Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Classic NZ Poets by Theme

poetry is magic
– W. H. Auden

Here's a thematic breakdown of the 110 poems in our Classic NZ Poets in Performance anthology (Auckland: AUP, 2006). The categories are pretty subjective, and could undoubtedly be improved on. Not a bad starting point for discussion, though: what's the poem really about?

[Adcock’s “Camping” speaks for itself. Campbell’s “Gunfighter” is definitely having trouble growing up, even if he isn’t actually an adolescent. Wendt’s poems from The Book of the Black Star (AUP, 2002) are clearly about a great many things: depression, friendship, etc. but it was hard to think of any other heading to put them under].
Fleur Adcock: Camping - 89
Alistair Te Ariki Campbell: The Gunfighter - 60
Albert Wendt: On Our Way - 115
Albert Wendt: Over Ponsonby - 116
Albert Wendt: Scavengers - 116
Albert Wendt: Bus - 117

[The poems here may actually be about love, death and a number of other subjects, but animals star in all of them].
Peter Bland: Death of a Dog - 93
Lauris Edmond: yellow-eyed penguin - 47
Janet Frame: The Cat of Habit - 50
Brian Turner: Fish - 133
Brian Turner: Pig - 134
Brian Turner: Trout - 131

[Kids often seem smarter than grown-ups, but maybe that’s because we just project our preconceptions onto them].
Peter Bland: The Happy Army - 95
Alistair Te Ariki Campbell: Home from Hospital - 61
Michael Harlow: Cassandra’s Daughter - 99
Alistair Paterson: Jenny Roache Love all the Boys in the World - 71
Albert Wendt: Conversation - 113

[These could be useful pieces for a class focussed on their own writing].
Fleur Adcock: The Pilgrim Fathers - 88
Louis Johnson: Singing to the Ancestors - 55
Alistair Paterson: On reading Robert Bly’s Selected Poems … - 72
Kendrick Smithyman: Communicating - 34
C. K. Stead: from The Masks of Catullus, 16 - 77
Albert Wendt: Bound For Whangamata - 117

[One of the two great poetic staples].
Lauris Edmond: Before a Funeral - 45
Kevin Ireland: Villanelle for a Smile - 85
R. A. K . Mason: The Spark’s Farewell to its Clay - 8
R. A. K . Mason: Stoic Overthrow - 10
Vincent O’Sullivan: Elegy for a Schoolmate - 105
Keith Sinclair: E. D. S. (1893-1969) - 31
C. K. Stead: from The Masks of Catullus, 11 - 76

[Some of the most charming poems in the collection – I think so, anyway].
Janet Frame: Lines Written at the Frank Sargeson Centre - 51
Elizabeth Smither: Smoking with Carol - 126
C. K. Stead: from The Masks of Catullus, 19 - 77

[Best not to let it get you down, I guess ...]
Lauris Edmond: Autumn in Canada - 47
Louis Johnson: The Seventies - 56
Elizabeth Smither: Saveloy - 127
Kendrick Smithyman: Closing the Chocolate Factory - 37
C. K. Stead: Horation - 79

  • colonialism
    [“History is real” -- Kendrick Smithyman]
    James K. Baxter: Prospector - 66
    Allen Curnow: House and Land - 16
    Allen Curnow: The Unhistoric Story - 17
    Allen Curnow: The Skeleton of the Great Moa … - 19
    Kendrick Smithyman: Near Ellon - 36
  • the depression
    [memories of the Great Depression]
    A. R. D. Fairburn: Walking on my Feet - 4
    Denis Glover: The Magpies - 23
  • the first world war
    [A Gallipoli poem]
    Alistair Te Ariki Campbell: Lest We Forget - 61
  • the second world war
    [Three different aspects of the war – North Africa, the camps, and the front line].
    Alistair Te Ariki Campbell: Maori Battalion Veteran - 62
    Riemke Ensing: Transport - 111
    M. K. Joseph: Drunken Gunners - 26
  • the atomic bomb
    [Two poems written after Hiroshima]
    Keith Sinclair: The Bomb is Made - 32
    Hone Tuwhare: No ordinary sun - 41

