Friday, November 04, 2011


Why pink, you ask? It does seem rather a garish shade for the cover of this first posthumous publication by my old friend Leicester Kyle.

Actually the whole thing came about rather serendipitously as the result of a request to republish some of Leicester's (many) poems about orchids by Ian St George, editor of the New Zealand Native Orchid Journal.

David Howard and I told him that, as Leicester's literary executors, we'd be happy to cooperate with such a scheme, but I also mentioned in my reply that - while there were certainly a number of short lyrics describing orchids he'd encountered in the hills around Millerton - his major contribution to the subject was a vast epic poem called Koroneho, an account of the life and work of pioneering printer, missionary and naturalist William Colenso (1811-1899), written in the form of a series of descriptions of 14 native orchids found by the latter in his wanderings around the North Island of New Zealand.

[William Colenso (c.1880)]

The significance of these orchids, for Leicester, appears to have been that, while Colenso's description of each of them been duly published in the scientific literature at the time, they hadn't been confirmed as separate species by subsequent classifiers.

They were, then, real specimens of phantom plants - a pretty appealing notion to any poet, given that our business is supposed to be the depiction of "imaginary gardens with real toads in them" (Marianne Moore, "Poetry").

In his reply, Ian mentioned:

Perchance I am also editor of eColenso, the newsletter of the Colenso Society. November 17 is the bicentennial of Colenso's birth, and we are having a Colenso Conference in Napier. It would be brilliant to have a few copies of Kyle's Koroneho available at the conference - perhaps a limited edition of 50 copies? I would be happy to arrange the printing.... are you interested?

Was I interested! Just about any plan that could help spread interest in the life and works of Leicester Kyle would interest me, especially one like this, which seemed just to have dropped into my lap out of nowhere.

So anyway, to make a long story short, having just laboriously transcribed the poem from the one surviving typescript, a mass of crumbling yellow pages given by Leicester to his great friend and poetic ally Richard Taylor in the late 1990s, I sent it off as a file-attachment to Ian.

He had a number of interesting comments to make about it:

I think it's an important (at least in NZ) modernist collage long poem in cantos, and I wondered if he had been influenced by William Carlos Williams' Paterson, as well as Ezra Pound.

(This was in response to my comparing it with The Cantos - not to mention Smithyman's Atua Wera - in the introduction I'd written to the poem.)

I had thought to make it a simple paperback in much the style of Colenso's Paihia press publications - even to the pink paper! Thus it would be all monochrome. An alternative would be to have a colour illustration of an orchid - or one of his orchid drawings (mine actually!) from the original, but in a way that detracts from the theme of insubstantial unreality.

Hence the pink cover, you see - hence too the rather offhand style of the production: Ian's encyclopedic knowledge of Colenso enabled him to find a form which seemed to fit so eccentric a piece of Colenso-iana, in a way which would make sense to the other enthusiasts attending the conference.

Another interesting point about the pink came up in a subsequent email, where he mentioned that it matched "the pink blotting paper that Colenso was forced to use when the CMS forgot to send out any printing paper." That was enough for me. Pink it must be.

Ian also mentioned that Leicester had been a bit premature in thinking that all of these particular orchid identifications by Colenso had been rejected. Apparently some of them have been reinstated in the latest listings. In his foreword to the book he enlarges on his belief that "in imagination Kyle WAS Colenso ...

(I suppose all biographers "become" their subjects) - both were botanists, priests, writers - had similar names - and Colenso stands as the kind of kafkaesque figure, sensitive and intelligent, but beset by machiavellian insensitive authority, that we all find it easy to identify with. There are a number of minor inaccuracies in Kyle's biographical bits about Colenso, but they don't matter: as he suggests, "if you want the facts, go to the biographies - this is about the truth".

Leicester Kyle. Koroneho: Joyful News Out Of The New Found World. Edited with a Introduction by Jack Ross. Preface by Ian St George. ISBN 978-0-9876604-0-4. Auckland: The Leicester Kyle Literary Estate / Wellington: The Colenso Society, 2011. ii + 110 pp.

