Friday, July 01, 2011

The kids are alright



According to a slew of grumpy middle-aged commentators, including a chap who posts regularly on a blog very like this one, the 1990s saw the birth of the so-called 'digital generation', a breed for whom the cellphone and the blackberry are natural extensions of the human body, and for whom books, and especially the sort of books that house novels and short stories and poems, are either incomprehensible or pitifully old-fashioned things. According to our gloomy commentators, the algorhythmic patterns of computer programs and the hastily-composed haiku of the text messager are the only forms of literature relevant to the new 'digital natives'.

A couple of weeks ago, though, the avant-garde poet, Smithyman scholar, and Vipassana meditationist John Geraets handed me a stack of documents which seem to contradict some of the dogma surrounding the current crop of teenagers. John teaches English at St Peters College, a venerable Catholic boys' school in central Auckland, and he'd asked me to choose the winners of his school's annual Sam Hunt Literary Awards.

I soon found myself poring over poems about wolves and mutilated toy soldiers, stories about bungled Al Qaeda operations and successful hunting trips to the Ureweras, strange, ornate dialogues between characters with names like 'Gaia' and 'Progress', and complaints about the perfidy of today's mainstream media. Despite their inevitable flaws - who can write perfectly at forty or fifty, let alone fourteen or fifteen? - many of the entries John gave me showed an old-fashioned delight in language, storytelling, and argument. Thesauruses had been raided and emptied of their gaudiest adjectives, arguments went from polite to polemical to vituperative in the space of a couple of sentences, and plots were derailed and rerouted and rerouted again by twists and double twists and other brutally arbitrary interventions by their authors.

In the report I wrote for John I picked out two young authors for particular praise. Lewis Wheatley, who is, I think, what used to be called a fourth former, had a produced a novella called 'Matanuku' which offered an interestingly twenty-first century take on that staple of Pakeha juvenilia, the lost tribe story. Back at Drury Primary School in the mid-'80s I wrote a story about an expedition - an expedition led, of course, by the heroic Captain Scott Hamilton - that searched the nooks and crannies of Fjordland for the group of 'old time Maoris' which was popularly supposed, even in the late twentieth century, to dwell there. Lewis' story, which was carefully organised into chapters and moved easily backwards and forwards through time, suggested that a quarter century of the Maori Renaissance and a better informed generation of teachers have ameliorated some of the worst cliches of the Pakeha imagination. Lewis' wanderer in the Ureweras is not a member of some mysterious relict people, but rather a hermit who has been exiled from his native village because of an unusual and disfiguring medical condition. The hunters who stumbled upon the man do not shoot or net or even photograph him, but instead make him their friend.

The other entrant I picked out for particular praise was seventh former Anthony Kamphorst, who seems full of the sort of anguished ambiguity towards the Catholic faith that we recognise from the novels of James Joyce and Graham Greene. In one of Kamphorst's stories, a decrepit but pious priest and a jaded, Nietszche-quoting journalist carry on the sort of dialogue about God, evil, faith, faithlessness and destiny that might be inserted into The Power and the Glory or The Heart of the Matter.

The Sam Hunt Awards ceremony was held last night in what seemed to be a large antechamber to St Peters' assembly hall. Entrants sat with beaming parents and bored-looking siblings around the tables set up by a superefficient Students' Academic Committee. Sipping the orange juice I'd been served, I wandered over to a wall and studied photographs of long-dead priest-teachers with the inevitable Irish surnames. On another wall several almost impossibly crisp rugby jerseys sat as securely as religious relics behind a fat pane of clean glass. They had once belonged to the captains of champion first-fifteen teams.

When John Geraets, who was suddenly dressed in an expensive suit, introduced me to the entrants, their families, and the teaching staff of St Peters as 'a big man of New Zealand literature', I decided he must be referring to my beer gut. Worried that the families of unsuccessful entrants might turn on me, I mumbled something about the 'inherently subjective nature' of all literary judgments, and urged everybody to remember that 'this isn't the Olympics'. I had chosen a winner for each form, as well as an overall winner, who was to be given the unlikely title of Sam Hunt Scholar. Every winner read a little of his work; mothers wiped their eyes.

After Anthony Kamphorst had been annointed Sam Hunt Scholar, a member of the Students' Academic Committee began a speech against "booze and bad behaviour", and in praise of literature. "At other schools a small minority is giving all youth a bad name with drinking and other immoral activities" the earnest young man claimed. "But tonight we see the real spirit of youth." I remembered how, at my secondary school, booze and pot were almost semi-official pastimes, and were indulged in by both students and staff. Our yearly balls were undisguised booze-ups and, if the media is to be trusted, the same dionysian spirit pervades the functions of most of today's schools. Perhaps, though, things really are very different at St Peters. Could this little school, wedged between the quarried slopes of Mount Eden and the torrential traffic on Khyber Pass Road, be a sort of island of civilisation, the twenty-first century equivalent of those monasteries, isolated on mountain tops and North Sea islets, that kept civilised arts like reading and calligraphy alive during the Dark Ages?

