The Here and the There – and the words that give you life

A launch 18 Sept at Time Out Bookshop in Mt Eden was of two new books of poems, Looking out to sea by Kevin Ireland, and Expecting Miracles by Peter Bland, two octogenarians, two characters, not dissimilar, though with the difference it makes to have been born here (Kevin) or born there (Peter). Kevin’s life has fallen into three parts – New Zealand roughly 25 years, England/Europe the next 25, and the rest New Zealand – though this latter third has been complicated by a late (third) marriage to a New Zealander living in Oxford – Janet Wilson, daughter of the late Phil Wilson (fiction writer, one of the ‘Sons of Sargeson’) and herself an academic specializing in Commonwealth literature. This marriage has the two of them hiking back and forth between the here and the there. Kevin was about to take off for the UK the day after the launch.

And that – the hiking back and forth – has been very much UK-born Peter’s life until recently he sorted out his differences with New Zealand Immigration, and his passport, and settled finally in Auckland where at least two, possibly three, of his children are living. Peter’s children, by the way, had done the covers of these two books – Carl Bland had done Peter’s and Joanna Bland, Kevin’s.

C. K. Stead and Kevin Ireland at Time Out Bookshop. Photo by Robert O'Neill.

There was a time when Peter and his New Zealand-born wife Beryl used to make, and announce every second or third year, a ‘final’ decision to settle at one end of the earth or the other – each of these decisions accompanied by the purchase of a house even grander than the last. Perhaps these decisions were partly determined by fluctuations in the rate of exchange. (And possibly my recollections are more picturesque than precise.) But certainly they moved a lot, to and fro between NZ and the UK, moves influenced often by opportunities in the theatre, because Peter has always been actor as well as poet – most memorably for me in the movie of the Ronald Hugh Morrieson novel Came a Hot Friday where he appeared as Wes Pennington along with Billy T James who was the Te Whakinga Kid. Peter was one of the founders of Downstage Theatre in Wellington. He has a wonderful rich voice and is to be heard sometimes as a reader on National Radio.

Peter Bland at Time Out Bookshop. Photo by Robert O'Neill.

The two and fro nature of the Blands’ life is caught in the title of his memoir, Sorry, I’m a stranger here myself... which is also an 8-line poem:

Sorry, I'm a stranger here myself

but I know the seasons
come into it, and wars,
and the shape of a particular landscape
we try to call our own, and the sea
with all that space and distance,
and fellow-travellers we meet on the road,
and the dead of course who were here before us,
and the millions more who have yet to come...

Beryl died in 2009, and some of the poems in Peter’s new collection are a continuation, a step onward but still looking back, from the very moving and eloquent elegies published in his last book. Since the stunning title poem of Kevin’s book is addressed to his younger brother who died two years ago, there was a strong elegiac flavour to the launch, though it was certainly not a sad occasion – not possible with these two, Peter the large (6ft 3 at least) actor who has a big voice and something of the manner of the sad clown; and Kevin, an inch or two shorter, but also large and loud, bon viveur, joker, red wine man. Each is enough to fill a room; as a pair they make a crowd – and their publisher, Roger Steele, almost matching them in size and volume, and fluent in Maori (though there was less of that than his usual on this occasion), is the sort of person anyone would want if there was a launch speech to be made.

What these two poets are on the page is dependable. They have lived through a lot of the flurry and scuffle of modernisms and post-modernisms, not entirely unconscious or unaffected, probably formally less constrained and more inventive than would have been the case if those movements had not occurred, but not too fussed by fashion either; concerned most of all to mean something, to make good sense, to write well, feel deeply and be understood. Octogenarian virtues? Perhaps yes, but not old fogue ones – not at all. They are too lively for that, too adroit, too naturally on-the-page entertainers, engaging your mind, your sense of language, how it plays, and plays out, and... engaging!

