Off-track, Brian Turner

Lost at Sea
Gary McCormick
Hodder Moa Beckett, $14.95,
ISBN 1869581849

Down the Backbone 
Sam Hunt
Hodder Moa Beckett, $14.95,
ISBN 1869581830

Recently I picked up a copy of Heartland, the book of the television series, text by Gary McCormick. At one point he opines that we’re “a nation of poets” and that “poetic impulse is inextricably linked to the need for space, distance and time to savour and reflect”. McCormick reckons poets are “loners” or “outsiders”.

To take the last bit first, some are and some aren’t, as anyone who knows a range of decent poets can attest. McCormick certainly isn’t one of the great reticent outsiders; he must rank as one of the best‑known all round entertainers and media crossover men of the last 30 years. Debater, after‑dinner speaker, stand‑up comic, radio patter and spoofery, TV presenter and general travelling court jester with a penchant for a little buffoonery… all of it makes for one very sociable animal and one can only marvel at his talent and stamina.

As for the “nation of poets” bit, I guess what he was saying is that New Zealand is chocka with people who scribble the odd verse or two and think they can write poetry, “you know, real poetry, the sort that rhymes”. McCormick’s remark brought to mind a tale told by a major poet, Czeslaw Milosz, who said that at a function in the United States he was sitting beside the novelist Jerzy Kosinski when a woman came up and made a fuss of Kosinski whose work she knew and admired. After a time she turned to Milosz and asked him what he did. He said he wrote poetry. She scoffed and said something along the lines, “Everybody writes poetry”. Milosz, taken aback, didn’t have the wit to kick her arse. (Auden’s method of dealing with such inquirers was to say that he was a medieval historian. He said he found this usually “withers curiosity”.)

Most would agree with McCormick’s view that in order to write well you need to find space and time in which to reflect. To that I’d add, concentrate, something which all of McCormick’s hithering and thithering conspires against.

I can see why McCormick was attracted to the Heartland series. Like him I don’t think it necessarily follows that cities are stimulating places and the rural towns are inevitably bland and boring. McCormick is good at finding the quirkies and oddballs, but too often the programmes are exercises in giving lots of people with little to say a chance to say very little and there’s generally heaps of affable banter of the sort which says that even for the hard‑pressed life can still be a bit of lark.

One can guarantee the locals will say everyone is just so friendly, like, and this is a neat close‑knit caring community and that we’re all conservationists at heart so it’s a pity there are a few too many of those extremist greenies running around, etcetera etcetera, and come on the All Blacks … But before long I start saying: “For Christ’s sake, Gary, stop being so bloody cordial and flippant and laconic and jokesy and trite with these self‑confessed simple souls. I know it’s not intended to be an investigative doco in the accepted sense of the term but why pass up so many opportunities to slip in a few more sharp, important questions? Why not reveal more of the narrow‑mindedness, the prejudice, the sadism, the chauvinism, the sham conservationist stance and the racism which is also so much a part of our so‑called ‘Heartland’?”

Perhaps it’s because McCormick has discovered that asking “awkward” questions is a way of endangering your health ‑ a case in point being when he quietly asked a south Westland farmer if there was a bit of domestic violence in the community. Said farmer rode off in a huff and later that night stared at McCormick for hours across the hall at the whitebaiters ball.

But I’m supposed to be reviewing McCormick’s collection Lost at Sea, published to coincide with a national tour which he made recently with his old mate Sam Hunt. Throughout the collection McCormick is saying that for a lot of the time he, like most of us, is all at sea emotionally and that we’re often in need of a lifeboat. For the blokes that boat’s usually a woman with or without whom we find ourselves adrift on storm‑tossed seas. Whereas in Heartland McCormick is apt to disguise his serious side and to eschew anything remotely approaching earnestness, Lost at Sea is full of emotional, often rueful, declarations. He strives to be pithy, direct, even epigrammatic on occasion; he’s fraught, distraught, tender, now and then a bit sentimental. But there’s too much slack writing; the weight or pitch of his lines seems off‑key and infelicities and clichéd images abound.

Many poems have considerable emotional drive behind them, but as with all such personal (sometimes termed “confessional”) writing, the difficulty is in closing the gulf between the emotion as felt by the poet and his ability to express it in a language sufficiently strong to elicit similarly powerful feeling from the reader. It’s, as the sports commentators say, “a big ask” and if McCormick doesn’t quite pull it off most of the time, he deserves credit for taking the risk. Nevertheless, many of the poems need more effort, more work. The “Maniototo” ballad is a case in point: two‑thirds of it works; the rest’s wiffly‑waffly. It reads as if he dashed it off while sitting on a bench outside a roadside café drinking instant and scoffing a sausage roll.

Sam Hunt’s poems in Down the Backbone are unmistakably his, a kind of lyrical stammering. If anything, the poems seem leaner, suppler and springier than for some time. Hunt’s no composer of symphonies: what you get are hesitant, at times delicate songs and scraps of songs and he retains his interest in assaying relationships with women, especially that area Baxter referred to once as “the point of entry where father Adam died” (I quote from memory here). He again shows his fondness for half‑rhymes, slant rhymes, occasionally full rhymes, some of which almost but not quite tilt the verse into doggerel. Hunt’s quite clever in this regard; he has fun at his and others’ expense, though he can be gauche too.

Hunt knows the pathos inherent in so much of what people say and do to each other and he’s not afraid to open up and risk seeming soppy. At times this results in lines and sentiments that are, if not fatuous, then certainly trite. But I don’t much mind because I’d sooner have that than the sort of emasculated stuff produced by some who would claim for themselves a superiority borne of a suitably high degree of detachment.

Both collections have attractive covers featuring full-colour photographs which make them look fresh, snappy and clean. Inside, unfortunately, the poems are laid out higgledy‑piggledy, in part perhaps to use up a few more pages. It doesn’t help persuade the reader that there is a rightness about the mix of form and content. Also, both collections are very short, about 20 poems in each. One is more likely to make tasty morsels than meals out of books of this length, unless they’re the work of a Milosz or a Heaney and I can’t see signs of too many of their ilk on the local scene.

Brian Turner is Dunedin poet and writer.

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Posted in Literature, Poetry, Review
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