But if St Peters is going to breed the next generation of Kiwi writers, how are these writers going to cope with the fear and loathing of alcohol and other substances which is apparently being drilled into them? What, after all, would the history of literature look like without the influence of booze? How much would Hemingway have written without whiskey? How would Rimbaud have written his visionary poems without wine and hashish? Didn't great Catholic writers like Joyce and Greene and our own Maurice Duggan drink even more than their heathen counterparts?

I was pondering the relationship between booze and literature when the principal of St Peters took the stage. He looked worryingly like John Cleese, and I imagined him goosestepping down his school's corrdiors, with his index figure stretched under his nose. "We have gathered here tonight for the Sam Hunt Awards" the principal pointed out. "Sam Hunt was expelled, I am sorry to tell you, from this institution. There is a large hollow tree preserved on the boundary between the upper and lower schools - Sam Hunt used to sit in that tree and read his poems to a group of fellow dissidents that appeared around him. Sam Hunt wanted to create a state within a state. And a state within a state couldn't be tolerated."

The principal suddenly turned his head toward me, and I feared that I might be facing expulsion. "Doctor Hamilton's talk about the importance and distinctive qualities of literature made me think", he said slowly, "about a proposal over in Victoria to do away with English and replace it with something called Communication Studies. I suspect it's being pushed by some left-wing group - it's the sort of thing those people do. Thankyou, anyway, for reminding me to fight these left-wing people, Doctor Hamilton."

After the formal part of the evening had finally ended, the principal wandered over to the table where I was sitting, and picked up a copy of my latest book.
"I thought Id better bring a copy along" I told him, "just to prove that I really was a writer, and not some bum who'd wandered in to get out of the cold."
"That was a good idea", John Cleese murmured. "You're dressed like a bum, after all. Now what's this book about?"
"It's a study of EP Thompson, the Marxist historian and political activist" I told him. "It talks about the Spanish Civil War, and life in the Communist Party during the early years of the Cold War, and the campaign to get nuclear weapons out of Britain, and - "
The principal of St Peters College put my book down, turned around, and walked purposefully away.

31 Comments:

Blogger Oh Harry said...

Scott Hamilton is a corrupter of youth. Bring out the hemlock.

7:52 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think poetry should pervert the young.

9:10 pm  
Blogger Sandra said...

Funny story. I could picture it all. I was asked to judge a local teen writers' competition not long ago and enjoyed it.

9:21 pm  
Anonymous John Gash said...

Was Graham Greene a true Catholic?

Methinks not.

Methinks he's in hell.

9:52 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Scott,
Lucky kids! I wish we'd had visits from Marxist poets when I was at a Christian Brothers school. Congratulations on not getting burnt at the stake. You might have quoted Eileen Duggan's poem about Rosa Luxemburg in an attempt to bridge the cultural divide.
"Sam Hunt wanted to create a state within a state. And a state within a state couldn't be tolerated."
Unless it's the Vatican...


Farrell

11:50 pm  
Anonymous Keri H said...

Who cares about hell or whatever? (All sad artefacts of human minds.)

"Corrupter of youth"?
"pervert the young"?

My goodness, YES!
It's otherwise called 'opening young people's minds up
into hitherto unknown possibilities" and every wise and sane adult should do this, many times in their lives...

11:53 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

I certainly enjoyed seeing a school hand out a trophy for literary achievement - nothing comparable ever happened at Rosehill College during my time there! Nor can I remember students at Rosehill having the non-arrogant self-confidence and pride in their school that I encountered at St Peters. On the other hand, the hostility to booze culture seemed a little puritanical...

12:12 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Perhaps Rimbaud, Joyce, Greene, Hunt and Duggan et al had written even better without booze?

Joyce died. Initially the ulcer (he drank constantly so the ulcer was almost inevitably caused by the effects of alcohol he had caused him excruciating pain, he was terrified and thought he might have cancer. They operated and he recovered somewhat, but then he fell into a coma and died. He was relatively young.

His way of earning a living was mostly by cadging off others (his brother for example).

Alcohol is something we as society could do well without. It is also a major cause of cancer (of all kinds) but it causes many other diseases and contributes hugely to mental disease.

You might want social progress but if young people (and others) are killing themselves on the roads and dying of excessive use of alcohol you will make no useful progress.

9:30 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

You seem to have swung hard towards the anti-booze lobby Richard! What about all things in (relative) moderation?

The (very sad) irony of alcoholism is that those afflicted with the problem cease, in many cases, to feel any real effect from the booze they consume: they're not getting 'high' anymore, but simply preventing the onset of withdrawal symptoms. One could argue, then, that alcoholism and abstentionism are really two sides of the same coin, and that alcohol can only be appreciated properly against a background of sobriety...

