Alan Brunton and the dream of a revolutionary art
In a comment under my last post to this blog Chris Trotter declares that there is 'nothing forlorn' about the idea of uniting art and left-wing politics. All that's needed to achieve such a task, according to Chris, is 'potency and fertility'. Attempts at political art are frustrated, though, when 'the politics turns cowardly and the art becomes incomprehensible'.
Chris' declaration is certainly resonant, but it seems to me to raise all sorts of questions. Who gets to judge, for instance, whether someone's politics are cowardly, and whether one or another piece of art is 'incomprehensible'? In a country where the Greens are considered a far left party, and where socialism is presently regarded as an alien political tradition, how can any coherent political programme hope to be popular, or even comprehensible, without being, from a radical left-wing perspective, 'cowardly'? And in a country where large numbers of people still expect poetry to rhyme, and still consider any visual art movement more recent than Impressionism to be an elitist fraud, how can any self-respecting artist disavow incomprehensibility? Could, say, Colin McCahon or Rita Angus have created their masterpieces without daring to be, for a large segment of the population, incomprehensible?
I don't have any easy answers to the questions Chris' comment implies, but I thought it might be worthwhile digging up an argument about Alan Brunton, one of New Zealand's most incomprehensible and most politically ambitious artists, which I had with Claudia Westmoreland back in 2003. 'Alan Brunton and the Counterculture: an unfinished dialogue' was published in an issue of brief dedicated to the man who co-founded the legendary '60s literary zine the word is freed, and who later became the main public face of the experimental theatre troupe Red Mole. The dialogue was composed at a time when I was very heavily involved in the movement against the invasion of Iraq, and my rather manic, preachy tone possibly reflects the fact that I had become habituated to writing political leaflets at short notice, sending daily polemical e mails to friends and foes, and making speeches from soapboxes to small and disinterested audiences at pickets and public markets...
ALAN BRUNTON AND THE COUNTERCULTURE: AN UNFINISHED DIALOGUE
Scott Hamilton and Claudia Westmoreland
SH: Alan Brunton’s often considered a difficult poet.
CW: I don’t find him difficult. It’s the term ‘difficult’, as it’s used in too much lit crit, which I find hard to swallow. I don’t know what it means, when applied to Brunton.
SH: Well, people find Brunton obscure. Not obscure in the sense that, say, John Ashbery is obscure. It doesn’t worry me when I don’t ‘get’ Ashbery – I don’t expect to ‘get’ Ashbery.
CW: He’s not exactly a forthcoming guy.
SH: But he is around about the most acclaimed living poet in the language, right? People don’t find the obscurity an obstacle to reading him. But with Brunton it’s different – with Brunton there is a sense of a desire to say something, to say something in the charmingly old-fashioned sense that Shelley and Blake wanted to say something. A lot of people pick up on Brunton’s visionary ambitions – he doesn’t exactly disguise them – but they can’t grasp his vision. And that frustrates them, I think.
CW: Perhaps they’ve been ruined by English lit courses. Do they expect highlighted passages and flow charts to take them through the poems?
SH: I think it is Brunton himself who raises expectations.
CW: A visionary poet is not an essayist. You can’t express a poetic vision – you’re right, the phrase sounds old-fashioned – in non-poetic language, and poetic language is often opaque.
SH: I don’t find the opaque quality of Brunton’s poems satisfying. What I’m interested in doing is using an altogether less opaque work, his memoir of the 1960s counterculture called Years Ago Today, to get a handle on the poems. I’m particularly interested in the way Brunton seems to have become a poet in opposition to the social formation that existed in New Zealand and the rest of the West in his youth, a formation sometimes called social contract society. The first section of Years Ago Today is devoted to a critical narrative of that society – it’s quite a ride, from the A Bomb to 'Rock Around the Clock' to Prime Minister Holyoake in eight or nine pages. CW: I can’t imagine Brunton using a phrase like social contract society.
