The Sinclair cohort

In the early 1960s James Bertram referred to the three K.S’s (Kendrick Smithyman, Keith Sinclair and Karl Stead) as ‘the Auckland Metaphysicals’, a description repeated by Louis Johnson in 1964 – and it’s true we were all influenced by John Donne and by T.S. Eliot’s essay on the Metaphysical poets. Both Donne and Andrew Marvel remain with me in the form of memorised poems and as part of my notion of what constitutes the best in poetry in the English language. But much earlier, as early as the 1940s, Smithyman and Sinclair (both ten years my senior) had named themselves ‘the mudflats school’, signifying that the bays of the Auckland harbour were their imaginative playground and their primary source of inspiration.

Of the two Smithyman, who at the time Bertram wrote that description was often discounted as ‘too difficult’, has become established as one of our major literary figures. One cannot say there are no detractors, no equivocations, none among our literary community for whom he doesn’t significantly figure (he was dismissed by Lauris Edmond for example); but for most of that community Smithyman is ‘up there’ among the New Zealand poets who are deserving of close attention, and likely to remain so – one whose admirers have included some significant poets (Murray Edmond, Jack Ross) of later generations. My own admiration was made clear in an essay in my collection, Kin of Place, which is also the title of a poem I wrote in 1987 about Kendrick on his retirement from the English Department of Auckland University where he was senior tutor:

Kin of Place

(a poem for Kendrick Smithyman)

A student stumbling upon a blind mountain
found its wizard had written a Christmas sonnet
to the best man at his sister’s wedding.

*

Those of us who know the far North know
that if death isn’t total extinction
we will cross a bridge on rotting piles
over an estuary. On the far side
tide out, day hot, the light grey-green under mangroves
the ears and eyes of childhood
will be restored to us.

That single crack is a mud-shrimp;
that far wet flap, a heron departing.

Casual as a cocky
one kahawai is herding mackerel in the green of the stream.

*

When I wrote of Mangawhai what I remembered was
the crack of whips and weight of wooden yokes.
What’s known now seems to come, half from what’s written
half from what’s half-recalled. It was a warm morning
the bush wet, the bullocks’ steaming flanks
heaving, sinking cloven shafts in the tracks.
We were re-enacting history, not for itself
but for a purpose, the taking of one kauri
to be sawn at the pit. I remember the old house
due for displacement. Sash windows wouldn’t shut,
hens had invaded bedrooms and laid their eggs
in mattresses and pillows. Harness and gum-spears
rotted and rusted on the big verandas. I found a cup
won by two brothers, Wallace and Nelson Hastie,
cousins of my cousins, Champions of Australasia
at the cross-cut saw. What I remember is fact.
‘How deal with’ is half our story. Words come first.

*

Sargeson told me domestic conflict
was killing your talent. He was wrong.
Your talent was a hungry dog that fed on scraps.
On that North Shore we all bayed at the moon.

I used to think if I understood your poem
too soon you might correct it. But I helped you choose
poems for your third book. I remember a hut
by a summer creek. You kept returning indoors
for another typescript. My merest doubt
meant death to a sonnet, amputation for an ode.

Being about once, walking with Mary
you met us on a beach, showed us a shell,
wrote a poem describing a meeting minutely of poets
and the showing of a shell. It was a poem about being.

No day beyond Kaitaia or east of Eden
was ever ordinary, not anyway after
your eye had lit upon it. Up went your words
like salt on the wind; in came tide under mangroves.
This was our proximate world we could talk of only
to the kin-of-place in the language of a landscape
known only to the senses, spoken in sleep.

When summer comes down out of the bush hills
spice on its breath, clematis in its hair
I think of a stream flowing out of deep-carved rock
to a shingle pool where brown fish hung suspended
in shafts of light. That was the place of beginning.
Even fantails seemed to respect its oracular quiet
so the water words that gurgled from the stone
were properly heard, never interpreted.

*

Strange flocks are seen to straggle over the isthmus
fact carrying word, word carrying fact –
ungainly pairs. Dark weathers gust across
and out to sea before the powers can act.
Mostly we like what we live. Pain is reflexive
to be read between the lines, not for discussion
while fish swim and butter melts in a pan.

This is the season when blossoms take a beating
in a strong light. One poet, asked to dream,
conjures a mud-flat; another, a scoria cave.
Scene becomes anecdote, anecdote history, and still
verbs tug at their moorings, nouns are tossed,
the harbour spills its sails out on the Gulf,
a city goes on growing under our feet.

*

A dwarf with a billiard cue and a mania for fact
was asked was there life south of the Bombay Hills.
He said he believed there was, and went on working.

(Notes: in the first three lines, Kendrick’s first book of poems was The Blind Mountain which I bought as a student. It contained a sonnet to Graham Perkins who had been through World War II in the same regiment as John Datson, and was consequently ‘best man’ at John’s marriage to my sister Norma. In the fourth section the poem Kendrick wrote about our encounter at Wenderholm was called ‘About Verbs’, and appeared in Earthquake Weather. In the final section the Smithyman collection referred to is The Dwarf with the Billiard Queue.)

Smithyman is perhaps in some ways a poet’s poet, though the longer he went on the more anecdotal and accessible the poems became – stories, as one of his titles, Stories about wooden keyboards, suggests.

Keith Sinclair, on the other hand, has not weathered as well as poet and is remembered and honoured more as one of New Zealand’s most important historians, for which he received a knighthood. This was well deserved and must have pleased Keith; but he would have been disappointed, and probably was already disappointed before his death in 1993 at the age of 70, that his poetry had not made a stronger impression. He told me that as a young man he wanted most of all to be a writer – poet, but novelist and short story writer too. He chose history as his academic study and, since he excelled at it, it became his ‘day job’, and eventually more than that, his vocation and the discipline in which he made an enduring mark; but I’m sure he had hoped the time would come when he would be known for (and perhaps live by) fiction and poetry.

Keith was a friend I admired for his quick mind, which was also a source of irritation – it was so much quicker than mine, and impatient. I was always anxious and explanatory in conversation, wanting to be sure I was understood. Keith understood before I’d finished speaking – but then what he understood might be, as I saw it, an approximation. I felt he cut corners; he probably felt I wasted time with refinements and elaborations. I liked his company, especially when Kay and I holidayed with him and his first wife Mary and their sons at Coromandel where they had a bach. These holidays gave me a source for the Coromandel parts of my first novel, Smith’s Dream.

At the university where we were colleagues Keith liked to lunch in the common room, and probably thought me anti-social because I mostly chose to eat lunch reading or writing alone in my room. But there was a time when we played badminton together in the University gym, with Joan Anderton and Helen Clark as our partners. Joan was at that time wife of M.P Jim Anderton who would one day leave Labour to form the Alliance Party and then be made Deputy P.M. when Helen became Prime Minister.

In 1968 Keith was chosen as Labour candidate for Eden, and brought a rather uneasy Norman Kirk to the University Common Room for an informal chat with supportive friends. On 27 July that year Kay and I put on a farewell party for the Sinclairs. Keith had won a Smuts Fellowship to Cambridge, and his plan was to take it up for nine months, and return still in time to fight the election. The party invitation, designed by Kay Davenport in the English Department, showed Keith and Mary riding a Kiwi with a road sign ‘To EDEN via CAMBRIDGE.’ The following year we door-knocked in support of his campaign, and distributed his leaflets.


Labour Party leaflet of Keith Sinclair, photo by Marti Friedlander.

National won the 1969 election, its fourth successive term, though the numbers were close, and Keith won the Eden seat on the night from the Cabinet Minister John Rae. He attended his first Caucus meeting in Wellington while still waiting for the final count, which included special and overseas votes, and reversed the result. Keith had mixed feelings. He knew he was too impatient to have been happy sitting out three years in Opposition, so the Eden outcome was both a disappointment and a relief.

He and I were strongly opposed to New Zealand’s participation in the Vietnam War. Keith’s approach to this question was probably better informed and certainly cooler than mine. For me it became for some years a political obsession and led, among other things, to the writing of Smith’s Dream. We were both involved in the Peace Power & Politics Conference in Wellington in 1968.


CK Stead and Wolf Rosenberg at the Peace Power & Politics Conference, photo by Marti Friedlander.

Together with David Ballantyne and Maurice Shadbolt, Keith and I were also instrumental in establishing an Auckland branch of PEN (now the NZ Society of Authors) and succeeded, against quite determined opposition from Wellington writers who tended to claim what I called droit de géographie, in turning the organisation into a truly national body. We saw eye to eye on many things, and I was convinced that he, my senior by ten years and already a full Professor, played a significant part in my own early elevation to that rank.


CK Stead and Keith Sinclair at Takapuna Beach, photo by Marti Friedlander.

If there was also sometimes a certain uneasiness between us it would have centred on his suspicion that I had reservations about his poetry. We exchanged poems, and I have one of his manuscripts from as early as 1956. Putting a new collection together in 1968 Keith wrote to me,

I think you may like to read these, or some of them. At least you’re the only person whose opinion matters. Please return them. Tread softly...

Keith

My reply had plenty of detailed praise, a very few demurs, some suggestions for deletions (of lines, not of whole poems), and concluded

Even if I quibble about details I always enjoy reading your poems because (1) something has happened and (2) someone has thought about it. I hope there will be more. Thanks for letting me see them.

He had said ‘tread softly’, evoking the Yeats line ‘tread softly because you tread on my dreams’ (a line Maurice Duggan, in his role as creative director of an advertising agency, had proposed for use in a carpet advertisement), and clearly I did that; but there were unspoken reservations.

His poems are intelligent; they have substance, ideas, thinking; and more than that, they are full of Sinclair’s acute sense of the landscape and seascape, particularly of the Auckland isthmus where he grew up. Along with that goes the lyricism of loving and sometimes the hard realities of sexual desire. When I was still a student I used to like to quote these lines from the title poem of his 1954 collection, Strangers or Beasts

Our minds can speak, but words
are not understood, cannot possess like the verbs
of the active blood, and we are always
strangers or beasts, always.

I think I might have seen those lines (along with the whole of Marvell’s ‘To his coy mistress’ some or all of which I would, given the least excuse, recite) as a weapon in the armoury of seduction. Looking at them now I still find them strong – a rhetorical overstatement, but with a hard grain of intelligence, of desperate truth.

