Obituary — Mike Doyle

“A nice guy”

C K Stead recalls the poet and critic Mike Doyle (1928-2016)

Late in December, I received a phone call to say my former colleague, and friend of many years, Mike Doyle had died at home in Canada. I dedicated my last book of critical “reviews, replies and reminiscences”, Shelf Life, to Mike together with Craig Raine, as “fellow poet-critics and friends of many years”. We did not begin as friends. In 1956, before I had met him, I reviewed his first book of poems, A Splinter of Glass, for Landfall, not altogether favourably. I remember very clearly sitting in my office in the English Department of the University of New England (Armidale, New South Wales – my first job), trying to weigh up the pluses and minuses of my reaction to those poems, and feeling the review could legitimately go either way, when an Australian colleague, the department’s expert in Old and Middle English, picked up the book, read some of the poems, and issued a few terse dismissive remarks. These, I’m afraid, determined which way the pendulum would swing. Not having yet developed the kind of critical language which could accommodate opposites, I tended to be bossy and definitive; and Mike’s sensitivity was to suffer for my lack. In Floating Islands, his account of his early years, he writes:

I had an instinctive gift for verbal music, producing poems which Karl Stead in Landfall likened (accurately, but at the time less than blissfully for me) to “the pleasant whining of a mandolin”. This characteristic explains why my turning to Black Mountain minimalism proved mistaken. Lack of confidence caused me to abandon the music of A Splinter of Glass …. I went off track in poetry for a number of years, becoming too self-consciously aware of Allen Curnow’s dictum that there had to be a “reality prior to the poem”.

By the early 1960s, Mike and I were colleagues in the Auckland English department, a time when the Auckland/Wellington poetry war was being waged, with Wellington poets Louis Johnson, James K Baxter, and Alistair Campbell, together with the British  immigrants Peter Bland and Doyle himself, complaining that their generation was insufficiently (or, in the case of Bland and Doyle, not at all) represented in Curnow’s forthcoming Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse. As an editor of the New Zealand School Journal, Campbell had asked for, and received, a proof of the forthcoming anthology, and now he and his friends had the ammunition they needed and wrote as a group of young poets, direct to Penguin, making their case against Curnow’s selection. Publication was consequently held up for some considerable time. Curnow was bitter and upset, and I took his side; but Mike and I got on well enough as colleagues. Again from his memoir:

Looking back it’s odd to realize I talked to Stead about any number of intellectual matters, even though I felt a little uneasy towards him …. In the years when we were colleagues he showed considerable forbearance towards me, from the other camp in the poetry wars.

When Mike was first publishing poems he used his initials (as I still use mine) – C D Doyle. By the time his first book appeared, he had become Charles Doyle. His full Christian names were Charles Desmond. He was known to his family as Des, but his nickname was Mike, and at some time in the late 1960s or early 1970s he began to use Mike Doyle as his pen name, and stuck with that.

London-born, but (as he puts it) “Irish by cultural and genetic inheritance”, the child of parents who were both factory workers, the mother dying when he was eight, the father when he was 19, Mike “dropped out” of school at 15, worked in a factory for 18 months, then a year in Foyle’s selling books, and all this time reading voraciously – after which he joined the British navy, and in 1951 was drafted to serve as a clerk attached to the British High Commission in Wellington. “In New Zealand,” he says, “I began to discover my true being.” He’d had no preparation for university work, but was exceptionally intelligent and well-read. He enrolled for courses at Victoria University, and at Wellington Teachers’ College was top student for 1955. At Vic, he was top-equal in English with David Simmers who won a Rhodes Scholarship. By this time, he was writing poetry, had met Johnson, soon became part of the Wellington literary scene, and flourished. There was always sensitivity, wariness, sometimes the faint sense of an underdog, or alien, grudge; but his talents, both as poet and critic, were beyond dispute – and he was always (it seemed to me) “a nice guy”.