SH: Whatever you call it, popular history and memory all too often reduce it to a few kitschy images, unchallenging stereotypes.
CW: ‘Old Zealand’...the Pavlova Paradise...or Pig Island, depending on your point of view...
SH: It’s either looked back at nostalgically as God’s Own Country, the mutton and pavlova paradise, or condemned as a fragment of East Germany marooned in the South Pacific. Similarly simplistic pictures are painted of the same era in other Western countries.
CW: The picture might be simple because the society was simple. Isn’t that what Brunton is complaining about? You complain about the complexity of Brunton’s poetry, then call that poetry a reaction to this social contract society. Isn’t the link obvious? Brunton’s imagination was on overload because he’d grown up in such an unimaginative society. Have you heard about those experiments in sensory deprivation, the ones where geeks in white coats float volunteers in soundless pods of lukewarm water? After a few minutes brains go into overload, compose fantastic hallucinations. Hamilton in the early '60s was like one of those pods. I bet Brunton was in overload well before he smoked his first joint.
SH: You’re confusing boring with simple. A society can be quite intricately boring, you know. I say that New Zealand between 1935 and 1984 was a social contract society because it was based on a deal between its two most important classes, the working class and the ruling class. The working class accepted, for the most part, the ‘large print’ of the contract – accepted, for the most part, the existence of capitalism – in return for a welfare state, a somewhat more secure lifestyle, and a degree of political influence exercised through the heavily mediated forms of the Labour party and the trade unions. The ruling class accepted the decreased profits and flexibility the welfare system and the new cohering role of the social contract state threatened to create, in return for long-term relative stability in the labour market and the disappearance of the spectre of working class insurrection. Both sides’ acquiescence to the contract owed a great deal to the exhaustion and anxiety the Great Depression had brought to them.
CW: There’s nothing like financial deprivation to stunt the imagination...
SH: Upon its narrow strip of liberated territory the working class struggled to build a world in which its needs and desires were expressed and satisfied. Consider, for example, ‘the Great Kiwi Bach’, one of the sacred symbols of the contract society. The bach, which could only be occupied during holidays and weekends, represented the aspirations of its owner for his or her own ‘free time’ - for his or her time away from the alienated labour capitalism imposed. Baches and bach communities were places where workers attempted to take holidays from capitalism itself...Bach communities were often staunchly egalitarian, and in a sense they were the true, popular descendants of the utopian communities planned and occasionally established by nineteenth century intellectuals.
Despite all that they hinted at, though, baches and bach communities were never properly autonomous: they depended for their existence upon the alienated labour their owners undertook in a capitalist economy...Now, after reading Years Ago Today I think Alan Brunton hated social contract society. He hated the ‘implacable Protestant bankers’, the ‘Christian socialist’ politicians, the ‘militaristic and segregated’ schools. Years Ago Today is the record of a battle against social contract society – a battle fought on the field of culture.
CW: You’re making Brunton into some sort of politician. Was he some sort of Moses leading his people to the Promised Land, or was he a poet liberating himself? Anselm Hollo said that poets aren’t interested in solving the problems of the world, they want to stay in their rooms and giggle into their notebooks. Anselm wrote that in his notebook. Brunton won his battle the day he skipped his appointment with the barber and checked out of Hamilton. The freed poems are celebrations of his own liberation, not some sort of political manifesto. You treat Brunton like he’s Herbert Marcuse – I’d rather compare him to Frank Sargeson, another Hamilton boy who blazed his own trail. Are Sargeson’s stories manifestos, or records of an individual’s struggle for freedom?
