Light that fire, Lydia Wevers

Big Smoke: New Zealand Poems 1960-1975
eds Alan Brunton, Murray Edmond, Michele Leggott
Auckland University Press, $49.95,
ISBN 869402308

A thick black-and-white book with a beautiful cover illustration by Patrick Hanly taken from the second issue of Freed, Big Smoke is dedicated “To Posterity”. Shouldn’t the anthology have been dedicated to those people like me, baby boomers, old hippies and flower children, who marched and smoked dope and wrote poetry and HAD SEX (which in some ways seemed the most revolutionary part of it all, not the sex but talking about it) and who populate its pages?

Of course I can see what the editors are getting at and, almost despite myself, I think posterity will be interested. (Some of the poems and the things we thought are pretty cringe-making.) But as I lay on the sofa night after night and read it – it is a generous book – Big Smoke made me remember what it was like: the skanky little magazines, the excitement, the energy,  and the optimism about what could be done in the world despite, or rather because of, Vietnam, South Africa. Even the weather seemed better. I don’t think I’ve ever hated anyone as much as I hated Richard Nixon, not even Muldoon, or felt so sure that what I thought was RIGHT. (Capitalising is an infectious habit.) Big Smoke is full of the poetry written when poetry seemed to be one of the things that made sense, was important, was a vital part of the culture, and if you had enough you started a magazine. What could be simpler?

                         sometime / during 67
i read his poems / & he read
Mine / & that we knew of someone
up the road / who wrote
that we should visit
& did / &
he read ours / & we read his / then
smoked some dope
talked of why
& where
to publish
the clack of the duplicator / & then of
OUR OWN MAGAZINE
that / we would publish
who / or whatever
we dug!

(Nigel Roberts “For Free/Poetry   Terry Gilmore & Johnny Goodall”)

2

In his introduction, or rather his half of the introduction since the other half was written by Alan Brunton, Murray Edmond describes Big Smoke as “a collection of poems rather than poets … Time, the era, defines Big Smoke … [which is] more a cultural history than an anthology”. Alan Brunton’s introduction to the poems makes this point in another way: he argues a taxonomy of difference within a global overview of the political context of the 60s – Sharpeville, Hungary, Civil Rights, the Congo, Kennedy, Cuba, Vietnam and HART – by way of Rimbaud, the Paris Commune and 1968. It is a helpful and expansive historical riff, arching over and around the tighter discussion of the collection provided by Edmond.

I don’t agree with Brunton, however, when he declares that “for New Zealand, the 1960s was a decade of crisis as the nation anxiously declared independence, a crisis that provoked questions which were primary: What was the nation? What was its originating moment? Who owned it?” I think those questions came a bit later to our used-to-be-complacent country, and one or two observations about Big Smoke make the point. For a start, the collection is very white and very male – on a fast count, trying not to double count people and leaky enough for me to have to say these figures are estimates, there are six Maori writers and one Samoan out of about 65 poets, and about 18 women to about 44 men. An AWFUL lot of it is student writing, or just post-student, so the poetry is firmly locked into a generation, and the demographic of that generation reflects what we know we would find if we were to take any other sample of print media. I agree it’s wake-up writing, but I don’t think it’s got very far with self-interrogation.

Secondly, I was struck by something in Michele Leggott’s chronology at the end: “Protest, Performance, Publication 1960-75.” It’s an entry for 1972:

Hana Jackson presents Nga Tamatoa’s petition on Maori language, signed by 33,000 people, to Parliament. It requests that “courses in Maori language and aspects of Maori culture be offered in all those schools with large Maori rolls and that these same courses be offered as a gift to the Pakeha from the Maori in all other New Zealand schools as a positive effort to promote a more meaningful concept of integration.”

 

I don’t think I need to explain why I was struck by this – it is simply impossible to imagine anything resembling a similar request being made now. While I agree with Brunton that the 60s were a time of crisis, immense social change and political awareness, I think it took longer for us to start to ask questions about who we were – we were quite pleased with who we were back then, or that’s my memory – we knew who the baddies were and it wasn’t us.

But you can also see some things happening in this collection that make me absolutely agree with Edmond that “the contents of Big Smoke lie like an island between two waves of nationalism. To retrieve this work is to bring back a world …” There’s a delicious sense of energy/anarchy about a lot of the writing, of new worlds of language and form as well as new worlds of experience, drugs and sex of course, but also worlds outside New Zealand, even a sense that New Zealand itself is somehow the centre of something. Big Smoke seems to me to show a movement over time. It starts almost primly – Hilaire Kirkland’s proto-feminist poems and some of Janet Frame’s  (“The Road to Takapuna”) circle portentously around the big questions – and it’s a relief when the poetry starts to play with politics and emotions. I thought, for example, how easy it is to see feminism arrive in a collection like this – around page 264 – and why it happened is evident on every page before that. Poetry by the pre-feminist women is full of imagery of unsubstance – smoke, mirrors, emptiness,  fluids, weeping “& water & air & moon & birth / ran in my bloodred song” (Vanya Lowry “Landscape with Guitars”) while the men, the lots and lots of long, raunchy, energised poems by men, are political and sexy, and confident and aggressive. And very, very heterosexual. I don’t intend these characterisations as a criticism of these poems, but in support of Edmond’s contention that they reveal a vanished world. We have all got more ironic, uncertain and unconfident since the 60s.

There are other things it’s interesting to look back at too. One is the relentless effort of much of the writing to make the language new in ways that seemed radical at the time and not at all radical now. After about 1967, attempts to break up the reading flow, alter the relationship of words to the page and the reader to the words by using  “open form”,  and capitalising, italicising, underlining, abbreviating, slashing, dashing and neologising, become themselves almost standard practice. Like any poetics, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Partly the effort is political – to remove the “poetic” from poetry:

Poetry is not an escape / but
an appreciation /  of reality.

