Steadfast, Dougal McNeill

Collected Poems 1951-2006
C K Stead
Auckland University Press, $59.99, 
ISBN 9781869404185

The American critic Lionel Trilling, writing in the early 1960s of his experience teaching what we would now call modernist literature, felt unsettled by the ease with which students assimilated these strange new works. He was struck

by the readiness of the students to engage in the process that we might call the socialisation of the anti-social, or the acculturisation of the anti-cultural, or the legitimisation of the subversive. When the term essays have come in, it is plain to me that almost none of them have been taken aback by what they have read: they have wholly contained the attack.


How far that world is from ours! One of the many excitements offered in reading Stead’s poetry in its collected bulk is the shock of re-connection they give to a thought-world where modernism’s giddying ambitions – to “believe in your books” – are a constant presence. Stead’s concerns – with language and precision, with looking hard and hard looking, with poetic inheritance – place him as a part of that world as surely as his habit of going by his initials. There’s a difference between being of a date and being dated, though, and “the lovely pull of language” that works its way through all the books collected here speaks in ways recognisable and, occasionally, urgent.

There are, of course, good historical reasons for modernism’s decline, and political reasons why we shouldn’t want it back. Codes have triumphed over styles, which is perhaps as it should be. But a loss is a loss, and ought to warn against stupid triumphalism or lazy neglect. To feel this “extravagant personal force of modern literature” (Trilling again) in Stead pushed me back to old authors and provoked me to think through older ideas. I’ve long been an admirer of Stead’s verse, but what reading it as a collection focused for me was the unity of his project. Critic, editor, novelist, polemicist: Stead is nothing if not dextrous, but it is in the poetry, and in the poetry as it gathers, that one senses the centre of his intellectual commitments and ambitions for language, and it is where the richest readerly experiences are to be found.

It may sound like an odd sort of a compliment, but one of Stead’s greatest strengths as a poet has been his lack of development. There’s formal range, to be sure, and the assimilation of all sorts of lessons and styles, but what stands out are impossibly ambitious tasks set young, and worked at ever since with “eloquent tenacity”:

Somewhere in the syntax 
in the joints of words put rightly together
          you know time’s passing
                                    you feel
past and present in the passing


The ambiguity of “time’s passing” here works on the ear in a way which is typical of Stead’s talent and modernist training. Is this audacity, a refusal to be lowly wise, knowing time’s passing and still dreaming of other worlds? Or is it an awareness of limits, of loss? Stead’s business is somehow both of these positions at once, and his relationship with language is marked by the strain. Like all great poets, he has a deeply neurotic and self-torturing love for language. Most people don’t need reminders to “get on with the wordwork” when writing shopping lists, and it’s this resistance, this determination to ask something of language, to probe its limits through working it in “late raids/on the inarticulate”, that – with astonishing continuity of achievement – has been dominant across Stead’s career.

We are, amidst all the alienations of capitalism, so used to thinking of work as drudgery that I ought to stress how much fun there is to “the wordwork”, how much music and how many good sounds:

I give him the
pied stilts stepping
it out on the bay
in low-tide light,
the bottle-brush bush
shaking with
warblers at work.


Stead passes Pound’s test: with technique like this, there’s no doubting his sincerity. He is a sound poet, one for reading aloud and for taking care to read slowly. The best music is to be found in the poems of praise, poems that offer personae one doesn’t usually associate with Stead. Poet as family man, as domestic figure, as person fond of cats (regular visitors throughout the Collected Poems): the right note for these celebrations of “how enjoyment// can be gratitude/made manifest” is struck early on:

Beyond the wax of pumpkins, peppers drying,
Summer fruit and pohutukawa leaves,
A ship sails out, islands sprawl in the sun.
Close in our white blades knife a harmless 
Children brawl, the Gulf winks and beckons,
While down the fleeces of our sky blue 
                                        signals ride
From far dark worlds where it is always 


The pleasure here is partly in the chance to revel in technical virtuosity, but partly also in modernist straining after epiphany, “cram full of the breathless moment”.

One advantage of a poet realising their project early on is that they have plenty of time to perfect it. In Stead’s case, there is a sort of great unbuttoning or heaving-off that happens in the work from the mid 1970s on, and the later poems are the better for it, more self-assured in their formal innovations, challenging, quicker, more surprising. (That decade’s relaxations aren’t all welcome, though. For all his linguistic agility, Stead can’t swear, and his “fucks” are consistently off-key.)