Raewyn Dalziel, Keith’s second wife, was an academic feminist. He was strongly influenced by her, and his behaviour and writing showed the influence. He’d been a man of his time, liberal, left wing, egalitarian (all of which Raewyn approved and applauded), but on the whole accepting of the male-female dispensation in which he (and I) grew up. He was, however, capable of reform, and I think Raewyn reformed him. That was no doubt good, worthy, intellectually proper; but it was not entirely authentic. It was a slightly false note, of the intellect, not of the whole man who had written from the heart, and at least half believed, that men and women were ‘always/ strangers or beasts, always.’

In his introduction to the Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse Allen Curnow commended Sinclair for having ‘matched a historian’s understanding with a poet’s insight in his remarkable “Memorial for a Missionary”. There is no other New Zealand poem’ (Curnow went on) ‘which contains, in so many glances of a wary imagination, such a span of our history. Thomas Kendall, the missionary who went native a century and a half ago, could not have been better chosen as hero of this legend, not of a New Zealand waiting to be found, but of a New Zealand forever lost.’ And he quotes

Father he left us a legacy of guilt,
Half that time owed us, who came from the north, was given:
We know St Paul, but what in that dreaming hour,
In that night when the ends of time were tied – and severed
Again and so for ever – did he learn from the south?
He could not turn to teach his countrymen,
And lost (our sorrow), lost our birthright forever.

I’m still not entirely sure what these lines mean, but they certainly have a tone of resonant regret, and an authority, and Curnow with his usual accuracy had lit on a poem that would stand looking at closely. Judith Binney, when she wrote her biography of Kendall, adapted the phrase ‘a legacy of guilt’ for her title.

But a little further on in his introduction Curnow wrote, ‘Sinclair uses fairly conventional syntax, but many of his words seem to be placed with a kind of careful absent-mindedness, lest he should compromise his meaning. He lets his limitations be seen, disarmingly; and they are considerable.’

Keith asked me if I knew what this last sentence meant. I thought I did, but didn’t feel I could say. His poetry was packed with thought, intellect, knowledge, history and experience; what it often lacked was grace. He did not have a safe ‘ear’. He strove for lyrical beauty to match his strong feelings but what came out at some times had a patched feel about it, and at others resorted to a kind of jog-trot:

We larked it, we liked it, all play-timing on,
It was dripping with moonshine from kiss to doomsday;
One night full of nothing and then she was gone,
O why did she linger and why did she stay?

This invites parody – it stays in the mind but it sticks in the craw. Baxter’s parody in The Iron Breadboard ends

We kept it, we carved it, we each had slice
Of the sugarloaf moon in its lollipop sky,
And each of us thought that the other was nice
Till she lopped off her finger and giggled goodbye.

Even in poems like the one commended by Curnow the articulation is uneven, in parts strong and clear, in others obscure or inept.

Sinclair was possibly at his best in poems where he generalized his own sexual and domestic discontents and made them representative of a New Zealand (or modern Western) failure. These complaints were often powerful because they had the ring of real pain about them. ‘Notes from the Welfare State’ for example ends

From the towers of the forty hour week and the long
Monogamous weekend arises a nocturnal howling:
In a nameless back street, in forgotten slums
Of the heart, is heard the brush of furry prowling:
In a government basement priest-physicians have thrown
A white goddess, to lie wide-thighed in chains,
Who will come again, flaunting her carnal pennon,
In a green riot, to set us free again.

I write these remarks, however, flicking through my collections of Sinclair’s poems and aware that I have not looked long and hard enough (and neither has anyone else) to say anything definitive about him as poet. Strangely, no biography has been written. Perhaps when that is done it will be by someone sufficiently literary to do justice to his poetry as well as to his eminence as historian and his success as teacher.


I liked going out fishing with Keith at Coromandel in his small launch, and then assisting at the filleting and pan-frying or the making of fish-head soup. One night when the Sinclairs’ bach was full Kay and I stayed next door in Jack Northey’s. Jack was Auckland University’s Dean of Law and Keith had a key for such emergencies. It was a beautiful clear winter night and very cold, and I lay awake and composed a poem in my head:

This Time

These are the stars of poetry
Too good to be true
Over the hills
And in the brim-full bay.

And this that ultimate coin
The dead exchange –
Silence.

Unscrew your ears?
Put them away for good?
No. Unstop them.
You’re not a spirit.
Listen.
Dews gather at an edge and
Drop. Drop
On frosted blades.

Even such small
Crystalline vocables
Tell time.

Count them.
Count yourself lucky.

At home in Takapuna Keith gave dinner parties which included mutton birds sent up from the South Island, and Bluff oysters. He could be good company in the right place at the right time; but he often showed signs of nervous strain. When he was first trying to give up smoking, Mary said he was given to sudden moments of violence. Later he developed strange tics and would sometimes grind his teeth. Kay said when he came to the library in the mornings in his later years his hands shook and she wondered was he on (or over) the brink of alcoholism. Certainly he was not so relaxed and genial as his brother Jack, Professor of Medicine at the Auckland Medical School and, in his day, New Zealand mile champion and record holder. When Keith died and there was a tangi on the university marae, Jack told how when they were small, he always counted on Keith as the older brother for protection against night terrors.

Keith was in fact the eldest of ten talented children, their father a waterside worker. I went with Keith and Jack to watch the All Blacks play the visiting Lions at Eden Park in 1966. We left the car some distance away, and as we walked to the ground Keith talked about the deprivations of their childhood, when kids went barefoot to school, and sugar bags were put at the front and back doors especially in wet weather to wipe your feet on. ‘We didn’t have bread and butter,’ Keith said. ‘We had bread and dripping.’

Jack grinned. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘But it was good dripping.’

Among Keith’s closest friends and associates were Maurice Duggan, Bob [R. McD.] Chapman and Ken Smithyman. All four were writers, all four born in 1922. Keith had four sons, Ken and Bob three each, and Maurice one – eleven sons and no daughters, a superfluity of testosterone. Keith and Bob admired one another, worked together as academics, and published together an article in Landfall about Marx. Keith wrote of this time

Bob had the most original mind of any history or political science student that I met in New Zealand or abroad... Certainly I learned more from our reading and our discussions than I did in class.

And yet they could not get on. As historians they competed and Keith always won in the sense that his work was published whereas Bob’s was never finished. Even Bob’s PhD remained uncompleted, so he had to suffer the indignity (which he felt deeply) of wearing a black Master’s gown rather than a bright red or maroon doctoral robe among the professors at Graduation. I think Keith was largely responsible for shifting his friend and rival over in the Arts Faculty to the subject of Politics and making it a separate Department. So Bob became our first Professor of Political Studies and Head of that Department.

Bob also failed (I think one can say that) as a poet, though he aspired to be one. He edited with Jonathan Bennett O.U.P’s An Anthology of New Zealand Verse (1956), and had a very few poems of his own published in places like the New Zealand Poetry Yearbook, but they were not very good and he never published a collection.

Keith, Ken and Bob were ‘called up’ in WWII, rather late to be involved in significant fighting, though Keith records that he spent two years with the RNZ Navy; the fourth of the quartet, Duggan, had had a leg amputated as a result of osteomyelitis in youth, and was ineligible. Smithyman, whose mind tended to jump, or swing, from one branch of learning to the next, was, I suspect, a failure academically, never completed a degree, and yet he easily outstripped Keith and Bob as a poet. Duggan was a good friend to Keith but seriously alcoholic. He made his reputation as a writer of short stories and novellas – and at his rare best we possibly still have no better practitioner; but he published poems too, and a collection published after his death, A Voice for the Minotaur, showed some of the ‘natural grace’ Keith mostly seemed to lack. Maurice died in 1974, aged 52.

As a piece of social history it is interesting to put their wives into the picture. Barbara Duggan was a physiotherapist, and continued to practice after marriage, for a considerable period supporting Maurice while he wrote full time. Unlike the other three she had only one child. Mary Sinclair, Noelene Chapman and Mary Smithyman were all school teachers until they married and had their first child, after which they devoted themselves, for a time in the Smithyman case, I think for life in that of the other two, to family – which was, I suppose, what they had been brought up to expect of married life. But Mary Smithyman, who wrote poetry using her maiden name, Mary Stanley, returned to teaching after the birth of her third son, and would have continued if she had not been so disastrously afflicted by rheumatoid arthritis. She was a notable poet, and Kendrick was her second husband, her first having been killed in the war. She published her first and only collection of poems, The Starveling Year, in 1953. It’s impossible to be sure why she did not continue as a poet (and she did try), but it seems the early onset of the arthritis set her back in every way. She died aged 60 in 1980 and Kendrick married his fellow-Senior Tutor in the Auckland English Department, Margaret Edgecumbe.

Keith Sinclair’s second wife, Raewyn Dalziel, was likewise some decades his junior, a professional woman, an academic who would publish a biography of Julius Vogel and other work on 19th century New Zealand history, would follow Keith as Professor of History at the University of Auckland, and rise to the rank of Deputy Vice Chancellor. I suppose she was technically Lady Sinclair after his knighthood, but she preferred always to be Professor Dalziel and never used the title or the name. In the case of Keith and of Kendrick the difference in role between the first and second wife marks almost a change in our social history; and it’s notable that, like Allen Curnow’s second wife, Jenifer (née Tole), another academic/professional woman, neither had children – as if this was the price of being the second wife.

Of the four men I have written about here, Bob Chapman seemed the most securely married. ‘Bob and Noel’ were such a tight unit there were sometimes affectionate jokes about their being of ‘one mind’ – and sometimes out of it. They seemed always to read the same books, and either would say what ‘we’ thought of any one of them – or equally of a movie, an art exhibition, a political event, a jazz concert.

These four Aucklanders, Keith and Bob, Kendrick and Maurice, I see as, each of them, exceptionally talented, serious, committed, ambitious, driven, hard-working and successful. Keith established New Zealand history as a serious academic subject, and in his published work he was one of the first to do some kind of justice to the Maori side of the race equation. Kendrick will endure as one of our most notable 20th century poets; and Maurice likewise as one of our best short story writers. Bob was one of the earliest to establish New Zealand Politics as a subject of serious academic study.