[Autres endroits, autres moeurs].
James K. Baxter: Poem in the Matukituki Valley - 65
James K. Baxter: The Fallen House - 68
Allen Curnow: A Dead Lamb - 19
Denis Glover: Threnody - 24
Kevin Ireland: A Hard Country - 82
M. K. Joseph: Mercury Bay Eclogue I & II - 26
M. K. Joseph: Elegy in a City Railyard - 29
R. A. K. Mason: Flow at Full Moon - 11
Kendrick Smithyman: Inlet - 34
C. K. Stead: Auckland - 79
Albert Wendt: The Mountains of Ta’ū - 113

[So what’s it all about? -- dunno, really].
A. R. D. Fairburn: Full Fathom Five - 1
Janet Frame: The Icicles - 51
Michael Jackson: Seven Mysteries - 120
Louis Johnson: Coming and Going - 57
Vincent O’Sullivan: Butcher on Life in General - 103
C. K. Stead: Birthday Sonnet - 75

[The second great poetic staple ...]
Charles Brasch: from In Your Presence - 14
A. R. D. Fairburn: Cupid - 4
Michael Harlow: And, yes - 101
R. A. K. Mason: Be Swift O Sun - 9
Vincent O’Sullivan: Seeing You Asked - 106
C. K. Stead: from April Notebook - 75

[How else could one characterise these poems?]
Fleur Adcock: A Game - 87
Riemke Ensing: Morning Glory - 109
Michael Jackson: Shape-Shifter - 119
Vincent O’Sullivan: Still Shines when you Think of it - 104
Elizabeth Smither: Late Summer Dew - 129
Brian Turner: In the Swim - 135

[Two versions of the Kiwi bloke].
Kevin Ireland: A Whiff of the Old Adam - 84
Vincent O’Sullivan: Butcher in Sunlight - 103

[Pianos seem to have more fans than any of the other instruments – so far, at any rate].
Michael Harlow: Today is the Piano’s Birthday - 100
Elizabeth Smither: Listening to The Goldberg Variations - 128

[Jackson stresses the violence of nature, Tuwhare its gentleness].
Michael Jackson: Green Turtle - 122
Hone Tuwhare: Rain - 40

[Suffering / illness ...]
Riemke Ensing: T’ai Chi - 110
Janet Frame: O Lung Flowering Like a Tree - 52

[“No problem, but not easy” – different relationships, with their different beginnings, middles and ends].
Lauris Edmond: Scar Tissue - 46
A. R. D. Fairburn: A Farewell - 2
Michael Harlow: No Problem, But Not Easy - 98
Kevin Ireland: Cloud - 83
Vincent O’Sullivan: Before you go - 107
C. K. Stead: Between - 78

[It’s on our minds a lot, so it’s in our poems a lot, too].
Fleur Adcock: Smokers against Celibacy - 90
A. R. D. Fairburn: The Cave - 2
Brian Turner: One Night Stand - 135
Hone Tuwhare: cummings - 42

[Poems about journeys, long or short, and the things one sees on them, whether they qualify as “visions” or new perceptions of reality].
Allen Curnow: Any Time Now - 20
Michael Jackson: The Red Road - 119
R. A. K. Mason: Out from Sea-Bondage - 8
Brian Turner: Training on the Peninsula - 132

[“Sudan” can be a good corrective for students who find poetry bland and unmoving].
Peter Bland: the nose - 94
Michael Jackson: Sudan - 121
Louis Johnson: Words for Blair Peach - 56
David Mitchell: my lai / remuera / ponsonby - 124
Alistair Paterson: The dictionary of battles - 73

