Light and tasty, Roger Hall

How You Doing? A Selection of New Zealand Comic and Satiric Verse
ed Harry Ricketts and Hugh Roberts
Lincoln University Press and Daphne Brasell Associates Ltd with Whitireia Publishing, $29.95,
ISBN 0 909049 26 2

Collections such as this need to be dipped into rather than methodically plodded through. Yet a reviewer daren’t risk dipping for fear of missing hidden gold. So I settled for methodical plodding, though spread over several days. Off I set, displaying all the warmth of a curmudgeonly invigilator invited to comment on the Central North Island drama league’s one act play festival (under 17 category), and doubtless this is how I’ll come across.

My first impression was to wonder why some of the pieces were included: they seemed scarcely to fit into either category, comic or satiric. Lauris Edmond’s fine piece “Those roses” I found neither comic nor satiric, but I’m glad to have read it. Ditto Fiona Kidman’s “Pact for Mother and Teen-ager”, which is filled with love and pain, but I couldn’t detect any humour. And how anyone can regard Glover’s “The Magpies” as anything other than tragic (albeit disguised as a light piece) is beyond me. (Also, since it is anthologised in just about every other collection, what is the point of having included it?) But then, as everyone knows, humour is a tricky business and there are few things more annoying than when something announced as funny fails to amuse, as sitcom writers the world over know to their cost.  So I accept that in some cases it may be that these poems simply didn’t tickle my particular funny bone.

The editors set themselves a difficult task, first the hunting and gathering (of which more anon), and then putting the collection into some sort of order. Ricketts’ and Roberts’ solution of sorting them into several categories, however arbitrary, was a sensible plan.

Historically, the most interesting section is “There is No Depression in New Zealand”, which includes several occasional satiric verses. I had no idea that in 1956 the Auckland City Council wanted the university campus removed to Tamaki, with one councillor referring to the place as “a cancer in the heart of the town”.  Curnow wrote a brilliant piece on the theme, and then replied to his own piece a few days later as Whim Wham.  I also didn’t know that Jessie McKay had written a (fine) piece on Parihaka (and her “Poet and Farmer” encapsulates the history of the arts in New Zealand). Included in this section are a couple of Baxter’s heavy-handed Harry Fat poems (Baxter at his most boring and pompous); but his “Ode to Mixed Flatting” is, surprisingly, omitted.

The section “Gumboot Songs” includes some tramping songs, which I have always found (at best) only marginally funny – usually sung in the company of many others – and in lieu of anything better to do. (Many war verses hold a similar lack of appeal for me.) But “Gumboots” does include J C Reid’s fine “The Six o’clock Swill”, as good a description of that phenomenon as I’ve ever read.

Charlotte Yates’ “It’s Nice To Be Important, But It’s Important To Be Nice” is certainly a nominee for the funniest in the collection, and John Clarke (who never puts a foot wrong and whose parodies almost transcend the originals) made me laugh just with his title, “Leonard Con: The Emperor’s New Album”; and his other two contributions are crackers, too.

C K Stead has two goes at recent education practices; one about New Math includes a Venn diagram – and three cheers for “The Radiant Way”, with its attack on the teaching of English in the last two lines: “There’s text in a bus ticket.  Anyone tape talks/ and it’s history.  I tell him, ‘Believe in your books’”.

Fleur Adcock has three fine pieces, two of which reveal (very entertainingly) her addiction to attacking those who want her to give up smoking. Pity she won’t consider being Poet Laureate.

There are many poems I am grateful to the editors for including: a coup, surely, to be able to present the hitherto unpublished Janet Frame poem “Landfall Desk”; and another first is Margaret Mahy’s “Down the back of a Chair”, which surely deserves setting to music. There are some nice pieces about poets acknowledging their rivals: Harold Gretton’s “The Poet”, Bill Manhire’s  “On originality” (he, one of our most original of poets), and Anne French’s “The Evader Writes a Lyric Poem”. This section includes what must be a candidate for the Guinness Book of Records as the shortest poem ever written – it is by A K Grant and it contains 14 letters (its title being several times longer). Others I thought noteworthy include Jenny Bornholdt’s “The Boyfriends”, Vivienne Plumb’s  “Vic’s Dick”, Harry Ricketts’ “Separation”, Witi Ihimaera’s mordant “Dinner with the Cannibal” and Fred Dagg’s “Larry Loves Barry”.

I find it surprising that David Eggleton, one of our wryest writers, has only one entry. At the gathering of Burns Fellows last year, Eggleton read a poem about Dunedin in which he referred to “mute inglorious Milton”, which, for my money, would have justified inclusion for that phrase alone (but possibly it wasn’t available in time for the deadline).

There are many problems for editors taking on such a task besides that of selection: one of them is preparing explanatory notes. Here, Ricketts and Roberts have provided a very useful selection at the back. (At times it was infuriating to have to go constantly to the back of the book to check, but including the notes after each poem would have resulted in something of a typographical nightmare.)

Mahy has the last word in the anthology with a superbly sustained piece “Bubble Trouble” (a must for speech teachers), but she also begins it with a wise introduction, reminding us that much verse is best when read aloud. This is particularly so with the title piece, Don McGlashan and Harry Sinclair’s “How You Doing”, that works so brilliantly on record (and on stage) yet must seem flat read off the page. Mahy’s point is well made, and a performance selected from this collection (as well as from other sources) could provide, as Dame Edna would say, “a nice night’s entertainment” at one of our literary festivals.

But, and here is where I become curmudgeonly, much of the stuff isn’t funny. That is, I laughed out loud only twice, and occasionally smiled. Even allowing for professional rivalry/envy, this is a very low strike record. I began to wonder if “comic” is a euphemism for “mildly amusing” or even “not funny”? So much of it is, at best, “light” rather than comic.

But if song lyrics were to be included (and several are, and rightly so), then why didn’t the editors turn to musicals as a source? A K Grant’s (Fresh Revolving Pleasures, Footrot Flats, Love off the Shelf), Philip Norman’s and my lyrics for Making It Big, as well as other shows written by Norman?

Nigel Eastgate is probably the wittiest lyricist in the country, yet is represented by one poem only.  His sometime co-writer John Drummond has written many songs, too. I wonder if they were even considered? Certainly some of the songs they wrote for The Hansard Show should have been.

What about the university shows? Dave Smith was the supreme song parodist of the seventies. Earlier still, songs written by Con Bollinger and Jim Delahunty for The Rubbishers would have qualified for inclusion. I’m only familiar with Victoria University satirists, but almost all the other universities would have had their crop of people turning out verse for capping mags and shows.

As the editors point out, this collection is a first. I’ve indicated that I wish they had cast their net wider (and they probably will next time), and I wish it had made me laugh more; but How You Doing?, contains many pleasures and is a good anthology to have around the home. Happy dipping.

Roger Hall’s autobiography bums on seats is reviewed on p19 of this issue.

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