Doubtful Sounds: Essays and Interviews
Victoria University Press, $34.95,
ISBN 0 86473 370 4
The Canadian poet Douglas Barbour once wrote that Bill Manhire’s poetry displays a “duplicitous unwillingness to guarantee anything”, a feature he felt to be one of the hallmarks more generally of contemporary poetry. This sense of a disavowal is one many commentators and readers have picked up upon when reading Manhire, normally noting that he eases his work into such a position by a surreptitious hand. So his writing is described as “modest”, “gentle”, “private”, “restrained” and “polite”, yet also “dark” and “enigmatic”. All of these labels are fitting. A Manhire poem has that often shiny centrality that is so much a feature of American poetry over the last 50 years. It’s undoubtedly there. It’s a poem, sometimes clearly lyrical, and often demonstrably a good one. But what it might be doing is another question altogether.
The American analogy is, of course, one that Manhire has himself stressed. Along with Ian Wedde, Manhire was at the forefront of showing how the American poetry which followed the work of Charles Olson and Robert Creeley offered both a new way of talking about objects and experiences, as well as an escape from the anxieties of influence and the necessity of canon building that, in a New Zealand context, marked the work of Allen Curnow and C K Stead. Manhire’s 1986 essay on American and New Zealand poetry, “Breaking the Line” is reproduced in Doubtful Sounds. In choosing Walt Whitman’s messy inclusiveness over R A K Mason’s sulky defensiveness, Manhire found a different model for the poetic expression of the relationship between writer and place. Poetry could now more easily be conversational and contradictory, but that didn’t make it any the less public.
In a wonderful phrase from his 1945 Caxton anthology of New Zealand poetry, Curnow had criticised D’Arcy Cresswell’s early poetry for being “not yet narrowed to the problem of allegiance”. One senses that Manhire had seen a fair bit of this kind of critical bullying, and didn’t like the idea of being forced into a “narrow” voice. The American poetry of the 1960s and 1970s, as Manhire read it in the art and poetry scenes of Dunedin, invited and allowed for a release from the sheer pressure of being responsible for carrying the baton of New Zealand poetry. But as Manhire stresses in “Breaking the Line”, this didn’t make the poetry introspective or bound up in what he terms “narcissism or solipsism”. His own work bears this out. Often the language games found in Manhire’s poetry point to wider public themes. In “Zoetropes” the reader’s constant alertness to the letter Z (something which surely bedevils every newspaper reader interested in New Zealand but out of the country) sees how “the eye cuts down at once // then drifts across the page / to other disappointments”, in a clear nod to both the reality and the heritage of the nation’s anxiety over isolation.
Doubtful Sounds displays Manhire’s essays, conjectures and musings on writing from the 1970s to the 1990s. It makes clear that his standing as one of the major figures of New Zealand poetry is earned and justified. In this sense, for all the politeness and sly evasiveness of his work, Manhire has become a national figure. The inaugural Poet Laureate, a respected academic from Wellington to Washington, a renowned teacher of creative writing – these are weighty laurels. Yet Manhire is not at his best in any kind of “official” capacity. As he himself notes in the “Afterword” to the book (an e-mail discussion with Andrew Johnston), there is a degree of “sesqui-centennial piety” about “Dirty Silence”, his 1990 Hamilton Winter Lecture address on the impurity of New Zealand poetry, and the opening piece in Doubtful Sounds. It is not that Manhire doesn’t talk perceptively about mixings and dialogues in the best poetry – he does so with his usual acute observation – it is rather that the grand stage occasioned by the sesqui-centennial isn’t where he most feels at home.
Doubtful Sounds as a whole reveals time and time again that Manhire seems happiest and most interested when words are bumping into one another, providing surprises, showing dislocations from the norm. He ends “Breaking the Line” noting that the most interesting piece of American writing he had come across immediately before the writing of the essay was a scrawled message on a Chicago toilet mirror, and this kind of sudden observation, the moment the world suddenly and strangely assumes focus around a piece of language, often provides the pleasure of his own poetry.
So from American toilets to Malaysian Airlines, Manhire’s writing collected here seeks out what he calls “the muddled dailiness of things”. The flight to Malaysia was for the 1990 Kuala Lumpur World Poetry Reading, dealt with here in a piece entitled “Wings of Gold”, first published in Sport in 1991. Manhire reproduces the letter sent to him by the organisers of the reading confirming his attendance, and it is a masterpiece of dirty language (“Transport to hotel is waiting for you. Although some of you would arrive before 25th October, please do not worry, we are looking and pay for your accommodation and food”). The whole event is perfect for Manhire. Prompted by the wonderful skewed intelligibility of the letter, he enters into a world of unstable English, where a Turkish poet collapses into his seat after his reading, “exhausted by language” and the difficulty of coping with English, and Manhire himself finds the definite article increasingly becoming absent from conversations: “Talking will do, saying things which mean things.”