[Guys like talking about women; women do, too, it would appear.]
Peter Bland: Shopping with Brigitte Bardot - 95
Riemke Ensing: Love Affair - 109
Elizabeth Smither: Red shoes - 126

Classic NZ Poets by Region

The road goes through to somewhere else
– Kendrick Smithyman

Here's my preliminary attempt at a regional breakdown of the 27 poets in our anthology, Classic New Zealand Poets in Performance:

  • Place -- Name -- Dates -- Pages in Classic NZ Poets


  • A. R. D. Fairburn (1904-1957) 1-7
  • mainly Devonport and the North Shore, though he also worked at Auckland university and at ELAM.
  • Kevin Ireland (b.1933) 82-86
  • mainly Devonport and the North Shore, though he spent 25 years working as a journalist in the UK.
  • R. A. K. Mason (1905-1971) 8-13
  • born in Penrose, but lived later at a succession of addresses on the North Shore (including Mairangi Bay).
  • Keith Sinclair (1922-1993) 31-33
  • brought up in Pt Chevalier, he moved later to Takapuna, across the Harbour Bridge.
  • C. K. Stead (b.1932) 75-81
  • strongly associated with the Sargeson school on the North Shore, he subsequently moved to Parnell.


  • Allen Curnow (1911-2001) 16-22
  • born in Timaru, and moved to Auckland in 1950. Much of his later poetry is set there, particularly on Karekare beach.
  • Denis Glover (1912-1980) 23-25
  • born in Dunedin, brought up in Christchurch, and lived in Wellington (writing memorably about its harbour).


  • Alistair Te Ariki Campbell (b.1925) 60-64
  • though he moved to New Zealand as a child, he has written a good deal (poetry & prose) about his Polynesian heritage.


  • Lauris Edmond (1924-2000) 45-49
  • brought up in Hawkes Bay and educated in Wellington, she is strongly associated with the Central North Island.


  • James K. Baxter (1926-1972) 65-70
  • also has strong associations with Wellington, Auckland and Jerusalem on the Whanganui River.
  • Charles Brasch (1909-1973) 14-15
  • lived in Britain for a long time, but came back to New Zealand to found and edit Landfall in the 1950s.
  • Janet Frame (1924-2004) 50-54
  • from Oamaru, though she lived in many different parts of the country, including Sargeson’s bach in Takapuna.
  • Brian Turner (b.1944) 131-137
  • lives in Central Otago, after many years of writing and working in Dunedin.


  • Michael Harlow (b.1937) 98-102
  • born in New York, he has lived in Greece, Christchurch and (now) Central Otago.


  • Riemke Ensing (b.1939) 109-112
  • moved to New Zealand at the age of twelve; she was brought up in Northland and subsequently moved to Auckland.


  • Alistair Paterson (b.1929) 71-74
  • born in Nelson, went to university in Wellington, and is now living in Auckland.
  • Michael Jackson (b.1940) 119-123
  • born in Nelson, brought up in Taranaki, but has spent most of his adult life abroad (Sierra Leone, the USA, etc.)


  • Kendrick Smithyman (1922-1995) 34-39
  • though he moved to Auckland at the age of nine, he always retained strong links with the north.
  • Hone Tuwhare (b.1922) 40-44
  • also strong links with Dunedin and Otago, where he now lives (Kaka Point).


  • Albert Wendt (b.1939) 113-118
  • born in Apia, he was educated in New Plymouth and Wellington before returning to Samoa (now based in Auckland).


  • Elizabeth Smither (b.1941) 126-130
  • born in New Plymouth, she has spent most of her life working there as a librarian.


  • Fleur Adcock (b.1934) 87-92
  • born in Auckland and educated in Wellington, she has spent much of her adult life in the UK.
  • Peter Bland (b.1934) 93-97
  • born in Yorkshire, he moved to New Zealand at the age of 20. He is principally associated with Wellington.
  • M. K. Joseph (1914-1981) 26-30
  • born in Essex and educated in France, he moved to Tauranga at the age of 10, and subsequently moved to Auckland.


