Last last — C.K.S signs off as laureate

A month ago I signed off what was meant to be the last of these laureate blogs but there are a few ‘last things’ still deserving report before I vacate the chair.

One was the death of Nicholas Tarling, a colleague, Auckland University Emeritus Professor of History, and a younger colleague of Professors Sinclair and Chapman whom I wrote about in my two previous blogs. Nick was my age, and like me, a resolute and regular swimmer, but on the North Shore.  Last May he was ‘seen swimming vigorously’ and then seen to be not swimming. A heart attack or something similar had taken him off, and it seemed to me a great way to go – no preliminary decline, no slow loss of faculties of mind. How nice it would be if one could arrange such a departure for oneself. So I was sad Nick was dead but not sorry that his life had ended in that way, at that time, while he was still lively, interested, knowledgeable and grumpy. Consequently when he found his way into a dream, and a subsequent ‘Nocturne’, he would have been surprised to find himself confused and conjoined there with thoughts about rain on the roof, and a leaking gutter, and how one should go about seeing them repaired:

Another nocturne

remembering Nicholas T. who died swimming

In Shallowsleep, that life-of-the-mind that comes
at three or four a.m., hearing big rain

beat on the roof and spill from broken gutter
to concrete path, and quoting to myself

(faultlessly) a sonnet of a single sentence
and great complexity by Willie Yeats,

I promised I would call that comic-strip
tradesman I had named, just to amuse you,

Gutterfix. It was the day we’d buried Nick,
historian, daily dipper, opera aficionado

with song and stories of his gloomy wit.
‘Come to our aid, great Gutterfix’ I sang

in my opera voice, and laughed, and seemed to fall
a moment after into a dream of drains.

Perhaps Nick’s ghost would laugh, perhaps not, and one will never know.

****

I got back from our (as it has become) annual visit to our daughter in London just in time to recover from jet lag and take part in the end-of-July Marlborough Literary Festival, which centres on the Boathouse Theatre in Blenheim but occurs also in various supporting vineyards within ten or so kilometres of the town. My solo session as a fiction writer was on the Friday evening of the first day, and my parallel session as poet ended the Festival on the Sunday late afternoon. In between I did a poetry reading with the Iron Man of NZ Poetry, Brian Turner, and the multi talented Emma Neale. I was housed at the Dog Point vineyard with Brian, and also Anne Salmond and Gavin Bishop. Awake at 4 a.m. (jet lag) I stepped out of doors in my pyjamas into the frosty night to look at the sky, something I had not done in the South Island for several decades. Later I wrote a poem about it which I here dedicate to the Festival, the people who run it and the vineyards that support it:

At Dog Point

After a day of frost and sunshine
in the valley of winter vineyards and winding streams
that teach the far brown hills by definition
and the farther mountains by peaks and caps of snow
Dog Point at 4 a.m.
showed me the night of another world
created by gods and peopled by their children
each one distinct, a point of  brilliant light
each family a constellation
and needing all together
a name to match and affirm their magnitude –
‘the Heavens’ for example or ‘the canopy of the stars’.

There is a dream of love
so far from the avidities of lust
and dramas of fidelity and possession
it is like that southern sky at night
burned across by a single shooting star.

****

Since Marlborough there has been a visit to Wellington sponsored by the Alexander Turnbull Library for the launch of a small book, a sampling of poems done during my period as laureate, beautifully printed and hand sewn by Brendan O’Brien, illustrated by Douglas MacDiarmid, a Paris-based New Zealand artist, in an edition of 85 signed and numbered copies, 50 for sale. We launched it with speeches and a reading on the evening of Tuesday the 8th and then next day we had a lunch-hour panel discussion, the printer, the poet, and the painter’s niece (who is writing his biography), chaired by poet-and-painter Greg O’Brien who is the printer’s brother and the poet’s former student. This was a very lively occasion and by the end of the day there were only a very few of the ‘for sale’ 50 copies left.