Eliot, in an essay Stead has thought around and quarrelled over for many decades, suggests that “the best, [and also] the most individual parts of [a poet’s] work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.” The Collected Poems is evidence in Eliot’s favour. This isn’t about subject matter, or the importance of Literature – the poems on literary life and characters are among the few boring and prosy moments in Stead’s oeuvre – or even really a matter of influence, echoes and allusions. The evidence of serious reading and its benefits are everywhere, but what’s really striking is the way Stead turns experience and reading into personal tradition. “Something of his voice will sound in my lines”, Stead writes of Allen Curnow, and it does, but as Stead and not as an echo of Curnow. Auden’s “Shorts”; Baxter’s Jerusalem Sonnets; Brecht: reading Stead I’m reminded of other works I know well, and that matter to me. Going back to read the originals, though, I discover not influence but “wordwork” again, an integration of these inspirations into Stead’s own project. Lucky enough to have been born in a time when he came into contact with some of New Zealand’s most important writers, and hard-working enough to make something of this, Stead applies the same approach to personal history:

Scene becomes anecdote, anecdote history, and 
verbs tug at their moorings, nouns are tossed,
the harbour spills its sails out on the Gulf,
a city goes on growing under our feet.


Where does this leave the famed “presence of a particular person, a personality” that Stead demands from literary criticism, and that some readers are supposed to dislike in his work? There’s plenty of personality here, in these poems that sometimes toy with the idea they might be “models” of their author or acts of self-creation (“I sentence myself”). Sometimes too there’s the fear Curl Skidmore felt in All Visitors Ashore, when “no ‘I’ existed” and “there was only nothingness and fear”, and there are moving poems on the sorts of social and personal strains that can make us “so nearly anonymous”. The discipline of verse-work, and the unruliness of inspiration, means that there’s more Karl than C K – to use a division one of the poems themselves suggests – in these pages than in those of Stead as a critic, and certainly less of the thrawn, pugilistic stance that makes Book Self such an odd collection. Poetry has demands that authors can’t always control, and Stead himself is just so much raw material:

For just a moment he thought he was truly 
and far, far from himself. He was the bones 
                                        of a poem.


There’s a delightfully strong personality too in the jokes Stead tells, and he has a Joycean skill for spotting absurdity and the way in which “[t]hings known to us/and things not known are equally often surprising.” Faulkner is “more/than Kentucky fried/Dickens”: the Japanese call these sorts of things oyajigyagu, old man’s jokes or jokes of the second-order, where the badness of the joke is part of its appeal, and Stead takes obvious delight in his own clever silliness.

But the question of personality remains. The “legitimisation of the subversive” that Trilling worried about was part of a whole series of political and historical crises that shaped Stead’s generation, and those crises were what in turn shaped and facilitated the reception of modernism. It’s surprising, then, that Stead, so brave in other areas, is so uninspired by urgencies past a certain point – more or less the Springbok tour – in history.

‘The Treedee!’
as in ghost-speak
Whooooaah. The Treedee!’

When I call her at the library
‘Kia Ora Kay’
I say
‘Kia Ora Karl’
    she replies 
then we go out
to an Italian
              meal or a movie.


Moments like these, Yeats’s “bundles of accident and incoherence that sit down to breakfast”, are rare, but they serve as a warning to all those who imagine themselves defenders of Literature against “political worthiness dressed in a language intelligible, if at all, to the initiated” (Book Self). Stead occasionally mistakes grumbling for straight-talking, and straight-talking for verse. The first is a mistake common to men of his class and age, the second a reminder that there is more than one sort of unintelligibility.

Collected Poems is an important book, handsomely produced, and full of insights and enjoyment. There are poems here to recite, to re-read and to work with. There’s also plenty to argue with, which is as it should be in a figure so central to our culture. Then sometimes suddenly, amongst all the arguments, the music can sound again:

Do you remember
what the wind said –
the phrases so exact
the timing / the intonation
so nearly perfect?


And with it comes the Steadword, the Steadpause, the Steadstress and the Steadlinebreak, all steadfast in their commitment to the Steadvoice, “now enhanced, augmented, liberated, expanded; and at the end yours was one of the first and the loudest of the cheers that went up.”


Dougal McNeill teaches in the Faculty of Liberal Arts, Sophia University, Tokyo.


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