Saturday, September 22, 2012

A Day out with David Howard

Poster at Massey Albany
[photograph: Jack Ross]

Funnily enough, last weekend I was teaching a poetry course in the very room this poster adorned - or should I say "infested." It was, admittedly, a session on two contemporary poets: a New Zealander and a West Indian, but the cap still seems to fit, somehow.

After all, who else around here can be held responsible for a Doctoral thesis entitled "An Elusive Identity: Versions of South America in English Literature from Aphra Behn to the Present Day" (University of Edinburgh, 1990)? Written, incidentally, on a large institutional mainframe computer - which did take a bit of mastering, but which has certainly prepared me pretty well for all the idle tapping around I've been doing on them ever since.

I guess the only Mexican poets I looked at in any depth in that epoch-making masterwork were the sublime Renaissance genius Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and (closer to the present day) Nobel Prize-winner Octavio Paz, together with certain of his contemporaries - I don't actually recall any nineteenth-century Mexican poets worthy of being discussed alongside the Argentine José Hernández (author of the epic Gaucho Martín Fierro). I could well be wrong, though.

Anyway, to hell with those dweebs! They're just jealous. Let them go back to their haggling and huckstering in the precincts of the temple. It gave me great pleasure to shake the dust of the place off my feet, and instead head north for a day-long road trip with my good friend and fellow poetry-obsessive David Howard, up here for the Going West Festival.

[Howard in Helensville]

I've known David for many years. We first met in Auckland in the late nineties, when he was making a living as an entrepreneurial pyrotechnician and events-organiser. He could never completely submerge the writer in him, though. The books have continued to appear in steady succession since the mid 80s:

  1. Head First. Auckland: Hard Echo Press, 1985.
  2. In the First Place: Poems 1980-1990. Photographs by Paul Swadel. Hazard Poets Series. Ed. Rob Jackaman. Christchurch: Hazard Press, 1991.
  3. Holding Company. Christchurch: Nag’s Head Press, 1995.
  4. Shebang: Collected Poems 1980-2000. Wellington: Steele Roberts, 2001.
  5. How to Occupy Our Selves. Photographs by Fiona Pardington. Wellington: HeadworX, 2003.
  6. The Word Went Round: Poems. Paintings by Garry Currin. Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2006.
  7. S(t)et. Port Chalmers, Otago: The Gumtree Press, 2009.
  8. Beyond What is Said to What Is. Graphics by Roger Hickin. Governor's Bay, Lyttelton: Cold Hub Press, 2010.
  9. The Incomplete Poems. Governor's Bay, Lyttelton: Cold Hub Press, 2011.
  10. You're So Pretty When You're Unfaithful To Me. Auckland: Holloway Press, 2012.

After he left Auckland around the turn of the millennium we stayed in touch, even after he moved to the frigid paddocks of Purakanui, north of Dunedin. Financial necessity forced him to visit Auckland from time to time to organise fireworks shows (his principal source of income), and most times we'd end up heading out into the wilds on various crazed excursions to the heart of the New Zealand dream ...

A surprising number of those drives ended up in Warkworth, mostly involving a trip to the Unicorn Bookshop, then run by the late lamented Richard Wasley. I wrote an obituary for Richard here, but since then his beautiful Unicorn Bookshop has reopened under new ownership. They'd been enlightened enough to offer me a $20 book token in their monthly prize draw, thus offering another reason for turning our footsteps in that direction.

[Welcome to the Kaipara!]

[Still a bit of colonial pizazz left in the old town]

[along with other things ...]

Scary, isn't it? If I'd been more assiduous, I would have got some shots of the bizarre old cinema complex at the bottom of the hill as you drive out of town, which is now home to a huge collection of art and antiques, only occasionally open to the public - mostly on weekends. This time we had to content ourselves with staring through the windows and speculating about the effects of damp on pre-loved paperbacks ...

The whole point of these road trips is to barrel along in the car in no particular direction, with no clear destination in mind, shooting the breeze about life, books, poetry, and the doings of mutual friends and acquaintances. We originally met through poet-priest the Rev. Leicester Kyle, long before his departure for the Coast and a date with ecological destiny. We're also the joint executors of his literary estate, so there are generally a few things to sort out about that.

These are not particularly high-pressure conversations. I can't recall us ever having a serious falling out in the fifteen or so years of our friendship. I find a lot of his work incomprehensible, and much of mine seems to him (I suspect) perversely raw and underwritten. Who cares? We get on with the job, always with a certain respect for each other's judgement and dedication to the task in hand.

