Literary court-jester, C K Stead

Denis Glover: His Life 
Gordon Ogilvie
Godwit, $59.95,
ISBN 1 86962 038 0

I knew Denis Glover over many years, mostly at a distance, and never very well, yet my memories of him are sharper than those of people I have known much better – I suppose because they tend to exist as discrete scenes, with dialogue. He was an actor, always determined to be centre-stage, and he gave himself memorable lines. Here are three examples:

1. Coming out of a poetry reading into one of Christchurch’s colonial-neo-faux-Gothic cloisters, Glover, unsteady on his feet, throws himself back against a wall and delivers in his colonial-neo-faux-English English, “A hearse, a hearse, mey kingdom for a hearse.”

2. Glover, drunk, at one of those Wellington PEN “national” AGMs of the 1970s, barking from the back of the room, when the Chairman calls for nominations for Vice President, “Ay nominate Princess Anne’s horse.”

3. Three of us on a panel in Auckland, Allen Curnow regrets the numbing effect Mansfield’s overseas fame had for a long time on NZ Lit. and recalls a journalist describing her as “the only peacock in New Zealand’s literary garden.”

I interject, “Pea-hen.”

Glover corrects: “Pi-ha.”

This curious mix of the satiric and the surreal is typical of Glover’s writing, his talk, and his carry-on – as when he applied for the Mansfield-Menton Fellowship, saying that if granted it he would work on a collection of prose pieces to be called Lady Chatterley’s Glover.

Glover was very heavy, and in his later years his legs were not up to their task. Once Lauris Edmond and I had to ship him from a PEN end-of-year party to his flat on the Terrace, where the party was to continue. Supporting him on either side, we got him from her car to his door where the key, he told us, was under the mat. Trying to hold him up while bending knees to reach the key, some engineering ratio of weight to whatever was breached and as disparate a trio of  poets as it’s possible to imagine were brought together in a heap on the threshold.

Booze has a lot to answer for. Of the three or four significant literary drinkers I have known, Dan Davin functioned the best – though I’ve heard it said in Oxford that his drinking prevented his getting the top job he aspired to in the Clarendon Press. Maurice Duggan was by far the darkest, the most seriously depressed by his habit. Glover was at once the worst and the most cheerful. He made scenes and sometimes wanted to fight, but he seldom harmed anyone but himself. What I found distressing were the intimations (more than confirmed by the present book) that this was a man in the process of destroying himself. Physically, professionally, creatively, socially, Denis Glover appeared over the years to be committing suicide in slow motion, resisting every attempt by those close to him to stop, or at least slow, the process.

After the war he staggered from job to job, sacked, suspended, re-instated, sacked again. When he left Christchurch in 1954 he had lost or left everything – his first wife and only child, the Caxton Press which he started and the Pegasus Press which had followed its example, the Banks Peninsula Cruising Club from which he’d been banished for non-payment of dues, and the Navy Volunteer Reserve, which was trying to recover money he owed the mess funds. He left debts everywhere, including six months’ rent, and had misappropriated cash donated by friends for a stone on the grave of his old salt hero Mick Stimson.

With Khura, his de facto second wife, he left for Wellington and a new life, much like the old except that he now had an alcoholic playmate. The Sings Harry sequence (and Harry, it occurs to me, was the name of the father who had left Glover and his siblings in their childhood) is looking-back-with-regret poems; and “Fool’s Song” which, slightly revised, became their epigraph, appeared first, Ogilvie tells us, in a letter to Glover’s long-lamented wartime lover, Dorée Elkind:

All my beautiful world is gone.
Heigh ho for a biscuit,
And a buttered scone!
For a dog loves his biscuit
And a man his buttered scone.

Dorée was a clever, educated woman who might well have known, as I’m sure Glover did, that in 18th century literature to “have a buttered bun” was to have sex with a woman who had just had it with someone else.

There was a time at Paekakariki when I remember Glover and Khura together seemed hospitable, sociable, picturesquely bibulous; but by the end there is no other word for it than degradation. The stories of Khura’s death and funeral in this biography are pure Ronald Hugh Morrieson.

At intervals after the war, until she terminated their correspondence in 1967, Glover had written asking Dorée Elkind to come and join him in New Zealand. Dorée, it appears, continued to love him but knew him too well to agree. So when Khura died he called on his abandoned first wife, Mary, suggesting she should rejoin him. Wisely she declined, as did librarian-bibliographers Olive Johnson and Margaret Scott, who were, each in turn, invited to apply. Janet Paul was then wooed, and hesitated long enough to paint the poet’s portrait and cause a new vein of lyricism to open. When she declined finally, Glover turned to Lyn, ten years his senior, who became the devoted mother-wife, nurse and drinks-monitor of his final decade.

We all came to think of Glover as “old”, when in truth he was merely damaged. In a 1995 interview with Gordon Ogilvie, Lauris Edmond speaks of helping Glover make a selection of “not very good stuff”: “It was an old writer gathering up bits and pieces.” I’m sure it didn’t occur to her that when she made that remark she was 71, while the Glover she was speaking of had been 61. The “old writer” she was remembering had been so blasted by booze, so wasted by it, that his age in years became irrelevant. People interviewed by Ogilvie recall his being able to hold the thread of an idea in conversation as if that were a remarkable achievement.

