Ezra Pound: One to be reckoned with

I begin with a review (published in the Times Literary Supplement 15/4/16) of Ezra Pound Posthumous Cantos edited by Massimo Bacigalupo (220 pp. Carcanet, £14.99), after which I will add further comments on the thorny subject of Ezra.


Ezra Pound was an Imagist, later a Vorticist (an Imagist animated, energized) who aspired to write a long poem – ‘really LONG, endless, leviathanic’. This was a contradiction he thought he could resolve by the method he called ‘presentative’. ‘Beauty should be presented, never explained.’ That’s why the early attempts to begin The Cantos that occupy the first 20 or so pages of this book were excluded and re-written – because they were explanatory, expository, discursive.

Hang it all there can be but one Sordello!
But say I want to, say I take your whole bag of tricks,
Let in your quirks and tweeks, and say the thing’s an art form,
Your Sordello, and that the modern world
Needs such a rag-bag to stuff all its thought in;
Say that I dump my catch, shiny and silvery
As fresh sardines flapping and slipping on the marginal cobbles...

These sections, addressed to ‘Bob Browning’, argued at length (against ‘sulk[ing] and leav[ing] the word to novelists’) the case for ‘the long poem’. But Pound didn’t want to argue the case – he wanted to do the job, and so these opening Cantos were dropped.

What this collection offers are not strictly speaking posthumous Cantos, but off-cuts, deletions, passages removed from the on-going never-ending (except in exhaustion and defeat) work that was The Cantos; and on the other hand, passages which popped up in Pound’s notebooks, clearly related to the current work, but finding no exact place where they could be fitted in and made to look at home. They are, then, a mixed bag – but so are the ‘finished’ Cantos.

The book’s successive section headings show how we move with Pound from ‘London 1915-1917’, to ‘Paris 1920-1922’, to ‘Rapallo and Venice 1928-1937’; then ‘Voices of War 1940-1945’, ‘Italian Drafts 1944-1945’, and ‘Pisa 1945’. Section VII, ‘Prosaic Verses 1945-60’, is largely from his period in St Elizabeths Hospital for the insane (Washington D.C.) where he was committed for 12 years, thus avoiding a trial for treason; and finally ‘Lines for Olga 1962-1972’ from his final years with Olga Rudge in Rapallo and Venice. Those headings are also a reminder of how, despite his serious internationalism, and his commitment to history and to the received European culture, Pound’s poetry never escaped entirely from place, location, the immediate and particular, and the perceptions of the senses.

Pound’s scholarship was always amateurish, excitable, every discovery a gem he felt needed to be made known at once, fitted into the growing picture which, once grasped by someone like the President of the United States, to whom he more than once appealed directly, would save the world – economically, practically and spiritually. But that ‘presentative method’, which he was quite strict about imposing on himself, meant that nothing could be explained. There is a kind of purity (it could even be called innocence) about this, which works poetically, but can make The Cantos seem indeterminate and ineffectual. The discoveries are tossed before us without connecting material or explanatory argument. It’s as if he’s saying constantly ‘as I’m sure you’re aware’, or ‘you will recall’, as he puts down some obscure discovery from the dustiest archives. The nearer Pound was to a major library (the Vatican was a favourite) the drearier the Cantos became. The material on Sigismondo Malatesta, 15th Century lord of Rimini, intended for one Canto grew to four; American Presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Andrew Van Buren, illustrating something economically ‘significant’ or politically ‘important’, choke the work like a dust storm in a desert. There are some beautiful reliefs from this tedious excess of fact (Canto 39, for example, and then 47 and 49); but as the years go by they become fewer.

During World War II Pound, still an American citizen but permanently resident in Italy, broadcast on behalf of Mussolini’s regime; and it is hardly too much to say that one of the greatest services the advancing US Army did to world literature was to put Pound in a wire cage in their Detention Centre at Pisa (pending trial in Washington for the capital offence of treason) and deprive him of access to books. He had brought with him (being Ezra) his Confucius in a bilingual edition; and he came upon an anthology of English poetry in a toilet block. Otherwise he was on his own. The Pisan Cantos are the triumph they are partly because he was all at once dependent on what was already contained and processed in his head (including memories of a rich literary life), together with what was going on around him – the talk of fellow-American inmates and camp guards, the flora and fauna, the skies and weathers, of the Tuscan landscape.

Professor of English and American literature at the University of Genoa, Massimo Bacigalupo, son of Pound’s physician in Rapallo and of an American mother, is uniquely qualified to write of, and to edit, Pound, who spent so much of his life in Italy, immersed in Italian language, life, culture and politics. In addition to supplying an introduction, and useful but discreetly brief notes for all sections, Bacigalupo has translated the drafts Pound wrote in Italian which have not been available in English except in scholarly articles – none of them as rebarbative as Cantos 72 and 73, the Italian Cantos which for a long time Pound’s executors would not permit to be published in English. (Canto 73 is the one containing Pound’s crowing account of the pretty young woman Fascist who led Canadian soldiers – ‘canaille’ he calls them – into a minefield, killing twenty of them and herself.)

In the present selection the Italian drafts are offered in both languages. Many of the same ideas, images and illustrations that appear in these were to reappear in The Pisan Cantos, which helps to explain why the latter came forth so readily, hand written after Pound was removed from the cage to a tent in the medical compound, and typed up at night when he was permitted to use the camp dispensary’s typewriter. The old obsessions, good and bad, are there – usury, the olive groves on that hill-slope above Rapallo, his historical touchstones (including Malatesta), and the darting back and forth between the dark present and its often luminous, or at least illuminating, past.

There is much less of the cranky Pound in this collection, less of the bore, the irrational anti-Semite, the savage, and much more of the aesthete, the man whose editorial skill turned The Waste Land (as Eliot said) from ‘a jumble of good and bad passages into a poem’; more in fact of the poetic Modernist. Sometimes the dark and the light come mysteriously together:

Now I remember that you built me a special gorilla cage
              and that the foetor of Roosevelt
                        stank through the shitpile that succeeded him

                        moon bright like water
                        water like sky
usury, monopoly, changing the currency

More often there is regret for folly, and gratitude to the women who had sustained him, as in these lines recording his return to his beloved Genoa after his 12 year incarceration:

The trees in mist hold their beauty
I have been a pitiless stone –
                                        stone making art works
and destroying affections.
[...]
Till suddenly the tower
                                        blazed with the light of Astarte
@ Genova the port lay below us
Miracolo di Dio
                    ch’amor riceve
                                    né la calunnia
                                                    né l’invidia te toca.

[O miracle of God who receives love, neither calumny nor envy touches you.]

There are many tributes to Olga Rudge whose patience outlasted his wife’s, and who was the companion of his final years; and the image comes and goes of that ‘salita’ – the hill path, through olive groves, from Rapallo up to St Ambrogio where Olga’s house figures in The Cantos as ‘Circe’s ingle’:

Flood & flame
thru the long years
                         by night & hill-path
great courage in frail frame
toughened by four decades
of climbing thru dark
                         on the hill paths,
knowing each stone
almost as if by name.
[...]
But against the mounting evils
she held the will toward good.
Her clear lucidity
that she saw the Duce with level eyes

The book under review contains essentially the same material as Bacigalupo’s Canti Posthumi published in Italian in 2002. It is a ‘selection from [...] abundant material based on criteria of quality, accessibility, and documentary interest.’ There is, then, an element of preference comes into the choices made. If you had read nothing of Pound and sampled this selection you might conclude that he was a nature poet, a love poet, a man with some significant and eccentric grasp of history, given to technical experiment in poetry; a loving man of extraordinary sensibility and finesse.

He was all of those things of course. He was also an exceptional literary intelligence, obsessive, and from time to time more than slightly mad.