Like so many of the pieces contained here, “Wings of Gold” conveys an essential sympathy that is common to Manhire’s reflections. He extends the sympathy he allows words, their range of possibilities, to other writers and other lives. In a long 1989 review of work by Seamus Heaney and Tom Paulin, Manhire is astutely perceptive about the conditions of writing poetry about the north of Ireland. He allows his own sense of distance to genuinely inform his discussion of Paulin’s language or Heaney’s admixture of poetry and politics. His comment on Paulin as editor, that he “is like a very intelligent drunk going the rounds at a party, looking for trouble and able to turn the smallest chance remark into grounds for a fist-fight” is superb.
Yet Manhire is also correct to identify the blind spots of some Irish conceptions of the relationship between poetry and the world. Paulin’s Faber Book of Political Verse certainly does give the impression that politics seems curiously to belong only to Europe or the middle part of the North American continent. Manhire suggests that Paulin may have “looked and found nothing to admire” from other parts of the world, but he knows this to be not the case. The responsibility that any writer may have to art and society does not have geographic limits, and it’s a safe bet that Paulin hasn’t read A R D Fairburn’s Dominion. Sympathy then is actually understanding for Manhire, and he is very good at it.
For neither Manhire’s poetry nor the writing collected in Doubtful Sounds would be worth more than a cursory glance if they were simply anecdotal observations on the way language can behave. In his poetry, Manhire’s ordering displays a sensitivity to the rhythms within words, to their shape on the page, to their connections within the poem as a unit and to the world of language beyond the poem, that speaks of a true sense of craft. As he notes in his interview with Iain Sharp, Manhire finds language poetry boring. It possesses the insularity he distrusts. The poem, the essay, or even the review, has to reach out and connect, and the way in which this can best be practised is by knowing as much about the practitioners as possible.
Reading Doubtful Sounds, I found myself most absorbed not in the pieces that discussed contemporary writing in New Zealand, but rather the small articles and reviews that range from Thomas Hardy’s poetry to a biography of Sylvia Plath, or from Milton on the London underground to appreciations of Philip Larkin. Many of these pieces are taken from Manhire’s monthly “Poetry File”, which appeared in Quote Unquote in the mid 1990s. They display a mass of knowledge, of careful reading and (again) of understanding. Reading them makes it clear even from the page what a good teacher Manhire must be.
The poetry here is, to some degree, being introduced to an audience who may not know it, but this in no way affects the intelligence of the analysis and commentary. In just two pages on prose poems, for example, Manhire dances through Baudelaire and Rimbaud, Gertrude Stein and Pablo Neruda, and John Ashbery and Charles Simic, with Vincent O’Sullivan, Dinah Hawken and Greg O’Brien thrown in for good measure. Indeed, one of the pleasures of these pieces is the manner in which New Zealand writing drops in next to writing from anywhere else, so James K Baxter comments on Hardy and Sam Hunt turns up with Coleridge. There’s never any special pleading, simply because there is no need for it.
I found myself talking about Manhire’s work to the Irish poet Brendan Kennelly. Like Manhire, Kennelly knows a lot. He is a walking anthology of often astonishing range. I was interested that both poets grew up in and around pubs, in parts of their respective countries (Southland and Kerry) seen as peripheral to and beyond the central hub of the capital or major city.
Both writers also work in an academic context and teach creative writing. Both are enormously satisfying to listen to, and have extended their talents to media beyond the lecture hall and seminar room. Kennelly is a kind of national treasure. He appears on television chat shows and does radio adverts for cars and butter. Complete strangers send him food hampers in the post. On his sixtieth birthday the office of the university English department where he works had to close when it became swamped with flowers and gifts.
It probably wouldn’t happen in Wellington, which in itself may be a comment about the differences in the way poetry is seen in Ireland and New Zealand, and in truth the poets are very different in the work they produce. But if there ever
were a stampede to send NZ-shaped cakes to a poet, Manhire would be a good choice. The act may well produce another of those duplicitous, polite, enigmatic poems.
Stuart Murray has recently been appointed to a senior lectureship to teach Commonwealth and Postcolonial literatures at the University of Leeds. He is currently working, with Ian Conrich, on editing a two-volume collection of essays on New Zealand film.