“No country for old men”

Sydney-based New Zealand writer Paul Schimmel surveys the Hera Lindsay Bird phenomenon from across the ditch

Since Hera Lindsay Bird’s volume of poetry Hera Lindsay Bird was selected for the so-called long-list for the New Zealand book awards in poetry, and subsequently for the short list, I have become aware, from across the ditch, that a small-scale cult-like phenomenon seems to be emerging around her.

Stephen Stratford in an on-line article in Quote Unquote (August 31, 2016) documents attending a Wintec Press Club lunch, an event held regularly on behalf of journalism students. The guest speaker was Hera Lindsay Bird, and, as he reports her words, “The theme of this talk is: how do we make poetry cool again?” Stratford goes on to record: “She had a few cracks at other poets: there was a dream about Vincent O’Sullivan having dementia and getting off the bus at the wrong stop; also something about Brian Turner in a reversed baseball cap at a primary school”, and then, “she articulated her real theme: ‘How do we keep old people out of poetry?’ and ‘Let’s pass the torch to the younger generation by turning out the torches of the older generation.’” In relation to making poetry cool again, Stratford remains in touch with reality: “A couple of questions begged there. One, when was poetry ever cool?” and “Two, why would you want poetry to be cool? That would mean people writing and reading it for the wrong reason – to be seen to be writing and reading it.”

We might contrast Stratford’s brief and cool analysis with much of the heat that Bird’s poetry has generated. At the launch of her book, Steve Braunias, the books editor of the website Spinoff, documents an e-mail interview with “the most exciting talent in New Zealand writing, Hera Lindsay Bird” (July 12, 2016). He alerts his reader to the sexual content of many poems which “may shock, or at least stun”. He quotes Ashleigh Young, the editor of Bird’s book, who is said to have commented: “All the fucking in the poems is just brilliant, I feel”, adding: “Because it’s direct and often very funny. It doesn’t feel gratuitous to me; more just … necessary.”

What strikes me about Young’s comments as reported by Braunias, and about which he is so enthusiastic, is her privileging of “I feel”. Apparently feelings don’t require any serious attempt at justification: “It doesn’t feel gratuitous to me; more just … necessary.” Whatever the origin of the “gratuitous” idea, it is raised, but then dismissed because she doesn’t “feel” it. There is no reference to “I think”; indeed, no discernible evidence that any thinking is taking place.

Braunias, in his Spinoff article, comments on “images of staggering beauty” in Bird’s poems, and instances: “Throw me in a haunted wheelbarrow and set me on fire”, from the poem “Monica”. Well, arresting, yes, interesting, possibly … but “staggering beauty”?

Anna Jackson, in a slightly more thoughtful review in New Zealand Books (Summer 2016), notes the way images and comparisons pile up, and finds the book “hilariously, repeatedly, funny”. Amongst quoted excerpts are these from the poem “Hate”: hate is “a lean justice that doesn’t serve anyone / Only itself, like a long retired butler”, and to hate is “a cruel vintage festivity / Like a hand-made piñata filled with bees”. The first is witty and amusing, the second clever enough, both a little sardonic; but “hilariously … funny” seems, at least to my ear, jarringly wide of the mark.

I could quote many more examples, but these will suffice. My intention in this brief reflection is: first, to draw attention to this often parlous level of commentary on the poems themselves, alongside the cult-like preoccupation with the persona of the poet; and, second, to consider Bird’s apparent push to create a sort of generational split in New Zealand poetry; between the young and “cool” poets and the old and apparently past it poets.

