Monday, April 27, 2020

In Auden's Shadow: Louis MacNeice

Louis MacNeice (1907-1963)

Like other members of the Auden group, Louis MacNeice's defining hour came in the early days of the Second World War. It's then that he wrote much of his best poetry. It's probably no accident that this happened after Auden had left the scene and MacNeice was accordingly free to reforge his identity both as an Irish poet and as an Ulsterman.

He never had that much in common anyway with the other members of the 'gang' (as Spender called it). He didn't have a defined position like 'the novelist' (Christopher Isherwood), 'the musician' (Benjamin Britten), 'the painter' (William Coldstream) - not to mention 'the other poet' (Stephen Spender).

For a start, he was heterosexual, gregarious and a bon-viveur - not really characteristics of any of the others. Also, he got first class honours in Classics at Oxford (unlike Auden's third in English), so was therefore able to obtain a lecturing post at the University of Birmingham rather than the hand-to-mouth schoolteaching jobs available to the rest of them.
Look in your heart, you will find a County Sligo
... a litter of chronicles and bones
wrote MacNeice in one of his wartime poems. He was born in Belfast, and his father John MacNeice would eventually become a Bishop in the (protestant) Church of Ireland. His family 'claimed descent from the kin of the early Irish saint MacNissi.' It's safe to say that all this history, personal and collective, weighed increasingly heavily on him as time went by.

from "Five War Poems":

III: Neutrality

The neutral island facing the Atlantic,
The neutral island in the heart of man,
Are bitterly soft reminders of the beginnings
before the end began.

Look into your heart, you will find a County Sligo,
bevel hill with for navel a cairn of stones,
You will find the shadow and sheen of a moleskin mountain
And a litter of chronicles and bones.

Look into your heart, you will find fermenting rivers,
Intricacies of gloom and glint,
You will find such ducats of dream and great doubloons of ceremony
As nobody to-day would mint.

But then look eastwards from your heart, there bulks
A continent, close, dark, as archetypal sin,
While to the west off your own shores the mackerel
Are fat with the flesh of your kin.
'Neutrality,' indeed - it sounds like such a passive thing. And yet, during the war, with neutral Eire standing like a roadblock between Britain and the Atlantic, it seemed anything but.

W. H. Auden & Louis MacNeice: Letters from Iceland (1937)

It apparently came as a great surprise to MacNeice when Auden invited him to come along on a trip to Iceland in 1936. The two were not particularly close, and had never travelled or worked together before. Perhaps that was what Auden was looking for, too - a change of company as well as a change of scene.

The collaborative book that resulted from this journey, Letters from Iceland (1937), remains one of the gems of 1930s travel literature. I've written about it more extensively in the Study Guide for my Massey Travel Writing course so, for simplicity's sake, I thought I might include a few extracts from those notes here:

Magnus Magnusson, ed.: The Icelandic Sagas (1999-2002)

Für uns, Island ist das Land
– An unknown Nazi

In the section of their book entitled “Sheaves from Sagaland,” where W. H. Auden and his travelling companion Louis MacNeice have compiled an “Anthology of Icelandic Travel” for their friend, fellow-poet John Betjeman, this discordant little statement stands out amongst all the camp clowning.

“For us, Iceland is the land” – the source and origin of “German-ness” is what this “unknown Nazi” means to say here. The year is 1936, and war-clouds are gathering over Europe once again. The Spanish Civil War is in full swing, with leftist poets and intellectuals travelling from all over the world to help the fledgling Spanish Republic:

They clung like burrs to the long expresses that lurch
Through the unjust lands, through the night, through the alpine tunnel;
They floated over the oceans;
They walked the passes: they came to present their lives.

Auden was one of the most politically conscious poets of his generation, and in the poem “Spain 1937,” he attempted to sum up what that war meant to young people such as himself, born too late to have fought in the First World War, but now faced with the threat of Round Two in this (temporarily suspended) universal bloodletting:

To-morrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs,
The walks by the lake, the winter of perfect communion;
To-morrow the bicycle races
Through the suburbs on summer evenings: but today the struggle.
The stars are dead; the animals will not look:
We are left alone with our day, and the time is short and
History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help or pardon.

Auden later came to repudiate what he saw as the false dichotomies in this poem, but at the time it perfectly expressed the sense of urgency so many saw in this bitter conflict between Progressive and Reactionary Spain. For Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, by contrast, it was a chance to try out some of their new weapons and tactics, and generally advance the training of their armed forces before the real war broke out in earnest.

For Communist Russia, too, it was a chance to spread its influence further among the Western Democracies. It was, then, a time of hope and disillusionment. In the end, though, the Spanish Republic lost its struggle – largely due to the appeasing, “wait-and-see” policies of Britain and France.

In the midst of all this, Auden decided to go to Iceland. Why? Well, for one thing, because it was as far away as you could get from Europe while still maintaining some kind of foothold in European culture. Also, as an aficionado of the Icelandic Sagas, it was a true pilgrimage for him: to the birthplace of vernacular European literature, long before Chaucer or Dante or Cervantes or any of the founders of the great European literary traditions.

“Sheaves from Sagaland.” Auden’s friend (and occasional lover) Christopher Isherwood, who accompanied him on his trip to China – scene of the other great war before the Second World War – once remarked to him that the doomladen characters in the Old Norse Sagas reminded him of their schooldays.

The hint underlying this statement dominates most of Auden’s early work: the spies, aviators, engineers and other characters in his early poems and plays all speak in a kind of clipped, Germanic shorthand: the idiom of the Sagas and the Anglo-Saxon bards.

Graham Greene, ed.: The Old School (1934)

“The best reason I have for opposing Fascism is that at school I lived in a Fascist state” he said in his contribution to an anthology entitled The Old School, edited by Graham Greene. For Auden, the Honour system that dominated the minor Public School he attended – the oath that he and all the other children were forced to take to inform on any of their companions they saw doing anything “beastly” or dishonourable – was the essence of Fascism.

Auden was homosexual, and so this did entail, in his case, literally living a lie – a life of deception and false façades, since nothing in his most basic instincts was regarded as “natural” by the potential spies who surrounded him (despite the obvious prevalence of homosexual attitudes and activities in most large British Public Schools).

One answer to this official hypocrisy and set of double-standards was politics. Auden was a committed Communist by the early thirties, like many of his contemporaries, though the brutally repressive activities of the Comintern in the Spanish War disillusioned him for good with the Soviet Union. After the War, in fact, he returned to the Church, and attempted to construct a revised code of morality which could explain just why he felt the Nazis were so very much more wrong than their opponents – despite all the obvious failings of liberal democracy.

