Monday, November 3, 2014
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“THEN IT WAS NOW AGAIN – Selected Critical Writing” by Murray Edmond (Atuanui Press, $NZ44)
As poet, dramaturg and promoter of New Zealand experimental theatre, Murray Edmond has played a unique cultural role in New Zealand for the last forty years, and he is always ready to defend those areas of national culture which he thinks are in danger of being undervalued or overlooked.
I know this from personal experience.
About two years ago on this blog, I reviewed Stafford and Williams’ heavyweight blockbuster The Auckland University Press Anthology of New Zealand Literature [look under “T” for “The” to check out the review on the index at right]. Like many other critics, I lamented the number of important writers – especially poets – who had been overlooked, and questioned whether the anthology was as comprehensive as it claimed to be. In a very short time Murray Edmond posted a comment [which you can read at the bottom of that earlier review] pointing out that Stafford and Williams had blundered in an even more fundamental way. They had included virtually no examples at all of New Zealand writing for the stage. In this, they were at one with earlier “histories” of New Zealand literature, which pretended that New Zealand playwrights didn’t exist. Rather chastened, I at once admitted that Murray Edmond was dead right in this observation.
Then It Was Now Again is a substantial (300-odd pages) collection of Murray Edmond’s critical writings over the last forty years, beginning in the early 1970s when he was a young firebrand and propagandist for a more engaged and authentically experimental New Zealand theatre; and ending in 2013, when he is Associate Professor of Drama at the University of Auckland and with some – but not all – of his views mellowed a bit. The 24 pieces chosen range from brief statements to extensive and searching exegesis and, given that Edmond is as much poet as man-of-the-theatre, they concern themselves as much with poetry as with drama. Edmond’s preface notes that “the phrase ‘Then It Was Now again’, is Janet Frame’s, from ‘Intensive Care’, that intransigent novel about the terror of trying to perfect the world.” (p.iv) He introduces the volume as “largely taken up with a critique of culture mostly within the spheres of poetry and drama and theatre.” Following Edmond’s preface is Scott Hamilton’s introduction which, perceptively, notes “Edmond’s career as a poet, critic, teacher and activist for theatre has been made in the shadow of the failure of the utopian project of the sixties and early seventies.” (p.2) Hamilton calls the book’s final piece “elegiac”. For reasons which might become apparent in this review, I agree with that judgment.
As I read Murray Edmond’s preface itself, I found it profoundly half-right, whichmeans I therefore also found it profoundly half-wrong. I wanted to disagree as much as agree, a certain sign of provocative and worthwhile commentary. Edmond argues that in the last 40 years the left wing “revolution” never happened because a right wing one (economic neoliberalism) happened instead; but it was still a “revolution” and so the “revolution” continues in “subversive” arts from Jackson Pollock to punk to Pussy Riot. So vive la revolution!
To which I am impelled to reply that one can argue this only if one is particularly slippery in the use of the term “revolution”, and perhaps Edmond is romanticising the New Left notion of “revolution” in the late 1960s, which never amounted to a revolution in any real sense [an overturning of society] in the first place. Too much Marcuse muddles mind and memory. Perhaps, too, all Edmond’s preface really shows is how brilliant capitalism is at buying out and subverting and turning into either commodity or chic any artistic or cultural movement, no matter how destabilising it may at first appear to be. [And Jackson Pollocks are now traded by investors for huge sums. And dear old Johnny Rotten now says he never really disliked the queen anyway…] Say all you will about the power of art, academic revolutionary, and I will say you are evading the practical impotence of most art, especially when it addresses only a small group anyway. Yet after all this intemperate rant of mine, I concede that Edmond may have a point when he says that “de-centred cultural politics may be the way out of the dilemma that confronted the Left when faced with the Revolution of the Right.” (p.viii)
In a way, this really says “a bas la revolution!”
So, after such beginnings, how does one fairly assess a large collection of diverse writings?
I am forced into generalisations.
Of course Murray Edmond has some constant themes. His workmanlike 2013 introduction to the volume Twenty New Zealand Playwrights again reminds readers of playwrights’ exclusion from literary anthologies.
Of course Murray Edmond can do excellent general exposition of other writers’ work. His 1988 Landfall piece “Divagations: Kendrick Smithyman’s Poetry” is a model of this sort of thing as he sets about interpreting Smithyman as a Modernist, and hence rebukes Charles Brasch for being such a Romanticist that he failed to “get” Smithyman. Likewise Edmond’s 2007 piece from Australasian Drama Studies on Hone Kouka’s trilogy of plays is detailed and methodical exposition and contextualisation, setting the playwright in his cultural and historical setting.