Keith’s personality was urgent, impatient, quick, curt, seldom charming although too intelligent to be entirely lacking in tact. Bob’s was ponderous, important, serious, instructive, full of conviction and emphasis, but with ample good will and therefore kindly. Kendrick’s was theatrical, loquacious, oblique, often obscure, a self-protective and self-concealing story-teller whose apparent confidence was largely a cover for its lack. Maurice’s was also theatrical, a whole second persona or mask constructed over the first, not false exactly, but a larger and louder and posher self, sometimes priestly (a residue of the Catholicism he had unequivocally rejected) and often necessarily fuelled by alcohol.

Viewed close up, they could seem in one way or another damaged. If there is any truth in that view, then damaged by what? Was it anything more than alcohol and tobacco, and in the case of at least two, testosterone and an inability to accept the limitations of an orderly domestic and professional life? Were the conflicting demands of art and the need to earn a living excessive? Or was it something inherent in being New Zealand-born at that time in our history – something to do with provincial uncertainty, ‘remoteness’ and insecurity? I think Allen Curnow, who wrote of ‘the New Zealand sadness, always there however deeply buried in the mind’, and of the difficulties of ‘[standing] upright here’, would have said yes to that. (If there is any truth in that idea, I’m sure Curnow would not have exempted himself, and neither do I exempt myself. Whatever the nature of the ‘boat’ at that point in our history, we were all in it together.)

I cannot ask these questions without being aware of myself as their junior by ten years, and imagining them collectively looking at me, not uninterested, perhaps grateful for serious attention, half-amused, but most likely also irritated by my impertinence. Perhaps this ‘up-close’ view is too close for a clear and fair focus – too close for comfort – and their varying successes and failures were no more than the vicissitudes of chance and the genes in any one group at any place and time. They were important enough to deserve a close look, and so the slight cracks become apparent. If they were less significant no such inspection would be called for; no such questions asked.

Whatever the truth of the matter, I value their memory. As Yeats puts it in his memorial to Major Robert Gregory:

They were my close companions many a year,
A portion of my mind and life as it were,
And now their breathless faces seem to look
Out of some old picture book.
I am accustomed to their lack of breath...

Accustomed perhaps – but they are missed.

— CK Stead

Call for nominations

Kia hiwa ra!
Kia hiwa ra!

The National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa is seeking nominations for the New Zealand Poet Laureate Award.

Poetry is a quintessential part of New Zealand art and culture, and through the New Zealand Poet Laureate Award the government acknowledges the value that New Zealanders place on poetry.

The Chief Librarian of the Alexander Turnbull Library will appoint the New Zealand Poet Laureate after reviewing nominations and seeking advice from the New Zealand Poet Laureate Advisory Group.

Nominees must have made an outstanding contribution to New Zealand poetry, and be an accomplished and highly regarded poet. They must also be a strong advocate for poetry, and be able to fulfil the public role required of a Poet Laureate. The role includes engaging with a wide range of people and inspiring New Zealanders to read and write poetry.

Candidates must currently reside in New Zealand.

The term of appointment for the next Poet Laureate will run until 30 June 2019.

Nominations close on Friday, 11 August 2017.

Please email your nomination to Ruby.Yee@dia.govt.nz.

Email is preferred, but you can also mail your nomination to:

Alexander Turnbull Library
Attention New Zealand Poet Laureate Award
PO Box 12349
Wellington

Send any enquiries about the New Zealand Poet Laureate Award to Peter.Ireland@dia.govt.nz.

Launches, readings and other bloggish matters

Launch 4/5/17: Family by Jo Emeney, and Wolf by Elizabeth Morton

These two books, published by Makaro Press as part of their Hoopla poets series, were launched at Takapuna Library. I began by reflecting it was always nice to be back in Takapuna where Kay and I lived when we were first married and used to be constantly visiting or visited by Frank Sargeson. It was the year we got to know Janet Frame, who came to live in the old army hut in Frank’s garden; and it was my M.A. year during which I spent a lot of time being taught by Allen Curnow, and reading typescripts of the extraordinary new poems he wrote that year. These reflections were prompted by the Library’s bronze bust of Sargeson and also by the portrait of Chris Cole Catley who was to be Frank’s literary executor when he died.

First just the look of these two books: with poetry I’m always somewhat influenced by appearances, because it tells you something about the taste of the people who are publishing and promoting the collection, and I would be at once drawn to these two and want to buy them – compact, colourful, attractive.

And inside, they don’t disappoint. They match their appearance. These are delightful, elegant collections by two talented poets.

First, Jo Emeney’s Family History:

This collection is not exclusively about Jo’s mother’s life and her death, but the mother is at its centre. It begins there, with Mum’s photo albums, and ends with a memory –

            ...to sit at your feet with my hot cheek tilted
to meet the roll and stroke of soft fingers,
was to be most steady and most moved
by your tender infinitive. That keepsake.

The infinitive, I assume, is of the verb ‘to be’. The mother’s being, having been, brought back by memory into the present. Infinitive, infinite, definitive, something tendered, something kept, a keepsake – the words are suggesting more than they say, reaching beyond themselves, as words should in poetry.

As the collection moves away and out into a wider world, what strikes me as especially appealing, is Jo’s affinity with animals especially, and more broadly with the world of living things. It’s the strength and immediacy of her attachment that’s so striking. You have to feel this creaturely kinship strongly enough to notice what’s going on in the animal underworld, and observe it closely enough to write about it well. Jo’s poems are full of that kind of observation, prompted by feeling and cemented by anxiety, or pity, or pain.


Jo Emeney with goat.

There is the wounded paradise duckling she hopes to save but can’t.

There’s the tiny rabbit released from a trap:

I’d worried he’d bite
or struggle,
scream
that terrified
baby blood-curdler,
but he was silent,
a solid brindle ornament,
dumb, still,
when I set him down.

‘You’ll be all right now’, I said
to his black tonic eyes
to his static fur,
to the mad electric
quiver
of his ears.

Then there’s the ‘lean tortoiseshell’ cat tame for ‘two years / and three litters’ who, after all that, disappears – ‘forever’.

she must have
taken herself off
into the shade
of a wooden bridge
grown through
with moss and weeds,
the safe cave
of a rotted willow’s trunk
or the proud dark
under a stranger’s house.

She was wild enough
to know better
than to tell us
something hurt.

The detail there – ‘the safe cave’, ‘the proud dark’ – is so much the world as the cat would see it, and Jo’s imagination has taken her inside it.

So the animal world is an extension of the family; and at the centre of the family there is the sad drama of the mother’s life and death, her breast cancer diagnosis, the mother-daughter discussions about an ending, and then the death unexpectedly in a traffic accident – and the slow accommodation to the fact of it.

And there’s humour too – it’s not a grim book at all.

Dad (from upstairs)
Where’s that fucking nurse?
She’s always late.

(Silence.)

Dad (coming downstairs)
Maureen, where’s –

Mum (from downstairs)
She’s here dear.
Put the kettle on.

Life for Jo Emeney seems to present itself in the form of small stories, with a special sense of how the words of the narrative can be made to work overtime while looking quite relaxed:

The bitless bridle limp in idleness.

A beautiful line – but you need to be enough of a horse person to know that the ‘bit’ is the part that goes into the horse’s mouth and controls it.

Second, Elizabeth Morton’s Wolf:

Jo’s poems are a world where everything has reference; everything is real. In Elizabeth Morton’s we’re on the borders between fact and fantasy, reality and symbol – and in a state of uncertainty about which is which. It’s quite a dark vision, though certainly not heavy or humourless. It occupies a space where things decline to be managed. There’s a sense of uncertainty and a constant edge of fear. Elizabeth has created a poet-persona for herself, Wolf, represented as an outsider, perhaps more symbolic than real, in love but solo, exiled. The collection begins with that figure, but moves beyond it.

Sometimes the experience in these poems, though frightening, is happening in the out-there world we call ‘reality’:

                         do you remember the sun
spreadeagled over our thin bodies,
yachts clapping against their moorings,
above us a handrail of gulls cackling
against the wind and the wharf song,
its guttural choke. Do you remember,
we were caught on the outbound tide...

And yes of course we do remember, or we can imagine remembering, so we know where we are in this poem. Others take us into a different plane of reality, also frightening, but interior

and if you falter by the window,
and if the furniture turns to anger,
and loneliness shuffles down the hall
and pulls up a stool beside you,
and if the clouds scudded above the
black tarseal darken, and yellow birds
tremble on the berm...
                        then what name will
you go by when the gale rolls in?

‘If the furniture turns to anger’. This at the outer edge of normality; it’s the uncertainty of self, and the fear that goes with it – and a lot of Elizabeth’s poems explore that territory.

I’m limited for time here, but I want to say something briefly about one of Elizabeth’s poems which is different from the rest – a success, but of a different kind. Most of her poems find their form as they go – they ‘take shape’ in the writing; but there’s one that has quite a tight form, a villanelle. It represents, as so many of her poems do, a moment, or a state, of uncertainty. Home may be where the heart is – but for how long? What are those suitcases for? They’re at the entrance so perhaps their owner has just returned. Or is he on the brink of leaving?

Home is where the heart is, but nothing more.
A television plays soaps to an empty room
And his suitcases are leaning by the entrance door.

How many houseguests have gone before?
The peach tree is hanging its fruit in gloom.
Home is where the heart is, but nothing more

though neighbours send muffins to build rapport
and dogs clamour and street-cabs vroom.
His suitcases are leaning by the entrance door.

Though the sunlight scatters on the kitchen floor
and the sparrows titter and the dahlias bloom –
home is where the heart is, but nothing more.

Do the venetians match the grim décor?
Does the tabby flinch when his shadow looms?
His suitcases are leaning by the entrance door.

It takes some time to learn the score,
To see behind the brick costume.
Home is where the heart is, but nothing more.
His suitcases are leaning by the entrance door.

In Elizabeth Morton’s poems nothing is certain, except that they create and occupy a vivid and mysterious world.

Congratulations to Jo and to Elizabeth, and to Mary as their publisher. These are two lovely little books, excellent collections, and I’m delighted to be launching them.


Three Worlds: Drei Welten, Selected Poems, Karl Wolfskehl

Translated and edited by Andrew Paul Wood and Frederich Voit, Cold Hub Press. Reviewed for the London Jewish Chronicle.

Although I never met him (he died in 1948 when I was 15), Karl Wolfskehl has always seemed to me a heroic figure. Poet, intellectual and man of letters, he had taken refuge in New Zealand and made a vivid impression on people like the fiction writer Frank Sargeson who often spoke of him.