  • Louis Johnson (1924-1988) 55-59
  • born and brought up in Wellington, he later worked in Australia and New Guinea before returning to New Zealand.
  • David Mitchell (b.1940) 124-125
  • born in Wellington, he made his reputation as a performance poet there and in Auckland in the 60s and 70s.
  • Vincent O'Sullivan (b.1937) 103-108
  • born in Auckland, he taught in Wellington and Waikato before returning to the capital to live.

Classic NZ Poets Teaching Notes

[cover image: Pat Hanly / Cover design: Christine Hansen]

Classic New Zealand Poets in Performance
Edited by Jack Ross.
Poems Selected by Jack Ross & Jan Kemp
(Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2006)

Well, yes, I am a teacher. I teach Academic and Creative writing at Massey University’s Auckland campus, and give lectures on NZ literature as well.

AUP asked me quite a while ago to write some teaching notes for the audio / text anthology which we launched on Thursday last week, so I thought it might be a good idea to put them up here for maximum accessibility.

I guess our desire all along was that the book could be used to promote awareness of NZ poetry in schools and tertiary institutions (though of course it’s priced to appeal to individual consumers as well).

Some of the teachers I’ve met have told me that they don’t quite know how to go about teaching poetry in their classes. Clearly I don’t have any magical panacea for that, but here are one or two suggestions:

Think of a theme or subject you’d like to discuss, and choose a poem (or, if you have time, poems) which deals with it in a way you think might interest your students.

I’ve compiled a thematic breakdown of all the poems in the anthology (and it took quite a wee while, too, so don’t wax too sarcastic at my expense. I know some of the categories are a bit suss):

    · colonialism
    · the depression
    · the first world war
    · the second world war
    · the atomic bomb
  • LOVE
  • MEN
  • SEX

Our book is arranged in chronological order of birthdates, beginning with Rex Fairburn in 1904 and ending with Brian Turner in 1944. (Some of the reviewers appear to think that this implies we believe that one has to be over sixty to be a “classic” poet, but I guess I’d see this as about as intelligent as attributing conscious bias to a librarian’s choice of Dewey decimal numbers. Chronology simply seemed to us the most convenient way of arranging the material. No-one’s yet claimed to find the book difficult to navigate.)

Another way of approaching a poetry class might be through region and locality. Why not get your class to talk about a poet who comes from where you live? The idea would be to get the students to consider the characteristics of their particular place: culture, physical features, lifestyle – even at some distance away in time. What are the continuities (and discontinuities) in your area?

My colleague Mary Paul has been teaching a course called “Auckland Writers and their Region” at Massey Albany for a number of years now, and we’ve always found it an excellent way of approaching the major themes and concerns of New Zealand life and culture: Arrival; Assimilation; Civilisation & Barbarism; Colonial Identity; Cultural Cringe; Landscape; New World / Old World dichotomies; Settler Blues ...

Many of the poets in the book have associations with more than one region, but some (like Kendrick Smithyman or Brian Turner) are very strongly identified with a particular place, and constantly revisit it as subject-matter in their work.

Here are some of the places on offer:

  • UK

When it comes to teaching the actual class, I would recommend beginning by introducing the poet, telling them some picturesque details about them, where they lived, what they liked to do (drink too much, in many cases, alas …) A lot of this information is available online, and I’ve tried to provide links where you can find a picture and discussion of each poet.

Hand out the text of the poem, then play them the recording.

Some of the poets, one has to admit, sound distinctly plummy and odd at this distance in time (Fairburn and Brasch, for example); others (such as Mason and Janet Frame) are quite vernacular and plain. You might tell your students that their own recorded voices will sound a bit strange in twenty or thirty years. Or else just let them laugh. After all, it’s not a crime. Some of them do come across as pretty weird, even to me.