And (sorry to say this one) of course I find – as I do with nearly every collection of critical writings I’ve ever read – that a few pieces seem makeweights, which needn’t have been included. A 1980 Islands review of a volume by Kendrick Smithyman is just good jobbing reviewing. A brief editorial for the “Listener” is simply a topical piece about funding. A letter to the editor of New Zealand Books is merely Murray Edmond stamping his foot at Jane Stafford’s review of one of his books. An interview with Harry Ricketts (from 1986) has the two of them cracking wise and being palsy-walsy, but was the exchange really worth preserving or re-serving? It’s from an anthology of such exchanges between editor and poets and has the same awkwardness and show-offy-ness of all such “private” communications which the authors know damned well are really meant for public consumption
So much for the generalisations. What of the more considerable pieces of which this volume is largely made?
Edmond in his younger years is certainly more dogmatic and sure of himself than Edmond in his fifties and sixties, so I’ll reshuffle the contents of this book and place the earlier pieces first.
Much of the early essay “The Idea of the Poet” (1973 – written when Edmond was 24) is windy rhetoric (okay – so the guy was a kid). Yet its attitude is incredibly ambiguous. Young Edmond reacts against the idea of the poet as a commodified performer and as part of the entertainment circuit (he makes some pungent – and still valid – comments on the young Sam Hunt). He wants to promote the idea of the poet as one who writes “poetry”. He wants to connect poetry with musicality and with an ongoing interrogation of language. And yet he is most concerned with public presentation. He writes:
“A poet is, as Wordsworth said, ‘a man speaking among men’. But round this simple essence a vast fungus has grown – the connotative additions to the word have finally obscured it from view. Poets no longer speak to men. They now speak to themselves or to a void. Driven in on itself poetry is useless, mute. The poet must change or accept silence like other men.” (p.15)
This morphs into an extraordinary trope of praising (the recently dead) James K. Baxter for substituting the community at Jerusalem for poetry. This is what philosophers would call a category mistake, surely? Poetry as retreat into silence, which isn’t poetry any more that “revolution” is revolution.
There is a lordly arrogance to the 32-year-old Edmond when, in a 1981 Islands review, he deals with Alistair Paterson’s anthology of 15 contemporary New Zealand poets, which he calls “so dead so dreary and dead; it is all presented to us as the great new orthodoxy, as a way we all ought to be doing it.” (p.58) He accuses Paterson of filing and classifying poets, and therefore denying the uniqueness of each. And yet (dammit and FFS), isn’t this what nearly all academic criticism of poetry does, including Edmond’s? For in the latter parts of the critique Edmond does filing and classifying of his own and is certainly concerned with how “we all ought to be doing it.”[Admission of personal interest – I know Alistair Paterson – who is decades older than me – as a friend and mentor, so I’m biased on his behalf in reading this outburst. But then, dear New Zealand literati, please let’s none of us pretend that the NZ literary pool is so big that such connections aren’t inevitable when we come to reviewing.]
A 1986 Landfall article on the poetry of Michael Harlow begins by rebuking other critics for being moralistic about Harlow; but then after extensive exegesis of one volume, itself ends up damning Harlow with faint praise.
Edmond’s 1983 article “Notes on the Magazine ‘The Word is Freed’ ” was written a decade after the demise of the short-lived (1969-72) magazine, in which Edmond was one of the leading lights. It is an attempt to “set the record straight” about how the magazine came into being. It does go all proprietorial in working out who was the founding genius and at first reads like a game of “I started the revolution” “No, I started the revolution”, “No, I started the revolution.” Edmond declares:
“Essentially the internationalist versus regionalist debate was one which ‘Freed’ eschewed as meaningless, or at best, superficial. Freed was a local insurrection against the power structure of New Zealand literature. So it was a complex of things – nationalist in its concerns, intensely local in its focus, and internationalist in its sources, forms and allegiances….” (p.157)
While this is undoubtedly true in terms of the publication’s intentions, it does at once present a paradox. NOTHING is truly “internationalist in its sources, forms and allegiances”. There is always a dominant culture, which merely appears to be an “international” voice. (Hegemony - thanks Gramsci). I submit that the poetics of ‘Freed’ were essentially American, and that therefore it was a (minor) manifestation of the refocused cultural colonialism that was, at the time, turning New Zealand from a British to an American cultural dependence.