Born in 1869 into a wealthy German-Jewish family, Wolfskehl established himself early as a significant poet in the manner of the Symbolists. He was a devoted follower of the poet Stefan George, but unlike the private and retiring George, he became an affable out-going central figure in the literary life of Munich in the early years of the 20th century.

His first major set-back in life came at the age of 50, when the economic collapse of 1919 stripped him of most of his inherited fortune. He met this challenge bravely (though at the expense of his poetry, which stopped for a time) and became an important essayist, critic, publisher and literary journalist. The second blow, however, was beyond his powers to combat. When the Nazis came to power in 1933 Wolfskehl took refuge in Italy. When Italy began to follow Hitler in anti-Semitism he chose to escape Europe altogether, to go as far from it as he could. 1938 brought him with his companion Margot Ruben, to Auckland.

He found friends here among the Jewish community, many of whom were exiles like himself and were adding to the intellectual, and especially to the musical, life of the country. Wolfskehl, who at first knew little English, was much more limited in what he could contribute; and his world became more restricted as his eyesight failed to near total blindness. Nonetheless he gathered a significant group of literary and intellectual people around him in Auckland, some of whom read to him, all appreciative of his conversation and the great gifts of European culture he brought with him – a man who had not only been part of the George circle, but had known Thomas Mann, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Rilke among the writers of his time, and among the painters Kandinsky, Gabriel Münther and Paul Klee.

Perhaps most important, during these war years he was writing what the German scholar Paul Hoffmann considers to be his greatest poems. Wolfskehl had always felt that his family, which had been in Germany for at least a thousand years, were loyal Germans and fully ‘integrated’. Now the mad dog of anti-Semitism which Hitler had been able to elicit forced him back into his Jewish identity. It became the centre of the new work – poems of the refugee, the suffering Job of Jewish tradition, the blind Samson. He was also writing remarkable letters at this time, which are a contribution both to German and to New Zealand literature.

Sargeson has moving passages in his autobiography about their friendship, how it flourished, and how it ended when Sargeson felt finally overborne in his own writing by the sense of insignificance Wolfskehl’s presence caused him. Sargeson ended the friendship, and in retrospect could not forgive himself. Others persisted and profited. The writer Helen Shaw wrote of Wolfskehl:

His speech was rapid and excitable, his conversation brilliant, amusing and imaginative. He was practical, romantic, temperamental, moody... Those who knew him in Auckland were indeed privileged, for he was a great man, a marvellous civilized man who had a civilizing effect on those around him.

I have to admit that I struggle with the poems. That is partly a consequence of temperament and partly of Anglophone as distinct from German habits of mind. I recognize their nobility, and one cannot but be moved by the suffering, the generosity of spirit, and the love they represent. But their tendency is always towards symbol and abstraction, rather than what the critic John Crowe Ransom calls ‘things in their thinginess’. The voice is (as Wolfskehl intended) more that of a mythical figure than of a human personality. The tone is not just serious; it is grand, sonorous, elliptical, portentous, sometimes arcane – the poetry of a man still loyal to the principles of Stephen George. The language seldom drops towards the casual or the idiomatic; and when it does, as in some of the touching poems to Margo Ruben, it reminded me of a character in E.M. Forster describing a passage in a Beethoven’s 5th symphony as suggesting elephants dancing. It’s not that Wolfskehl poems can’t dance; but they’re not Fred Astaire.

Someone likened his later poems to complex Psalms, and that is one way of coming to terms with them and giving them the kind of attention they need and reward. Longinus said ‘Sublimity is the echo of a great soul.’ The sublime, I suppose, was the George style and it was Wolfskehl’s; and I think his was a great soul.

This is an elegant book, with useful introductions by both Voit and Wood. The only Wolfskehl translations I have for comparison are some by Peter Dronke in the New Zealand Poetry Yearbooks for 1955 and 1956-7. These by Wood and Voit stand up well; and any degree of awkwardness here that suggests lines or phrases resistant to translation into English are usually equally problems in Dronke. This is as near as we are likely to get to the feel and tone of Wolskehl in the English language; and for German readers these are parallel texts, with German and English on opposite pages.

Wolfskehl did not return to Germany after the war. He died in 1948, a New Zealand citizen, and is buried at Waikumete Cemetery under an impressive granite slab with a Hebrew inscription, his name, and the words Exul Poeta.

Note: In my recently published Shelf Life: reviews, replies and reminiscences (AUP) there is a piece, ‘Only Connect’, which begins with my taking the London Jewish poet and publisher Anthony Rudolf to visit Wolfskehl’s grave in Auckland, and goes on to discuss Wolfskehl’s friendship with Sargeson.


Poetry readings go wrong – or right??

(Written for Steve Braunias’s Spinoff blog.)

In my experience problems at readings usually involve booze. I remember Jim Baxter being carried to the stage at Auckland University in I think 1952, clamped on either side by Rex Fairburn and Allen Curnow, his galoshes swinging and not touching the floor. I made a scene of that in my novel All Visitors Ashore. Glover was always drunk but that did not spoil his reading, which was colourful and dramatic. I was to read once somewhere in Canada with two or three poets including Elizabeth Smart, famous as the author of By Grand Central Station I sat down and wept. When we went on stage Smart had not appeared, and word came that she was somewhere in the building, drunk and weeping, refusing to emerge. The reading went on without her, and she went on weeping.

Smart was the wife of George Barker and mother of quite a number (possibly six?) of his children, and there is another connection here with poetry and booze. At a League of Canadian poets festival in Toronto in 1981 I got to know the British Jewish poet Elaine Feinstein, best known at the time as the recipient of a famous letter from Charles Olsen (of the Maximus poems) where he set out to make known his very serious poetic theory (something to do with breath/breathing). This letter and its theory had become a gospel for the American Black Mountain poets, and so Elaine had earned a kind of accidental fame from it. She and I had visited a zoo together, and for some reason I had missed her reading. She said never mind, you’re going to be in England soon and I’m to read at Oxford with George Barker and W.S. Graham. Come and hear me there. So I took the train up from London. There was a train back at 10.30 and then not another until 1 or 2 a.m. (This was before 24-hour Oxford Tube buses were running.) The programme was to be Graham, Feinstein and Barker in that order, but both the gentlemen poets were drunk and neither would agree to go last, arguing that by then they would be even drunker. So Feinstein, who was sober, agreed to go last. Both men, however, went monstrously over their allotted time, and before we got to Elaine I had to run for my train.

Another drunk I read with, once in London and once at the King’s Lynn Festival, was Peter Reading. He was never sober but seemed to read better for the booze. It removed his inhibitions and liberated him into the strange eccentricities of his poems, which I admire. After he died I published a poem about him in the LRB:

Has been

(Peter Reading, 1946-2011)

‘The only permanence I
suppose
is in having been’ –
                                        thus
                      in four words
                      conjugating
present and past

                that one may say
‘has been’
          drunk and (I guess,
not having seen it)
sober
                    a half century
at words for
animals, people, plants
the planet.

               ‘Have you a story?’

Every poet who has read
with Reading
has one.
                             Mine (two)
        are from King’s Lynn.

Here’s the first...

In 1965 at the Commonwealth Arts Festival I read at the Royal Court Theatre in London with Stevie Smith and others. We sat on the stage in a row, all except Stevie, who hid behind a special curtain until it was her turn to read. She read quite well, but then retired again behind the curtain until her turn came round again. It was understood, it seemed, that she preferred not to be seen more than was absolutely necessary.

Returning to that 1952 Baxter occasion, and to George Barker: I was a student poet and Baxter lent me his copy of The True Confessions of George Barker which he felt had liberated him in some ways and might do the same for me. I still have it, foxed and falling apart – a small pink paperback. It was said T.S. Eliot at Faber had refused to publish the collection because it was obscene, so it had been done by Fore Publications Ltd in 1950. It includes lines like

                                                       Swill
        Guzzle and copulate and guzzle
And copulate and swill until
        You break up like a jigsaw puzzle
Shattered with smiles.

I didn’t learn any lessons from it – though I did know by heart (and still do) Barker’s sonnet to his mother, which begins

Most near, most dear, most loved and most far,
Under the window where I often found her
Sitting huge as Asia, seismic with laughter,
Gin and chicken helpless in her Irish hand...

I should have returned the little pink book but kept it as a memento of JKB in his drunken days.


Dunedin and the Laureates’ Circle

12 May I flew down for the Dunedin literary festival to read as one of what has come to be called ‘The Circle of Laureates’, always enjoyed by the poets, each of us with our carved Tokotoko – an event that has an air of absurdity about it, but which audiences seem to enjoy and in Dunedin flocked to attend. While there I took time out to visit Charles Brasch’s old address, 36 Heriot Row, and was surprised there was no plaque commemorating his residence. The only signs read ‘No Junk Mail’ and ‘Beware of the Dog’, which were remote from anything suggesting Charles Brasch, but could, nonetheless, be read as joke warnings from a literary editor. I was surprised what a steep climb it was up from the Octagon which perhaps, in the long-ago when I stayed there with Charles, I was young enough not to notice.


CK Stead reading, with Ian Wedde, Jenny Bornholdt and Brian Turner in the background. Photo by Sharron Bennett.

I always enjoy reading with this group of my peers, and I was struck this time, even more forcefully than before (because I was about to launch Ian Wedde’s new Selected Poems) by the contrast between Wedde and Brian Turner – Brian the dour ‘Southern Man’, Wedde (though I suppose he doesn’t ‘belong’ to any particular region) the typical Northerner, the JAFA whose emoticon would be (mostly, not invariably) the smiley one. When I tried to characterize Ian’s poetry a few years ago I used the word Matthew Arnold used to describe Keats – ‘gusto’: ‘that indescribable gusto in the voice.’

Brian Turner’s poems are full of love for the natural world set against what bad things we do to it, and how often we fail treat it with respect. He can be sardonic, and strong on irony which is directed as much against himself as others. It’s not that there’s no lyricism in his work. ‘The lyric’, as he says in one poem, ‘has a lot going for it.’ And he doesn’t set his face against hope for the future:

The lyric says let’s walk a little
and take more in: it’s not
          living to the hilt
to be so scared that all happiness we’ve known
          is all the happiness we’ll know.

