Monday, December 17, 2012

Something Old

“NOT IN NARROW SEAS: Poems with Prose” by Allen Curnow (First published by Caxton Press, Christchurch, 1939)
            Critique contributed by Dr. Peter Simpson

This week’s “Something Old” is contributed by Dr. PETER SIMPSON, who was formerly of the University of Auckland’s English Department. He is now Director of the Holloway Press. Asked to contribute to this blog, Dr. Simpson generously offered sections from a work currently in progress, in which he deals with the young Allen Curnow’s first book-length poem Not in Narrow Seas. Dr. Simpson examines first the work’s gestation over a number of years, and its appearance, piece by piece, in the liberal-left magazine Tomorrow in the years 1937-38, before it appeared in book form in 1939. Dr. Simpson notes in detail how Not in Narrow Seas compares with other longer poems of the time that made general statements about New Zealand, such as ARD Fairburn’s Dominion (which Curnow knew and reviewed). He then turns to considering the unique combined skills of the three men who produced the volume – Curnow himself, the printer Denis Glover, and the artist and graphic designer Leo Bensemann, who provided a satirical frontispiece showing a John Bullish cleric holding the Union Jack over the eyes of a Maori warrior. Bensemann also designed the brilliantly stylish red, black and yellow cover design. The sections in which Simpson deals with the poem itself, and how it was initially received, follow. Dr. Simpson calls his article:

 “Necessary anti-myth? Or moans of a spiritual exile?: Allen Curnow’s Not in Narrow Seas: Poems with Prose, with a frontispiece by Leo Bensemann, Christchurch, The Caxton Press, 1939”
Not in Narrow Seas is deliberately and artfully arranged. It begins with a brief ‘Dedication’:

To him who can distinguish
In an unfeigned anguish
What is general
From what is personal;
Who has heard optimism
Crash in the last chasm
And knows hope more near
The straining heart’s despair.

As often with Curnow the syntax is tricky and the full meaning elusive, but is built around the stated or unstated oppositions between anguish/optimism, despair/hope, general/personal. Clearly this is not going to be any jingoistic flag-waving piece of rhetoric; on the contrary it puts the emphasis firmly on the negative.

After the ‘Dedication’ comes an unusually long epigraph, consisting of four passages from J.C. Beaglehole’s New Zealand A Short History, published as recently as 1936, that is, just one year before Curnow started writing the poem in 1937. Beaglehole, the great biographer and editor of Cook, was a Marxist and offered a sceptical and radical reading of New Zealand’s history towards which Curnow clearly felt sympathetic. The quotations from Beaglehole place the discovery of New Zealand in a European perspective: 1642: ‘the year of the English revolution, of the death of Galileo, and the birth of Newton’; the focus moves to the Canterbury settlement which is viewed sceptically:  ‘For some years these provinces were proudly conscious of their nationality and their virtue; the obliterating passage of time, alas! has merged them with their fellows in a common mediocrity…’.  This note is struck often in the poems that follow. The last quotation from Beaglehole emphasises the ‘verdant isolation’  in which ‘perhaps lies the remote secret – if there is one – of the national life’. This national perspective recurs in the poem, but within an understanding articulated by Beaglehole that ‘the making of new nationalities is an anachronism’. Curnow is frequently described these days as the archetypal ‘Nationalist’, but he himself repudiated the term, associating it (like Beaglehole) with Fascism (National Socialism).

Next (again on a separate page) comes the ‘Statement’. Here are the first two stanzas:

In your atlas not in narrow seas
Like a child’s kite anchored in the indifferent blue,
Two islands pointing from the pole, upward
From the Ross Sea and the tall havenless ice:
Small trade and no triumph, men of strength
Proved at football and in wars not their own:

So much and the soft weather you may call your own
And the week-end bach by the salt healing seas,
Deep soil and shingle-slide to try your strength
Under the sun or dark-to-thunder blue;
Beneath your impudent feet the glacial ice
Stirs like the hour-hand as you hurry upward.

I have quoted two stanzas in order to demonstrate that the form of the poem is a sestina, a form reputedly invented in the twelfth century by the Provençal poet Arnaut Daniel that was revived in the twentieth century by Ezra Pound (e.g. ‘Sestina: Altaforte’, 1909) and W.H. Auden (e.g. ‘Paysage Moralisé’, 1934). In the sestina the same six end words – in this case, ‘seas’, ‘blue’, ‘upward’, ‘ice’, ‘strength’, ‘own’ – are used in each of the six stanzas but in a different order, the last end word of one stanza becoming the first end-word of the next. Curnow was a great admirer of Auden – he named his first child, Wystan (born 1939), after the English poet) – and almost certainly ‘Paysage Moralisé’ was his model here.