While I was there the 2017 issue of the Turnbull Library Record appeared, which included, among many articles of interest, an account of how the Library acquired and prepared to catalogue and house Sam Hunt’s archive. It also printed another five of the poems I have written while laureate. These were so attractively set on the page I was reminded how important form is, how sharply and significantly it differs from poem to poem, and how the visual appearance on the page can make this clear – or equally can fail to do so.

C.K. Stead in conversation with Greg O’Brien, National Library, Wednesday 8 August 2017. Photographer: Mark Beatty

Here are two poems from that Turnbull Library Record offering:

An Horatian Ode to Fleur Adcock at 80

When I wanted only to sing
        war and hunting
                     it was Phoebus warned me
                                  remember sooner

friends of your youth, especially
        that princess of quiet fire
                     from a southern city
                                  she of the classic lyre

on which she counted lovers
        one perhaps a prince
                     one a certain pirate
                                  too many to remember

until in middle life
        she gave them all away
                     denied herself meat
                                  and cigarettes in favour

of her family’s fables
        and deftest celebrations
                     of the life of things
                                  with feelers and wings.

All that’s fine in Fleur
        I celebrate and sing
                     as you commanded Phoebus
                                  but on my solo string

and sounding from so far
        gone in an instant –
                     and I still wanting
                                  war and hunting.

‘Auckland’: the renaming

Now that we know
he was only another
imperial duffer,
a Caesar’s bumbling sidesman
and journeyman of Empire –
couldn’t we quietly
wipe him from the record
and give back the name
tangata whenua first
accorded her –
Tamaki-makau-rau
our clement isthmus
between two harbours
and two oceans,
hub of the South Seas
loved by too many?

The Alexander Turnbull Library is one of New Zealand’s great institutions, beautifully housed within the larger framework of the National Library of New Zealand, and containing the Treaty of Waitangi newly and permanently on display.


****

I now have ahead the Outwest Festival where I will be involved, with editor Linda Cassells and chaired by Professor Alex Calder, in a discussion of the new biography of Allen Curnow by the late Professor Terry Sturm. This biography and the new Curnow Collected Poems (both to be published by Auckland University Press) will be the subject of a symposium three weeks later (30 September) at the University, and it will be my job to make the opening address – something which will be difficult only because there is too much to say and too many possible ways of going about it, and I have only 30 minutes.

Not too far beyond, but still in 2017, will be the launch of my new novel, The Necessary Angel, and the Whanganui festival (6–8 October). And after that perhaps a quieter life.

I and my laureate tokotoko bid you farewell/haere ra! Here is the last poem in the Brendan O’Brien’s fine little book:

The laureate’s last…

His last
was not least
nor yet his best
but shaped for a shoe
his size
and like his sighs
not to last.
— C.K. Stead

Hail and farewell! – & a postscript

A month from now the new Poet Laureate will be named and my two-year stint will conclude. I was more than pleased to be named Laureate, since poetry has been the centre of my writing life, the part of it I always returned to with most pleasure, that seemed the most demanding, and the most satisfying when it went well – and the award came at a time in life (I was 82) when an end to writing of any kind could not be too far away – so perhaps a rounding off, a kind of culmination, an honour I valued probably more than any other. Although I had a few direct requests for ‘a Laureate poem’, and responded to these, and of course more invitations than usual to appear at festivals and readings, there was nothing particularly demanding about the role unless you made it so; and since it’s my temperament to pursue what Yeats calls ‘the fascination of what’s difficult’, I have made a bit of a burden of the Laureate blog. I have not been, and still am not, ‘a blog person’. The literary blogs I had read seemed as often as not vehicles for malice and gossip, and I did not want to go down that path. I did them, rather, as literary exercises, thinking aloud about whatever poetry theme or bit of local literary history happened to be exercising my mind at that time. So they have become a collection of literary essays, loosely autobiographical, which I suppose at some point might be published as a book. There have been so few reactions to them that I have never been sure whether I have been talking to myself, or to a small roomful, or more; I’ve only been certain that the bigger world out there, the world of crowds and popular culture, was not listening. But if they are publishable together the effort has not been wasted. For those who have read and commented on them, my grateful thanks!
I should mention especially here the constant help I’ve had in the role from Peter Ireland of the Alexander Turnbull Library, and the support of its Chief Librarian, Chris Szekely; and also the help with technical (blog) matters from Reuben Schrader. The Matahiwi marae experience at Havelock North where I was accompanied by Kay and our family (including a daughter and two grandchildren who had come all the way from London), and by my three fellow poets, Chris Price, Greg O’Brien and Paula Green, the warmth of our reception there, and the lovely tokotoko carved by Jacob Scott, were all together high points of the Laureateship; and the supplies of wonderful wines by Te Mata Vineyards (thanks to John Buck and his son Toby) were a delightful bonus.
It has also been very rewarding to have occasional literary festival readings with what has come to be called ‘the circle of laureates’ – we are quite a gang, and such a rich assortment of talents and personalities.
My laureateship is to be rounded off with the publication of a small sample of the work I’ve done during the two years in the form of a beautifully printed and produced book from Brendan O’Brien’s press with illustrations by Douglas MacDiarmid. The title is In the mirror and dancing and we will launch it in Wellington on August 8th, and with a lunch hour reading on the 9th.

