Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The return of Mark Young

Most New Zealanders would recognise one of the characters in this photo. James K Baxter only wore a beard in the last few years of his life, when his dissatisfaction with bourgeois New Zealand society had led him to subordinate his poetry to religious and political activism, but the media tends reproduce the late photographs which make him look like a cross between Rasputin and a hippy whenever it discusses any aspect of his life and work.

Not everyone was impressed by Baxter's physical transformation in the late '60s. In his entertaining autobiography, Keith Sinclair remembers being disturbed by the passage in The Jerusalem Sonnets where Baxter praised the lice which had taken up residence in his burgeoning beard. Sinclair was used to greeting his old friend with a hug whenever they encountered one another, but after The Jerusalem Sonnets he decided that a handshake was more appropriate.

The poets posing with Baxter in this photo don't appear to suffer from Sinclair's hangups. At the end of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies David Mitchell and Mark Young - Mitchell is the one with the tie - regularly shared the stage with Baxter at poetry readings, and presumably shared a smoke or two with the great man off-stage.

Mitchell and Young were members of a new literary generation which seemed, in both its lifestyle and its writing, to embody a release from the conformity and formality that Baxter had identified with post-war New Zealand society in polemics like his poem-sequence Pig Island Letters. Young had grown up in the isolated West Coast town of Hokitika, writing poems of unnerving originality, before migrating to Auckland and meeting Mitchell, who was already firmly ensconced in the makeshift Bohemia of the city's crumbling inner suburbs. Both men celebrated the counterculture of the late sixties in their work, and took stands against New Zealand's involvement in the Vietnam War.

At the time of Baxter's premature death in 1972, Mitchell and Young were sucessful young poets, popular with pub audiences, with the readers of the little magazines thrown up by the counterculture, and with the older, more conservative generation that still controlled journals like Landfall. Mitchell's debut volume Pipe Dreams in Ponsonby had sold thousands of copies, and his live performances had led to offers of movie roles. Young was only slightly less prominent. Both men could have been expected to play a leading role in New Zealand literature for decades, and yet both soon disappeared from the literary scene.

Despite or because of the success of Pipe Dreams in Ponsonby, Mitchell refused to publish another book. His live appearances became sporadic and eccentric, and literary journals stopped receiving his work. By the time I was taking an undergraduate interest in the Auckland literary scene in the mid-90s, Mitchell had become a sort of ghost - a stooped figure glimpsed at the edge of poetry readings, running a shaking hand through a shock of white hair. Once, at a reading held at the Shakespeare Tavern, I saw Mitchell turn up and volunteer to perform. After being introduced to the audience with much fanfare - the MC had, like most of those present, read one of the dogeared copies of the long out of print Pipe Dreams in Ponsonby which floated through Auckland's secondhand bookshops - the legendary poet rummaged around in the ripped pockets of his duffel coat for at least a minute, produced a tattered blank page of paper and, with a look of satisfaction, held the page aloft in a shaking hand. We applauded uneasily, and Mitchell left the stage.

The other man in the photograph fell into an obscurity more complete than that of David Mitchell. By the mid-seventies Mark Young had become addicted to drugs, and had emigrated to Australia. For a decade he read nothing, and for another decade he wrote nothing. In the late nineties, after being contacted by scholars enthusiastic about his early work and after discovering the literary potential of the internet, Young resumed his career. Young's resurrection is documented in Pelican Dreaming, the extensive selection of his poems which I have just surveyed at the Scoop Review of Books.

The hundreds of poems Young has written over the last decade are anything but echoes of the work he produced to such acclaim in his youth. Unlike the many 'sixties survivors' who seem happy to trade on nostalgia, Young has developed his art, so that his poems can deal with twenty-first century subjects like digital technology and the 'War on Terror' in a manner that is wholly credible.

As well as celebrating the return of Mark Young, my review at Scoop notes the arrival of the first chapbook of poems from Ross Brighton, a bold but lyrical experimenter from Christchurch.

14 Comments:

Blogger Richard Taylor said...

David Mitchel basically started public readings in Auckland in the 60s and then later in the 80s (particularly at The Globe - hence The Globe Tapes). I wasn't around then, as a poet so to speak, so I didn't meet him until about 1992 when he was also studying literature at Auckland University...

But he actually gave a great reading at the Shakespear in the id 90s which was attended by hundreds of people. Your picture of him is exaggerated as usual... And he read brilliantly, and it was very very well received.

It was true that he had become reclusive, somewhat eccentric, and so on (but I recall a good conversation with him once) - his daughter, the poet performer Genevieve McLean who was in 'The Poetry Brats' as I was in 1993, told me this year (I saw her at Poetry Live where she made an announcement also to this effect): that he is or she is trying to get his work published. He has much more, I believe a huge amount more, than was in Ponsonby Pipe Dreams. He is in Australia, he is able to talk or at least communicate etc; but has a debilitating illness.

Genevieve is on Face Book.

Judy McNeil (also on Face Book), a (very talented) Auckland poet, knows Mitchell very well. She read on the same stage in the 80s.

10:10 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Fair enough Richard, but I'd maintain that Mitchell was, in general, a sad case in the '90s, and the 'performance' I recount was a real one. I wish his poetry held up, but I don't think it does, with the exception, perhaps, of a handful of poems, like the famous piece about My Lai. It'd be great if there were some gems in the unpublished oeuvre.

