Wednesday, April 30, 2008

You tell 'em, m'lad

Skyler recently posted her debut review, so I thought I'd dig up one of my first serious appraisals of a book. It was pounded into a typewriter at my parents' house and posted to the young Jack Ross, who was reviews editor for the mysterious Auckland arts publication called The Pander a decade or more ago. (Wasn't I a pompous young man? Some things don't change...)

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-
arm-

e

he say

'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 style
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:

(Hey God
dis poet
laCKS TEA Do
somethin'
will ya!)


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.
Tell her
Catullus loves her
as the lone daisy
loves
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.

5 Comments:

Blogger Richard Taylor said...

An old man! Less of the 'old'! The strange thing is I have 'Geographies' but not 'Straw into Gold' Which I see everywhere in libraries etc...

Good review - I am interested in the Berrymanic tone so I will have a look at Geographies...

I agree that Stead "too much explains, too much constructs... " (Eliot himself said something like that somewhere in a poem...)

I enjoyed his story 'Smith's Dream' and in 1968 he lectured to me (and others!) on Eliot and Pound (he is a (world renowned) expert on these writers -) [he downplays his 'The New Poetic' but for me it is great work on Eliot etc] it seems strange then his hostility to Ashbery - he complains of the 'meaninglessness' (or is the too much complexity or "difficulty'?)in Ashbery...but Ashbery derives from Auden and other Modernists such as Stein and Bishop and is far from 'meaningless' nor is say Smithyman (who Stead clearly admired/admires) with all his sometimes obfuscation or back to the US some of the language poets. Stead and also Wedde are two "older" poets as well as Harlow and a few (a lot in fact!) of NZ poets we should all have good look at (and not just 'literary' people)...I found his essays very good some are not so difficult some are like beautiful stories - one about the wife of writer he visted - she was an old lady - it could have been a story by Sargeson or Owen Marshall (at his best - Marshall has some marvelous stuff and some rather weak stuff - like we all have I suppose...)

And ambiguity and 'difficulty' are written about as far back as (for only one example) Cleanth Brooks' in "The Well Wrought Urn" and so on ... it maybe true that Smithyman's "less difficult" poems such as "Waitomo Caves" are his best (he said as much himself in an interview once) ... but what is then the 'difficulty' with Ashbery's subtle and beautiful music? A blind spot in Stead's vision I suspect.

The 'Catullus' is good - in fact almost whoever translates him does a good job (I think Zukofsky did a famous 'transliteration' of Catullus from the Latin - set to music in 'A') - but Stead is good - I also have his Paris. Yes there are certain lines that work magically by themselves - the ambiguity and uncertainty intensifying them - if anyone has ever read Joyce's 'Epiphanies' they have something of that - they are sometimes some of the most exquisitely beautiful things ever written (I have felt) - also say Jacob or some of the 'cubist' poets or even O'Hara et al or the great poets of the one liners ... and Berryman with his manic energy - Stead clearly is influenced by him and Eliot of course...

He has recently put out a new book.

It is strange how much antipathy Stead evokes - I suppose (too authoritative, prescriptive, too anti-postmodern, too post modern, too intellectual, too glib???,too playful, or too quotidian - (one is never really "too" anything)) he obviously has his "followers"... I can see nothing wrong with him - he has always interested me (as an academic figure and as practicing writer - if I haven't read sufficient of his works)...as far as I have known him, and that is as a student and a reader..

1:48 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Stead is an old racist.

11:31 am  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

I re-read "Geographies" and it is quite a great book. Stead is major writer in N.Z.

To anonymous - I don't care if he is "racist" - by the very nature of our culture many people are inherently - to different degrees "racist" -


Maps - anonymous shouldn't be allowed to write such things - even if it is a joke - although I know stupid things like that are said about Stead.

There is a good case for all comments (esp. on a political site such as this) to be non-anonymous. That is people should own up to their opinions - any other approach is cowardice.

I don't see anything wrong with Stead - I like the man (I mean through his writing etc I don't know him personally) - and Stead the poet.

Greatly talented people attract jealousy of course.


Stead gets a lot of negative stuff verbal and other so he is used to it - but here is a case for him taking libel action even against this Blog (which could be closed down also) as the Blog owner "owns" the comments to some degree. The comment of anonymous is unpleasant and very close to libel.

Worse it is really stupid (and would be hurtful to Stead I would say) like a gratuitous piece of obscenity - drunk joke or not.

2:51 am  
Blogger maps said...

I'd make a distinction between subjective and objective racism.

I don't believe for a moment that Stead is self-consciously racist, bit I think he puts forward views which are racist in their origins and their effects.

Consider, for example, his view that Maori culture is inherently 'inferior' to European culture (whatever that is). I think this view descends from a nineteenth century English ethnographic tradition which removes cultures from their historical and geographical contexts, inappropriately compares them, and then fits them into a sort of teleogy of historical progress in which different cultures reflects different steps in the 'ascent of man'.

And this discredited high theory still filters down into talkback radio calls and letters to the paper asserting that those damn Maoris should be grateful that we gave them the electricity, cars nd so on, and that if it wasn't for us they'd still be running around in the bush in grass skirts. Implicit in such an argument is the view that the 'inferior' culture is stagnant, and that the people it supposedly imprisons can only be 'liberated' by assimilation to an 'advanced', invading culture.

I've questioned these arguments in many posts, and I do think they are racist in their origins and effects. That's not to say that the people who advance them are individually self-consciously racist. A lot of Marxists hold to the same teleology as Stead!

6:38 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

We all do that in differing degrees - my emphasis - having English parents has been towards European things...

The point is - where are these (subconscious) racist views?

I'm not saying they were not said or averred or whatever but I haven't them myself.

Not that I have read everything he has written of course.

2:28 am  

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