The Sinclair cohort

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

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

Kin of Place

(a poem for Kendrick Smithyman)

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

Keith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

This Time

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

And this that ultimate coin
The dead exchange –
Silence.

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

Even such small
Crystalline vocables
Tell time.

Count them.
Count yourself lucky.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Accustomed perhaps – but they are missed.

— CK Stead

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