Mason: The Life of R A K Mason
Victoria University Press, $49.95,
Many people will be familiar with the broad outline of the life of the man Allen Curnow called New Zealand’s “first wholly original, unmistakably gifted poet”: R A K (Ronald Allison Kells) Mason. It’s a story of precocious talent, failed promise, disappointment and degeneration. But few will have knowledge of the complex, nuanced substance of that life and its recurrent motifs of muted triumph and despair. Rachel Barrowman’s meticulously researched and carefully written book at last provides the opportunity for insight.
Barrowman opens the book with an account clearly signalled as imaginary: “One day, or perhaps it was one evening, during the second half of the 1920s, a young man stood at the end of Queen’s Wharf on Auckland’s Waitemata harbour.” She goes on to offer one more version of “a legend in New Zealand literary history”, one she acknowledges may be apocryphal: “The story of how R A K Mason dumped 200 copies of his first book, The Beggar, into Auckland harbour, out of disappointment, disgust or despair because no one would buy it …”
It is a superbly fitting beginning for a literary biography and all the more striking for its contrast with the remainder of the book in which abundant factual detail and historical contextualisation skilfully disguise the interpretative invention of the autobiographer.
The generic paradox of the (traditional) biographical art form lies in the presentation of a life-story in which the licence of story-telling is denied, and the writer’s creative skill is measured by the effacement of his or her craft. The evidential, factual nuggets that are the fruit of research are strung together, as so many beads, along a storyline the patterning and supplementation of which seems, if not invisible, then seemingly self-evident, undisputable.
And so with Barrowman’s life of Mason, the essence of which is captured in this first, imagined episode and then reworked and amplified in the careful record that follows. Young Mason casting his poetry into the sea – true or not – is a summative story of the whole life: an angry, self-destructive gesture against a society that was not just unwilling but unready to read him. It is also an iconic portrait of the artist who suffers his society’s small-mindedness and misunderstanding – a role Mason fulfilled to a tee.
Mason was a man before his time, personally and socially. Most of the poetry for which he is esteemed was written in his twenties; and its complexity and maturity was largely ignored and misunderstood by his peers. New Zealand at this time (1920s and 30s) was still struggling to fashion an autonomous social and cultural identity, let alone a literary one. Barrowman’s book recounts not only the story of Mason, but also of the frustrations of a handful of like-minded writers – such as Fairburn, Sargeson and Hyde – who struggled for a foothold in late colonial, depression-era New Zealand. And it tells of his influence on later poets, like Curnow and Hone Tuwhare, who both paid homage to Mason from positions of relative security (“Yep – You’re a fuckin’ god,” wrote Tuwhare to Mason on the publication of his Collected Poems in 1963.)
But it is no small irony that even Curnow, his retrospective champion, insisted on reading Mason, in the 1960s, in terms of an emergent literary nationhood, an “essential New Zealandness” that Mason himself would challenge. In canonising Mason, Curnow cast him as the preface (or should that be footnote?) – to his own writing, both finding and imagining in him the literary father he needed.
The hostility and cultural aridity of the first half of the 20th century is one of the reasons Barrowman suggests Mason all but stopped writing poetry after his profound and precocious debut. The local and international political climate, compounded by New Zealand’s ambivalent colonial ties to England – the depression, rise of fascism, WWII and the Cold War – further fuelled Mason’s socialist commitment, evident in the angry social criticism of even his earliest writing. Mason’s ardent left-wing politics is another reason Barrowman attributes to his loss or renunciation of his gift, although a central question remains: “Did Mason simply and deliberately abandon poetry for politics; or did his poetic gift fall victim to his increasing involvement in politics from the 1930s?”
Mason’s output in the decades that followed was “decent proletarian stuff” – light on literary merit and heavily propagandistic: a number of ardently socialist plays generally recognised as inferior to his poetry (although Mason bitterly challenged this interpretation), a handful of satirical and dogmatic poems lacking the finesse and depth of his early work, political pamphlets, and numerous earnestly jingoistic contributions to left-wing publications, for several of which he was the (short-lived) editor.