Looking at the early poems in Pelican Dreaming - poems which were neglected for a long time - it seems to me that Mark Young was ahead of almost any other Kiwi poet in his generation at the beginning of the seventies. I make this point at greater length in the review.

10:48 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

He was not always in the best state. But that performance I saw was attended by many of the literati and just many who knew him in Auckland. In general Mitchell was "out of it" (not drunk, or not always, as far as know) but he has great talent, and he read wonderfully that night. There as huge crowd and they gave a great attention to Mitchell.

I don't know Young at all. I mean I didn't know Mitchell very well but I have never met Mark Young at all. But I have seen his Blogs and your review - and I agree he has great ability - his fascination with Magritte is interesting.

My point is that we didn't know much about Young until he got into The Big Smoke and then he started really going for it. Mitchell hasn't done so - but I believe he has a lot of stuff unpublished (as did Young).

I don't know who is the 'best' - it doesn't matter to me.

My feeling is that drugs and drink probably did a lot of damage to both (and others I imagine) and that Young is lucky not to have "gone down" but he seems to have risen from the ashes.

Perhaps Mitchell has nothing, or little, else...but I wonder how many other poets have been missed out - and the were many in The Big Smoke (I liked that Mike Doyle's work for example) who seemed to move away into other aspects of life.

I had got involved in politics in the 60s and more or less lost interest in poetry but I still wrote for a year or so and people used to say they liked my work* - but I never attempted to publish - except earlier in 1968 once in Mate. But I must have probably even been to the same parties in Parnell - Shadbolt I recall - and once in Wellington my friend was given poem written and signed by Baxter - but as poetry wasn't his thing he threw it away!

I didn't drink or take drugs so I seemed to get a buzz just out of all the excitement that was going on in the PYM etc

I feel it will be hard for anyone in NZ to surpass the writing of Baxter. I remember reading poems by him in Landfall in about1968 - I thought they were great and I still do - but I didn't know about his Jerusalem Sonnets as he hadn't written them then!

I would also place Wedde highly (who influenced (somewhat after the sixties of course) Leggott, and she is great a poet - no question) and Wystan Curnow well up there. I feel that he hasn't published a lot of his best stuff either...
Loney is in there also. But he presents other problems.

I also like what I see of Ross Brighton's poetry.

* I once wrote a poem with big pieces of chalk I had on College Hill, near the Kwi Bacon Co, where there was a big sign for cigarette and picked up on the phrase "Gold bold..." and add libbed a kind of pre Steinian poem...before I ever knew of her!

12:31 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

what drugs did young and mitchell do?
I wuld like to try them.

10:09 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Glue.

1:27 pm  
Anonymous Murgatroyd Wordsworth said...

Glue ear. Tin ear. Cloth ear. So it goes with these third-rate poets. When are you going to write about some of the genuinely good NZ poets?????

11:11 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

Define "genuinely good".

11:54 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Yes, these 'drive-by criticisms' raise more questions than they answer.

My review tries to show in some detail - in too much detail, according to one commenter at the SRB - that Mark Young has a very good ear, and I think it is obvious that Ross Brighton has a deep affection for the sounds of the English language.

10:36 am  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

If we want to keep going we might need to define poetry or even "ART" itself.

From what I can see, while the poets you mentioned are really good, what we might all dispute is who we personally like: but it seems that such (poets as are generally in most NZ Poetry anthologies, knowing that some are not, who might deserve attention, and each anthology is different) writers are significant to NZ (and maybe world)literature.

"Anon" might have given some examples of alternatives he or she likes. There are many others - of course but if we had to survey all the potential and existing talent we would need as much space as a large public library. In that putative library would be infinite views on the various contending "schools"...or modes of writing.

I haven't read a big lot of Brighton and Young but from what I have read they are certainly worth consideration and I would like eventually to get their books.

Good to see you move between and among the various disciplines and topics.

Perhaps "anon" was thinking of someone such as Glenn Colquhoun (a doctor and a poet), whose poetry isn't my cup of tea, but appeals, as well as to many of the general reading public, unsurprisingly, to doctors (well my doctor at least!) and he is at least open to the idea that there should be wide range of poetic forms* and styles(I heard him in an interview on the Concert Program say words to this effect) and so there are many styles and "schools" in the Big Room of literature...

*The interviewer commented that a least he, being more realist than else, was at least not "postmodernist" but he quickly and firmly said that he would not exclude any style of poetry.

2:45 pm  
Blogger Jayne said...

October 30, 1985
Writer-in-Residence at Canterbury University, Keri Hulme won the internationally prestigious "Booker McConnell" prize for her novel "The Bone People".

11:22 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

Jane - and that was today? 1985? It is a great book. Very strange book - mysterious 'atmosphere' in it. Unique. She comments a lot on Scott's Blog here as you probably know.

12:31 am  
Blogger Jayne said...

I haven't had the pleasure of reading the book but, yes I knew she commented on here :)

10:50 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Richard Taylor,

man you have a lot to learn. Poetry went underground in the 70s and is till going strong. If these poets are true school, why don't they hip hop. You know - talk down the mike. Sound hard. Chin up. I'm out.

5:16 pm  
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