Fair-minded people like to see others given their due.
That has been my experience, although I’ve often wondered about just what percentage of such fair-mindeds there are, especially in literary circles. Most writers I know have a list of other writers who, in their view, haven’t been given their due. In my case, in respect to New Zealand writing, the list is quite long. That’s possibly because of my age, my gender, and my dislike of aspects of a lot of the literary theory of the past 30 years. It will come as no surprise to hear that I find the phrase “language poetry” tautological.
Among my list of undervalued – or often neglected – New Zealander writers I’d include Michael Henderson, Peter Hooper, Mike Johnson, O E Middleton, Philip Temple, Ursula Bethell, Neville Peat, Robin Hyde, Guthrie Wilson, Michael Jackson, Iain Lonie, Maurice Duggan, and the recently deceased Bill Sewell. It’s Sewell’s poetry I’d like to say a few things about here.
When one looks through the pages of most of the anthologies of New Zealand poetry of the past 20 years, and all of the major ones, Sewell’s is a name that doesn’t appear. To me, his exclusion is strange and unjust. It’s not as if his work has been unavailable in book form – after all, his first collection, Solo Flight, arrived in 1982. Since then he has published four more collections, Wheels Within Wheels (1983); Making the Far Land Glow (1986), El Sur (1998), Erebus (1999), and The Ballad of Fifty-one, which has just appeared.
I don’t know why (nearly all) anthologists have excluded Sewell. One would have to ask them. Perhaps it’s because his poetry has never been tricksy, etiolated, fey or plumped. Mostly his work is pared down, direct, lyrically restrained (but often deftly lyrical for all that), terse, acerbic. He seldom looks to be clever; his poems, one should say, are clearly the work of a candid, serious-minded writer perturbed about matters of grave human concern.
What that means is that his poems are often about politics, both the personal and the public, in the widest sense of the word. They are also about, often, the emotional gruel, the stuff that troubles us most deeply, and which we have to confront in order to hear the upbeats and go on, do better. Don’t knock the lugubrious, I say, for that’s where much fine poetry springs from.
One’s own temperament impacts greatly on how one views and responds to another’s work. So, given my inclinations as they appear in my own poetry, it shouldn’t be hard to see why I have no difficulty in understanding where Sewell comes from, and why I like a lot of what he has written. He knows that most of us harbour, and, possibly, nurture a wish to take flight, and that this imperative is countered by the way in which we are grounded, earth-bound. Sewell knows that things shitty happen to us, and that we are sometimes kind and sometimes shitty to others and to the world around us. He’s not excessively grumpy about this, but, given his politics, he is prepared to tick us off at times. That’s okay, I like writers who think they have a responsibility to take part in political debate, and I enjoy a writer with the guts, the temerity some say, to speak directly to me. In his poems he does that often. It beats having to listen to the whimpering, the decorous posturing that is too often served up, and which sounds like affectation rather than anything else. You won’t find Sewell being prissy, you won’t find him implying that the principal purpose of writing is to play with language.
About a year ago, I read a few poems of Sewell’s from a sequence called “Theatre Country”. They appealed to me on several counts. They are nicely pitched and paced; there is a terseness, asperity and tension about them. Form and content dovetail. The poet has things under control; nothing’s extraneous or gratuitous. The poems suggest large themes -– and yet there is room for the reader to enlarge the picture. I like the sense of a grand indifference while at the same time a sober and direct sense of an engagement with what he feels and sees when out in, or looking at, the world around us. Sewell is very good at ruminating on the way exteriors work on interiors. The poems are persuasive for one of my sensibilities, and I find them both theatrical and filmic.
“Theatre Country” sent me back to Sewell’s Making the Far Land Glow. I liked it a lot when it was published and I very much like it still – 42 poems in a collection in four parts of almost identical length, and each poem 14 lines. (Actually, one poem, “Sick as a Dog”, has only thirteen lines. Who knows why? Perhaps it’s because Sewell’s father, for that is who the poem refers to, was apt to say “sick as a dog” and then go about making “his plans for tomorrow” only to find that, as we all do from time to time, he’d come up short.) Whatever, Far Land is full of lucid, frank, frequently searingly honest writing. There’s an oscillation, a rising here, a falling there, rather like the cloud-shapes over inland Otago’s ranges of block mountains on nor’westerly days. And overlaying all in Far Land is Sewell’s highlighting of the paradox inherent in the fact that the death of those one loves, or respects – in this case one’s parents – intensifies life’s glow in those closest to them.
