Monday, February 18, 2013

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“MASON – The Life of R.A.K.Mason” by Rachel Barrowman (first published by Victoria University Press, 2003)

“POET TRIUMPHANT – The Life and Writings of R.A.K.Mason (1905-1971)” by “Asclepius” [John Caselberg] (first published by Steele Roberts 2004)
            I’ve just been considering a new edition of an old biography of William Colenso. I noted that there are now a number of books available about the man. As a sometime biographer (James Michael Liston – A Life, VUP, 2006 etc.), I am often haunted by the question of how much any new biography can add to biographies of the same person that have already been published [see the posting “Why Write a New Biography?” on the index at right]. Yet I am aware that different biographies on the same person can present radically different perspectives, and this in itself can be valuable.

            As an example, consider two biographies of the New Zealand poet Ron Mason, which were published within a year of each other, Rachel Barrowman’s Mason and John Caselberg’s Poet Triumphant. (Why Caselberg chose to have his book published under the pretentious pseudonym “Asclepius” is anyone’s guess.)  In one of them, a bibliographical note says that they began as part of the same biographical project, but the two authors’ views of what really constituted a biography diverged so much, that two separate books emerged.

            Any biographer of R.A.K.Mason has to consider a major awkward fact. Mason’s fame is as a poet, but his real poetic writing dried up relatively early in his life. He died at the age of 66, but in his last 30 years he wrote only one or two things that he chose to include in the slim volume of his collected poems. He was poet enough to realize that the occasional agitprop piece he had written in those 30-odd years didn’t really qualify. When you pick up Mason’s collected poems, you are [with only a couple of exceptions like his Sonnet to MacArthur’s Eyes] reading things written by a young man – a teenager or chap in his twenties.

Here then is a key question for biographers. Why did Mason in effect dry up so soon? Even before these two biographies were written, essays and articles on Mason had noted that his poetic silence coincided with his devoting himself more to political and trade union work, left-wing causes and sometimes editing the newspaper of the Communist Party (of which he was on the fringes).

            So did the politics kill the poetry? Or was the politics a substitute for a poetic inspiration that had already died?

            In their very different ways, both Rachel Barrowman’s Mason and John Caselberg’s Poet Triumphant have to accommodate this question. Indeed Barrowman explicitly asks the question “Did the poet fail because of the politics; or did politics fill the space when poetry had failed?” (Pg.15)

            Let me make it clear at once that Barrowman’s is far and away the more detailed, scholarly, cross-referenced, footnoted, documented and thoroughly academic of the two biographies. This being the case, she is able to give a very nuanced answer. She shows that, even as a young man, Mason was aware that it was no good writing poetry that was merely propaganda. From his mid-twenties, she quotes him writing mockingly to another poet “I may have radical sympathies, and write articles for the N.Z.Worker, but I don’t write ‘rhymes of the under-dog’ (dedicated to all who toil, 3rd edition, price 3/6 post free). Get me?” (Pg.101). Later, Mason edited an issue of the much-mythologised university magazine Phoenix, which he wanted to make a platform for left-wing polemics. On his watch it included left-wing articles and editorials. But, Barrowman notes, even under Mason’s editorship the magazine’s literary content (poems and stories) was not noticeably left-wing. Again, Mason was poet enough not to confuse political sympathies with poetic achievement and he clearly had not found any ardently left-wing or proletarian writers who were producing the poetic goods (see pp.174 ff).

Barrowman is under no illusions about the tensions between artistic creation and affiliation with an authoritarian political movement. She notes: “To describe the [Communist] Party as rigorous, dour, prone to factionalism and suspicious of students, poets and intellectuals is a cliché, but largely true.” (Pg.184) She documents fully (pp.262 ff.) the tensions of 1939-41, when, because of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, New Zealand Communists and their fellow-travellers were instructed to regard the war against Hitler as a mere scrap between rival capitalists. She gives a full and detailed account of changes in CP policy, including the events of 1956, which split the tiny New Zealand Communist movement and really signalled the beginning of the end of its wider influence. She notes that Mason’s enthusiastic views on Mao’s China were the product of one carefully-supervised tour.