At the Ireland/Bland launch Roger Steele mentioned the recent death of W.H. (Bill) Oliver, poet and historian, who must have been 90. I think of Oliver in conjunction with his near contemporary, fellow poet and historian Keith Sinclair. I knew them both, Sinclair as a colleague and long-time friend, Oliver as a familiar academic acquaintance with whom I had intermittent dealings. There was a great contrast between them – both of exceptional intelligence, Sinclair the healthy pagan, so full of action, energy and impatience, so quick in thought and conversation, Oliver the serious Christian, quiet, measured, dependable: not the contrast of the quick and the dead but of the quick and the careful. For both, poetry came second to history, though I don’t think happily so in either case. Keith would have liked to have been poet first, and I think fiction writer as well. Oliver in his late memoir says of himself at school, ‘if my activities suggested that I wanted to be anything in particular, it was to be a poet.’ But history claimed them both. Each offered, early in a distinguished career, an account of our history, Sinclair A History of New Zealand (1959), Oliver The Story of New Zealand (1960).

Bill Oliver. Photo by Victoria Birkinshaw.

Here is Oliver’s comparison of the two books: ‘altogether unlike [...] Sinclair’s is nervy, energetic and staccato and mine smooth, restrained and laid-back; his tone is nationalistic and mine determinedly provincial. [...] In these two books two not readily compatible New Zealands each found expression. [...] Aptly enough, these two were fashioned in Auckland and Christchurch. Each of us set out to explore a country which he needed to understand, for his own sake and for that of his contemporaries.’

Of his writing in the 1940 and ‘50s, when he established himself among the new young New Zealand poets, Oliver writes, ‘Considerably influenced by Wordsworth’s Prelude, I worked in a romantic mode and, as tramping extended my horizons in the later 1940s, took from landscape a set of images to express (and as surely to conceal) my hopes and fears. [...] The more decorous of these [poems] were published in Fire without phoenix [1957]. Sometimes it seems to me that I have been looking for the phoenix ever since.’ So the memoir, published in 2002, is called Looking for the Phoenix. He had a late return to poetry, with a collection called Out of Season in 1980, and Poor Richard in 1982. I’m not aware that there were any more after that. In his later life he was best known as Professor of History at Massey University, and editor of our Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, which Keith Sinclair says he (Sinclair, assisted by whisky) persuaded Rob Muldoon to establish. Oliver and his close associate Bridget Williams together designed and edited the Oxford History of New Zealand; and Oliver was involved for many years with the Waitangi Tribunal, and with the University Grants Committee.

While studying in Oxford on a post-graduate scholarship from New Zealand in the early 1950s, Oliver had moved to high Anglicanism, and then, back in New Zealand, to Catholicism, which seems to have lasted a decade or two and then faded slowly away to nothing. He records that he passed through rejection of faith ‘with a sigh of relief and an unaccustomed sense of peace.’

I have all three of his collections of poetry on my shelves, along with the memoir; also a post-primary schools bulletin he wrote in 1960 called Poetry in New Zealand, and a pictorial biography he wrote of James K. Baxter. I find in the back of my copy of Fire without phoenix a note, ‘25 poems, 663 lines’; and then ‘John Wain, A word carved on a sill, 26 poems, about 500 lines’. I must have been planning to put together my first collection for a publisher, and was checking these details to see how mine might measure up.

Oliver had been part of the lively group – Alistair Campbell, Erik Schwimmer, Pat Wilson (not to be confused with Phil Wilson – above) and Hubert Witheford – who in the 1940s at Victoria published the literary magazines Hilltop and then Arachne. Years later, in Palmerston North, he wrote a series of sonnets commemorating the first three, and adding Charles Brasch, James K. Baxter and Louis Johnson. Baxter he remembers as ‘the prodigious poet in his drinking days’ who ‘swept Wellington like a shower of broken glass / blown from the stricken south.’ Brasch was ‘a man at odds with his time’ writing of ‘Virgilian / vines in Otago wastes’. Alistair Campbell was ‘unduly solemn / and that other rare thing Polynesian / though that had not started to matter /as more than a grace note.’ Pat Wilson was ‘one of the wholly innocent’ who ‘valued / light on water, girls with bright names, a clarinet / bubbling with joy, and Blake’s entire absolution.’ Erik Schwimmer was ‘such a deep diver / it was always an open question whether the pearls / he brought up were worth all that shortness of breath.’ Of Louis Johnson Oliver says the critics (I was one of them) ‘were less than fair’ to him, though it was ‘true, in prose / his sentences revealed great gaping wounds’, and he ‘wrote too much’.