That was the review published in the T.L.S. issue of 15 April 2016.

My interest in Pound’s work followed inevitably from my work long ago on T.S. Eliot. You can’t study Eliot without considering the hand Pound had in the making of The Waste Land and Eliot’s continuing loyalty and gratitude to the poet he called il miglior fabbro (the superior craftsman). You could not be a serious literary historian of poetry in the 20th century without making room for Pound; and in fact I would add that every serious poet throughout those years had to make some kind of accommodation with his poetry, his poetic theories, and his bossily brilliant critical writings. Yet the Fascist Pound, the Social Credit fanatic, the supporter of Mussolini, the wildly eccentric and madly opinionated letter-writer, and above all the anti-Semite, made it difficult, and sometimes embarrassing.

If you want to get a feel for the poetic precision and delicacy he was capable of, look at his translations from the Chinese, published as Cathay, and also in Canto 49; or his Latin translations, Homage to Sextus Propertius. In works like that the material comes from the poet being translated, and Pound’s presence is manifest in getting the language right, quite unaffected by his personal persuasions and obsessions. Of course there is a buoyancy, sprightliness, energy which are recognizably his – but that is in the language and is the best of Pound, while the crankiness is left at the door.

The wind bundles itself into a bluish cloud and wanders off
...

...with that music playing,
And I, wrapped in brocade, went to sleep with my head on his lap,
And my spirit so high it was all over the heavens,
And before the end of the day we were scattered like stars, or rain.

Those lines are from Cathay; and from Propertius:

The twisted rhombs ceased their clamour of accompaniment;
The scorched laurel lay in the fire-dust;
The moon still declined to descend out of heaven,
But the black ominous owl-hoot was audible.
One raft bears our fates
                                     On the veiled lake towards Avernus
Sails spread on Cerulean waters.

As I say in the review above, there are vast boredoms in The Cantos; but there are treasures too, and you have to know where to find them. More than once I have read that massive work right through from beginning to end over several days, not stopping to puzzle over anything, taking it all as it comes, the good with the bad, just to get a proper sense of his ‘presentative method’ – where it works, where it doesn’t, and why. My one book on this subject, Pound, Yeats, Eliot and the Modernist Movement (published in both the U.S. and the U.K., and which I still have not re-read since it appeared in 1986) is rare, or was at the time, in the sense that it tried to discriminate clearly between the good and the bad in Pound. Pound studies tended to be conducted by advocates. These good people, most of them serious scholars, usually employed as academics, attended Pound conferences where it was rare to hear a harsh word against ‘Ol’ Ez’, and where references to anti-Semitism and Fascism were muted or absent. Sometimes his daughter Mary de Rachewiltz was present; and once the conference was held at her castle in Brunnenberg. The atmosphere was always slightly defensive. Others (outsiders) who spoke or wrote of Pound were mostly detractors. There is, or there used to be, a wide gap in the middle between detractors and defenders, which in my book I tried to fill.

After a period in London and then Paris in the 1920s, Pound, who came from Hailey, Idaho, made his home in Rapallo on the Italian Mediterranean coast – a beautiful location, but somewhat remote from the world he wanted to be part of. I visited it first in 1972 when held the Mansfield-Menton Fellowship, and in the early 1980s when I was working on my book. I attended Pound conferences there and got to know Professor Massimo Bacigalupo, editor of the book reviewed above, son of Pound’s doctor and grandson of his pharmacist. The Bacigalupo family have had a series ofsmall yachts called Vagabonde I, II and III. Pound was taken sailing on the first of these and Massimo, a teenager at the time, remembers him well. Massimo lives up in the hills just above Rapallo, and commutes each working day along to the University of Genoa where he is Professor of English and American literature.

Pound had a kind of informal ‘son-in-law’ (or son-not-in-law) connection with W.B. Yeats, having married Dorothy, the daughter of Yeats’s long-time mistress (as she would have been called then) Olivia Shakespeare. In his officious and self-important way the young Pound had ‘taken the older Yeats in hand’, wanting to ‘modernise’ him as a poet. Yeats had allowed this just as far as suited him and no further. The influence was significant; but Yeats saw the dangers. With Pound’s help he worked on making his tone and language match the 20th century world, sweeping away the fin de siècle languors and Celtic Twilight vapours; but he always observed strict form and structure which was where he felt Pound was lacking. In his book A Vision (mentioned in an earlier post about the sonnets) he has a section written in Rapallo where he describes Pound as a man ‘whose art is the opposite of mine, whose criticism commends what I most condemn, and with whom I would quarrel more than with anyone else if we were not united by affection.’

At some time in the 1920s Pound began his long term association with Olga Rudge, though the marriage to Dorothy continued. So his life was lived, as he says somewhere, ‘between a door and a door’ – one door to his top floor apartment on the Rapallo seafront, the other up the hill at Sant Ambrogio, where Olga lived in a house that was partly a small factory for pressing olives. The long walking path up to it through the olive groves was (and is) called the Salita Sant Ambrogio. It’s a steep climb, with the view back to the town and the Bay of Tigullio growing more beautiful at each stage. The house that was Olga’s is now marked with a plaque that refers not to her but to Pound, and the road up there is named after him. A passageway on the seafront also records his years of living in the town.

Olga and Ezra produced one child, a daughter, Mary. She was bizarrely farmed out to be fostered by peasants in the mountains of the Italian Tyrol; but each summer Pound and Olga would come and take her on holiday to Venice. Mary has written a book about this extraordinary childhood, Discretions. I once had lunch with her and Massimo and Angela Bacigalupo in the Bacigalupos’ garden (see photograph) and afterwards she drove me, at breakneck speed, back down the winding road into town. I had brought with me a copy of her book which Kay and I had given daughter Charlotte in 1984 (then 17, now Charlotte Grimshaw), and I asked Mary, since it was a book about her poet father, to inscribe it. She wrote in it

Thank you Charlotte for reading,
and getting your father to read,
my “old” book.
Mary de Rachewiltz,
Rapallo, 14 July 1993.


The Bacigalupos’ garden above Rapallo. L-R: Professor Massimo Bacigalipo, Mary de Rachewiltz (Ezra Pound’s daughter), C.K. Stead, and Angela Bacigalupo.

When the war came Ezra made regular visits to Rome where he recorded his broadcasts in English. They were supposed to be in support of the Axis side, but were so peculiar and full of the kind of political-economic-historical material with which The Cantos are over-supplied, some Government officials wondered whether he might really be an American spy broadcasting in code. After the Allied invasion of Italy, Pound trekked north to the Tyrol to explain to Mary, now a young adult, about his marriage to Dorothy and his relationship with her mother, Olga. I’m no longer exactly sure what happened next, but at some point late in the war the Germans moved Ezra and Dorothy out of their seafront apartment and, lacking anywhere else to go, they moved in with Olga up at Sant Ambrogio. There are differing accounts of how this worked. They had very little money and lacked food. Olga records that they were ‘civilised’ in their dealing with one another; Mary says the two women hated one another. Pound was there when U.S. forces arrived. Partisans arrested him and handed him over to the Americans, with the consequences indicated in my review. So The Pisan Cantos were born.

Back in Washington and arraigned for treason, he was acquitted on the grounds of insanity, and incarcerated. He was not insane of course; but the idea of executing a major American poet was an embarrassment, and Pound had to accept that he’d got off lightly. When The Pisan Cantos was awarded the Bollingen Prize there was outrage. Pound went on writing and holding court in his asylum ward and in the hospital grounds for twelve years, still pushing on with The Cantos, still making the same old mistakes. Released at last, he returned at once to Rapallo. As the ship entered the harbour at Naples he was photographed giving the Fascist salute. I suppose he didn’t want anyone to think he had softened or changed his ground.

