The value of experiment
I did not respond to Jane Stafford’s review of Michele Leggott’s Dia and my The Switch in New Zealand Books when it was first printed because I think the writing should speak for itself and face its judgment itself. I have now chosen to enter the debate that has built up in the wake of that review to clarify my position, to assert certain principles and to make one or two points about the topography of New Zealand poetry – and literature.
I am in favour of people saying what they want to say in reviews. Once some indeterminate “we” begins to restrict comment by allowing only “fair and objective comment” and censoring “attack on the author”, then we are all going down a dangerous path.
First, objective comment is an illusion, a point I will come back to in relation to Jane Stafford’s review. Second, I am not in favour of promoting rudeness as a virtue, but a lively and argumentative critical scene, even at the cost of the occasional regrettable comment, is preferable and desirable compared to the alternative – some peer pressure which demands you self-censor the range of your comment.
Of course, when hard things are said about you it hurts – to paraphrase both Didi and Gogo in Godot: “It hurts? You want to know if it hurts!” But I certainly don’t want reviewers apologising to me or retracting – they, too, have to live with the consequences of their writing.
Alistair Paterson has always considered my review of his anthology Fifteen New Zealand Poets in Islands in 1981 to have been too harsh. I set out to challenge his notion of the idea of open form which I disagreed with. I am happy to stand by that literary opinion.
To suggest that by controlling reviewing one can control the marketplace and thereby substantially alter the economic success or failure of a book is to harbour illusion about the economic realities of poetry publishing, or indeed almost all serious literary publishing in New Zealand.
So, let me expand a little on the vicissitudes of being reviewed. And let me prefix these comments by saying that I think it is wonderful that so many people have written letters in response to Jane Stafford’s review with such wealth of detailed comment. But, because of the kind of poetry I write I would never expect a good review in New Zealand Books. The last review of my work in New Zealand Books, Charles Croot’s review of From The Word Go, was equally as dismissive as Jane Stafford’s.
The point is that New Zealand Books is no more “objective” than I am: it supports, in its editorial policy, a kind of writing and that kind of writing is not the kind I write. And I believe this applies to Michele Leggott’s work and the work of quite a number of others who have readerships which extend well beyond a coterie or in-group.
There is an unstated politics and theory behind New Zealand Books. Experimental work of any kind is outside its compass – as Jane Stafford’s foot-stamping proprietorialness makes amply clear. She wants to stamp out certain kinds of work and take possession of the field.
But there is no neutral centre where objectivity has its house – which frustrates her plan but which also gives her review a welcome energy. Her demonstration of a lack of basic literary general knowledge, her inability to read tone, and her ignorance of and inattention to form and measure are in fact all to the point. Her review trumpets these things. They are badges she wears with pride.
Let me also say that I have been as disappointed – and perhaps been made to feel more angry – by positive reviews. Mike Johnson’s positive review of Letters and Paragraphs in Landfall is a case in point.
Those of us who write within an experimental tradition are not simply part of “New Zealand literature”, not simply “New Zealand poets”. We work within the worldwide line of experimental modernism and its aftermaths, whether, theoretically, you see modernism as a western conspiracy or an international response to a western conspiracy.
This is one reason why this kind of writing does not fit happily into the aptly titled New Zealand Books. The name of the magazine is the initial statement of its theory. Even then one would have to distinguish among a number of nationalisms in literature of which New Zealand Books represents only one.
The complexity of the present situation is something I wish to stress. If this complexity is not acknowledged, then we get the kind of reductionism of Jane Stafford’s review – that authoritarian tone which tells you: “It might be all right for those other people, but we don’t want any of that silly nonsense here, do we!” From there it’s a short step to that delusional state where you think you own the means of creation.
As Alan Loney pointed out in his letter to New Zealand Books, all poetry writing/ publishing/ reading is an “élitist” activity. But just because I work in an élitist form it doesn’t stop me being a democrat. I don’t want hierarchies of taste or control of reviewing. Who controls the controllers? Who sets the levels of taste – and for whom? These are practical questions.
I was reading recently Tony Kushner’s “Afterword” to Part II of his play Angels in America in which he quoted Gore Vidal: “What matters finally is not the world’s judgment of oneself, but one’s own judgment of the world”. Of course, for a writer, this must, in the end, always be the case.
Editor’s note: New Zealand Books does not, at least under this editor, have a “politics and theory” of rejecting experimental work. It does have a policy of lightly editing reviews and other contributions, both because, as serious analyses, they deserve respect and to encourage the healthy, vigorous debate Murray Edmond refers to and admirably supports. A review praising the works would similarly have been lightly edited.
