Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Poetry Business

[The Tuesday Poem]

Tuesday Poems

That peripatetic poet and erudite Beckettian Harvey Molloy has just posted a poem of mine, "The Darkness", on his blog, as one of his weekly "Tuesday Poems." (I found out just what an authority he was on Joyce and Beckett - kind of inevitable, given the surname - a couple of weeks ago, when he put up my poem "U.p.: up")

[Harvey Molloy: Moonshot]

The idea didn't actually originate with him. Apparently it was Mary McCallum who first started the actual Tuesday Poem blog, which is now managed by a rotating editorship. The idea does seem to have spread like wildfire, though. There are now quite a number of sites which post a weekly poem on Tuesdays. You can check out a bunch of them through the links available here. Go on - what else are you going to be doing of a Tuesday morning?


99 Ways into NZ Poetry

I've been allowed a sneak preview of the proofs of this mighty tome, written by Paula Green and Harry Ricketts, and due out from Random House in the middle of next month.

I was sent the advance sheets because Paula and I will be discussing the book (and talking generally about "ways into poetry") at the Going West Books & Writers weekend on Saturday 11th September (from 3-3.45 pm). I'll also be at the official booklaunch in the Auckland Central Public Library on 17th September from 5.30 -7.00 pm. Come along and pick up a copy then.

So what's it like? Well, I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that it's the book we've all been waiting for: comprehensive, inclusive, varied, visually attractive and positively bursting with useful detail. Those of us who teach poetry will now have something to recommend both to students who are struggling with the whole notion of expressing yourself in heightened snippets of language, and more experienced readers who need a crash course in what's been written, when, and by whom.

It's not just a textbook, though. I defy anyone who takes a look inside to say that it's all familiar territory. To be honest, I think it's worth having just for the reprints of single poems with discussions by their authors. It's extremely interesting (and revealing) to see just how each of them approaches the task of dancing around a poem which was - of course - originally intended to be self-sufficient and self-explanatory.

It's going on all my reading lists right now. I think we're going to be talking about this book for a long time to come.

Check out Nelson Wattie's launch speech for the new Poetry Archive of New Zealand / Aotearoa. They already have an extensive catalogue of books available for consultation in their Wellington premises, but Mark tells me that donations from authors and publishers are always welcome. Be sure to check the online catalogue to make sure they don't already have all of your works, though!


Home & Away

The second leg of this Trans Tasman Poetry Symposium is scheduled for Wednesday September 1st-Thursday September 2nd in Sydney. You can find a full programme of events on the nzepc here, together with a digital archive of the poems and texts generated to date by the first part of the gathering.

There'll be a lot more to come, I'm told, so do keep on checking the site.

I understand that not many of you are going to be able to jet across to Sydney just for the occasion (I wouldn't be going myself if it weren't for a helping hand from my employers, Massey's School of Social and Cultural Studies). You'll notice that a lot of the papers from the Auckland part of the conference are already up on the nzepc, though, so hopefully the same will be true of the readings and discussions this time.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Poetic Genealogies

I've been asked to talk about Seamus Heaney to Jo Emeney's sixth-form class at Kristin. I hope they're kind to me. I'm a bit scared of High Schools, to tell you the truth. I'm always afraid I'm about to be hauled off to the headmaster's office for some ritual humiliation followed by a good caning ...

Anyway, the idea is to talk about the idea of poetic genealogy and inheritance (particularly appropriate in Heaney's case, I think: he's one of those who's constantly measuring himself up against the "mighty dead").

It's an obvious commonplace about genealogy that it can either be seen to spread backwards from one individual like a fan, or else to move down from that person like a root system.

If you start off with your own parents, then their parents, and then their parents, each generation is going to double (at a minimum) the number of people you could potentially include in your family tree. If, on the other hand, you start off with some mighty ancestor, you'll disappear in the fine filaments of their innumerable and constantly growing lines of descent. The only way to manufacture a genealogy is therefore to apply some pretty arbitrary rules of selection.

Lines of intellectual descent, charts of mutual influence, are (of course) equally arbitrary, but perhaps no more arbitrary. Clear evidence has to be
produced in both cases.

