You tell 'em, m'lad
Jack had a policy of witholding the names of his reviewers, so CK Stead was never able to come after me and scalp me, nor even write a nasty piece of doggerel in my honour. I hope the old bugger's past it now.
Note: for some mysterious reason Blogger can't seem to reproduce the spacing and indentation of lines of poetry when it publishes, and the intricate way Karl's later poems are arranged across the page has been lost in my excerpts. Take the time to track the sampled poems down and read them in full - they're worth the effort, whatever reservations The Pander's young reviewer might have improvised in an effort to sound more informed than he was...
CK Stead. Straw into Gold: Poems New and Selected. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1997.
In the 1950s and '60s CK Stead produced carefully patterned, conservative lyric poems; in the early '70s innovative, fiercely idiosyncratic pieces began to appear above his name. This mid-career 'switch' has been the focus of most of the critical attention Stead's poetry has so far received, with the result that little attention has been paid to the continuities and correspondences that are equally clear in Straw into Gold. Consider these excerpts:
Heavy, flat down the rain comes, and is taken
Still by the mothering grass ignorant of time;
The leaves of the lemon tree wax, each separately shaken,
And enclosing rock stands form, too tall to climb.
And a partridge in a poetry.
Not collar-edge Coal-ridge
Not bodle air Bo-dlaire
Get it right
Make it new
And forget Les du Mal-
'Poetry - she's made wiv woids.'
Juxtaposing this stanza from the 1950s with a passage from the '70s one is, of course, struck first by the formal contrasts. The careful meter and thunderous full rhymes of 'Elements', the oldest poem in Straw into Gold, and the ragged lines and colloquial rhythms of 'Quesada', a long poem Stead published in 1975, might have com from two completely different writers. And yet there is a peculiar self-consciousness which informs both the heavy-handed symbolism of 'Elements' and the jokey allusions Stead uses in an apparent attempt to justify the rambling, ambiguous nature of 'Quesada'.
This nervous self-consciousness might be seen as damaging both the traditional and the innovative poems in Straw into Gold. 'Elements' is flawed by Stead's infliction of a too-obvious meaning on a collection of resonant, ambiguous lines:
Sky is hard in which the hawk hangs fire
Lines like this do not need to be bolstered by the hackneyed interpretive symbols in the last stanza of 'Elements'. Nor do the mocking obliquities of 'Quesada' need Stead's mock-comic excuses and clarifications.
Stead seems driven to rationalise and thereby explain away whatever appears ambiguous or incongruous in his poems. Political and literary pronouncements and autobiographical self-indulgence add to the contextualising static that vitiates so much of Straw into Gold. Stead is an unconvincing tub-thumper: his subtle, cynical critic's brain must rebel against the solemn repetition of home truths. Many of the political pronouncements in Straw into Gold are simply embarrassing:
the mean masters of destruction
the mealy mouths that abet them
the don't figure among the unemployed
there's work for them always
On the positive side, one should however stress the travel poems and translations which are such wlecome features of Straw into Gold. The travel poems, in particular, provide Stead with a way of escaping his compulsion to justify and explain. In 'Yes, TS' and the sequence 'Paris', geography provides a base (or a series of bases) from which Stead launches a series of wide-ranging imaginative forays. With its oblique angles of observation and frequent referential leaps, 'Yes, TS' captures the feelings of confusion and dislocation modern international travel creates. By taking this subject, Stead is able to abstain from the rants and annotations that mar other parts of Straw into Gold. He seems, finally, to be enjoying hismelf:
in a foreign city
in blue cotton pyjamas
you could die here
Ostensibly a journal recording Stead's wanderings in the Northern Hemisphere in 1980, 'Yes, TS' is a rich assemblage of quotes, jokes, bawdy anecdotes, allusions (TS Eliot is joined by everyone from Matisse to Reagan), along with evocations of places Stead may or may not have actually visited. The poem's tone is exuberant:
laCKS TEA Do
Sadly, only the first five pages of this long work are included in Straw into Gold. Poetry-lovers will have to scour second-hand bookshops for the full-length version included in Stead's 1982 volume Geographies.
Stead has produced many loose translations of poems by Catullus. Keeping the basic structure and tone of each original still leaves him free to inflict his wit and (rather playful) scholarship on Catullus' evocations of bad love and good sex in late Republican Rome. He cannot resist putting bits and pieces of contemporary New Zealand into each poem. The lengths Stead will go to in order to find new ways of expressing Catullus' frustration with his wayward Clodia have to be read to be believed:
Tell her she's known to her 300 loveless lovers
as the scrum machine.
Catullus loves her
as the lone daisy
the Masport mower
Like 'Yes, TS' and 'Paris', the Catullus translations are a triumph. Most of the forty new poems which conclude Straw into Gold lean on Stead's status as one of New Zealand's senior men of letters. They can be read as gruff epistles from the retsired academic turned successful novelist and freelance sage. In the best of these anaemic poems Stead talks understatedly about subjects he knows well, like book publishing and the ethics of translation. The inevitable takes on biculturalism are less subtle, and less successful:
'Whooooooah! The treedee!'
It's a shibboleth
I tell him
a jackup that went wrong.
These are the unambitious poems of an old man confident of his achievement and happy with the place he occupies in New Zealand literature. They lack the energy and generosity of the best poems in Straw into Gold.