SH: You are separating politics and art in a way which is very easy to do in the West today. But in 1969 the separation wasn’t easy to achieve. You’re saying Brunton smoked but he didn’t inhale? Read Years Ago Today: it is the cultural expressions of social contract society that Brunton kicks hardest against, but he often makes links to politics and even economics. Years Ago Today is long on cultural history and short on political economy: it is fair to argue, in fact, that Brunton treats social contract society as first and foremost a cultural phenomenon. Brunton is aware, of course, of the economic and political history of the 50s and 60s, but he seems to explain that history as a by-product of more deeply-rooted cultural attitudes and practices. But I get the very clear impression that Brunton was interested in understanding and changing the whole society he lived in, and one of the reasons he was so interested in culture was because he thought it was the key to society, the keystone of the building he wanted to demolish.
SH: For Brunton the conformity and philistinism of the 50s were not the products of an economic and political arrangement – they were the reasons for that arrangement. I’ve got to quote you his explanation for Walter Nash’s ‘black budget’ in 1958:
The lay preacher Minister of Finance, Arnold Nordmeyer, increased sales taxes on beer, cigarettes, records and clothes. Tax on cars was increased 100% Pleasure, the socialist decided, should cost so much that pleasure hurt, or was at least earned.
Now that’s a silly explanation, in my opinion. In 1957-58 was there was a jolt in the world economy, there were balance of payments problems right across the world, a Kiwi creed of ‘Christian socialism’, as Brunton calls it, had nothing much to do with things.
Brunton’s belief in the primacy of the cultural went hand in hand with his conflation of all the main political parties and social groups in New Zealand in the 50s and 60s. National and Labour, boss and worker were all equally implicated in and privileged by social contract society. And they were united not by the common interests posited by Fabian theorists of the 40s and 50s, but by the shared cultural values summed up in that curious phrase ‘Christian socialist’.
There is a grain of truth, to be sure, in Brunton’s assessment. Social contract society was marked by an unusual degree of cooperation between capital and labour, and by a conformity and apathy valourised by Fabian phrases like’ then end of class struggle’ and ‘the end of ideology’. The '50s must have seemed a long way from the 30s. But underneath the apparent harmony of the post-war paradise were profound conflicts of interest and a chronically unstable economic system. The minor shock of 1958 was a symptom of the forces which by the 1970s had created a profound economic and social crisis across the West, and which necessitated the tearing up of the social contract.
CW: So Brunton wasn’t a prophet...
SH: My point is that the strategy of changing society fundamentally by overturning its dominant cultural expressions is ineffective. It’s cutting a branch off a sick tree. Brunton chose the wrong strategy because Brunton’s perspective was wrong. He mistook a branch for a trunk. Listen to this quote from Years Ago Today:
Jim and I hitched back to Auckland in October. It took us three days but that was time enough to develop a paradigmatic model for the resituation of New Zealand in an alternate universe. The shift would begin with the imagination and be at the hands of the Cultural Liberation Front...The new culture needed visual aid, mysterious and anti-radical icons...We would perform, be shaman-showmen, be ‘the shaggy’. The socialists had failed to end conflict, now it would be erased from consciousness. Our works were to be anti-rational and closed to interpretation.
Brunton wanted to use the resources of culture – poetry, music, dance, theatre, and more – to attack the reigning cultural institutions and practices of New Zealand society. It was culture, after all, which was the keystone of that society. The judicious bombardment of the senses would turn audiences on to ‘alternative’ ways of thinking and feeling; ‘straights’ would become ‘freaks’ and swell the tribes of the counterculture. The established culture’s collective mind would begin to go out, the hold of its coercive institutions would weaken, new ways of thinking and living would become possible on the expanding margins of society...
CW: I think you take that quote far too seriously. You also assume that Brunton thought that cultural struggle was the only way forward. He may have been sympathetic, in a somewhat passive way, to more conventional types of political action, and gotten into the cultural stuff because he enjoyed it, not because he had any great expectations. Let’s face it, what would you rather do: sell the People’s Voice in Otahuhu or jam with Space Waltz in Albert Park?
SH: But it’s extraordinary how easily Brunton conflates what we’d call the counterculture with the much wider and much more important social and political conflicts of the late '60s and 70s. The massacre at My Lai, for instance, is seen in Years Ago Today as “an attack on the counterculture”! I thought that was pretty bizarre.
