Paul Millar: The kowhai ungilded

Eileen Duggan: Selected Poems
Peter Whiteford (ed)
Victoria University Press, 1994, $24.95

Starveling Year and Other Poems
Mary Stanley
Auckland University Press, 1994, $18.95

Larger populations might absorb a number of particularly strong literary opinions and cater for a variety of tastes. In New Zealand certain individual, strident voices have been inordinately powerful in shaping writers’ styles and critics’ responses for decades. For writers this is not a bad thing when their work falls within the compass of the dominant critical theories. If not, they are likely to find their work relegated to a critical curiosity inhabiting the margins of literature. They can then expect their most frequent appearance in critical writings will probably be an antithetical postscript against which their contemporaries are defined.

Such has been the case with Eileen Duggan’s poetry. Her appearance in Quentin Pope’s much maligned 1930 anthology of contemporary New Zealand verse ‑ Kowhai Gold ‑ seems to have precipitated the end of her career as a poet more than 20 years before the publication of her last volume, More Poems. Even though she was still writing and publishing, E H McCormick’s 1940 assessment of Duggan’s verse ‑ “[Her] work is not a beginning but a refined and beautiful close to a long chapter in the history of New Zealand writing” ‑ reads like a post‑mortem. Since the 1930s she has been most frequently hauled aloft to symbolise, in the words of Charles Brasch, “the dream world of those would‑be poets, most of them long since silent … whose work was collected in … Kowhai Gold.

However, the impact of such opinions is insignificant alongside Allen Curnow’s criticism of her verse. Duggan has never escaped the verdict of his first anthology that couched her poetry as “sentimental posturing … [where] the whole effect is that of an emotional cliché”. Almost half a century later, as Peter Whiteford notes in his introduction to this new collection, MacD Jackson saw no need to revisit this judgment in his section on poetry in the Oxford History of New Zealand Literature. Elizabeth Caffin in the same volume more generously argued that Curnow’s anthology and its revision were inhospitable to women poets. Caffin found in Duggan’s verse, particularly in More Poems, a “steely confidence” and “a lush ‘feminine’ romanticism” in a book that “impresses most for its zeal in the pursuit of analogies and the boldness of their capture”. But Caffin was an exception. Earlier critics who established the criteria for most discussions of Duggan’s work seem to have her trapped in a time warp so that suggestions of development in her verse are anachronistic.

Many of the points made against Duggan’s poetry are justifiable. It is disconcertingly easy to skim through her verse selecting those lines where an over‑worked rhetorical device or a trite lyric produces banality:

And let the spring in her great hour,

Come with wet bud and almond flower

To wake a troubled memory

Of sails upon a windy sea.

But this is an invidious sport. The deceptive ease of such superficial reading blinds one to the other dimensions, of Duggan’s poetry and denies the importance of the context of production in a re‑assessment of Duggan’s work. If it now seems appropriate to re‑assess Duggan it cannot be from some desire to celebrate the centenary of the birth of a New Zealand woman writer who, although marginalized, sustained a living by writing for almost 50 years; it must be in the context of a logical and regular process of re‑assessment of those received opinions that frequently colour approaches to New Zealand literature.

Peter Whiteford’s selection of Duggan’s poetry and prose is best approached with an open, although not uncritical, mind. Intended as a comprehensive survey, Whiteford’s selection incorporates material from all five collections of Duggan’s published poetry, a significant number of unpublished or uncollected poems and 12 prose pieces of biographical or literary significance. This is less than a quarter of the extant material and Whiteford acknowledges the subjective nature of his attempt to produce a representative text. However, the criteria upon which his selection is based are carefully spelled out and weight is given to Duggan’s own assessments of her work. New Zealand Bird Songs, for example, is only lightly represented. While critics have said much about this volume, Duggan dismissed it as “that little bird book” and Whiteford, accepting her description of the poems as children’s rhymes, justly preserves greater space for later or uncollected work.

The considerable range of poetry and the appendix of prose pieces allow Duggan to speak for herself. While Whiteford’s introduction is comprehensive ‑ achieving a balance between biography, bibliography and criticism ‑ he does not prescribe an approach to Duggan’s work. Three of the more significant elements influencing her poetry ‑ her Irish ancestry, her catholicism, and her rural upbringing ‑ are identified but not laboured. Instead, this selection, with its mixture of poetry and prose, allows readers to discover for themselves through Duggan’s own writing the influence of these elements on her verse. There is, for example, ample evidence that Curnow’s reference to Duggan’s “honest striving after indigenous effect, [with] words like kowhai and rata and tui being new toys” may not be, as he suggests, an expression of “naive sentiments”. Duggan’s prose pieces, in particular “A Few New Zealand Roads” and “Tua Marina Memories”, reveal how much a part of her life these “indigenous effects” were. The rural environment was for her a “living entity”. She had no need to gild the kowhai for her verse when kowhai, piri‑piri, manuka, tui and many other “new toys” were ever present in her life.

