Dear Mr Sargeson
Cape Catley, $19.95
ISBN 0 908561 46 6
Like I Have Seen the Dark Green Ladder Climbing
The Pear Tree Press, no price given,
W H Oliver and Anne Munoz
Blackberry Press, $26.00
ISBN 0 908710151
The Hand‑in‑Hand Press,
The Unfashionable Goddess
The Arbor Press,
Poets can be envious creatures. They envy other poets, of course, because they suspect that other poets are better than they are, or because they are more successful. They envy novelists, because novelists have more staying power, tapping away at their opus day after day and because they suspect that novelists are genuine rather than occasional writers. And they envy visual artists, because a painting or a sculpture has immediate impact and often a market value and because they suspect that much of the visual artist’s work is not dependent on inspiration, but mechanical.
There is a story about the sculptor Rodin and the poet Rilke which highlights the difference between the visual artist and the poet. Rodin told Rilke, agonising over the episodic nature of poetic inspiration, that the secret to his success was work and patience; and he advised Rilke to go to the zoo and seek his subjects in what he saw. The result is the wonderful pieces like “The Panther” or “The Merry‑go‑Round” in the New Poems of 1907 and 1908, which bring out the “inwardness” of their subjects through intense observation.
But envy of work habits is not the whole basis of the relationship between poetry and the visual arts. They have interacted since ancient times: indeed, poetry ranked at one time with painting, sculpture and architecture amongst the major arts. Poets have long taken works of art as subject matter: Keats and his Grecian urn, Rilke and Chartres cathedral. William Carlos Williams and his “Pictures from Brueghel”; Lauris Edmond and Chagall; Brian Turner and Grahame Sydney. Poetic theory has even borrowed terminology from the visual arts: “painterly”, “word‑painting”, “imagism” and “structure”. Then there are the poet artists and artist poets: William Blake, who illustrated his own poems; numerous expressionists like Arp, Kandinsky, Klee and Grosz, more recently the novelist and poet Gunter Grass; and in New Zealand Gregory O’Brien whose delightful line drawings often accompany (and in some cases overshadow) his own poems.
It is not all a one‑way street, however. Words can make it into painting as well, as Colin McCahon showed with his paintings which incorporate biblical texts. But poetry is more in debt to the visual arts. This might defy logic, because not only can poetry be painterly, but it can even make pictures out of words as the concrete poets have demonstrated. Beyond that, poetry has the capacity to be musical (when it wants to be) and the ability to move in time; while the visual arts can offer only the music and movement of line and form. But the ability of poetry to move in time is also a major disadvantage, since this quality requires an active, reading recipient, while the visual arts have an immediate impact which usually needs no intellectual effort.
Whatever the mutual debt, poetry and the visual arts find a variety of ways of working together. At the simplest level the one medium directly describes or comments on the other, often on a one‑to‑one basis. Usually, the illustrations precede the poems, an outstanding example being Remains of Elmet, in which Fay Godwin’s powerful black‑and‑white photographs of the Calder valley in Yorkshire inspired some equally powerful poems by Ted Hughes.
At another level the interaction may be more indirect, atmospheric, suggestive. The poems meditate upon the pictures, or, as in Ralph Hotere’s illustrations to Hone Tuwhare’s Mihi: Collected Poems (1987), the pictures reflect the poems. Another method is for the poet to use words as a pictorial medium ‑ a technique fundamental to concrete poetry, which has shaped poems like an apple, for example, or in abstract geometrical forms. Or the book of poetry can itself become an artefact through the use of typography ‑ particularly letterpress ‑ and a heavy, textured paper. In this way the poems and their presentation can assume almost a sculptural quality. Finally, the poet can write in a painterly way by selecting visual imagery so vivid that the reader is compelled to see with the poet. Dylan Thomas, in poems like “Fern Hill”, was especially skilled at such writing.
Five recent collections from Riemke Ensing, W H Oliver, Llewelyn Richards and Peter Jacobson ‑ four of them self-published ‑ exhibit some of these modes of interaction. Riemke Ensing’s Dear Mr Sargeson is illustrated throughout by photographs taken by Nick Duggan (with the exception of Robin Morrison’s cover portrait of Sargeson). The photographs are mostly of the Sargeson bach at Esmonde Road on the Auckland North Shore, both the interior and the exterior. It is not clear which came first, the poems or the photographs, but there is frequently an unequivocal correspondence: a shot of a grapevine accompanies a poem describing grapes (“bringing Katherine Mansfield to esmonde rd”); a shot of the porch matches “now the porch”.
Dear Mr Sargeson follows Ensing’s 1993 collection The KM File and Other Poems with Katherine Mansfield (1993) and similarly chronicles a debate with and meditation upon an earlier New Zealand writer. Ensing claims that the poems in the new volume came to her ‑ after an initial reluctance to connect with Sargeson ‑ as a result of sitting alone in his bach one April afternoon. They describe the house, the garden, the relics of Sargeson’s life. However spontaneous the origin of these poems, there is something rather contrived about the way in which she does connect with Sargeson and his works:
as the garden you grew that summer.
You argued new directions. It was
a time for sowing. The penguins
got angry. Reckoned
they’d had more than enough.