With Edmond in his forties at the time of writing it, the 1991 piece (from Australasian Drama Studies) “Lighting Out for Paradise” reads now like nostalgia. After first positing a division between Erudita (scripted professional) and dell’Arte (street or small experimental and/or combo) theatre, he then proceeds to give what amount to a series of reviews of what he conceives of as the latter – the Topp Twins, Inside Out, the Front Lawn etc. Again, having once turned on my old television and seen “Camp Mother” and “Camp Leader” correlating for the commercial masses, I again hear the brave new world disappearing up the embracing fundament of the mainstream.
I am being so picky in this rambling and formless review that I may not have made clear one of Edmond’s virtues, even as I rudely scrap with him. He does write clearly. Even if you disagree, there is little of the self-important, bombastic and convoluted gobbledegook that used to pass for criticism among postmodernists.
I hope I won’t sound patronising if I say some pieces have great historical value in their recall of old literary battles. Enjoy Murray Edmond’s 1997 article “Re-a-prizing the Oxford Anthology” on the Montana Award-winning An Anthology of New Zealand Poetry in English. It is a bitterly amusing chronicle of, and attack on, how that particular anthology came into being. It is interesting that nowhere does Edmond choose to mention the names of the anthologists [Jenny Bortholdt, Gregory O’Brien, Mark Williams]. His 2010 piece in Ka Mate Ka Ora, “Trade and True” wittily shows how poetry anthologies in New Zealand in the 2000s follow the same pattern as “trade” anthologies in Britain in the 1920s, but then does go on to talk up Edmond’s own favourites among the anthologies. The 1991 Landfall piece on Alan Brunton is really a long talking-up of his radical-theatre-days colleague and co-conspirator, interspersed with fierce resentment directed at Arts Council funding of mainstream and commercial theatre as it was in 1991.
So much for the young (or young-ish) Murray Edmond.
What about Murray Edmond now?
What I find in his essays and pieces from the first years of the 21st century is a greater sense of cultural history – perhaps the result of more accumulated experience – and a less dogmatic take on things.
Published in Landfall in 2005 “The Terror and the Pity of 1984” is a brilliant contextualisation of Mervyn Thompson’s “Coaltown Blues” and of the eventual controversy in which Thompson was engulfed. Of all the pieces in this volume, this is the one where I found myself becoming most engaged, maybe because here Edmond himself is engaging with a specific and apprehensible work rather than setting up criteria of appreciation. There are some sadly funny moments is this piece, as when Murray speaks of attending a conference on the arts, and specifically on theatre-funding, in 1984. He writes:
“It began with an address from a ‘Man from Treasury’. What he said outlined the New Right policies of the next fifteen years with precision and enthusiasm. I remembered we all chuckled at the silly Man from Treasury. What was he trying to do – terrify us? Where had he found this story he had to tell? Even as we disagreed rabidly amongst ourselves as theatre people, as least we were united in being absolutely sure that this bottom-line, sponsorship-based, business approach to the arts, in which the marketing is the product and the product is the marketing, would never happen to us.” (p.37)
Pardon me if I almost cry at this one, because of course Edmond is recalling a time when people in the arts in New Zealand blithely assumed that neoliberalism could never happen here.
Edmond then narrates how Mervyn Thompson’s Coaltown Blues ran headlong into the radical feminist movement and its accusations that Thomson is a rapist.
The point here is that there was no longer unity on the “left” in New Zealand – a left-wing playwright of working class origin was attacked by feminists who claimed to be part of a liberation process. Referring to the plethora of plays about child abuse, and claims by radical feminists (Renee et al) that domestic violence was the norm in the nuclear family, Edmond makes comparisons with the moralism of the New Right itself :
“So the search for signs of evil and corruption inside the almost sanctified, normal, stable Kiwi family can be seen as an aspect of a wider pattern of moral panic and hysteria in the face of change. This is not to suggest that the Kiwi family was not in need of searching scrutiny, nor to suggest that there were not many good outcomes in terms of improving the position of women in society or in protecting children from abuse. But a certain level of fervour and exaggeration looks like the self-terrorisation by a society in crisis. It is easy for us now to look back with indulgent mockery at the 1954 Mazengarb Report on the danger teenagers posed to the moral fabric of society. However it is more sobering to consider whether this might be an earlier version of a similar societal self-terrorisation.” (p.47)
Translation – Renee and co were having a moral panic attack.
I like the bruising punch of this. Men have been tied to trees for saying less.
In his 2004 piece from Australasian Drama Studies “How Gothic is S/he? Three New Zealand Dramas”, Edmond seems to be flexing his academic cleverness in discovering the shared “gothic” nature of three plays with New Zealand connections. Or is the whole purpose in fact covert satire in pointing out how “gothic” (i.e. theatrical and mannered) Renee’s supposedly social realist Wednesday to Come really is?