W. H. Auden: Louis MacNeice on horseback (1936)

Is there much of a hint of all this angst and mental anguish in Letters from Iceland? If so, it’s very well concealed. Louis MacNeice had his own troubles and tribulations to deal with: brought up as an Ulster Protestant in Northern Ireland, his own childhood had been overshadowed by hatred and war. Nor (unlike the Eire poets) could he retreat into any pastoral visions of “Mother Ireland” to justify his alcoholism and compulsive womanizing. They made a pretty pair!

Which is one reason, I would argue, why their book still reads so entertainingly, after all this time. The immediate shadows of the pre-war may have been temporarily in suspension for them in a place as remote from the front lines as Iceland, but the sense of escape, of the need to pause and think things through, is almost palpable in this strange set of “letters home” in verse and prose, bound up as a book.

Auden’s tongue-in-cheek account of a pony-tour through the Icelandic countryside, recasting himself and MacNeice as two School Mistresses with a class of school girls is a thinly disguised version of the actual trip the two poets took with a group of young Public School boys. The silliness of the whole thing is undeniable – but also entrancingly funny, and Wystan’s constant sniping at Louis sounds far more plausible in this new persona as a spinster teacher jealous of her younger, prettier rival.

It may be one of the oddest, most disjointed travel-books ever written, but there’s actually little that’s arbitrary in what the two authors were trying to do with it:
Private faces in public places
Are wiser and nicer
Than public faces in private places
This epigraph to Auden’s 1932 book The Orators encapsulates his view of the world at that time. It was the refusal to be silly and private which had led so many people to death and destruction throughout that “low, dishonest decade”, the 1930s.

Mark Gerson: The Faber Poets (1961)
[l to r: Louis MacNeice, T. S. Eliot, Ted Hughes, W. H. Auden & Stephen Spender]

Well, as you can see, I'm every bit as bad as the next person when it comes to keeping the whole discussion firmly under Auden's shadow - which is where we came in in the first place ... MacNeice scarcely rates a mention.

But, just as Auden went off to China shortly afterwards, to build on his new-found vogue as a travel writer, so MacNeice took the opportunity to head straight from Iceland to the Gaelic-speaking Hebrides.

Louis MacNeice: I Crossed the Minch (1938)

I Crossed the Minch is as much of a cross-genre product as Letters from Iceland, published the year before. This time MacNeice's collaborator was Nancy Sharp, the estranged wife of Auden's friend William Coldstream. Here's a poem from the book (one of his most famous, actually), which shows the Auden-influence still strong on him:
Bagpipe Music

It's no go the merrygoround, it's no go the rickshaw,
All we want is a limousine and a ticket for the peepshow.
Their knickers are made of crepe-de-chine, their shoes are made of python,
Their halls are lined with tiger rugs and their walls with head of bison.

John MacDonald found a corpse, put it under the sofa,
Waited till it came to life and hit it with a poker,
Sold its eyes for souvenirs, sold its blood for whiskey,
Kept its bones for dumbbells to use when he was fifty.

It's no go the Yogi-man, it's no go Blavatsky,
All we want is a bank balance and a bit of skirt in a taxi.

Annie MacDougall went to milk, caught her foot in the heather,
Woke to hear a dance record playing of Old Vienna.
It's no go your maidenheads, it's no go your culture,
All we want is a Dunlop tire and the devil mend the puncture.

The Laird o' Phelps spent Hogmanay declaring he was sober,
Counted his feet to prove the fact and found he had one foot over.
Mrs. Carmichael had her fifth, looked at the job with repulsion,
Said to the midwife "Take it away; I'm through with overproduction."

It's no go the gossip column, it's no go the Ceilidh,
All we want is a mother's help and a sugar-stick for the baby.

Willie Murray cut his thumb, couldn't count the damage,
Took the hide of an Ayrshire cow and used it for a bandage.
His brother caught three hundred cran when the seas were lavish,
Threw the bleeders back in the sea and went upon the parish.

It's no go the Herring Board, it's no go the Bible,
All we want is a packet of fags when our hands are idle.

It's no go the picture palace, it's no go the stadium,
It's no go the country cot with a pot of pink geraniums,
It's no go the Government grants, it's no go the elections,
Sit on your arse for fifty years and hang your hat on a pension.

It's no go my honey love, it's no go my poppet;
Work your hands from day to day, the winds will blow the profit.
The glass is falling hour by hour, the glass will fall forever,
But if you break the bloody glass you won't hold up the weather.

Louis MacNeice: Autumn Journal (1939)

Nancy illustrated the book, and their short affair formed part of the inspiration for (arguably) MacNeice's greatest poetic achievement, Autumn Journal (1939).

Autumn Journal chronicles the uncertain time before the outbreak of war, in the form of a long autobiographical argument with himself about the true nature of poetry - as well as its place in a world obsessed with simplistic propaganda and facile heroism. Much criticised (but widely read) at the time, it has grown to be one of the few essential poems of the 'phoney war' period.

After a brief stint at Cornell University in America, MacNeice returned to London in 1940, and joined the BBC in 1941. This decision would set the tone for most of the rest of his writing life. On the positive side, it led to the composition of a series of radio plays and programmes some of which (plays such as The Dark Tower, for instance) have stood the test of time.

On the negative side, contact with habitués of the BBC recording studios such as Dylan Thomas facilitated his gradual descent into alcoholism, and the demands of the job itself made it hard to maintain the level of creativity he had enjoyed in the 1930s.

As a poet, I think it's fair to say that it's taken a long time for MacNeice to come into focus. It seems now to be the various conflicted identities surrounding his Irishness which mean most to contemporary readers. Take, for example, a poem such as the following - written in the same year, 1937, as 'Bagpipe Music':

I was born in Belfast between the mountain and the gantries
To the hooting of lost sirens and the clang of trams:
Thence to Smoky Carrick in County Antrim
Where the bottle-neck harbour collects the mud which jams

The little boats beneath the Norman castle,
The pier shining with lumps of crystal salt;
The Scotch Quarter was a line of residential houses
But the Irish Quarter was a slum for the blind and halt.

The brook ran yellow from the factory stinking of chlorine,
The yarn-milled called its funeral cry at noon;
Our lights looked over the Lough to the lights of Bangor
Under the peacock aura of a drowning moon.

The Norman walled this town against the country
To stop his ears to the yelping of his slave
And built a church in the form of a cross but denoting
The List of Christ on the cross, in the angle of the nave.

I was the rector's son, born to the Anglican order,
Banned for ever from the candles of the Irish poor;
The Chichesters knelt in marble at the end of a transept
With ruffs about their necks, their portion sure.

The war came and a huge camp of soldiers
Grew from the ground in sight of our house with long
Dummies hanging from gibbets for bayonet practice
And the sentry's challenge echoing all day long.