CW: It may seem strange because it makes you think about the Vietnamese national liberation struggle in a new way. But wasn’t part of the motive force for the resistance in that country, not to mention the resistance in Iraq today, a desire to preserve a culture against the onslaught of the consumer capitalist society that Brunton hated?
SH: OK...but you seem to be contradicting yourself. A while back you were saying Brunton’s poetry had no political intent...
CW: You are the one contradicting yourself. You’re prepared to endorse the counterculture in Vietnam, where it won, but you criticise it as an inevitable loser in New Zealand. SH: Vietnamese national culture was a popular culture. It had a social base, organic links to the population. It wasn’t a few hippies sitting in a park. And the Vietnamese cultural resistance, if you want to call it that, was integrated with a political and military strategy. They didn’t attack Apache helicopters with their revolutionary theatrical troupes. If you want to bring in strange comparisons, try Charles the first. He thought that theatre, poetry were magic. He spent on actors instead of armaments. He tried to win the Civil War with an elaborate stage spectacle in which he was the star.
CW: That is daft. I think Brunton would like it...
SH: I think it would be useful to compare the counterculture Brunton helped establish with the cultural organisations of the Waterside Workers Union before 1951. The destruction of Jock Barnes’ Waterside Workers Union in 1951 set the seal on social contract society. The WWU’s industrial militancy and progressive views were at odds with the institutionalised class collaboration and cultural conservatism of the social contract. After 1951, few people knew about the very strong cultural institutions maintained by Jock Barnes’ WWU. Few people know about them today. The union sponsored not just the usual rugby and cricket teams but chess clubs, brass bands, a debating society, and study groups equipped with libraries.
The WWU’s advanced opinions – the union opposed war and apartheid and supported pay equity decades before almost any other part of the country – permeated its cultural organisations, which to some extent provided an alternative to the backwardness of mainstream mid-century New Zealand. It can be argued that the WWU and its periphery represented the best example of an oppositional working class culture to exist in New Zealand, at least since the defeat of the Red Federation of Labour in the General Strike of 1913. Brunton’s generation grew up knowing little or nothing of this real counter-hegemonic culture: for them, working class politics were synonymous with economistic, compromised trade unions and the ‘Old Left’ of Stalinised Communist Parties. That’s a tragedy...
CW: All you are setting up is another essentially sentimental contrast. Before it was the heroic peasants in black pyjamas over the middle class hippies; now it’s the heroic Kiwi jokers in their blue overalls standing in the limelight. It is Brunton’s poetry and not some sort of political achievement which stands as the test of the value of his time in the counterculture, if you want to call it that. What poets of value did the WWU produce? Where are New Zealand’s Marxist poets? The Communist Party took away RAK Mason’s voice and got Gordon Watson killed. Hone Tuwhare had to leave to free himself as a writer...
SH: You shouldn’t confuse the Communist Party with Marxism! I wanted to discuss Brunton’s relationship with Allen Curnow. Years Ago Today records an interesting confrontation between teacher and student:
Curnow taught Edgar Wind and iconographic studies between lighting matches for his miasmal pipe but not that Spenser was in Ireland as part of a genocidal adventure for his ‘Qveene’. At a reading by South African dissident poet Dennis Brutus, when I claimed that poetry linked the politics and the ethics of the system it was created for, Curnow demanded this apostasy be apologised for.
It’s significant, isn’t it, that Brunton takes Curnow on over the connection between culture and politics?
CW: There are other reasons why he’d want to take Curnow on. Stylistic reasons.
SH: Indeed. It is no surprise that Brunton rounded on the man who symbolised the literary nationalism and official realism that dominated New Zealand writing in the 1950s and 60s. ‘Founding fathers’ of modern New Zealand literature like Curnow and Frank Sargeson fitted their language and to some extent their subject matter and themes to a ‘New Zealand scene’ designed to gell with a set of political imperatives.
