Letters – Issue 16

Easing Jane Stafford’s panic

For the past 25 to 30 years some of “us”, that is, writers who have generally been considered to be working somewhere on the margins of New Zealand literature, have been on the receiving end of a number of, shall I say, negative adjectives attached to our work and the work of others that we respect, by “mainstream” authors and critics in book reviews. It is an impressive list, and maybe it would be best to start by exhibiting it, in all its glory, just so that we know clearly what is being discussed. Here are some of the more frequently applied: solipsistic, élitist, pretentious, obscure, empty, cognoscenti, private reference, no discernible thought, resistance to interpretation, provocative, smartarse, clever, wilful, selfindulgent, contempt for the reader, ivory tower, writing for a coterie, intellectual pseudointellectual, socalled postmodern, socalled “Language Poets”, excluding the average reader, void of meaning, inaccessible, etc etc etc. Jane Stafford’s review of Murray Edmond’s The Switch and Michele Leggott’s Dia (“The panic of O”, New Zealand Books, issue 15, Vol 4 No 3) both recently published by Auckland University Press, contains the first 15 of these. They are now, after all these years, nothing more nor less than a set of clichéd insults, and their purpose is invariably to provide excuses for refusing to actually engage with the work being so characterised.

Jane Stafford’s review of the Edmond and Leggott texts is argued, detailed and attempts to get beyond the mere name‑calling exercise that I have nevertheless stated that it includes. It is therefore to be welcomed as providing a genuine opportunity for reply in ways that the mere name-calling procedure does not. But these negative terms are so repeated and familiar in New Zealand poetry reviewing that it seems less a matter of déjà vu, than of a kind of ventriloquism ‑ where the dummy keeps on producing its lines long after the operator has vacated the premises.

Ms Stafford is at pains to establish a kind of credibility for herself, one that is based on credentials ‑ “I teach a second-year university course etc”. Ordinarily, such candour is to be welcomed. But one can easily compile other paragraphs, one of which might begin: “Murray Edmond is a lecturer in drama at the University of Auckland, is convener of the post‑diploma in drama programme, and lectures in a stage 3 American poetry course. He is the author of six books of poetry (several of them out of print) and so on”. Another such paragraph might start with: “Michele Leggott is a lecturer at the University of Auckland in New Zealand poetry, in American poetry, in Australasian women’s literature, with a PhD from the University of British Columbia at Vancouver. She has published three books of poetry (the first is out of print), and her major study Reading Zukosfky’s 80 Flowers as published by Johns Hopkins University Press on the recommendation of Hugh Kenner, etc, etc”.

It is not, my purpose to pit credentials against each other here (that would at the least be silly), but to make the more important point that we all have credentials of one sort or another. In a field like “literature” such credentials do not automatically confer guarantees of appropriate information, approach, or judgment. We are all contestable when discussions about values are taking place.

Whatever else one thinks of the work of Michele Leggott, Murray Edmond, and, let’s be clear, Alan Loney and any others with whom we are perceived to have some sort of allegiance, what one cannot say is that they all write in the same way or that the works of each are easily able to be confused with each other’s ‑ by any attentive reading, And yet the “critical” reception of them by most “mainstream” authors and reviewers is so familiarly uniform that, instead of getting genuine differential readings of these authors in reviews, we’re getting the homogeneous operation of an agenda, a false ideology which specifies these authors as a “them” which can therefore, according to the normal functioning of “us and them” patterns, be blithely treated by the same unexamined, unsupported and negative terms and gestures.

What that agenda is I don’t much care. What I do care about is the pretence that genuine critical reading is taking place; the pretence that those critics have some sort of “ownership” of the scope, purpose and condition of poetry in New Zealand; and the presumptive judgment that their reviled authors are not serious about their life’s work as poets or writers; that they lack integrity and competence of almost any kind whatever, that they have no respect for the work and works of others who work outside their own writerly project (my respect for John Keats and for Mary Ursula Bethell for instance would not even be conceded as possible); and that they have no other apparent motive for writing but to demonstrate to a small group of people who are equally despicable that they are cleverer than anybody else. These assumptions, running throughout Stafford’s review, and through hundreds of reviews of poetry in this country in the last 25 to 30 years, are as cheap and unwarranted as anything she or anyone else directs at such writers as Murray Edmond and Michele Leggott.