Duggan’s representations of experience present the most significant difficulties in evaluating her. Whiteford comments on the problem of infusing a personality into an intensely private person who kept her personal and public lives rigidly separate. Her poetry likewise never comfortably synthesised her disparate Irish, Catholic and rural New Zealand strands. James K Baxter, in a review of More Poems, identified three other levels in her poetry “which rarely combine to make a completely satisfactory unit ‑ the first whimsical, the second sensuous, the third religious and metaphysical”. Whiteford notes a lack of coherence between Duggan’s more sophisticated poems and those representing an unintellectualised faith or an overt nationalism. Her simplistic approach to catholicism, for example, is at odds with the sophisticated irony of her attack on modernism in “Shades of Maro of Toulouse”:

This is the age of the merely clever.

…  [Who]

Shrug in tags in strange tongues

And leer by ellipses.

In some respects the poem, “New Zealand Art” ‑ with its loosely connected stream of images ‑ characterises certain problems with Duggan’s nationalist verse and the poem almost merits Curnow’s criticism for its muddled and ponderous use of the simile, “as if it were in itself to be admired”. Certainly it is not uncommon to find her images become at times so abundant that they begin to cancel each other out; a shame when, taken in isolation, such images may be as delicate and lyrical as these opening lines from an early unpublished poem, “Illumination”:

The leaf was dark until a wind

Flung it against the living sun

Baxter more than other critics appreciated Duggan in her own context. He allowed that although her poetry was firmly Georgian she alone had succeeded in breaching the “Chinese wall” of English cultural tradition “[to] meet [her] country on its own terms”. He also had a sense of the “cradle” Catholic’s “agonising and intolerable conflict between what seemed to be the necessary practice of the Faith and the proper exercise of their gift” that may well account for Duggan’s simplistic representation of her beliefs.

“The Poet” concludes:

God makes His roads too sharp,

His stones too sheer,

For one whose shoes are dreams.

This might be a response to Brasch’s trite remark. At other times she responded to critics with silence.

Where Duggan was marginalised for reasons of form, style and content, Mary Stanley seems to have been a victim of the “quality is a function of quantity” school of criticism. Starveling Year and Other Poems is a slim volume but the pleasure it provides is substantial. These 36 poems, written between 1945 and 1958, have much in common with Duggan’s later poetry. Like Duggan, Stanley frequently wrote from a wider or more global perspective, attempting to articulate issues of peace and social justice. As with much poetry in the years after the Second World War both writers were concerned by the nuclear threat, and Stanley’s “To the Atom”:

Do we bow down and worship you, god

Of a new order, head crowned by winds and stars?

bears comparison with Duggan’s poems “Dark Age” and “Post War”.

Other poems by Stanley were pithy criticisms of consumer societies. “Commerce of Christmas” depicts the ironies of war when “the gun thunders over the carolling host” and asks:

Illumination of stars, what one outshines

this wincing brightness, gaud and tinsel adored?”

Similarly, “On Looking into a Glossy Magazine” questions:

What paradise makes happier fools

Than this, where gilded angels loll

Upon the latest cloud?

and concludes that although

Like fly and worm, the blessed poor

Are disinherited.

… God’s still

In the Machine and all is well.

Yet Stanley’s best poetry is personal and sensual ‑ quite different from Duggan’s, but similar to some of the verse Australian poet Judith Wright was producing at about this time. Stanley’s “Love By Candlelight” is strikingly lyrical, much like certain poems in Wright’s 1949 volume Woman to Man. However, it is in the brilliance of their images that the two most merit comparison. Where Stanley writes:

Open your green eyes.

Pin‑points of candleshine

In caverns of coolness gleam

Here, close to mine.

Wright, with more compression but similar effect, depicts

the arc of flesh that is my breast,

the precise crystals of our eyes.

Elizabeth Caffin’s contention that of the “women publishing in the 1940s and 1950s Mary Stanley is clearly the one whose neglect is least justified” is hard to dispute. Like Duggan she deserves to have her verse read and re‑evaluated in the context of the conditions of its production, with due allowance made for its intrinsic merits rather than merely its adaptability to current critical theory. These excellent publications provide the material for such an evaluation.

Paul Millar is an assistant lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington.

Tagged with: , , , , , , ,
Posted in Literature, Poetry
Search the archive
Search by category