I remember reading an interview with Doc Neeson, lead singer with Aussie pub rock legends The Angels, which touched unexpectedly upon the public's neglect of the art of poetry. Asked about the origins of The Angels in the early 70s, Neeson recalled how he had written hundreds of pages of poetry as a young man, but had never been able to convince publishers, let alone publicans, of his genius. When Neeson eventually decided to change tack, and put a four piece band behind his verses, he was quickly offered pub stages from which to declaim. A record deal and a string of hit singles followed. Neeson's story can hardly be surprising - the famous versifiers of our era sing or rap. Even Seamus Heaney or Robert Bly must struggle to sell as many volumes in a lifetime as Coldplay or the Arctic Monkeys can shift in a day. Who wouldn't want to perform their verses in a rock 'n roll band?
Perversely enough, though, there has been a persistent countervailing tendency which has seen rock stars wanting to be poets, or at to least publish slim volumes of poetry as well as albums. In the 1960s Jim Morrison became notorious for his self-published collections of verse; more recently Patti Smith and Lou Reed have published some middling work. In New Zealand Andrew Fagan cast off the creative shackles of '80s glam pop darlings The Mockers to publish an execrable collection called Salt Rhythms.
Bill Direen is another muso who has turned to poetry. In the 1980s Direen was a seminal figure in New Zealand music, a guitarist, singer and songwriter who helped pioneer the low-fi, high energy 'psychedelic punk' sound associated with the Flying Nun label, and then went on to show that this sound could accomodate sophisticated songwriting as well as glorious blasts of noise. Since the early nineties, though, Direen has published a string of poems, novellas, and novels. His musical output has waned as his literary output has grown.
Why would a rock legend like Direen want to publish poetry? How can the tiny audiences, critical neglect and secondhand communication of the poetry world compete with the intimacy and acclamation of the concert, not to mention the wide distribution that albums can enjoy? I wonder whether that inevitable shrinkage of audience might be offset by a certain quality of attention often absent from the rock biz. There is something about lines of print on the vast white expanse of the page that focuses the mind - that asks for a level of scrutiny different to the sort of scrutiny one gives after drinking eleven beers and waiting until a quarter to midnight to see a band play to a crowded K Rd bar.
Perhaps Direen got sick of boozy first-year BA students at orientation gigs shouting for his biggest hit, 'Do the Alligator' (I was the guy in the third row with the Chelsea T shirt, Bill). Perhaps he tired of audiences that sung his choruses, but shuffled their feet or sucked each other's faces while he worked his way through the intricate verses of songs like 'Wanganui with a White Face' or 'Inquest'. Perhaps this is outrageous speculation on my part, and Direen considers 'Do the Alligator' a baroque masterpiece.
Whatever the reason, the fact remains that Direen's latest book of poetry asks to be read with a quality of attention quite different to the sort we would bring to the blatherings of Chris Martin or the hormonal surges of the Arctic Monkeys. Where many musos-turned-poets tend to offer lyrics-on-the-page, with predicatbly tepid results, New Sea Land offers its select band of readers a set of poems that have me reaching for adjectives like 'lapidarian' and 'labyrinthine' (anything, please, except that appallingly cliched phrase 'carefully crafted'!). Nobody will be singing along to lines like these:
smoked holiday bodies
completed the summer conjunction
between wharf piles
of north island and south
lightly boasting their saline semiology
Bill Direen is an exile from New Zealand, as well as from the music industry, and exile is the undersong of New Sea Land. The book is filled with New Zealand subject matter - with surf, bush, and blokes with fishing rods - yet it was written by a man who has for some years lived in Paris, a man who has immersed himself in the study of French literature and in his own literary endeavours, eschewing his old life on Pig Island. How can we explain this puzzling incongruity between Direen's subject matter and the life he has chosen to live? Is New Sea Land an exercise in nostalgia, or some feeble attempt to keep in touch with the surface phenomena of the 'New Zealand scene'? I don't think so.
Direen's expatriation seems part of a quest for a certain type of vision of his homeland. Keith Douglas wrote of the way that 'time's wrong-way telescope' distorts our view of the past; his image could also stand for the effect that expatriation can create in our minds. But a vision that is distorted can also be strangely enhanced.In an essay published in brief #33, Direen compared expatriation to memory loss, saying that in order to live in a new country he had to forget parts of his old life, even as he remembered other parts of that life more vividly. But a vision that is distorted can also be strangely enhanced. In New Sea Land, the familiar features of the New Zealand land and seascape appear suddenly unfamiliar. Details are isolated from one another and juxtaposed, rather than harmonised in organic 'contexts' or 'scenes'. Viewed through Direen's wrong-way telescope, the familiar appears fragmented and luminously mysterious:
a seaward wind-rush
contravenes the tide
suspense of the yawning
Direen has made a thorough study of French Modernism, and the manner of many of these poems suggests the influence of the 'Cubist' school of poets represented by names like Reverdy, Jacob, and Appollinaire. Like the Cubists, Direen builds his poems up out of fragments, in a manner that both approximates reality and refuses mimesis.
I should be careful not to overstate the difficulties presented by New Sea Land. The greatest of the French Cubists, Guillame Appollinaire, was famed for his ability to combine crptic imagery and a 'public', declamatory tone, so that his poems were at once hermetic and rhapsodic, a peculiar marriage of Mallarme and Whitman. In New Sea Land, too, the will to fragmentation is balanced by a frequent desire to generalise in rhapsodic metres:
sea inconsistent, inconscient
sea of mythological households
sea of bloody purposes
sea of razors without religion
sea of expectant traitors
sea of mammals and spacious cemeteries
sea of instinctive combat
sea of the moon
sea of lunacy
Unlike the windier bards of New Zealand literary nationalism, Direen is prepared to undercut his generalisations with sudden changes of tone, and precipitous descents to the obscurely particular:
a step on the stair
cosmos and human consciousness
in a cup of tea
Reading these poems is like standing at the back of a hall and hearing blasts of feedback make ironic commentary on the speech from the podium. Perhaps Bill Direen hasn't left music behind after all.
You can order New Sea Land from the Titus Books website.