Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Arguing about Leigh Davis

When Leigh Davis died of a brain tumour in 2009, an obituary in the National Business Review called him 'avant-garde in business, art and adventure'. After getting a Masters degree in English at the University of Auckland at the end of the '70s, Davis worked for Treasury, at a time when it was beginning to advocate the radical restructuring of the New Zealand economy, and then for Fay Richwhite, at a time when that company was helping to privatise the railways and Telecom. Davis eventually joined the board of Tranzrail, as the privatised railways became known, and set up his own venture capital company.

Davis' tenure at Tranzrail coincided with the stripping of many of the company's assets, cuts in spending on staff training, and a succession of fatal accidents that the union movement blamed on the board's mismanagement and miserliness.

When he wasn't helping to transform the New Zealand economy, Leigh Davis self-published a series of books, beginning with Willy's Gazette, a series of loose sonnets that appeared in the middle of the '80s. In one of the essays in his new book Re-inventing New Zealand, Roger Horrocks hails Leigh Davis as a brilliant poet who has not had his due from readers and critics. Horrocks' essay is critical of Emma Fergusson, a graduate student who used her thesis to examine the links between Davis' poetry and his life in the corporate world.

In my review of Re-inventing New Zealand for Landfall, I defended Emma Fergusson's work on Davis, and questioned why Roger Horrocks seems determined to isolate Davis' poetry from his deeds and his worldview. Horrocks has responded to some of my points, and we've been having a discussion here.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


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9:58 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I haven't read Willy's Gazette for some time. I can see Roger's point. It is problematic we judge him as a "big shot" ripping NZ apart etc but it is true that a poet is all the things he is. That is, we cant separate the man and his poetry as much as we used to as in Eliot's essays etc Then there is the problem of the essay by Tina Engels and the sheer strangeness of this intersection or coincidence of someone whose poetic derives (partly) from what Lynn Heijinian of the Language School that Davis associated with (although it seems he kept moving his position by the interview she gave at the end of her thesis, I haven't read the rest of it: Heijinian talked of the Language movement as being Utopian and deriving from Marxism [and Thomas More and Epicurus via Lucretius I suppose].

By the time of AND and later in ABDOTWW etc the contradiction of using either a transparent language in the politics and finance etc he was involved with would be free of the "slippery" and coded nature of the "intrigues" of the business and finance world: especially as basically Davis et al were ripping the guts out of everything...I recall that when the NZED (Now probably called Transpower) became a CEO in 1987 I noted that the CEO himself had been able to buy a $1.5 million house (which WAS big money in those days, closer to maybe 8 to 10 million now....Now all that was because all this restructuring meant a lot got rich but many many more lost their jobs. The suicide rate increased among young people.

On the other hand the transparent, clear language in certain kinds of poetry and poetics can signal a compliance or cooperation with power. That is it can be desirable for even political-philosophical reasons, which Barthes points out, to use "complexity" and so on. To use the (more or less) similarly riddling or non-normative beginning middle and end writing.

Was there a kind of complex naivety in Davis? His obsession with money power and business (busyness, without it we don't survive)....and indeed we need business. We need banks and credit, all the rest, the whole shebang. Credit saved Ed Dorn (who was pretty much on the other side of the fence with his Abhorrences etc that troubled Creeley so much in the lectures I saw and heard him give c.1996...

Davis, like Heidegger was unconcerned, he felt that art had to fit the market, or so it seems in his interview...The interview is a bit weak. Perhaps the thesis is more interesting. I don't know if Jakobsen is clunky, he seems to both embrace and critique postmodernism: he also has a Marxian back ground.

I think on the one hand one admires the project that Davis attempted, and indeed few have gone his way. To some extent Wystan Curnow, Michelle Leggott, [his stylistic might be like that of Pound (and Eliot with his fragmentation) a bit, but also Berryman, but also in a round about way like Ed Dorn's 'Gun Slinger' and this tone is also in Brunton's 'Moonshine', one of NZ's great poems.

12:43 am  
Blogger Richard said...