The affirmation is there, but it’s cautious. Irony always lurks. And to see these two, Wedde and Turner, on the same stage is to see the different temperaments as clear in voice, physical stance and dress as in the words on the page. There is no better and worse about this. They are two large talents, two strong poet-personalities, similar in age but so different in temperament. It is for me just a representation of the wide range of excellences New Zealand poetry now offers, and how much richer it has become over the years of my lifetime.

Launching Ian Wedde’s Selected Poems

At the Aotea Centre on 19 May as part of the Auckland Readers and Writers Festival Auckland University Press published Ian Wedde’s Selected Poems. It was my pleasant job to launch the book and here is some of what I had to say:

I am exactly 14 years older than Ian Wedde (‘exactly’ because we have the same birthday, 17 October). This means that when Ian erupted on the literary scene in Auckland in his early-to-middle twenties I was approaching 40, a time when (quite absurdly) you feel you’re passing into the shadows. This feeling is increased if you happen to be a writer who has been welcomed and has won a few significant prizes when young. I’d had my time in the early 1960s as New Zealand’s ‘young writer’ du jour, and now here was the next, and such a star! Right from the first Ian was so manifestly and exceptionally talented; his poems seemed to flow with such ease; and he seemed to bring with him a group of like-minded young writers, Murray Edmond, Alan Brunton, Dave Mitchell, Jan Kemp – even Russell Haley who was not so young but could appear to be and was willing to act the part. They called themselves the Freed poets, and published a magazine called Freed, which was full of brash confidence, arrogance sometimes, and determined, it seemed, to sweep aside their New Zealand predecessors who were (as they saw it) essentially British in orientation. The Freed poets’ preferences and precedents were more often American; and I was left in no doubt that I was part of the literary debris that the new broom was going to sweep aside.

Later I tried to mark this shift in our literary history in a lecture I called ‘From Wystan to Carlos – Modern and Modernism in New Zealand Poetry.’ The title came from the fact that Curnow had named his first-born Wystan with W.H. (Wystan Hugh) Auden in mind, and Wedde had named his first-born Carlos thinking of William Carlos Williams. I used this naming of sons to mark the shift from a British- to an American-oriented poetic; a change of pace and direction in our literary history.

I remember some time in the late 1960s Murray Edmond stopping me on the steps of the Library and telling me that he and his friends were going to write poetry that had ‘the courage of its emotions’; they were going to be rid of irony and replace it with full-blooded feeling. This was entirely intelligible to me in the sense that I had grown up strongly influenced by what had been called the New Criticism, which declared irony and ambiguity to be characteristic of, and therefore measures of, poetic excellence. It was not a bad measure in that life itself, ‘reality’, tends to be full of ambiguity – and therefore to treat experience ironically was usually a sign of maturity, of realism, of facing the hard facts. All true – except that if it became your sole measure of excellence it seemed to rule out full-blooded, whole-hearted romantic rapture – and the Romantics were certainly out of fashion with the New Criticism. So it seemed that the Freed poets were going to bring passion back into the New Zealand canon; and to some extent that’s what they did. No ironist could have written Wedde’s ‘Beautiful Golden Girl of the Sixties’ (a lovely poem I think, and not here in his Selected, alas); nor Dave Mitchell’s Pipe Dreams in Ponsonby.

I was surprised to find when I was thinking about this launch that I had published, in my collection Kin of Place, twenty pages tracing the progress of Wedde’s poetry from the mid 1960s to 2001; and that one thing I’d noted, considering his progress over that period, was that at intervals he had repeated the little lecture Murray Edmond had delivered me on the Library steps – that he and his friends had ‘had enough of irony’ and were not going to hedge their feelings or apologise for going all-out and full-bore. They were the boy racers of NZ poetry and no apology was called for.


Ian Wedde

I don’t think there’s any mention of irony in the new Selected Poems, but there is an introduction which speaks of ‘enjoyment’; and there’s plenty of that, in the writing and for the reader. The selection rediscovers some smaller items Ian had forgotten since they were written; but it concentrates more on the sequences, the longer ‘process poems’ that were part of that Americanisation of New Zealand poetry that occurred with, and since, the advent of Freed.

This is a beautifully produced collection, a pleasure to hold and to look at, and a treasure house of fine poems. It’s the record of a remarkable poetic intelligence and sensibility at work over half a century; and a major addition to the stock of our literature.

Congratulations to Ian and to Auckland University Press.


21 May, final day of the AWRF

Historian and novelist A.N. Wilson gave a brilliant, witty, wide-ranging performance, interviewed by Simon Wilson, former editor of Metro, to a full Aotea Theatre. Beautiful weather – cool but sunny with clear skies and a blue harbour. The AWRF has established itself in the last decade as New Zealand’s foremost literary event.

— CK Stead

Karl Miller again, and Auckland’s Pop-up Globe

In recent blogs I have written about sons writing books about fathers each of whom I had known: Adam Dudding’s My Father’s Island about literary editor Robin Dudding; Matthew Spender’s A House in Loudoun Road about poet Stephen Spender; and now, a third, Sam Miller’s Fathers, is about Karl Miller, editor of the London Review of Books, who last figured here only two blogs back. Each of these books-by-sons could be seen as an act of homage and of love, but each contains and reveals secrets and is in one or another sense equivocal.

Matthew Spender is respectful and affectionate about Stephen, but reveals how the father’s most serious romantic attachments were with men, and how the parents (and especially the mother, Natasha) who undoubtedly loved one another, did their best to conceal this truth from public view and to present a front of normal heterosexual marriage. Adam Dudding’s book, while revealing affection for the father and advancing a case for him as New Zealand’s most notable literary editor, also reveals how Robin, known to so many of us as a talented, and most often genial (though painfully slow) editor, was a tyrant at home, both depressive and oppressive, ruling over a household of wife, five daughters and one son, with long periods of black silence, obsessive or neurotic behaviours, and the constant threat of rage.

Sam Miller’s book, with its plural title, Fathers, reveals that the man publicly known as his father, Karl Miller, the one he calls throughout ‘my father’ and for whom his love and gratitude are revealed on almost every page, was not his biological father but the ‘best friend’ of the man, Tony White, who engendered him. This is a complicated book, probably more complicated in the telling than it needed to be, and rather odd in its intensity. I find it hard to believe it would have pleased its prime subject – but who knows?


Karl Miller. Image from Peters Fraser + Dunlop.

Karl Miller was at Cambridge with Jane Collet who was to become his wife, and with Tony White who would father Jane’s second child. He was also there with Claire Tomalin (now known as the biographer of Dickens, Mansfield and others) – and Karl was smitten. I remember him telling me this because he had a characteristically mordant (and more than slightly obscene) way of characterizing her as she was then, and the phrase (which I won’t repeat) stuck in my head. What it meant was that though Claire liked him and was accommodating, she liked others too, and for a young man in love this would not do.

Claire does not figure in the son’s book; and in fact throughout his account Sam waves away as either unknown, or simply not part of the story he wants to tell, any suggestion that Karl might have had other lovers than Jane. This is a possibility that occurs only three times in the book, briefly each time, one dismissed as untrue and the others not pursued. On p.131:

I don’t know whether my father was having an affair at that time. He did have several affairs during their marriage of more than fifty years. Did this make him feel less jealous about my mother and Tony?

And p.195

...it’s possible that subconsciously at least my mother’s relationship with Tony made him [Karl] feel less guilty about his other relationships.

And on p.196

At one point it seemed possible my father might unknowingly have had a son, of about my age, with another woman... It all proved untrue.

Those hints apart, this is a story with only four players, Sam, his mother, and his two ‘fathers’, one of whom (Karl) he calls always ‘my father’, the other he calls Tony. His memories of Karl are a child’s, detailed and fond. His memories of Tony are intermittent, from childhood, and less intense. But he constructs an image of Tony from letters and the memories of others, and attempts (unsuccessfully) to make him almost as remarkable as Karl. Tony began as a promising actor who, after Cambridge, won minor roles at the Old Vic, but gave up acting to become a writer. The rest of his life seems to have passed in writing things which no one (not even his ‘best friend' Karl) would publish – for example (p.127):

These writings were not a success: the TV play was never performed, and the short story was never published. The novel was not completed. Rejection and self-doubt hit him hard.

In 1976 at the age of 45 Tony White died of a pulmonary embolism subsequent to a broken leg incurred while playing soccer for the team of London amateurs in which he and Karl were the initiators and stalwarts. Sam was 13 at the time and had no inkling that Karl was not his biological father. A year or two later he would be told by his mother, as they were painting his bedroom together, that she and Tony had been lovers and that he was the outcome – and it is this shock which, forty years later and immediately after Karl’s death, he is dealing with by writing this strange patchwork erratic memoir.

The writing, it seems, happens in consultation with his mother, and revelations come in the course of it – so he ends the book knowing more than he knew when he began. Jane’s affair with Tony began after she and Karl and Tony had been on holiday together in Italy and Karl had to return to London early, leaving the two alone together. The affair was discontinued, but resumed twice more, the second of these, in 1960, continuing for nine months until May 1961 when Jane found herself pregnant. At this point she ended it, told the two men of her condition, discussed it with them, began the process of having an abortion, and then gave up on that and had the child.

Around this time Tony moved semi-permanently to Ireland, making only sporadic visits to London, mostly for football. Sam’s view is that the friendship of the three continued and there was no disruption to the marriage. Certainly it seems clear that Karl treated Sam as his own and that Jane’s third child, a daughter, was Karl’s.

The affair with Tony was resumed but only very briefly in 1967. After Tony’s death Jane tried to write a novel about their relationship. She called it Tales of an Adulteress and it was never finished. It was only very late, when Karl was already dying of cancer, that Sam discussed with him the fact that Tony was his biological father. Karl told him that he and Tony never discussed the matter, and letters exchanged between them on the subject have not been kept. Karl had been relieved that Sam had seemed to take the fact so well, had not appeared to be disturbed by it, and had continued to love him as a father.

