Thursday, March 27, 2014

Climbing Mount Brunton

Sometime near the end of the nineties my mate Hamish Dewe attended a conference where New Zealand's best-known poets and literary academics strutted their stuff. When Hamish reported on the conference to me - I hadn't been entitled to attend because, unlike my friend, who was ascending a Masters degree, I was still trying to finish my BA -  he emphasised the impact that Alan Brunton had made on proceedings.

After being invited to sit on some sort of panel, and listening to slouching academics on his left and right discourse in mild voices about absence and authenticity and other very abstract nouns, the founder and leader of the peripatetic Red Mole theatre troupe and author of long, incantatory poems with names like 'Lost in the Heroin of the Idea' apparently rose suddenly to his feet and launched into a loud impromptu lecture on the decline of the poet in contemporary Western society.

Brandishing the name Percy Bysshe Shelley, Brunton noted that the great Romantic poet had been a skilled horseman, swordsman, athlete and lover, as well as a man of words. How many of today's poets, Brunton implicitly asked his audience, possessed the energy, versatility, and volatility of the author of The Revolt of Islam?

It would not be surprising if Brunton identified with Shelley. Both men were political and aesthetic rebels, who chose exile over complicity in a conformist society. Both wrote sprawling, excited poems that are alternately esoteric, confessional, and pungently polemical. And both sometimes suffered incomprehension from their peers.
By the time he collapsed and died during a Red Mole tour of Europe twelve years ago, Brunton had written hundreds of poems, but many of them were exiled in old periodicals, out of print books, or unpublished manuscripts. When Peter Simpson called Brunton's oeuvre 'a mountain as yet unclimbed' during a 2010 interview on this blog, he was referring to the difficulty of accessing the man's texts, as well as the difficulty of the texts themselves.

Tonight, with the help of Creative New Zealand and an array of poets, scholars, actors, and rock musos, Titus Books will launch Beyond the Ohlala Mountains, a collection of poems Brunton wrote between 1968 and 2002. The book has been edited and introduced by Michele Leggott and Martin Edmond, and is adorned with a series of colour photographs of the masks - strange, handcrafted faces that are alternately quizzical, affable, and appalled - once worn by Red Mole's performers.

With the help of this new book, we can at last climb Mount Brunton - if, that is, we have the energy and adventurousness that the poet demanded of us during that impromptu speech back in the late '90s.

Footnote: I have only scrambled about on the foothills of Mount Brunton, but an argument about the man's politics that I contributed to the literary journal brief back in 2004 can be read here.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

13 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hope the launch went well. sadly unable to attend. bill direen

9:47 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

It was a very fine, and very late, night, with clowns cavorting in strange masks, music that ranged from hoary '70s rock to free noise, and readings from poets in varying stages of inebriation. I estimated the crowd at one hundred and fifty, and I believe that Brett sold many of them copies of his exquisitely produced book. The bar has been set very high for future book launches by Titus/Atuanui!

11:26 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Hi Bill and Scott. I wanted to go but I was ill. I think I went to that conference, I think you would have been able to go. Although I recall there were more than one. I don't recall all that re Shelley although his name was mentioned in regard to the poet being "The unacknowledged legislator of mankind." (Comrade Loney immediately dismissed this idea). I like Shelley of 'Ode to the West Wind' and such as 'Prometheus Unbound'. I haven't indulged in his 'Revolt of Islam'.

Well, there is now a new project outside of Smithymania for Club Academia, the climbing of Mount Brunton. I must get a copy of FQ although I have some memory I copied an edition of it once but I don't know where it is...I found his "Moonshine" to be an extraordinary work, as I say in my review (I did 2 reviews and when it came to glorify Martin Edmond with his essay in Brief, it was stated that no one reviewed it, and my review was printed at 90 degrees to the normal page, so I was sidelined while the "name" Edmond surged into print with HIS essay)...

Nevertheless it is true he was certainly a charismatic figure, and it is sad he died quite young.

