Letters – Issue 30

Of meaning and clarity

While it is always a doubtful value to reply to a critic’s review of one’s poetry, there is I feel enough to argue with in Kim Worthington’s review of my book, Envoy, and the magazine I edit, A Brief Description of the Whole World, to avoid the usual pitfalls. The reviewer’s comments in fact of the poems themselves do not concern me here. I am rather more interested in her approach to reviewing, her acts of disinformation in relation to the magazine and her astounding misrepresentation of my views on meaning and clarity in poetry.

The approach to reviewing which begins by finding out what a writer thinks outside the poems and then trying to measure the poems against that inevitably invites questions about the relevance of what the writer thinks to how any reader might respond. The best thing I know said about this comes from Hans-Georg Gadamer, “The mens auctoris [mind of the author] is not a measure of the meaning of a work of art”. It is nevertheless a very common assumption that Worthington makes but it carries with it a responsibility to get the person’s thinking correct.

I want therefore to make, simply, a list of denials. I was never associated with the Freed group of writers in the early 1970s. (I have already replied to this inaccuracy in a previous letter to this journal.) I have never said or written that I think other people should use the terms “post-modern” or “inaccessible” of my poetry. I have never argued anywhere that “clarity is precisely what writers should not strive for and readers should not expect”. I have never censured a critic who attempted to impose meaning on my texts. I have never anywhere, in public or in private, washed my “hands of authorial responsibility”. I could here spend a lot of time saying what it is that I do believe and think about these important matters, but I am more concerned with insisting that reviewers stick to what the evidence permits in the search for an accurate account of the work (whether one likes the work or not).

The second matter is the magazine. The first six issues of A Brief Description of the Whole World were sent to New Zealand Books for review. I have been assured by the editor that the review under discussion is that review, along with Envoy. What I have referred to as acts of disinformation are these: The magazine is not listed at the head of the article as being one of the contents of the review. I will say then that it is published by The Writers Group, Auckland, is a quarterly and costs $20 for 4 issues. It has no ISBN number. Although Dr Worthington says I have written editorials, she does not actually state that I am the magazine’s editor. (She also says that I was “associated” with the earlier journal Parallax — in fact I was its editor.) And nowhere in the review is there the slightest indication that anyone else is featured in the magazine. So writers and artists whose work appears in the magazine include Alan Brunton, Michele Leggott, Ted Jenner, Billy Apple, Wystan Curnow, Joanna Paul, Paula Green, Lesley Kaiser, John Barnett, Murray Edmond, Sugu Pillay, Peter Crisp, Tony Green, Denis O’Connor, Roger Horrocks, Len Lye, Elizabeth Wilson, Janet Hunt, Judi Stout, Di Nash, Michael Radich, Mark Wills and others.

As an exercise in disinformation, in erasing the possibility of giving an accurate account of a periodical and its contents and thereby of informing her readers, Dr Worthington’s performance is exemplary. While I am loath to question her competence in a general way, it is nonetheless hard not to see her strategy as invidious on this occasion.

The third point is misrepresentation of my views on “clarity” as expressed in the first editorial in the first issue of the magazine. Dr Worthington has confused two things: clarity as such and the demand for clarity. They are not the same; my whole essay was an investigation into the difference between the two, and it was precisely my intention to be clear about that difference.

As I have noted already, she says that I have argued “that clarity is precisely what writers should not strive for…”. But in my essay I write “…you & I seek, strive for clarity — an honourable occupation”. I write: “The search for clarity is … yours and mine also, and, I think, has been. I ever hope for words clear as these, on a sign on a lamp-post I saw last year — “Our cockatiel has flown away. We miss him”.” How did she get it so wrong? If I said that clarity is everything in poetry and that the demand for it must be resisted at every turn what would she make of that? For that is exactly my position and the two propositions are not mutually exclusive.