I went to school in Dorset, the world of parents
Contracted into a puppet world of sons
Far from the mill girls, the smell of porter, the salt mines
And the soldiers with their guns.
It's hard to say what precisely this is supposed to add up to or 'mean' - but it's almost unbearably evocative and elegiac about an irrecoverably lost past. Not that he's sparing in his account of the alienation that surrounded him, born in the heart of the Protestant Ascendancy, and thus 'Banned for ever from the candles of the Irish poor.'

The strength of a poem like this lies, I would argue, in its refusal to editorialise, to make an act of contrition for the mere fact of his birth. Carrickfergus is real, it is and will remain part of him - in a deeper sense, though, there are aspects of his birthplace which must remain forever hidden away. I think this rings a bell for all of us born as the beneficiaries of colonialism across the world - here in New Zealand, for instance.

Then there are the other, 'purer' poems, which simply delight in the music of words and the texture of existence. Poems such as 'Snow' (1935):
The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes –
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of your hands –
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.
There is, to be sure, a hint of Wallace Stevens' 1923 poem 'Snow Man' in this:
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow
but there's something, too, about that exuberant middle stanza of MacNeice's poem which is incorrigibly his, 'incorrigibly plural,' - 'The drunkenness of things being various.'

At his best, Louis MacNeice was a wonderful poet - the major thing that happened in Irish poetry between Yeats and Heaney, as no less a luminary than Paul Muldoon has argued - and he was at his best far more of the time than he's ever been given credit for.

Louis MacNeice: Autumn Sequel (1954)

Louis MacNeice: Collected Poems (1966)

Frederick Louis MacNiece (1907-1963)

[titles I own are marked in bold]:


  1. Blind Fireworks (1929)
  2. Poems. 1935. London: Faber, 1944.
  3. The Earth Compels (1938)
  4. Autumn Journal (1939)
  5. The Last Ditch (1940)
  6. Selected Poems. 1940. Sesame Books. London: Faber, 1947.
  7. Plant and Phantom (1941)
  8. Springboard (1944)
  9. Prayer Before Birth (1944)
  10. Holes in the Sky (1948)
  11. Collected Poems, 1925–1948 (1949)
  12. Ten Burnt Offerings (1952)
  13. Autumn Sequel (1954)
  14. Visitations (1957)
  15. Solstices (1961)
  16. The Burning Perch (1963)
  17. Star-gazer (1963)
  18. Selected Poems, ed. W. H. Auden (1964)
  19. Collected Poems. Ed. E. R. Dodds. 1966. London: Faber, 1979.
  20. Selected Poems, ed. Michael Longley (1988)
  21. Collected Poems. Ed. Peter McDonald. 2007. London: Faber, 2016.

  22. Plays:

  23. Out of the Picture: A Play in Two Acts. 1937. London: Faber, 1937.
  24. Christopher Columbus (1944)
  25. He Had a Date (1944)
  26. The Dark Tower and other radio scripts (1947)
  27. The Dark Tower. 1947. Faber Paper Covered Editions. London: Faber, 1964.
  28. The Mad Islands and The Administrator (1964)
  29. Persons from Porlock and other plays for radio (1969)
  30. One for the Grave: a modern morality play (1968)
  31. Selected Plays of Louis MacNeice, ed. Alan Heuser & Peter McDonald (1993)

  32. Translation:

  33. The Agamemnon of Aeschylus. Trans. Louis MacNeice. 1936. London: Faber, 1967.
  34. Goethe’s Faust: Parts I and II. An Abridged Version. Trans. Louis MacNeice. & E. L. Stahl. 1951. Faber Paper Covered Editions. London: Faber, 1965.

  35. Fiction:

  36. [as 'Louis Malone'] Roundabout Way (1932)
  37. The Sixpence That Rolled Away (1956)

  38. Non-fiction:

  39. [with W. H. Auden] Letters from Iceland. London: Faber, 1937.
  40. I Crossed the Minch (1938)
  41. Modern Poetry: A Personal Essay (1938)
  42. Zoo (1938)
  43. The Poetry of W. B. Yeats. 1941. Foreword by Richard Ellmann. Faber Paper Covered Editions. London: Faber, 1967.
  44. Meet the US Army (1943)
  45. Astrology (1964)
  46. Varieties of Parable (1965)
  47. The Strings are False: An Unfinished Autobiography. Ed. E. R. Dodds. London: Faber, 1965.
  48. Selected Prose of Louis MacNeice, ed. Alan Heuser (1990)

  49. Letters:

  50. Letters of Louis MacNeice ed. Jonathan Allison (2010)

  51. Secondary:

  52. Barbara Coulton. Louis MacNeice in the BBC. London: Faber, 1980.
  53. Robyn Marsack. The Cave of Making: The Poetry of Louis MacNeice. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982.
  54. Jon Stallworthy. Louis MacNiece. 1995. London: Faber, 1996.

Jon Stallworthy: Louis MacNeice: A Biography (1995)

A very important point when it comes to assessing this group of poets from this distance in time is the quality of the various biographies available for each of them.

MacNeice has been particularly fortunate in this regard. Jon Stallworthy's book about him is honest and balanced - and (more importantly) beautifully composed. If you weren't interested in his work going in, this biography would probably be sufficient to convert you. It includes such useful features as a detailed breakdown of the pseudonyms used in Autumn Journal, together with the names of their supposed originals. In short, it's a model of the biographer's art.

John Sutherland's 2004 biography of Stephen Spender is also excellent, and contains most of what one would want to know about him.

Auden has fared less well, unfortunately. There are a number of biographies, all of them useful, but none definitive. Mendelson's critical biography, which originally appeared in two volumes as Early Auden (1981) and Later Auden (1986), is by far the most comprehensive, but for everyday detail it still needs to be supplemented by Humphrey Carpenter's W. H. Auden.

Humphrey Carpenter: W. H. Auden: A Biography (1981)

I'll be making more notes as I go along on each of our protagonists' luck in this regard.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

In Auden's Shadow: Stephen Spender

Stephen Spender (1909-1995)

At one of their first meetings, Auden asked Spender how often he wrote poetry.
Without reflecting, I replied that I wrote about four poems a day. He was astonished and exclaimed: 'What energy!' I asked him how often he wrote a poem. He replied: 'I write about one in three weeks.' After this I started writing only one poem in three weeks.
- Stephen Spender, World within World (1951): p.44.
That gives you some sense of the character of their relationship. It was a long time before Spender managed to climb out from under the older poet's shadow, and one might even argue that he never did.

Stephen Spender: World within World (1951)

His story is a complex one, however. There were times when his poetry was almost as highly regarded as Auden's, and anthology pieces such as 'My Parents' continue to resonate to this day:
My parents kept me from children who were rough
Who threw words like stones and wore torn clothes
Their thighs showed through rags they ran in the street
And climbed cliffs and stripped by the country streams.

I feared more than tigers their muscles like iron
Their jerking hands and their knees tight on my arms
I feared the salt coarse pointing of those boys
Who copied my lisp behind me on the road.