Good to see his poems have been collated. I never met Brunton although I played chess in the 80s with a chap called Brunton (Dave I think) who suffered if I recall rightly, from indigestion....this may have some vital relevance one day.

I don't think that Brunton took any interest in politics as such, he seemed to be just simply an inspired shit stirrer. But it is a pity that he and who is that bloke - Young? - indulged so much in illegal drugs. That may be a clue to his early demise.

7:02 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brunton was extremely political...as Arthur Baysting said last night he talked for hours about politics...one couldn't shut him up...what a shame that people spread untruths about him today...

11:50 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I didn't know Brunton so it is a bit hard for me to 'spread untruths about him' but I did see him a few times. His contribution to a book by Leggott on the 60s and 70s culture etc was good but his political understanding of those events I was invovlved in seemed either naive or just incorrect. His picture, for example, of Tim Shadbolt, didn't coincide with my experiences and also the violent (by the polics and the US Secret Service agents) demonstration against Agnew (it's purpose was an opposition to the US war of genocide in Vietnam) was I think to leave New Zealand.

However, in a wider sense, he might be seen as "political" and undoubtedly did speak about politics a lot.

But a view of a person is not a lie the word or term I used was "I don't think..."

Now I did think also that he used illegal drugs as a number of others did in those days - however in that I see I was or may have been quite wrong.

Anon should reveal him / herself although I suspect it is Scott Hamilton pretending to be anonymous to fuel a debate...

Otherwise I spend hours studying his book 'Moonshine' - I could almost have used it as the basis of a thesis on Brunton's poetry but that was the only work of his I had read. I was the ONLY person to give it a positive review at the time it was pubished. Either Brunton didn't read it or he thought I was too low down the scale of the literary hierarchy to acknowledge it.

Then, later, Brief had an issue on him in which he was praised, quite rightly, he was a talented poet - possibly a very great poet judging by "Moonshine" which interested me for various reasons but one because I had read Richard Rhodes Pulitzer Prize winning book 'The Making of the Atomic Bomb', and I also read a book about Madame Curie while studying "Moonshine" [the point that is missed on the blurb uis that neither Einstein nor Rutherdorf had anything to do with making the atomic bomb, and neither thought nuclear energy would ever have any useful purpose, "Moonshine' was Rutherford's reply to the theoretical physicist Leo Szilard who not only "invented" and patented the chain reaction, but also persuaded Einstein to sign a letter to convince the US Govt to attempt to make a nuclear weapon before either the Japanese or the Nazis did, but he and other scientists were opposed to using it on any Japanese city but wanted a demonstration as by then Germany was beaten and Japan had nothing much left) but I also used Wikipedia to source his references to to various 16th to 17th Century alchemist-philospher-scientists such as John Dee (who Brunton quotes 'Joye and perfection unspeakable') and much else that showed a great erudition and wit at play in "Moonshine" which is possibly one of New Zealand's greatest long poem-books.

Martin Edmond also wrote a very good and erudite essay on the book later when the Brief devoted to Brunton and his works appeared.

Brunton was political I would say in a wider sense than Maps is trying to drag him into: possibly some "working class" Marxist stamp or some alchemy (!) that will prove that Shelley was a communist...and so on. But Shelley and many of his contemporaries (Wordsworth,Hazlitt, Goethe etc) were excited by the French Revolution. His 'Prometheus Unbound' is in opposition to 'Prometheus Bound' by Aeschylus. Both are great works. Shelley's wife wrote the very great and much misunderstood book 'Frankenstein', she was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and Godwin who was also somewhat of a reformer or liberal.

So Brunton's "Moonshine" is an extraordinary work with a great range of references, puns, allusions (literary and scientific) etc He turns atomic change (the "splitting" of the atom) into a poem and is perhaps the first to exult in chemistry and atomic particles as well as language and Provencal poetry etc.

So "Moonshine" at least, is worth a good look.

1:03 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

The book I meant was 'Years ago Today' - it is very interesting.

I am still not too well from an annoying cold - one of the few I've had for some time - which prevented me getting to the launch but I will purchase a copy of that book that Titus launched.

1:08 pm  
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