Karl’s death in 2014 evoked a flood of public memories, one of the most interesting, because it left out so much, by Mary Kay Wilmers in the London Review of Books of which she is the owner and present editor, though Karl founded it in 1979, and continued as its editor until he resigned October 1992. The issue that caused the resignation had been one of who had final decision-making rights – the owner or the editor, and Karl believed it was a principle of good journalism that the one named editor took ultimate responsibility for what a paper published and therefore must be the final authority. When Mary Kay as owner (and not for the first time) challenged him on this, he wrote a letter of resignation which I’m sure at the time (though he would afterwards probably have denied it) he did not expect her to accept. When she did accept it the shock to Karl seemed enormous. His professorship at UCL ended the same year and he seemed for a time to be at a loss – seriously adrift. Five years later he had recovered sufficiently to look back on it with a certain (real or pretended) detachment:

When someone wondered whether thereafter I might be sent a copy of the paper [the LRB] every fortnight she [Mary Kay] thought not. She knew me well enough to know I wouldn’t read it, that I’d been loth to read other papers I’d left behind. Thirty years of friendship went into that refusal. (Dark Horses, p.317)

So when Karl died Mary Kay was looking back on a very long friendship which had ended in anger and severance. Remembering him as he was when she first met him, he in his early thirties she in middle twenties, she writes

He was a charismatic figure, tall, fair, slim, nattily dressed, flirtatious and a little wayward – a head-spinner. But severe too. You minded your words and that was part of the attraction.

She also says of him ‘there were few issues about which he didn’t have two views’; and concludes generously (and accurately), ‘I’d like to think this is still Karl’s paper.’

During my time as visitor in Karl’s department at UCL (1977), and in the following years of his editorship of the LRB and beyond, I felt I got to know him well. Jane I saw seldom, at book launches or lunches; but later Kay and I, on visits to London, had meals with the Millers at restaurants and at least twice at 26 Limerston Street, which figures in Sam’s book much as 15 Loudoun Road does in Matthew Spender’s – the centre of family and of social and literary networks. The Millers moved there in 1960 and were still there more than half a century later when Karl died. He writes about it with typical self mocking ardour (‘I fear I may be making my dear house loathsome with this praise’) in his memoir, Dark Horses.

We had a dinner there once with the fiction writer Francis Wyndham whose work Karl had promoted. Francis, who had been the subject of a number of portraits by Lucien Freud, brought with him a video of a movie about Freud, and the five of us watched it together. It was on this occasion that Jane gave us, and inscribed, a copy of her memoir, Relations, about herself and her two sisters and their Jewish family.

Karl figures in it only three times, and (as she figures in his) only in passing. In one of these (p.100) Jane, writing about herself in the third person, describes her own vagueness when young, and how she knew more about the pleasures and desires of others than about her own.

And what was the pleasure in knowing herself only as the object of others’ intentions and momentary covetousness? Her eyes seem too open and shining. She was learning to guard against displays of innocence and ignorance, though a few years later her husband would still have to remind her to put on her arrogant face as they wait for their hosts to open the door and usher them in.

By the time of our meeting Jane was a professor of Education at London University, charming, intelligent, articulate, confident. She and Karl spoke of their three children, two of them married to Indian Parsis. There was no hint at all of what has now emerged in Sam’s book.

In 2000 when Otago U.P. published my collection of essays, The Writer at Work, Justin Paton, then editing Landfall, had the audacious thought of asking Miller to review it – possibly because he noticed I had referred to Karl in a footnote as the Eeyore of the British literary scene, a dour but brilliant editor. I knew nothing of this; and I’m sure Paton must have been as surprised as I was that Karl responded with a long review, including also some thoughts on my novel Talking about O’Dwyer which, he pointed out, revealed Stead (contrary to one popular view) to be ‘far from indifferent or hostile to the Maori contribution to life in New Zealand’. Re-reading the review now after so many years I’m struck once again by the pleasure of something that does not by any means agree with everything I had written, but engages with it freshly, intelligently, on the whole affirmatively.

Karl’s review ended with a passage that puzzled me slightly at the time, but which I can now see in a new light having read Sam Miller’s revelations about secrets of paternity. It was a passage that focussed on something I had written about Shelley and his sister-in-law Claire Clairmont. It had been published in the LRB after Karl’s departure, so Karl would have come upon it for the first time in The Writer at Work. He had been defining my literary criticism as a kind of aestheticism, but wanting to argue that the positions I upheld were not themselves entirely free – and should not be – of moral considerations and moral preferences. He goes on

The discussion here of Ezra Pound, of whose poetry Stead is a conspicuously rational critic, is mostly biographical. Matters of paternity and maternity arise, as they do elsewhere in the book. Pound and his wife each had a child with an extramarital partner, a child who was given away to others to rear. Another essay recalls that Byron had a daughter – by Claire Clairmont – whom he sent to a nunnery where she soon died. The essay speaks well of Claire Clairmont’s letters and discusses whether or not (we still don’t know) she had a child by Shelley, in whom, Stead writes, she recognized ‘something noble’. Byron is blamed a little, but no one else is, from among these two sets of exiles in the aesthete’s haven of nineteenth century Italy. It would be contentious to suggest that this forbearance was produced by aesthetic considerations.

He is, in other words (if I understand him correctly) commending a tolerance that is not purely aesthetic but essentially moral. Thus my own argument is, if not denied, at least radically qualified, and yet in a form that is a commendation. He is saying, I think, that insofar as I have literary theories, I am not too strictly bound by them, and can, perhaps unconsciously, contradict myself. Could a critical difference of opinion be more subtly registered?

Of these three books by literary sons Sam Miller’s might be of least general value because it tells more about its author than about its subject, and because it struggles to make clear to itself what is its central purpose or point. And yet (as must be apparent from this blog) it aroused my intense curiosity and held my interest, and, quite incidentally, answered the question of why Karl’s review of sixteen years ago should have settled in its final paragraphs on the question of paternity.


In recent blogs I have written about the Auckland Pop-up Globe’s production of Twelfth Night and the London Globe’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In both of these, though excellently acted, I complained of the current fashion for tinkering with Shakespeare’s text. In the ...Dream the fairies were beefy booted chaps clumping around, and Helena with whom Demetrius falls in love was Helenus so it could all be as gay as possible. My complaint included this –

The delicacy and subtlety of the play as Shakespeare wrote it – the sylvan magic that’s there in the language – was completely lost. Let’s have Shakespeare’s vulgarity when he’s vulgar, and Shakespeare’s lyricism when he’s lyrical, but not some amateur’s ham-fisted attempts to improve him or bring him up to date or whatever it was he/she/they thought was being done.

My complaint about the Auckland Pop-up Globe production of Twelfth Night was that it was played only for laughs and so lost the wonderful rich contrast that is in the text between comedy and lyric beauty – the high and the low that enrich one another.

I was not sorry to hear the London Globe director Emma Rice had been sacked. There had been such a lowering of standards after Mark Rylance left, principally because of this relative indifference to what Shakepeare actually wrote, and eagerness to bend everything in the direction of gender ambiguities.

Someone connected with the Auckland Pop-up Globe (his name might have been Lawrence, but I’m unsure) spoke to Kim Hill one Saturday morning and was deeply upset by this dismissal, convinced (of course – what else?) that it was ‘because she was a woman’. I wish Mark Rylance had been the woman and Emma Rice the man and then we would not have had this distraction and could talk about what had actually gone wrong, and why the dismissal was appropriate.

Because of all this I was wary of Auckland’s Pop-up Globe’s reappearance this summer but thought I should risk one, and chose Henry V to take daughter Margaret and grand-daughter Bella on a visit from London. On the whole it was well done – and once again the absolute appropriateness of the Globe structure to the Shakespearean text was demonstrated.

Henry V has always been popular during Britain’s wars. My first experience of it was the Lawrence Olivier movie, where Henry’s rallying speeches at the Battle of Agincourt and Winston Churchill’s during the Battle of Britain seemed to echo one another. Churchill – ‘Never in the field of human conflict have so many owed so much to so few’; and Henry’s

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother.

They are wonderful rousing orations; but for the director who is disinclined to turn Henry into a hero figure there are negative aspects that can be played up, and the Auckland production not only looked for these, but seemed to add to them. When Henry condemns the traitor- earls to death, which happens in the play as Shakespeare wrote it, the gruesome details of the process of hanging, drawing and quartering were spelled out (and even added to), which is not to be found in the text. When Henry says English soldiers who offend needlessly against French citizens will be hanged we see one hanged – which again is not in the text. And when Henry’s forces are beset by a resurgence of the French and he orders the killing of prisoners, as happens in the play as written, his men react with shock and the order has to be repeated – again without the authority of Shakespeare’s text. Nor is there anywhere in any version of the play I have seen the sad (and rather beautiful) dirge about the evils of war which the cast sang twice in the course of the play.

All this is worthy anti-war stuff, but it bends the play away from the original. It was still well done, a rousing performance, and did not have the spoiling effect last year’s Pop-up Globe production had on the lyricism of Twelfth Night; but it shows again a willingness of current producers and directors to put themselves above the playwright and play fast and loose with his text.


Their Finest, currently showing, is a slightly clunky but ingratiating sunshine-through-tears movie about the making of a sunshine-through-tears World War II propaganda movie about Dunkirk, and is worth seeing for Bill Nighy as the vain and temperamental actor won over by flattery (he sings a Scots ballad rather nicely along the way), and for the Jeremy Irons cameo as Secretary for War Anthony Eden reducing himself to tears with a recital of the ‘We few, we happy few’ speech. The Producer was New Zealander Finola Dwyer whose last success was Brooklyn which won a Bafta Award and three Oscar nominations.

– C.K. Stead

Difficulties with the dead

Recently there has been the strange case of the wish in Wellington to have Katherine Mansfield dug up from her grave in Fontainebleau-Avon (near Paris) and brought back for re-burial in the capital. I was alerted to this by Gerri Kimber of the international Katherine Mansfield Society, who were all, it seemed, outraged. I sent first a letter to the NZ Herald, and then one to the mayor of Wellington, who had supported the repatriation idea because it would enhance Wellington’s place as New Zealand’s ‘cultural capital’:

20.3.2017

To the Mayor of Wellington

Subject: Mansfield re-location

In response to the news of the plan to re-locate Katherine Mansfield’s remains to Wellington I wrote the following letter which appears in this morning’s NZ Herald:

The Saturday Herald reports that the Mayor of Wellington, together with the guardians of the Mansfield House and Garden, have written to the Mayor of Fontainebleau-Avon requesting permission for the removal of Katherine Mansfield’s body from its grave there for re-interment in an as yet unspecified grave in Wellington. The International Katherine Mansfield Society, of which I am currently Honorary Vice President, is objecting strongly to this, citing among other things, a letter from Katherine’s nearest surviving relative, Janine Renshaw-Beauchamp, which concludes ‘I wish it to be known that I am adamant in my decision for Katherine Mansfield to remain where she is buried – in Avon.’