I have sometimes sailed with Massimo Bacigalupo in Vagabonde III; and together we once hunted for, and found the site, in the countryside outside Pisa, of the U.S. Army detention centre where Pound was held. There is no sign of it now; but an elderly country woman told us how as a child she had seen the American prisoners and their guards behind the barbed wire and heard the shouted orders from the parade ground. In the distance we could see the Leaning Tower. It was here Pound began to learn humility, to recognize fault in himself, and to put it on record.

What thou lovest well remains,
                                 The rest is dross
What thou lovest well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lovest well is thy true heritage
[...]
The ant’s a centaur in his dragon world.
Pull down thy vanity, it is not man
Made courage, or made order, or made grace,
                    Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down.
Learn of the green world what can be thy place
In scaled invention or true artistry.
The green casque has outdone your elegance.
[...]
Thou art a beaten dog beneath the hail,
A swollen magpie in a fitful sun,
Half black half white
Nor knowst ‘ou wing from tail
Pull down thy vanity
                    How mean thy hates
Fostered in falsity,
                    Pull down thy vanity
Rathe to destroy, niggard in charity
Pull down thy vanity
                    I say pull down.

In his last years Pound lamented of The Cantos, ‘I cannot make it cohere’. He stopped writing, and for the most part stopped talking. The Beat poet Allen Ginsberg visited him in Venice. In a hesitant conversation he told Ginsberg and his friend Michael Reck, ‘At seventy I realized that instead of being a lunatic I was a moron.’ He said his whole project had been spoiled by bad intentions. ‘But the worst mistake I made was the stupid suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism.’

Of The Cantos he said, ‘Basil Bunting told me there was too little presentation and too much reference.’ If I had read that at the time I was writing my book on him I might have used it as an epigraph, because it is the whole drift of my argument and analysis – that it’s the overweight of reference, of research, of ‘discoveries’, that swamps and conceals the wonderful clarity, the vision and energy, which nonetheless surface at intervals, and not only in the Pisan sequence.

Ginsberg asked whether Pound would accept the blessing of a ‘Jewish Buddhist’. Ezra hesitated, but then agreed, and was blessed.

In 1965, when T.S. Eliot died, Pound, who always referred to T.S.E. as ‘Old Possum’, came to London for the memorial service and was to be seen, old and wrinkled but still bright-eyed, scuttling in and out of Westminster Abbey where it was held. He asked, ‘Who is there now to share a joke with?’ By now the marriage to Dorothy was long over and he spent his last years with Olga who survived him. He died in 1972 and was buried in Venice.

– C.K. Stead

(This blog will also appear in my new book, Shelf Life: reviews, replies and reminiscences, to be published by Auckland University Press on 21 June, 2016.)

Shakespeare in Auckland

Recently in Auckland we’ve had the ‘pop-up Globe’ (a replica of the Globe at London’s South Bank, which is in turn a replica of the Globe playhouse as it was when Shakespeare wrote for it) putting on nine Shakespeare productions. It has been a huge success, 100 000 tickets sold, 20 000 school children entertained and excited, and the season extended two or three times to accommodate demand. This is something I applaud and approve of, and I hope we will see more of this Anthony Harper company, even if my remarks below about a particular production are in certain respects negative.

I saw only one of their productions, Twelfth Night, the comedy in which twins, Sebastian and Viola, thought to be lost at sea in a shipwreck, both survive, though separately, each thinking the other must be dead, and come ashore in Illyria, in the fiefdom of the Duke Orsino, who is currently being spurned in love by the Lady Olivia.

Viola disguised for her own protection as a man, is employed as a courtier in the service of the Duke, and falls in love with him. It is her job to make petitions to Olivia on Orsino’s behalf, which she does painfully but conscientiously. In Shakespeare’s day, when women were not permitted on the stage, this would involve a male actor playing the part of a woman pretending to be a man; and it is this element of ambiguity the Auckland production exploited, by having, as in the Elizabethan theatre, an all-male cast.

The effect was good and yet not good. It was hugely successful as entertainment, and the audience was fully engaged, interacting directly with the cast in the way the design of the Globe theatre makes possible. But as something of a purist in these matters, I felt the performance was a travesty of Shakespeare’s text, which depends, as almost everything does in his work (and as a song in this play makes clear), on the distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’.

Dr Johnson says of Twelfth Night, ‘this play is in the graver part elegant and easy; and in some of its lighter scenes exquisitely humorous.’ In this production there were no graver parts. Everything was made comic: it was all a hoot, a riot. So we got off at once on the wrong foot, beginning with the Duke’s romantic lines played, not as serious and deeply felt, but as the overblown and absurd maunderings of a very silly fellow:

If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it that, surfeiting
The appetite may sicken and so die.
That strain again, it had a dying fall:
O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour!

As I heard those opening lines delivered I said to the person next to me, ‘No, this is wrong’ – and it was. The Duke was played as a fool, lacking all gravitas, which soon made it difficult to understand Viola’s instant passion for him. Later in the play, when the missing brother Sebastian appears, he too was played as ridiculously comic, so Olivia’s falling in love accepting him as a substitute for his twin with whom she has first been enraptured, was equally incomprehensible. Of course there is a sense in which it is all absurd: this is romantic comedy. But that distinction between ‘high and low’, essential to the work as written, was erased.

There was brilliant use made of gay actors; but they were given licence to entertain, sometimes at the expense of the text. The least damage was done by the Viola, who in the role of a pretend-male courtier making an appeal to Olivia on behalf of the Duke, spoke his lines beautifully. Asked what he/she would do as petitioner for Olivia’s love, Viola replies that he/she would

Make me a willow cabin at your gate
And call upon my soul within the house;
Write loyal cantons of contemned love
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Halloo your name to the reverberate hills
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out “Olivia!” O, you should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth
But you should pity me.

These are resonant romantic lines only Shakespeare could write, and in kind not really matched in English until two centuries later; but to be received in the fullness of their eloquence they needed, not just excellent delivery, but a dramatic context making it possible to take them seriously.

Likewise the Olivia could and did speak his/her lines exquisitely. But he camped his part up extremely, as though the comedy derived from the historical accident that men had to play women’s roles, rather than from the actual human situation Shakespeare had developed from the story as found in his Italian source. So when we came to what should have been a step down to the low-life comic sub-plot of Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Ague-cheek and the trick they play on Malvolio, there was little sense of moving from high to low – only more of the same.

Of course one can go overboard for ‘poetry’, for Beauty with a big B, and produce another kind of Romantic extravagance. In other words the female roles can be sentimentalised, as it’s said they were in Victorian playhouses. But this is a play that contains linguistic riches that should not be squandered in noisy guffaws or blurred by over-acting. Once an audience is in a mood to laugh it’s easy to keep them laughing. But to run up and down the scale, from low hilarity to high seriousness, is a richer experience, and Shakespeare’s text provides the means for that. Viola, disguised as a young man, is telling and not telling the Duke Orsino that she loves him. The Duke says no woman’s love could match what he feels for Olivia.

Viola: My father had a daughter loved a man
As it might be perhaps, were I a woman,
I should your lordship.

Duke:                                  And what’s her history?
Viola: A blank, my Lord. She never told her love,
But let concealment like a worm in the bud
Feed on her damask cheek: she pined in thought,
And with a green and yellow melancholy
She sat like patience on a monument
Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?

One can certainly acknowledge that the audience was entertained and went home happy; but compared to what this text is capable of, they were sold short and the effect was shallow. These were fine actors; but it seemed they had been encouraged by their director in what the great Shakespearean Harley Granville-Barker would have called ‘dramatic bad manners’. They had not sufficiently respected the text.

