How to Defeat the Philistines
David Beach, $25.00,
Victoria University Press, $25.00,
A Fine Morning at Passchendaele
Steele Roberts, $25.00,
Poetic forms are a bit like zoos. When I was a child, zoos had much smaller cages, and the lions and tigers and leopards would pace up and down inside them. You could see the animals, but you were also really aware of the bars on the cage. I don’t know if the animals were bored, or seething with anger. They would get to the end of the cage and turn around and pace again, and what I wanted more than anything was to see them break out of their cage. The same is true when I read a sonnet, or a villanelle, or a sestina: I’m most interested in those moments when poems chafe against the forms that constrain them. Zoos are different now, the cages are bigger, less obtrusive, and the animals have room to roam. Poetic forms are different, too. A sonnet, for instance, has 14 lines, except when it’s an American sonnet, when it might have 20, or more, or fewer. It has a volta, or turn, after the octave, except when it has no turn at all, and it follows a Petrarchan or Shakespearean rhyme scheme, with sonorous pentameters, except when it’s in loose, unrhyming couplets, like Baxter’s “Jerusalem Sonnets”.
Of these three collections under review, David Beach’s How to Defeat the Philistines interrogates its form most explicitly. The collection comprises 58 sonnets in seven sequences, each poem 14 lines in length, but the other conventions of the form – rhyme, metre, the primacy of the lyric “I”, the volta, the use of elaborate similes or metaphor, and so on – are absent. Beach takes the little song out of the sonnet, but this little song is, after all, an artful rhetoric, and all those conventions are in the service of that rhetoric. Above all else, the sonnet seeks to persuade us of something. Beach wants to persuade us of something, too – of many things, actually, but primarily of how to write poems in a postmodern age. He finds it baffling that poetry is still being written with Romantic ideals about universal verities, epiphanic intuitions, and the sovereignty of the imagination intact. His sonnets are carefully worked out arguments, presented without apparent artifice (although absence of artifice is, of course, a kind of artifice in itself). The opening sequence, “Impersonal Poetry”, begins:
To urge an impersonal poetry isn’t
to deny the personal – this sequence
is, of course, “Impersonal Poetry: A
Personal Account”. But that the
can’t be avoided is hardly a
reason to seek it – or indeed not to
question the whole notion of
Read aloud, it sounds like a prose extract from a book on poetics. But the line-breaks demand that we read it as a poem. Beach is deploying, in the context of a poem, prose’s strength for logical, abstract argument. “The whole notion of candour” is, indeed, questionable: in a postmodern era, where irony is the reflex stance, candour looks at best naïve, at worst a manipulative ruse. Unsurprisingly, the final sonnet sequence in the book concerns “Postmodern Irony”:
For the properly ironic, postmodern
poem, prose I would say is essential.
can there be a discreet adding of
poetical elements. The point to
the irony is that this material
reality is all there is, and poetical
touches hold out the hope that
(“Postmodern Irony 7”)
Beach is a postmodern poet to his fingertips, and yet – aren’t these lines themselves slyly ironic in tone? Does he really believe in expunging all “poetical touches”? It seems to me an intentional lapse, a wink to the reader, when, in the penultimate line of this last poem, even as he argues for “the uninhibitedness, the / incongruities of prose”, he discreetly adds that most poetical of elements, a metaphor:
… so in the case of the sonnet,
most startling of forms, a door, a
but opening out only onto itself.