[The new-look Unicorn Bookshop (Warkworth)]

[The children's section]

And yes, I asked permission before taking these shots. We did spend a fair amount of money on various obscure books of poetry in there, so I guess Tania thought it would be churlish to refuse. She insisted on staying out of the photo, though. Which is a shame, because it's a beautiful little shop she's building there. Much of Richard's old stock still remains, but her own taste for children's books is beginning to make real inroads.

And so the day meandered on. We'd started from Glen Eden, driven north along the coast, via Helensville, then crossed over to Warkworth. By now it was time to hurry David off to the airport - which took a tiny bit longer than anticipated, but still got us there with time for him to check in.

As he left, he gave me a copy of this beautiful little book of poems by Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova (David does love those obscure Eastern-European writers) ... so I'll close with some lines from one of his sparse, spare, fascinatingly deadpan poems, "In the Lake Region" (trans. Ellen Hinsey):

The past does not enlighten us — but still, it attempts
to say something. Perhaps the crow knows more about us
and about history's dirt than we do ourselves.
Of what does she want to remind us? Of the black photos,
the black headphones,
of radio operators, black signatures under documents,
of the unarmed with their frozen pupils — of the prisoner's
boot or the trunk
of the refugee? Probably not. We will remember this anyway,
though it won't make us any wiser. The bird signifies
only stoicism
and patience. If you ask for them, your request
will be granted.

Pretty cool, huh?

If you want to check out some of David's own poetry, why not go to his author page on the nzepc?

['Astonished' Howard named Robert Burns Fellow
(Otago Daily Times September 12, 2012)]

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Top Ten Favourite Poems

My colleague Bryan Walpert and I are co-supervising a couple of Doctorates in Creative Writing at Massey University, both focussing on poetry. It's not as easy as you might think to keep the critical portion of these projects in balance with the creative.

The other day, at one of our video conferences, he came up with what seemed to me a very intriguing idea for taking a kind of barometer reading of someone else's aesthetic: he asked our PhD student to send us ten of her favourite poems: or (at least) ten poems that seemed truly extraordinary and moving to her.

I've done a couple of "top twenty" posts before now: 20 Favourite 20th-Century Novels and 20 Favourite 20th-Century Long Poems, both back in 2008, but this seemed a little different somehow.

As I see it, the plan is to be as honest as possible about what you really like, as opposed to what you think you should like. It got me to thinking about what would be in my own "top ten" - with stress on the poems that I've actually tried to memorise and thus keep with me, rather than those I simply admire from a distance.

Anyway, for what it's worth, here - in alphabetical, rather than chronological, order - is my top ten (today, at any rate: next week the list might be completely different):

Jack’s Top Ten
    Alphabetical (by surname):

  1. W. H. Auden: “The Letter” [1927]
  2. Gavin Ewart: “Sonnet: How Life Too is Sentimental” [1980]
  3. Robert Lowell: “For the Union Dead” [1964]
  4. Marianne Moore: “Poetry” [1919]
  5. Ezra Pound: “Lament of the Frontier Guard” [1915]
  6. Kendrick Smithyman: “Colville” [1968]
  7. Stephen Spender: “Cadet Cornelius Rilke” [1933]
  8. Edward Thomas: “Adlestrop” [1917]
  9. Ian Wedde: “Barbary Coast” [1988]
  10. W. B. Yeats: “The Circus Animals' Desertion” [1939]

    Chronological (by date of publication):

  1. Ezra Pound (1885-1972):
    “Lament of the Frontier Guard” [1915]
  2. Edward Thomas (1878-1917):
    “Adlestrop” [1917]
  3. Marianne Moore (1887-1972):
    “Poetry” [1919]
  4. W. H. Auden (1907-1973):
    “The Letter” [1927]
  5. Stephen Spender (1909-1995):
    “Cadet Cornelius Rilke” [1933]
  6. W. B. Yeats (1865-1939):
    “The Circus Animals' Desertion” [1939]
  7. Robert Lowell (1917-1977):
    “For the Union Dead” [1964]
  8. Kendrick Smithyman (1922-1995):
    “Colville” [1968]
  9. Gavin Ewart (1916-1995):
    “Sonnet: How Life Too is Sentimental” [1980]
  10. Ian Wedde (1946- ):
    “Barbary Coast” [1988]

From the very first coming down
Into a new valley with a frown
Because of the sun and a lost way,
You certainly remain: to-day
I, crouching behind a sheep-pen, heard
Travel across a sudden bird,
Cry out against the storm, and found
The year’s arc a completed round
And love’s worn circuit re-begun,
Endless with no dissenting turn.
Shall see, shall pass, as we have seen
The swallow on the tile, spring’s green
Preliminary shiver, passed
A solitary truck, the last
Of shunting in the Autumn. But now,
To interrupt the homely brow,
Thought warmed to evening through and through,
Your letter comes, speaking as you,
Speaking of much but not to come.