9:56 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

No. It is not up to me. The facts are there.

It wont happen anymore than we will "progress". Human beings are animals. We simply cannot control our lives, we as a species have no real future. We are destroying ourselves. As animals with high intelligence we are possibly too intelligent and too complex.

We are an aberation.

We are The Dead. The likelihood of change for the good is very low.

Give me reason to hope.

10:19 pm  
Anonymous Pirie fam said...

Richard Taylor wants reason to hope.

I will give it:

Mark Pirie.

12:03 am  
Blogger Oh Harry said...

Inclined to agree with Richard on this one. Sam Hunt himself probably tippled a little before performances -- after all, live performance is one of the most demanding things on earth; I remember Circa actor Ray Henwood saying (when Blue Ladder presented Wedding Party on the Eiffel Tower at Circa, c. 1986) that he always had a little whisky before he took the stage. A little whisky loosens, deinhibits. A mirror companion of mine has been known to have a swig before playing in his rock band. BUT ... I reckon as far as writing is concerned, Richard's writers would've written their best stuff when their brains were working at 100%. Our attentiveness and concentration power increases ten% in the first ten minutes after drinking a glass, then decreases rapidly till one is inattentive and with a memory that is hardly sparkling. We may think we are witty, but are unlikely to be able to write with precision or put bright sentences together. Alcohol and writing? It is a myth. I'm sure of it.

7:55 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh Harry = Bill Direen??????????????

1:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'Sam Hunt himself probably tippled a little'

Sam Hunt is a joke. He's a PR man for Cobb and Co., not a poet. CK Stead put him in place years ago when he said 'Sam Hunt likes to present himself as an outsider and attack other poets as academic or insular, but Sam's own poetry shows no sign of change or growth'.

1:02 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Sam Hunt isn’t such a bad poet. But Sam Hunt didn’t just tipple, he used to get totally pissed. I liked his performances though.

His style is not as innovative as some writers but he wrote some good poems, even some great ones. Let’s give credit.

At every poetry reading I gave or took part in throughout the 90s (including my 'The Tin Drum' at The Little Maidment and 'The Poetry Brats organized by Raewyn Alexander) I was very inebriated. I would arrive at the venue pretty cut and proceed to drink at least 8 pints. Then I would drive.

Then I started getting picked up by the cops and I have two convictions for DIC but I was stopped more times than that. (Once I gave an impromptu poetry reading to two Maori cops!!! They liked it! And, after they booked me for DIC, they drove me all the way home and got my car home, which is a kindness I believe is very unusual for cops!!)

I also drove into things and did hundreds of dollars damage to my car and so on.

I spent probably thousands on dubious adventures and food and (booze of course) and car repairs, taxi rides, when I was drunk...the next day I would go through hell. (Withdrawal.) But I was going through a bad time and used to drink on weekends and at poetry readings.

The classic case re Hunt though was when he stopped in font of a green light and then when it went red he drove on!! To watching police, this seemed suspicious, and he was nabbed.

Bob Orr, the great Auckland poet, who was and probably still is an even bigger piss head, used to turn up to poetry venues wobbling on his legs. He and I used to go to all night places and keep drinking...But drinking and getting drunk is pretty widespread. How to do anything about it if anything?

But when I was young didn't drink. It started when my wife left me (and some other events happened in my life that were not good) and when I needed (I thought) "Dutch courage" to read poetry. The so-called bad things were not the cause of my excessive drink it was simply the "need" to have the nerve to read in public.

Being drunk made me feel like I was God. Combined with prescription sedatives I took I used to get pretty out of it, possibly nearly died a couple of times. (I often had no idea he next day who I had talked to, or what I had said, all night). So, and but, I can understand how people get into it all.

I have stopped but when things get too bad I will have a few beers or whatever.

It was because I knew I would have to be pretty drunk the entire time hat I knew I couldn't keep up doing performance poetry. I also had a show (part of a week of events organized by the Auckland University Drama Club). "The Tin Drum" at the Little Maidment got me great applause etc but I was drunk while doing that also. Only way I could get through it.

I suppose this all seems contradictory...but we are complex beings. "Pauvre hombre..." [Which is the poem by Vallejo?]

(Terror is the purest emotion).

11:53 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'His style is not as innovative as some writers but he wrote some good poems, even some great ones.'

Name one. Please.

1:39 am  
Blogger Oh Harry said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

3:41 am  
Blogger Oh Harry said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

3:44 am  
Blogger Oh Harry said...