The more they listen, though, the less attention they’ll pay to all that. The content of some of the poems (different ones for each person, I would imagine) is just too compelling to be ignored.

Make sure you go through what each poem means in literal terms. Are there any difficult words? Any allusions needing to be explained?

Try to elicit general reactions from the class. Do they like the poem? Does it interest them? Are there are other approaches to the material they’d prefer the writer to have used?

Write up the material generated by the discussion on the board, grouping it into a kind of mindmap of the various reactions (negative / positive; specific / general).

Depending on how much time you have, at this point you might want to get the class to try and write their own poems on the same theme (either individually or in groups). Get them to write them on posters and/ or read them out loud when they’ve finished.

Alternatively, if you have internet access in the classroom, you could get your students to research particular writers and find pictures and information about them.

The best place to begin would be at one of the following websites:

(A select but valuable list of major NZ poets with pictures, recordings, and critical reactions).

(Details of books and other publications by a number of the authors in the anthology).

(This has very thorough bibliographies for most major New Zealand writers).

(The final text of Kendrick Smithyman's Collected Poems, edited with copious notes and chronologies by Margaret Edgcumbe and Peter Simpson. The first substantial presentation of a major New Zealand poet's works on the internet. Hopefully it will be followed by many more such sites).

(A brief account of the creation of the 1974 and 2004 recorded poetry archives, which were the main source for this book).

(This has pictures and short biographical and critical summaries adapted from Roger Robinson & Nelson Wattie's Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1998), but with updated information and supplementary entries on more recent writers).

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Dolan Departs

[photograph by Michaela Hendry, cover design by Sarah Maxey]

Well, it's official. John Dolan is leaving New Zealand after more than a decade spent on these shores. In that time he's published three books -- well, five, if you count two Academic works: Writing Well, Speaking Clearly (U of Otago Press, 1994) and Poetic Occasion from Milton to Wordsworth (Palgrave Press, 2000). The books I'm talking about, though, are two poetry collections put out by AUP: Stuck Up (1995) and People with Real Lives Don't Need Landscapes (2003), and, above all, his novel Pleasant Hell (Capricorn Publishing, 2005).

I must confess to having felt a little suspicious of Dr Dolan before actually meeting him (at Bluff, in fact, a couple of months ago). There seemed something just a little showy about that Doctorate on the Marquis de Sade, those slightly smart-arse-sounding reviews and articles one ran across in Glottis or Landfall from time to time. But then we started talking.

Wow. Was I ever wrong! Dolan is not only a fascinating and generous conversationalist, but a genuine polymath. We started on the American Civil War, then shifted to Science Fiction (Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun and Soldier in the Mist, Jack Vance, and -- of course -- the Master, Philip K. Dick), religion, regionalism, poetry ... You can see it's a bit of a blow for me that he's leaving.

And why is he leaving? Because he can't get a job, that's why. No English Department will hire him. Because ... um, well, just because, actually. He shows up the others too much. He's too large and opinionated. Because he gets things done, perhaps.

Admittedly, it is true that he was "the subject of various voodoo death cults among the Dunedin med students, some of whom even produced a T-shirt with a highly unflattering caricature of Dr Dolan with the words 'BLAH BLAH BLAH' beneath it." That was as a result of having to teach a particularly onerous compulsory writing course to this particularly disaffected and mutinous pportion of the student body, though. When I had coffee with John the other day in the Alleluya cafe, we were accosted by a succession of his ex-writing students who wanted to tell him how much his teaching had meant to him -- I began to suspect him of planting them after a while, but no, they appeared to be sincere.

The blurb to People with Real Lives Don't Need Landscapes goes on to claim that "Cowardice and vindictive paranoia combine to form Dolan's crude blood-fingerpaint poetic style." He certainly has a number of recurrent themes: Huns, Barbarian Invasions in general, the last days of Byzantium, The Lord of the Rings (especially Elven maidens), the horrors of American suburbia, etc. etc.