Stafford’s review begins in a mode of reasonableness and with a proper pedagogical concern for students of literature who are having to learn to engage with unfamiliar texts. It reads like the kind of introduction that might prepare one for the reviewer’s own engagement with the work of the authors under discussion. Alas, it does not. What it leads to, almost inexplicably, is this: “Which is why I feel angry …. “. Anger? What? What business has a professional academic to be “angry” about texts to be discussed? Are they advocating the pleasures of child abuse? Are they suggesting people would feel better if they beat the hell out of someone rather than having all that pent up feeling floating around? Do they propose ethnic cleansing in their suburb? Wherefore anger?

Stafford establishes credentials, I would have thought, for being able to discuss these works. What she actually says “I’m trying to make a connection with it. I can’t.” So. The reviewer’s credentials, that is, her education, her qualifications, her personal predilections, her teachers, her colleagues, her peers and her reading, have not at all prepared her for the works under review. One could very well be angry about that. Instead of acknowledging her situation, however, she has chosen to pour scorn on the poets, as if somehow they are to blame for it.

Stafford also: sees “a more sinister possibility”; “no discernible thought here”; “so old‑fashioned”; “smart‑arse élitism”; “got a nasty feeling”; “I’m damned if I’m going to”; “I have this nasty feeling”; “I find these two collections depressing”, and so on. Why, exactly, is all this nastiness and bad feeling supposed to function as a proper basis for, or condition of, the elucidation of contemporary poetry for what Stafford deigns to call “the less enlightened reader”? We are not told. It is assumed that the reviewer has these bad feelings in good faith. Stafford has given no one any reason to buy such a proposition.

There are also carelessnesses and contradictions in Stafford’s text. Keats’s poem is “Ode to a Nightingale”, not “Ode to the Nightingale”; Sterne’s book is Tristram Shandy, not Tristan Shandy, and “Morgenstern” refers directly to the work of Christian Morgenstern, and his wordless piece “Fisches Nachtgesang” (1905). It is, additionally, usual for assistance from others ‑ “a kind and more literate friend” ‑ to be identified in academic writings. And rather than ask how much less literate [sic ‑ Ed] is implied by that “more”, I would rather know who is doing the talking? Or, to put it another way, who is the ventriloquist in this instance?

A not uncommon kind of contradiction that appears in negative reviews is exhibited in Stafford’s aside (to whom, exactly?) “a little Saussurian reference for the cognoscenti?”. It is hard to take seriously the notion that such a statement is directed to “the less enlightened reader”. If it is, how does such a reader, outside of, say, an academic environment, understand “Saussurian”? This aside is also directed at a [sic – Ed] “cognoscenti”, and a clear distinction is therefore implied between the author’s “cognoscenti” and the poet’s “cognoscenti” ‑ ours and theirs, us and them. But if she is, say, talking to me (and, after all, I too am a “reader”), then I would say that she is not at all up with the play, either with Saussure (who dealt with spoken, not written, language); nor with Heidegger (who said: “It is in language that things first come into being and are” (Introduction to Metaphysics); nor with Charles Olson’s reliance on the work of Jane Ellen Harrison for his assertion that myth (the stories that cultures, oral and literate, tell themselves about themselves) comes first from the mouth. I introduce these other writers to signal that we all have such reading lists behind and operative within what we say. For all of us they are different, of engagements to one degree or another. They are not the same kind of thing as “credentials”. If our “reading lists” are too different, and I am suggesting that this is likely to be the case as between Stafford and the poets she reviews, then little wonder that the reviewer finds it hard to connect with the work.

However, it is the outright refusals that I find the most interesting. First, the refusal to be (indeed the specific injunction not to be) literal ‑ “Don’t be literal”. If the literal is the first thing to be denied of unfamiliar writing, then it’s understandable that a reader might find a grasp of its metaphorical content hard to come by. If, as Stafford maintains, “a metaphor should expand meaning” (though I don’t accept this formulation) then it is possible that the literal is one of the places from which metaphor can “expand”. It is, in any case, a perfectly reasonable place to begin. That it should be precluded requires more explanation than a list of other options, especially when, for instance, my own teaching experience suggests that it is wise counsel to keep the options open until they falter ‑ in any given instance.

