The Ballad of Fifty-one
A couple of years ago I wrote a favourable review of Bill Sewell’s long poem Erebus (1999). He rang and thanked me after he read it; part of what he liked was that I had given the poem a close reading, attention he felt his work had not always received. Brian Turner’s tribute to Bill in the March 2003 issue of New Zealand Books made this point again, forcefully and, sadly, posthumously. Turner notes that Bill’s is not a name that appears in any of the major anthologies of the past 20 years and that his exclusion is strange and unjust. He goes on to talk about his favourite of Bill’s six volumes, Making the Far Land Glow (1986), a collection of 42 sonnets, in Turner’s words “full of lucid, frank, frequently searingly honest writing”.
I remember reading and also liking Far Land when it came out. Rereading it now, I enjoy its compact chunky poems, and especially the ones about his father, “Sewell’s Yard”, “Sick as a Dog”, “Twelve Years Dead”. Direct, reflective, deeply felt and thought, the poems have good bones, but I don’t think the collection as a whole is as good as his later work.
In 1997, Bill published Sons of the Fathers, a collection of essays by New Zealand men about their fathers. Initially hesitant when asked to write an entry on his father for the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, he here expanded his short entry into a longer essay which “concluded some unfinished business with him”. Bill describes the process as a “cathartic … and exhilarating experience”. In a sense, “Portrait in Search of my Father” picks up and finishes what the poems in Far Land started. It is an exploration of Bill’s father, Arthur Sewell, talker, drinker, writer, teacher, professor-extraordinaire, and the ways in which he wasn’t a very satisfactory father. Towards the end of the essay, Bill quotes Arthur’s response to something he had written on King Lear and which he felt had been unfairly graded. Arthur’s comment was tough, clear and practical:
Bill: I have been deliberately harsh. You seem to have thought English is much easier than it really is. Be yourself ruthlessly self-critical for a month or so. Avoid purple patches. Stick rigorously to the point. Avoid general remarks. Feel the effect of character, language and situation. Be concrete.
What excellent advice. It seems to me that Bill’s poetry (even more than his essay) shows how he took Arthur’s teacherly remarks to heart. As he moves from Solo Flight to The Ballad of Fifty-one, his capacity to write to his father’s advice increases with every book, and with it that old power of the word to grip and hold you.
The Ballad of Fifty-one is like Erebus in that it takes a signature moment of New Zealand history and writes around, across and through it. Both collections derive the power of their representation (and they are both powerful depictions of these much told-about events) by engaging not so much with what we know of historical detail and fact – trying to reconstruct what actually happened – but by looking at the shadows and edges, the percussive waves as events shift into the future, the way big political explosions leave their warping effects in the culture and the nation. Both Erebus and The Ballad of Fifty-one, in my view, show Bill at his peak – superbly at ease with his subject and in fluent control of his medium.
The Ballad of Fifty-one comprises 31 poems, divided into three numbered but untitled sections. These divisions roughly suggest the setting, the political events of ’51, and some consequences. Within them, in short restrained verse forms, Bill plays around with myths, literature, newspaper reporting, political rhetoric, autobiography, regulations, photographs and characters. Some of the poems gloss photographs. In “Home Is Where The Heart Is”, it is the arrival of displaced persons in Wellington, 1950, many of them children “still unready,/for whatever this new place has in store”. In “After the Election, 1949”, it is Fraser sitting glumly with Holland behind a desk after the 1949 election, “the ingratitudes of peace,/something’s switching off”. Both these poems are from the first section, a world built on ship arrivals (“By Ships We Live”) and mobile populations and blue summers at the beach where a bad smell lurks towards evening (deliciously titled “High Summer”).