All of which brings us to Pleasant Hell, Dolan's first (and to date, regrettably, only) novel. How exactly can one characterise this insane work? The main character is called "John," and seems to have had a more-or-less equivalent set of experiences to his creator: Californian upbringing, Academic job in Dunedin, curious passive-aggressive relationship with his parents (sulking for twenty years is, apparently, the only way of solving arguments in this menage) -- oh, and his surname's "Dolan."

It's appallingly funny. It begins with a long rant about the wondrous workings of providence, and how one particularly obnoxious Pollyanna called "Canny Scot"who used to write in to the Otago Daily Times about "God's plan" should be strapped to the front of a squid boat and made to "look down into that writhing, pulsing water and see in it God's plan for this antipodean Alcatraz. Let him see how much we matter in the grand scheme. Rope him tight to that light-pole and keep him out there facing the water all night, drooling half-frozen ropes of spittle ... A little fresh ocean spray will do him good. Taste God's cold pickled water. Smell God's cheap diesel fumes. Watch God's choppy waves for ten hours, spewing God's fish-and-chips into the chop at intervals."

There is much in the same vein until we come to the irrefutable conclusion:

"God created this place [Dunedin] as a critique of me."

The universe of Dolan's fiction is a solipsistic hell. The awful degradations suffered by his main character as he crawls through High School and on into College do, literally, have to be read to be believed. His ghastly malodorous Karate clothes, the leather biker boots which gradually strip his feet of most of their skin and all of their resemblance to normal human appendages, become characters in their own right. So does Max the attack-dog, a pathetic shit-smeared wreck from a pound, whose only remaining trait is the desire to kill (non-white) passers-by.

You may think you had it hard growing up (I certainly remember vividly lying supine on the floor by the lockers at Rangitoto College, as one boy kicked me in the ribs repeatedly -- he'd taken a dislike to me on sight, apparently, and made a point of coming up and bashing me every time we met thereafter -- something about the expression on my face, it must have been. I never consciously addressed a word to him [except, perhaps, "ouch!" or "no, please, mercy!"] so it can't have been anything I said). Your sufferings -- my sufferings -- were a fucking picnic compared to "John Dolan"'s.

I put in the inverted commas because I tried to console myself at first with the idea that he might have made some of it up -- exaggerated it a bit for effect -- but after a while I was forced to conclude that these awful things had indeed happened ...

Perhaps the most terrible, and the most sickeningly funny of all, is the scene where Corey the Klass Klown manages to intercept the note young Dolan tries to pass to the most Elfin of all the girls at his school, a note written in faux-Gothic handwriting (under the influence of that master calligrapher, and adept student of feminine psychology, J. R. R. Tolkien), which reads as follows:

"O Dearest Leigh -- Much have I wished to give to you some testimonial of my affections, yet I know not how. Willt [sic] thou meet me by the stream ere the sun touches the western pines?"

The response from Corey and his cohorts is brutal and complete. "I'm not still standing there, so logically it must have ended," Dolan muses, as one writhes with transferred embarrassment at the completeness of his humiliation. It's not really funny, I suppose, watching another human being suffer. What am I saying? Of course it's funny -- it's the only thing that is really funny (or so John Cleese asserted when trying to account for the popularity of Basil Fawlty).

There's a lot more. It's a pretty thorough denunciation. Nobody I can think of has ever gone further in dramatising his own hapless misery -- but the beautiful precision and effortless competence of the writing makes it funnier to read than P. G. Wodehouse.

The poetry's very good, too -- don't get me wrong -- but Pleasant Hell deserves to become a classic. It's the Catcher in the Rye of the Love Generation (or has someone already said that somewhere online?).