Starting with Seamus Heaney, then: It's clear that an Irish poet of his generation was unlikely to be able to avoid entirely the example of Yeats. Whether he could or he couldn't, Heaney certainly didn't. The "anxiety of influence" - that complex combination of appropriation and misreading outlined in Freudian terms by Harold Bloom - can be most clearly seen in Heaney's adaptation of Yeats's self-appointed role as spokesman for a reborn Ireland (above all in poems such as "Easter 1916").

What lies behind Yeats, though? An equally complex tangle of influences and forefathers, Blake and Shelley prominent among them - but I think, above all, an attempt to (re)create an "Irishness" to match the Protestant Ascendancy's "Englishness", seen most clearly in the innumerable masks and facets of that body of work we generally refer to as Shakespeare.

And what about Shakespeare? We know he read (among other things): Holinshed's Chronicles, Plutarch's Lives, Painter's Palace of Pleasure, and Montaigne's essays. "Troilus and Cressida" and "The Two Noble Kinsmen" are not the only signs of his long and intricate conversation with Geoffrey Chaucer, though.

What about Chaucer? Well, his influences seem to have come mainly from the continent, from French and Italian literature: The essentially medieval Romance of the Rose, on the one hand, the Renaissance Humanism of Boccaccio and Petrarch, on the other. Behind both of these traditions, though, stands Dante's Divine Comedy.

[Raphael: Dante]

Now the story becomes more familiar. Dante's guide through hell is Virgil, whose Aeneid serves as a model (and a rival) for him throughout.

Dante's precedent for this is Virgil's own relation to the master of all European poets, Homer. The Aeneid attempts to combine the intense warlike seriousness of the Iliad with the more romantic and adventurous atmosphere of the Odyssey.

O land of password, handgrip, wink and nod,
Of open minds as open as a trap,

Where tongues lie coiled, as under flames lie wicks,
Where half of us, as in a wooden horse
Were cabin'd and confined like wily Greeks,
Besieged within the siege, whispering morse.

- Seamus Heaney, "Whatever You Say, Say Nothing" (1975)

So what does this main trunk route of influence actually tell us about Seamus Heaney? Well, it's a bit hard to empathise with the ponderous poetic machinery of, say, Station Island (1984), without understanding just how living a presence Dante is for him. Chaucer can certainly be felt in his emphasis on character studies and portraits of friends (mostly rural, mostly Northern Irish). And when it comes to Yeats, just try paralleling some of the poems in his book about the troubles, North (1975) with Yeats's "Easter 1916."

I've quoted above from some lines from "Whatever You Say, Say Nothing," which appear to compare his own status as a Catholic in Northern Ireland with the Greek warriors hidden in the Trojan Horse. That poem concludes as follows:

This morning from a dewy motorway
I saw the new camp for the internees:
A bomb had left a crater of fresh clay
In the roadside, and over in the trees

Machine-gun posts defined a real stockade.
There was that white mist you get on a low ground
And it was déjà-vu, some film made
Of Stalag 17, a bad dream with no sound.

Is there a life before death? That's chalked up
In Ballymurphy. Competence with pain,
Coherent miseries, a bite and sup,
We hug our little destiny again.

That's really very like:

I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn

"We hug our little destiny again" does seem to echo the concept of a land where "motley is worn." Yeats's poem, however, goes on to try and analyse just how all this has "changed, changed utterly", and why

A terrible beauty is born.

Heaney's is not so sure.

Perhaps a closer parallel can be found with "Punishment," Heaney's famous (and controversial) poem comparing a female sacrificial victim found preserved in prehistoric bogland to certain contemporary events in Northern Ireland:

My poor scapegoat,

I almost love you
but would have cast, I know,
the stones of silence.
I am the artful voyeur

of your brain's exposed
and darkened combs,
your muscles' webbing
and all your numbered bones:

I who have stood dumb
when your betraying sisters,
cauled in tar,
wept by the railings,

who would connive
in civilized outrage
yet understand the exact
and tribal, intimate revenge.

This woman, too, had (he claims) committed adultery, and thus been punished with the "exact / and tribal, intimate revenge":

her shaved head
like a stubble of black corn,
her blindfold a soiled bandage,
her noose a ring

to store
the memories of love.
Little adultress,
before they punished you

you were flaxen-haired,
undernourished, and your
tar-black face was beautiful.

