The erasure tapes
Auckland University Press, $19.95
ISBN 186940 1 14 x
Reading Alan Loney’s work again is like opening up an old wound. For he is a survivor of the Freed group of the late 1960s and early 1970s, a group which centred around poets like Murray Edmond, Alan Brunton and Ian Wedde, as well as the short‑lived, iconoclastic, but influential journal Freed.
The principal achievement of the Freed poets was to expose the New Zealand literary world to the American Black Mountain School of Charles Olson, Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley, to postmodernism, “open” form and indeed to a more experimental mode of writing. These were influences which were to invigorate New Zealand poetry on the one hand, and on the other to do it a disservice by shutting out other styles, at least in the circles that seemed to matter.
Not that Loney is trapped in a time‑warp. His new book, The erasure tapes, shows that he has in many ways moved on. And yet there are clear vestiges of his earlier style; and his recent letter in New Zealand Books (March, 1995, p2), provoked by Jane Stafford’s review of Murray Edmond and Michele Leggott, reveals that the wound opened up 25 years ago still festers.
I have no wish to re‑ignite that correspondence by ignoring Loney’s context, so it might be useful to begin by looking at the ideas which informed his earlier work and which, I believe, still hold considerable sway. For it is only fair to assess a poet by what he or she sets out to do. In Loney’s case this is no easy matter, since even his admirers, such as Murray Edmond and Alistair Paterson, have labelled his poems as “impenetrable” and “difficult to come to grips with”.
Perhaps the key to much of Loney’s poetry ‑ and that of many of his ‑ associates ‑ is that it requires active reader participation. In a letter to Landfall in 1980 in which he responded to negative criticism of his Shorter Poems 1963‑77 (AUP/Oxford, 1979), Loney remarked that “accessibility to meaning has also to be seen as a function of the relation between a text and its reader” and that the reviewer in question had “declined to accept his portion of the accessibility function”. This is one of the central tenets of the postmodernist approach. It applies as much to The erasure tapes as it did to Loney’s work of the 1970s and early 1980s.
In 1980, in fact, Loney founded another short‑lived (three‑issue) journal devoted expressly to postmodern literature and art, called Parallax. The term “parallax” was defined as “a set of observed circumstances that changes with any change in the condition/position of the observer …”. As one of his co‑editors, Wystan Curnow, in a useful essay entitled “Post‑modernism in Poetry and the Visual Arts”, explained: the postmodernist is suspicious of “conscious purpose”, of the creative mind attempting to impose an order on experience. Instead the artist should demonstrate “a willingness to let things be”, with the result that the form of a work of art should not be consciously wrought, but rather discovered by the participant. Likewise, the focus of interest shifts, from product to process, from end to means, from observation to participation, from description to enactment.
The result in poetry was a number of marked stylistic features, such as the “exploded” typography, which dislocates the lines of the poem, a technique claimed (though this has never convinced me) to correspond to the natural bursts of speech; a fractured syntax which suppresses the expected and links in language; and the abrupt transitions from the abstract to the concrete, the universal to the particular, the objective to the subjective, etc. C K Stead, in his seminal 1975 essay, “From Wystan to Carlos: Modern and Modernism in Recent New Zealand Poetry”, listed two further important characteristics: the poem’s “aggregation of radioactive fragments within a ‘Field'”, and “the scoring of speech patterns to create a music …”.
These are all constants in Loney’s work, from earlier collections like Dear Mondrian (Hawk Press, 1976) to the latest volume. Indeed, it has been said that no New Zealand poet has shown a purer understanding of open form, field composition and post‑modernism. Perhaps it was his celebrated interest in typography which prompted him to take the experiment so far. But whatever the impetus, the poems written to this recipe are frustratingly elusive, and on the surface composed at random. You have to work very hard (as you are supposed to) to make the connections, to construct your own poem. Here is an example (from “Sphere music”):
the lovely harmony leans, yr unstaind window slogand
& Watties …
the Tree is buryd in
Mt Cargill fog, a mist fastidiously drawn
over the cavemouth
Dance, dear Mondrian
to yr red gramophone. Let
Jellyroll roll, & jelly roll.
Pay the girl again. Risk
all that & all that laughter
Only rarely does the poet allow himself to make coherent statements or the luxury of a complete image. But such glimpses do collectively signify a process which goes beyond the postmodernist programme to become something like a quest. Paradoxically, that quest seems to be for a means of overcoming the strictures (or is it the excessive permeability?) of the postmodern universe. “that there’s truth / above particulars, who / knows?”, Loney asks in the poem “A higher truth”; while, in “Riding the mantra” he seems to cry out almost in despair. “When will all this talk become / Song?” More recently, he concedes that his
looks for elevation, for the word
giving that extra thrill, the seventh
letter a way to a seventh
(“An alphabet book”)
But this is often counterpointed against an open refusal to be ensnared by what is traditionally poetic:
summer’s trap, tonight, as
moonlight on calm water
Old mountain, why give me
(“‘Clay Mountain’ 2”)
Or, put more bluntly: Above all, let’s / not / descend into poetry (“An alphabet book”).
All the poet can do, it seems, is register what passes through his consciousness or moves into the field of his senses and make, as he himself acknowledges in his blurb for Missing parts: poems 1977‑1990 (Hazard Press, 1992), “an imperfect take on the world”. In doing so, he is living from moment to moment, in the continuous present, as we all do. It is an experience which is reflected in Loney’s very use of punctuation: though he will employ complete sentences in the body of a poem, he tends to begin poems in mid-sentence, as if they are a continuation, and he also refrains from closing them out with a full‑stop.
