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“Magic is what I’m after,” observes Basil Dowling in “The Aim of Art” from his 1973 collection The Unreturning Native and Other Poems. It is the kind of claim made by many poets – good, bad and indifferent. Not so many add Dowling’s stoical (but still quietly self-heroicising) rider: “And if I miss it/I’ll bear the derisive laughter.” Forty years on, his work is not so much derisively laughed at as unread and largely forgotten, though this handsome Selected Poems may do something to remedy that neglect.
Dowling published three respected collections with the Caxton Press in the 1940s – A Day’s Journey (1941), Signs and Wonders (1944) and Canterbury and Other Poems (1949) – and was well represented in both of Curnow’s canon-creating anthologies: A Book of New Zealand Verse 1923-45 (1945) and The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (1960). In 1952 Dowling moved to England where he taught English in an East London school before retiring to Rye in 1975. Six further collections appeared during his English years, all published back here in New Zealand. He died at the age of 90 in 2000.
At its most effective, Dowling’s poetry engages the reader with its plain, meditative voice. Like the English poet Andrew Young, whose work he much admired, Dowling writes much about the natural world. In the early work, nature is at times infused with a sense of the sacramental and the divine, but one of the stories the poetry tells, with a sympathetic honesty, is that of Dowling’s growing despair and loss of religious faith, as in the Housmanesque “An Apology for Atheism” from Windfalls (1983):
If there’s a god, then he must be
A monster of depravity,
Or else a god who strives in vain
To vanquish evil, grief and pain.
Therefore it seems more charitable
To say there is no god at all
Than to blame one with godlike powers
For having made a world like ours.
Brian Turner recently remarked that Dowling’s earlier lyrics like “Half-wit” (in Curnow’s 1960 anthology, but not in this new selection) and “Mushrooms” tended to show him at his best. That seems right. Certainly some of the later work, such as Hatherley: Recollective Lyrics (1968), A Little Gallery of Characters (1971) and The Stream (1979), which evoke Dowling’s idyllic childhood around Canterbury, rarely rises much above nostalgic charm – Wordsworth crossed with Betjeman, though in saying that I do not mean the later poetry is without appeal.
Dowling was a good poet in a manner that is likely to remain unfashionable. His technique was, in a positive sense, Georgian: that is, from first to last, he showed a preference for traditional prosody, rhyme, metre, and stanza forms, but also for unadorned, uncluttered diction. Whether he often conjured up the “magic” he hoped to is questionable. But in at least a few instances he did. What could more perfectly catch the bellbird’s song than this couplet from “A Memory of Goose Bay” (The Unreturning Native)?
And here in bush a bellbird at noon
Tapping a row of tumblers with a spoon.
And even better is this single clicking line from “Summer Afternoon” (Canterbury and Other Poems): “A cricket sets its midget motor going”. These moments of magic may not seem much to show for decades of work, but they deserve to be remembered.
Harry Ricketts is co-editor of New Zealand Books. He has a new collection of poems, Your Secret Life, due out later this year.