For straightforward cultural history, the 2000 Australasian Drama Studies piece “The ‘Original’ Downstage and the Theatre of its History” is also both informative and provocative. Edmond tells the story of Wellington’s Downstage as something that began radical and ended up centralised and settled. Hence, in its origins, it was not like other regional theatres (Mercury, Fortune etc.). What had been “anarchic, radical, experimental” was suborned to being the template for other professional playhouses as envisaged by the Arts Council. This is a rattling good yarn, but as in other pieces in this collection, I am amazed that, in his cultural surveys, Edmond virtually never refers to the mass medium of television, which came to New Zealand at exactly the same time that “professional” live theatre was trying to establish itself here (and experimental theatre was jumping about and hoping it could be an alternative). Downstage began in 1964. In one grudging sentence Edmond notes that “Television had already been broadcast for four years” (p.137). The fate of live theatre here (including the eventual closure of some of the professional theatres) was always linked intimately to the fact that much of the potential audience now had the option of staying at home.
The review of Michelanne Forster’s Always My Sister from Landfall-Review-on-Line this year, treats the play in as much detail as a brief review can, but the review ends up as a lament for the University of Auckland’s withdrawal of support for the Holloway Press.
How would I compare Murray Edmond youngish and Murray Edmond aged?
I would place side-by-side these two pieces:
23-year-old Edmond’s piece on “Group Theatre” (Islands 1972) is a time capsulefrom an age when the death of the playwright was imminently expected and theatre groups were going to roam the streets and old farts were going to quake.
50-year-old Edmond’s “A Look at Generation X” (Booknotes 1999) has the oldtimer getting upset when a youngster (Mark Pirie) comes along and suggests that Edmond’s generation of poets are intellectually obscure. Edmond’s heavy-handed sarcasm flies thick and fast as he tries to slap the whippersnapper down.
Getting older is a bugger, innit?
And now, dear reader, I want to make a dreadful admission: It is when I come to literary theory that I, as an (I think) reasonably literate person, always find myself floundering and yelping for help. So I took a deep breath – a very deep breath – before carefully reading the last three selections of this book, which are grouped together under the heading “Theory”. I’m happy to say the deep breath wasn’t really needed. As always, Edmond’s clarity is admirable and the last three pieces turn out not to be literary theory anyway.
The preface to The New Poets (1987), which Murray Edmond edited with Mary Paul, turns upon classifying new poets according to i. language as commodity (wordplay); ii. poet as seer bearing witness; iii. Maori consciousness; iii. Feminist consciousness; iv. Self-publication and using other media. These are matters of sociological classification as much a literary theory. In the preface Edmond writes:
“…there is no longer any consensus, any clear overview about what poetry is and who should have the power to say so. This possibly reflects the general breakdown in the homogeneous New Zealand society which has been going on for the last ten or fifteen years. The majority of poets in this anthology have responded to this breakdown of consensus, this loss of literary homogeneity and traditional control of literary genealogy, with welcoming enthusiasm. Certainly as editors we have taken this as our leaping-off point and have gone on to construct a book which celebrates the disparate, the various, the diverse, the contradictory, in short, the subcultural width which we have discovered as a happy characteristic of New Zealand poetry.” (p.245)
Now I’d like to applaud this aspiration on the part of the anthologists, but I know I can’t because all anthologies set up criteria by the simple act of selection.
“Poetics of the Impossible”, the introduction to Big Smoke, the 2000 anthology of New Zealand poems from 1960-75,is really more a straightforward history lesson than an exercise in theory. It is a surprisingly opaque account of New Zealand poetry with some of its roots in the Beats.
And finally the eponymous beast “Then It Was Now Again: New Zealand Poetries and their Colonial Histories” (published in 2000). Here Edmond sees a colonialist continuum from the 1940s to the present and a recolonisation in neoliberalism and hence a marginalisation of the Maori view. But this depends more upon his raiding of some familiar history books [Belich et al] than on any element of poetry and one notes superciliously that it means Edmond, willy-nilly, is entering into a “nationalist” debate of the sort that was eschewed by the younger poets of the 1970s, Edmond himself included.
How can I conclude this monstrous excuse for a review, in which I have name-checked diligently every one of the pieces in this volume? I have “filed and classified”. I have committed the sin of Alistair Paterson. So I will now commit hara kiri with a blunt taiaha. But first I’ll point across the classroom at that noisy boy Murray Edmond and say “He was doing it too, miss, and he’s older than me so he should know better!” Or at least know better than to kick away the ladder he is standing on.
And then I will ask you to buy and read the book for yourself because it is provocative and much of it is good cultural history and it is readable.
For Ubu and Ubu, Amen.