I write also: “…the search for clarity will always contain within itself various ratios of failure”. The point here is that on any kind of search, what is sought cannot be presumed as a continuous possession. Another way of thinking about this is to recall the number of writers, in any genre, who have said that they were seldom happy with what they write — there seems always room for making it better, sharpening it up, getting it clearer. What I was actually arguing against was the demand for clarity. She says that I maintain that “clarity in literature is ‘a consent to violence, stasis, mutilation, untimely death’ ”. But what I wrote was: “The demand for clarity is a consent to violence…” The notion that I am somehow against clarity itself (or more accurately, that meaning should not be clear) is not I believe possible to sustain by reference to my actual writings. And my actual writings on these matters have been available to the reviewer in the form of six short essays across the six issues of the magazine she reviews.

A further point to note implies that I mean to abandon meaning — “Interestingly, meaning is never wholly abandoned”. Whatever else they do, in terms of sound, music, structure, and so on, words never fail to mean. If I write poems with words, then they will mean — not because I might want them to but because they all have meanings, whatever order they are put in on the page. It is true that some writers have composed works that act against the possibility of narrative but even so the words are still, if they are words, what I will call “lexically active”. And this leads to Worthington’s related view that confuses multiple readings with the “free play” of reader interpretation. If readings are not able to be nailed on to the words that are in a text, then they are in my view not valid.

When it comes to quoting other writers in one’s own writing, it is not clear to me why a practising academic would want to regard my or anyone’s quoting of such as Heidegger, or Edward Said or anyone, in a negative way. If one disagrees with what the quoted writer says, then argue with that, certainly. But to complain that such quoting is done at all merely flies in the face of the normal process of acknowledging one’s sources. The reviewer herself will have such sources at the ready if called upon to produce them. We all do. To the charge of quoting without adequate “contextualisation” it can only be replied that the context of my quotations was the editorial itself, and surely it is there that the worth or usefulness of the quoting should be measured. To quote or not to quote should definitely not be the question.

Now one of the interesting things about Dr Worthington’s review is that whenever she focuses on the precise language of the poem her readings are frequently accurate to that language and subtly so. But because she is also trying to read through the screen of her distaste for the “post-modern” and her false assumptions and readings of my written opinions, the result is negatively toned and the achievement of the lines downplayed. In contradiction to the assertion of her final paragraph (on p6, after writing on four other books) my poetry is not “wilfully (my italics) obscure”. On the other hand, as any poet will tell you, it is never quite as simple as that, or indeed, as simple as anything. In contrast, it is hard to get clear of the opinion that the reviewer has “wilfully” misread my argument, wilfully refused to supply proper information about the magazine and wilfully invented positions I do not take.

Alan Loney

Kim Worthington comments: I believe that my review should stand on its own merits or lack of them and do not wish to add to what I said therein or engage with the comments that Mr Loney makes in response. I do, however, wish to apologise for making the mistaken claim that Alan Loney was associated with the journal Freed. This error was made in good faith and certainly not with any “invidious” intent (I can’t imagine what agenda Mr Loney imagines to have lain behind this claim).

Editor’s note: We had received only two issues of A Brief Description of the Whole World when the review was commissioned so the periodical as a set was not available to the reviewer and the two issues were mentioned in passing. There was no “strategy” or “disinformation” by the reviewer.

Don’t read my lips

“And so what?” Those are the stirring words with which Jane Stafford ends her review of Blue Blood. Not sure if the phrase is intended to be a recapitulation of the line with which I opened an encounter on the Holmes Show that the reviewer thinks important to an exegesis of my fiction. “So what?” was what l said to Holmes. “So what?” is what l might almost claim as one of my quotable quotes — shouldn’t Jane Stafford have footnoted the sentence? “And so what?” [Stevan Eldred-Grigg, Holmes Show, 33 Novtober 1997.]