In my June blog I wrote about what I called ‘the Sinclair cohort’ which included Bob (R. McD) Chapman, Maurice Duggan and Kendrick Smithyman. I think anything of interest I have to say about Smithyman is in my essay on him in Kin of Place (A.U.P. 2002). There is an essay in that collection about Duggan as a writer, which veers over into observations about Duggan the man. Of the quartet I have had least to say about Bob, because he was the least successful as a writer and I saw less of him as a university colleague. But I was his student in the History Department in my second year, a member of a remarkable tutorial, and I have this to say about it in my memoir South-East of Eden (A.U.P. 2010):
...almost a prototype of what tutorials were supposed to be, was the one I attended in history, conducted by Bob (R. McD.) Chapman, later to be the university’s first professor of political studies and mentor of two Labour Prime Ministers, first David Lange, then Helen Clark. Chapman had a round, baby face, plump, pompous jowls, and the manner and voice of a Grand Old Man. He wanted to be counted among the poets, but only ever published a handful of rather clumsy poems; he aspired to academic leadership, yet was never to publish a significant book, nor even to finish his doctoral thesis. But if the word ‘intellectual’ means anything (and something that is not simply disparaging or dismissive) that is what Chapman was. He was remorselessly, and rather abstractly, a ‘thinker’ – one who wrestled with ideas valiantly and not always with complete success. If he had arrived on the scene half a century later, he might have made a top-rate literary theoretician, where the confident opacity of his thought, and his inability ever to make perfect sense, would have been seen as virtues.
The Chapman tutorial I was assigned to, in which Bernard Clark (who had beaten me for the Lissie Rathbone scholarship in History) and Barbara McKay (who claimed she had beaten us both, and only failed to collect the scholarship because her school had forgotten to enter her name) were also members, produced the most stimulating classroom interactions I would experience at least until I was an MA student in 1955. Chapman recognised our intelligence and engaged with us. No doubt there were others in that class, but I remember it as if there had been only three students and our tutor.
There was a brief period when I was first back in Auckland from my period as a post-graduate student in the UK when the Chapmans seemed to see Kay and me as part of a group of Bob’s younger acolytes – which included Jonathan Hunt (who would become a senior Labour Party Minister and then Speaker of the House), and Jim Holt and Mike Stenson, senior History students who would become significant in the Party but both to die relatively young.
Conversation with Bob was unrelenting. He was forever trying to persuade me of something and I seemed to be forever resisting. He had a big round face and orotund delivery. His features were youthful and yet his jowls shook as he made his points, always with heavy emphasis. He was especially prone to metaphor which often failed to clarify the point. Where Keith Sinclair’s discourse was brutally clipped and to the point, Bob’s was eloquent, tending to circumlocution and obscurity. Chapman parties and dinner parties went on into the night and the early hours. Whereas Kay and I, with no children in the first few years of the 1960s, could sleep till noon next day, Bob and Noeline had three small sons to deal with. Their stamina, Noeline’s in particular, was remarkable.
Like Keith, Bob was a New Zealand literary nationalist; and an academic nationalist too – we had not only our own literature to study and to write, but our own history to come to terms with, our own politics to practice and record. They were, like most New Zealand intellectuals of the time, deeply resistant to, even resentful of, the Royalist fervour that assailed the country whenever a Royal (or a Vice-Royal) approached, because this was a subservience which compromised our independence, our identity, ourselves. I was entirely in agreement with this, especially in feeling that the Royal fervour and the old designation of Britain as ‘Home’ were demeaning; but I think as Bob saw it, I was compromised by having loved every minute of my two years in Britain, and by showing signs of regretting having come home.