A great deal of the hype seems to have been generated by the sexual content of some poems, but the problem with Bird’s poetry is not any particular gratuity in her use of sexual references, but a kind of gratuity that all too often pervades the poems. Bird’s opening poem “Write a book” stands as a kind of manifesto:

You can get away with anything in a poem
As long as you say my tits in it

The first line stands as an apparent endorsement of gratuity. Of course, if anything goes in a poem, then any use of language becomes “poetry”, and the poem is nothing apart. The amusing and ironic element of contradiction that follows in the second line works well enough, but I’m left with a disturbing throwaway feel. The sexual reference is specifically to “my tits”, and ultimately it is this element of solipsism in Bird’s work that tends to generate the sense of gratuity. The reader’s encounter is with a self-referential world. Bird has given her name to the title of her volume, so from the beginning we encounter her name twinned and mirrored. Janet Newman in Takahe 88 describes Bird’s collection as “audacious”, and I suppose there is always an element of audacity in the selfie; the cover photograph is … of course, of the author. Newman describes the cover: “an eye catching photograph of the poet, face averted, in a bright yellow raincoat”. More than eye-catching, there is a powerful communication here; somebody who wants to be both seen and not seen.

In the Braunias interview, Bird herself says with disarming frankness: “I love attention. I absolutely write with other people in mind.” However, the other she has in mind would seem not so much a person with a separate mind, but rather a person who has the role of conferring attention upon the writer.

The result is that the poems tend to lack a developed sense of relationship with the world of the other as separate from that of the self. This alone need not be a fatal flaw. Poetry, by nature such a subjective form, privileges the expression of worlds of intense inner subjective emotionality. Think of the searing intensity of Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy”. But, interestingly, in Plath’s poem, pain and anger rage in the lines as she fights to struggle free, to escape the solipsistic world of the Daddy merger, and this in turn helps create a reflective space where the reader can not only feel something about the poet’s struggle, but be encouraged to think about it. Too often in Bird’s poems the reflective space doesn’t emerge fully, or is restricted to a rather pseudo-intellectual, and illusory, one.

Bird clearly has talent as a writer; consider the line “Crocodiles asleep in their red tent of hunger” from “Wild geese by Mary Oliver by Hera Lindsay Bird”. Although seemingly somewhat randomly placed in the poem, this image is, in itself, evocative, in part because it addresses an external world as separate, along with the expression of an imaginative and projective relationship with that world.

While the question of separation is a preoccupation of Bird’s poetry, too many of the poems lack a sufficient degree of separation between poet and poem. One consequence is that the author’s presence is too insistent, and this insistence of presence becomes the element that confers unity upon the volume as a whole. After a while this begins to feel like being force-fed. A second theme, that might have created thematic unity, is a conceit that runs through the collection: in Janet Newman’s words, her work, “by comparing itself with poetic conventions draws those traditions into the work as in fact relevant to its negation of them.” This seems a valid potential reading, although perhaps too contrived in its expression to contribute to the creation of a real sense of coherence.

In the Wintec address, Bird stated her wish to turn out “the torches of the older generation” of poets. Her position sounds something like a teenage rebellion against a restrictive establishment. Interesting, because if anything, it would seem the establishment has been, as far as I can read, rather indulgent of her work. In Stratford’s reporting of her address, he writes: “She made the usual criticism of Creative NZ’s funding decisions but conceded that she had been given a grant to go to ‘this really cool poetry festival’ in Newcastle, Australia.”

In “Sailing to Byzantium” (1926), W B Yeats wrote:

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees ….
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

Yeats was 61, beginning to feel his age, and acutely aware of approaching death:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick …
Nothing for it, then, but to sing:
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress …

Yet the poet’s defiance is both collapsing and deliberately undercut with irony. In the end the fantasy of an immortal voice becomes nothing more than a metallic bird singing, “To keep a drowsy Emperor awake”.

Five years later in “Byzantium”, Yeats rejected his idealised bird of “changeless metal”, and, ostensibly, his ideal of an immortal voice. The poet must relinquish such unrealities and immerse himself in the flood of life and death:

Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.

Yeats was a poet whose finest work was reserved for old age. His two “Byzantium” poems record some steps along his attempted journey of reconciliation with death. Many poets, and other creative artists, come to produce their best work later in life. Why would we want to turn out these torches?

If it seems incongruous to juxtapose Bird’s work to Yeats’s, this is a path she herself has already taken in her poem “Keats is dead so fuck me from behind”. Janet Newman quotes Bird stating with “characteristic hyperbole” that her Keats poem is the worst in the collection. Newman agrees, but doesn’t say why. I certainly can’t agree; if anything, it is one of the more successful in the collection.