It’s opposition to this instrumentalising of language, subject and theme which explains the name Brunton chose for his magazine. When Brunton said he wanted the word freed, he wasn’t using a fanciful figure of speech, or conforming to some doctrine of the ‘autonomy of language’: he was attacking a specific aesthetic, a specific social relationship, and a specific society. Brunton saw that the aesthetic Curnow represented underwrote a contract between mainstream New Zealand writers and the society they lived in. The professionalisation of New Zealand literature, the establishment of hallowed institutions like Landfall, the academic post occupied by Curnow: all had been made possible by a careful delineation of acceptable style and subject, and a forceful proscription of other styles and subjects. Brunton wanted to reject this ‘aesthetic contract’, to put poetry out on strike. To this end he gave the readers of freed wild abstractions, or absurd mismatches of subject and style. The word was freed from Curnow’s nationalist realism, because it was freed from all mimeticism. Check out this passage from Years Ago Today:
In Viet Nam, soldiers ‘fragged’ their officers [threw fragmentation grenades at them]. By fragmentation and revolutionary zeal the world would be changed, the West would dissolve as everyone stopped work to make sense of freed.
CW: In his History of New Zealand Literature, Patrick Evans quotes a passage from Brunton’s freed, and claims ‘this is how poets write when they feel excluded from the literary establishment’. But Brunton is not crying with anguish in the wilderness. Evans’ is a history from the top down, a courtier’s history, and no courtier can imagine lack of ambition as a virtue. Evans sees the literary establishment as a wonderful castle, a desirable place for young poets on a sort of Harry Potter trip; Brunton, on the other hand, sees a prison.
SH: A lot of Brunton’s freed looks crazy, but the craziness is a kind of celebration: outside the prison of official realism the poems party. But how long can a party last? CW: The longer the better, because the hangover comes after...
SH: Alan Brunton’s tragedy, I think, was that he never succeeded in anchoring the freed word to a new conceptual framework, a new vision. With the passing of the aesthetic contract and the society that had created it, Brunton’s style was in danger of looking like madness without method. Worse still, the cooption of the counterculture’s politics of difference by neoliberalism meant that the style Brunton had pioneered in New Zealand was in danger of entering the enemy’s service.
CW: Leigh Davis, avant-garde poet and ruthless Fay Richwhite exec! But your problem is you prefer the hangover to the party. Brunton wasn’t the only one partying in the '70s and '80s. freed helped liberate a generation of New Zealand poets. Hell, more than one generation – think of the turn Curnow took in the '70s to produce his finest work. Was the old bugger even writing poems when he ran into Brunton in the late '60s? I don’t think so.
SH: But Brunton himself was not happy just partying. I think he tried til the end of his life to find a conceptual framework capable of satisfying his visionary ambitions and his extraordinary verbal and imaginative energy. He tried out personae and alter egos, from 'Cockroach' to Ernest Rutherford. He wrote about his adventures overseas, trying to find the narrative in travel. But the alter egos sounded more like poetry than people, and the journeys sounded more imaginary than real. There is a peculiar, disturbing confusion in Brunton’s later poetry. Listen to this passage, which I found in Ecstasy, the last book of poems to come out in his lifetime:
25 violins. Transitive part
of the transitive verb,
useful in the night, pot of grief,
lost and found combinations,
not thinking about anything. The road
to next year we face
without fear though it stretches ahead
for miles. Respect for the dizzy creatures
who live with us as our Family.
What is happening here? Words form phrases which flail about, then disintegrate; images blaze and recede, but do not illuminate each other. Because this is Brunton, we can be sure that the poet is struggling as hard as the reader. Brunton is trying not so much to express as to capture meaning: to find the concepts to cohere his language and imagination. I don’t think that he is successful.
