Monday, November 14, 2011
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
BARDS BOUND BY THEIR TIME AND PLACE
On Thursday 27 October, I had the pleasure of hearing Dr Tony Ballantyne of the University of Otago deliver this year’s Keith Sinclair Memorial Lecture at the University of Auckland.
Dr Ballantyne’s topic was both literary and historical.
He was looking at the 19th century Dunedin poets John Barr and Thomas Bracken, whose works were published in newspapers to a wide readership, and who were – at least in New Zealand – immensely popular in their own day.
Ballantyne was keen to refute the generally negative verdict passed on Barr and Bracken by literary critics ever since the 1930s, when A.R.D.Fairburn, Allen Curnow, Denis Glover, Frank Sargeson and others merrily ripped into all the New Zealand literature that had preceded them, and dismissed Barr and Bracken as mere sentimental rhymesters.
Ballantyne was determined to show how socially significant the two poets were, and how accurately they reflected the mores and feelings of their society. In the introduction to his famous Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, Curnow had said Barr’s Scots-New Zealand dialect poems were “watery gruel at best” and not authentically of New Zealand. Au contraire, said Ballantyne, Barr was expressing a genuine Scots culture in New Zealand, and in an idiom that was genuinely spoken in New Zealand. As for Bracken, said Ballantyne, he reflected accurately Dunedin’s post-Gold Rush ethos of mixed religious sub-cultures once gold-seeking Irish Catholics and others had entered what had begun as a more exclusively Presbyterian settlement. Thomas Bracken’s mixed Protestant-Catholic heritage was part of his life and work. He moved between Freemasonry and Catholicism, was at one time closely associated with the Catholic newspaper the New Zealand Tablet, and in his maturer years was a voice for a social tolerance transcending denomination.
Ballantyne interpreted Bracken’s Not Understood as evidence of his refusal to be dogmatic in matters of belief.
In the course of his lecture, Ballantyne noted how widely Barr and Bracken were read, how their poems were written in accessible language, were part of popular culture, were frequently reprinted in newspapers and quoted in speeches (especially Bracken’s Not Understood). There is also the fact that Bracken’s “national hymn” has become New Zealand’s national anthem.
By contrast, Ballantyne noted, much-vaunted and more acceptably “canonical” New Zealand poets, who came later, have much smaller print runs and tend to be read only by a literary elite. He did admit that he was not attempting to do literary critics’ business for them, but his lecture did heavily imply that literary critics’ judgement was defective. How could they overlook or under-rate two such significant figures as Barr and Bracken?
After Dr Ballantyne spoke, one academic piped up that she appreciated his lecture but still thought the poetry by Barr and Bracken (which Ballantyne had quoted) was firmly on the “Hallmark Greeting Cards” level. I couldn’t help agreeing with her as I did some of my own reflecting.
I, too, have moments when I regret the loss of popular mass-culture newspaper poetry (see my blog entitled “Whatever Happened to Poetry”). I also understand that all literary movements assert themselves, at least in part, by belittling what has gone before them. What Fairburn, Curnow, Glover, Sargeson and company were saying in the 1930s was in part self-promotion. As Ballantyne noted in his lecture, there has recently been some critical rehabilitation of pre-1930s NZ Lit in works such as Stafford and Williams’ Maoriland and Alex Calder’s The Settler’s Plot (both examined earlier on this blog).
Even so, there was still much shrewd critical judgement by the 1930s crowd. By and large, I agree with my friend Iain Sharp’s oft-quoted verdict on nineteenth century New Zealand poets that “Alfred Domett makes me vomit/ Pember Reeves makes me heave/ and even Blanche Baughan/ is a technicolour yawn.” My own view is that the chief significance of Bracken’s Not Understood was to give A.R.D.Fairburn the excuse to write a good parody of it in his Poetry Harbinger. (Fairburn’s parody, by the way, is directed at incomprehensible younger poets – but that’s another story.)
My difficulty with Ballantyne’s lecture, I suppose, is its implicit equation of literary criticism with socio-historical reflection. No doubt Barr and Bracken are both of considerable historical significance and tell us much about their time and place, but that does not make them enduring literature.
This, of course, begs the question of what enduring literature is.
In this context, I’d argue that it’s literature which survives when its specific social and historical context has gone. Enduring literature still speaks to us when we no longer know or care who was in office when the author wrote, and when the specific mores of the author’s time are less important to us than how well the author’s story, style and skill engage us. Sure, the older a work of literature gets, the more we appreciate the footnotes that explain obscure topical references to us. Sure, we do pick up from an older text that the author’s milieu was different from ours. But this is not why we read literature. Unless we are historians researching nineteenth-century Dunedin, poor Bracken and Barr have little to say to us, and what they do say is fairly inept. They are not classics. They are, in every sense of the term, period pieces.
This verdict is in no way undermined by the knowledge that many forgotten writers were (like Bracken and Barr) immensely popular in their own time and place. Paradoxically, what is most popular in a given age is often what is most perishable – the values, topicalities, prejudices and assumptions of a time-specific society.
By all means use literature to illuminate the nature of a past society, but remember that this sort of reflection has little to do with evaluating the worth of the literature itself. Complete trash – this week’s soap episode; a sitcom; a Mills-and-Boon romance; bad newspaper poetry if it still exists – will tell us as much about the society that produced it as great literature will. To concentrate on the trash, however, leads us down the postmodernist path where literature is seen merely as sociological data.
But I wouldn’t accuse Ballantyne of committing that crime in his entertaining lecture.