Reflecting on our pasts in May 2008 he wrote:

As to you and me, we have a story too …. Think of it, your review, my sense of you up there in the north, “the court poet enemy”!, your huge success with The New Poetic, our scrabbly colleague years.

And in another e-mail on the same subject in the same month:

It was the only time in our parallel lives I was distinctly jealous of you, (I’m not jealous by nature) but The New Poetic stopped that nonsense in its tracks. Back then, even when you seemed Curnovian, I sensed that, tough-minded or not, you had an instinct to be generous and friendly. As the insecure one I could not then be so. You quote Keith Sinclair’s “the fierce gladness of being in at the beginning”: I carried that round with me for years as a sort of talisman. It encapsulated the best of what I felt for being in New Zealand. (The worst is another story.)

In the same exchange, occasioned by the publication of my collection of reviews and critical reminiscences, Book Self (2008), I wrote:

I suppose it’s true I was “Curnovian”. I admired him ahead of all the others, even JKB – though Jim was a force of another kind; and then he (A.C.) took me under his wing which was reassuring and flattering. But he wasn’t a person who left you with quite the feelings of nostalgia and warmth I still have when I think of Sargeson – not in the same degree. “Cold and passionate as the dawn”, I suppose he was; and never sure I wouldn’t “do a Baxter on him” (not that he would have used that phrase, but I think I always made him nervous.)

Your dropping out of school at 15 and then dropping successfully right into the academic-and-literary life was quite extraordinary in itself. I needed all the slow stages of the process – I was such an idiot, it still embarrasses me to look back on the things I wrote – childish, egotistical, competitive, desperately unsure of myself – but on the other hand clever and, in the rare right circumstances able to be at ease and “do well” socially. Strange mixes, mix-ups, we both were. I think I envied your fluency at the times when I wasn’t finding, or was finding and losing, my own. And I could never take the university work lightly. There were times when it crushed all the stuffing out of me and I was just a squashed lemon.

Mike’s background was not just London Irish but Irish Catholic – including 10 years Catholic education. On this subject, he wrote to me in 2008: “I once had faith, to lose it (finally) something like fifteen years ago, finding the loss a continuing liberation, especially now in the endgame.” So there was no sign in his later years of a return to that fold. He was at last free of religious faith and felt better for that.

At some time in the late 1960s, Mike was appointed to a post in the English department at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, and (though travelling a lot, as academics tend to do, or did) he remained there. His first wife, Merlyn, died of tuberculosis in Wellington in 1958. With his second, Doran, also a New Zealander, he had three sons, after which they adopted a daughter, Meki, half Native Canadian, half Armenian. He and Doran parted after many years together, and his poems about that severance reveal a lot of pain for him, anger for her. The children have remained in Canada: Aaron in Ottawa, Patrick in Calgary, Kegan in Vancouver, and Meki only 30 miles away from Mike in Victoria. Doran for a time farmed 35 acres with a woman partner, with whom she now lives in the town of Duncan. She was a founding member of the feminist activist group who called themselves “the Raging Grannies”.

There was a third wife, Rita, and for a time he and she seemed to spend part of each northern hemisphere winter in Mexico. In 2007, Mike e-mailed, in answer to a question from me about Rita’s apparent absence from his reports on his life, “Rita left all of six years ago. Couldn’t understand my way of life and got bored with it …. I’ve had some measure of rapprochement with Doran …. We phone each other about once a month.”

In the time since Rita’s departure, Mike lived alone, though in regular contact with his children, and with the companionship of his librarian friend, Elisabeth Silvester. Lung problems (chronic bronchitis) recurred, and there were serious medical crises (a heart attack, prostate cancer), but he seemed to maintain the good spirits of a survivor, continuing to read copiously, to write (both poems and critical reminiscences) often, and to walk for regular exercise. Mike was born in 1928, so was 88 when he died.