This is not the only way that The Ballad of Fifty-one plays with myths of nation, though. Historical truisms about a seafaring country are interwoven with deft allusions to a national literature, some of which Bill acknowledges in the notes at the end and some of which are sneakily left to the reader’s ear (and education). “The Thin Englishman” who is found “picking through the bins/behind Ransumeen’s Dairy” cuts a swathe through the kind hearts of a naive community and speaks to us of our social and literary past – Owen Marshall duly appears in the acknowledgements. But “Modes of Resistance”, a poem in the second, longest section, stakes its claim from the unacknowledged first line – well, of course:
Simply by leaving before word was given
we could reclaim the day –
The 9.15 from Lyttelton
would slink into the station …
Where is the high ground, cultural, literary and political, if not with Curnow? And The Ballad of Fifty-one certainly takes the high ground on what the preface refers to as the “national shame” of the Waterfront Lockout. Bill’s preface declares that his poems make no effort to be even-handed; instead they roll out the fabric of shame in the grand balladeering tradition. You can almost hear the deep working man’s bass supplying the beat while a mealymouthed political rhetoric pours over the top. “The Uses of Metaphor”, “A Sentence on the Party”, “Brother Rat” and “The Enemy Within” are all poems which take the language of betrayal and false promise to task, expose its entrails. “A Sentence on the Party” is particularly evocative of a smug kiwi elite.
One of the things I like very much about The Ballad of Fifty-one is the marriage of political position with an insistence on paying attention to many of the more traditional dimensions of poetry – metre, rhyme, image and voice. There’s a wonderful synergy established between the pleasures of poetry and the force of its subject. The voice moves around, through different languages as well as speaking positions; the language of reportage and speechmaking is thrown into sharp relief when it occurs in ballad measure. The poems also ring with Coleridge; not just the ballad measure, which lilts its way through several, but also ancient mariners. The past, which might be the usual stuff of labour history, becomes the loss of some kind of legendary version of ourselves, an unheroic story which favours the London butcher and the Surrey housewife over the unsavoury blokes on the wharf.
However The Ballad of Fifty-one might demonise, it doesn’t sentimentalise. Bill’s targets are the attitudes and beliefs which are called into play around the Lockout – the denigration of manual work, class division, antisocialism, scabbing and the loss of human response, a kind of deep carelessness which is deeply conservative in its inability to imagine the other side. One of the many excellent poems here, “Pause”, takes on the task of broadening out the emotional landscape. It is prefaced by a quotation from Mabel Howard: “I do not care how many regulations are written and how much the Government makes it an offence, I shall not let any child go hungry.” The poem suggests the gap, the opening between oppositions, which such a remark might reflect and create, where it might flower, both in actions – the constable “rocks on his feet … while the carcase is hustled indoors” – and in the breaking down of set attitudes, the “sometimes though” which allows another response to flicker into life: “sometimes though/decency breaks through”.
What does The Ballad of Fifty-one do for our understanding of a historical time that we’d probably mostly agree now was a time of national shame? Has Bill’s sequence of poems done something, expressed something, that hasn’t made it through histories and biographies? I think it has. The collection achieves both a concrete distinctness and a broader, more complicated view. As I read The Ballad of Fifty-one, I felt I had traversed the event in many ways, but not been dragged unwillingly through another recounting. Part of this is due to Bill’s inspired choice of the ballad as his metrical foundation. Ballads have such a long and glorious history as songs of protest, yarns, and vehicles of dissent which he can bring into play as a subtext, and he can also nod elegantly at the local versions – Baxter, Glover, the working man’s lament in a self-centred, divided society. Bill succeeds both in making the most of the music and in keeping the poems sharp, tight, pared down.
This is not an indulgent piece of writing – Bill listened carefully to Arthur’s advice – it keeps its counsel and pulls back from polemic or harangue, never forgetting that a poet writes poetry even when the subject is history or politics. Not all the poems are equally successful. Sometimes the effort to be pithy and unmelodramatic falls a bit flat as in the ending of “Fuzz” about Freda Barnes, or the last poem “Entropy”, which finishes weakly, but the sequence as a whole delivers a complex, layered and moving narrative, showing how much a poet in command of his talent can do for history:
Beyond the hysterical headlines
and editorial discretion
Beyond the madding crowd
the loud-hailers, the regulations …
Beyond a joke and beyond price
beyond all argument and all belief …
beyond words even –
we have this to say.
(“The Other Side of the Story”)
Bill Sewell is sadly missed.
Lydia Wevers’ Country of Writing: Travel Writing and New Zealand, 1809-1900 was reviewed in our March 2003 issue.