Your report says that Mansfield had expressed the wish to be buried in New Zealand. This is quite untrue. She remembered her childhood fondly and wrote some of her best fiction about it; but her recollections of New Zealand were distinctly ambiguous. If there was ever going to be a reconciliation with her homeland it did not happen before her death, and cannot be achieved in retrospect by this ghoulish and parochial proposal.

C.K. Stead

There are a few points I need to add to this. Since holding the Winn-Manson Mansfield Fellowship in Menton in 1972 I have been a consistent researcher and teacher in the area of Mansfield studies. In 1977 I published a selection of her letters and journals, which continued in print as a Penguin Modern Classic for more than twenty years. She was a subject in some of my courses at the University of Auckland, and I have published a number of critical essays about her work. In 2004 I published my novel, Mansfield, which was short-listed for the Tasmania Pacific Fiction Prize; and in recent years I have been a regular contributor to the international Mansfield conference run by the Katherine Mansfield Society, delivering plenary papers at their 2008 (London), 2012 (Ruzumberok, Slovakia) and 2014 (Paris) conferences. I think I have read pretty much everything that exists of her fiction, poetry, letters and journals, published and unpublished, and I have never encountered any suggestion of a wish to be buried in New Zealand. This is corroborated by Kathleen Jones, and by Gerri Kimber, her most recent biographers – so wherever the idea comes from it seems quite groundless. I do seem to recall Mansfield recording a happy dream of a trip to New Zealand which turned into a nightmare when she realized she did not have a return ticket. This relocation plan is like the realization of her nightmare.

There is one sombre fact that should be mentioned. In 1929 a New Zealand visitor, wanting to pay homage, tried to find the Mansfield grave at Fontainebleau-Avon and was told her remains had been removed to the common fosse because the plot had not been paid for. This visitor notified her father who asked his son-in-law in England to sort it out. So for a second time the body was moved, this time back to its rightful place in the cemetery under the headstone prepared for it. One cannot know whether either of these moves might have compromised the integrity of the remains, but certainly we would not want to have the kind of ambiguity and on-going argument that exists now about the remains of the poet W.B. Yeats, who after World War II, was removed from the common fosse in Roquebrune Cemetery for re-interment in Ireland. These stories, once they begin, can never be laid to rest. This is another reason for not disturbing the current arrangement which is working so well. The grave is beautifully cared for by Bernard Bosque of the Katherine Mansfield Society; and the New Zealand Embassy in Paris always keeps an eye on it. The grave of the guru of her last year, Gurdjieff, is very close by, and the cemetery is not far from the building that housed his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man where she spent the last months of her life and where she died. To take her away from that and relocate her in Wellington seems quite alien to the spirit of the international writer she became. Wellington has her birthplace, her statue on Lambton Quay, and, in the Alexander Turnbull Library, the world’s finest repository of her papers. It doesn’t need her body.

Please abandon this parochial idea, which is in danger of making your city, and all of us in New Zealand, look ridiculous in the eyes of the world.

C.K. Stead ONZ, CBE, FRSL
Emeritus Professor
University of Auckland

The honorifics and the professorship were meant to impress upon him that this was Someone of Consequence who should be listened to. I might have mentioned that I am Poet Laureate but I forgot – and in any case it would have made no difference. I received in reply only one of those automatic machine-answers: the Mayor had received my communication. Among the letters of protest there was one from Gerri Kimber, current President of the Mansfield Society, asking would New Zealand next be wanting to have Earnest Rutherford disinterred from his place in Westminster Abbey and brought back to Nelson. This letter appeared in the Dom Post and seemed to be accompanied by a cartoon by Martin Doyle.


The case of Yeats

In 1987 I attended a gathering of W.B. Yeats scholars at the Princess Grace Memorial Irish Library in Monte Carlo and our deliberations were preceded by an assurance from French authorities that the remains of our poet, first buried in 1939 in the hillside cemetery at Roquebrune just along the coast, and disinterred following World War II for reburial in Ireland, was in fact the correct body, and that rumours to the contrary were unfounded. This reassurance was probably offered (unsolicited) because the novelist Anthony Burgess, then living in Monaco, had suggested in a public lecture the year before that the body now resting in a revered Irish grave in fact belonged to another. The authorities, he claimed, had exhumed the wrong man!

Far from reassuring everyone, the official declaration that this was not the case had the effect of igniting interest, speculation and doubt. The fact was that Yeats had been buried, as commonly happens in France, in a proper grave with a headstone, but in a cemetery whose limited space means that after the lapse of a certain period the body is disinterred and put in a common fosse. When the war ended and the Irish Government, remembering Yeats’s own lines about his death and burial (‘Under bare Ben Bulben’s head / In Drumcliffe Churchyard Yeats is laid’), wanted to make arrangements for the repatriation of the body, the French authorities had to go looking it.

Yeats’s son and daughter, were with us at the conference, and it was with them we visited what was left of the hotel Idéal Séjour, where the poet had died, and the cemetery where he had first been buried and where the first headstone was still to be seen leaning unused against a wall. (I took a photograph of them beside it.) The siblings, he an Irish Senator and Member of the European Parliament, appeared to dismiss the idea that a mistake had been made, and their presence put a damper on any discussion of the matter.

More facts emerged, however, as 1989, the fiftieth anniversary of the poet’s death, approached. The body, it seemed, should have remained undisturbed for ten years in its first grave, but had been transferred to the common fosse after five. When the time came for the recovery and removal of what were now skeletal remains, careful measurements had to be made of the bones, and the fact that they were indeed the poet’s seemed to be confirmed by the fact that he had worn, and been buried wearing, a surgical truss. The matter appeared to be resolved.

But now emerged the family of a certain A.G. Hollis who had died in Roqubrune in 1939 and had been buried in the grave alongside Yeats. This man’s remains had also been transferred to the fosse, and he had also worn a ‘steel corset’. His family now claimed they had reason to believe that their George, and not Willie, was the one buried ‘under bare Ben Bulben’. Could all the Irish nationalist pomp and military ceremony of the re-interment have been to place an Englishman in the honoured grave? Tiens!

The matter will remain unresolved unless permission is ever given for disinterment and DNA testing of the bones in Ireland; but if it should be George rather than Willie in the grave, what then? The other set of bones is lost in the fosse. I’m sure the Irish prefer the present uncertainty to a gamble which might leave them without a gravesite to visit and pay homage to. All of this adds a new rich layer of irony to the poem Yeats wrote about his burial, which ends with the ‘command’

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death –
Horseman, pass by!

I thought of all this when I heard of the Mansfield proposal. Already she had been moved twice – to the fosse and then back to her proper gravesite: now a third move was suggested. I remembered a particularly ghoulish story that emerged when a French scholar, Christiane Mortelier, revealed how, in the decades immediately after her death and before anything like biographical truth emerged, Mansfield was revered in France for ‘purity’, ‘spirituality’, even ‘sanctity’. This was a myth that could not be sustained once the facts of her erratic and sexually active life had emerged; but while it persisted there was a story that the first disinterment had revealed her relatively uncorrupted in the grave, which has been one of the Catholic church’s recognized signals of sanctity. This makes me wonder how soon after the burial the first disinterment occured, and how many years passed before the second (1929) – and what would be left, and how identifiable, now, after almost a century. It seemed to me that to disturb her remains yet again could easily create grounds for Yeats-style uncertainty.

On 23 March came news that the mayor of Avon had refused permission for the relocation of the Mansfield remains. That surely ends the matter for now, and, let’s hope, for ever.


Another kind of difficulty with the dead comes in dealing with their literary heirs and copyright-holders – those whom Ian Hamilton in his book on the subject calls ‘The keepers of the flame’. These are frequently widows and/or children. Some are flexible, relaxed and permissive as to the use of material whose copyright they now control. John Middleton Murry has been criticised for not obeying Katherine’s instructions to ‘clean up my camping ground’ after her death, and exploiting it for monetary gain. Yet her instructions were ambiguous: ‘Destroy all that you do not use’; and again, ‘destroy… all that you do not wish to keep’. In fact, if he had destroyed anything at all he would have been condemned by the very people who have criticised him for the use he made of her letters and journals. Scholars owe him gratitude for preserving so much and keeping interest in her work alive at a time when she might have vanished into the shadows.

Being a ‘keeper of the flame’ can be difficult. Money and greed come into it; but more often there is an urge to protect the reputation of the dead writer. This can lead (as I think may be happening in the case of Janet Frame) to what amounts to interference in critical freedom. The dead cannot be defamed; but access to their work can be cut off by copyright holders denying permission to quote. Peter Ackroyd had to write his biography of T.S. Eliot without quotations because the widow, who held the copyright, forbad it.

John Middleton Murry died in the late 1950s after which the Mansfield copyright passed to his fourth wife, Mary, who seemed not to have a great grasp of literary matters. I remember Margaret Scott, co-editor of Mansfield’s Collected Letters, saying that Mary Murry sometimes, upon receiving a new little bit of income from the Mansfield estate, would celebrate by having a new hair-do. But at least that meant she was not difficult to deal with when one needed permission to use work still in copyright.


No one would expect my dealings with the estate of Allen Curnow post-mortem to be anything but amicable. I was one of the earliest to proclaim his pre-eminence among our poets. He was the mentor of my early years, and a colleague, friend and neighbour with whom I carried on a cross-street correspondence about poetry for half a century until his death. When I launched his last collection I was able to say it was 50 years almost to the day since, as a first year student in 1951, I had first met him. He dedicated the collection You will know when you get there (1982) to me, and I dedicated Between (1988) to him. I have written poems about him, all respectful; but there was one, written after his death, that caused a problem. Here it is:

His Round

(Allen Curnow 1911-2001)

‘Home’ for the boy had meant
somewhere between England

where God was still living
and the ground under his feet.

As a man he wrote of islands,
talked tides and distances,

and seldom bought his round.
Not Prospero, but like him,

he made words work and had
‘an abominable temper’.

His project was to catch
the heron’s deliberation

lifting itself over mangroves,
or on that opposite coast

the careless way a gull
could be tossed in an updraft.