They were lithe they sprang out behind hedges
Like dogs to bark at my world. They threw mud
While I looked the other way, pretending to smile.
I longed to forgive them but they never smiled.
Some of the others, though - 'The Truly Great,' for instance - however highly regarded they may have been at the time, sound rather embarrassing now:
I think continually of those who were truly great.
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history
Through corridors of light, where the hours are suns,
Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition
Was that their lips, still touched with fire,
Should tell of the Spirit, clothed from head to foot in song.
And who hoarded from the Spring branches
The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.
They 'left the vivid air signed with their honour,' eh? No wonder they nicknamed him 'Young Shelley.'

Stephen Spender: World within World (1951)

World within World, his autobiography, published in his early forties - though he lived to the age of 86 he never supplemented or continued it - remains, however, a strange, subtle piece of writing.

He records there how, after a brief indoctrination by Auden in the characteristics and requirements of modern poetry ('The poet is far more like Mr. Everyman than Kelley and Sheats. He cuts his hair short, wears spats, a bowler hat, and a pin-stripe city suit. He goes to the job in the bank by the suburban train' - World within World, p.53), Spender reluctantly concluded that there was no place for him there.
After I had known him six weeks he must have approved of as many of my lines. Therefore it was rather surprising to discover that he considered me a member of 'the Gang'. Once I told him I wondered whether I ought to write prose, and he answered: 'You must write nothing but poetry, we do not want to lose you for poetry.' This remark produced in me a choking moment of hope mingled with despair, in which I cried: 'But do you really think I am any good?' 'Of course,' he replied frigidly. 'But why?' 'Because you are so infinitely capable of being humiliated. Art is born of humiliation,' he added in his icy voice - and left me wondering when he could feel humiliated.
- World within World: pp.44-45.
It wasn't that Spender was insensitive to embarrassment. On the contrary, it's hard to imagine a man with a thinner skin, more naturally vain and self-regarding. It's just that he was willing to put all that on the record: to write down the whole of himself, silliness and all. Not even Auden could do that.

Stephen Spender: Journals, 1939-1983 (1985)

I never actually met the man, but I did ask him to sign his latest book - Journals 1939-1983 - for me on one occasion. It was at the Edinburgh Book Festival (one of the many sideshows to the Official Festival which take place in that city every year). I see from the ticket stub, which I still have, that it was in mid-1989, so he must have just turned 80.

He gave a brief poetry reading, then answered a few questions. The one I remember came from a woman with an exceptionally unctuous voice who asked why one particular early poem had been left out of the latest, 1985, edition of his Collected Poems, since it was (she claimed) such a wonderful piece of work.

'Oh, I don't know,' he replied, 'It just seemed a bit sentimental, I suppose.' The put-down of the woman and her level of taste was complete, and yet it seemed (almost) entirely offhand - as if it had never occurred to him that it might hurt her feelings.

She asked. He answered, as accurately as he could. That was that.

Stephen Spender: Collected Poems 1929-1985 (1985)

Then the line formed.

It turned out that almost nobody was there to hear one more reading by the eminent poet. On the contrary, they were all there to get him to sign their copies of his books. The line was snaking all the way round the tent before I could get anywhere near it, and I could dimly see, off in the distance, the old grey head rising and falling as he scribbled industriously in each tome.

I'd provided myself with his latest, in token of good faith - at least some small royalties might be going to him from the sale - but others were not so scrupulous. The man in front of me, for instance, presumably some kind of dealer, had an armful of Spenderiana from all periods of his career. And when, after half an hour or so, the line eventually got to us, the great man duly signed them, one by one.

I felt bad about adding one more tiny jot of effort to his day, but by then I'd waited so long that I simply couldn't face failure. I handed him my one book; he scribbled in it; I said 'thank you' in as unassuming a manner as possible; and that was all. There was no meeting of the eyes, no miraculous conveyance of sympathy from aspiring poet to master ... just an old man plying his pen as he'd clearly had to do so many times before.

After that, I think, he was dragged off to safety by one of his children, and the baying masses were forced to subside. I've always felt a little ashamed of the incident, as if I were guilty of contributing a little to his discomfiture that day, but perhaps it were 'to consider too curiously, to consider so.'

I'd felt terribly anxious to see the grand old man, last survivor of all those thirties poets I idolised, but the occasion seemed tainted somehow by the thronging of all those importunate bookhounds.

Stephen Spender: Journals, 1939-1983 (signed)

The defining moment for the Auden group undoubtedly came at the very end of the thirties, that 'low, dishonest decade,' as he called it in his classic poem 'September 1, 1939.' Whatever his original intentions for the poem, it became a kind of 'Goodbye to All That' for both him and his friend Isherwood. Instead of returning to soon-to-be-war-beleaguered Britain, they decided to stay in the United States.

The other members of the group remained in the UK. All took part in the war effort in their various ways - not as combatants, but as active participants on the Home Front, as well as acting as war propagandists at various points. The Spanish war had united and - some would say - defined them as a group, however various their responses to it turn out, in retrospect, to have been.

It was the Second World War that divided them, turned Spender into a kind of suave literary politician, Day Lewis into a Hardy-esque pastoralist, MacNeice into a drunken BBC producer, and linked them definitively to the Old World rather than the New.

Whether Auden could be said to have ever written as well in his newly adopted country as he did in the old is debatable. He certainly wrote differently, though. His explorations of inner worlds and the inner life may have been less lyrically effective than the gnarled, gnomic verse he composed in the thirties, but they were certainly no less ambitious in scope.

Isherwood, too, gave up the chance to be a kind of novelistic cross between Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene to become a narcissistic Californian navel-gazer. It would be many years before either of them would be forgiven back home for this perceived treachery in time of war.

Spender, too, became less poet than prose-writer and editor - though he never stopped writing poetry right up to the end, it's his earlier work that resonates, still, with most readers.

Should he have gone with them? Almost certainly not. For him the essential thing was simply to see less of Auden, define his own life choices, both professionally and sexually. His fiction from this period is exceptionally interesting in this regard - especially The Temple, an autobiographical novel about his experiences in the Weimar republic begun in the thirties but not finally completed and published until half a century later, in 1988.

It's often seemed anomalous - to some readers, at least - that the defining note of the Auden group, the so-called 'Pylon poets,' was initially struck by Spender, not their putative leader. The poem is certainly not the anthemic call to arms it must once have seemed, but that doesn't leave it without interest. The lapidary clarity of Spender's early style seems unlikely to date in this particular case, at least:

The Pylons

The secret of these hills was stone, and cottages
Of that stone made,
And crumbling roads
That turned on sudden hidden villages

Now over these small hills, they have built the concrete
That trails black wire
Pylons, those pillars
Bare like nude giant girls that have no secret.