Harry Ricketts, in his latest collection, Winter Eyes, also rattles the cages of form. Or forms: there are, by my count, four sonnets, two villanelles, six limericks, six tanka, five triolets, eight tritinas, and one concrete poem here, as well as a smattering of prose poems. Some of these forms will be unfamiliar to many readers, though those who have read Ricketts’s last collection, Half Dark, will remember the triolets there. The tritina is, as Ricketts says in a poem that both uses and explains the form, “a kind of teen sestina which never means to grow up” (“The Tritina”). The six six-line stanzas of the sestina are condensed into three three-line stanzas, concluding, as the sestina does, with an envoi containing the line-endings that are repeated in a fixed order throughout the poem. Such highly contrived and technically challenging forms – the triolet is another – naturally lend themselves to light verse. W H Auden, who, along with Philip Larkin, is a recurring presence in Ricketts’s work, noted in his introduction to The Oxford Book of Light Verse that “light verse can be serious”, and went on to say that “it tends to be conventional, to accept the attitudes of the society in which it is written”. That sounds disparaging, but Auden clearly didn’t mean it that way: such poetry speaks directly to and is understood by the wider community; it shares that community’s humane values, and its aims are social as well as instructive. Ricketts’s poems are sometimes light in this sense, many of them personal gifts, dedicated to friends, and often mildly satiric about the literary-academic life. The allusions are canonical: a sonnet such as “Emma” relies on our remembering a particular scene from the Austen novel; “not untrue and not unkind” (“The Tritina”) invokes Larkin; “And did you once see Auden plain” (“On Not Meeting Auden”) manages to invoke not only Auden, but also Browning and Shelley. Incidentally, Ricketts has made a variation of this joking allusion before, in his earlier collection, Just Then: “Did you once see John Wain plain?” (“Wain with an ‘I’”). At least one allusion here improves on its source: “hills like collapsed elephants” (“Song”). There are poems about bookish byways, forgotten authors, the fickleness of literary fortunes. This is a kind of material and a tone that readers of Ricketts’s previous work will recognise and enjoy.
But if this were all, then Winter Eyes would not be substantially different from the collections that have preceded it. What sets it apart, I think, and marks it as Ricketts’s finest poetry to date, is the repurposing of conventional forms to non-conventional ends, without losing that directness of connection to the reader, that lightness of touch. “Tanka for Bashō” is an example of this:
Gaunt, glasses, held-in,
beanie tight as a skullcap,
Blood is trickling ever so
slowly across your knuckles.
It’s a vivid portrait of a certain well-known Wellington poet, but it is also unsettling, moving, both estranging and empathetic. An even clearer example is an elegiac series of “Poems for Max (1970–2014)”, and at the heart of this series, five limericks. The limerick has made something of a comeback, with the American poet Anthony Madrid’s experiments in the form, and New Zealand poet Nick Ascroft’s “Grief Limericks” in his recent collection, Back with the Human Condition. Like Ascroft, Ricketts works within and against the almost inevitable comic tone of the form, to produce poems that are as restrained as they are heartbreaking.
Kevin Ireland’s poems also have a social, even convivial, aspect to them, and like Ricketts’s, are often dedicated to poet friends: “for Vincent O’Sullivan”; “for Peter Bland”; “for Fleur Adcock”; “for Karl Stead”. Ireland is of an older generation, and although he shares with Ricketts a penchant for the elegiac, his poems also sound like valedictions:
no more grand reunions
for three of us are dead.
Colin and I are the last
These are poems of old age, its losses and its consolations, poems of fitful sleep and dreams, of friends living and dead, of food and wine and weather, of waking one more morning and appreciating that it might have been otherwise. A poem might begin with a well-worn, abstract indulgence – “What is the point of it all” – but it doesn’t linger there:
… Pick the head
of a small flower and wear it
in your lapel. You have heard
the doubts muttering behind
the declarations, the truth drooping
in its leaden vase. Recall that
the precise announcement of its
(“Where is the Way?”)
Ireland reflects on the indignities and pains of old age (“The Day of the Sore Leg”) and on 20th-century catastrophe with the same cheerful resilience. It’s a fine morning at Passchendaele.
All three of these collections use conventional forms to do unconventional things, in distinctive ways: Beach dislocates the sonnet from the lyric tradition; Ricketts wrings tears from a limerick; Ireland brings a joviality to the elegy. I have a sense, in each case, of a writer who clearly knows what he’s doing, and on top of his game, even though – and perhaps because – what he is doing is strange.
Tim Upperton’s second poetry collection, The Night We Ate the Baby, was a finalist in the 2016 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.