Somewhere among my papers, I will have quite a few Doyle letters dating from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s; but there is a single thick file dating from 1997, becoming in 2004 an on-going exchange of e-mails, the latest of them dated just a month before his death. In these, Mike and I kept up regular news about life and literature, a good deal of it referring back to what is now literary history. As an academic, Mike had become an expert in 20th-century American poetry. He wrote at least one book on William Carlos Williams, essays on Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, HD (Hilda Dolittle), Irving Layton, Al Purdy, and a biography of the British Imagist poet Richard Aldington who was part of the Pound set around the time of WWI. Aldington was married for some years to Pound’s proto-Imagist HD.

Mike tried, after leaving New Zealand, to keep his name alive here in the poetry scene. He had made the best possible answer to “the Curnow problem” by publishing his own anthology, Recent Poetry in New Zealand (1965), in which he was able to leave out the Curnow cohort on the grounds that they were already well-known, and represent adequately his own, who were not. He published his second book of poems, Distances, in 1963, and his third, Messages for Herod, in 1965, both in New Zealand. Earth Meditations 2 was published in Auckland in 1968, but I think by that date he must already have been away on the academic leave from which he never returned except as a visitor. He also wrote the Twayne World Authors series book on R A K Mason in 1970, and the one on Baxter in 1976. Auckland University Press published his poetry collections, Stonedancer (1976), and A Steady Hand (1983); but by this time he was well established, both academically (full professor), and with his growing family, in Canada. He would continue to publish there, making the University of Victoria (BC) on Vancouver Island his home campus and centre of operations; but he often confided that he had escaped what he saw as New Zealand’s Curnow-dominated literary nationalism, only to fall into the much more severe form of the same in Canada. He had no difficulty being published there; but he felt he would never be seen as belonging, or quite accepted as a Canadian poet. Canada’s phase of literary nationalism went deeper and lasted longer than ours, because there was always the Great Competitor just across the border, and a continuing fear that the wish (quite strong in some provinces) to become part of it would prevail.

In 1981, I was invited to take part in the League of Canadian Poets’ international poetry festival in Toronto, where Mike and I re-established an old rapport. A few years later, we jointly edited a New Zealand number of the international literary review Ariel. Looking at it even now, more than 30 years later, its contents list is impressively representative.

In 1988, I visited him in Victoria British Columbia and gave a lecture prepared to be delivered again in Liège and London commemorating Katherine Mansfield’s centenary which coincided with T S Eliot’s. The two were born within a few days of one another, and to one who knew the work of both as well as I did, there was much to be said about how they viewed one another as writers, and how they made their way as outsiders in the London literary world. It was after that visit that my correspondence with Mike became quite regular, and the file is full of interesting facts and occasions, many of them forgotten.

In 2010, more than half a century after my cool response to his first book, Mike published his Collected Poems 1951-2009. The printed dedication reads “for Karl Stead, distinguished writer in several genres, sometime colleague and longtime friend”. The handwritten one reads “for Karl, poet to poet at ground level, in friendship and admiration ‒ Mike.”

A couple of years before this, when Mike sent me his collection Living Ginger, I wrote that I’d been enjoying the poems, and that they were

nicely relaxed – no stressful reaching for the Ultimate (more like the pen-Ultimate) which is how I think I write myself these days.  And I’m a happy consumer of anecdote, autobiog, reminiscence, the long look back and the smack of the real – not to mention being able to look in the window and say to oneself, “that must be So-and-so …” And felicities like “in a time / when you’re always on time / and never there.” Or, “some place / other than here, some time / other than now.” I like that deftness, which you’ve always had. But every book has to have a special poem, and this one has “Written on the soul” – deeply felt, very moving, beautifully and simply structured. It would be among my first choices from your work if I were doing an anthology.

Mike’s reply included this: “I’m hugely grateful for your response to ‘Written on the soul’, the poem closest to me in Living Ginger. It’s for Merlyn who had the temerity to marry me in Wellington in 1952 and who died of TB in 1958.” No doubt still inside the mood and moment of the poem, he added, “She was the best natured of my (three) wives, the one for whom to this day I have deepest feelings.”

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