The valley with its gilt and evening look
And the green chestnut
Of customary root,
Are mocked dry like the parched bed of a brook.

But far above and far as sight endures
Like whips of anger
With lightning's danger
There runs the quick perspective of the future.

This dwarfs our emerald country by its trek
So tall with prophecy
Dreaming of cities
Where often clouds shall lean their swan-white neck.

Stephen Spender: Collected Poems, 1928–1953 (1955)

Stephen Harold Spender (1909-1995)

[titles I own are marked in bold]:


  1. Poems. London: Faber, 1933.
  2. Poems. 1933. Second Edition. 1934. London: Faber, 1935.
  3. Vienna (1934)
  4. The Still Centre. 1939. London: Faber, 1941.
  5. Ruins and Visions. 1942. London: Faber, 1942.
  6. Spiritual Exercises (1943)
  7. Poems of Dedication. 1947. London: Faber, 1947.
  8. Selected Poems. 1940. London: Faber, 1947.
  9. The Edge of Being (1949)
  10. Collected Poems, 1928–1953 (1955)
  11. Selected Poems (1965)
  12. The Express (1966)
  13. The Generous Days (1971)
  14. Penguin Modern Poets 20: John Heath-Stubbs / F. T. Prince / Stephen Spender. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972.
  15. Selected Poems (1974)
  16. Recent Poems (1978)
  17. Collected Poems 1928-1985. London: Faber, 1985.
  18. Dolphins. London: Faber, 1994.
  19. New Collected Poems. Ed. Michael Brett. London: Faber, 2004.

  20. Plays:

  21. Trial of a Judge: A Tragic Statement in Five Acts. 1938. London: Faber, 1945.
  22. Rasputin's End: Libretto (1958)

  23. Translation:

  24. Georg Büchner. Danton's Death: A Play in Four Acts. Trans. Stephen Spender & Goronwy Rees. London: Faber, 1939.
  25. Rainer Maria Rilke. Duino Elegies: The German Text, with an English Translation, Introduction and Commentary. Trans. J. B. Leishman & Stephen Spender. 1939. London: Chatto & Windus, 1981.
  26. Schiller. Mary Stuart. Trans. Stephen Spender. Preface by Peter Wood. London: Faber, 1959.
  27. Sophocles. Oedipus Trilogy: King Oedipus; Oedipus at Colonos; Antigone: A Version. Trans. Stephen Spender. 1985. New York: Random House Inc., 1985.

  28. Fiction:

  29. The Burning Cactus (1936)
  30. The Backward Son (1940)
  31. Engaged in Writing & The Fool and the Princess. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1958.
  32. The Temple. 1988. London: Faber, 1989.

  33. Non-fiction:

  34. The Destructive Element. 1935. The Life and Letters Series, 87. London: Jonathan Cape, 1938.
  35. Forward from Liberalism (1937)
  36. Life and the Poet (1942)
  37. Citizens in War – and After (1945)
  38. European Witness (1946)
  39. Poetry since 1939. The Arts in Britain, 1. 1946. London: The British Council, 1949.
  40. André Gide, Richard Wright, Ignazio Silone, Stephen Spender, Arthur Koestler, & Louis Fischer. The God That Failed. Ed. Richard Crossman. 1950. New York: Bantam Books, 1959.
  41. World within World: The Autobiography of Stephen Spender. 1951. London: Readers Union, 1953.
  42. Learning Laughter (1952)
  43. The Creative Element (1953)
  44. The Making of a Poem (1957)
  45. The Struggle of the Modern. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1963.
  46. The Year of the Young Rebels (1969)
  47. Love-Hate Relations: A Study of Anglo-American Sensibilities. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1974.
  48. Eliot (1975)
  49. The Thirties and After: Poetry, Politics, People (1933-75). London: Fontana / Collins, 1978.
  50. [with David Hockney]: China Diary. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1982.

  51. Edited:

  52. Horizon (1939-41)
  53. Encounter (1953-66)
  54. Great Writings of Goethe. Ed. Stephen Spender. A Mentor Book. New York: New American Library, 1958.
  55. Penguin Modern Poets 23: Geoffrey Grigson / Edwin Muir / Adrian Stokes. Guest Ed. Stephen Spender. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.
  56. W. H. Auden: A Tribute. New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1975.

  57. Letters & Journals:

  58. Letters to Christopher: Stephen Spender’s Letters to Christopher Isherwood, 1929-1939, with “The Line of the Branch” – Two Thirties Journals. Ed. Lee Bartlett. Santa Barbara, CA: Black Sparrow, 1980.
  59. Journals 1939-1983. London: Faber, 1985.
  60. New Selected Journals, 1939–1995 (2012)

  61. Secondary:

  62. Sutherland, John. Stephen Spender: The Authorised Biography. 2004. Harmondsworth, Penguin, 2005.

Stephen Spender & George Orwell: Lansdowne Terrace

Saturday, April 18, 2020

In Auden's Shadow

Cecil Beaton: W. H. Auden (1930)

I guess it must be pretty obvious to anyone who's ever looked at this blog just how much I've been influenced by the life and works of the late Wystan Hugh Auden. I tried to explain the obsession here, but it's quite a tall order to sum up so long a course of reading and thinking in one short post.

I first encountered his poetry at school, in the mid-1970s. I can remember the moment, in fact. I was standing in the school store-room, waiting my turn to be 'seen' by one of the teachers (I think there was some lesson in how to ace a job interview going on, but I could be wrong about that).

I noticed a book with an exceptionally garish cover lying on the table, and picked it up to see what it was. I was already a great fan of the poetry of A. E. Housman, so the first poem I picked from the table of contents was, I think, Auden's sonnet about him:

A. E. Housman (1859-1936)

No one, not even Cambridge, was to blame
(Blame if you like the human situation):
Heart-injured in North London, he became
The Latin Scholar of his generation.

Deliberately he chose the dry-as-dust,
Kept tears like dirty postcards in a drawer;
Food was his public love, his private lust
Something to do with violence and the poor.

In savage foot-notes on unjust editions
He timidly attacked the life he led,
And put the money of his feelings on

The uncritical relations of the dead,
Where only geographical divisions
Parted the coarse hanged soldier from the don.

It enraged me! How dare he speak so flippantly of so wonderful a writer! 'His private lust' indeed! How could he know? I went around fulminating about the cheek of 'modern' poets who dared to criticise their elders and betters for weeks afterward.

It enraged me - but also fascinated me. I'd had a chance to look at some of the other poems in the book and, while I didn't understand everything I was reading (still don't, for that matter), I understood enough for them to stay with me, keep nagging at me, get under my skin against my will.

