Stead among the Romans, John Davidson

The Right Thing
C K Stead
Auckland University Press, $19.95,
ISBN 1 86940 221 9

 

On the dust jacket of his 1972 collection Crossing the Bar can be read the words: “C K Stead is not a prolific poet;  this is only his second collection, and the first for eight years.” The year 2000 sees his eleventh collection, The Right Thing, so that “prolific” is almost becoming a word that can now be applied to Stead the poet, quite apart from Stead the novelist, editor and critic. All of the poems in The Right Thing, moreover, are newly collected.

There is a welcome clarity and accessibility about the poems of The Right Thing, most of which are comparatively short. In the longest sequence “Crete”, for example, there is a poignant directness, which is a far cry from the somewhat chaotic, self-indulgent travelogue/memoirs of earlier sequences such as “Walking Westward” and “Yes, T.S.” In simple, seemingly effortless phrases, Stead evokes the ongoing nature of life along with the destruction and ferocity of war, the horror of death in combat, and the loss of young lives on both sides, learning “That wild daisies / can be midnight
blue / and that the Anzac poppy / blooms also in Crete. // That birds will sing / between bomb blasts.”

The collection ranges over much familiar ground, along familiar paths, albeit with undiminished vigour. Once more, for example, we encounter the moon used so often by Stead in the past as phenomenon and image. And further typical responses to the natural world can be found in poems like “Good Morning”, an evocation of the rising sun. The publishers Faber and Faber receive further satirical
treatment. Stead’s habitual word-play is still to the fore. So is his political and philosophical engagement, his affairs with the craft of poetry, literary precedents and literary contemporaries, and his memories and returns to the personal past.

I like “Cartoons”, a series of sharp and witty responses to current news items, vintage Stead. In the first (“8.8.96”), for example, he begins with a report that scientists have discovered that there has been life on Mars, long since dead, “that’s to say yonks”. Which neatly introduces “President Bill” and his reported desire for the US to have a stake in any life that may exist in space. This is then linked with an anonymous death in Siberia, caused by the collapse of a bronze Lenin. The moral is:

Watch out for the dead!
They leave their traces –
ideas for example
and heavy statues.

 

Other “cartoons” focus on Paul Keating on his trampoline, a certain naughty Catholic bishop, “Alzheimered / Ronald Reagan”, and so on. Somewhat similar, though not quite so successful, are “Lessons in Modern History” (which includes another go at the American evacuation of Saigon) where the attempt to be clever tends to become an end in itself.

Over the years it has often been touch and go with Stead, in fact, as to whether or not his poetic voice will get hijacked by the flippant and insubstantial. My impression is that in The Right Thing he does keep a reasonable balance, reflecting both the more quirky and serious sides of life, so I tend to agree with the blurb on the book’s back cover which has Stead “turning adroitly from pun and parody to sombre reflection”. And one has to admire the sheer creativity of such groan-jerkers as “None-the-Les Murray”, and his comment on “Clergyman Spooner” and his “langue anglaise”, that “He knew / the English languish / for lack of lip.”

I’ve already mentioned Stead’s preoccupation with the craft of poetry itself, illustrated here in “Ars Poetica” which explores the sources of new poetry, in the world of the child, in the full gamut of existing poetry, in the natural world, in the natural world as already reflected in existing poetry.  We read too, for example:

               Recipe for poetry
(or Spanish omelette) –

potatoes
green peppers
deep oil
in a heavy pan
eggs beaten lightly
cooked slowly
eaten cold
with white wine

 

Poetry and politics are never far apart in Stead’s writing, and one aspect of this is treated in “Easter 1916”. The speaker announces the discovery “thirty years ago / in this Oxford bookshop” of a book of poems by a certain Irishman. The poem concludes:

Alas Thomas MacDonagh
shot by the British
it’s not your poems live on
in the mind of Ireland.
It’s your dying,
your death.