These were his annotations
on a world that exceeded

all it could say of itself.
He fished for the brown cod

and had a name for those
who thought it inferior eating.

He summoned his dog by car horn,
looked hard into sunsets,

and called himself ‘an old man
who wouldn’t say his prayers.’

Stubborn, still owing his round,
he was towed at the last

headlong into the westerly,
tottering, leashed to his Dog.

When Allen’s widow Jeny first heard my reading this poem on the radio she rang to tell me she had sat in the car listening to it and had been moved to tears. When, later, she read it on the page she took offence because of its reference to the fact, often mentioned by people who encountered Allen, and some who knew him well, that he was frequently reluctant to buy his round or contribute his share. This was for me symbolic of something larger about him, a kind of egotism that tended to meanness. In my mind it went with his describing himself as ‘an old man who wouldn’t say his prayers’ and his ambiguous, partly Canterbury-snobbish, loyalty to, and yet keeping his distance from, the Anglican Church. He liked to claim the church and its authority, especially when there was a question of doctrine or dogma at issue. I can’t be sure what he would have thought of my daring to write My name was Judas, but I suspect he would have disapproved and considered me not properly qualified for such a task.

The poem appeared in a collection called Dog in which the title plays upon the word seen as God reversed – which is why the poem ends with him being towed ‘headlong into the westerly... leashed to his Dog’ (with a capital D). My attitude to this element in Curnow’s complex character was not solely negative. My novel The end of the century at the end of the world includes a young woman who says to the student with whom she’s flatting, that it takes character at breakfast to eat the last egg in the house – which she has just done. Allen had ‘character’ of that kind. A ‘nice’ person would leave the egg for you. Allen would eat the egg.

When I was asked to give the ‘Allen Curnow’ reading at the Out West Festival, Jeny e-mailed asking me not to read ‘that poem’. I thought about how my old mentor would have reacted to such a request and decided he would ignore it, as I intended to do. I believed that Jeny’s first reaction to the poem was right – it was really an affirmation and a kind of tribute. And if it was not taken in that way but construed as an attack, then also relevant to the decision ‘to read or not to read?’ was the matter of Allen’s poem ‘Dichtung und wahrheit’ in which he savaged (unambiguously and brilliantly) our colleague Mike (M.K.) Joseph for his novel, The Soldier’s Tale. I was fond of Mike and felt sorry for him; but I admired the poem and thought Allen was not wrong to have published it. Poems choose their own occasions, make their own rules and tell their own truths. If they spring from something truthful and are authentic, then they must stand or fall as works of art.

When the tenth anniversary of Allen’s death was approaching which was also the centenary since his birth I wrote a poem which I called ‘The Gift’:

The Gift

(Allen Curnow, 1911-2001)

Brasch in his velvet
voice and signature
purple tie

complained to his
journal that you had
‘interrupted’.

I wasn’t sorry.
That was Somervell’s
coffee shop

nineteen-fifty-three.
Eighteen months
later you and I

were skidding on the
tide-out inner-
harbour shelvings

below your house
from whose ‘small room with
large windows’ you saw

that geranium ‘wild
on a wet bank’
you suggested

was ‘the reality
prior to the
poem’. Son of

Christchurch and the
church you’d come north
to be free perhaps,

to be employed and
in love, and were
making the most

of it in poems that
gave to old ‘summer’
new meanings.

Ten years ago
we launched your last
book, The bells of St

Babel’s overlooking
that same inner
harbour with

its shallow bays
and touch-and-go
tides. You wrote in

my copy (sure I
wouldn’t have
forgotten the source)

‘To Karl, always
“somewhere in earshot”.’
What you left out

was ‘for the story’s
end’. You must have
guessed it was close.

Today no end
to your occupation
of the bland

Waitemata
nor of wild
Karekare where we

shared Lone Kauri
Road. The pipe across
Hobson Bay is

replaced by a
tunnel. Tohunga
Crescent has some

new polish but
nothing you would
deplore. The tuis

still quote you
and even cicadas
manage a phrase

that sounds like yours.
Storms too in wooden
houses sometimes

creak of you. But
this ‘blood-noon breathless’
Auckland summer

is the season you
gave us in making
it your own.

The form is 13-syllable triplets of the kind I also used at the end of each chapter in My name was Judas and the line Curnow partly quoted (‘somewhere in earshot’) comes from Yeats’s ‘Introductory Rhymes’ to his 1914 collection, Responsibilities. (‘Pardon old fathers if you still remain / Somewhere in earshot for the story’s end’.) I sent ‘The Gift’ to the London Review of Books, and read it at the Frankfurt Book Fair, where I had been invited to be the representative writer receiving the scroll that would appoint New Zealand as the Book Fair’s guest country for the following year, 2011. Also at Frankfurt I read ‘Without’ (my Collected Poems p. 427), a poem about Allen’s loss of faith when, as a young man, having just completed training in Auckland for the Anglican ministry, he was returning to Christchurch to take up a post in the church. I thought I recalled he had told me that it was while crossing Cook Strait it came to him that he could not make a life as a vicar and would have to find something else to do with himself – so I made a sort of dramatic fiction of that in which, as this truth comes to him, he throws his Bible into the sea.

Introducing the poems, and turning the handover of the scroll into a sort of Curnow-memorial occasion, I spoke of him as ‘New Zealand’s preeminent writer’. As it happened Linda Cassells, Terry Sturm’s widow, who in consultation with Jeny was editing her late husband’s biography of Curnow, was present, and told Jeny of the reading and what I had said. When the poem appeared in the LRB Jeny e-mailed: ‘Thank you so much. Your poem is even better in the LRB. It reads and looks so well. The inscription brought tears.’

By the inscription she meant, of course, the one Allen had written in my copy of his last book. I told her that when I read the poem called ‘Without’ I always explained I had invented the bit about his throwing his Bible into the sea. In response she sent me a transcript of what Allen had dictated about that time in his life, which confirmed it was while crossing the Strait that he had lost the will to follow his father into the church. She didn’t seem to mind about the Bible overboard. She wrote, ‘He never discarded the church’, but she added cheerfully, ‘Your fiction may become the fact.’

Our e-mails were always very brief. Remembering her asking me not to read ‘that poem’ I said, ‘So pleased you’re pleased. I think you have sometimes doubted my loyalty to Allen but I don’t believe it has ever wavered.’ She replied, ‘No I never doubted your loyalty to Allen. There were just the odd differences between you and me, never permanently fixed.’

When she died I wrote a poem called ‘The widow will not be returning’ (New Zealand Books, 103, Spring 2013).


No difficulties with Frank Sargeson whose literary executor was the eminently reasonable, totally literary, intelligent and devoted Chris Cole Catley; and permissions are now handled by the Frank Sargeson Trust she set up.

Recently I had a message from Duncan McLean, Orkney short story writer, playwright and wine merchant, who had won a trip to New Zealand as a reward for his promotion of our wines in Orkney. Duncan is a great Sargeson enthusiast and proposed to make his visit a sort of Frankish pilgrimage as well as a wine one. On the Friday of his first weekend in New Zealand Graeme Lay took him to the Sargeson bach in Esmonde Road, and on the Saturday Kay and I and Kevin Ireland took him to McHugh’s at Cheltenham in which appropriate setting, looking out over the Hauraki Gulf, we had lunch and talked about Frank. After that Duncan went on to meet many more New Zealand writers, some of them still with memories of Sargeson. He has reported that it was an entirely successful visit and he has now to write a piece about it for the London Review of Books.

For Duncan McLean, however, Kay and I had another interest than the Sargeson one. In 1958, when I was a PhD student in Bristol on a scholarship from New Zealand, the Orkney-born poet Edwin Muir had visited the university for a few weeks, and because Kay and I had a car (our first, a Ford Popular) we were driving him to and from his hotel. To meet two people who had anything at all to report first hand about Muir was, it seemed, quite as exciting for Duncan McLean as the fact that we had known Sargeson – indeed more so because rarer, so much more time having elapsed since Muir’s death. We did not have a lot to say on the subject, but I was able to find something I’d written about Muir in a yet to be published memoir.

A visitor to the university during the winter of 1958, as Churchill Professor, was Edwin Muir, often described (with Hugh MacDiarmid) as one of the two major Scottish poets of the first half of the twentieth century; and because he’d admired something of mine Knights had shown him, and (more important) because we had a car, Kay and I were put in partial charge of him for the month he was there, picking him up from his hotel and driving him about. He was a gentle, very serious and rather sad-looking man, born in Orkney and then spending his late childhood I think in Glasgow. I wrote home that he had none of the manner of the literary lion, was rather ‘old and frail’ (he was in fact only 70, but would die the following January); that he was ‘clear in his judgements’, and that I had been gripped by his lectures.

T.S. Eliot was an important part of my thesis subject some small part of which Muir had read in typescript. In conversation he joked about Eliot, who at 68 was said to be taking dancing lessons again. Eliot had taken his oldest friends by surprise, upsetting some including (so the gossip went) John Hayward with whom he had shared a flat for ten years, by secretly marrying his secretary, Valerie Fletcher, in the early hours of a winter morning, the previous year, a ceremony without guests or any celebration apart from the couple’s own. I told Muir about the Daily Express headline I’d clipped (and still have):

‘LOVE & T.S. ELIOT
‘and how the LOVE grew YOUNGER THAN SPRINGTIME.’

He told me something Eliot had recounted over a lunch, about James Joyce, famously egotistical and egocentric, who used to affect, when he and Eliot met in Paris, not even to know the American wrote poetry – but then one day was greatly excited to have seen a hippopotamus, and let slip, as they talked about this, a reference to Eliot’s poem about the hippopotamus church – after which the affectation of ignorance could not be sustained.

I had clipped a poem of Muir’s, I think from the weekly Time & Tide, about the petrol shortage caused by the recent Suez crisis, a time he had welcomed for its ‘silence as of a peace / after a fifty-year-long war.’

The planes are hunted from the sky,
All round me is the natural day.
I watch this empty country road
Roll half a century away.

And looking round me I recall
That here the patient ploughmen came
Long years ago, and so remember
What they were then, and what I am.

I think this was typical in its slightly clumsy reflective sadness – the good times were rural, agrarian, and they were over like his childhood in Orkney. I could respect this kind of nostalgia but was too full of the excitements of the present and the promise of the future to bathe in it.

– C.K. Stead