It will always be a problem. It is good that Emma Fergusson connected these things up. Pound has survived even though everyone knows he was a Fascist and had wrong ideas about finance: he was almost the opposite though, as he was against usury and Jews, Davis de facto had to be in favour of usury and credit etc....usury is a stupid word. It is money lending and normal finance. We need it. No problems there.

But Horrocks, while I think he is right to defend the poetic, should embrace such critiques (these can veer off into academic and theory bashing which also can go too far though, as indeed, Davis's reaction against the relatively tame poetics of NZ of his time was stimulating.) But his is a poetic of medley, and finance and the 'market forces' are seen as a legitimate part of the poetic. This is where the similarity to Pound comes (in the theoretical assessment).

But can we separate these things? Of course there's Stevens (but business and money aren't obviously in his poems), and many others. Charles Ives was a billionaire but he abjured money...but, as Geraets said once, the gesture of Wittgenstein to disown his huge financial inheritance may have been "the gesture of an aristocrat' (words to that effect).

It may be the problem was that Davis dodged certain questions: but then so did Heidegger, and his influence as a great philosopher remains.

But NZrs simply eschew these difficult questions. It is true that intellectuals and poets are 'marginalized' (it doesn't matter, that will always be the case) and Roger Horrock's book is very good. But certain questions are elided or minimized.

I must revisit Willy's Gazette and see if I can get time to read the thesis about Davis in full.

Well, Davis was an original for sure: with a poetic of market forces and power! So the whole shebang is included, NZ culture, travel, ideas, money, movement, power, Te Kooti and flags, religion, art, energy and a poetry theoretically constituted.

There is another poet, who, as far as I know, is not a Big Shot money man, who has a similar wide scope of themes and mix of simplicity and complexity, but I cant recall that writer's name just now...BLAST!

12:43 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

I've actually been rereading Stunning Debut of the Repairing of a Life since the debate with Horrocks, Richard - and I can see it differently now. Willy's Gazette I found, and still find, irritating - oozing with hubris. But Davis' last book has, for me at least, more to offer. Be interested to get your take on it.

11:11 am  
Blogger Richard said...

I had 'Stunning Debut' from the library and as I always do, as a magpie!...I copied some of it...from memory I liked the start of it, the first sections. You are probably close to the essence so to speak in that book.

But it isn' the kind of work that, as say I do with 'Ode to Autumn' by Keats, one loves: and I do, I have always since a teenager: but it is resistive in mode as is Willy's Gazette which I must get to re-read...I got onto reading a book about the discovery of Lucretius' 'The Nature of Things' by Stephen Greenblatt, and some French poetry...I particularly liked that of Henri Michaux...

The hubris doesn't worry me: the question is the question of whether this confluence of the language of "neoliberalism" mates of mixes with that of the language poetry, modernism to postmodernism and so on. How does that affect things? In some cases, while I am not against theory, what irritates me is in fact the "materialism" that seems to lie at the base, and the fear of dualism which I think has been all made almost over-complex by theory.

Lucretius for example doesn't believe the soul (I suppose he thus dignifies the mind-body) survives death. Also he (following Epicurus) sees the function of life as the pursuit of happiness and the reduction of pain. Fear of an after life etc he and Epicurus argued makes people more unhappy. This influenced Jefferson who owned and had read Lucretius in Latin (he had several copies)...but it also influenced Shakespeare via Montaigne who quoted Lucretrius more than 100 times. The materialist or anti-Christian philosophy led to Marxism and modernist thinking. But now we have the supreme of Capitalism, the "highest" we have got to, with great advances in medicine and technology....Davis embraces all this: the science, the business, markets, the riddling fascination of theory: but he has a family, he is human and if not humanitarian probably Humanist....Intellectuals love complexity. I think that while there were those in the Catholic Church who were certainly venal, corrupt etc, the very fascination of arcana and complexity (and the "code" of ancient languages) and mystery, and intrigue: all these are echoed in todays High Priests of Capital such as Leigh Davis....Are these people "bad"? It is not as if Davis ever advocated war for example (in fact contrary to the popular theories of the New Order etc I don't think that Bankers are interested in war as in general wars are not good for business: some capitalists are in the short term and probably some bankers, but it is all abstracted...rhetoric enters the "discourse"....

