Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Speaking over Heaphy

[Shakespeares Hotel in downtown Auckland is stocking up on malt whiskey and cheap beer, as it prepares for tomorrow night's launch of books by Murray Edmond and Ted Jenner. The malt whiskey is being kept for Brett Cross, whose Atuanui Press is giving the world Edmond's volume of cultural history and Jenner's heavily annotated collection of ancient Orphic death-poems. The cans of Rheineck and Ranfurly will be doled out to humbler folks like Richard Taylor and yours truly.

Here are another couple of excerpts from my introduction to Murray's book. I'll see you tomorrow night, and shout you a Rheineck.]

At the end of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies, Murray Edmond was one of a gang of young literary rebels who published a magazine called The Word is Freed, or Freed for short, from their base in inner city Auckland. Like many writers of their generation, the Freed group considered cultural and political radicalism to be inextricably connected. The Fordist capitalist societies of the postwar West, with their vast and orderly factories, quiescent working classes, and smug, bureaucratised political parties, seemed to depend for stability on a puritanical morality and a philistine mass culture. Seduced into conformity by their televisions and by well-stocked supermarkets, and fearful of the consequences of sexual and chemical experimentation, the denizens of the West needed to change their lifestyle as well as their politics.

For the Baby Boomers who marched and rioted in the streets at the end of the sixties, culture was therefore as much an issue as economics and politics. During the revolutionary ‘May Days’ of 1968, the students and workers of France demanded the end of sexual and cultural repression as well as common ownership of the economy, and painted the slogan TOUT LE POUVOIR A L’IMAGINATION (ALL POWER TO THE IMAGINATION) on walls. Poets, it seemed, were in the vanguard of the revolution.

The exuberantly innovative poems published in Freed were intended, then, as a challenge to New Zealand society, as well as to New Zealand literature. In the first issue of the magazine, Alan Brunton condemned the notion of art for art’s sake, insisting that ‘A WORK OF ART HAS NO RIGHT TO LEAD AN AUTNOMOUS MORAL EXISTENCE’ inside a world that is too often ‘DIVORCED FROM THE VALUE OF HUMAN LIFE’.

As Murray Edmond notes in his preface to this book, though, the coupling of revolutionary politics and revolutionary art did not last long. In the eighties Thatcher, Reagan, and our own Roger Douglas brutally restructured capitalism, shrinking the state, shutting factories, splintering the left, and inaugurating a post-Fordist era in which an atomised population competed for insecure service sector jobs. At the same time, the cultural phenomena that had seemed aberrant and dangerous in the sixties – sex outside marriage, communal living, alternative religions, rock festivals, independent film making, and so on – were accepted and commercialised by most Western societies. The counterculture became a set of unthreatening subcultures...
Theatre occupies a special place in this book, and a special place in Edmond’s life. He has worked as a dramaturge, theatre director, and teacher of drama, and mentored generations of playwrights and actors. Edmond sees the theatre not as some autonomous zone where the contradictions of quotidian life are dissolved, but as a site where contradictions and the conflicts they produce can be experienced and examined. Edmond shows us the conflicts that can arise between playwright and director, director and actors, and actors and audiences, and links these clashes to conditions in the world outside the playhouse. The aesthetic success of any theatrical venture depends, Edmond suggests, on the acknowledgement and creative use of contradictions. A successful theatrical performance is a model, however small-scale and temporary, of a democratic society, where differences are acknowledged rather than evaded or repressed. 
The long, eponymous essay that concludes this book has an elegaic tone that contrasts poignantly with the brusque optimism of some of Edmond’s youthful writings. Where the proclamations of Freed looked forward to a revolutionary future, ‘Then It Was Now Again’ looks backwards, deep into New Zealand’s past, and laments the way that successive propagandists for the powerful, beginning with the nineteenth century surveyor Charles Heaphy, have tried to write inconvenient individuals and communities out of history. Edmond presents New Zealand writing as a continual joyous struggle to salvage and restore the memory of marginalised people and forgotten events.

The style of ‘Then It Was Now Again’ perfectly matches the essay’s argument. 
As he refutes the simplified versions of New Zealand history produced by men like Heaphy, Edmond offers quotations, in English and Maori and a strange hybrid of the two languages, from more than a dozen authors. Historians like Judith Binney and James Belich are quoted alongside poets like Smithyman and Robin Hyde and the nineteenth century prophet Te Ua. Several authors whose names have been lost – footsoldiers in the anti-imperialist wars of the nineteenth century, who left their words of defiance hanging in the air like gunsmoke – join the fray. 

For Murray Edmond, history is a democratic, and often contradictory, polyphony of voices, rather than some smooth monologue. We can be thankful that Edmond has added his voice to New Zealand literature over the past four decades.  

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Blogger Richard said...

I enjoyed the launch and got both books. I started on Murray's last night and was immediately absorbed. He starts in fact talking about what it is like to be a poet, or what 'being a poet' is: as it happens he writes (1973) about Baxter, and how he came close (my interpretation) to a kind of intensity (he doesn't say this but one might think of Rimbaud or in fact the [later?] confessionalists (Lowell of that stage and others). But that essay also talks about NZ's David Mitchell (also in Freed), and his closeness to language: his sense of urgency because of the My Lai massacre and other issues. Both Mitchell's 'Pipe Dreams in Ponsonby' and Baxter's Jerusalem poems (which I had just been looking at again by coincidence) are pointed at.

The reasons for their popularity are more complex than that of the 'showman' Sam Hunt. It is a clever essay. The interview with Ricketts is fascinating also as it shows how Edmond was working on his next book. In fact reading that, I was inspired to write a poem myself, also because of a talk with Will Christie and Ted who was asking about the 'existential' issues of writing - can one go without writing for long if one is in fact a writer were questions she raised so that chimed with Murray's musings.

But there are many more essays on a range of subjects. It was good to see so many poets and other interested people attending.

I did have 2 lagers as driving into the CBD left me a bundle of nerves, and being at the Shakespeare again was eerie for sure.

I'm glad I got those books though, both Ted and Murray's. They are both excellent and very interesting books. We don't get many books quite like them.

8:42 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

even two beers can be too many...witness this tragic case:

4:51 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

PS My boyfriend took 2 percocet yesterday about 3 hours apart, during that time he had 3 long island ice teas and then 2 hours after the second pill he drank 2 beers. He was fine except for seeming drunk and smiley but he was still quite animated. We eat dinner then get in the car and I drive him home and he suddenly felt very nautious/sweaty and then when we got home he was very out of it and the feeling poorly didn’t go away until an hour later and then he went to bed. I want to know what was the reason for his sudden feeling bad and if its a sign of overdose. Going to caution him strongly next time to at the very least just take 1 if he is insistant on doing it.

4:52 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Hi Anon. Yes, I don't normally drink much these days and indeed mixing alcohol with medication can be dangerous as can be any amount of drink for anyone. I didn't drink hardly at all until I was about 40 when I overdid it, as I used it to calm my nerves when I did live poetry readings and in other social situations. Nowadays I drink much less. Alcohol is a dangerous drug. However, it can assist some who are very nervous, in some pain, etc

Some people can get drunk without drinking by the way. This is because, for some reason, they have certain bacteria, normally harmless, in their gut which change certain foods into alcohol. It is rare but does occur.

Fatigue, due of course to sleep deficiency, can be as deleterious
or harmful as excessive drinking.

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