CW: I like it, but then I’m not looking for the same thing as you. You’re looking for a finished meaning, a finished poem, something with its shirt tucked in and socks pulled up. Something TS Eliot can explicate in an essay for a journal nobody reads any more. What you’re getting is not a poem like that, not even a poem, but poetry, in the purest sense, in the sense of an energy flow – a flow of verbal and imaginative power. And part of the excitement of the poem, and your own bafflement, come from the feeling that the energy is not entirely under control, cannot easily be turned off or channelled.
SH: You make me sound all old-fashioned and schoolmasterish.
CW: Is Master Brunton being failed? How can such a brilliant and enthusiastic student be failed? Surely it is the examiner who ought to be failed?
SH: I’m trying to argue that Brunton fails to reach the goals he sets himself as a poet, and that there is a political context for his failure, but that he is nevertheless one of the most important figures in contemporary New Zealand poetry. It is the very nature of Brunton’s failure that makes him a special poet. Brunton was a visionary poet in an era without vision. That was his tragedy, but it was also his achievement. CW: You’re a schoolmaster who’s afraid to tell the pupil off. Must you go traipsing through history looking for excuses for the problems you find in Alan Brunton’s poems? Can’t you at least be honest and place the responsibility for your reading squarely on the shoulders of the man himself? That’s what Eliot would do...
SH: I know what you mean. Why didn’t Brunton just select the files marked SUBJECT MATTER and THEME? There’s loads of stuff in the world and loads of ideas about that stuff. Pick up a book by one of Brunton’s more appreciated contemporaries – by Bill Manhire, or Ian Wedde – and you’ll find plenty of interesting subjects and interesting ideas. No language on holiday there. Brunton himself tried the trick with Moonshine, a long poem based on the life of Rutherford. When Moonshine collapses into hopeless because apparently unintended obscurity, isn’t Brunton and Brunton alone to blame?
CW: But is Moonshine so obscure? Richard Taylor doesn’t think so. You should read his explication.
SH: Taking an explication from Richard Taylor is like taking a character reference from your mother. It won’t hold up in court. But I’m not asking for some line by line explanation. I’m not trying to scan the bloody thing. My argument is that Brunton’s language actually gets in the way of an understanding of his subject. There is some fabulous language in the book, and there is some fabulous information hidden somewhere beneath that language. Brunton was a talented writer, Rutherford had an interesting life. Couldn’t they have worked together?
But I think we need to cut the man some slack by considering the type of poet he wanted to be. It’s hard to imagine Manhire ending one of his creative writing classes by shouting THE NEW POETRY WILL BE MAGICAL, to pick the phrase Brunton tried on puzzled patrons of the Seeing Voices conference back in 1997. Brunton wanted to write visionary poetry – it was no mistake that he began his Seeing Voices oration by name checking Shelley. My argument is that Brunton spent most of his career as a poet living in a cultural climate which made visionary poetry well-nigh impossible.
CW: Once again, you make the mistake of confusing visionary poets and political essayists. How clear do you find Blake’s prophetic books? Sometimes the language, the images, the poem’s performance are the vision.
SH: Well, allow me to run through my schoolmasterish argument. Imagine you’re back at Rangitoto College. In the 1970s and '80s the counterculture got co-opted. Communal farms became an organic industry; radical feminists became liberal academics; pirate radio became commercial FM. Today the difference the counterculture celebrated as subversive is a mark of conformity.
CW: The counterculture got co-opted! Do you think the folks scraping a subsistence living in the Hokianga complained when the Europeans started fussing about fertiliser and went organic? Do you think Jeanette Fitzsimmons was kidnapped from that Coromandel commune and dumped in parliament grounds?
SH: I don’t think Brunton was happy with the cooption of his strategy. Back to the lecture: when the costs of a welfare state and unionised, regimented labour force became intolerable, capital’s managers swapped Keynesianism for neoliberalism: the state and the labour force were recomposed, as the economy was ruthlessly trimmed of dead capital. Privatisations, deindustrialisation, mass lay offs, you know the drill. From the Rogernomes’ acid bath a leaner, meaner society would emerge. In this new society conformity is maintained not by the old collectivist institutions and rituals of ‘Christian socialism’, but by the atomisation and cultural differentiation of a cowed working class.