Nor speech is close nor fingers numb
If love not seldom has received
An unjust answer, was deceived.
I, decent with the seasons, move
Different or with a different love,
Nor question overmuch the nod
The stone smile of this country god
That never was more reticent
Always afraid to say more than it meant.


It's interesting that Auden never rewrote this poem, even in the complete overhaul of his canon he undertook for the 1966 Collected Shorter Poems (which appalled so many of the admirers of his early work). There's an incantatory quality about it which has always fascinated me, and which made me like it long before I had any real understanding of what it was about. It is, after all, the poem he chose to begin his Collected Poems with, despite the fact that there are some earlier ones reprinted later on in the text ...

When our son was a few weeks old he had bronchial trouble
and picked up a cross-infection in the hospital
(salmonella typhimurium) through sluttish feeding –
but a hospital never admits it’s responsible –
and was rushed away behind glass in an isolation ward,
at the point, it might be, of death. Our daughter,
eighteen months old, was just tall enough
to look into his empty cot and say: ‘Baby gone!’

A situation, an action and a speech
so tear-jerking that Dickens might have thought of them –
and indeed, in life, when we say ‘It couldn’t happen!’
almost at once it happens. And the word ‘sentimental’
has come to mean exaggerated feeling.
It would have been hard to exaggerate our feelings then.


I really like this poem. Ewart is more associated with light verse than serious poetry, but that's what gives it its sting, I think. That MC sitting beside him in the picture above and cracking up at what he's reading is actually the great Peter Reading ...

[Robert Lowell (1917-1977)]

"Relinquunt Omnia Servare Rem Publicam."

The old South Boston Aquarium stands
in a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are boarded.
The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its scales.
The airy tanks are dry.

Once my nose crawled like a snail on the glass;
my hand tingled
to burst the bubbles
drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish.

My hand draws back. I often sigh still
for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom
of the fish and reptile. One morning last March,
I pressed against the new barbed and galvanized

fence on the Boston Common. Behind their cage,
yellow dinosaur steamshovels were grunting
as they cropped up tons of mush and grass
to gouge their underworld garage.

Parking spaces luxuriate like civic
sandpiles in the heart of Boston.
A girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders
braces the tingling Statehouse,

shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw
and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry
on St. Gaudens' shaking Civil War relief,
propped by a plank splint against the garage's earthquake.

Two months after marching through Boston,
half the regiment was dead;
at the dedication,
William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.

Their monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city's throat.
Its Colonel is as lean
as a compass-needle.

He has an angry wrenlike vigilance,
a greyhound's gentle tautness;
he seems to wince at pleasure,
and suffocate for privacy.

He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man's lovely,
peculiar power to choose life and die –
when he leads his black soldiers to death,
he cannot bend his back.

On a thousand small town New England greens,
the old white churches hold their air
of sparse, sincere rebellion; frayed flags
quilt the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic.

The stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier
grow slimmer and younger each year –
wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets
and muse through their sideburns . . .

Shaw's father wanted no monument
except the ditch,
where his son's body was thrown
and lost with his "niggers."

The ditch is nearer.
There are no statues for the last war here;
on Boylston Street, a commercial photograph
shows Hiroshima boiling

over a Mosler Safe, the "Rock of Ages"
that survived the blast. Space is nearer.
When I crouch to my television set,
the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons.

Colonel Shaw
is riding on his bubble,
he waits
for the blessèd break.

The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.


I talk a bit about this poem in my post on The Literature of the Civil War. I do think it's a great example of the "State of the Nation" poem, something I say more about in my Jacket2 column here...

[Marianne Moore (1887-1972)]

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
discovers in
it after all, a place for the genuine.
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must, these things are important not because a

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because
they are
useful. When they become so derivative as to become
the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
do not admire what
we cannot understand: the bat
holding on upside down or in quest of something to

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless
wolf under
a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse
that feels a flea, the base-
ball fan, the statistician –
nor is it valid
to discriminate against “business documents and

school-books”; all these phenomena are important. One must make
a distinction
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the
result is not poetry,
nor till the poets among us can be
“literalists of
the imagination” – above
insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, “imaginary gardens with real toads in them,”
shall we have
it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness and
that which is on the other hand
genuine, you are interested in poetry.