W. H. Auden: Collected Poems (1976)

My Christmas present that year (1977) was Auden's newly published Collected Poems. By then I'd got to the stage of writing a sign for my door which read:

W. H. Auden rules!
And Edward Mendelson is his prophet ...

Mendelson's editing seemed amazingly accomplished and abstruse to me at the time, especially given the maze of competing readings and revisions he had to deal with as the poet's literary executor. Auden (like Wordsworth - or, for that matter, Yeats) was one of those poets who could never leave well enough alone.

Stephen Spender, ed. W. H. Auden: A Tribute (1975)

A great deal of my interest came from the book above, however. The fascinating essays and reminiscences it contained seemed to open up a whole cornucopia of thirties imagery and lifestyles. There was a photo-montage of Night Mail (the film, and the poem Auden wrote for it), pieces by Christopher Isherwood, Stephen Spender, a host of other old friends - virtually everyone who was anyone, in fact, except for those who'd predeceased him.

And so the obsession began to spread, gradually encompassing all the other writers whose lives he'd touched, or in whose books he'd somehow been recorded. I've written elsewhere on this blog about Isherwood, who would have to rank first in that pantheon, but there were many others as well: basically all the members of the so-called Auden Group:

Samuel Hynes: The Auden Generation (1977)

Hence, some 45 years after "first looking into Auden's Poems", this projected series of posts about those who have ended up - fairly or unfairly - in Auden's shadow. Auden could be a dominant, some would say a domineering figure. What of those other writers and poets? What might one say about them?

There are a great many to choose from. For a start, there are the other three components of 'Macspaunday' (a derogatory epithet coined by pro-Fascist writer Roy Campbell for this set of largely left-wing poets): Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender, W. H. Auden, and Cecil Day-Lewis = Mac / sp /aun / day - get it?

Then there are those notorious lines from Day-Lewis's long poem The Magnetic Mountain (1933), much mocked and denigrated at the time by George Orwell (who referred to Auden as 'a kind of gutless Kipling'):
Then I'll hit the trail for that promising land;
May catch up with Wystan and Rex my friend ...
"Wystan" is, of course, W. H. Auden; "Rex" is Rex Warner. Ought he, too, to go on the list, then?

And then there are the editors and anthologists who promoted - some would say pushed - this literary movement at the time: Michael Roberts, whose two anthologies New Signatures (1932) and New Country (1933) constituted the first real attempt to define it; and Geoffrey Grigson, whose magazine New Verse (1933-39) existed - as he himself said - primarily to promote and print the work of Auden and his friends.

This, then, is my list of writers left unfairly - at least arguably - in Auden's shadow (I must confess to having found some inspiration for my title in Paul Theroux's memoir of his long and difficult friendship with West Indian writer V. S. Naipaul):

  1. Michael Roberts (1902-1948)
  2. Cecil Day-Lewis (1904-1972)
  3. Geoffrey Grigson (1905-1985)
  4. Rex Warner (1905-1986)
  5. Louis MacNeice (1907-1963)
  6. Stephen Spender (1909-1995)

I'll put up the blogposts as I finish them, in no particular order, to avoid any invidious implications of primacy or degrees of importance. The list above, however, is arranged chronologically in order of date of birth. It's important, at times, to remember that Day-Lewis was three years Auden's senior, and Spender two years his junior.

Such details generally matter little for people you encounter as an adult, but the Auden group met first at school (Isherwood and Edward Upward), then at university (Spender, MacNeice and Day-Lewis), and a certain in-built competitiveness was the inevitable result.

There are plenty of other people I could have included: Charles Madge, of Mass-Observation fame, who did after all run off with Stephen Spender's first wife, and whose unfortunate account of first reading Auden (from his 'Letter to the Intelligentsia') remains extant to haunt him:
But there waited for me in the summer morning
Auden fiercely. I read, shuddered and knew.
And all the world's stationary things
In silence moved to take up new positions
Edward Upward the surrealist, too, was closely involved with the group. And if you count in their enemies: George Orwell, C. S. Lewis, Dylan Thomas, George Barker, the list could grow to include virtually everyone prominent in the arts in the 1930s ...

Let's begin with the six authors above, then. I think there are important things to be said about each of them - or if not, it isn't from lack of effort on my part in collecting their various works.

Cecil Beaton: W. H. Auden (1930)

Sunday, April 05, 2020

The Machine Stops

E. M. Forster: The Machine Stops (1909)

Clearly I'm not the first one to notice the extraordinary prescience shown by E. M. Forster in his long short story "The Machine Stops," first published in The Oxford and Cambridge Review in November 1909.

Forster envisages a world where people live cocooned in little cells, with audiovisual contact with one another, and minimal travel from place to place. His protagonist, Vashti, is largely content with her situation, and displays nothing but irritation at the attempts of her son, Kuno, to interest her in the forbidden regions outside.

Everything - nourishment, entertainment, contact - is supplied by the Machine, which is now the main deity worshipped by mankind, despite having been originally designed to serve them. Now, however, the machine has started to falter, to lag in its daily attentions to the human parasites that infest it.

Kuno wants his mother to accompany him outside, where he is sure that he once saw some living human beings. Her reluctance to do so spells her own doom. As the two of them die, however, they at least have the satisfaction of seeing the possibility of escape from the Machine's mechanical womb.
"But, Kuno, is it true? Are there still men on the surface of the earth? Is this - this tunnel, this poisoned darkness - really not the end?"
He replied: "I have seen them, spoken to them, loved them. They are hiding in the mist and the ferns until our civilisation stops. Today they are the Homeless - tomorrow -"
"Oh, tomorrow - some fool will start the Machine again, tomorrow."
"Never," said Kuno, "never. Humanity has learnt its lesson."
As he spoke, the whole city was broken like a honeycomb. An airship had sailed in through the vomitory into a ruined wharf. It crashed downwards, exploding as it went, rending gallery after galley with its wings of steel. For a moment they saw the nations of the dead, and, before they joined them, scraps of the untainted sky.

H. G. Wells: When the Sleeper Wakes (1899)

Forster himself called his story "a reaction to one of the earlier heavens of H. G. Wells" - presumably the one depicted in the latter's novel When the Sleeper Wakes (1899) - reissued, in revised form, as The Sleeper Awakes in 1912.

Not that Wells's picture of the future - in this novel, at least - is a narrowly utopian one. The society his sleeper, Graham, wakes into is a profoundly troubled one. The amount of his own savings have accumulated, due to compound interest, during the long centuries of his sleep, to such an incredible total that they are now the principal economic mainstay of the world. The rest of the book examines the implications of such capitalist plutocracy as against the apparent hope provided by revolutionary socialism.

Both are found wanting in this bleak early vision by a writer later criticised for his naive acceptance of purely scientific values. Once again, if you read his books yourself rather than accepting such bland critical summaries, the actual implications of his work are far more nuanced and complex.