A few days after I saw this production a piece by Paul Moon appeared in the NZ Herald suggesting that 400 years after Shakespeare’s death it was time to be ‘honest’ and acknowledge his ‘literary and cultural irrelevance’. So those of us who pretended to take his work seriously and to be enriched by it were, it seemed, dishonest.

Moon then posed three questions about Shakespeare: can you name 18 (roughly half) of his plays? Can you outline their plots? And can you describe a point of literary significance in each? He often (he told us) ‘slipped [these questions] into conversations’ and concluded, by the failure to receive full and correct answers, that ‘Shakespeare’s works are more honoured in the breach than the observance’. (Would you want him as a party guest at your place?)

Teachers, he goes on, are the ‘prime culprits in perpetrating the impression of Shakespeare’s ongoing relevance,’ requiring their classes to battle for weeks with ‘archaic language’, ‘puerile jokes’, and ‘verbiage’. He invites us to ‘pity the audiences – often dutiful parents or would-be aesthetes – sitting through Shakespeare enduring tortuous and practically meaningless lines.’ Finally Shakespearean ‘experts’ are mocked for careers built on ‘hyper-ventilated hyperbole’, ‘psycho-babble’ and other manifest absurdities.

It was difficult at first to be quite sure what the intention of this piece was, especially coming, as it did, when Auckland enthusiasm for Shakespeare was reaching a high point with the ‘pop-up Globe’ productions. This was a strange time to be expressing ‘pity’ for the audiences. Stranger still, the piece was larded with echoes of phrases from Shakespeare that have passed into common use – the ‘more honoured in the breach...’ one already quoted; then ‘all that glisters is not gold’; ‘dressed in a little brief authority’; ‘most ignorant of what he’s most assured’; and ‘though this be madness, yet there is method in it’ – two from Hamlet, two from Measure for Measure, and one from The Merchant of Venice. This led one letter writer to suggest the article must have been ironic rather than serious – but if that was Moon’s intention it was a massive miscalculation of tone; and in fact I’m sure it can only be read as meaning exactly what it says: Shakespeare is out of date and the fashion for his work is pretentious and insincere.

The quotations were there, I suspect, to show that Moon could quote with the best of us, but that he, knowledgeable about Shakespeare as those who failed his 3-question quiz were not, was nonetheless ‘honest’ enough to admit that ‘the Bard, as he is cloyingly referred to by some of his followers,’ has had his day.

There are of course linguistic problems with Shakespeare simply because the language has changed over 400 years, and goes on changing. Some words simply vanish from the lexicon; and reading him can be difficult, especially for the less well-educated and/or less linguistically nimble and talented. What is extraordinary, however, is how even a word now almost foreign in contemporary speech, and difficult to understand on the page, makes perfect sense when delivered from the stage, where context creates meaning. Shakespeare wrote always for the stage not the page, and there he is still unfailing.

Paul Moon is Professor of History at the Auckland University of Technology. Not everyone is gifted in language; but no one who has the gift can fail to respond to the riches Shakespeare’s work offers – to the sense of a brilliant mind working at a high pitch, almost creating the language as it goes, and with such a range of emotion, such human insight and compassion. Paul Moon illustrates that there must always be people, neither unintelligent nor lacking in usefulness, who lack some receptor mechanism essential to the appreciation of these great qualities. No one should ask of them what they have not the talent for; but nor should they try to redefine the study of English language and literature in a way more suitable to the limits of their abilities.

When that I was and a little tiny boy
        With a hey ho the wind and the rain
A foolish thing was but a toy
        For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came to man’s estate
        With a hey ho the wind and the rain
Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate
        For the rain it raineth every day.

– C.K. Stead

At Matahiwi

Matahiwi has been the focal point of the New Zealand poet laureateship since the honour was first established at the suggestion of John Buck and his Te Mata Vineyard roughly 20 years ago.  The laureate’s tokotoko (talking stick) has been carved, in all but one case, by Haumoana artist Jacob Scott, and presented with due ceremony at the marae.  

One off-shoot of this, important because of the award’s connection with the Te Mata estate, is that the laureate receives gifts of the finest Te Mata wines – a practice that took its idea from the British Poet Laureate’s receiving an annual ‘butt of sack’ (barrel of sherry). 
Group in front of the house, Te Mātau a Māui. Seated, Tom Mulligan on left, and CK Stead.

Matahiwi is a beautiful little marae a few kilometres out of Havelock North, down a long road, paved but hardly wider than one lane, and in countryside full of orchards and vineyards which at this time of year are in full glorious production.

Our group of marae visitors – the laureate and his family (a party of fourteen), three of the Laureate’s poet friends (Chris Price, Greg O’Brien and Paula Green), and students from local schools, and others, were led on to the marae with the usual exchange of karanga as we approached.  I was shepherded by Cellia Joe from the Alexander Turnbull Library, and our group was seated on one side of the wharenui, under a kind of porch, and on the other, under a matching porch, were the marae people, their kaumatua, Tom Mulligan, who made the welcoming speech in Māori and in English, staff from the ATL who had spent the night on the marae, Chris Szekely, the Chief Librarian, and Peter Ireland.

Lee Kershaw-Karaitiana spoke for the visitors, a speech in Māori of great forcefulness, eloquence, and (I detected – in the word rangatira) hyperbole when it came to the great worth of the person about to be honoured.

The visitors coming onto Matahiwi marae on Saturday morning. Poet Laureate CK Stead (white shoulder bag) walks beside Lee Kershaw-Karaitiana.
This exchange of greetings and compliments, each with the usual support-waiata, was followed by the hongi down the whole line, visitors and locals, a novel experience especially for my London-based grandchildren aged 10 and 13. 

The lead party (myself with Kay and our three children Oliver, Charlotte and Margaret, Chris Szekely, and my three invited poets) then moved on to the paepae.  The presentation of the tokotoko was preceded by a short extract from my poem SCORIA and a brief explanation of the carver’s thoughts and materials.  He had in mind, he said, that this was a stick for a ‘scholar and a gentleman’.  He had been working in South East Asia, and had taken his materials locally.  The wood is black ebony, hardwood, and the beautifully carved handle is of water buffalo bone, a smoky colour somewhere between white and cream.  There is a circle of silver below the handle and a silver ferrule.  My name and the date and details of the award are inscribed.  The whole effect is almost ‘old world’ and distinctly elegant. 

The tokotoko was blessed in a beautiful oration/poem in Māori by Ngatai Huata, who towards the end of her reading involved the whole gathering calling on us to follow her in repeating its final phrases, and describing the position of laureate as one awarded to a person who was toi kupu rongonui.  This I felt was another great honour.  Kia ora Ngatai!
            
In making my speech of thanks, I regretted my lack of reo Māori, but I saluted the marae, its wharenui which takes its name (and the carving over our heads) from the hook (Te Mātau) with which Maui dragged up the land under our feet.  I saluted the ancestors of Ngati Hawea, and the people themselves.  I acknowledged and thanked John Buck and Te Mata, the Alexander Turnbull Library, Kay and our three children and their partners, and our seven grandchildren, six of whom were present; and then also my fellow poets, two of whom, Chris and Greg, had been in my Creative Writing class at the University of Auckland (its first) in 1984.  All I could claim about them was that they had arrived with what seemed fully formed talents, and that they left after a year with talent intact and undamaged.  They have since gone on to publish outstanding collections of poems, and both made their mark as arts administrators.  Likewise my fellow Aucklander, Paula, has published fine collections, and beyond that has played a significant part as an educator, both through her poetry blog, and as a visitor to schools.  Cumulatively these three have done massive work for the cause of poetry in New Zealand over the past two or more decades, and I felt my hand as laureate was immensely strengthened by their presence.