Moore famously repudiated this poem, and cut it and cut it until it finally consisted of an abridged version of the first three lines (minus the "beyond all this fiddle"). Paul Celan translated the whole thing into German, though, which to me is pretty much a guarantee of its quality. Here it is in its complete, original form ...

By the North Gate, the wind blows full of sand,
Lonely from the beginning of time until now!
Trees fall, the grass goes yellow with autumn.
I climb the towers and towers
to watch out the barbarous land:
Desolate castle, the sky, the wide desert.
There is no wall left to this village.
Bones white with a thousand frosts,
High heaps, covered with trees and grass;
Who brought this to pass?
Who has brought the flaming imperial anger?
Who has brought the army with drums and with kettle-drums?
Barbarous kings.
A gracious spring, turned to blood-ravenous autumn,
A turmoil of wars-men, spread over the middle kingdom,
Three hundred and sixty thousand,
And sorrow, sorrow like rain.
Sorrow to go, and sorrow, sorrow returning,
Desolate, desolate fields,
And no children of warfare upon them,
No longer the men for offence and defence.
Ah, how shall you know the dreary sorrow at the North Gate,
With Rihoku’s name forgotten,
And we guardsmen fed to the tigers.


Those early poems from Cathay are some of Pound's finest, I think. I suppose one could argue that it's a translation rather than an original poem,, but given the complicated mode of transmission from Ernest Fenollosa's notes from the Japanese, it seems better to concentrate on how it superimposes a kind of World War One landscape on the original Chinese one ...

That sort of place where you stop
long enough to fill the tank, buy plums,
perhaps, and an icecream thing on a stick
while somebody local comes
in, leans on the counter, takes a good look
but does not like what he sees of you,

intangible as menace,
a monotone with a name, as place
it is an aspect of human spirit
(by which shaped), mean, wind-worn. Face
outwards, over the saltings: with what merit
the bay, wise as contrition, shallow

as their hold on small repute,
good for dragging nets which men are doing
through channels, disproportionate in the blaze
of hot afternoon’s down-going
to a far fire-hard tide’s rise
upon the vague where time is distance?

It could be plainly simple
pleasure, but these have another tone
or quality, something aboriginal,
reductive as soil itself – bone
must get close here, final
yet unrefined at all. They endure.

A school, a War Memorial
Hall, the store, neighbourhood of salt
and hills. The road goes through to somewhere else.
Not a geologic fault
line only scars textures of experience.
Defined, plotted; which maps do not speak.


I have a good deal to say about this poem in my post A Visit to Colville. It's one of Kendrick's finest, I think ...

Rolled over on Europe: the sharp dew frozen to stars
Below us; above our heads, the night
Frozen again to stars; the stars
In pools between our coats, and that charmed moon.
Ah, what supports? What cross draws out our arms,
Heaves up our bodies towards the wind
And hammers us between the mirrored lights?

Only my body is real; which wolves
Are free to oppress and gnaw. Only this rose
My friend laid on my breast, and these few lines
written from home, are real.


This is kind of a weird choice, I suppose. Again, it might be my taste for incantatory eloquence which made it stand out for me among Spender's early poems. It wasn't till later that I realised it was made up of phrases culled from Rilke's impressionistic early short story "Cadet Cornelius Rilke". It's hard to say if that makes it a translation or an original poem. Can that be regarded as a real distinction anymore, in fact?

[Edward Thomas (1878-1917)]

Yes. I remember Adlestrop –
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop – only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.


This is the first poem I ever read by Edward Thomas, but I've loved his poetry ever since. I could easily have chosen any of a number of others, but this one still appeals to me deeply. He manages to get away with the poeticisms in stanza three and even gets them to work for him in a strange way, I'm not quite sure how ...

[Robert Cross: Ian Wedde (1946- )]

When the people emerge from the water
who can tell if it’s brine or tears
that streams from them, purple sea
or the bruises of their long immersion?

They seem to weep for the dreams they had
which now the light slices into buildings
of blinding concrete along the Corniche.
Is it music or news the dark windows utter?

Day-long dazzle of the shallows
and at night the moon trails her tipsy sleeves
past the windows of raffish diners.
The hectic brake-lights of lovers

jam the streets. My place or your place.
They lose the way again and again.
At dawn the birds leave the trees in clouds,
they petition the city for its crumbs.

The diners are cheap and the food is bad
but you’d sail a long way to find anything
as convenient. Pretty soon, sailor boy,
you’ll lose your bearings on language.

