Through longest corridors
As a bathetic egoist, though, I can't help wondering whether there might be some strange parallel between the tumult in my own life and the state of the wider world. When I've had a moment or two to scan some headlines or eavesdrop on a radio broadcast over the past week, the news has seemed unusually dramatic. The chain reaction of revolutions which commentators have dubbed the Arab Spring, the deepening global economic crisis, massive demonstrations in Greece and other southern European nations, plans for something approximating a general strike in Britain, the long-overdue, rather spectacular and altogether unforseen launch of a robustly left-wing mass membership political party in New Zealand: all of these events seem to be part of the sort of quickening of history which Lenin's famous phrase was supposed to capture.
And it's not only in news headlines that I find evidence of chaos and change in the outside world. Several months ago I decided to try to make this blog a little less egocentric by conducting a series of interviews-by-email with artists, writers, and activists whose work I admired. After getting the thumbs up from half a dozen subjects, I fired off half a dozen e mails full of the sort of bothersomely pedantic questions I like to ask talented and unusual people. Not a single one of my would-be interlocutors has found the time to reply to me, but none of them is guilty of indifference, or even rudeness: instead, the likes of earthquakes, redundancy notices, student occupations of universities, strikes, and infectious diseases have separated them from their keyboards for weeks or months at a time.
Stumbling through the wreckage left behind by that ill-fated moving truck yesterday, I came across an untitled, unpublished and almost unknown poem by Kendrick Smithyman. The text was knocked out on in May 1969 and posted to Andy Gurr, an expat Kiwi who taught at the University of Leeds and had been influential in bringing Smithyman to that institution for a six month sabbatical in 1966. Gurr kept the poem for more than four decades, then handed it to me during a visit to his homeland last summer, after hearing that I had been busy compiling a volume of unpublished Smithyman texts.
Andy Gurr is best-known today as a Shakespeare scholar, but in the 1950s and '60s he was a committed left-wing activist, and in 1956 he played a leading role in the little-known but ultimately important 'New Zealand New Left' which emerged at the University of Auckland in response to the Suez crisis and the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Smithyman had espoused Marxism as a young man, but by the time he befriended Gurr in the early '60s he was less interested in economic and political tumult than in the secret existential crises of individual human beings. The two men had many good-natured but intense arguments about the meaning and value of political commitment, with Smithyman apparently ribbing Gurr about his socialist sympathies and interest in the Bolshevik revolution.
Smithyman's poem seemed somewhat obscure when I read it for the first time last summer, but its movements between revolution in the outer world and private adventures and transformations resonated clearly with me yesterday.
Everyone has a short story
which he does not write. Some call it
My Life. Others, An Adventure.
All of us have lives to leave.
Some of us have adventures.
We leave them to others.
To this one I leave an adventure.
To that one, I bequeath a life.
As from this very now, astonished moment,
diagrams of nervous pain between
the horizon's urban limits, and a cloud.
I look across an impoverished tradition,
an industry mechanically blocked out,
to reflect as the lightning displays again
that this is an adventure. I am at
a window on the other side of your world,
audience of a brawling difference
earnestly sensitive to a change of climate.
No more of that. Through longest corridors
advance the outcries of revolutions.
The Winter Palace is stormed. For a moment,
enlarging, a Czar of all the Russias,
I participate, resolved that I must write
this down: I lived, and ventured.
A flash of conviction, a theatrical
accelerated heartbeat. In Mount Priory Street
some jingling arms of passing, with a bell
which should have been a troika.
You sympathise and you participate;
then comes the monster of responsibility
before which windows close against the gale.
To you, I have to say, Please take
my life. And you, Accept, sir, my short story
about when I seemed to matter as a state,
burden of much threatened culture. Little
Father, they wail; the thunders deafen me.