Poets and family on the paepae. From left: Poet Laureate CK Stead  (holding his new tokotoko) and his wife Kay, Oliver Stead, and Paula Green.
The tokotoko, I felt, required me to introduce myself in terms of place – my whenua – so I did that: ‘Ko Karl Stead, no Maungawhau, me Tamaki-Makau-Rau – ahau.’  Poetry is almost always regional; it belongs to, or at least has beginnings in, one place.  There is something mysterious and magical about the location where words and things first come together for the child and begin to make language.  Jim Baxter said for him it was a beach south of Dunedin. When poetry failed him he had only to return there, in fact or in imagination, and the fountain would flow again.  No matter how much you travel and how wide your range of ‘subjects’ may become, that place, where language began and the verbal imagination first took root, is your whenua.

Where I grew up there were three principal maunga in sight – the nearest, ‘in your face’ so to speak, was Maungawhau; to the east was Maungakiekie, and to the west Owairaka. We had Pakeha names for them – Mt Eden, One Tree Hill (which should now be No Tree Hill thanks to Mike Smith’s chainsaw vandalism), and Mount Albert.  But the Māori element persisted.  My primary school was Maungawhau.  My secondary school was Mt Albert Grammar but the suburb (its name up on the front of the trams) was Owairaka.  And if you wanted to get to the parkland around One Tree Hill you could go via Maungakiekie Avenue.  I knew the Māori form of the name Auckland was Akarana; and that the Ngati Whatua knew the region between the two harbours, Waitemata and Manukau, as Tamaki-Makau-Rau.  That was popularly translated as ‘the place of a thousand lovers’.   But as I grew older and learned a little of our pre-history I realised that the aroha was not just of the people for one another.  It was for the place – the region, the isthmus – a place worth fighting for and fighting over.  Those three maunga of my childhood, with their characteristic indentations, were defended pa.  They were warrior sites; from time to time war zones.

Some of this I said in my speech; and I suggested that the same aroha expressed itself now in high house prices and gridlock at rush hours.  We were the place of a 1.5 million lovers; but it was still my whenua – the place where my imagination had taken root and sometimes had taken flight.
Left to right: Musician Robbie Duncan, poets Chris Price, CK Stead, Paula Green and Greg O’Brien at Poets’ Night Out.
I began writing poems at the age of about fourteen; and though I have gone on to write short stories, a dozen novels, literary journalism, academic studies of poets and poetry, even a couple of movie scripts, I have always come back to poetry.  Poems can be simple and beautiful, or complex and difficult; they can be the result of hard work, or occasionally of ‘inspiration’; but however they arrive, poetry can never be described as ‘easy’.  It is the most challenging, the most demanding, but also the most satisfying of literary forms.  Language is what distinguishes us, the human race, on our planet; and poetry at its best is language at its best – the fullest expression of that humanity.

That is why this welcome on the marae, the presentation of the tokotoko and all it symbolised, seemed to me a wonderful moment at this late (and no doubt last) stage of my career as a writer.  I was immensely honoured and touched – and I’m sure everyone could see that I was.

My son Oliver, who is also a curator at the Alexander Turnbull Library, sang a powerful waiata, and that brought the presentation part of the morning to an end.        

What came next was organised by Marti Smith, a local poet and school teacher.  There were readings from each of the four poets (Chris Price accompanied on the guitar by her partner Robbie Duncan), and then performances of high quality – singing, violin, and guitar – from students at local schools.  There was also a poem from a local student (she was absent, ill, but a school friend read it for her) which she had written, it was said, in protest at the idea that a laureate might be required to write poems to meet public occasions (something the New Zealand laureate is not in fact required to do, though he/she might choose to).  The image was of a bird, and the poem asked did it need to be taught to fly, or does it just fly because it’s a bird?  This struck me more as a telling rejection of the idea that the writing of poetry can be ‘taught’ than of the idea that poems can be written to order.  Poets write poems because they are poets, just as birds fly because they are birds: this was the message, I thought, and effective as an argument because the poem itself was so graceful, so beautifully turned.
The crowd of 150 for Poets’ Night Out at the Havelock North Function Centre.
Then came an excellent and generous marae lunch, with Te Mata wines. 
The afternoon was free.  Some slept, others climbed Te Mata Peak.  In the early evening we all ate at the Pipi café whose owner, Alexandra Tylee, is a poet and poetry aficionado.  From 7.30, at the Havelock North Function Centre, I read with Chris (accompanied by Robbie again), Greg and Paula, an event publicised as Poets’ Night Out.  We were supported by the wonderful voices of Taylor Wallbank, Emanuel Fuimoano and LJ Crichton, three students aged 17 and 16 who are products of Anna Pierard’s Project Prima Volta. The boys gave a sort of ‘Three Tenors’ opera performance and a display of great talent for the future.  

Marty Smith was M.C. for this reading which had been organised by the Writers in Wineries Charitable Trust, a group mainly of women – writers, booksellers, librarians. 

Next morning we returned to the marae for poroporoaki and breakfast, more speeches, and a general reflective and grateful korero.  Talking to Tom Mulligan I was struck by how pleased he was that all my whanau had come back for breakfast.  This, even more than their presence at the event itself it seemed, signalled our warmth and gratitude and that the role of the marae in the whole process of the Laureateship had been taken seriously, as indeed it had.
                                                                                                        
                                                                                                                         - C.K. Stead
   Images by Joan McCracken and Lynette Shum


For other inside view of these events see

Big Spender and little Matthew

The big Spender I have in mind is Stephen, poet and man of letters, international conferencer and literary big wig; and I call him big Spender, not because he ever had much money, apart from a modest private income on which he seemed to get by without paid employment as a young man, but because of his stature, 6 foot 3 – not so very tall these days, but exceptionally so when he was young.  In the famous pictures of him with his contemporaries, W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, he towers over them. My first sight of him was in June 1965 in the foyer of the Globe Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue, London (not to be confused with the modern replica of Shakespeare’s Globe on the South Bank) at a commemoration of T.S. Eliot who had died in January of that year.  It was an extraordinary theatrical homage, involving music by Stravinsky, poems chosen by Auden, Groucho Marx reading from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, Andrey Voznesensky reading his own, Henry Moore represented by an immense marble sculpture creaking around on a revolving stage, Cleo Lane and Johnny Dankworth doing Sweeney Agonistes, readings of Eliot poems by Peter O’Toole, Paul Scofield, Laurence Olivier...   And there in the foyer was big Spender, his rather fine head above the crowd.

I stared at him because he had figured in my consciousness since poetry had made its surprising intrusion into my life while I was still a Grammar school boy.  Not that I thought of Spender, in 1965 or even earlier, as one of ‘the truly great’ (to use the phrase a poem of his had made famous, and slightly infamous); but he had mixed with them, thought about them (he told us) ‘continually’, had figured in their lives, had always and everywhere seemed part of the contemporary poetry scene; and so it was not just unsurprising but right that he should be present at this ‘momentous occasion’.  And that’s what the death of Eliot was said to be – ‘momentous’, ‘the end of an era’.  Eliot had dominated the Anglophone literary world for three or four decades, both as poet and as critic, and there was no one of similar stature to replace him.

 As a student I had bought Spender’s autobiography, World within World (which typically he had written at the age of 42); and I had even bought a book of his poems (I could ill-afford either) Ruins and Visions, which recounted the painful ending of his first marriage.  He had a talent for representing his own shames and failures, which appealed to a young, shy and constantly embarrassed poet; and humiliation was what he had suffered constantly in the presence of the magisterial young Auden, his contemporary at Oxford.  In World within World he describes showing some of his poems to Auden and being told that he was now ‘one of the Gang’ and that he must write ‘nothing but poetry’.

