A Blue Monkey for the Tomb
Faber & Faber £5.99 (approx NZ$15)
Hubert Witheford presents a problem to literary historians. In some respects, he fits the profile of a New Zealand poet of his generation (he was born in 1921). In others he most emphatically does not. There is nothing wrong or even unusual about that: uniformity is not healthy for the literary life of the nation. But I suspect that Witheford, both as poet and individual, has suffered from being out on a limb.
His year of birth places him in the generation of James K Baxter, Louis Johnson, Bill Oliver and Alistair Campbell and indeed he was associated for a time with the “Wellington school”. By the age of 30 he had published two collections, Shadow of the Flame (1950) and The Falcon Mask (1951), but in 1953 he left for England, where he settled; and he has never really returned. Underlining this is a cryptic remark at the end of the brief biographical note to this new collection, A Blue Monkey for the Tomb, which tells us that “[a]fter his retirement in 1981 a return to New Zealand proved briefer than he had envisaged”.
His departure for England did not consign him to immediate literary oblivion in New Zealand. He published two more collections here, The Lightning Makes a Difference, in 1962, and A Native, Perhaps Beautiful, in 1967, and he made an appearance in the more important anthologies. In 1956 Baxter even paid him the compliment of parodying him m his tour de force, “The Iron Breadboard. Studies in New Zealand Writing”. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that over the last 25 years or so Witheford has been progressively forgotten by the evolving New Zealand literary establishment; and he has not featured in more recent anthologies.
Witheford made little impact as a poet in England ‑ unlike another expatriate, Fleur Adcock ‑ although he did publish modestly there: first a pamphlet, How Do Things Happen? in 1972, and then a full collection, A Possible Order, in 1940. But now, suddenly, after a silence of some 14 years, he has been able to persuade Faber & Faber ‑ the publishers of Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney ‑ to issue this very surprising and engaging new collection.
The problem with Witheford has not been that he forsook New Zealand. Other New Zealand writers have yielded to the same impulse to escape its formerly intolerant and intellectually stifling atmosphere, or simply to experience what these sparsely populated islands were unable to offer. Two notable examples are Charles Brasch and Kevin Ireland. Brasch was a poet perhaps more steeped in European culture than any other of his generation, but he also had a mission ‑ to create an indigenous literary culture ‑and so he returned and founded Landfall, thus influencing more than one generation of New Zealand writers. Ireland, who spent a quarter of a century in London, would himself agree that he never really left New Zealand: even while physically removed from it, it nourished his creative imagination; and his eventual return proved relatively seamless in his work.
With Witheford, however, New Zealand has never provided a necessary emotional and spiritual background. The consequence is that his work ostensibly has little to say to New Zealand readers. Of course, Witheford himself is to some extent to blame. You look almost in vain in the early two volumes for some engagement with his country, although the much anthologised “Elegy in the Orongorongo Valley” may be an exception. And where he does later engage with New Zealand, it is bitter, even petulant fashion:
And slowly, slowly, our life flows
To the proud blaring of the Tramsways Band
By postered walls of corrugated iron
And past abominable bungalows. ‑
(“The Waters, Indeed, Are to the Palate, Bitter”)
Even in the new collection he cannot resist sniping at the architecture of early postwar Wellington, with its red tin roofs, which he considers an “insult of mediocrity / To the marvel around them.” (“Antipodes”)
That Witheford has not engaged with New Zealand may be one, perhaps superficial, reason for the relative neglect of his work. A more important reason may be his poetic preoccupations, which are largely abstract and universal and hardly people‑centred or landscape‑based. And there is a tendency in New Zealanders to be impatient with writing which does not focus primarily on either human relationships or on the physical environment.
Witheford is more of a poet’s poet, then. His concern is with what he has himself acknowledged as self‑realisation in a spiritual sense; and poetry is the medium through which he attempts to achieve it, however frustrating and elusive it may prove. In a Landfall interview of 1982 Witheford made this credo explicit, when he stated that “I don’t think there’s any basic difference between, to use the crudest terms, art and religion; they’re both about trying to experience the universe as it is.” He has also admitted to being strongly influenced in earlier life by Guerdjieff’s teaching, and later by Tibetan buddhism. There is insufficient space here to attempt to extrapolate in detail from the philosophy to the poems, but in the new collection there is a poem, “Unsaying”, which makes a direct link and perhaps provides a useful point of entry to his thought:
Meeting the animals in their masks
As I come home
They mew supportively What the Buddha said:
“I have come to the root of the matter
And it proves
Too clear to explain to you
I’m going to the forest.”
This is the paradox of the ineffable. Witheford is so often trying to say in poetry what cannot be said, as well as to connect with the mysterious powers which control its flow. But the result, is all too often disappointment, as an untitled piece from his 1950 volume grimly attests:
And like lone stars the words,
Fruit of an obscure fire,
Remotely burned against
Black fields of emptiness
Far, far above my need.