I am simplifying grossly the perspective given in Barrowman’s book. But I can say that she gives a detailed and documented account of the ideological sea in which Mason was swimming and she is fully aware of how incompatible his enthusiasms were with real poetic creation. Late in Mason’s story, she quotes Denis Glover addressing him as: “you silly old bastard – Carpenter’s Union, Friend of the World, Inc., failed Socialist, Incompetent Communist, Good Gardener, Wonderful Friend, Silly Bloody Sucker….” (Pg.356). Loudmouth blowhard though Denis Glover often was, one can’t help but see this as a fairly comprehensive description.

Having focused on these political matters, I should make it clear that Barrowman is every bit as interested in Mason’s poetry as in his politics. She analyses his poems. She notes scrupulously the genesis of all Mason’s written works, including the later ones, which she recognises as less worthy of the canon than the earlier ones.

Now let’s turn to Caselberg’s Poet Triumphant.

I’m not comparing Hyperion with a satyr, but it is extraordinary how different the interpretations of the two books are. Poet Triumphant is slimmer, less fully-documented and far less academic than Barrowman’s Mason.

In the political field, Caselberg is aware of at least some of the naivetes of 1930s leftism. When, for example, he is discussing a pro-Soviet pamphlet Mason once wrote, he adds the footnote that “No ‘Ernst Toller’ escaped from Russia to apprise and undeceive humanitarians in the West of the long-maintained Stalinist terror” (Pg.176). So he knows there was such a thing as “actually-existing Communism” which was nothing like the rosy daydream that Mason and his mates had. Yet at the same time, Caselberg really buys into much of the old myth. The Spanish Civil War is simply “democratic forces” opposing “fascist invasion” (Pg.164). Whenever Caselberg is faced with the prospect of having to write about something embarrassing in Mason’s political life, he omits it and rushes on to less controversial matters. In Chapter 14, where he is dealing with the years 1939-41, he avoids mentioning the Hitler-Stalin Pact and all the tensions among Mason’s friends that this caused. Even more amazing, there is no mention whatsoever of 1956 and its aftermath and everything that it meant for Mason and his former Communist comrades.

Caselberg quotes deadpan, and apparently without realizing the fatuity of it, a comment Mason made in his China-New Zealand Friendship Association days. On his one and only guided tour to China, Mason addressed an Agricultural Producers’ Co-operative, saying  “I am not a peasant but I work like one as a landscape gardener, and I know what work on the land every day means” (Pg.222). In the same po-faced fashion Caselberg serves us (pg.292) a kitsch account of Mason meeting Mao and the “two poets” communing. So determined is Caselberg to separate Mason from his naïve Stalinism (and later Maoism) that he quotes none of the many articles in which Mason clearly approved of Stalinist policy.

Again, I’m concentrating on political matters in these comments, but there is a reason for it. In the course of his text, Caselberg quotes in full nearly all of the poems that Mason chose to include in his collected poems – and quite a bit that he didn’t. (If you don’t have the collected poems, Poet Triumphant would be a reasonable substitute.) In each case, the poem has its literary analogues listed and explained in a rather simplistic way. Caselberg’s purpose is quite evident. He wants us to believe (as the very title Poet Triumphant implies) that Mason never lost his touch as a poet.

Therefore, his answer to the awkward question that haunts Mason studies is to pretend that it doesn’t exist.

The later agitprop and pieces written to order are presented as if they are the equals of Mason’s best. Caselberg refuses to recognise the dismalness of Mason’s stereotypical monologue Squire Speaks and he builds up Mason’s Strait is the Gate as if it were a great literary achievement. He quotes the guarded and polite reviews of the time as if they are critical vindication. The final section of the book is an angry reply to those critics who have dared to criticise Mason.

To put it bluntly, Poet Triumphant is a naïve biography – basically a chronology of Mason’s life interspersed with enthusiastic comments on the poems and evasive comments on the politics. It is the work of an admirer and enthusiast, not of a methodical biographer.

Yet there is something very likeable about Caselberg’s enthusiasm, just as there is sometimes something a little too precise and dry in Barrowman’s account. I was glad to read both these books. I do not believe either of them tells the whole truth about the man – but then no biography ever does. And in this case, at a certain point, I feel the absurdity of writing many hundreds of pages about a poet whose entire readable corpus is one slim volume. Put Barrowman and Caselberg together, and you have as much biography as need be written of Mason.

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