So there we are. If you'd like to purchase a copy of Koroneho, you can either contact me here online or at the address given on the cover page of the Leicester Kyle website. They're $NZ 10 each (plus $2 postage & packing).

Or you can write to Ian St George, secretary of the Colenso Society, at:

The Colenso Society Inc.
c/o 22 Orchard St.
Wellington 6012
New Zealand

For more about the centennial conference, see here.

What an auspicious project for an auspicious anniversary!

[Māori New Testament
printed by William Colenso (1837)]


Richard said...

That's great Jack! Leicester said to me (to the effect) that one of the things for him was that Colenso had come rather under a cloud from certain of the more puritanical members of the Anglican fraternity (and the Royal Society (Science etc) as he had some extra curricular activity with a Maori woman!

He indeed liked the idea that the plants and flowers were almost arrogantly misnamed...but he took that idea as far as he could I think because in one sense Colenso-Leicester is Adam naming the New Found Land. When I saw the manuscripts I wanted him to go further and to "deconstruct" it all even more [deconstruct used loosely here]; but indeed he basically just showed them to me and Alan Loney and others but kept his own council. That [Koreneho] is one of the best things he did.

Words such as "sessile" and "subfuscate" and much more. The whole thing is like an extraordinary new kind of contemporary music that is still as if written partly by Bach.

He wasn't influenced by Pound directly I think his main fascination was with Zukofsky (he read his 'Bottom') and the letters between Niedecker and Zukofsky. I showed him my copy of
"80 Flowers" and he knew my huge enthusiasm for Michelle Leggott's "DIA" and I think that is what got him onto Zukofsky. He probably read the whole of "A"

He also loved John Ashbery's poetry (he used a number of lines of Ashbery's poems (acknowledged mostly if not always I think) in his own work) in fact he liked one particular poem "These Lacustrine Cities" (from 'Rivers and Mountains') which I showed him...he almost became obsessed by that.*

His own writing is not "difficult" but always alive I find. (It's "simplicity" is deceptive".) Michelle Leggott would probably appreciate hearing that book read aloud.

I think his work needs to be talked about more and even make its way into future NZ Poetry anthologies.

He would have loved circumstances of all this. Serendipity and all! And he had an almost impish sense of humour! He loved the "maverickness" of Colenso and such like!

I think he liked [t]his kind of lyrical cynicism!

They [the cities] emerged until
a tower
Controlled the sky, and with artifice dipped back
Into the past for swans and tapering branches,
Burning, until all that hate was transformed into useless love.

Also the slighty humouresque-paranoid tone of Ahsbery's poem.
If anyone is worried about the "useless love" Ashbery also wrote poem called "Civilisation and it's Discontents" [the only book (same title) I have ever read by Freud]

Jack Ross said...

All I can say, Richard, is that if you hadn't preserved that one copy of the poem through all these years, this whole project would not have been possible -- the biggest thanks certainly go to you.

Richard said...

Thanks Jack. I dint quite realise there was no other basic copy. There was some in Loney's ADHOTWW and indeed Loney is to be commended for publishing it originally.

Leicester was great friend.
I'm cooking something up for Scott's Brief if I have time. But then I will do something definite on LK

Just now I'm reading Peter Simpson's book about McCahon in Titirangi. The deep issues of doubt arise (In the Elias series for example.) Creative doubt. My feeling is that while he kept his faith Leceister had a kind of creative doubt or even "negative capability" much like perhaps McCahon.

Not perhaps "revolutionary" but certainly original...and who (well we can see McCahon was) is "revolutionary" in art literature etc It's a pity more attention isn't paid to his work.

I suppose he planned on living longer. And then there are Davis and Brunton et al...

We are all like that!

(As if these souls were "there" somewhere...Who knows. A mystery.)