The phrase, though taking the form of a question when it turns up in the review by Stafford, serves as part of her answer to another question she asks a little earlier in the review — a question she seems to suggest is the central question of my novel. “Eldred-Grigg rather overestimates the prissiness of the past to shore up his image of himself as the only one daring enough to state the truth,” she tells us by way of introducing that question. Hm, well it’s possible that I do overestimate the prissiness of the past. It’s also possible that I underestimate the prissiness of the past. I’m not too sure — my training as a historian leads me to doubt my sense of any aspect of the past, discourages me from supposing that my perceptions can ever be anything but tentative. Jane Stafford must be much better informed than me, much better trained, inside some superior academy, since she’s in a position to tell us about historical matters in such a downright way. Myself, I’m only a novelist with a doctorate in social history not a lecturer in English, a lecturer who evidently has acquired qualifications — perhaps her own doctorate? — in the field of sexual and social culture in early twentieth century New Zealand.

But, but… Does the reviewer really think that the most important thing about my novel is whether or not “Ngaio Marsh” — a character in the novel, for those who might wonder — “was” a… Dare I say it? A “lesbian?”

Now, back on track.  Setting aside my failings as a social historian — failings which I am sure many salaried academic historians in this country would be pleased to list most meticulously for any future reviewer of my fictions — let’s proceed to the main point of this letter. Not that this letter has a main point. Texts scripted by a writer of fictions aren’t exactly congruent with the texts scripted by a writer of reviews. Still, let’s pretend there’s a main point…

Truth. That’s the main point, it appears, to Jane Stafford. My novel is intended to “shore up” my “image” of myself as the “only one daring enough to state the truth.”

Well, we won’t stop here. Though it does leave me gasping a bit — in between light fits of laughter — to be told about my motives so decisively by a reviewer whose ability to understand what I’m trying to do with my fictions, presumably by means of reading my work and watching me play games in front of the odd television camera and perhaps by listening to stray scraps of gossip, not to mention what I suppose must be some pretty robust projection of stuff stashed away inside her own mind, seems a bit less than persuasive. Really, I did rather think that my book was trying to look at a number of things, things quite other than, or at best only tangentially related to, the “truth” about the sexual preferences of one of my characters. A fair few things, in fact, bits and pieces, this and that. Literature. Language. Interiors. Surfaces. Money. Binary codes. Fantasy. Fiction. Frocks… I did think, too, that even the silliest klutz with the most literal mind would still work out after a while that as tec fiction the book was meant to fall fairly flat on its face. And that a phrase like “shop girl” might belong not to a narrator but another voice… “And so on, etcetera, etcetera,” to quote Ginnie Feron.

No, we won’t stop here… though it might be fun. No. Mustn’t!
The truth that I apparently wish to state?
I can’t keep it up,

Where do we start? Jane Stafford, where? Jane Stafford, lecturer in English, please tell me… You seem to be awfully good at lecturing. Tell me, please, since when did any writer — pop genre or top flight — think that she or he was stating “the” “truth” in a fiction? “The” truth? The “truth?” Who’s truth? Struth! Not this novelist, for one. Please, learned person, read my scripts. Don’t quote me — confidentially, just between you and me and the reader — don’t read my lips, just my scripts. Don’t watch what’s projected on a screen. Don’t be too keen to project. My fiction may not do what you want, but why not try to work out what I want from it — my fiction, I mean — instead of telling us how it relates to some secondary and, I’m afraid I must assert, spurious discourse about truth. My fiction, I think?

Stevan Eldred-Grigg


Out of print

Although Greenville is the cultural oasis in this bleak area and the University of East Carolina is located here, one would hardly suspect this is a location where your publication regularly finds its way from a New Zealand-born professor of piano and exchanged for a look in the New Zealand Jewish Chronicle that comes monthly to the home of the author of a visual reference book on the Jews of New Zealand in the Victorian era. Long as this sentence is, it is true.

Malcolm and Judith Tait have just returned from a three-month visit to New Zealand and tell me they have come across people who wonder where my book can be found. Although at one point my book was handled in selected stores all over New Zealand, the publisher has ceased publication and I hold the last 149 available copies which can be purchased for $US35 if requests are sent to; New Zealand Book, Box 7171, Greenville North Carolina 27835.

Odeda Rosenthal
Colour Vision Consultant, North Carolina

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