 

The question of reputation is raised in a different way in ‘Exit”, a poem about the murder of the Roman orator and politician Cicero. Drawing on Roman sources, Stead sketches the outline of the event to which is added the bones of Velleius Paterculus’ eulogy which proclaims that all the assassination achieved was to enhance Cicero’s fama and gloria and ensure its immortality. But Stead’s conclusion is:

We nod and murmur
graveside concurrence
but truthfully, friend,
if the choice had been yours
old age in the shadows
or this glorious death
which would it have been?

 

Among the acknowledgements at the front of the collection are “special thanks” for hospitality offered during a 1996-7 tenure as Senior Visiting Fellow at St John’s College, Oxford. These “thanks” are then reinforced in a number of poems through which we are offered tantalising glimpses of Oxford, especially the university and its intellectual climate. Stead skilfully conveys his feeling of belonging to this world, while at the same time being the outsider, the observer.

2

Another world into which Stead eases himself is the world of Roman poetry. An admiration for, and debt to, Roman poets has always been a feature of his work, as he carries on the tradition of such illustrious forerunners as Mason and Baxter. So here we find “Horace III, 30”, Stead’s meditation on the Augustan poet’s claim to immortality, and invitation to his co-worker the Muse to crown him with the laurel. Credit rightly belongs as much to the inspiration as to the creator and artefact.

The Roman poet with whom Stead most closely identifies is, however, Catullus. Think of Catullus, and you think of the joyous celebration of life, allied with sophisticated word-play, fascination with poetry and poets, keen interest in politics and everyday life, caustic tongue, and periodic muck-raking. The same formula, in fact, that could be applied to Stead himself. Aspects of it, of course, also apply to the epigrammatist Martial whom Stead also acknowledges; so his comment on “the poem as / scatalogical / or obscene / artefact”, in the already mentioned “Ars Poetica”, is: “It is Martial / Catullus / the Roman realists”.

Stead first adopted his Catullan poetic persona in “The Clodian Songbook” (Geographies, 1982) and “From the Clodian Songbook” (Between, 1988), these poems taking their starting-point in each case from a particular poem of Catullus. The result was, in my view, the most successful example of the “imitation” of classical originals in New Zealand poetry. And, as far as Catullus specifically goes, it represented a significant advance on the more heavy-handed efforts of Baxter’s sequence “Words to lay a Strong Ghost”.

More “Catullan” poems appeared in “New Poems – the 1990s” (Straw into Gold, 1997), the difference being that no specific Latin poem lay behind them. Further poems of this sort are now included in The Right Thing. The same voice can be heard, commenting in easy conversational style à la Catullus, now with a drop of acid, now with poignancy, on contemporary literary figures and other individuals of the poet’s acquaintance. Unless you belong to Stead’s own circle, of course, you can’t decipher all the details of the code, but this applies even more to a reading of Catullus himself.

In general, throughout the collection, the poet’s presence and perspective is clearly felt. This can have the effect of drawing in the reader, but at times it can be obtrusive and alienating, especially when the tone is too smug or superior. Stead likes to score points, in “Notes from ‘A Natural Setting on the Far Side of the World’”, for example, against poor innocents with stupid misconceptions about New Zealand. But everyone is fallible, Stead included. So it’s perhaps not unfair to note in passing his somewhat misleading information, in “Revisiting Bristol”, about the two Senecas and Lucan and their relationship with Nero, and the statement in “Horace III, 30” that this poem of Horace spoke just for “his thirty odes”. In fact, it probably celebrates the 88 poems of Books 1-3 of the Odes, published together in 23 BC.

Quibbles aside, The Right Thing is another most interesting set of poems which further amplify the expression of Stead’s laconic, questioning world-view. But is this the end? The final poem in the collection, punningly entitled “Horation”, is a loose translation of one of Horace’s meditations on the swift passage of time, “Eheu Fugaces, Postume, Postume” (Odes 2. 14). “That dry-eyed skuller / on the darkest river” is waiting, and “in our cellars / the best bottles / will belong to another.” Enough to sober anyone up. The last words are: “Saying goodbye / and meaning for ever.”

 

John Davidson teaches in the Department of Classics at Victoria University of Wellington.

 

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