Forty years ago almost every age group would spend their Saturday nights doing the same thing - watching the one channel of the new-fangled TV, or the only movie playing in town...Today, even that section of the population covered by the label 'youth' is fragmented into a bewildering array of subcultures, each of which
can in turn be subdivided. In the sphere of music, for instance, we have hip hop, metal, electronic, trad guitar music, 'alternative' guitar music and so on. Each of
these genres contains its own subgenres with their own lore and ritual.
I don't suppose I'll win many plaudits by contrasting the music scene of today with the soap scene of yesterday, but I do think it's interesting to recall a comment which many older New Zealanders will make, when they are questioned about the coming of TV to their country in the 60s. 'Everyone watched it', they'll say, 'and there was only one channel. Everyone would be talking about what happened on Coro Streetthe night before.' Now, this may sound like a description of hell, but I've decided that it shows up, in grotesquely-distorted form, one of the necessary conditions for a truly democratic society. Confused?
SH: I don't blame you. Consider, though, another ubiquitous TV memory from the 60s: the appearance of Vernon Cracknell, leader and only MP for the Credit Political League, on national TV, for a pre-election broadcast.
CW: Oh Christ...
SH: No swearing in the classroom please...The country had been primed for the broadcast for weeks by Social Credit devotees, and Cracknell had a huge audience for what is generally considered to be the worst piece of political propaganda in New Zealand history. I've never seen the broadcast myself, but apparently Cracknell spent all his time with a miniblackboard and chalk, writing mathematical sums and lecturing his rapidly-diminishing audience on the intricacies of Social Credit economic policy.
Cracknell's performance destroyed Social Credit for ten years: hundreds of thousands of Kiwis decided he was selling gobbledygook, which he was, and turned off his party permanently. Even today, many old-timers remember the broadcast! If only they paid as much as attention to the policy details of today's bourgeois parties! I thought of the Cracknell broadcast while reading a report on the election campaign being a while back fought in Ireland. The article suggested that the current Prime Minister of the country, Bertie Ahern, had been well-beaten in a live TV debate by the leader of the opposition, but that the defeat would not matter too much, because few people would have watched the debate. No wonder they weren't! Who would stay and home and watch a boring election debate, when the bright lights of a thousand subcultures beckon!
What I'm suggesting is that we need homogeneity as well as difference to create a healthy human society. We need the difference which results from the making of free choices by individuals, but the homogeneity which is necessary to ensure the creation and maintenance of the conditions that allow free choice for all...Today, the countercultural demand for difference is a conservative demand, or a demand with conservative consequences. Alan Brunton was a visionary poet who wanted to speak to the people about universal truths. But the late twentieth century Western culture deprived Brunton of the public discourse that was the precondition for the sort of communication he wanted. It is not merely that Brunton was unable to find a mass audience. William Blake did not speak to more than a tiny minority of a section of British society, yet this minority believed his vision to be universal, relevant in its implications to all sections of society. The French Revolution and the protracted crisis of British society gave Blake symbols and arguments with which he and his readers could map the whole of their world. Is there one contemporary Western poet who can do the same?
It was Brunton’s tragedy and achievement to persist with the countercultural project symbolised by freed long after it became counterproductive. The counterculutre had valourised difference, assuming wrongly that cultural homogeneity was a necessary condition of capitalism. Without the cultural homogeneity he hated, Brunton’s struggled to find meaning. In a text called Millennium: What’s left to the Imagination?, for instance, Brunton looked ahead, but could only imagine the future in terms of the past. Listen to this quote:
We can expect a revival of division over basic social problems we thought had been solved: the division between left and right will be fought out on the issues of family values ... feminism, abortions, choice: to work outside the home?
That’s Brunton is conjuring the monster he loathed and needed: the ‘Christian socialist’ society of his youth.