After six stanzas working through all the combinations of the six end-words, a sestina normally ends with an Envoi, that is, a three line stanza each line of which incorporates two of the six end-words. Curnow’s Envoi, however, does not follow this latter convention:

Therefore I sing your agonies, not upward,
For the two islands not in narrow seas
Cringe in a wind from the world’s nether ice.

Published in 1939, a year before the nation’s centennial in 1940, Curnow consciously avoids the sort of flag-waving, chest-beating and self-congratulation normally associated with such events. His account of the nation is deliberately critical and negative in its sentiments and expression. Notice, for instance, the recurrence of (literally) negative phrases: ‘not in narrow seas’, ‘no triumph’, ‘wars not their own’ (my italics), and diction with negative connotations ‘indifferent’, ‘havenless’ (or elsewhere in the poem: ‘impudent’, ‘terrible’, ‘Shame at night and ambition that is like ice’, ‘Sorrowing not rejoicing in your strength’, ‘Suffering the imprisonment of seas’, ‘I sing your agonies’, ‘Cringe in a wind’).

The title of the poem, in particular, is worth unpacking. Why does the poet say ‘not in narrow seas’ instead of ‘in wide seas’? The implication is, surely, that the seas are not narrow but the ‘two islands’ are; that is, narrow not just geographically but in culture also, as in ‘narrow minded’.

In his Author’s Note to Collected Poems (1974), Curnow said of Not in Narrow Seas: ‘I suppose it could be called my contribution to the anti-myth about New Zealand which a few of us poets – and almost nobody else – were so busy making in those years. It had to be done. The country did not know what to make of itself, colony or nation, privileged happyland or miserable banishment: the polarisation was nothing new, and it is still with us, but we were the first to find poetry in it’ (Collected Poems, p. xiii).

For other contemporary poems expressing a similarly critical or negative nationalism, see, for example, Fairburn’s Dominion, Glover’s ‘Centennial’ (‘no-one remembered our failures’), and Charles Brasch’s ‘The Silent Land’.

The main body of Not in Narrow Seas (framed fore and aft by ‘Dedication’, epigraph, ‘Statement’ and ‘Epilogue’) consists of 12 numbered sections, each made up of a prose passage (in italics) followed by a poem in stanzas (in roman type). In the original book, the prose sections occupy the left hand page, the poems the right hand page of each opening, though in a couple of cases, 9 and 11, the poem spills onto a second page). The method can be demonstrated by number 4. Here is the prose passage:

Apparently there was a chance here for a clean break. The dark places of industrial England, its poverty and diseases, were left behind. Only the best had been taken, it seemed, of the English tradition. The liturgy of the Church of England, immigrants of picked stock, sufficient capital to provide for material needs and their development.

And here is the verse version:

Escape in seeming from smoke and iron
The hammered street and the hot wheels,
Clanging conquest of the deep-rich hills.

Left behind the known germ and poison
Breeding and soaking in decrepit soils.

Jerusalem is built as a city
That is at unity in itself,
Built with liturgy and adequate capital
Dwelling of the elect, the selected immigrants.

The verse is more imagistic than the prose, but makes broadly similar points. Perhaps the tone of irony (more obvious in context than in isolation) is stronger in the verse version. In later sections the failure of promise, the bitter disappointment of the reality as compared to the dream becomes explicit:

Here’s no renewal of the world’s youth
But age-soured infancy, a darkened dawn. (No. 6)

This section, in particular, focuses on the role of the Church; instead of ‘building a new social order…the Church is chiefly concerned with re-establishing and conserving an order in which she has learnt to flourish’.

A pervasive theme is that the myth of New Zealand as a ‘Better Britain of the South’ (not Curnow’s phrase but often used by New Zealanders at the time) is exploded by the reality: ‘The new country must be aware of the dangerous extent to which it is only a flattery by imitation of the old…There is reproduction, but not resurrection.’ (no. 10)

Or as the verse of no. 10 has it:

…Reproduction, reproduction
Of the curved, the angled, the tangible
Street measurable block by block:

Never resurrection
Of entombed pity, only discernible
Vanity of the practised trick….

One of the most powerful sections in both prose and verse is no. 12, the last (before the Epilogue). At this point Curnow adopts a visionary, prophetic tone of voice:

 Yet out of the orgy of imitation, there will in time be born men of spirit…Poets, painters, musicians, scientists will suffer agonies in a country serving under gross masters. But out of their sufferings the wheat lands, the cattle country and the sheep country, may be born again. At present, however, an artist can only suffer, and record his suffering; hoping to make others suffer with him the necessary agonies of first self-knowledge.

