Saturday, October 11, 2014

The return of the 'now'

[Roger Horrocks, legendary chronicler and contributor to New Zealand culture and author of the  neglected psychogeographic masterpiece Auckland Regional Transit Poetry Line, which records his adventures on this city's buses in the early 1980s, has let me publish the text of a talk he gave last Thursday night at the launch of Murray Edmond's book Then It Was Now Again: Selected Critical Writing.]
The thing I want to get across is that this is a unique book, an extraordinary book – not only because it’s beautifully produced but because it holds the essence of a lifetime of thinking about poetry, theatre, cultural politics, and the situation of living in New Zealand.
I’m overjoyed that such a collection can still be written and published in this country – it stands in utter contrast to today’s verbal fast-food, the “over-hasty volumes [of] blurb and guff” (to borrow one of Murray’s phrases), would-be best-sellers ghost-written by the invisible hand of the market.   
Murray’s Big Black Book is the real deal, an essential guide to our past, present and future. The title, a phrase from Janet Frame, covers that whole kit and caboodle - “Then it was Now Again” – echoing the time-travel in the title of Murray’s doctoral thesis, “To my Old Comrades of the Future.” Revolutions of the past look expectantly to new revolutions tomorrow. 
There are over 40 years documented in this collection. Today we have an urgent need for good critical history. I was talking the other night with a former colleague who observed that students are displaying an ever-shrinking sense of history. Technology is moving so fast that five years is now a distant horizon for them. So there’s relevance in launching this book in a pub dedicated to an Elizabethan poet and theatre man.
Murray is always interested in the big picture, though he also makes lovely detailed readings of particular texts. And if I seem to be making this book sound too serious and earnest, I should add that it is a hugely entertaining read. He describes the writer’s role as “a wrestling match with his own culture and the language it has debased.” For that kind of wrestling, Murray is a Superstar and he grapples with many flabby or pretentious forms of culture.  For example, he says of mainstream theatre: “Groups need good audiences to survive, but NZ theatres are invariably choked with the stuffy and the stuffed who cannot be shocked or overjoyed, who cannot laugh, and who love it all, [who] thank Christ they are here, safe in furs, and not out there threatened on the street.”
Of a would-be avant-gardist he writes: “I must point out…that all this postmodern posturing is just the shadow of a new orthodoxy and it is there to mask and hide the fact that the language is quite lifeless.” (Language is always one of Murray’s touchstones.) And of a reviewer in NZ Books: “Her demonstration of a lack of basic literary general knowledge, her inability to read tone, and her inattention to form and measure…-[these things are] trumpeted by her review, they are badges she wears with pride.” Such takedowns are only a warmup for when Murray gets in the ring with more vicious opponents such as Rogernomics.
In covering 40 years of NZ cultural history he identifies various bursts of “revolution” which were then tamed and domesticated by the establishment. Equilibrium was regained, establishing a new “staid parade” (so that “Now” became “Then”). But “now” can surge back up in a new form. Murray traces its ups and downs as a canny historian who is always looking for new energies but at the same time understands the complexities, ironies and naive “Romantic streak” that are a part of any revolution. In the Big Smoke days of the ’70s, for example, he notes: “There were elements of the messianic, the insane, the magical and irrational in the poetics of the period” – he is completely clear-sighted about that, but in poetry and theatre he still deeply respects the search for “Paradise,” “utopia,” or “revolution as carnival.”  Murray is a brilliant critic, rare in our culture, who has never lost his appetite for openness, for experiment and risk, for “making it new”. No doubt it helps that he has remained such an active creative figure, always on the front lines.  

In short, this book is history we need – it’s the tale of our tribe in its efforts to (quote) “transform a colonial society and its brutalisations into something else.”  Murray has (in the words of one essay title) managed to catch “the terror and the pity,” the humour and surprises of it. In my opinion this is not merely an excellent book but an essential book that every serious New Zealander must buy – and start wrestling with.  

-Dr Roger Horrocks  


Anonymous Anonymous said...

this horrocks oldie is still worth a read...a deconstruction of the pakeha literary nationalist project...

1:19 pm  
Anonymous Recovering literatteur said...

It is simplistic to say that people are reading less. What they are doing is reading in different ways. More fragmented ways, especially. Cf

5:19 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I don't care if people read or write more. I like reading and I keep reading. Mainly I also like copying things out of books. Why do I do that. Mostly simply because it gives me the same sort of pleasure that 'painting by numbers' used to as a child.

(But I had a quick look at 'Recovering Lit.''s Blog and it looks an interesting take on reading etc.)

I think the question was whether we read / learn enough about history. Whether books as such perhaps not quite necessary.

I am reading through the book by Murray and some I like, others seem to contradict each other and others I am thinking about carefully. His one about Smithyman's 'Dwarf with a Billiard Cue' (a book I have read at least in part in the past) lead me to Edith Sitwell, via re or reading some of those great poems. But I feel that might have been a more extensive study.

Also the 'counter attack' to Stafford re the critique of "Switch" (which I indeed liked as a book a lot) for me is perhaps problematic. Edmonds, instead of acknowledging the review, turns it into an attack on the book the review was in. Always a dubious tactic. Another literary man, James Joyce employed the method of thanking all his reviewers regardless of what they said (and some who praised his work, later admitted, that they, like W. B. Yeats, gave up on "Ulysses" as being for the 'too hard basket' and hence praised a book more from a sense of friendship and good will to Joyce rather than any real understanding or even liking of his book...

The essay set in the time of crisis and drama of 1984 is good: there is a discussion of the 'Rape' incident and Mervyn Thompson's play "Coal House Blues" - this is connected to political events (the election of the Lange Government and the soon to be demolition of NZ by the Labour and ACT traitors) and sometimes coincidences at the time.

The attack on Paterson's anthology "15 Contemporary Poets" I knew about via the mouth of Paterson himself. I am studying that book while I read the review. My initial reaction is that it was rather extreme (as what Paterson says is, I feel, far from dull, and in fact I talked once with Lisa Samuels who praised Paterson - Paterson welcomed her very language-based poetry: but for the times, considering that the 'program' was for more or less open writing - and the writers are all good in there but none are particularly innovative or 'open' and most are far from being postmodern or even particularly "new" as such...but a more positive review would have been better for all concerned. The accusation that Paterson was seeking 'fame' etc seems naive, and I cant help considering that a counter-claim can be made. "My friends Smithyman, Loney, Wedde and Mitchell are in it, but I'm not."

Of course Paterson wanted some fame or 'exposure' as a writer.

This is not to decry the whole book. Just some thoughts. I need to study that anthology and read more of the book.

I have to concede that such 'combative' writing does make it interesting. It is still and absorbing work for sure. A kind of critical history (of NZ Lit.) - somewhat (albeit one man's view).

11:49 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Anonymous said...
this horrocks oldie is still worth a read...a deconstruction of the pakeha literary nationalist project...

Yes, it is pretty long, so I need to copy it as I cant read such a long thing off a screen.

There is no question that the pakehas such as Roger H and Murray te Edmonds etc are very interesting writers and critics. Roger is very supportive also even of, in fact of anyone who is prepared to "give it a go" in the lit. world...

Murray is more like Brunton perhaps. I think of those guys as literary jumping jacks exploding always in unexpected places and ways! Michelle Leggott is also of course a major writer - Hone Tuwhare is rightly praised by these Pakeha and M.E. in his latest book...there is talk of a play by Tuwhare, and I didn't know it
so I wasn't sure what M.E. was talking about there. (In fact I didn't know that H.T. wrote any plays). Interesting.

11:59 pm  

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