Underestimated, Harry Ricketts

The Perfect Symbol: Poems Unpublished & Uncollected
Louis Johnson (with illustrations by Edgar Mansfield)
Wai-te-ata Press, $24.95,
ISBN 1 877159 06 9

It’s eleven years now since the death of Louis Johnson, a large, likeable man with a relish for good food and blue suits, and a weakness for bad jokes. More importantly, as founder and editor of New Zealand Poetry Yearbook (1951-64), co-editor of Numbers (1954-9), founder of the Capricorn Press, member of the New Zealand Literary Fund Advisory Committee (1982-8), President of PEN, and, less formally, as an appreciative reader of others’ work, Johnson was a good friend to writers. Our cultural community lost one of its more generous spirits when he died.

A prolific poet himself, Johnson’s place in our literary history remains unclear. His entry in the Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature, for instance, is symptomatically indeterminate, observing that “[h]is early poems, while energetic, had a tendency to vagueness and a lack of centrality, but his later much more controlled poems have been considerably underestimated.” “Underestimated” is one of those labels which once acquired are hard to shift. Another literary Louis, Louis MacNeice, is a case in point. Of Auden’s various poetic sidekicks in the 1930s, MacNeice was by far the most talented; but look him up in the literary histories and companions and you’ll still find him routinely tagged as “insufficiently recognised”.

The analogy between Johnson and MacNeice is not as far-fetched as it might appear. MacNeice’s relative lack of recognition can be attributed, at least in part, to the huge retrospective shadow Auden continues to throw over the poetry of the 30s. Baxter, with whom Johnson was as closely associated in the 1950s and 60s, still throws an almost equivalent shadow locally over the poetry of many of his contemporaries.

Johnson himself was, I’m sure, well aware of this overshadowing, though he quite properly hid any resentment he may have felt and always spoke positively of Baxter. It is probably telling, however, that to the end he preferred the earlier more rhetorical Baxter of “Rocket Show” – his Baxter – to what he once described as the “pretty bald blank statement approaching minimalism” of Baxter’s last work.

That Johnson did feel undervalued, particularly after his return here in 1980, is clear enough, I think. For all his continuing productivity and domestic happiness, he seemed a somewhat isolated figure out at Pukerua Bay, a survivor from a lost world which he half-persuaded himself might still be going on somewhere else. Of course, poetically, a sense of displacement and/or loss can often prove fruitful, as it does in several of Johnson’s most memorable late poems – especially those celebrating his love for his young children, Miranda and Lucien, and, more sardonically, in his provocative 1986 sequence “True Confessions of the Last Cannibal”.

As far as Johnson’s current literary standing goes, I don’t imagine that The Perfect Symbol, Terry Sturm’s handsomely-produced selection of previously unpublished and/or uncollected Johnson, will substantially alter the picture. All the same, this second posthumous collection, following Last Poems in 1990, does contain a number of poems that admirers will be pleased to have. There’s “Decking the Tree” (1984), for instance, a sympathetically secular take on Christmas; “He is Invited to Membership of the Sunday Club” (1985), a further instalment of the “True Confessions” series; and “Hampstead Teashop” (1975) with its “escapees / from the pages of Agatha Christie” and its melancholy undertow beneath the nicely judged social and literary
comedy.

As Terry Sturm points out in his introduction, one of Johnson’s fortes is a particular kind of narrative poem. He will take an incident and slowly unwind it, ruminating on its implications. When it works, the effect is impressive and moving, as in “Two or Three Together” (1984), a welcome addition to the clutch of Miranda-Lucien poems. In a similar vein, Sturm has excavated “Commission and Omission” from the early 1970s and “The Secret Life” from 1983, which if not quite so effective certainly have their rewards.

The Perfect Symbol also contains a number of poems in which Johnson reflects on creativity and the creative life. These seem to me on the whole less successful. Take the title poem, written in 1968. This starts with an inaccurate version of the well-known story of Giotto drawing a perfect circle free-hand, after which “Giotto’s circle” is portentously made to stand for those (presumably like Johnson himself)

Who see beyond the lines and shapes of things,
The orders, and the ordering of men’s lives,
And all the passing show, to what might be
Ultimate truths contained in a single act …

This kind of posturing (with its sub-Yeatsian flourish, “passing show”) is not Johnson at his best and, as the opening poem, doesn’t get things off to a promising start. By contrast, “The High View”, the apologia-cum-manifesto which closes the collection, explicitly repudiates such grandiosity. Here is the later Johnson close to his best, the only slightly heightened speech appropriately complementing the subject matter. It seems fitting that though written in 1982, several years before his death, the poem begins on a posthumous note:

Some of my critics complained I wrote about
matters unfitted as subject for poetry.
What can I say? I had not the high view;
lived with my feet on the ground, and under
the nose a distinctive odour of life
I tried to interpret with words because it was there.

If Johnson’s stock is to rise in the foreseeable future, much will depend on Terry Sturm’s edition of the Selected Poems, promised from Victoria University Press next year. With a poet as prolific (and uneven) as Johnson, a rigorously tough selection policy will be necessary. Personally, I hope that “The High View”, “Two or Three Together” and perhaps “Hampstead Teashop” make the final cut.

Harry Ricketts is a co-editor of New Zealand Books. His biography of Rudyard Kipling was published earlier this year.

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