So many goodbyes there've been in my life lately. John and his wife Katherine (an accomplished critic and poet in her own right) are off to Vancouver Island. I hope someone there notices the extraordinary opportunity that has befallen them. The one we've missed.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Four Last Songs

I was talking with a friend the other day, and she told me that she’d been so moved by reading Ken Arvidson’s poem “Four Last Songs” (full title: “The Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss at Takahe Creek above the Kaipara”) when she was a kid, that it actually came as a disappointment to her when she finally got to listen to Strauss’s music.

It’s funny. I had precisely the opposite experience. I’d always had a secret hankering to listen to Strauss’s piece called Tod und Verklärung [Death and Transfiguration] just because of the cool title, and I bought another CD with the Vier letzte Lieder [Four Last Songs] on it at the same time just as an afterthought.

Death and Transfiguration was pretty cool, I must say, but the Four Last Songs were just amazing. They were sung by Jessye Norman, and her voice seemed supernatural at times – like some of the soprano effects in the Ninth Symphony or The Magic Flute. I still get the shivers thinking about it.

It was a strange time for me. I’d just come back from the UK with my Doctorate, and couldn’t find any work except teaching tutorials at Massey, Palmerston North (oh, a friend of my father’s offered me a job cleaning her shop, but at the time I felt a little overqualified for it – now I suspect I’d feel a little underqualified).

I was recently married, so the two of us trekked off to Palmy, where I’d managed to rent us a very solidly bourgeois brick house on the outskirts of town. Having an actual salaried job for the first time meant that I actually had a bit of money, even after rent and bills, hence the splashing out on two CDs.

The other thing that happened just then was my discovery, in a little alcove cupboard of the house we were renting, of a huge library of Antarctic books gathered by our landlady’s uncle (I think – can’t quite be sure at this distance in time).

So that was our winter. Bicycling everyday to work through the park and over the traffic-clogged bridge. On the other side of the river I would branch off right towards Massey (where I kept a complete change of clothes in my little prefabricated hut of an office), and J-A would peddle off left to teach at the Japanese college on the hill (New Zealand studies, among other things – it seemed a curious thing for a multilingual European to be assigned to cover).

Then, when we got home, we would listen to music and watch drossy TV (no video – so we were at the mercy of the programmers) while I worked my way through Herbert Ponting and Frank Worsley and Ernest Shackleton and – above all – Douglas Mawson’s The Home of the Blizzard. The books were mostly huge double-volumed first editions with banks of photographs and endless appendices of observations and maps (pruned off for the cheaper “popular” editions, which he'd also taken the trouble to collect). Our landlady’s uncle had clearly been obsessed by the subject, and it came to obsess me more than a little too.

One bright day I found a brand-new, lavishly-illustrated edition of Mawson’s original expedition diaries in the bookshop in town (if you have to live in a small town, it’s always best to choose one with a university in it – there’s bound to be some good bookshops and a good cinema too: those are two commodities students (and their teachers) are always in need of).

This became a kind of Bible for me. It was incomparably more vivid and frank than the written-up account that actually reached publication, and seemed to take me to some of the same places in human suffering chronicled years later in the film Touching the Void. Eventually all this would grow into the Antarctic section of my first novel, Nights with Giordano Bruno (published by Bumper Books in 2000), but at the time I tried to express this complex of emotions and dislocations in a poem.

It’s never been published before (although I have tried it on editors from time to time in a half-hearted sort of way), and its faults are very obvious to me, but it still has (for me at least) an atmosphere of that strange period in my life, fifteen years ago, on the other side of a turbid creek of personal turmoil and upheaval.

I offer it here on the day of Leicester's funeral as an expression of good wishes for his own personal Death and Transfiguration ...

Tod und Verklärung

(for J-A)

Sir Douglas Mawson, the Australian explorer, was in Adélie Land between 1912 and 1914. It is probably the most inhospitable region of Antarctica (he called his account of the expedition The Home of the Blizzard). The idea was that he should survey one side of the continent, while Ernest Shackleton travelled to meet him from the other. However, Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, was crushed in the ice, so the crossing was never attempted.