Some of my debates with Bob sprang from my story/novella, A Race Apart, which won the first Bank of New Zealand Katherine Mansfield Prize in 1961, and was described by Edna O’Brien, when it was published in the UK, as ‘subtle funny and dextrously written’. Bob felt this story in some degree compromised my New Zealand identity by seeming to denigrate its young Kiwi athlete hero at the expense of the wiser ‘Old World’. In retrospect our arguments don’t seem important except as part of my intellectual growing up. We might both have remembered Andrew Marvell’s advice: ‘for men may spare their pains where nature is at work, and the world will not go faster for our driving.’ New Zealand would grow out of its colonial sailor suit without our assistance; and we had (both, I imagine) to remember that although at times in a nation’s history heightened national consciousness could be productive of good things, it was more often than not the source at least of bad outcomes, and often of evil ones.
Bob and Noeline were one of two couples (the other was Allen and Jeny Curnow) to whom the novelist Bill Pearson (then a lecturer in the English Department) attached himself for comfort and protection. Bill’s recent biography by Paul Millar has revealed that he spent a long period of unhappiness, trying to unmake the gay man he was and remake himself as a good hetero Kiwi chap. It was in this period that he produced his one novel, Coal Flat, in which he represents the hero, Paul Rogers, with whom he clearly identifies, as the man he wanted to be rather than the man he was. This unhappiness, and the anxiety that went with it, made Bill a rather sad, paranoid and frightened figure; and these couples to whom he attached himself were sources of kindness and protection.
Bob had known and hugely admired Bill’s historically important essay, ‘Fretful Sleepers’, before they met, and had written his own notable essay, ‘Fiction and the Social Pattern’; and these two items are often cited as parallel advances in New Zealand national, social and literary consciousness in the 1950s. It was clear that Bob had pictured someone (like himself) large and personally impressive as the author of the Pearson essay; and I was there at their first meeting, when Bob was unable to conceal his momentary disbelief and disappointment. The introduction took place in the echoing circular foyer of the University.
‘Bill Pearson,’ Bob boomed. ‘Same name as the essayist.’
‘Same person,’ Bill said, in a shy sideways way he sometimes had of talking, as if out of one side of his face.
Bill was small in stature and unremarkable in appearance. Keith Sinclair described him as ‘the little jockey’. Bob stared at him. It took a moment for him to register that what had just been said meant that this was the man whose analysis of our Kiwi faults and failings had been (as he saw it) so acute, so devastating. I can’t reproduce exactly what followed except that it was very loud and embarrassing, revealing at first Bob’s disappointment, and then his joy to be meeting the author of ‘Fretful Sleepers’, a pleasure whose genuineness (and it was genuine) was somehow compromised because its noisy excess was a cover for that initial disappointment.
For no very clear reason there are two dinner parties with Bob which I remember particularly, both occurring a good deal later than those 1960s evenings. One was a time when we invited a group to dinner which included Bob and Noeline, and I decided it was wrong that Kay should always be the cook. I would do the main course – and what I chose was lamb knuckles. Because there were to be a number at the table I cooked most of them them in the lower oven and two in the upper. It had not occurred to me that these two ovens cooked at different temperatures and speeds; the lower lot emerged beautifully tender, the top two tough, but I did not recognize this until it was too late and the meal had been served. Bob got one of the tough ones, and sat to my left at the table, sawing away bravely, while others told me how well I had done. It seemed that even as a cook, with Bob I was destined to fail. Or perhaps I had subconsciously served up to him the culinary equivalent of those circumlocutions I’d had to chew on when he had been still one of my academic mentors.