E. M. Forster (1879-1970)

Be that as it may, Wells' truths were certainly different from Forster's. In a sense they embody two contradictory world-views - based, respectively, on the private and the public life. Forster concerned himself almost exclusively with the personal values bound up in his famous adage: "Only connect." His books are all about moments of emotional epiphany and contact over seemingly unbridgeable gulfs of background and class.

W. H. Auden perhaps expressed it best in the last of his 1938 group of Sonnets from China:

(to E.M. Foster)

Though Italy and King's are far away,
And Truth a subject only bombs discuss,
Our ears unfriendly, still you speak to us,
Insisting that the inner life can pay.

As we dash down the slope of hate with gladness,
You trip us up like an unnoticed stone,
And, just when we are closeted with madness,
You interrupt us like the telephone.

Yes, we are Lucy, Turton, Philip: we
Wish international evil, are delighted
To join the jolly ranks of the benighted

Where reason is denied and love ignored,
But, as we swear our lie, Miss Avery
Comes out into the garden with a sword.

H. G. Wells (1866-1946)

Wells, by contrast, ended in a state of utter despair, as the Second World War erupted to dash into pieces all his hopes of international betterment. The title of his last book Mind at the End of Its Tether (1945) says it all.

Having said that, though, much though I enjoy Forster's fiction and essays, if it came to a choice between the two, I would go for Wells every time. Forster's Collected Short Stories (1950) is 246 pages long. Wells's Short Stories (1927) runs to over 1,000 pages, and includes such masterpieces as "The Time Machine," "A Story of the Days to Come," "A Dream of Armageddon," and dozens of others - it's one of the great books of the twentieth century.

Luckily, I don't have to choose. I can enjoy both of their different insights, and shelve them side-by-side in a propinquity I fear they could never have achieved in their lifetimes.

Twelve Modern Short Novels
[illustrated by B. Biro (c.1950s)]
Twelve Modern Short Novels: A Collection of the Shorter Works of Writers of Distinction from the Eighties of the Last Century to the Present Day. Decorations by B. Biro. London: Odhams Press Limited, n.d. (c. 1950s).

I see from the inside of my copy (which is light blue rather than red in colour, but is otherwise identical with that pictured above) that I purchased it on 30th September 1977. It was certainly an auspicious day for me.

You can see from the list of contents below just what a treasure-house of stories this book contains. I'd read very few of these authors previously, and it had the effect of introducing me to some of the real triumphs of late nineteenth / early twentieth-century prose.

  1. [1887] - Oscar Wilde: "Lord Arthur Savile's Crime: A Study of Duty"

  2. [1888] - Rudyard Kipling: "The Man Who Would Be King"

  3. [1902] - Joseph Conrad: "Heart of Darkness"

  4. [1911] - E. M. Forster: "The Machine Stops"

  5. [1919] - Max Beerbohm: "Enoch Soames"

  6. [1922] - Aldous Huxley: "The Gioconda Smile"

  7. [1927] - Thornton Wilder: "The Bridge of San Luis Rey"

  8. [1936] - Katherine Anne Porter: "Noon Wine"

  9. [1936] - Graham Greene: "The Basement Room"

  10. [1939] - Ernest Hemingway: "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber"

  11. [1945] - Mary Lavin: "The Becker Wives"

  12. [1946] - H. E. Bates: "The Cruise of 'The Breadwinner'"

No editor's name for the volume is given - only that of the illustrator, a certain 'B. Biro' (later to be known as Val Biro). He may - for all I know - have chosen the contents as well, but the contingency seems an unlikely one, given his youth at the time, and the sheer size of his graphic output: "3,000 covers in less than 40 years," as Nick Jones revealed in his "Interview with Val Biro, Artist, Illustrator, Author and Book Cover Designer" in Existential Ennui (4/8/14).

Whoever it was who selected these particular stories certainly did me a great favour, though. I suppose that I would have read the more canonical ones sooner or later, but authors such as Katharine Anne Porter and Thornton Wilder were much less familiar currency at the time.

Also, would I really have appreciated "The Machine Stops" quite so much if it hadn't been bookended between the dark profundities of "Heart of Darkness" and the bittersweet satire of Beerbohm's "Enoch Soames"?

"The Basement Room," too. It would be many years before I saw Carol Reed's film The Fallen Idol (1948), and then, I'm afraid, my main impulse was to exclaim that he'd got it wrong. The squalid suburban horrors of Greene's parable had somehow been transferred to the glamorous setting of an embassy.

The lessons screenwriter and director learnt from this experience must have supplied at least some of the ingredients which went into their next collaboration, the immortal Third Man (1949).

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

The Art of the Literary Anecdote

Ernest Hemingway: The Torrents of Spring (1926)

The story begins with [writer Scripps O'Neill] returning home from the library to find that his wife and small daughter have left him ... O'Neill, desperate for companionship, befriends a British waitress, Diana, at the restaurant where she works and immediately asks her to marry him.
Diana makes an attempt to impress her spouse by reading books from the lists of The New York Times Book Review ... But O'Neill soon leaves her ... for another waitress, Mandy, who enthralls him with her store of literary (but possibly made up) anecdotes.
The Torrents of Spring has found few defenders. Although it is Hemingway's first extended prose work, it's been dismissed as a somewhat juvenile parody of Sherwood Anderson's Dark Laughter (1925). Leslie Fiedler is the one major exception. In his 1968 book The Return of the Vanishing American, he argued for a more generally subversive intent in this aberrant early work of Hemingway's.

Be that as it may, it is rather amusing to read about Mandy's careful deployment of spicy literary anecdotes to ensnare her new man. Not to mention Diana's failure to do the same thing, despite her careful perusal of the book review pages. It does make one wonder, though, just why we seem to have such an insatiable anecdote for such stories - what precisely, in fact, an anecdote is?

I remember once overhearing a young GP (my brother) denouncing an older one (my father) for having "an exclusively anecdotal view of medicine." The older doctor, it is true to say, certainly had a story to fit every occasion, and perhaps relied on them to the exclusion of more quantifiable research results. But this form of codified experience does have its uses, too, at times.

James Sutherland, ed. The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes (1975)
His most memorable remark of the day occurred when I asked him if he agreed with the definition that most editors are failed writers, and he replied: 'Perhaps, but so are most writers.'
- Robert Giroux on his first meeting with T. S. Eliot
[Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, no. 474]
I often tell my Creative Writing students that the art of storytelling begins with the anecdote. If you can't learn how to tell one of those, then it's most unlikely that you'll be able to interest a reader in a more extended tale.

And now that we're in the process of switching all of our face-to-face teaching to distance, I've been disconcerted to find just how many of my responses to online forum posts take the form of anecdotes of the type quoted above. Is this just laziness on my part - a refusal to engage with abstractions such as 'the true nature of creativity' or 'the best way to organise your writing day'? Or is there a bit more to it than that?