“Keats is dead” seems to contain the beginnings of a more developed sense of irony, and opens itself to levels of reading. The excited sexuality can easily obscure the disturbing reality that, in the poem, the carnal sexual act is being used to establish some kind of competitive triumph over something. Ostensibly, this is perhaps the genius of famous and dead male poets, and maybe also one not famous but still alive. Triumph necessarily involves a denigration of vulnerability, as suggested by the fact the action is occurring, “while the children are walking home from school”. When vulnerability is recognised, it is in a somewhat idealised sentimental register: “O emotional vulnerability”. Behind the apparent wish to triumph over dead male poets, a deeper reading suggests an insistent need to triumph over vulnerability in life, and over death; “the days burn off like leopard print”. The poem is redolent with the problem of pain, the pain of life and the pain of death  – seeming to raise the question whether pain must be triumphed over, or whether it can be lived with: a question about which the poet communicates intense ambivalence.

The poem is evocative and clever in its way, and is a powerful communication. It may be that the emergence of this potential level of impact follows from the poet beginning to write, whether with conscious intention or not, from a position of greater distance and self-awareness, engendering in turn a more sophisticated experience of irony. The poem begins to generate a more reflective space. Another crucial factor is that the poem doesn’t rely on one overly clever comparison being piled on top of another, a technique which quickly becomes tedious, and mars so many of the other poems. Whether you like it or not, “Keats is dead” conveys an experience both ecstatic and tortured. A reading of this poem as simply funny, or some amusing literary game, is surely no reading at all.

Pain seems to me something of an imperative in Bird’s poetry, as suggested by the title of her last section, “Pain Imperatives”. If this is correct, it seems to have gone unrecognised, probably in part because all too often, as in “Pain Imperatives”, the pain is trivialised into what is a kind of not very funny, false hilarity, by the poet. In “Write a book”, Bird quotes Oscar Wilde: “it was Oscar Wilde who said sentimentality is ‘the desire to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it’”. As suggested, “Keats is dead” seems to open up possibilities beyond sentimentality, because it contains elements evocative of the real emotional undercurrents of conflict within the poet’s mind, and offers the reader the possibility of more thoughtful identification with the poet.

In trying to cross-check some references, I came across an online recording of Bird’s address to the Wintec Press Club. She attempts a kind of stand-up comic routine. While her stated wish is to “make poetry cool again”, the gags go anywhere and everywhere; some are amusing, but many seemed to fall rather flat. In the end, apart from an undercurrent of angry protest, the address lacked any real coherence. Stratford was pretty accurate in his memory of the comments about Vincent O’Sullivan and Brian Turner. What is interesting about these gags is that they are introduced as part of a kind of stream-of-consciousness flow, and apropos of nothing in particular. Their content, however, belies Bird’s apparently neutral delivery. It seems hard to avoid the conclusion that it is the torches of the male poets, in particular, that she would like to extinguish.

Bird’s creativity is the creativity of a young writer. This does not stand as a criticism of her work, but may help develop some perspective on her attack on the “older generation”. I cannot know why Bird is hostile to the old men of New Zealand literature, but her own creative expression will inevitably become limited by the extent to which it is driven by a need to undermine others. Creativity is enhanced by a willingness to tear down the structures and certainties within oneself.

From a distance, the impression is that Bird and her followers are generating something of a cult-like atmosphere, with a designated in-group and out-group. In this context, the persona of the poet easily becomes of more interest than the poems. With regard to the poems themselves, while some have strengths, her collection seems to be receiving attention and praise beyond its inherent value. This is the way of the world, but what I find disconcerting is the apparent lack of an attuned critical ear by many of those who profess to be interested in poetry.

But hey, if you are not interested in poetry, don’t despair. Jackson reassuringly suggests that reading Bird might constitute a cure for lack of love for poetry: “So many people didn’t think they liked poetry, only because they didn’t know it could be like Lindsay Bird’s.”

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