(Nigel Roberts  “For Free/Poetry    Terry Gilmore & Johnny Goodall”)

3

I’m really glad this book exists. Not only does it bring back the crash and thunder of the time, there are some terrific poems in it and some writers whom I at least had forgotten about – David Mitchell, Peter Olds, Dennis List, Mark Young, Bob Orr, Rhys Pasley. There are a lot of long poems with loose, rambling, evocative narratives, such as David Mitchell’s “travel” poems, the terrific “The Singing Bread”, loosely about Paris, and “Albino Angels”, set in Barcelona 1962:

where a 303 cop in a cardboard hat
showed me a “dirty” picture
then tried to arrest me
for bringing it into the country…

 

Or the selections from Peter Olds’ “30 nights on Mandrax”, Murray Edmond’s “Night Shift” poems or Warren Dibble’s “Maori Surveyor-Field Notes”, which are all great reads. Albert Wendt’s marvellous “Inside Us the Dead”, first published in Landfall, doesn’t seem to me to come from quite the same stable as the rest of Big Smoke – is it postcolonial hindsight which puts it in this company? – but is a stand-alone stunner.

It’s interesting to see Ian Wedde, Sam Hunt and Bill Manhire back in this cohort. For each of these well-anthologised poets, the editors have chosen poems you don’t see anymore, perhaps because they fit more readily into the alternative/subversive/experimental field of Big Smoke, but which also show the developing distinctiveness of each poet. Hunt’s earliest poem, “Ngawhatu” (1966), adjectivally loaded and rhetorically Georgian (“Hysterical, the out-run ocean drives / into the wide shore’s prostrate limbs”) gives way over a telescoped three-year selection to the rhythms of the balladeer/performer, the cadences (and content) so distinctive you can hear Hunt’s celebrated trashed-pub voice:

My liquor bill cut by half
up from two years with the dead
I’ve ripped my pin-ups down
kicked my pillows out of bed.

(“A Song About Her”)

 

It also interesting to think about who’s missing. The huge, telling but also visible gap is James K Baxter, whose death at 46 in 1972 puts him squarely in the frame of this collection. Baxter’s progression towards the kind of poetics featured by Big Smoke occurred in his shift from “high” (modernist) to “low” (loosely speaking, colloquial) poetics, and to political activism and ephemeral broadsheet publishing. Iconic in his time (when he died I was marking first-year exam papers, a number of which responded to his death with elegies, eulogies or dedications), he stands behind a number of the poems in this collection both poetically and personally. Most explicitly he is figured in Brent Southgate’s and Bill Manhire’s excellent pastiche “New Jerusalem Sonnets”:

John, it’s hot in here. I promised once,
Colin I think, from my grave at length

A muddy spring of poems would gush out,
A kind of poor man’s Taieri you might say,

A tide to float the incubus of flesh.
Heresy, man!

 

Many of the poets represented in Big Smoke worked with, knew or were affected by Baxter and his work, a point made by the inclusion in the chronology of a signed photo of Baxter, Mitchell and Mark Young at “An Evening of Poetry” at the Barry Lett Galleries, 20 August 1969. I’m not arguing that Baxter should have been included in Big Smoke – I’m in fact agreeing with the editors’ choice to leave him as a powerfully spoken absence – he is there.

4

Just to return briefly to the social/cultural history dimension of Big Smoke. Not only is it a powerfully drawn topography of “the 60s”, a history in poetry in an explicit, not inferred way, a welcome reprise of certain writers and works, it also reveals some things as “historical”. When does something become history? This is one of the interesting effects of Big Smoke: some things I’d forgotten I thought had become history because they were forgotten, and there were also some things I could have left undisturbed. Vocabulary like “groove”, “my woman”, and the endless flower imagery. Attitudes, especially towards women, as the phallus gets celebrated. The astonishing lack of irony. I loved Murray Edmond’s “Night Shift” poems for a whole lot of reasons but also because they returned to me “the tin of  fruit juice / 2 triangular holes neatly opposite each other” (“Night Shift 1”).

I didn’t find Frederick Parmee more interesting 25 years on, but on the other hand he was a feature of practically all the small magazines of the time. The illustrations, the cartoons, the graphics – I’d forgotten how literally poetry insisted on itself as a visual medium. The countless references to French Symbolists – what was that about? Is this the effect of the Paris Commune? Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Apollinaire – this is definitely pre-Rainbow Warrior. The slightly spooky effect of hindsight. Ian Wedde’s 1972 “Philosophenweg” plays with more ironic juxtapositions than it knows:

They say the NATO base at Lahr
is closing down in ’72.
Just in time for the next
Olympic Games at Munich.

 

11

Belief is action. Try it.

Big Smoke’s recuperation of a significant slice of literary history is something we should be glad about on its own terms. But as a way of thinking about the relation between poetics and politics, politics of the self as well as the world, between history and contemporary, local and global, the politics of publishing, dissent, social practice and sexuality, it offers a great expanse of opportunity. A discovery for me was the range of memorable poems and poets that has slid from view – a single example is Mark Young’s  “A Season in Hell” (another Rimbaudesque poem), confrontational, gritty, homosexual, intense. The collection’s journey through all those boxes of fragile little magazines, old poems, forgotten archives, delivers  a world

like confetti / from some dream marriage / I will make
only in the last 10 minutes / as the world winds down
self with self with self
yeah. my world. my life. my time. / confetti
like the darkest fragments of a continuing conversation
with baudelaire.

(David Mitchell, “The Singing Bread)

Lydia Wevers’ most recent book, Travelling to New Zealand, will be reviewed in our next issue.

 

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Posted in Literature, Poetry and Review
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