Philip Gooden, ed. The Mammoth Book of Literary Anecdotes (2002)
"In short, my good man, what I want to put to you in a word is this: supposing we have already (as I have reason to think we have) driven past the turn down to the railway station (which in that case, by the way, would probably not have been on our left hand, but the right), where are we now in relation to ....'
At this point James' companion Edith Wharton cut in impatiently, 'Oh, please, do ask him where the King's Road is.'
'Ah -? The King's Road? Just so! Quite right! Can you, as a matter of fact, my good man, tell us where, in relation to our present position, the King's Road exactly is?'
The doddery old man's reply was as short and simple as it could be. All he said was: 'Ye're in it.'
- Henry James asks for directions from an elderly local
[Mammoth Book of Literary Anecdotes, p.353]
I guess, from my point of view, the above anecdote embodies Marl Twain's writing maxim to 'eschew surplusage' more effective than earnest exhortations to that effect. It's therefore the best way I can think of to obey Emily Dickinson's instruction to "tell all the truth but tell it slant."

Of course it does have the effect of reducing certain writers - Samuel Johnson, Oscar Wilde, Dylan Thomas - to essentially emblematic figures. The term 'Henry James' has become shorthand for 'obscure prolixity,' rather than the genuinely enigmatic and mercurial figure he in fact was. And, yes, it certainly has a tendency to encourage the vice of name-dropping: boasting of your own acquaintance with the great in the guise of telling a funny story about them.

Kendrick Smithyman (1922-1995)

One writer who made a speciality of the embodied anecdote in his work was the poet Kendrick Smithyman. Kendrick was himself a marvellous anecdotalist (do I speak from personal experience? Why yes I do!) Almost all of his later poems hinge on stories of various kinds, but - as anecdotes - their 'slant' approach generally takes a fair bit of unpacking.

Take. for example, his wonderful 1971 poem "Hitching":

Fellow of jest!
Infinite variety steps up from the scrub,
desiring to take your hands in his
to confide that he is, however priestly,
spoilt by the old Adam, by skull
aching doggedly under tanned skin.
First he introduces us to the subject: the protagonist, his jester's (or would-be Yorick-like) demeanour - as well as 'the old Adam': his carnal preoccupations.
He is pitchpine, claypatch, highcountry
scree. Shitwood, and knotty offcut.
Clothed, like one of our mountain men
with parka, pack and cutdown .303.
Stinking, like deerhide,
countryman of a horned god, himself horny
he is warlock out to conjure
a licklipping housekeeper at one of the motels
along the highway by the Lake.
Next he fills in the background: the Barry Crump-like demeanour of this 'mountain man' - 'countryman of a horned god, himself horny.'
I’ll put him down this side of
the store.
Near the stream, where trout are for tickling,
where a private sybil-mouthed pool fumes
like a woman on heat. You can’t blame them,
it’s nature (he assures me) if a man
with a hard on puts the hard word
to her, she’ll come across.
For the next mile or two, looks thoughtful.
We carry on, between folk tales.
Finally, after some rather more intense Smithymanian psychogeographical specifications of time, space and locale, we end with the nub of the matter: the hitcher's insistently urged theory that nature requires of woman that 'if a man / with a hard on puts the hard word / to her, she’ll come across.'

Which would, of course, be quite a crass and unpalatable conclusion to the story were it not for that detail about how he 'For the next mile or two, looks thoughtful.' In other words, even he cannot believe his own bullshit, much though he undoubtedly wishes it was true.

And thus the two "carry on, between folk tales."

Margaret Edgcumbe: The Empty Desk (1996)

Would you call it a good yarn? There's not that much to it, really. And yet it's very revealing of character, both the mountain man's and his relentlessly observant interlocutor. Thus men do talk. Sometimes. Some of them. And just so do they look thoughtful, at times, in the midst of their confident brag.

It's an oblique and sharp-edged insight, not claiming any particular wisdom or universal applicability, but telling nevertheless. It's a way of communicating ideas without ever stating them directly. And that has been - I suppose, continues to be - its function within our society: a body of oral lore, handed down from parent to child, from mentor to apprentice, in equivocal succession.

I was brought up by an anecdotalist - saw him in action, often, with his peers and contemporaries - have his stories codified in my skull, willy-nilly, whether I like it or not. I wouldn't want to argue that New Zealand has any particular lien on the art of the anecdote, but we certainly once were an almost exclusively anecdotal culture.

Any other type of conversation was, I suppose, considered unsafe: loud expressions of political (or religious) opinion were too dangerous to venture upon in untested company - stories, by contrast, could communicate more obliquely, more deniably.

'Not everything is an anecdote!' is the most cutting thing the uptight Steve Martin character can think of to shout at the more homespun John Candy in Planes Trains and Automobiles. Yes, there can be few things more lethal than being caught in the company of a truly insistent and ruthless storyteller.

At its best, though, in the hands of a master such as Kendrick Smithyman (or, for that matter, Ernest Hemingway) the art of the anecdote can act as a crystallised version of the art of fiction.

Kendrick Smithyman: Collected Poems 1943-1995 Kendrick Smithyman
ed. Peter Simpson & Margaret Edgcumbe (2004)


Fellow of jest!
Infinite variety steps up from the scrub,
desiring to take your hands in his
to confide that he is, however priestly,
spoilt by the old Adam, by skull
aching doggedly under tanned skin.

He is pitchpine, claypatch, highcountry
scree. Shitwood, and knotty offcut.
Clothed, like one of our mountain men
with parka, pack and cutdown .303.
Stinking, like deerhide,
countryman of a horned god, himself horny
he is warlock out to conjure
a licklipping housekeeper at one of the motels
along the highway by the Lake.

A chopper dragonflies away from a crater
where seismic survey gear is freighted
for vulcanologists intent to exorcise
preAdamite nature. Science is
so far it’s nearly out of sight,
but one gross burly cloud smokes
resistance. Otherwise, skies are clean,
far enough for him to pick out
unbroken ponies herded by native
will, a line of descent from
guerrilla bands of the Sixties and Seventies.
With Old Testament in one hand,
millenarian carbine in the other
they shot from rock to rock extravagant
and spent like so many rounds,
not forsaking the old Adam
who cantered ahead, wives and all.

Who, like us, liked to hang on to the skirts
of Mystery. Who (they say) giving or taking
half a chance, liked to get his hand up,
countryman of a horned god,
homing on deerhide, catskin, beard of the goat?
I’ll put him down this side of
the store.
Near the stream, where trout are for tickling,
where a private sybil-mouthed pool fumes
like a woman on heat. You can’t blame them,
it’s nature (he assures me) if a man
with a hard on puts the hard word
to her, she’ll come across.
For the next mile or two, looks thoughtful.
We carry on, between folk tales.

12. 10. 71