This remark produced in me a choking moment of hope mingled with despair in which I cried, ‘But do you think I am any good?’  ‘Of course,’ he replied frigidly.  ‘But why?’  ‘Because you are so infinitely capable of being humiliated.  Art is born of humiliation.’

 The autobiography was also unusual in that it was frank about his emotional attachments to men, but without ever suggesting (or denying either) that these might involve physical love-making.  So Spender was generally thought of, when he was discussed among literary people, as ‘bi’, having a foot in both camps – and with his second marriage to the pianist Natasha Litvin and the birth of their two children, Matthew and Lizzie, the ‘gay’ phase was supposed to  be over.  That, anyway, was the story that Natasha promoted and Stephen did not discourage, while unsubstantiated gossip constantly suggested otherwise.

Stephen’s early fame came as one of the group of new young Leftist poets of the 1930s – the MacSpaunday group the South African-born poet Roy Campbell mockingly called them – Auden, Spender, Cecil Day Lewis, and Louis MacNeice.  They were also known as the Pylon Poets because of their very conscious inclusion in their poems of the ‘unpoetic’ features of modern industrial landscapes and cityscapes.  It was clear to me early on that Spender’s talent as a poet was rather fragile, and that the more (in differing ways) robust Auden and MacNeice were more notable.  But Spender had that talent for always being a part of the significant scene; and a fellow student and I  used to play her 78 rpm disks of him reading some of his early and famous poems – ‘I think continually of those who are truly great’, ‘Landscape near an aerodrome’, ‘The Express’, ‘Thoughts during an air raid’.  I liked his delicate, rather posh voice.  He lacked the authority of Auden or MacNeice, but he had sensitivity, and sounded like someone you might like in person.

Many years later I did meet him.  First it was at lunch with Alan Ross, editor of the London Magazine, and later through the Australian comic actor Barry Humphries, a friend of many years, whose fourth wife was Stephen’s daughter Lizzie, who had her father’s blonde hair, blue eyes and stature.  In those years I was a visitor to London, but a frequent visitor, and after the late 1970s a year never passed without my being there for a month or two, sometimes more.  The lunches with Alan Ross were very literary, very civilised, pasta usually, and always with an Italian fizzy wine, Lambrusco, which Ross favoured.  Two or three times Stephen came too, and Alan asked me to write an essay about him for the magazine.  I did that, but found it difficult.  How did one convey (to put the difficulty with less subtlety than was called for) that a poet was important even though none of his poems was very good?

What I did was to first tell a (true) story.  I described finding myself in autumn in Germany, in the peculiarly redolent literary atmosphere of the forest-park around the tower where the poet Hőlderlin had been incarcerated for 35 years, and being invaded there by the feeling that I was ‘inside literature’.  At first I was not able to pin-point what this feeling meant.

Then it occurred to me that what I was feeling was that I was inside a poem by Stephen Spender, one which, like the very best of his poems, has never been written.

To this I added a reminiscence of walking in a London street with Christopher MacLehose and being stopped by Christopher’s friend, the Liberal Peer Mark Bonham-Carter, who wanted to show us a little book he had just acquired.  He put the book down on the nearest car bonnet which at once set off its alarm; but Bonham-Carter, undeterred, simply moved on up the street, away from the racket, and tried again.  The book was the list of people, drawn up by the German SS, of those who were to be summarily dealt with when England was invaded; and there, among the names marked for death, in black German Gothic, was Steffan Spender.  It seemed to mark out his importance – that even the potential invader should know about him and want to be rid of him.  What we learn now, from his son Matthew’s book (see below) is that Stephen had anticipated this and had a suicide plan: if the Germans occupied England he would simply swim out to sea until exhausted, and drown.
       
I don’t know what Spender thought of an article which praised him for the poems he had not written rather than those he had, but much worse had been said about him, and my article also acknowledged his affirmative temperament, his humour, above all his honesty and accuracy, equally in describing what  he saw and what he felt.  Not a great poet, I implied, but an important observer, an identity and a presence for poetry in the world.
        
The reason for the second half of my title is that ‘little Matthew’ has long since grown up and is the sculptor Matthew Spender who lives and works in Tuscany, has written an excellent book, Inside Tuscany, and has now published a book about his parents, A House in St John’s Wood.  It is a subject which interests me especially because Kay and I spent a few weeks in that house, 15 Loudoun Road, as house sitters.  It was in 1992 when an unwelcome biography of Stephen by Hugh David was published and Natasha rang saying, ‘We’re having a besiege!’ and asking would we occupy the house and keep it safe while she and Stephen escaped to their retreat in rural France.  The rather dilapidated rented house in Loudoun Road, which they had occupied for decades, had many valuable works of art and famous archives.  It had an alarm system linked to the local police station (as I discovered when I accidentally triggered it), but they felt it was safer if there were people in constant occupation, and their usual house-sitters were away.  We were glad to fill this role.  In fact it was to be my joke that I’d spent the night of my 60th birthday in Stephen Spender’s bed, but with Kay not with Stephen.
        
The ‘besiege’ Natasha spoke of was by journalists wanting to ask them about this new biography which the Spenders, Natasha in particular, thought had unfairly focussed on the homosexual aspect of Stephen’s life.  In fact Natasha wrote a long complaining piece  about this in the TLS – a mistake, I suspect, because it only drew more attention to the subject she wanted swept under the carpet, increasing the intensity of the besiege; also because the book itself is surprisingly cautious on that subject and pays fulsome tribute to Stephen’s family life with Natasha.
        
Matthew Spender’s book is not a defence of family honour on this question, nor an upholding of Stephen’s heterosexuality.  It is, rather, a truthful account of growing up in a family where the father’s more or less continuing homosexuality is denied by the mother, and not to be spoken about.  ‘Willpower on her part,’ Matthew writes, and ‘good manners on his, papered over the cracks’.  Stephen’s sexuality is not the sole subject of the book, which is a broad and honest account of a childhood that was by no mean blighted or unhappy, but was, at least in this respect, distinctly odd.  There is much in it that is colourful and full of interesting people – Auden for example, ‘oracular’ at the dinner table and smoking between courses; Stephen in argument with William Empson and throwing a glass of wine over him; Natasha’s ‘non-sexual’ love affair with Raymond Chandler;  Louis MacNeice, ‘tall and pale’, arriving at the house to meet Auden, who had been waiting for hours; Chester Kallman’s ‘disbelief in heterosexual love’ and its consequent absence from the libretto of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress; Auden weeping as Chester went off in pursuit of a beautiful young man.
        
The book also reveals a lot about Natasha’s life as a concert pianist, its slow decline and gradual replacement, in later years, by her studies in the theory of aesthetic response (aural perception in particular), a subject she became expert in and taught at the Royal College of Art.  She also turned their French rural retreat, Mas St Jerome at Maussane-les-Alpilles, into a thing of beauty and wrote an excellent and beautifully illustrated book about creating the garden there with the necessary assistance of a very deep well and consequent water supply.  Matthew reveals how little Stephen noticed or interested himself in these accomplishments.  He was the poet and man of letters, and their public world revolved around him while in private he still fell in love with younger men.
        
Matthew has had access to Natasha’s journals as well as Stephen’s; and what emerges early is Natasha’s naïve idealism about their future together despite all that Stephen had told her about his past.  This is not so odd in itself as is her persistence with the fiction right through to their old age.  Stephen was not gay; or if he was, you shouldn’t say so.  Primarily he was a loving heterosexual husband and father.          