Accepted then, Richard, that drinking does not prevent us from reading in public or doing regrettable things afterwards. Oh Harry! has been known to tipple with Bill Direen, who, it is true, rarely sings his refrains without refraining from refraining ... (he is eternally taking the pledge) ... but as for actually writing ... although Rabelais boasts at the start of Pantagruel (if memory serves) that he wrote the whole thing pissed (can we trust the persona of the persona?), I suspect the best stuff is written stone cold sober.

3:47 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Rabelais (I have read his great book) obviously didn't write it drunk. In fact there would have been virtually no creative writing (or anything much of value) done while anyone was drunk.

Occasionally (rarely) I would try to write when drunk but the results were just nonsensical or really bad.

I don't recommend creative writers use booze to overcome their inhibitions (I mean for public reading or speaking but indeed if that is what is required, (for some) it can be a temporary solution)*.

As to school children etc ...teenagers rarely take notice of what others say (if a teacher forbids something a young person is likely to do it as an act of rebelliousness and so on) but they do notice what their elders and "role models" are doing. And how they respond and act.

*Alcohol has some therapeutic value, as does smoking. If these things are bad for one's health, in the absence of other things, they can be a comfort for some people in various circumstances and I still drink on occasion when things get too nerve wracking for me...

My father never drank, and my mother would have one glass of wine every night.

Also, older and younger people have trouble processing alcohol well so the effects are much worse than people say aged about 25 to 45. After that one's metabolism slows etc things are not so good.

2:42 pm  
Blogger Oh Harry said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

7:57 pm  
Blogger Oh Harry said...

Strange then that what we write straight, we read slurred.

8:15 pm  
Blogger Oh Harry said...

PS To Anonymous, who seems intent on discrediting Sam Hunt's poetry, I just came across Aristotle's advice to a 4th century b.c. critic: "If you feel driven to say something unpleasant, restrain yourself.” Yeah, well ...

9:36 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

It is not good to criticize others - if unnecessary. Sam Hunt has his place and produced some good poems. on about his son is very moving (there is a least one)..he adopted particular style (realist Romantic?)...he has his place in NZ's history.

9:45 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So...Richard was challenged to name one good Sam Hunt poem...and fails to do so...

why?

Because there are none! They're all rubbish.

Sam Hunt is a joke. A bad one.

10:56 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And Aristotle imprisoned Greek thought.

Phooey to him.

10:57 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No reply from Richard or Harry...cowards!

12:34 am  
Anonymous Catholic voice said...

Deuteronomy 25:11-12 and other texts of that nature might not demand or mandate a literal application (being a Catholic who denies the whole Reformation Perspicuity Heresy nonsense that is no stretch for me to believe) and it might be that God still doesn’t in fact exist.

1:05 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Anonymous - I have my own views on poetry. But poetry unlike say Chess, which is a game (I play but not well I must say) where as time goes by it becomes clear who is a better player although even in chess there are various random factors...but by and large the sheep are sorted from the lambs etc but literature is dealing with whole world. And with language in all senses of the term... Potentially, it deals with all of human experience, and it has many sides.

So it is not always clear who is the "best" poet or who is "bad" or "good". Time takes care of that and general INTELLIGENT and evaluative criticism.

Some say that T S Eliot wrote virtually no good poetry. G M Hopkins comes under attack. Shakespeare was debated considerably in the 1700s and on by such as Dr Johnson. Poets are "discovered" that everyone once thought were "bad" or trivial.

E.G. I like Stein and Virginia Wolf while Brett of Titus books is big Mervyn Peake and a Wyndham Lewis man. He excludes the women I mentioned...but, while I also like (admire / appreciate) Lewis, I think Woolf is greater writer than James Joyce. So that is my opinion only. Or at least I prefer, like Marianne Moore (another major poet) his Dubliners to anything else he wrote...

So, who are you? Where and what are YOUR great poems? If you are going to take the piss out of Sam Hunt who at least had the balls to go public and read his poems and travel and devote himself (herself?) to his art...where are your balls? Or your essential Woman? Where is your mana? Or are you one of these gutless critics, who will never ever produce anything, but spend their bitter lonely desiccated time criticizing others? Have you risked any public reading as I have?

I mean will you front up and tell Sam Hunt to his face your view of his writing? What do we gain by attacking him?

[The answer comes back - "I am Scott Hamilton/ Jack Ross / Keri Hulme." !! Or "I am Bill Manhire" (add a name)!]

Are you Lionel Johnson raving form the grave?

12:37 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

LOL still no answer to the simple request -

back up your claim that Sam has written some good poems by NAMING ONE.

FFS.

12:28 am  
Blogger Richard said...

For God's sake FFS, your in your SIXTH YEAR!

EVERYTHING HUNT WROTE IS GOOD

EVERYTHING IS GOOD

EVERYTHING IS ALSO BAD

BAD IS GOOD AND GOOD IS BAD

We are Kiwis and we all write or some of us do...or we try at least...

Show us your own GREAT POEMS and we can all go home to bed.

2:59 pm  

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