Charles Spear (Peter Simpson ed)
Holloway Press, $200.00,
Laclos (Les Liaisons Dangereuses), Emily Bronte (Wuthering Heights), Anna Sewell (Black Beauty), Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird): there’s an undeniable fascination about one-book wonders. Those were novelists, of course. Fewer poets make it into this select group but we have a couple of notable candidates: Charles Spear (Twopence Coloured, 1951) and Mary Stanley (Starveling Year, 1953).
An interesting point about Spear (1910-1985) is that despite only publishing that one volume (of 52 poems) he continued to loom large in our poetry anthologies for the next three decades. Allen Curnow included five poems in the revised 1951 edition of A Book of New Zealand Verse, bumped up to 14 in his 1960 Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse. Vincent O’Sullivan found space for 20 poems in his 1970 Oxford anthology, and Ian Wedde and Harvey McQueen seven in their new 1985 Penguin selection. By 1997, however, when Jenny Bornholdt, Gregory O’Brien and Mark Williams brought out their new Oxford anthology, Spear was nowhere to be seen.
Now this Holloway Press limited edition of the Collected Poems (expertly edited by Peter Simpson) gives us a chance to reconsider Spear’s claim against oblivion. To the original 52 poems in Twopenny Coloured, Simpson has added three uncollected pieces, five previously unpublished poems written late in Spear’s life, an afterword, helpful notes with the assistance of Matthew Wood, a foreword by Spear’s daughter, images by Tony Lane, and a bookplate by Leo Bensemann. Which all amounts to a very handsome package, but enough to kickstart a revived interest in Spear?
Curnow likened Spear’s “singularity” among his contemporaries to that of Wallace Stevens in America. He pointed to Spear’s “conscious elegance”, “ironies and felicities”, his “romantic historicity … offset by his own special brand of anti-glamour”. All spot on. Spear really is a one-off in New Zealand poetry. Formally, he was a traditionalist, preferring the quatrain and the cinquain. What sets him apart is his exotic language and a fairly recondite European frame of reference. The result is poems of an esoteric privacy, which leave a very distinctive taste in the head. Here is a relatively simple one, “Winter Dusk”, a single, tightly controlled, slowly uncoiling sentence:
Snow lying thick, and curdled skies,
The cattle shiver round the dripping rick;
Boughs of iron and crystal rise;
The blue flame crouches on the candle-wick;
And now the heart grieves that so blindly turns
The wheel of life, that from the rape of spring
No apple-blossom like white magic burns,
And no doves fly on velvet wing.
“Snow”, “curdled”, “crystal” are favourite Spear words, as are “rain”, “fan”, “foam”. The intricate tessellation of rhyme and assonance (“thick”, “shiver”, “dripping rick”, “crystal”, “candle-wick”; “lying”, “skies”, “iron”, “rise”, “blindly”, “life”, “like white”, “fly” etc) is characteristic.
Also the underlying melancholy. So it’s no surprise that Spear rated A E Housman (“Polished regular verse, a light touch and a powerful one”). But in poem after poem I find myself reminded more of Ezra Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920): the fastidious diction, the allusiveness and the medievalism (Spear taught medieval literature for many years at Canterbury University). The notes plausibly suggest that “God save the Stock” (“He writes reports in sweet repose –/The Jews require new management”) is a veiled recantation of a former penchant for Pound. This makes sense. Because, as Simpson’s afterword usefully points out, although Spear was at his most poetically active c1948-1951, he had as a student in 1931-2 already published earlier versions of half a dozen of the poems included in Twopence Coloured. These very early poems so closely resemble the later work in form, manner and idiom, that it is clear Spear’s poetic was set early on. And what this poetic most strongly draws on is the 1890s decadents as refracted through Pound and Eliot in their quatrain period. Here is the final verse of “1894 in London”:
Old England’s blue hour of unmeasured nips,
The Quiet Time for Dorian Gray,
The day off for the barmaid’s hips,
Prayer-Book revision time down Lambeth way.
The two quatrains of “Scott-Moncrieff’s Beowulf” further mark out Spear as a son of Ez and for most readers will probably sort out whether his rather special poetic domain is likely to appeal. Charles Scott-Moncrieff (1889-1930) is now remembered for his translation of Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu but also translated the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf (and, it is claimed, seduced or tried to seduce Wilfred Owen):
In the curdled afterglow of night
The long ship leaves the cliff, the ness, the cave;
Unending arcs of icy light
Flicker about her on the climbing wave.
And coming close fierce warriors crowd
To shout across Swan’s Way. See! They pass.
She drives through trailing veils of cloud,
And time pours down like rain on weeping
This is, I think, a miniaturist marvel. There’s the vivid snapshot of the world of the Anglo-Saxon poem but also of the experience of reading: the way the receding perspective of the long ship – “leaves the cliff, the ness, the cave” – simultaneously and unnervingly brings ship and poem nearer to us (“And coming close fierce warriors crowd … See! They pass.” – very Poundian that “See! They pass.”). There’s the insouciant blend of ancient and modern: the title echoes Keats’s “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”, and the phrase “Swan’s Way” is both an Anglo-Saxon kenning for the sea (“swanrade” in the original) and a nod to the first volume of Proust’s epic novel (Swann’s Way). There are the subtle rhythmic effects (for instance, the vertiginousness of “on the climbing wave”), the thrilling immediacy of the present tense throughout, the wonderful, final, obliterating image. If you don’t care for this, you might call it “exquisite” and are unlikely to care for Spear.
In “Remark”, an oblique kind of poetic testament, Spear refers to his muse with tough accuracy as “Studiously minor, yet attuned to doom”. Not the worst epitaph: it would cover two of my favourite poets, Marvell and Gray. Whether it will win new readers for Spear now is another matter.
Harry Ricketts is co-editor of New Zealand Books. His last collection of poems was Your Secret Life (2005).