Another, “Compline”, from A Possible Order (1980), expresses it even more starkly: “I want / A poem, / A true equivalent, / Also / An impossible freedom…”
Seen from this perspective, the continuing struggle with poetry becomes part of a larger struggle. It is difficult to describe this struggle in anything but trite and general terms, but it might best be summarised as the search for transcendence, the attempt to shed the world of suffering and mediocrity into which we are all thrust. But in order to achieve this, it is in fact necessary to confront the pain and the darkness, and pass through it, in much the same way that T S Eliot did in The Waste Land. Another poem from the 1980 collection, “Si le grain ne meurt”, encapsulates this progress neatly:
As Robert Frost might say
One would like to have word
That the night is not getting darker.
But as he observed
The word is on its way
And it is the reverse.
And before it surfaces
Must go deeper
Yet, the wreck of this, our day.
The verb “surfaces” is significant, because it embodies a notion which recurs in Witheford’s work, sometimes associated with the image of the whale. The 1962 collection, for instance, opens with a poem entitled “The Way Down”, which begins, “Farewell, Leviathan! / Far, now, beyond our zone you spout your plume”. His 1967 collection has a foreword which apologises for the sombre nature of the poems, and concludes: “The great white whale who breaks the surface of my customary stupidities rises from a very dark place.” And the title to the same collection derives from the last three lines of the poem “Displacement”, which read: “It is something pressing up toward the light; / I call it ugly but feel only it is obscene, / A native, perhaps beautiful, of the vasty deep.”
Witheford’s poems would be sombre and hard indeed if he confined them to this rather lofty struggle for self-realisation. Fortunately, this is not the case. Occasionally, he allows himself to exercise a considerable lyrical gift, as in the early poem, “Lake Seen Through Pine Branches” (surely a Höderlin imitation). He can write powerfully of love, though his love poems (such as “Words of Love” and “Dying we Love”) can be bleak and provisional. And most recently, and understandably, he has come to observe with a detached humour the encumbrances of old age and the approach of death:
Across the road
I feel the loss of nerve
I had before.
Is the structure
You could call an ego
That was impassable
Until it started
To fall down
Of its own accord.
Being universal, Witheford’s themes are literally larger than life. What is so striking about the poems, though, is that they tend in style in the opposite direction: towards the minimalist. This is not true of his early two collections, which are for the most part rhetorical, heroic and abstract in nature, strongly reminiscent on occasion of Dylan Thomas:
That power I praise which nerves the hand
To till the sail before the deluge comes,
To clasp in love the form which must decay,
In scorn and knowledge of the doom pronounced,
That earthly strength, that golden power I praise.
But it is possible to detect already in the 1951 volume a reduction in the flourishes, and a consequent paring back of the language. The expression becomes closer to the everyday and the conversational, as in “King of Kings”, with its casual opening: “The Emperor (you’ve heard?) went by this road.” Not content with this plain way of speaking, however, Witheford in his following two volumes reduced even further, to the extent that his poems became gnomic and elliptical, with a curiously fractured and difficult syntax:
The stricture bound
To stop what’s here
Of the sun, reddened,
And the darkening earth ‑
I say I’m going,
And what’s “say” worth?
Where flames an end
Is too far?
Such language is of course consistent with a more realistic appraisal of his poetic task and a belief that the modest reductionist approach is likely to yield more than bombast and rhetoric. It finds close parallels in the late poems of Charles Brasch or of European poets like the Rumanian, Paul Celan.
However, there comes a point where such extreme reduction becomes self‑defeating; the poems become so minimal and elusive they almost disappear. For this reason, it is perhaps not surprising that between A Possible Order (which features his leanest poems) and A Blue Monkey for the Tomb there was such a gap. It was as if Witheford had written himself out of a job. In the new collection, therefore, although he has by no means abandoned minimalism, he is prepared to compromise. He relaxes, allows the syntax to fill out and at the same time shifts his focus from the ineffable and the cosmic towards his daily domestic existence ‑ feeding the cats, preparing soup in a liquidiser, watching a London sunset:
It is a good time to watch the sky.
Are not ordinary. They are apricot
Not vague at all.
(“The World in the Evening”)
This is a mellower and above all, more accessible poetry, which suggests that its maker has reached a state of acceptance. The adolescent appeal to mysterious creative powers and the clenched and truncated introspection of his middle years have given way. Instead we encounter a poet who moves his ego finally to one side and understands that ‑ as the title poem puts it ‑ “To see the moment / Is its farewell”, and that ‑ as he concludes in another poem, “To the Good Lord” ‑ while existence “is not satisfactory”, “it works occasionally”. Perhaps that is as much self‑realisation as most of us can ever expect.
Bill Sewell is a Wellington legal researcher and poet.