Although Barrowman takes a decent stab at literary analysis, and provides a sound base for approaching Mason’s poetry, her real skill is as a social historian and the acuity of her social commentary eclipses her literary criticism. Her book is far more than a life of Mason-as-poet – it is also, always, a history of the political left in New Zealand, with which Mason was so intimately connected. Exploration of Mason’s life provides Barrowman with an opportunity to investigate the history of trade union politics (Mason worked for the Auckland General Labourers’ Union for 10 years), and the Communist Party (by all accounts he was never a fully-fledged member, although deeply involved with the party and its members). Alongside this is her portrayal of Mason’s unfailing commitment to the socialist cause, despite disappointment, betrayal, in-fighting, back-biting, factionalism and deception. He was to find some haven and outlet for his political energies in the New Zealand China Society, of which he was president in later life.
If Mason’s politics didn’t displace his art, Barrowman suggests midway through the book, perhaps life simply did. He was certainly dealt a tough hand – his father died of (possibly suicidal) opium poisoning when Mason was eight; his mother was needy and overbearing, and her demands for emotional and financial sustenance only ended with her death in 1949. His only sibling, his charismatic older brother Dan, was disgraced for professional misconduct as a lawyer and continued to engage in “shady” business dealings (with which Mason was involved to various degrees) until his relatively early death of heart failure. Money, or rather the lack of it, remained an ongoing pressure, as Mason eked out a living in a variety of casual and short-lived jobs that ostensibly left no time or energy for creative writing: as an editor, Latin tutor and passionate and talented gardener. This was supplemented by the income received from several (shaky) publishing schemes, odd literary lectures and the occasional literary grant.
And always there were the debilitating effects of intermittent periods of severe depression and incidents of complete mental collapse. These increased in severity and duration as Mason grew older, and it was only towards the end of his life that his illness was named but not cured: he was diagnosed as suffering from manic depression. If there is a lack in this very full book it is in the sketchy portrayal of Dorothea Beyda, Mason’s long-time companion whom he eventually married in 1962. Although uncannily resembling Mason’s mother in appearance, she seems the suffocating mother’s opposite in every other way, nurturing and sustaining, literally and metaphorically, a man who must have been, quite often, hell to live with – for all his affability, sensitivity, gentleness and humour when well.
The most substantial grant he received was the Burns Fellowship at Otago University, awarded in 1962, when Mason was 57. The awarding committee, and Mason’s friends and supporters, hoped the period of regular income and respite from work and worry, would resurrect the promise of his youthful work. This was not to be. Mason’s most substantial piece of writing from this time, Strait is the Gate, a blank verse drama in broad Scots dialect, was judged almost impossible to produce, and the few poems he wrote are marked by an indulgent autobiographical transparency, displaying little of the subtle, complex universalism of the early poems.
In Barrowman’s account, Mason’s gift dissipated through not one, but a combination of politics, life’s hardship and illness. And something else, captured in that first image of Mason flinging his books into the sea, which may have been the result of his depressive condition – a tendency to wilful self-destruction that was more than simply the failure to grasp opportunity. It’s a tendency that recurs throughout the life as told: in his failure to respond to positive advances from overseas publishers, his various relationships, his hopeless schemes for monetary success.
Barrowman’s tendency to focus on the social and historical context in which Mason lived and worked is, arguably, utterly appropriate for a writer she describes as “a seminal and central figure in New Zealand literature … [and] at the same time curiously peripheral.” In a recent conversation I had about the poet, Harry Ricketts suggested that Mason “got it right” in the title to his marvellous sonnet about Christ’s complex refutation (and recognition) of his mother, “Footnote to John ii 4”. In many ways Mason’s slim offerings can be read as a footnote to New Zealand literature: divergent, supplementary, crucial and explanatory. And in Barrowman’s book Mason himself occupies a similarly paradoxical position, both central and peripheral, in many respects a footnote to her social and literary history of New Zealand’s (earlier) 20th century.
Mason: The Life of RAK Mason can be described, then, in at least two different ways. On the one hand it’s an outstanding social history providing a wealth of cultural and political detail. And on the other it’s a superbly crafted biography, the success of which can be measured by the fact that we close the book feeling that that we know and understand – deeply, painfully – this life, this man.
Kim Worthington is an independent reviewer, formerly a senior lecturer in the Department of English at Victoria University of Wellington.