The other was a dinner party at the Chapmans’ and Roger Douglas, Member of Parliament but thus far still in the Labour Opposition, was among the guests. Over the meal we argued, all for Labour (no dissenters at the Chapman table), but about how the Party should present itself and make its case. I was all for forthrightness and for less concern about whether what Labour wanted to do would be well-received. If we knew something was right we should say so boldly. In the end you had to sound as if you meant it. People were more impressed by the genuineness of the appeal than by its ‘rightness’, which mostly they were uncertain about. Bob, the psephologist and expert in ‘the art of the possible’, spoke in favour of going for the middle ground, the only place where Labour, or any party in New Zealand, could win – a lesson his later protégé and star pupil Helen Clark, though by nature a radical, would learn, partly from his teaching, and profit by.
Douglas was mostly silent, and when he did put forward his ideas they were unappealing and remote; but he affirmed the idea of conviction politics and the rare power of authenticity. It must have been around this time that he introduced a private member’s bill proposing a compulsory superannuation scheme which, if it had been enacted and retained, could have meant the current [2017] argument about how National Super can continue and be sustainable, and whether it should begin at 65 or 67, would have been unnecessary. Later, in the Kirk Government, such a scheme was initiated by Rowling and Douglas together, only to be scrapped by Muldoon in 1975.
Roger Douglas had an interesting family history. I remember as a child hearing his grandfather, Bill Anderton who, with A.S. Richards and John A. Lee, formed a trio of Auckland members of the first Labour Government, each of them a natural outdoor orator who, with neither notes nor amplifiers, could hold a crowd spellbound. (Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage was also from Auckland but had no such power of public oratory.) Roger’s father Norman was a Labour M.P. who sided with John A. Lee and went with him when he was sacked from the Party, but later returned to it and won Auckland Central when his father-in-law Bill Anderton retired from the seat. Another of Bill’s grandsons was Jim Anderton. I remember Jim first as a Parnell dairy-owner, a close friend of some of Bob Chapman’s protégés, particularly Jim Holt, and very active and bossy in the Party. In 1984 Jim won a Christchurch seat for Labour where he has remained ever since. Jim was to oppose his cousin Roger’s financial and economic reforms and to split from the Party forming first New Labour and then the Alliance; and finally to merge with it again under Helen Clark who made him her Deputy P.M.
By the time the Muldoon years were over and a Labour Government under David Lange was elected (1984), Douglas, their finance spokesman, and soon Minister of Finance, had shifted away from Labour’s traditional Keynesianism towards the Friedmanite economics of the Chicago school. For a few years I was dazzled by Lange’s wit and eloquence, and believed that whatever Labour was doing under his watch must be necessary and good, until (like Lange himself with his ‘time for a cup of tea’) I came to see it, not only as a betrayal of Labour traditions, but simply bad economics.
I remember that quiet man at the Chapman table, with his desert-dry crackling voice, like some dark figure in a Russian play. Everyone at that table opined and theorized, but it was Douglas who was to change our world – as it happened, I now think, for the worse. Will it ever be possible to return to a high-tax economy and a full Welfare State? I would like to think so, but it is nowhere in sight.
Douglas had an odd outside-Parliament life as purveyor of alternative medicines, remedies and ‘health supplements’, all of dubious curative effect; so it might be argued that the two sides of his life, though apparently so different, were not incompatible.