Oliver wanted to record an attachment to these poets, he says in his memoir, because (and it’s a commendable and memorable sentence) ‘in their company I first learned that words, if they did not quite earn you a living, at least gave you a life.’

I’ve been looking at the books of some of those associates of Oliver’s. I have Pat Wilson’s first book of poems, The Bright Sea, published in1951 (price 3/6) – one of those little blue paperbacks done by the Pegasus Press in Christchurch in the 1950s which included Hubert Witheford’s The Falcon mask, and Louis Johnson’s Roughshod among the lilies. Wilson’s poems are sparely written and full of real charm. Oliver says of him, ‘At the time I did not recognise the virtue of his restraint, his distaste for rhetoric and his avoidance of any but the most understated gestures.’

I also have Hubert Witheford’s collection Shadow of the flame, published by Bob Lowry in Auckland in 1950, with woodcuts by Mervyn Taylor. Witheford was another avoider of rhetoric, who had learned stylistic economy from Pound, but had just possibly taken on board some of Pound’s politics as well. At least there is an unpleasant ring to statements like, ‘One cannot regard the trim State housing settlements without thinking they imply the atomic bomb.’ This was in their journal Arachne of February 1951, where Erik Schwimmer praised Witheford as ‘the first New Zealand poet able to express his deepest experience through the medium of hard abstract thought.’

Both Witheford and Wilson took the usual intellectual/academic path of the time, to England. Witheford’s third collection, The lightning makes a difference, published in London in 1962 by The Brookside Press, divides between dissatisfactions in New Zealand, and a sort of dour relief to be at last in England.

Your fear? Not what you knew before,
That ever-clutching, narrowing constraint,
A broader thing, almost a touch of awe,
Meeting what is not you. Not hostile, not concerned,
The wood around you waits.
And you must wait – and watch. Stand in the gentle rain.
Put down your heavy load.

I got to know both Witheford and Wilson in London in 1965 when Douglas Cleverdon of the BBC gave me the task of organising a reading of New Zealand poetry at the Royal Court Theatre for the Commonwealth Arts Festival of that year. I engaged them both to read, along with Fleur Adcock and Basil Dowling, also living in the UK, and myself, there on sabbatical leave.

Witheford was writing new poems, and gave me a carbon copy of a collection, A native, perhaps beautiful, which would be published a couple of years later by the Caxton Press. I reviewed it admiringly in Landfall, focussing especially on his strange and extraordinary poem ‘Barbarossa’, about the Napier earthquake which (like Lauris Edmond) he remembered from his childhood.

After that it seemed Witheford went silent as a poet for 27 years, until his next book, A Blue Monkey for the Tomb, (a collection so slight you have to look twice, and carefully, to recognize its genuine magic) was published by Faber in 1994. Christopher Reid, who had become poetry editor at Faber after Craig Raine, ran a creative writing class, I think in Hampstead, to which came an elderly retired civil servant whose minimalist talent impressed him so much he published a collection. I’m not sure whether he knew at the time that this stranger was known and anthologised as a poet in New Zealand. Possibly not.

The bio note for the book says Witheford was born in New Zealand in 1921, and in 1953 moved with his wife and son to England, ‘where he joined the Central Office of Information.’ (In fact he rose to be its Director.) ‘After his retirement in 1981,’ the note concludes, ‘a return to New Zealand proved briefer than he had envisaged.’

This deliberately laconic note, written, I’m sure, by Witheford himself, can be fully understood only if you have read The Quick Word, the third volume of Lauris Edmond’s autobiography, and know that Witheford appears there disguised as ‘Chester Wadsworth’. Bill Oliver also figures in it, also disguised, as ‘Ted Green’, another of the lovers of this phase of Lauris’s well-documented liberation.

Pat Wilson married in England and remained there for the rest of his life. He was for many years a valued lecturer in the philosophy of education at the University of London’s Goldsmith’s College. A second collection of his poems, At the window, was published by the Nag’s Head Press in Christchurch 1997. He died in 2009.

We were lucky to have (or perhaps in the case of Witheford and Wilson I should to say to share) these poets, and they should not be forgotten.

– C. K. Stead

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