Heaney claims to "feel" all this with her, but his evocation of her "naked front" with nipples like "amber beads ... the frail rigging of her ribs" is (as he admits) almost voyeuristic in its intensity. He's quite prepared to acknowledge that while he connives in "civilized outrage" at her contemporary sisters, shaved and tarred consorting with British soldiers, he understands and somehow sympathises with the motvations behind these "exact and tribal" acts.

There's an almost gruesome honesty in that. Of course it recalls the culmination of Yeats's catalogue of the Easter martyrs: Countess Constance Markievicz, that woman whose days were spent "in ignorant good will"; the poet Patrick Pearse, who "rode our winged horse"; Thomas MacDonagh, his "helper and friend [who] / Was coming into his force"; John MacBride, the "drunken vain-glorious lout," who so miserably mistreated his wife, Yeats's beloved Maud Gonne:

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone's in the midst of all.

The fanaticism that deformed these conspirator's hearts, that somehow excepted them from the laws of nature, turned them into unwavering pivots, damming and breaking up the flow of life, has now been somehow transformed. But how, exactly?

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.

Is that last bit a cop-out on Yeats's part? He assigns himself the motherly role of murmuring "name upon name" of those who have died, while resigning to "Heaven" the task of deciding when all this sacrifice will be sufficient.

And yet, is this any less honest than Heaney's self-characterisation as a silent co-conspirator in atrocity?

I who have stood dumb
when your betraying sisters,
cauled in tar,
wept by the railings,

who would connive
in civilized outrage

Yeats's poem concludes:

We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse —
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

There's a terrible seductiveness in that "what if excess of love / Bewildered them till they died". So were they right or were they wrong? Whose side are you on, exactly, Mr. Yeats? Auden thought that any poet who could write so compellingly about the tragedy of the Easter rising without offending either party was fatally two-timing both history and truth.

Heaney's voyeuristic dumb witness to the "tribal, intimate revenge" taken by the women of Ireland aspires (perhaps) to be seen more like the Euripides of the Trojan Women, whose play was meant to point out the tragic parallels between Homer's heroic age and his own times, the era of the unprecedentedly vicious Peloponnesian war - not so much a partisan response as an attempt to do justice to the complexities of civil war.

Is there a life before death? That's chalked up
In Ballymurphy.

Yeats composed plenty of more rousing patriotic plays and poems (Cathleen ni Houlihan, for instance - "Did that play of mine send out / Certain men the English shot"?). When you're a poet people listen to - both your own countrymen and foreigners - you have a set of responsibilities weighing on you that the rest of us don't really have to feel to the same degree.

Heaney, for good or ill, has inherited that mantle. It must have weighed on him particularly heavily in 1975.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Just Another Funloving Aucklander

[Matt Stenning: Auckland Skyline (2009)]

When I was a kid, my parents used to take us on camping trips all over New Zealand. One year it would be East Cape for a couple of weeks, the next Rotorua and the Lakes. On at least a couple of occasions we drove right around the South Island, which took us roughly three weeks. I'm not quite sure when it dawned on me that the place we came from was somehow different from the places we were visiting.

It was certainly nothing in those places themselves: dairies, playing fields, beaches. Everything seemed pretty normal to me. It was more in the attitude of the people we encountered. It became clear over time that it was exceedingly unwise to admit straight out that you came from Auckland.

Later, as I grew up, I began to encounter terms such as JAFA and Dorklander more and more often. Even when I went overseas as a graduate student, I still had to weather that automatic grimace or joke when answering that inevitable "Where are you from?" from a fellow Kiwi.

"Oh, Auckland, that's not New Zealand - that's a suburb of Sydney," was one bon mot I remember, from a silly young Wellingtonian ("You can talk," was the first riposte that sprang to mind, but I sensibly held my peace).

I wondered why the - very prosaic and ordinary - place I came from elicited such violent and extreme reactions. I still do. I suppose I began by assuming that it was just a bit of humorous joshing, that no-one could seriously imagine that a third of the population of New Zealand were somehow "different" - that merely crossing the Bombay Hills could create an insatiable appetite for latte, bohemian black, and other forms of pretentious trendiness.