Another type of refusal is that, in discussing Leggott, the reviewer writes that a particular passage “would be fine if I knew what the last two words meant”. Those two words are “HYDROPHILE PURLING”. It is not too churlish to propose the use of a dictionary in such a circumstance. “Hydrophile” is derived from “hydrophilic”, a chemical term meaning “having a strong affinity for water”. “Purling” has, as one of its meanings (and the others are pertinent to the poem) “flowing with a curling or rippling motion, as a shallow stream over stones”. According to Stafford, she should now be in a position to regard the poet’s line as “fine”. But, by refusing to even admit meanings that are accessible to her, she has paved the way for yet another insult to be attached to the work, yet another opportunity for the ventriloquist’s dummy to steal the show.

Another line of refusal is the refusal to give the poet the benefit of the reviewer’s own insight as exhibited in the review itself. In considering Edmond’s poems 43 and 44, Stafford interrogates (properly) the text for meaning. Among her initial notes are language play, sexual content, parallels with other texts in the book, the presence in English of a large number of homographs ‑ all good places to start in establishing a field of meanings for the poems. But just when this beginning is noted she cuts off the flow of elucidatory reading by saying: “And it gets worse”. Worse? How does a series of valid insights (though preliminary ones, to be sure) add up automatically to a bad thing? In considering Leggott, the reviewer states that Elizabeth Barrett Browning is “an obvious figure” in the poem Dia, yet notes that the reference to “the Portuguese /wind” etc “may be an allusion” and asks us to note her (Stafford’s) “tentativeness” in making the suggestion. Well, what I have already noted is the strength of the phrase “an obvious figure”.

The most blatant refusal, however, is the reviewer’s refusal to even consider the poem “Micromelismata”. “Concrete” poetry is historically a particular moment, largely in Europe, but extending to Britain and the United States also, within a wider context of shaped poetry, going back to the work of George Herbert (died 1633) in England. Herbert himself knew of at least one predecessor for his work, an edition of The Greek Anthology, Theocriti Idyllia, printed by P Brubacchius, Frankfurt, 1545. To reduce this tradition to a mere fashion of c1972, to which no critic need return in order to speak of newer writing is, I am sorry to say, no more than an attempt to blame the poet for the critic’s failure of nerve in the face of the material reality of the text. As I have said before, one does not have to like or admire the text, but one does have to deal with it in an open engagement.

What I am bothered about in these refusals is that just at that point when a genuine critical reading looks about to be achieved, Ms Stafford throws in the towel. Again, an opportunity to assist the “unenlightened reader” to deal with a strange-looking text is waved away in favour of the agenda that requires that these poets must be belittled and insulted rather than read critically. And of course the problem with reading attentively, generously and critically is that there is the severe danger of having to change one’s opinion as the result of reaching genuine findings.

As a lecturer in English at a university, Ms Stafford is a member of a small band of élite, specialist readers of literature. As an academic, she can claim uncommon status as an expert and as a professional worker in the field of literary criticism. The number of people who get paid a salary in New Zealand for teaching literature at tertiary level is, in relation to the population at large, very small. Now, books of poems in New Zealand are typically published in editions of between 500 and 1000 copies and are very rarely (except in the case of anthologies used for teaching purposes) reprinted. There are at least 1.5 million literate adults in New Zealand. A thousand copies (let’s be kind to the argument) as a percentage of 1.5 million is 0.066% of the literate adult population. Anyone who things this constitutes the democratisation of poetry in relation to the literate population at large has, in my view, a lot of explaining to do. If that percentage was closer to 66% for so‑called “mainstream” poets and 0.066% for the likes of Edmond and Leggott, I’d have to admit there was a point to be made along these lines. But, it isn’t, and there isn’t. What it means is that “the general reader” or “the general public” is not the target group for any publisher of poetry in New Zealand. Those of us who are involved with poetry in any way are all splashing about in the élitist pot together.

The last comment made by Stafford denies that “subjectivity” is an interesting issue. What I have attempted to show here is that it is primarily the poets’ “subjectivity” that has been on trial throughout her review. The list of insults given in my first paragraph says it as well as I can. They are nearly all solely applicable to people rather than to texts. If poetry needs anything at all from critics these days, it is close reading, clear and attentive critical analysis. One of the characteristics of, as they say, “our time”, is that there are many more and various backgrounds ‑ cultural, geographic, intellectual, personal and so on ‑ than can be neatly fitted or reduced to some monolithic sense of “mainstream”, to which we are all supposed to conform. This does not mean that anything goes. What it does mean is that a greater degree of care, openness and courtesy needs to be operating in the field of public letters if we are not to simply sit back on “us and them” perches and merely hurl insults at another under the privilege of having access to print.

