The Contemporary Scene
Only two poets, James K. Baxter and Kendrick Smithyman, made their mark in the 1940s and in subsequent years in a way that put them beside, say, Curnow and Brasch. Yet, in this very period, there has been an unexampled profusion, with new poets emerging as the older wrote on. It is difficult, with any of the new writers except these two, to point to any solid body of work, but such a verdict must be no more than provisional, for they are young enough to become what they are not yet, figures of major importance. No formula can cover all the new names. But many of them go about their work in a professional spirit; they have written good poems and are likely to do so again; they are receptive to new directions set overseas, some too impetuously so; they are individualistic, rejecting equally the sailing orders into the future issued by their forerunners and their contemporaries. Out of the swarm, a few individuals may be isolated – which is to say, wagers may be placed on likely winners, on the basis of current form.
Much of Baxter's and Smithyman's verse continues to look inquiringly at land and people. But they dispense with any theory or mythology evolved for this special purpose. Concrete and common experience underlies many of their poems – for Baxter the Otago of Scottish settlers and gold diggers, and the southern mountains; for Smithyman the North Auckland of mangrove swamps, missionaries, and colonists. Keith Sinclair, another Aucklander, has a fairer claim to be considered Curnow's successor; a distinguished historian, much of his verse (but that not the most notable) broods upon missionaries, settlement, Maoris, and racial war.
Baxter sees man in apocalyptic religious terms; he is more concerned with mankind self-exiled from heaven than with New Zealanders isolated in the South Pacific. The Fall is the one myth in his poetry. Eden is often translated into the unreflective immediacy of childhood experience; the Fall is the consequence of experience, especially the experience of sex. Two consequences result. First, Baxter clings, often with a zeal little disciplined either by thought or metre, to the lifelines thrown from heaven into the seas of human life – here his Catholicism is important. Second, he has a compassion for those wrecked upon the rocks of social convention – the drunks, the deviates and the rejects of a success-dominated society, those who preserve in their outcast condition a shred of integrity to guard them against the greater, cosmological, Fall. In this he is close to the otherwise much different verse of Louis Johnson. His themes apart, the most important thing about Baxter is his sheer ability and virtuosity. He has covered the whole range from ribaldry to prophecy, from satire to lyric. Many of his best poems witness the marriage of these modes; he can manage shifts of tone within a single statement without losing that unity of tone which is the true accent of his personal speech. Blow Wind of Fruitfulness (1948), The Fallen House (1953), and In Fires of No Return (1958) contain his best verse.
Kendrick Smithyman is considerably less approachable – though, in fact, the cadences of his verse owe a good deal more to conversational speech and less to bardic rapture than is the case with Baxter. But in his poems the language of common speech, while preserving the accent of its origin, is transformed into a verbal music of unusual complexity and range. The syntax is frequently formidable, the flow of thought intricate and even tormented. This is to say that the reader must work hard with Smithyman, but he may do so, as often as not, in the sure knowledge that he will be rewarded for his pains. His themes cannot be epitomised briefly; there is, most accessibly, his North Auckland spiritual map-making, but this is merely one among many. Love, death, youth, age, war – these are, in a general way, his subjects. His output has been considerable, but, apart from one collection, The Blind Mountain (1950), is scattered. But it already amounts to a significant achievement.
For the rest, one must speak of occasional rather than consistent achievement, with the qualification that in all probability the best is yet to be. Five poets, at one time associated with Wellington, show in their work the continued impress of English, American, and European influences. Louis Johnson is the most prolific of these. The titles of his books, The Sun Among the Ruins (1951), Roughshod Among the Lilies (1951), New Worlds for Old (1957), indicate the apocalyptic violence of this verse. Here there is more energy than subtlety, and a number of misfires, but, at its best, the verse is sharply individual, mordantly eloquent, wide in range and deep in thrust. Patrick Wilson (The Bright Sea, 1951) is altogether different. His poems are ostentatiously quiet and even-toned; his rejection of eloquence, his deliberately oblique approach, are in themselves mannerisms. But some brief lyrics are quite flawless, and his homage to Yeats (Sailing to Ballisodare) is in itself a chapter in New Zealand literary history. Nearly the whole of Alistair Campbell's output is contained in a slim volume (Mine Eyes Dazzle, 1950) of shapely love poems crowned by an impressive elegy, itself a love poem. W. H. Oliver's Fire Without Phoenix (1957) is much concerned with mutability and loss, and the context is at times naturalistic, at times historical. Finally, and a good deal more romantic than his contemporaries, is Hubert Witheford (The Shadow of the Flame, 1950, The Falcon Mark, 1951), a poet at once ornate and elusive, whose poems are almost all myths of destruction and renewal.
Two poets, Charles Doyle (A Splinter of Glass, 1956) and Peter Bland (Three Poets, 1958), have, since they are themselves recent arrivals, personalised the myth of the colonist crossing oceans to islands. Three women have achieved distinction: Mary Stanley, passionately domestic, Ruth Dallas, a careful carver of rural cameos, and “Paul Henderson”, voluble, but at times full of raw power.
Some poets have been so sharply individual that they defy even the rudimentary classification attempted here. M. K. Joseph (Imaginary Islands, 1950, The Living Countries, 1959) is indeed, as considerable a figure as Baxter and Smithyman. He is, to an extent, a “university wit” whose carefully modulated verse ranges from grotesques to lyrics. Like Ursula Bethell, Baxter, and Witheford (in sheer intellectual exactitude he scores over them all) he sees man caught between time and eternity. In religion, art, custom, he finds bridges from world to world. Charles Spear (Twopence Coloured, 1951) is a “sport”, but a valuable one. His brief lyrics depict with gemlike precision the contours and inhabitants of a symbol-world. Each jewel is exactly cut and delicately mounted, and it shines.
In the work of all these poets, except Spear, the context of New Zealand is clearly recognisable, but there is no explicit intention to complete a project of spiritual cartography begun earlier. That project is in fact being carried on, but it is a by-product of the separate concerns of individual poets. The country may be seen in the verse, but this is (to vary Adam Smith's saying) a case of private intentions leading to public benefit.
by William Hosking Oliver, M.A.(N.Z.), D.PHIL.(OXON.), Professor of History, Massey University of Manawatu.