Vince O’Sullivan’s final laureate blog was about his discovery of the poetry of Iain Lonie, and the launch of Lonie’s Collect Poems by University of Otago Press in Dunedin, and how good the poems were – so for the sake of continuity I will begin there. I knew Lonie many years ago and have a brief piece about him coming in a collection of essays, lectures, reviews and reminiscences to be published next year by Auckland University Press with the title Shelf Life. The piece in question is about my time as lecturer in English at the University of New England, N.S.W., where Lonie lectured in the Classics Department. The year was 1958 and it was my first academic job. Here it is:
Armidale fostered friendships of a strange kind, sometimes so intense they could seem, however briefly, like falling in love. One was with a young poet Iain Lonie, my exact contemporary, a New Zealander and Oxford graduate, lecturer in Classics, who translated Euripides’ Alcestis and persuaded me to put the choruses into semi-formal verse, which he didn’t feel he could do himself. He had a wife, Jean, and a number of children, but Kay and I saw little of them – only Iain himself; and I remember the three of us spending a long evening together which we enjoyed so much we were reluctant to end it. So in the small hours we walked him home from our flat to his, and then, still not ready to go our separate ways, he walked back with us, came in for another drink and more talk, after which we walked him home a second time as the first signs of daylight were just creeping into the cold sky.
Our version of Alcestis was performed by the University Players in the Armidale Town Hall, and later a version of it was broadcast by the A.B.C. [Two of these choruses survive in my Collected Poems, 1951-2006, pp 24, and 511.]
Iain was always uncertain about his poems, and slow in writing them, but his poetry mattered to him more than anything; and he wrote to me from Sydney, after getting an appointment there, to say that my encouragement had set him writing again. In the same letter he sent ten of the forty guineas the A.B.C. had paid for our play, money which he needed more than I did, and which was much more than my fair share of the work. But still he had little success with poems offered to literary journals. His first marriage foundered, and his second ended tragically with the sudden death of the new wife. He lived on for a few years after that, writing poems about grief and loss, and then in 1988 killed himself. His best book, Winter Walk at Morning, was published posthumously.
There is no time when I don’t have a poem lying about in notebook drafts or in my head, and I’m wondering whether the one below, which for the moment I’ve called ‘Europe’, works – or whether I have so reduced it (on the old economy principle that less is more) at too high a cost.
These are just shoes, but cast in iron
and set in concrete
marking the place where Jews were shot
so their bodies fell in the Danube
and were swept away.
Lunch was a strong paté
of raw onions and chives
with a hint of garlic and mushroom –
delicious with bread rolls and ham
and a small side-bowl
of fetta in oil.
There are weeds between the tracks
but the yellow tram to the Palace of Arts
where Wagner will be heard
is clean and quick.
From the hill at night
in floodlit bridges and castle
and holy places
the old look of Empire.
outside what was once
a weary summer square
known locally as
‘Dogshit Park’ remembers
‘the Martyrs of ’56.’
PN Review is renewing its (always handsome) appearance and reaching out for new contributors, so I suggested that its editor, Michael Schmidt, should send me something about the journal’s interest in New Zealand poetry. PN by the way, stood for Poetry Nation – curiously nationalistic-sounding for a literary journal which has been notable, as its publisher, Carcanet, has been, for reaching out beyond Britain’s shores. PN Review has a website and anyone can subscribe there. Part of Schmidt’s reply is below:
Very many thanks for the suggestions, and for mooting the possibility of a blog mention of PNR. I am happy to send images in this connection if you need them!
From a very early date PN Review has been a beacon of New Zealand writing in the UK. I think it must have been Donald Davie who first steered me towards Allen Curnow, and in the 1980s we published a lot of his poems as well as reviews of his work right into the new millennium. You have yourself been contributing poetry and prose since 1984 – eleven times -- and your work has been reviewed several times as well – which led on to Carcanet publishing your Collected Poems 1951-2006 in conjunction with AUP.
Robyn Marsack [New Zealand born, in charge of the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh] was my closest colleague during the later 1970s and into the 1980s, and she has remained a dear source of information and inspiration. We published at Carcanet Ian Wedde’s translations of Mahmoud Darwish – back in the earlyish 1970s I think it was. And through Robyn it must have been that Elizabeth Smither became a regular contributor for many years to the magazine. Robyn and Andrew Johnston edited TWENTY CONTEMPORARY NEW ZEALAND POETS for Carcanet.
Bill Manhire has contributed poetry and essays more often than any other New Zealander except Greg O’Brien. He is not a very prolific poet and I think most of his substantial poems have featured in our pages as they came into being.
Baxter swam into my ken thanks to an anthology by D.J. Enright (which also introduced me to A.D. Hope and Derek Walcott!) and I fell for him big time. He was dead, of course, but he has been something of a tutelary spirit, along with Australian Judith Wright, both of whom propose a poetics that I believe had some impact in the UK, not least in the development of a passion for ghazals among the middle generation... Baxter is a posthumous contributor. I always seem to get to Hiruharama when I go to NZ – both times! And last time I went swimming in the Wanganui with Greg O’Brien, John Dennison, a few icebergs and others.
Greg has played a generous part in the magazine’s development, taking us with him on his journeys around the world and sharing his prose, poetry and graphic work with us. He has provided the images for several covers.
Robyn was probably the route of access for contributors such as Dinah Hawken and Jenny Bornholdt, and either by myself or through Greg I came upon the work of John Dennison, our most recent New Zealander, whose work I love.
Not many UK magazines have been so attentive to the other side of the world as PNR, and NZ scores a lot higher than Australia in our pages...
That is a brief romp through the history of PN Review vis-à-vis New Zealand!
A recent exchange:
Nigel & Heather
I’m am writing on behalf of a poetry group I run in Nelson with a query about one of your poems, “The Rower” which has charmed but puzzled us. We wondered: why the three-lined structure of the verses, without matching the meaning of the words? I thought it was to snap the reader out of mindless reading – alerting them to the words in a fresh way – a la ee cummings. Another thought it was rhythmical like rowing.
Perhaps it’s both.
In a way it doesn’t really matter – it’s a cracker poem irrespective – but if there is a reason to why it is structured this way, and you can be arsed giving it, we’d really like to know.
Nosey bastards aren’t we?
All the best
To Nigel & Heather
Dear Nigel and Heather (& group)
‘The rower’ (I’m glad you like it – thank you) is a syllabic poem with a syllable count I’ve often used over the last decade or more – a tercet (3 line stanza) of exactly 13 syllables. Using syllabics breaks the dominance of the five-stress (or iambic pentameter) measure that otherwise tends to dominate the ear of a poet well educated in traditional English language poetry. I’ve used the 13 syllable tercet quite a lot, including in my novel My Name was Judas, where Judas is a poet and each chapter ends with a poem in that form.
I think counting syllables forces one to consider every word carefully and keep re-arranging the lines, so what emerges is tightly written and well-considered. Also the arbitrariness of the breaks (caused as much by the syllable count as by the meaning) forces the reader to read more attentively – it runs across the sense of the sentences and so keeps the reading alert.
The rest is just ‘talent’. You either have it in you to write well, or you don’t!
I hope this helps. Best wishes
– C. K. Stead