There are also glimpses, and sometimes details, of Stephen’s involvement in matters of literary and publishing politics – his editing of Encounter, for example, and the scandal when it emerged that it was secretly funded by the CIA as a cultural weapon in the Cold War.  Had Stephen known – or not?  Matthew appears undecided about this.  And the power of Stephen’s influence: ‘all he had to do was pick up the phone to a publisher,’ an aspiring writer told Matthew, ‘and a contract appeared.’
        
The boy Matthew agonised over the question of whether his father was, as his school mates said, a member of the British Establishment.  Clearly he was, but the young Matthew disliked the idea and wrote Stephen ‘a bitter letter’ from school when he accepted a knighthood.  Stephen wrote ‘an extraordinary reply’.  Life, he told his son, was ‘very much like school.  Sooner or later one had to join the Sixth Form.  Most of his friends were in the Sixth form already.’  And he listed various friends who were knights, and asked, ‘What’s wrong with that?’ – adding (cunningly Matthew says) that the boy should ‘think of the pleasure it would give’ his mother.
        
Matthew was still very young when he began living with Maro, daughter of the painter Arshile Gorky, and they moved to Tuscany, so his separation from his parents – from Natasha particularly, who could not get on with or approve of Maro – was considerable.  This book is his way, I suppose, of reclaiming them.
       
I last saw Stephen the Sunday night, 9 July 1995, exactly a week before he died.  I had dinner, at a restaurant called Caprice, with Stephen and Natasha, Barry and Lizzie – just the five of us.  I was in London on my way to an Ezra Pound conference in the beautiful little medieval town of Brantome in France, where I would see Pound’s opera Le Testament de Villon performed in a cave.  When Stephen died, suddenly and unexpectedly, Barry rang my daughter Charlotte, who was living in London at the time, asking her to pass the news on to me and suggest I call him, which I did.  He no doubt had many people to call, but it was clear he thought I would want to know and to come back for the funeral.  I pleaded conference commitments – there were things I didn’t want to miss.
        
Opera or obsequies, Ezra Pound in a Brantome cave, or the funeral of big Spender – it was difficult, and on reflection I think I probably made the wrong choice.
                                                                                                                        C.K. Stead

A Circle of Laureates

A Writers Week special event for the New Zealand Festival

This event was held at the National Library of New Zealand, on Friday 11 March 2016
The National Library and Te Mata Estate Winery co-hosted this evening of poetry from our nine Poets Laureate. The Laureates were joined by Rob Tuwhare - son of the second Te Mata Laureate, Hone Tuwhare – who read his father’s work, and thereby completed the Laureate circle.


MC Fergus Barrowman directed proceedings and a full house of 200 gave Laureates Bill Manhire, Elizabeth Smither, Brian Turner, Jenny Bornholdt, Michele Leggott, Cilla McQueen, Ian Wedde, Vincent O’Sullivan, Rob Tuwhare and current Laureate CK Stead, their rapt attention for more than two hours.

Read Poet Paula Green’s lyrical response to the evening
See more photos from the event on the National Library's Facebook page

A Circle of Laureates was recorded for RNZ National, the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre and the National Library.


Laureates and audience – from left: MC Fergus Barrowman, Vincent O’Sullivan, Ian Wedde, CK Stead, Cilla McQueen, Michele Leggott, Jenny Bornholdt, Elizabeth Smither and Brian Turner.

Time to get serious

I apologise in advance for this blog which is rather remorselessly technical; but it may be interesting at least to some readers of poetry; and these are matters which teachers and students in Creative Writing classes should certainly consider from time to time.

In a recent issue of his journal Areté Craig Raine has an article about ‘the line’ in poetry, arguing that it is the basic unit of meaning, and that it sets a pattern against which the deviations essential to a work of art are measured.  This is one of those important subjects poets do, or certainly should, think about constantly, but seldom write about because so much is dependent on instinct, and it’s so very hard to make and defend rules.  It is brave of Raine to have a shot at it.
            My response is the Leavisite one: ‘Yes, but…’

My first reservation is that he puts too much emphasis on the iambus – the da dum metre.  When I was young I quickly decided that the basic unit of English poetry was the pentameter – five stresses, which the line did not encourage you to speak as if they were iambics, though historically they mostly were.  There is a brief period when the iambus rules, and you hear the da dum drum beating – in Dryden and Pope, in Dr Johnson – but that historical phase passes quickly.  Before and after, while observing the iambic in writing, poets invite you to ignore it in the reading – or at most to hear it only as a ghostly presence, a ghostly absence.  The measures are there; but you are not asked to hear them, or sound them in reading.

 Ben Jonson said ‘Donne for not keeping of accent deserved hanging.’  What did he mean by this?  Only that in reading his poems you have to ignore, forget, pass over, what the poet has not ignored in the writing.  Donne’s discipline in ‘A Nocturnal upon St Lucy’s Day’ is extraordinary – five 9-line stanzas, each rhyming abbacccdd, and with the lines being, in order, 2 pentameters, 2 tetrameters, 1 trimeter, and 4 pentameters.    


            Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,
            Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks,    
                 The sun is spent, and now his flasks  
                 Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;          
                            The world’s whole sap is sunk:
            The general balm th’hydroptic earth hath drunk,
            Whither, as to the bed’s-feet, life is shrunk,
            Dead and interred; yet all these seem to laugh
            Compar’d with me, who am their epitaph.                        

Keats’s Nightingale ode is 8 stanzas of 10 lines, all iambic pentameters except the 8th, a trimeter, and rhyming ababcdecde; but to read them as you would read lines by Pope would sound artificial and absurd.*

            My heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains
                    My sense as though of hemlock I had drunk,
            Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
                    One minute past and Lethe-wards had sunk:
            Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
                    But being too happy in thine happiness –
            That thou, light-wingèd Dryad of the trees,
                                In some melodious plot
            Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
            Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

When it comes to the 20th century there is a general freeing up. In the 1950s the idea of speech stresses was common.  The basic line was still the pentameter, but you counted, not iambic feet, but where you felt the speech stress fell.  The lines were mostly pentameters, but could move around rather loosely between three, four and five stresses.
And then there was Ezra Pound, whose case Raine avoids altogether.  Pound said, ‘to break the pentameter – that was the first heave’ (Canto LXXXI).  He doesn’t say ‘the iambic pentameter’.  It was the norm of the five stress line that he felt was constructing and had to be broken.  Pound did it by a general looseness, the rule of instinct, and even of lawlessness, rather than the rule of law – insubordination of the kind which Donald Davie, who thought he was England’s advocate for Pound, nonetheless deplored as a symptom of social and even moral decay.

            The enormous tragedy of the dream in the peasant’s
            bent shoulders
            Manes! Manes was tanned and stuffed,
            Thus Ben and la Clare a Milano
                             by the heels at Milano
            That maggots shd/ eat the dead bullock
            […]                        but the twice crucified
                                         where in history will you find it?
            yet say to the Possum: a bang, not a whimper
                 with a bang not with a whimper,
            To build the city of Dioce whose terraces are the colour of
                                                                                         stars.

            The suave eyes, quiet, not scornful,
                                         Rain also is of the process.
            What you depart from is not the way
            and olive tree blown white in the wind
            washed in the Kiang and Han
            what whiteness will you add to this whiteness,
                                                                 what candour?

It is not only the iambus that is gone; so is the pentameter.  Craig Raine would probably say the line is still there – and that that was his point; and it’s true that the lines and the line-breaks in that passage, and probably in most of Pound, are important.
            But Raine’s article makes an exception to his rule that the line must be a unit of sense.  His exception is W.C. Williams famous ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’:

            so much depends
            upon

            the red wheel
            barrow

            glazed with rain
            water

            beside the white
            chickens

(He suggests, cleverly, that each of these pairs is visually – i.e. in its shape – a wheelbarrow.) I think if you make one exception there will always be more.  It is easy to find an absurd example, as he does, of Robert Creeley’s strung out poems; but not difficult, to find one that works.