Far Land is Sewell’s most lyrical performance; there’s much irony as well as pathos, and a wrought music. The far land there is also the darker region into which we journey in times of greatest sorrow, joy, or anguish.
Sewell doesn’t shy away; he scrutinises himself as well as others. Some may find this discomforting, especially those who like their poetry neutered – which may be one reason for his absence from anthologies. God, there is no one less phony in our poetry. When he called his first volume Solo Flight, he was almost certainly alluding to the fact that in the end, despite our best efforts, our allegiances and our wardings, we go solo. Best prepare as best we can.
Early in Far Land, in “Kaspar Hauser” he writes of “That cry we call/silence.” It may be one reason, he asserts in “Making the Descent”, why so many emerge from the underworld “drunk,/or deranged” and “gagging for light”.
Always that search for illumination, and a warning against complacency. Take “Overseas Experience” and its brazen honesty, its complete absence of pretence:
would like to have discovered more, to say
that it enlarged my life, this confrontation
with my betters.
But no, Sewell “found instead the desire/to be in the picture myself” and a
yearning for somewhere to spread
out my arms, for the northern or southern
ends of the earth, for an unframed landscape.
Ah, which of us hasn’t wished to be somewhere untrodden, somewhere in which we can get to work uninfluenced, uninhibited?
For, in Sewell’s poems, the presence of others is always both a blessing and an irritation, and he’s prepared to own up to it; there’s no false gaiety, no side, no sycophantic following of fashion. In “About to be Orphaned”, he writes of how “we share/this patrician impatience with weakness.” How true is that?
In “Twelve Years Dead”, he writes of his father: “You were/someone I learnt early not to rely on/as I waited once again after school.” My belief is that, from such experience, came an avowal that, as far as Bill Sewell himself was concerned, he would try to become someone upon whom, mostly, others could rely.
All this points, of course, to the fact that Sewell is more often droll than sunny, but so what? We are not short of happy-clappers and cynical cheerleaders. But this is not to say he can’t be pointed and funny, as at the end of “Monuments”, where he asks us to imagine what it would be like to have stars named, not as “Andromeda and Cassiopeia” but as “Brezhnev, Reagan, Muldoon,/twinkling at us all night through”. Or take the amusing, spoofish disdain that lards “Marketing the Grail”, where he reminds us the grail isn’t a “house appliance”, and how “people suffered/looking for the bloody thing, lost limbs,/lovers, faith in God”, and so on and on. A bitter, yet very funny summation. Then there’s the “The Right Stuff”: what a peerless self-assessment that is. “I don’t think I have it. I would fuck up/as they say”. And, if you want to read a rather sly manifesto against “language poetry”, try “Words”, the first poem in the collection.
Lest one, bewilderingly, might think that in my view Sewell strikes nearly all the right notes, he doesn’t. He is sometimes unadventurous when it comes to his use of vocabulary and metaphor. He can overdo the old plain speak; and his line breaks don’t always convince. That, of course, is a fault that applies to just about all poets I know, to varying degrees. Why, too, didn’t he just call the poem “Jahrhundertwende” (a splendid poem, one of the very best in the book), “Turn of the Century” and be done with it? But when you know that he has a Ph D. in German it’s more explicable, and less pretentious. (His collection El Sur could, too, have more persuasively been called “Mainland”, but I always saw that as a bit of a joke, a sort of ambivalent piss-take.) All along, as he says in “Famous Last Words”, Sewell has been alert to the fact that, in life, as in art and damned near everything else, not only should we strive and hope “To get the moment right”, we can only “hope we don’t jump the cue.”
Far Land is such a good, such a brave and unadorned book, that I must stop soon. Sewell, I realised years ago, held on to hills similar to those that gathered me in. They were hills, as he says in “These Hills”, a poem he dedicated to me, that were “catching me daily, in every weather.” And, like him, in Far Land’s last poem, “Sutton”, I can “understand” how, “in the summer,/when it’s time for the lamp at last, the light/wants to linger, making the far land glow.” There’s something heart-rending there, surely. If you haven’t read Bill Sewell’s collections of poetry, it’s time you did.
Brian Turner sent this appreciation to New Zealand Books, unsolicited, shortly before Bill Sewell’s death. We publish it with gratitude and thanks. The Ballad of Fifty-one will be reviewed in our June issue.