Language with no tongue
to lash it to the teller.
Stern-slither of dogfish guttings.
Sinbad’s sail swaying in the desert.

Only those given words can say what they want.
Out there the velvet lady runs her tongue
over them. And she is queen of the night –
her shadow flutters in the alleys.

And young sailors, speechless, lean
on the taffrail. They gaze at the queen’s amber
but see simple lamps their girls hang in sash windows.
Thud of drums. Beach-fires. Salt wind in the ratlines.

Takes more than one nice green kawakawa
leaf, chewed, to freshen the mouth
that’s kissed the wooden lips of the figurehead
above history’s cut-water

in the barbarous isles’
virgin harbours. That hulk shunned by rats
bursts into flames.
And now the smoky lattice of spars

casts upon the beach
the shadow-grid of your enlightened city.
And now I reach through them – I reach
through the eyes of dreaming sailors,

faces inches from the sweating bulkheads,
blankets drenched in brine and sperm.
Trailing blood across the moon’s wake
the ship bore out of Boka Bay.

Trailing sharks, she sailed
for Port Destruction. In Saint Van le Mar,
Jamaica, Bligh’s breadfruit trees grew tall.
In Callao on the coast of Peru

geraniums bloomed like sores
against whitewashed walls.
The dock tarts’ parrots jabbering
cut-rates in six tongues.

The eroding heartland, inland cordillera
flashing with snow – these the voyager forgets.
His briny eyes
flood with chimerical horizons.

‘I would tell you if I could – if I could
remember, I would tell you.
All around us the horizons
are turning air into water

and I can’t remember
where the silence ended and speech began,
where vision ended and tears began.
All our promises vanish into thin air.

What I remember are the beaches of that city
whose golden children dance
on broken glass. I remember cold beer
trickling between her breasts as she drank.

But my paper money burned
when she touched it. The ship
clanked up to its bower, the glass towers
of the city burned back there in the sunset glow.’

Cool star foundering in the west.
Coast the dusty colour of lions.
The story navigates by vectors
whose only connection is the story.

The story is told in words
whose only language is the story.
All night the fo’c’s’le lamp smokes above the words.
All day the sun counts the hours of the story.

Heave of dark water where something
else turns – the castaway’s tongue
clappers like a mission bell.
Unheard his end, and the story’s.

Raconteurs in smoky dives
recall his phosphorescent arm
waving in the ship’s wake.
Almost gaily. But the ship sailed on.


One necessary constraint on this choice of poems was length. I was originally going to include Paul Muldoon's extraordinary elegy Incantata as one of my ten, but it's just too long to reprint or really take in at a sitting. This, too, is quite a long poem, but I felt that I had to include it even so. I say more about it here, but its true significance remains mysterious to me: mysterious, but somehow immensely alluring.

I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,
I sought it daily for six weeks or so.
Maybe at last, being but a broken man,
I must be satisfied with my heart, although
Winter and summer till old age began
My circus animals were all on show,
Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,
Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.


What can I but enumerate old themes,
First that sea-rider Oisin led by the nose
Through three enchanted islands, allegorical dreams,
Vain gaiety, vain battle, vain repose,
Themes of the embittered heart, or so it seems,
That might adorn old songs or courtly shows;
But what cared I that set him on to ride,
I, starved for the bosom of his faery bride.

And then a counter-truth filled out its play,
'The Countess Cathleen' was the name I gave it;
She, pity-crazed, had given her soul away,
But masterful Heaven had intervened to save it.
I thought my dear must her own soul destroy
So did fanaticism and hate enslave it,
And this brought forth a dream and soon enough
This dream itself had all my thought and love.

And when the Fool and Blind Man stole the bread
Cuchulain fought the ungovernable sea;
Heart-mysteries there, and yet when all is said
It was the dream itself enchanted me:
Character isolated by a deed
To engross the present and dominate memory.
Players and painted stage took all my love,
And not those things that they were emblems of.


Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder's gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.


Well, what can you say? The aging Yeats reinvents himself yet again, "Lion and woman and the Lord knows what" - how can you just keep on getting better and better and simpler and simpler over the course of a fifty-year career?

So there you are: that's my ten. They do say some slightly disqueting things about my taste, I suppose. Nine out of my ten poets are men; nine out of my ten poets are dead; all of them are white ...

Having ruled out straight translations, though - and also longer poems - I guess it's kind of inevitable that I should gravitate to the kinds of poems I loved when I was a kid: eloquent, even grandiloquent at times, but with the Modernist fetish for simplicity constantly undermining their verbal flourishes.

What would your list look like?

[Doug Savage: Savage Chickens (2005)]