Like every poet whose temperament tends towards the Apollonian, Yeats liked to romanticise the Dionysian, the Bohemian, the dissolute; but he knew the waste of energy it represented. Writing of Dowson and Johnson, his alcoholic associates in the Rhymers’ Club of the 1890s, he reflects of poets and artists:

Our fires must burn slowly, and we must constantly turn away and think, constantly analyse what we have done, be content even to have little life outside our work, to show, perhaps, to other men, as little as the watch-mender shows, his magnifying glass caught in his screwed-up eye.

Glover in his younger days was boxer, rugby player, mountaineer and sailor; and the war gave him the chance to show real heroism under fire. He took great pride in all this, a pride he found difficult to deal with, because he’d inherited that curious British snobbery that prizes modesty above achievement. Like Fairburn, but with even greater claim to it, he liked to think of himself as a man of action, a “neo-Elizabethan”, one who disdained the prissy, the fussy, the arty, the girly and the gay.

Artiness can be a great bore; but so can heartiness, its bully cousin. What kind of “work” is required in order to get the best out of oneself will differ from person to person; but without application of one kind or another, time, energy and talent go to waste. Frank Sargeson’s life certainly didn’t lack colour, sociability, stout political engagement, or rebellious fun; but he taught by example that writing was work, and that it called for patience, diligence, sobriety, and a basis of good order.

Ogilvie twice quotes me saying that in Glover are found “some of the sharpest scenes and some of the purest songs in our poetry”, and I doubt that anyone would want to argue; but I would add that these treasures, of immeasurable and permanent worth, are few and small, and come, for the most part, early in his career. After that, Glover became a character, a clown, a versifier, something of a charlatan, sometimes a disgrace.

What this book brought home to me most clearly was that his great achievement, apart from Sings Harry and the like, was the Caxton Press – not just to have set it up, but to have established a local tradition of choosing work solely for its literary quality, and publishing it in books that were finely printed and excellently produced, while sustaining the Press financially through job printing. It could almost be said that New Zealand literature, as distinct from random items of literary work published in New Zealand, had its beginnings in that enterprise, far removed from the operations of international commercial publishers which dominate the current scene. Glover and those who worked with him had no one to answer to, no shibboleths to respect, no anxiety about giving offence, no dues owing to anything but the search for good writing and the faith in its efficacy and worth.

This, along with his part in helping Charles Brasch to establish Landfall, and his role as Allen Curnow’s closest literary collaborator during their Christchurch years and beyond, makes Glover one of the three or four founders of a national literature.  Heard at this distance, the note that was struck in the New Zealand writing of the 1930s and 1940s rings bell-like and clear, and Glover deserves all honour for his part in it.

There is an anecdote somewhere in this biography of Glover-in-decline, with his blasted face and collapsing legs, tottering up to a woman he didn’t know at a literary gathering and asking whether she would like to go to bed with him. Her reply was an emphatic, “Thank you, No!”, to which Glover returned, “I just didn’t want you to feel left out.” To Rex Fairburn he wrote:

I wish I didn’t smoke
I wish I didn’t drink
I wish I didn’t poke
I wish I didn’t think
But then I wouldn’t be
Yours faithfully, D.G.

Every Court must have its Fool, whose job is to release the comic irreverence and impiety which are in all of us, but that we collectively agree to repress. For this task he is primed with booze, rewarded with protection and indulgence, and at the same time punished with buffets. Denis Glover had the temperament and talent for the task and carried it out with gusto.

This is a well-documented narrative, but there are some errors or confusions of fact. On pages 138-9 Ogilvie has Glover on wartime leave meeting John Lehmann, already editor of the London Magazine, which in fact began in the early 1950s; and William Plomer at the same date having discovered Ted Hughes for Cape, when Hughes first appeared in 1957 and with Faber. On page 261 he has “poet” Arthur Baysting and “novelist” Michael Noonan living in Sumner in the 1950s when they would both have been perhaps ten years old. On page 303 he has Aucklanders Keith Sinclair and Kevin Ireland as Wellington poets, and on page 304 he has Maurice Duggan in the late 1940s helping to produce an issue of the Wellington student publication Spike. As the editor of Duggan’s stories, I never heard of this, and there’s no mention of it in Ian Richards’s biography.  On pages 116 and 157 he says Curnow’s Whim-Wham poems appeared in the Listener as well as in the Press. Curnow tells me he has no recollection of this; and the 1959 selection, taken from the previous twenty years, refers only to the Press, the Herald, and occasionally the Southland Times. On page 122 he says Louis Johnson’s “Magpies among pines” “alludes to” Glover’s “The Magpies”, which it does not. Any literary use of the word “islands”, including the naming of Robin Dudding’s quarterly, he insists is derived from Glover’s lines “Sing all things harsh or sweet upon/ These islands in the Pacific sun”, neglecting the several equally well-remembered and often-quoted uses of the phrase by Curnow and Brasch. On page 354, despite having phoned me to check something Curnow quoted me as saying, he still gets it wrong, naming Maurices Shadbolt and Duggan as my contemporaries rather than Maurices Shadbolt and Gee. These are minor matters, but they introduce a doubt. How many other mistakes are there that one is not in a position to recognise?

Ogilvie’s account is readable and interesting. He doesn’t try to conceal his subject’s weaknesses and failings – indeed, if anything, he revels in them – but his treatment is generous and tolerant. The weakest parts of the book are those that involve literary analysis or judgement. Here Ogilvie’s comments are more hopeful than authoritative, often echoing Glover and Fairburn at their most defensive and populist.

C K Stead’s new novel Talking About O’Dwyer is due out from Penguin in October.

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