In on the meaning
It was instructive for those of us who are not members of a poetry élite (and so not “splashing about in the élitist pot together”) to have Alan Loney explain to us how Michele Leggott’s hydrophiles purl. (My Concise and Shorter Oxfords are sadly out of date I fear.)
Perhaps in a future (preferably shorter, less vitriolic) piece he could let us in on the meaning of Murray Edmond’s
apart, that is, from their actual appearance on the page. It seems from Joan de Hamel’s letter, though, that we may need a knowledge of “poetry in a language other than English”.
Never mind. At least those splashing about will have plenty of elbow room.
A matter of debt
Alan Loney should practise what he preaches. Saying that it is “usual for assistance from others … to be identified in academic writings”, he takes Jane Stafford to task for not identifying the friend who discussed Murray Edmond’s poem with her – but at least she does acknowledge her friend’s assistance. Loney himself, however, does not mention his own indebtedness to the Canadian scholar Randall McLeod. His uncharacteristically precise reference to a 1545 Frankfurt edition of Theocritus, which seems to have given George Herbert the idea of writing poems in the shape of an altar and wings, is taken without acknowledgment from an essay by McLeod in Crisis in Editing: Texts of the English Renaissance (New York, 1988): see ppl35-7 and n78 on p169. McLeod visited New Zealand recently and, in his friendly fashion, gave away offprints of his essay – to Loney, presumably, as well as to me.
Editor’s note: A letter on this topic was also received from the editor of New Zealand Poetry, Alistair Paterson, which we have regretfully not printed for legal reasons. Murray Edmond referred in his letter to this letter of Mr Paterson’s.
AND there’s more
It was very gratifying to see my rather long letter in response to a Jane Stafford review displayed so well in the December 1994 issue of New Zealand Books. In the second-last paragraph however there is an incomplete sentence beginning “What it means is that”. Could I use this opportunity to complete it here, as, apart from anything else, it may very well contain the most controversial sentence in the letter. It should read: “What it means is that poetry is an élitist proposition per se, at any level at which anyone reads any of it.” (Italics in original text.)
May I also allude to Chris Price’s article “AND then what?” While one can sympathise with Ms Price’s poignant wish for a current magazine for the ANDers so she can feel better about excluding them from Landfall, there are a few historical matters that need tidying. AND was not at all a “new” thing. It had predecessors – Morepork, ed Graham Lindsay (three issues); Parallax, ed myself (three issues); and successor – SPLASH, eds Wystan Curnow, Tony Green, Roger Horrocks and Judi Stout (three issues 1984-86). Others were, though a little to one side of the genealogy that stretched from Freed forward to Antic and Untold.
Further, many if not most of AND’s contributors were not at all new persons on the block, and do not, by any real calculation, constitute a new “generation”. With many of them now well into their fifties, it seems that some sort of ghettoisation (which is what a-historical definings such as Price’s amount to) is being proposed for those who do not conform to Price’s particular take on what’s suitable for Landfall. If what’s suitable is to be what sells (“without sacrificing its production standards and reducing its printrun”), then serious artists might have better reasons for staying away from Landfall than its editor has for her inclusions. The truth is, that Morepork, Parallax, Antic (in its later issues), and Untold etc were all produced according to what Price has termed “mainstream production values”. One has only to look at the actual magazines to see that only AND and SPLASH were produced by other means. Her equation, “mainstream production values = mainstream content”, does not hold.
On the other hand, several ANDers did in fact attempt to get such a magazine going very recently. A proposal put together for a magazine wonderfully titled (alongside the title of Price’s article) WHEN, was submitted by John Geraets to the literature programme of the Arts Council early in 1993. The sum sought was $2200 for one year. Grants to Landfall over each of the past three years have been: 1995 annual grant $9750; 1994 annual grant $9750; 1993 cumulative grants $24,710. (It should be noted that for 1994 onwards two rather than four issues a year were being produced.) The application was rejected. Perhaps, in her concern to retain Landfall for other than the ANDers, Chris Price would like to write a recommendation to the Arts Council that Geraets’s application be reconsidered.
Elevating the debate
I’d like to say how much I admire the piece by Simon Upton, “The Need for a Conservative Rudder”, in the December issue.
I can remember vehemently attacking The Withering of the State about ten years ago and I still think those essays were awful.
This latest piece may lack warmth and any revelation of his own values, but it rings with the sincerity of someone being intellectually honest with himself and with us. Idealogues should beware of Upton.
I write this letter because many of us complain regularly about the pettiness of party politicians, the shallowness of their thinking and their constant dissemblance; so I want to express my gratitude and respect for Upton’s recent writing, whether I agree with his opinions or not. He helps to elevate our national debate as one of maybe half a dozen parliamentarians who value intellectual honesty.