I have found the following note about Maurice Duggan, written it seems after he died in 1974.
I ought to be the ideal person to write about Maurice because my feelings about him were unequivocal. I liked him unreservedly, always enjoyed his company, never found him disagreeable or dull. He seemed to me of all the writers I had known the least egotistical, and the most generous – but not from an over-eagerness to oblige. He stood firm and independent, asked for no favours, was pleased if I liked something he had written, told me when he liked something of mine, and otherwise simply gave me to feel he enjoyed my company as much as I enjoyed his. When we were alone together we talked about books and writers and writing – almost never about ourselves. I see now, looking back, that for all the informality, a kind of (old-fashioned? professional?) decorum operated, which did not allow for personal feelings and confidences. So I am only apparently the ideal person to write about him. There was a whole inner life I could find evidence of in the stories, and hear about by way of gossip (and one knew by report about his affairs, and drinking, and that he could be ‘difficult’ at home) but which was never mentioned.
His last letter, dated just a few weeks before his death from cancer, begins in that rather formal way he so often had on paper: ‘I was reminded, when we touched on form in the novel...’ – and goes on to urge me not to hesitate, if something I am writing seems properly 80 pages, to stop at that length: ‘Don’t regret the murdered darlings in the 80 pages that lie closest to your appreciation.’
I go on in this note to remember Maurice in that always orderly house with its polished wood floors, its Keith Patterson painting over the fireplace, wooden deck and windows looking out on an equally orderly garden and trees. No doubt, I went on, this domestic interior represented them both, Barbara and Maurice.
All this seems on reflection rather odd – though the good feeling was genuine. Maurice was indeed orderly. His tradesman’s tools, screwdrivers, saws, hammers, drills, were always in their proper designated places; the floors were swept, the windows clean, the lawns mowed and the hedges clipped. His handwriting was neat and his manuscripts always in order. Nothing bohemian about that household. He must have deplored the Duddings’ bohemian ménage at Torbay. And yet when I wrote this about him I knew that as well as an orderly man he could also be a Lord of Misrule. I knew that he was at his best at a dinner table at a certain point in the evening when he would offer a story so funny, and so brilliantly told, he would have us all rocking with laughter; but that soon after he would sink into alcoholic gloom.
I still make a huge (critical) distinction between the rather conventional stories for which he is probably best known and admired, and which match that domestic scene, and the two, different from and superior to anything else he wrote – ‘Along Rideout Road that Summer’ and ‘Riley’s Handbook’ – which found a lucid and rich vehicle for the disorderly Maurice. The first of these I rate as the best New Zealand short story ever written (and yes, I include Mansfield in that); and the second as a novella that must rate in quality alongside (though so totally different in character and tone) Sargeson’s ‘That summer’.
Here, by way of postscript is another view of Duggan. It comes from an essay I wrote about Barry Humphries (another old friend) for the London Review of Books in 1992:
I took Barry once to visit the short story writer Maurice Duggan, without quite realizing how far each of them was down the road to alcoholism. Duggan, large, strong, physical, once summarised his life for a literary magazine, beginning each section “And the nurse said, ‘Drink this.’” His limp was noticeable and even picturesque, but the loss of a leg which had caused it was something Duggan was extremely sensitive about.
He was a great Irish-style talker, who also tended to peak with a brilliantly funny story that would have everyone sick with laugher, and then lapse into alcoholic despondency, and even sometimes anger and violence.
Barry listened while Duggan explained about toheroa — the season, the limit on the bag, how the fish was minced to make an incomparable soup; listened too, and looked, while Duggan, quietly proud, showed the books on his shelves, and how many of the modern fiction writers he owned in first editions.
Duggan must have been up on the plateau ready to go into his usual hilarious anecdote-and-plunge when Barry pre-empted the moment, launching into a characteristic Humphries monologue about his own collection of hardcover toe-he-rowers, and about how short the season was on books and how tight the limit on the bag, but the great soups that could be made by critics who put them through the mincer. I remember it now only in crude outline; but in detail - in performance so to speak - it seemed bewildering and clever. It was the only time I ever saw Duggan driven backwards into sobriety. Afterwards, if ever Humphries was mentioned, Maurice would dismiss him as “a clever magpie.”
— C.K. Stead

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