[This is all completely inaccurate, by the way – but I’m leaving the poem here as I originally wrote it. While Mawson did have discussions to this effect with “the boss” in London, actually the two expeditions didn't coincide. It was left to another group of hapless souls to lay depots for Shackleton’s doomed Antarctic crossing]


Snow is so soft and deep
– Douglas Mawson, the Antarctic, 22nd January 1913

A terrible catastrophe happened soon after taking latitude ... I looked behind & saw no sign of Ninnis & his team. I stopped & wondered, then bethought myself of the crevasse ... Came back, called & sounded for an hour. Read the Burial Service
– 14th December 1912

Ninnis dead
24 miles back,
Xavier as well – buried in his bag.

Meanwhile, in Germany,
orchestras attack
the prick of Richard Strauss.

Rilke burrows deep
in drifts of office files
(ashamed of hymning war).

Futile to despair ­–
discord in the hut
as Whetter takes a rear ...

Whetter was sick last night, diarrhoea. He sleeps all day today though stating that he would get up and get ice this afternoon. Whetter is not fit for a polar expedition
– 11th June 1912


May God Help us.
– Mawson, 14th December 1912

No light from the Hut, it is difficult to tell when one is on top of it. Outside one is in touch with the sternest of Nature – one might be a lone soul standing in Precambrian times or on Mars – all is desolation and hard in the durest
– 9th April 1912

The landscape makes one think of Greece
(Mawson himself contributes a few lines):
sun-beaten cyclamen, unceasing
wind on coastal pines.
Here darkness, gales, a desert
without dunes – sastrugi,
bitter care, crevasses,
Ninnis and his dog-team.
The bursting sun of Wagner –
what to dramatise?
This lunar quiet, blind echoes
in a maze ... huts over the next rise?


It will be generally admitted that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony
is the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man
– E. M. Forster, Howards End (London, 1910)

11.30 pm: … Will the hangar stick it? Will the screens stand the strain? It is indeed difficult to understand how air can flow so swiftly
– 17th May 1912

Let’s not blame Strauss – this landscape of the Moon
was not dreamed up by Ludendorff or Haig.
The wind cuts wires, wears down the planet’s skin.

Making a “beautiful noise” is not so easy
– the screech of amateurs offends the air.
(how can it move so fast ... relentlessly?)

Some day the guns will be silenced; not so the howl
of the “perpetual anticyclone” of Adélie ...
King George’s land – acceptance with a scowl.

The new land east of the Mertz glacier we have received his Majesty’s gracious permission to name King George V. land
– 1914


Very soft shifting snow, or else I would have done better
– Mawson, 22nd January 1913

You see, my love, this disk of polished steel
and Mawson’s Antarctic Notes
aren’t far apart.
amongst those here at Commonwealth Bay are a number of the very type of men who have made Great Britain what she is, and Europe what she is, and will, I venture to think, – make Heaven out of Hell
– 3rd May 1912

Too late, now, for revision –
Four Last Songs composed
on the abyss.

What do you see when face to face …
with nothing? Who’s to say
except our pal?
The tent is closing in by weight of snow and is about coffin size now
– 25th January 1913

So let’s just listen ­– something there that’s
notes of a man
refusing to lie down
in the soft snow.

Trust in Providence and my crampons
– 3rd February 1913


Wednesday, July 05, 2006

We Were Talking

David Howard writes in to say that this poem by Leicester appeared in the Press today. I guess that as joint literary executors we can jointly give permission for it to appear here. Please also check out the fine obituaries here and here on the Reading the Maps blog ...

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Leicester Kyle 30.10.37-4.7.2006

[photo by Simon Creasey]

Leicester passed away this morning at 1.28 a.m.

"The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house."
-- Philip Larkin, "Aubade"