Had experience, missed meaning, Dougal McNeill

Plume of Bees: A Literary Biography of C K Stead
Judith Dell Panny
Cape Catley, $39.99,
ISBN 9781877340239

Modernism, born in the era of wars and revolutions, grew on contradiction. Centred in London, none of its greatest writers were English. Connected with reactionary politics, its aesthetic scandalised tradition. Modernism’s cultural force came from a determination to push contradictions to their breaking point. Emerging when monopoly capitalism generated a newly cosmopolitan consciousness while also drawing on older traditions, modernism responded to this tension by invoking both extremes. Eliot’s “heap of broken images” re-founds a tradition; Joyce writes “a chapter of the moral history” of Ireland from Trieste. Archaic and innovating, restless yet rooted, demotic and difficult: modernism speaks to the enormous strain that “visions of remote unattainable truth” must labour under in the era of mechanical reproduction.

One solution is style. In a world where individual effort has been absorbed into the anonymous processes of machine and factory, craft can stand in opposition to the automated world. This option is both wildly utopian and distressingly hopeless. Its utopianism resides in the elevated ambitions modernism invests in the artwork, while its hopelessness is this too. If style is all that stands between us and monopoly capitalism, there is reason to worry. Modernism’s solution turns out, in a cruel irony, to be part of its problem, and those very sentences that were to be signs of immediacy turn out to be markers of another kind: we all recognise a typical moment of Beckett or Woolf.

Individual style’s connection to typicality helps explain the fascination of biographers with the modernists. The great biographies – even now Ellmann’s Joyce has few rivals – connect an individual figure and their style to history. Edward Said argues that

we must also understand those lives as reinforcing, consolidating, and clarifying a core identity, identical not only with itself, but in a sense with the history of the period in which it existed and flourished … we read biography not to deconstruct but to solidify, identify.


C K Stead’s life presents an opportunity for this sort of reflection. Stead is an important scholar of the modernist moment and one of its artistic inheritors: The New Poetic helped us see what went on in Eliot’s making, and “Pictures in a Gallery Undersea” gives an exhilarating sense of what can be made from him. Stead, in clarifying his “core identity” as a writer, draws on the most important strains of our period’s history. His life forms part of the story of the triumph and obsolescence of literary nationalism, and of the development – consolidation or betrayal here, depending on your politics – of the Labour movement and reformism’s ideological relation to art and nation. Stead is part of the institutionalisation of modernist aesthetics, and it’s fascinating to ponder how modernist style, removed from its historical conditions of emergence, develops. Stead once noted how, before the Vietnam War, “I had no great subject … the ‘age’ was not ‘demanding’ poems of me … I had no obvious material to work on but myself, a self that was unformed.”

It is the great virtue of his best poetry – and of the best of the fiction, like the superb Secret History of Modernism – to turn this lack to imaginative advantage, and to use it to produce historical insights. A study of this transformation’s dynamics would make rewarding reading.

Stead’s life story is also caught up in, or illustrative of, a larger historical break, as concerns which it was once assumed cohered under liberalism or reformism came apart. A careful and meticulous critic, Stead has been also a slovenly polemicist, and it is odd to note how one so dextrous in his own field can be flat-footed amongst others. Incapable of seeing in Maori traditions a culture in development (hence his claim that the novel is not “something which exists in the Maori tradition”), Stead is capable of dull grousing, allegedly “on behalf of Pakeha culture”. Various relics from the culture wars – mostly banalities in praise of great literature or unpleasant jibing (Baxter “could be said to have been more successfully ‘Maori’ than Keri Hulme”) – have little to offer today. Properly historicised, though, these controversies could be used to understand the aesthetic and political strains of the post-war era, and would illuminate institutional modernism’s ideological afterlives.

Stead is an important writer, an immensely skilled poet, a critic capable of great insight, and an original and accomplished novelist. Often I am moved by the beauty of his lyricism. I am sometimes irritated by the laziness of his critical posture. But I am never bored. This complex, intellectually stimulating and historically important figure deserves a biography capable of sounding his depths.

Until that volume appears, Judith Dell Panny’s Plume of Bees: a Literary Biography of C K Stead must suffice, providing, as it does, an outline of the areas any serious biography will need to cover.  This book is an odd creature, neither, sub-title aside, the flesh of literary biography nor the fowl of biography of a more old-fashioned kind. (We never learn, for example, where or how Stead met his wife, but do find out that he once “sported a bushy beard and wore corduroy trousers”.) It isn’t even the good red herring of polemic, and, when Dell Panny reveals that “opposing responses to this high-flying author presented a set of contradictions worthy of investigation”, she indicates something of her book’s blurred focus. She produces almost no sustained analysis of Stead’s imaginative work, which is read for more-or-less direct biographical evidence. So Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” “was as much a revelation to [Stead] as it was to Bill Harper [in Sister Hollywood].” The problem with this sort of approach is that it offers little new to those who have read Stead’s work, and is unlikely to interest those who haven’t.

Perhaps with Dell Panny we must speak of one who has read not widely, but too well. Every scrap of Stead’s oeuvre is plundered for illustrations of his life and habits, but there is very little engagement with wider literature or scholarship, or the scholarly apparatus of archival work; the extensive interviewing and detailed research one expects to support the biography of a figure of Stead’s importance. Most of the time Dell Panny contents herself with summarising reviews and journalistic material, awarding points for good behaviour (Damien Wilkins is “the author of one of Villa Vittoria’s finest reviews”) and marks off (Kim Hill’s was “a niggardly review”) along the way. Complex and nuanced positions are either subsumed in strange generalisations – “in 1986, the feminists were well organised and aggressive” – or side-stepped through appeals to unnamed authorities: “others may ask whether disparagements … should enter into literary discourse in our day and age.”

The oddness of these sentences is symptomatic of a deeper uncertainty Plume of Bees betrays. Any account of a thinker as quarrelsome as Stead has to deal with his many combative encounters down the years, but Dell Panny shows scant interest in pursuing the insights that could be gained by contextualising her subject’s fights. Stead is sometimes given a light telling-off: one of his sentences, we discover, “Maori find … ill-informed.” Occasionally Dell Panny adopts the tone of an over-worked lawyer at a sentencing hearing: “Stead exercised neither caution nor diplomacy in commenting on the Treaty of Waitangi.” Most of the time, though, these limping, strangely unspecific sentences hover uncertainly between advocacy and analysis. Summarising Stead’s attacks on some types of literary theory, Dell Panny writes that “twenty-five years later, many would agree that these concerns were justified”. This will hardly do, and the indirect vagueness – the default position of Dell Panny’s prose – reflects her work’s reluctance to submit its subject to any sustained or critical investigation. Other judgements are bizarre:

[in All Visitors Ashore] the 1950s are satirised, not for the purposes of effecting social change, since many features of the 1950s had improved by the 1980s, but because the fifties’ pretentiousness and narrow-mindedness invite humorous treatment. The watersiders’ strike [sic] was grim at the time. In retrospect, its protracted 151 day progress was tragic, but also ridiculous.


Moments like this, and careless errors (Dunsford’s first name is not Cathy; there is no major poet called Marvel, Brecht never convinced HUAC of his innocence) aside, Dell Panny offers a workable summary of Stead’s career. She “had the experience but missed the meaning”, and for reconstruction of that literary and cultural context, Stead’s work awaits a biographer with greater ambition, insight and reach.


Dougal McNeill is a Wellington reviewer.


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Posted in Biography, Non-fiction, Review
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