-romantic whose poems were careful constructs with only “the suppression of certain links in the chain”. I had re-read, indeed raided, Eliot’s early critical writing, and was able to show his best-known poems were in fact the products of indeterminate “pure” lyric moments, which he then had to labour (or, in the case of The Waste Land, Ezra Pound had had to labour) to bring into some kind of imaginative order.
The book’s time was right – it said what people were ready to hear. I remember joking that it was “my first novel”, and it’s true that it made something of a story, in which the poets were the characters and literary history the plot. It has appeared in many forms since, including, even, in an American academic reprint series, as “a late classic of Imagist criticism”. Though it must now be well past its use-by date, it is still in print, with a commendation from Seamus Heaney who said in an article that it taught him to read Eliot.
So I would never be out of a job. But it was poetry I wanted most to write, and then fiction. For me, literary criticism was only a natural off-shoot of these. As critic and literary historian, I would be writing always from the inside, not looking in at the window – always in the role of what Leavis taught us to call “a practitioner”.
In Whether the Will is Free two poems were, for me personally, most important – the title poem, because it found a way, not just to articulate, but give body to, a philosophical conundrum that was something of an obsession of my younger years; and “Pictures in a Gallery Undersea”, in which the echoes of Eliot were clear and, indeed, a necessary part of the poem. That Allen Curnow had already selected both of these for his 1960 Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse was a confirmation I was grateful for; and “Pictures in a Gallery” had won the Landfall Readers’ Award, where subscribers had voted for the “best” poem to have appeared in the journal’s first 15 years. It was a poem that had sprung directly from the exhilaration of being in London for the first time, combined with the excitement of my work in the British Museum (the famous old circular Reading Room, now a tourist site) towards what would be The New Poetic.
So those two, “Pictures in a Gallery” and The New Poetic, were more intimately connected than might have been guessed, and I return to the poem after more than half a century always with surprise and wonder. Where did it come from? As I’ve explained, I know where the material came from; but how or why in that form, in that order, is the kind of mystery that accompanies the arrival of every poem that feels “new” and not quite like anything its author has done before. It was, I suppose, my The Waste Land, an outsider’s response to London, the “unreal city” (as Eliot called it), the mythic place that had been learned first at a distance in childhood when bombs were falling on it, and from books. I think I have described it somewhere as the ultimate colonial poem, unapologetic, self-celebrating.
So that is myself in 1964, author of two new books, a young lecturer at the University of Auckland, recently back from a flying visit to New York where I had given an invited paper about Eliot at a conference. It was also in that year that I wrote a short story called “A Fitting Tribute” which appeared a little later in the Kenyon Review, and subsequently in a number of New Zealand anthologies.
I was, you could say, well-launched, but with all the unimagined problems and conflicts of being “a New Zealand writer” yet to be revealed, yet to be confronted.