A large variety of all the same?
The late Allen Curnow was fond of quoting Yeats’s dictum that the real test of poets lies in how they deal with sex and death. Perhaps not surprisingly, both subjects loom memorably large in Curnow’s own work – indeed dominating the later poems, from the playfully tough “There Is a Pleasure in the Pathless Woods” to the edgily elegiac “Fantasia and Fugue for Pan-pipe”, the poem which closes his final volume, The Bells of Saint Babel’s.
If Curnow himself can be said to have passed the sex-and-death test with distinction, what of his more recent descendants – his poetic great-grandchildren, so to speak – who started publishing in the last ten to fifteen years or so? It is instructive to pick any current poet, read their work from this point of view, and reflect on the results. Or if the s-and-d test seems too narrow, what about extending the net to cover “big subjects” more generally? These might include, amongst a raft of others: globalisation, world poverty, refugees, September 11, religious faith … Or, closer to home: bi-/multi-culturalism, the corporatisation of NZ, deforestation …
A recipe for grandiosity, didacticism and banality? Maybe, though it all depends how the subjects are treated. (Think of the subtlety and passion of Seamus Heaney or Eavan Boland.) We do not mean to imply that our current poets – and we speak as two of them – never deal with these issues. James Brown critiques the insidious power of international market forces. Dinah Hawken celebrates a spiritual bond with a very specific local natural world. Robert Sullivan addresses the “pacification” of Maori. Jenny Bornholdt sets poems about new life against its inevitable complement, new threat, new death. Ian Wedde has a go at “cultural commissars”, Brian Turner at political and other correctnesses. And of course one could go on proliferating the exceptions. However, there is a general lack of substance in much of our current poetry, a lack of guts. We talk self-approvingly of diversity when what we often really mean is a large variety of all the same.
“A large variety of all the same”: that might be one definition of the postmodern condition, which we are all said to be living in and suffering from: same supermarkets, same brand labels, same goods, same TV channels, same news, same relativism, same ennui. The same, except that around a quarter of the human race is starving and is now poorer than it was during the Cold War, while most of the world’s population still don’t know how to use a
telephone, let alone a computer.
Three effects of postmodernism, as it has manifested itself here poetically, have been the production of so-called “language poems”, an overdependence on a kind of ersatz, butt-covering irony, and the substitution of “personality” for a proper poetic person.
Of course, it is no secret that poems are made out of language or that language is slippery and unstable. Ask Shakespeare: “the truest poetry is the most feigning.” But for poems to spend their entire time dextrously reflecting on their own linguisticity quickly becomes tedious. Words may be arbitrary signs, but we assign them meaning, share that meaning, live by that meaning. Otherwise we couldn’t cross the road, hold conversations, read the newspaper. To share meaning is to swap notes about life, about ourselves, to see how, and why, we agree or disagree with each other.
When it comes to the new irony: this often does little more than tease the reader’s desire for seriousness and meaning, whilst implying that neither actually exists. Deftly done, as it frequently is, the new irony can be enormously engaging, enjoyable, full of literary charm, but it has a tendency to reduce poetry to just another branch of entertainment. The new irony is in fact a form of cynicism. Irony, strictly speaking, registers the presence of more than one way of looking at things simultaneously, registers a more or less complex point of view – not the fact that because everything is relative, all points of view are a waste of time. Poems can entertain; they can also stir, shake, change a life.
As for the poet’s life, our interest in it should be as a source of material, not as an end in itself. The poet’s personality, as opposed to their poetic person, is for the image-makers, the marketers, and the gossip-mongers. Of course, it cannot be entirely divorced from the poetry – James K Baxter’s late poetry and his prophet-like status, for instance, remain intimately linked – but ultimately it is the poetry itself we must focus on: what it does with the collision between language and world, and the unique person fashioned out of that clash. This should be anything but “the same”, and preferably challenging.
At various times, poets have been called both “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” and “the antennae of the race”. They have earned these portentous-sounding titles when they have been prepared to take risks, to go beyond their own and their audiences’ comfort zones. To do, to borrow a famous phrase of Curnow’s, “something / Nobody counted on.”
Harry Ricketts and Bill Sewell