Words like ferns: the neglected Harold Gretton, Les Cleveland

Wartime is not usually thought of as a kind of literary 
scholarship for authors, but a few talented New Zealand soldiers in World War 2 did manage to write stories and poems of some quality while serving in combat 
situations. One of the most dedicated of them was 
Harold W Gretton (1914-1983), who used his time 
overseas to improve his language capabilities and to work 
on a major poem that contained visionary ideals as important today as when they were formulated in the ruins of Europe in 1945. He was also a diarist who commented sharply on the nature of the times and protested at some 
of the stultifying aspects of military life.

Gretton came from a small dairy farm near Palmerston North, where he attended Palmerston North Boys High School. By 1931, in the sixth form, he was writing competent parodies of romantic Scottish ballads. From 1935-1938, he was a student at Victoria University of Wellington, contributing poems and short prose pieces to Spike, a literary magazine published annually by the Students Association. He also worked as a copyholder and later a cadet reporter on the Dominion, before attending the Teachers Training College and continuing with part-time study at the university.

His papers consist of notebooks and a diary, while his published output of poems and prose between 1935 and 1950 is printed in Spike and in A Selection of Poems, Songs and Short Stories, a 58-page, undated, privately published monograph. His tramping songs have appeared in ephemeral songbooks and collections distributed by tramping clubs and student organisations. Seven of his comic verses are reproduced in How You Doing? (1998), Harry Ricketts’ and Hugh Roberts’ edition of New Zealand comic and satiric poems, and two in Lauris Edmond’s and Bill Sewell’s Essential New Zealand Poems (2001).

Gretton’s poetry is energised by a wry, discerning wit and a dexterous capacity for rhyme. For instance, this quatrain from “The Poet”:

Or else with Blake I foam and prance
In metaphysic shallows;
I slip! I slide! – and end my dance
On some reviewer’s gallows.

Or this untitled limerick:

Our kiddies are kept far too clean:
They react against modern hygiene,
So singers get wealthy
By seeming unhealthy,
Malodorous, fat and obscene.

Today, Gretton is remembered by many of his generation as the composer of songs that celebrate the pleasures of the outdoors. These songs were current in tramping club circles from the 1950s to the 1970s and became widely known throughout New Zealand. They have a lilting ease as well as a robust humour. For instance, his “Double Bunking” (to the tune of “The More We Are Together”) is a cry of comic protest at the torments of having to sleep two to a bunk in overcrowded, uncomfortable mountain huts:

I heard this sad song-oh
In the Orongorongo:
No more double-bunking, double-bunking for me.
I said to the vocalist:
Oh why do you so insist
No more double-bunking, double-bunking for me?

However, there are more pressing concerns in Gretton’s other work. In his “Triolet” (written 29 August, 1939), he celebrated spring, beauty and poetry:

Now spring is come to decorate your dress,
My poem’s but to whisper in your hair

And who shall say the verse is valueless,
Now spring is come to decorate your dress?

But this poem was followed on 6 September (five days after Germany invaded Poland and World War 2 began) by “For Record Purposes”:

Winter’s freezing could not slay
The hope of hopes I hid away;

Now in spring a whirlwind kills
The daffodil of daffodils.

In “L’Eternelle Idole”, Gretton invoked the Goddess of Life for salvation from “gods who vulcanise our flesh/Electrify our minds and turn/Sinew and vein to copper mesh”, and he resorted to a distinctive indigenous imagery of natural growth as a corrective to the failure of conventional institutions and beliefs:

From broken bitumen there springs

In green and white embroidered dress
A punga like a shepherdess
With curling crook and modest air
And unembarrassed pubic hair.

In 1941 Gretton was called up for military service. He had left Wellington and “the unattractive Pakeha” and had been teaching at Manaia primary school. He thought Maori were “healthy pagans” in conflict with our social system and recorded in his notebook on 11 January 1943 that Maoritanga became more and more central because the Maori saw 
they would be fools to abandon it “for the chaos we offer”:

We see the hardy Argonauts of Kiwa
Reduced by Marsden and the motor car
To jitter bugs and ukelele ladies
The poor relations of the Pakeha.

Gretton was experimenting with a lyricism that could express his feelings more deeply and sensitively. His 
“Kanikani Poi” was inspired by dance and song in a context of natural imagery and historical insight:

The words you sing, e hine, the waves utter
Moving along channels among the rocks
And in the swirl of the wind, the swirl of your dress
I have heard the same frisk and rattle of flax.

Some of this material was incorporated into “Koru and Acanthus”, a major poem he worked on in Italy and completed by 1946. Against the background of Europe in ruins, it raised questions about the future of New Zealand as “[a] land whose songs are yet to sing, a land/Of virgin peaks and unimagined palaces” where the colonists “[r]eplaced the pleasant pagan aroha/With a circumspect loathing for each other”, and the “gold imaginings” were banished “to the wry life of slum window-boxes” and “a pestered little hope of red geraniums”:

You are fallen upon an age past singing
And past caring for the poi’s magic –
Will you be there in the new age, bringing
Your words like ferns to grace the new music?

“Koru and Acanthus” has a distinctive integrative significance in its concluding hope that somehow, in spite of the burden of the past and our various failures, we can reconcile

The old and the new with forms entirely ours,
And find a new beauty in our own
Unemphatic but insistent flowers.

But 30 years later Gretton wrote an angry postscript that denounced the speculators who were plundering scrub acres and destroying small animals and plants:

We have indeed a country poor in ruins –
If ruins means the ruined works of men.
But who can reconstruct a ruined river?
And who can wash its water clean again?

This comment concentrates on Gretton’s poetry over a period over some 30 years. But he was also a prose writer, a linguist, and a diarist. His diary is particularly interesting as wartime social history from the point of view of a rank-and-file observer, who was more concerned to further his 
writing and his language studies than to distinguish 
himself as an aggressive 2NZEF warrior. The style is brisk and conversational, while the subject matter ranges from 
his own personal adventures and feelings to speculations about Maoritanga, the possibilities for an intelligent New Zealand style of socialism, his enthusiasm for his “bedraggled” and “beloved Italy”, and a scathing demolition of the inconveniences, absurdities and incongruities of military life. A fuller treatment would need to explore these aspects of a gifted, unusual, and curiously neglected writer.

Les Cleveland served as a 2NZEF infantry soldier in World 
War 2.


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