This experience is elaborated on in two important sequences, “Lyre suite” and “An alphabet book”. “Lyre suite” (1988) is unusual in Loney’s work for the fact that it seems to throw aside the postmodernist baggage and indulge a lyrical side to the poet. It unashamedly employs nature imagery, for instance, and it very nearly sings:
A fantail flits about the tops
of the pear tree. Close your eyes, note
the after‑image. Recall & be able to recall
the memory any time in the rest of
your life. Now is where the time is, and
the same now is where the time ahead
is reached for
“An alphabet book” comprises the first of three sections in The erasure tapes. It returns to the style of his earlier work, but in a more restrained, almost “sanitised” manner, with language and imagery which are now less cluttered. The construction of the sequence is ingenious, in that each of its 26 short poems begins with a consecutive letter of the alphabet. Thus the first opens with the lines, “as if all to do / was begin at the beginning” and the last with “zone, or zero, he’s undecided”. Like “Lyre suite”, “An alphabet book” is concerned not only with time, but with one of time’s byproducts, memory, which, of course, is ” not / all, it’s cracked // up to be True possession of / time?”. Memory, then, can only distort the passing instants of time; and language, too, is inadequate to give them proper expression:
quite. Words have come but
the meaning, that’s
its dispersal is as
immediate as the second death
of Eurydice, glimpsed
If “An alphabet book” appears rather solipsistic and perhaps a little earnest, it at least ends on an upbeat note ‑ although the first letter of the last word in the sequence ‑ “affirmation” ‑ does bring us back to the beginning of the alphabet. It also has an accessibility not shared by the other two sequences in the volume. The second, the title sequence, attempts to “lop the top off memory’s silo” and does so by an accumulation of minute detail. “dear Webern”, the third sequence, is a set of found poems deriving from the letters of the Composer Anton Webern and arranged to be read in two different directions. But the detail in The erasure tapes is presented in such a relentless and disconnected fashion that it tests the reader’s indulgence; and what in “dear Webern” is an interesting technique does not warrant a full 13 poems. In both sequences Loney is displaying (in the words of Webern himself) an “absence of any kind of concession”.
Fortunately, there is more to Loney’s poetry than postmodernism, experiment and the lament over the insufficiency of language and memory. Some of his earlier poems reflect his experiences working amongst the mentally ill (“Summer notes”). Others capture, with both humour and humanity, the vernacular of what must be his patients … “wen / yold as iam/ aytytoo / carn move / ylegs / carn eat / proply” (“Said before weeping”). He can write affectingly of love and particularly the search for love: “Love (how to catch it // that supreme difficulty” (“To take reference” 1973‑74). There is also a very spare but profoundly moving sequence, “Squeezing the Bones”, about his father’s death from cancer:
the casket, its handle
not quite big enough
for a good grip
And yet you suspect that, to the author, this is occasional poetry, not the work which he would regard as his true legacy.
Loney’s true legacy has to be his championing and realisation of the postmodernist ethos in New Zealand poetry. Yet the abiding question is not whether he has realised this ethos but whether it was worth doing. In his riposte to Jane Stafford in New Zealand Books Loney complained about certain assumptions made about experimental poets in New Zealand, amongst whom he numbers himself. He spoke, for instance, of a “false ideology” devised by so‑called “‘mainstream’ authors and reviewers” (who include Jane Stafford and no doubt myself) which marginalises his kind and which lays claim to “‘ownership’ of the scope, purpose and condition of poetry in New Zealand”. For his part he denied any existence of a school amongst his associates or that they all write in the same way.
He was correct to repudiate the adversarial tendencies in New Zealand writing ‑ they waste a lot of energy and make literary gatherings uncomfortable ‑ and of course a Loney poem can be distinguished from a Leggott poem or an Edmond poem. But his argument is ingenuous. Those of us who supposedly belong to Loney’s conception of the “mainstream” can be forgiven for thinking that we were ‑ and still are ‑ the ones marginalised. For once the Freed poets and their associates became established, they dominated New Zealand poetry and captured its primary outlets, in particular Robin Dudding’s journal Islands. They set a tone which persists and made many of those who chose not to follow their style feel somehow fusty, inadequate, out of touch.
Indeed the postmodernist school, although it was energetic and had its share of successes (Ian Wedde being one of them), not only inhibited more moderate poets, but, worse, for some years turned the reading public off poetry. Loney seems almost to take pride in how minuscule the audience is for poetry in New Zealand (he estimates it at 0.066% of the literate adult population). But he does poets and their audience no favour by continuing to promote a style of poetry which threatens to alienate that audience even further.
Where does the problem lie, precisely? It is not in experimentalism as such, nor even in asking the reader to participate in the making of the poem: since The Waste Land readers of poetry are no strangers to that role. The problem is in the refusal to compromise. It is in expecting the reader to have the same obscure reading list and to savour the same obscure allusions as the author. It is in presenting a poem which is supposed to be musically scored as little more than “white noise”. It is in encountering 13 pages of lines like these (from The erasure tapes):
He’s no old pro if sere. Ere it got, to words it usually fled. Two sat fishing, or three, or one alone. Recollections added up to a negative. Vain hope the tack would not split twigs made catapults. Solfa became a scale, singing for an old woman, name not known, in a house not placed, the ion charging him from earth’s pod to air, air’s plaint to dew.
when you know that the poet is perfectly well able to “descend into poetry” and to let “all [his] talk become Song”.
Bill Sewell is a Wellington legal researcher and poet.