There was a certain venom detectable behind it that seemed to preclude the "all in good fun" explanation. Even the most sensitive and cultured of my friends from other centres simply refused to drop the mask and admit that there was nothing particularly special about Auckland whenever I tried to raise the subject seriously.

It used to worry me a bit, I must confess. Like (I suspect) most Aucklanders abroad, I learned to apologise automatically for the place I came from. I would claim to hale from "north of Auckland" (the North Shore, in other words), or simply try to evade the question altogether.

Then, one day in Hamilton, I ran into an old university buddy wearing a T-shirt blazoned with the proud legend "Quite Frankly Auckland" (you understand that this was in the era of "Absolutely Positively Wellington"; "Yes, You Canterbury" - unfortunate double entendre there, I've always thought - and all those other regional mottos). "Auckland is for lovers" was the only other (mercifully short-lived) attempt I heard of to replace the more prosaic "City of Sails".

"How the hell do you get away with it?" I asked him. "Don't you find them waiting outside the pub at closing time to give you a kicking?"

"No, not at all. I had it made up when I moved here. No-one's ever mentioned it before, actually."

Mark's defiance heartened me. I stopped apologising for being from Auckland, stopped trying to blend in and look inoffensive whenever I headed south of the hills. In short, I came to terms with the fact that whatever problems other New Zealanders have with Aucklanders are their problems, not ours. I guess I was aided in this by the fact that my mother comes from Sydney, so growing up on a constant diet of anti-Australian jokes and badinage rather accustoms you to ignoring the silliness of it all.

It isn't just silly, of course. I'm still at a bit of a loss when I read news reports about children being sent home from school for wearing the wrong team colours (the school was in Christchurch, I believe, and the child in question's parents hailed from Dunedin). "All in good fun" once again, no doubt. I'm sure the child in question didn't mind too much missing a day of school. I doubt that he or she relished the atmosphere of hazing and ritual humiliation hanging over it all, though. Why not just burn a cross on their lawn and have done with it?

My mother did rather put it all in perspective for us one day when, after some particularly vituperative piece of anti-Australian raving from some semi-sentient sports commentator, we asked her how Australians felt about New Zealanders.

"They never think about them," she replied. "Until I came here I seriously doubt that I'd spent ten minutes of my life thinking about it. Of course I knew that New Zealand was there, but it just never came up."

There you have it. The root cause of irrational hatred is jealousy. New Zealanders find it difficult to bear that Australians so seldom talk about or even seem to notice them, when we ourselves just can't keep off the subject. The same would appear to apply to Auckland (fortunately to a somewhat lesser degree). Auckland too seems - at any rate for a New Zealand city - big, bewildering and appallingly self-sufficient.

It isn't that Aucklanders necessarily think more of themselves than other New Zealanders, but they do think a lot about themselves. The city is so diverse and huge that it takes some navigation. It's possible to live here all your life and never see large tracts of it. And, yes, this is more of the kind of lifestyle we associate with huge urban centres such as Sydney and Melbourne (giants though they are next to Auckland) than with the more culturally homogeneous and somehow more comprehensible other cities of New Zealand.

I think it was Hazlitt who remarked, "the smaller and more backward the hamlet, the more certain its inhabitants are that it is a pinnacle towards which civilization has been painfully struggling for generations." I think it might just be time for New Zealanders to grow up a bit and stop grousing so much about the evils of Australia (and Auckland, too, for that matter). Let's face it: they are really us. To the rest of the world, the fine distinctions we'd like to draw are largely invisible. There's a lot more to lose than there is to gain by clinging to silly provincial prejudices. Most of the population of Auckland was born elsewhere anyway, so how much logical sense can be attributed to this alleged "difference" anyway?

It may begin as a joke, but fomenting irrational hatreds does tend to end up by making them only too horribly real. So the history of Europe over the last century or so would suggest, at any rate. And the awful thing is that Aucklanders don't really, by and large, have any particular negative feelings about the rest of New Zealand at all. We just don't think about it. Those of us who like to travel tend to regard the whole kit and kaboodle as our own country. Why on earth would we want to restrict ourselves solely to the vistas we're used to at home?

[Jack Ross: Newmarket (2004)]