Was that critique by Tina Engels....justified? One problem is that Geraets never really addressed the issue...not that Geraets was wrong as such, I think your points at the time were valid: but I think they took him aback!! Who is this on the attack...

1:44 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

But it is good it is being aired...in the satire by De Lillo 'White Noise' one character is fascinated by the beauty of things at supermarkets: I think De Llilo as well as satirising is celebrating...in that strange and funny book (with his and his wife's fear of death!)... I don't like Rogernomics and profiteering, but I can understand the fascination of money. Just as I like coal mines and factories and manufacture...the whole "busyness" of life in fact...I think Davis,a s a young man, was seduced by money. It is addictive and becomes power. But he came through it perhaps better than say Trump who probably lacks culture. Davis, or part of Davis, may have had hubris. It is a healthy young man's state in many cases....

I would like to re-read both and the MA thesis on Davis.

I did see a copy of "Stunning Debut" (Davis also completed another work around that time, but I haven't seen that, or his controversial "Te Kooti" one,but I did see the flag exhibition at the time....)

The fact of it being very much Davis himself, almost in extremis, intensifies, I think the early parts of 'A Stunning Debut'....Various threads run through it from there. I'll get a copy and re-read W's Gazette.

Confused? So am I, I know [I think] what I am trying to say but cant get it all into words! I did comment on the Art site but mucked up something and the system sacked me, so when I comment again I will be more careful...but it is an interesting debate.

1:44 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Stunning Debut was disturbing to read, I recall, but it was certainly one of the most interesting books I had seen for some time. Davis was interesting. What he represented may have made Jack frightened, I can understand that also...But he and Brunton (and various others, there is a reasonably long list of such "experimenters" and theorists and one chap whose mind is an enormous ice-cream I believe..., in the poetic sense: there are still poets who use the old forms who are great. Davis and Roger's dispute is not that that mode is "terrible" but that we need the challenge (at least of Curnow Pere, and Smithyman, also hovering in those areas are such as O'Sullivan, O'Brien, Richard von Sturmer, Murray and Martin Edmond, the Titus tribe, even Smither with her exccentricities and moments of brilliance: many others, Michelle Leggott and say Tracy Slaughter (some of her poems are quite extraordinarily good and challenging and seem in a different mode to her savage, passionate stories), even possibly Stead, although he puts a bob each way!...and probably most of those who were in Morrissey's 'The New Fiction' (Wedde at his most interesting), Loney...and others). The challenge is modal rather than that of what is inherent in the poem as the subject of the poem, although that is in there also. There are various strategies.

2:00 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I re-read most of Willy's Gazette today. It is, in terms of content and style, quite original, and somewhat enigmatic. Many of the references eluded me (although I picked up others). It is like Pound in its seeming lack of obvious form and he makes mention of Olson...I am conflicted. I need to study such works closely (putting aside the hubris, which is perhaps there: the trouble is we know he was a -- what exactly was he? A merchant banker who worked at Treasury and so on...In that sense he was "out of my world". In another world I would not have had anything to do with such a man, he would have been one of the Medici, or an advisor to a King! I would be a peasant tilling fields and rasing my cap to him and his entourage!!

I'll keep tilling through it...I like some of the passages...that mix of almost lyricism and the quotidian of business etc and (in his case, perhaps less than Pound) his name dropping of fashion people: although Pound name drops the names of The Great (hence Bernstein's interesting essay "Pounding Fascism"). Davis is an original in his project....whether it all works, whether it is obnoxious, I need to read it carefully several times. That is what I do when I review books. (Hence my slow conversion to 'Moonshine' by Alan Brunton. That though exhibits immediate and engaging poetic devices: it is very quickly clear he is close to being "a poetic genius" but either Davis wants to avoid that, or his project is even more complex...Hard to say...had to get up at the egregiously early time of 7 am as a sparkie was coming to do work (I probably could have done it myself but thought he had to replace a major cable which was more tricky). So, reading was not easy as the day wore on....I am, obviously interested in this though. It is the field that almost mostly interests me: added is the intersection of conflict and politics etc

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