‑ “new directions”
But Ensing does do justice to Sargeson’s reputation as a formidable gardener. The garden ‑ though not so much the celebrated peppers and tomatoes ‑ plays a major role in this collection: the grapevine, the pawpaw, the hedge and especially the loquat tree whose seeds come to symbolise the legacy of the combative and meticulous stylist who contributed so much to New Zealand fiction:
in the shade of your great loquat
small seedlings reaching
for a splash of sun.
Linked with her Sargeson collection is Ensing’s Like I Have Seen the Dark Green Ladder Climbing, a cycle written in response to a painting by Eion Stevens. One poem, “Hedge”, makes an appearance, in slightly different guises, in both collections. Ladder is a particularly stylish production, using letterpress, ink of three colours and a typeface approximating to an elegant hand. Of special interest are two poems, “ZEN” and “a long way to go”, which approach concrete poetry, both representing, by different visual means, a ladder.
W H Oliver’s volume, Bodily Presence, is much the most lavish of these five publications, even though it offers only seven poems. These are written “not as a description, but in part as a comment and, more than that, as a parallel text” to a series of 10 oil paintings by Anne Munz. The paintings, however, are reproduced in full colour. They are nudes, many juxtaposed with fertility goddess figures and they exploit in the manner of Rembrandt the contrast between dark and light. This contrast is picked up by the poet, who uses it as his primary source of imagery:
Perhaps, before the hesitant
shadows drew slowly apart
there was only a burnished black
alive with its own light
from which these luminous
bodies emerge and into which
they are always about to go back.
Thus, in a starker way, the poet is able to give his poems the character of a series paralleling that of the paintings, which use form, texture and colour to create their unity.
In his idiosyncratic and often very witty collection of sonnets, entitled simply 60, and produced in A6 format, Llewellyn Richards includes five sonnets which are prompted by works of art. Four are reproduced: a detail from a fifth century BC Greek cup; “Venus and Mars” by Botticelli; “The Bedroom” by Van Gogh; and a detail from Chagall’s “Equestrian”. The fifth is an unspecified Modigliani nude. The focus through much of the collection is on sex and lust (sometimes with a disturbing predatory undertone) and all five of the poems on works of art are no exception.
The issue in the Modigliani poem (“Putting the Nude in Her Place”) is whether to hang a rather suggestive nude in a public room or in the bedroom, concluding: “Hung in the bedroom, who knows, it might start / The need to compare and contrast life with art.” “A Little Learning Is a Dangerous Thing” is a speculation on the reactions of a woman being pursued by a satyr with a very erect penis. “Venus and Mars, Botticelli Style” mirrors the attitude of the sleeping (postcoital?) Mars in its very layout:
See, stretched out, rather like this line,
Along the landscape top back, a spear,
Held by three chubby satyrs, half deer,
Or fawns rather, not goats, from a time
As keen to disneyfy as ours …
More generally, these sonnets are clever, quirky pieces, often pursuing a conceit through long, rambling lines or using an abrupt, elliptical syntax reminiscent of John Berryman. Richard finds his conceits in as unlikely sources as the language of the money markets (“Invest in Me!”) or in his quartz wristwatch (“Quartz”) and he is able to achieve some interesting effects by choosing an unusual viewpoint. In “Feeding Time at the Zoo ‑ Wittgenstein’s Lion”, for instance, he writes from the point of view of the lion:
Slight hunger, tick tickle, flick tail, female smell,
Cub smell, slight hunger, fly sound, sun heat,
Fly on face, cuff fly, premonition (time to eat) …
Sometimes Richards overdoes it: the conceit is pushed too far, as in “Rallying?”; or he lets himself down with a flaccid phrase or final couplet: “And this old one waits for the sax’s call / or the smile again and its dying fall.” (“At the Jazz Club”) But what is attractive about this collection is that it takes very real risks, with its use of the rhyming sonnet, the conceit and its original perspectives. The same cannot be said of Peter Jacobson’s The Unfashionable Goddess, the quality of whose poems do not match its production (handset and handsewn). Like 60, this volume is concerned with the relationship between men and women but more with romantic than sexual love. This is perhaps belied by Lisa Barbour’s erotic line drawings (largely of women) which punctuate it and provide indirect comment. However, the depiction of love in this collection is, as the title suggests, “unfashionable”. The title poem opens with an attack on contemporary poetry:
They have interred the rose,
and strangled the nightingale.
Ignored in the babel
of literary allusions …
Which might be a fair criticism, but unfortunately Jacobson doesn’t offer a more convincing alternative and too often resorts to tired phrases like “lustrous sea”, “unfathomable lakes”, “the ageless moon” and “the desolate light of dawn”.
All of these books have in common their status as artefact. Each of the poets is not content, it seems, to present the words unembellished: not only do they add value by having the text illustrated to a greater or lesser extent, they choose a mode of production which is individual and “crafted”. It is significant that four of the collections are self‑published. Self‑publication no longer bears the stigma that it might have a decade ago. Publishers who will invest in a volume of poetry are becoming harder to find, and those who are willing to do so are reluctant to take on the added expense of illustrations. So the risk is shouldered by the author and (in the case of a collaboration) perhaps by the artist as well, often ‑ in terms of the production at least ‑ with more gratifying results than in a commercial publication.
Bill Sewell is a Wellington legal researcher, poet and critic.