In the verse partner to this remarkable and highly Romantic statement (in which the Christian shaping of Curnow’s imagination, despite his anti-clericalism, is clearly evident in the vocabulary of ‘spirit’, ‘suffering’, being ‘born again’) Vincent Van Gogh is named as the type of the suffering artist:

Where Van Gogh struck his seed
Flat France twirled with pain:
To these Pacific boulders
There will come men

Put to such planting
After the rusted harrow
Mining among mountains
With their seed of sorrow:

The vertical ice, the dry
Shriek of the kea
A howl of misery like
The cornfields of Auvers.

Auvers is the town in northern France where Van Gogh spent his final months, the last line of the poem probably referring to what is generally regarded as his final painting, the extraordinary landscape, Wheatfield with Crows (1890). It is worth noting that Curnow is not the only New Zealand artist to identify with Van Gogh as the suffering artist. Colin McCahon later (in 1957) made lithographs of his friend John Caselberg’s poem Van Gogh, with its similar agonising cry: ‘God it is all dark./The heart beat but there is no answering hark/Of a hearer and no one to speak’, and his painting John in Canterbury (1959) is a version of Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows in which Caselberg’s words (quoted above) replace the crows.

Not in Narrow Seas ends with an Epilogue that features a funeral, thus continuing the dark and to present-day ears somewhat self-pitying tone of the poem to the final lines:

Down I’ll lie
As cold as clay
Thank God true love  
Doth pass away,             [later changed to True love and false/both pass away]

The empire and the empty lands
The iron and the golden sands
Dredged and dumped
With the wheezing sea clay.

Not in Narrow Seas was positively reviewed in Tomorrow’s regular book reviewer F.G. (in all probability Frank Gadd, who, as it happens, was married to Frank Sargeson’s sister). The sentiments of the review are very much in keeping with those of the poem:
Nothing so arbitrary or official as an approaching centenary could provoke so genuine a response as is contained in these poems by Allen Curnow, yet they are singularly appropriate.. … Our centenary is falling, naturally enough, at a time when a few of our countrymen are feeling the need, and deploring the lack, of a national culture. Theirs is not mere peevishness, but a genuine distress. Born in an isolated country at the nether end of the world, they are beginning to resent the ties that bind them still to the lands from which their fathers came. Strangely enough, in a country so prosy as New Zealand, it is the poets who are showing the first signs of independent life… Why should they sing of Sussex? Lacking such traditional impulses, they find it difficult to sing at all. The difficulty, however, is passing… Our poets have found voice. Expect not their notes to be those of tui or bell-bird. The sparrow is also ours….Not in Narrow Seas is a book that should be bought, not only by habitual verse readers, but by everyone who takes an intelligent interest in their own country. The poet has expressed an experience that is common to many New Zealanders. The Caxton Press have presented the work very attractively, and its value is further enhanced by Leo Bensemann’s most appropriate frontispiece.’ (Tomorrow, June 21, 1939, pp. 539-40).

Not everyone, however, was so sympathetic to Curnow’s critical nationalism. The Dunedin Evening Star reviewer wrote:
These poems deal, actually, with the foundation and settlement of Canterbury, but the argument they propound is insinuated to be true of the country as a whole, and the argument is nasty. Some of Mr Curnow’s allegations would no doubt be fairly well substantiated in fact, but his method of approach has nothing to commend it, and besides, does one rake over a heap of manure just to increase the odour?’ (quoted in  A Catalogue of Publications…, p. 27-28).

A more considered but still negative response came from H. Winston Rhodes, an Australian born academic (and a Moscow-aligned socialist) who was part of Tomorrow’s editorial team, associated the poem with a tendency also present in Fairburn and Brasch (whose first book The Land and the People appeared in the same year as Not in Narrow Seas) of poets who were either literal or spiritual exiles.
He said: ‘It is interesting and perhaps slightly amusing to notice that during the last few years the guide book literature of New Zealand has been held up to public scorn…. Instead the moans of the exiles are upon us and our mental and spiritual impoverishment is becoming more and more the theme of our writers…In view of the approaching centennial it might be said that this is all to the good. There needs to be some counterblast to the orgy of self-praise to which we are committed…. I admit, if you like that the poet, the painter, the scientist will suffer agonies in a country serving under gross masters, but I assert that each of them, if he is worth his salt, will suffer exactly the same agonies in whatever country he lives at the present time, because these same gross masters are not confined to New Zealand… What I miss in the artistic exile is that fierce love of one’s own native land, not the weak emotion that leads to flag-flapping and tourist hotels, but the deep indescribable affection which can no more be explained than it can be explained away. The moans of the exiles do not express this.’ (‘These Two Islands, Tomorrow , July 19, 1939 pp. 600-01)

A bracing but necessary anti-myth or the moans of a spiritual exile? However we may read it now, Not in Narrow Seas is a fascinating document of its time and place; the first important work of a major poet and a striking piece of collaboration between Curnow, Bensemann and Glover: poet, artist, and printer.

                                                                                    PETER SIMPSON

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