CW: May I speak now I’ve raised my hand? You need to get out more. Brunton’s words would be far from outdated in Te Awamutu, or Gore.
SH: But Brunton didn’t live in those places. The historical narrative in Years Ago Today ends with Brunton fleeing Auckland on a transtasman ferry. The scene had gotten too heavy. Here’s how he puts it:
As I rolled through Auckland with eyes like saucepans, there was commotion. Vice-President Agnew was visiting from the United States. Protesters against the visit of this egregious monster were beaten by Police. It was the police who started the riot; they chased protesters into the university and adjacent park, thrashing them with sticks. The University administration declared that Police had rightful access to the campus to control protest. It was time to go.
Brunton’s departure really symbolises the failure of countercultural politics to deal with reality. CW: Brunton’s travelling was at one with his writing. It was a part of his aesthetic: a physical expression of the freedom, space, and openness to chance that you can find in the poetry and the play scripts, as well I suspect as Years Ago Today, a book which you seem to insist on treating as some sort of solemn historical chronicle. Brunton’s travels weren’t a retreat but an advance.
SH: But Brunton’s flight reflects the fact that counterculural politics can only exist in a privileged space out of reach of the truncheons. When the scene gets heavy political rather than cultural action becomes compulsory: squares with truncheons won’t listen, even derisively, to poetry readings. A young voyant can live with indifference, derision even, but not with the rude hand of repression sweeping him into the same category as the ordinary students and workers the cops attacked in Auckland University.
Brunton’s travels in more or less exotic lands gave him the indifference that is the minimum wage of the visionary. In Darwin or in Mexico or in New York City Brunton was a professional outcast – he was alienated and protected by the visionary’s ignorance. Ignorance creates distance, which aestheticises: I see Brunton abroad as the young Chagall wandering the wondrous streets of Paris, magically protected from mundanity and ordinary attention by his ignorance of the French tongue and customs.
CW: And why should Chagall have stayed in Russia? When he went back to Russia, wasn’t he richer for his experience? You appear to be determined to argue from Brunton’s biography to his oeuvre and back again, in a circular fashion, to prop up an argument which was always based on false assumptions.
SH: Well, I do see exceptions in the poetry. I wanted to talk about ‘Movie’, a sequence of poems from Ecstasy, where the usual verbal fireworks explode alongside the funeral of the poet’s father:
My father died in December.
With my brothers I carried him
to the low house reserved
for dead soldiers.
When it was my turn to speak
I recalled driving through green paddocks
in his chevrolet, the road driving into my eyes.
It was the first day of the holidays.
The sadness and the no-frills realism charge the next section of the poem, where Brunton announces that:
Language is my neighbourhood.
I live in Alphabet City.
The people who live here open their hearts to the sun.
Today was the birthday of Louis Braille, inventor of a
reading system for the blind,
the day the Sputnik fell to earth.
In other poems the self-mythologising can be irritating, and the range of reference can be bewildering. Here, though, I think they’re made poignant by juxtaposition with the details of the poet’s real life. The self-mythologising suddenly sounds like a cry of loneliness, and Braille and the Sputnik complement rather than complicate the mood Brunton has established. Call it the ironic juxtaposition of visionary pretension and reality. ‘Movie’ is a signpost for a road out of the swamp of Brunton’s later work. But would Brunton have wanted to take the road? Would he have wanted to pay the toll of irony, of self-deprecation even? Would Brunton have wanted his visionary fantasies falling back to an earth where he lived amongst ‘the ruins of the poor’?
CW: You should take more responsibility for your reading. It is you, not Brunton, who has constructed it. The raw material for the sort of reading you have performed exists throughout Brunton’s work. A book of Brunton's is a sort of fantastic quarry. The material is there: the reader only has to work. If the reader doesn’t want to work that’s fine, of course: the stones strewn about make beautiful abstract sculptures. I enjoy my laziness...