            OUT THE WINDOW: TAYLOR’S MISTAKE
            Silver
            lifting
            light –

            mist’s
            faintness.

The point here perhaps, as with the Williams wheelbarrow, is the direction, down the page.  That is another kind of ‘poem’ – the kind that races over the line and achieves an onward momentum by not allowing the line to be the unit of sense, but part of a larger sense which won’t allow it to stop.

I remember asking myself why James K. Baxter’s open (unrhymed) sonnets were spaced out in couplets when there was nothing, neither rhyme nor the run of sense, that made it necessary or was advanced by it.  It was a form he took from Lawrence Durrell; and I decided it was just a matter of eye-and-mind, to make the reader take the poem more slowly and consider the words more carefully.  Fourteen unrhymed lines hunched up on a page are not encouraging.  They don’t invite, or suggest, an open mind or a relaxed discourse.  Spread out, even in pairs which are otherwise lacking any particular utility, they are more inviting. And for the reader to be puzzled, asking, ‘Why these breaks?’ and finding no obvious answer, is keeping attention longer and more carefully focussed.

Slowness or speed – the spacing can collaborate with either, and affect the sense; which is why Anne Carson, in another example Raine offers, has breaks which (he complains) are ‘arbitrary’.  Arbitrariness is a little assault on the reader, like a nudge – or even an elbow-jolt.  It’s uncomfortable not to be able to cite a rule, or at least a reason, why something is as it is, and why it works or doesn’t; but that, I think, is what poetry has become.  More, it is what it has always been.  Criticism, saying and showing why poems work or don’t work, was always a matter of preferences dressed up in the uniform of authority.  The critic succeeds, not by being ‘right’ (any fool can be right) but by persuasion.  You like it?  Try to tell me why, and I will try to tell you why I don’t.

Discussing the Carson example Raine says it may seem stuffy to object – ‘a bit like faulting Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings.’  But his way around this is to reiterate his basic point, as if by simple repetition its truth is established:

            But the line is the fundamental unit of poetry.  The line is the steering wheel that
            harnesses the Pegasus power of poetry.  You can’t give up the steering wheel,
            you can’t relinquish control completely.

It is so because it is so; and there’s a slip into analogies-and-assertions in combo – the line is like the steering wheel in the car, and we all know how important that is!  To me these statements are very nearly meaningless.  As for the Pollock analogy, it deserves better consideration than the aside it gets: ‘I’m with Giacometti, who characterized Abstract Expressionism as “l’art du mouchoir”’.

One element in the making of modern poems which Raine doesn’t mention is syllabics – something Auden learned, I think, from Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop.  In About the House, the poems he wrote to celebrate his enormous satisfaction in at last achieving home ownership, Auden offers a sequence of chatty introductions, one poem to each room.  ‘This egocentric monologue’ he calls the one addressed to the ghost of Louis MacNeice, about the room in which his writing was done – ‘The Cave of Making’.

                                                     After all it’s rather a privilege
                 amid the affluent traffic
            to serve this unpopular art which cannot be turned into
                 background noise for study
            or hung as a status trophy by rising executives,
                 cannot be ‘done’ like Venice
            or abridged like Tolstoy, but stubbornly still insists upon
                 being read or ignored: our handful
            of clients at least can rune.

The syllable count is loose, but throughout quite a long poem it roughly alternates 15 and 8, producing, not a sense of form so much as an amble – a passeggiata as untidy as the man himself, and as interestingly full of quirky information.  I think syllabic poems of this kind challenge Raine’s idea of the line as the unit of sense.  It runs on like prose, and the sense runs with it.  If we apprehend it as poetry, that has little or nothing to do with the line, and depends on distinction in the language, the grammar and syntax, on wit and intelligence, and on the sense of compression and linguistic economy.  Yes it could all be written as prose, and no that would not be the same; so the fact that it is ‘in lines’ is important – but that is not the same as saying ‘the line’ is the ‘unit of sense’.  If there is anything of primary importance it is the forward momentum, grammatical and syntactical: in other words, the writing.

It will be useful here if I take an example from my own work, because I can explain the thinking behind it.  In my novel My name was Judas I made Judas a poet, and each chapter ends with a poem which in some degree reiterates what has just happened, but also adds to it and sometimes reflects on it.  For each of these I used a form I’d used a few times before, the three-line thirteen syllable tercet.  This meant the individual lines varied in length, but each three line group added up to thirteen syllables.  I had thought of putting a tercet at the front of the book which would explain, or excuse, the form, but decided against it, hoping someone might arrive at it without prompting.  So far as I know only one person did – Professor Mac Jackson who is also an expert on Shakespeare’s sonnets.  The key was going to be

            Thirteen syllables
            because there were
            thirteen of us.

which is, of course, itself thirteen syllables, the number of Jesus and his twelve disciples.  Here is the poem* at the end of chapter 4, in which the boy Jesus, visiting the Temple in Jerusalem, is given the opportunity to offer a pigeon for sacrifice, but at the last moment, when he is supposed to utter the prescribed prayer and hand the bird to the Levite ready with the knife, he releases it, saying that was what Yahweh instructed him to do:

            In the beginning
            was the word, the
            sentence, the text

            that made of the
            pigeon a paradigm
            of the soul

            and gave to
            the stone he held the
            light of the divine.

            He was his own
            first convert, able
            to see himself

            burning, bathed
            in the white fire of
            the noun and the verb.

There are two complete sentences here.  The poem could, of course, be set out as five 13-syllable lines, but that would have a different effect and still not alter my argument.  It is not the line as unit that matters here but the sense of a march of meaning down the page.  That was the effect I was most conscious of in writing these poems – that I was working always for economy, for a movement of sense ahead, and that the syllable count forced me to consider every word and every alternative way of making the same sense – not line by line, not even thirteen by thirteen, but sentence by sentence, and as a poem.

Postscript:  Craig Raine is an old friend and when I sent him this piece he protested that I had not done justice to his argument – indeed, that I had misrepresented it.  I wanted to add his protest (and anything further he had to say) to the blog, but he wouldn’t allow that because it ‘had not been written for publication’.  So I simply record here that that is what he felt, and leave the reader to discover exactly what he said in Areté itself, in issue 48, Winter 2015.  In any case, whether fair to Raine or not, it seems to me what I wrote here about poetic form and the poetic line is of interest without reference to what triggered it.  These are matters that should be thought about consciously by anyone/everyone who aspires to write poetry.  If you think you can get away with writing stuff that doesn’t go all the way to the edge of the page, but without giving matters of poetic form and its history a thought, you are deluding yourself and should try something else – singing in the bath, for example.

Areté has a surprising range of top contributors, the result partly of Raine’s network of connections dating from the time when he was Faber’s poetry editor, and equally from his many friends in the British literary and academic community.  He has been a don at Oxford during the past decade or more, and has recently retired but is still a Fellow of New College.  If you wish to subscribe to Areté, or persuade your librarian to subscribe, it can be ordered on line at www.aretemagazine.com  

The address is Areté Magazine, New College, 8 New College Lane, OXFORD OX1 3BN, U.K.

And a note to Auckland readers: Dean Parker’s play POLO, currently on at the Sky City Theatre, is not just a left-liberal satirical romp with side-swipes at Judith Collins and the National Party, but more than that – a comedy that becomes a poem about Auckland, a sort of love lyric to our city, whimsical and in the end quite moving.

                                                                                                            C.K. Stead

* Oddly there is one irregularity – the last line of stanza 2 is inexplicably an alexandrine.
* ‘The stone he held’ is a reference back to something earlier in the chapter, where the boy Jesus gives an impromptu sermon on a stone,