Tuesday, July 29, 2014

RAK Mason and the taste of kava

[Poets often have small audiences, but their words can end up defining reality for large numbers of people. It can be argued that most twenty-first Pakeha New Zealanders understand their country and its place in the world using a set of images that were created in the 1920s and '30s by a handful of obscure young Bohemian versifiers.

When RAK Mason described New Zealand as a 'perilous hostile place' at the 'outer edge of space' in his 1923 'Sonnet of Brotherhood', he was expressing his sense of isolation, as a young intellectual living a long way from centres of culture and ideas like London and New York and Paris. In interwar New Zealand superphosphate was a much more important topic of discussion than literature, and Mason once grew so angry at his failure to find an audience for his work that he threw hundreds of copies of his poetry collection The Beggar into Waitemata harbour.

In the 1930s Mason's sense of the isolation and philistinism of New Zealand helped endear him to a set of younger writers, including Allen Curnow, who insisted, in his poems, essays, and anthologies, on the radical distance of his country from the rest of the world, and John Mulgan, whose novel Man Alone showed a young man wandering, mostly in solitude, through the stump farms and mute forests of the North Island, before fleeing for Europe in search of fraternity.

By the 1950s and '60s the image of New Zealand promoted by Mason and his admirers had been canonised, and was being absorbed by a new generation of Kiwi intellectuals and artists. In his history of cinema in New Zealand Sam Neil brandishes a copy of Man Alone, and talks about the influence of the novel on the actors and auteurs who created a professional New Zealand film industry in the 1970s. Today scholars of our culture talk about a 'New Zealand gothic', and find themes like isolation, loneliness, philistinism, and violence in everything from the films of Jane Campion, Vincent Ward, and Peter Jackson to the music of the Tall Dwarves to the novels of Ronald Hugh Morrieson. 

The notion of New Zealand as a radically isolated society can, of course, be expressed in a sanguine rather than a gloomy manner. In their song 'Six Months in a Leaky Boat', for instance, Split Enz imagine their homeland 'shining like a pearl at the bottom of the world'. Many Kiwis like the notion that their country sits at the 'outer edge of space', because that seems a safer place to be than, say, the Middle East.
And yet New Zealand is not, in geographical terms, as isolated as many Kiwis would like to believe. The same Pacific Ocean that poets like Curnow saw as an enormous barrier is also a road that can connect us, in surprisingly short time, with the tens of thousands of islands of Polynesia and Melanesia. The same writers who bemoaned the isolation and philistinism of New Zealand society in the 1920s and '30s periodically fantasised about escaping from their cold latitudes and exploring tropical societies like Fiji and Samoa and Tonga. 

RAK Mason is one of the few who went beyond fantasising, and visited New Zealand's nearest neighbours. In 1931 and 1932 he travelled to Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa. Although Mason gathered a lot of information about each country, and wrote some important newspaper articles about New Zealand's repression of Samoa's nationalist movement, his tropical adventure does not seem to have altered his understanding of literature or his belief in his homeland's isolation.

I've written an essay about the relationship between Kiwi writers and Tonga for the forthcoming issue of Poetry New Zealand, the long-running journal that has just been taken over by Jack RossI won't put the whole of the essay, which details the visits that the poets Murray Edmond and Richard Von Sturmer made to the Friendly Islands last year, up here now, but I thought I'd quote the first few paragraphs, which indulge in a little counterfactual speculation by wondering how differently the history of Pakeha literature, and by extension Pakeha identity, might have played out, if RAK Mason had been served kava during his visit to Tonga in 1931. Brett Cross thinks my musings are 'outrageously romantic'. He might be right...]

In 1931, when he was twenty-six years old and had already published a couple of volumes of poetry, RAK Mason visited the Kingdom of Tonga on the Tofua, a steamship that connected Auckland with the ports of the tropical Pacific. Then as now, Tonga teemed with punake, or poets, whose works, which typically feature dance and music as well as lyrics, were performed around kava bowls and at events like weddings and festivals. Punake were part of the ornate culture that had developed over the three thousand years since humans had settled the Tongan archipelago. 

Although Mason enjoyed his short stay in Tonga - in letters home he described the kingdom as a 'delightful place', and reckoned that its people were 'the happiest' in the world - he does not seem to have sampled the local literary culture. It is fascinating to wonder what Mason might have made of his Tongan counterparts, had he encountered them at a kava circle or festival. Frustrated by his distance from the literary centres of Europe and by the indifference of his countrymen to his books, the young Auckland poet had often complained that he was trapped in a remote and philistine corner of the world - a 'perilous hostile place' at the 'friendless outer edge of space'. 

In the late 1930s and the '40s, Mason's vision of the South Pacific as a remote, rawly new, and philistine egion would be accepted and advertised by younger writers like Allen Curnow, Charles Brasch, and Monty Holcroft; by the 1950s it would be an orthodoxy. 
Might the history of New Zealand literature be different, if Mason had been ushered into a kava shack on the shore of a Tongan lagoon, and found the work of the kingdom's esteemed caste of punake being performed there? Might the young poet's conviction that he lived in a remote and philistine corner of the world have melted, as he drank bowls of narcotics in the warm Tongan evening, and joined the clapping and foot-stomping that often accompanies kava songs? Might he have realised that a rich and highly valued literary culture could be found not just in faraway Europe, but in New Zealand's nearest neighbour? 

And might the punake of Tonga, rather than the Georgian poets of England or the verse propagandists of the Soviet Union, have become Mason's literary models? 
Tonga is a place that prompts this sort of counterfactual speculation. The only piece of the Pacific to avoid colonisation in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it has evolved unusual and surprisingly robust economic and political systems. The kingdom's constitution bans the sale of land, and most of its people still work small farms land granted to them by the state. From the air even Tongatapu, the largest and by far the most populous island of the archipelago, resembles a forest of coconut, banana and mango trees. Palangi make up only a sliver of the Tongan population. A visit to Tonga can feel, then, like a journey into an alternative version of New Zealand history, where Polynesians were never robbed of their land and language, and where Wakefield never planted capitalism...

Read the rest in the issue 149 of Poetry New Zealand. You can hear Jack Ross talking his plans for his new possession on Radio New Zealand

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Anonymous Anonymous said...


11:16 am  
Blogger Dr Jack Ross said...

Would that we had reached issue 149 of Poetry NZ ... This coming issue will be no. 49 only, I'm afraid.

- Jack Ross

2:01 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Scott, interesting post (the error re the PNZ number notwithstanding). Mason as I've said before was one poet I read over and over again as a teenager. I think his work resonates with certain people.

He also went to China, and his poetry was recognized by Dylan Thomas who read his poems at readings.

For me at that time (not sure the age) it wasn't anything about NZ being on the outer edges: that I took to reflect simply the human condition overall. I would say Curnow et al put their own spin on what Mason was saying.

I had a chance to meet him about 1970. I should have. Around those times he was significant to me (although I had basically renounced poetry).

My father knew him and I have a picture he drew of him. But I don't know much else about his life.

Would a visit to Tonga and a kava ceremony have influenced him more?

He didn't perhaps develop in the way Curnow, and say Smithyman and Baxter did: I have a feeling his early romantic Christ the tramp the saviour and his beautiful lyric poems, some as haunting as anything ever written: I have a feeling that the politics etc were almost peripheral to what Mason was although his poems such 'Sonnet to MacArthur's Eyes' and others show a 'political' sense: there was a powerful sense of the human, and of history. So, maybe, maybe he was searching for something in Polynesia.

11:42 pm  

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