Alan Loney, Auckland



Please convey my commiserations to Murray Edmond, who was accused of “solipsism (sic), élitism and pretension” by Jane Stafford in the September issue of New Zealand Books. It was a pity, having confessed to being uncertain about what she could possibly say, that she did not quietly hand the reviewing job over to someone with a knowledge of twentieth-century poetry in languages other than English.

I quote Christian Morgenstern’s Fisches Nachtgesang from an anthology compiled about 40 years ago by F McEachren, then teaching at Shrewsbury School, England.

Reading this poem as a teenager was part of the “process of encountering the strange and the difficult” of which Jane Stafford approves. If she feels that a poem written by a German is beyond the grasp of her university students, she could hand out the perfect translation by A E W Eitzen:

This elucidates the bubbling commentary by Murray Edmond, but not, I’m afraid, the identity of Tristan T.

Joan de Hamel, Dunedin


Provincial stuff

Until now the purpose of New Zealand Books has seemed clear to its readers. Since the standards of reviewing in the daily press suffer from brevity and the haste of journalistic pressures, your paper has aimed to give reviewers space enough to develop a “deeper” argument and time enough to contemplate what they are saying and do any necessary research. With the publication of the September issue, these principles are no longer so clear.

In appropriately breathless and palpitatious cadences, the editorial describes the hasty way the front‑page article was commissioned from Brian Easton. In fact the haste would have been obvious in the article’s own sloppiness. After the opening paragraphs, roughly one sentence in two contains either a serious grammatical error (lack of agreement between subject and verb, no antecedent for a pronoun, a misrelated participle or some other trap to confuse unwary readers) or else extraordinarily clumsy structures or stylistic infelicities. To save space (I am hoping to see this letter published) I must leave these statements as generalisations, but for the edification of the editorial team I am supporting them by enclosing a selected list of these defects.

Why wasn’t the article edited, even in the rough and ready way an understaffed daily might do it? Why the unseemly haste? Your readers fondly imagine that you have three months to prepare an issue with diligence and care.

fisch - see LettersThe article by Jane Stafford betrays a similar lack of editorial attention. Christian Morgenstern’s extremely popular poetry has provided phrases and images which are now imbedded in the German language at every level of society ‑ there’s nothing élitist about him. Like fragments from Carrol [sic Ed] or Lear in our own culture, the gaps taken from a fence to be used in building a house, the knee ‑ all that is left of a fallen soldier ‑ goes wandering lonely around the world and the weasel that sits on a pebble in a stream m order to provide the poet with an unusual German rhyme are known even to children. “Fisches Nachtgesang”, the object of Stafford’s intolerant comments, is a famous verse experiment, witty, touching and beautiful at once (it is also immediately “translatable” and out of copyright, so why not print it for your readers?).

A more normal editorial team would make a check. Your self‑proclaimed overseas models, such as the New York Review of Books would never publish such provincial stuff. However, here’s a provincial postscript for you: the New Zealand composer Kit Powell has set several Morgenstern poems to music, including ‘Fisches Nachtgesang”.

Nelson Wattie, Wellington

[The responsibility for errors and omissions is the editor’s alone and the letter has been edited to cast the responsibility thus. New Zealand Books, however, has no editorial “team”, nor a “normal” editorial operation, if by “normal” is meant payment, trained staff and reasonable time, as is the case with the London Review of Books, the actual proclaimed model. In the case of the Easton article, there was (no fault of his, for he met his deadline exactly) literally no time for editing, the book having reached us very late and being worth the effort, we decided, to review in time for the women’s book festival. ‑ Editor]


Giving credit

I read with interest Lauris Edmond’s piece on the Listener Women’s Book Festival in your last issue. I would certainly agree that this is an important and significant annual event. I hope, however, that I do not seem churlish in noting in some exasperation the total absence of any mention of the fact that this festival has been significantly underwritten by the literature programme of the Arts Council since its inception. The programme makes an important contribution to this and many other literary events to the extent that most of them would not happen without that financial support. Credit where credit is due, please.

Tony Simpson, Member, literature committee, Arts Council of New Zealand Toi Aotearoa

Tagged with: ,
Posted in Letters
Search the archive
Search by category