We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
Monday, November 7, 2016
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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“THE COLLECTED POEMS OF ALISTAIR TE ARIKI CAMPBELL” [with a foreword by Robert Sullivan] (Victoria University Press, $50)
I am placed in a quandary, as any reviewer must be, when I am faced with an edition of the works of a canonical author. Alistair Te Ariki Campbell (1925-2009), Honorary DLitt from Vic, winner of the PM’s Award for Literary Achievement, Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit, is certainly a canonical New Zealand poet. A noted figure on the national literary scene from the early 1950s until his death, at least some of his poems will be found in any anthology of New Zealand poetry. Indeed one or two of them would readily win a place in any compilation of the “100 best-known poems written in New Zealand.”
Wouldn’t it be rather fatuous of me to make critical remarks about his work at this stage? And yet in spending a couple of weeks renewing my acquaintance with his work, I have to record some sort of reaction.
On top of this, my reaction is as much to the way Campbell’s poems are presented here as it is to the poems themselves. The Collected Poems of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell is a beautifully printed and beautifully produced hardback book (those lovely broad margins! that ribbon bookmark!), which is a delight to the eye. But there is a problem. When we see the word “Collected”, we assume that we are seeing all the poet’s work. A publisher’s blurb tells me that this is “the definitive edition of one of the most important bodies of work in New Zealand poetry”, again implying completeness, and yet later switches to calling it “his most substantial collection to date”, which implies something less. An Editorial Note makes it clear that while these may be the “collected” poems of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, they are definitely not the complete poems. The note explains that Campbell dismissed many of his published poems when he self-selected a canon of his best work late in life, and put it in a ring-binder. It is basically the contents of this ring-binder that this volume of “collected poems” reproduces. Says the Editorial Note: “Many of the ‘missing’ poems were dropped by Campbell over the years (he was a stern critic of his own work); others were omitted in the interest of producing a cohesive collection.” (p.xv) What does this second clause mean? Does it mean that some poems have been dropped so that the collection can become neatly “cohesive” by being arranged thematically? In fact does it mean that interesting poems aren’t here because they don’t fit into the thematic straightjacket?
So after Robert Sullivan’s trim biographical Foreword about Campbell, and after the Editorial Note (in which no editor is credited), what we get are those poems that, in the later stages of his life, Campbell thought to be worth preserving. Therefore many oft-anthologised favourites do not appear, such as “The Gunfighter” or “Waiting for the Pakeha” or even “Memo to Mr Auden 29/8/66”. (I’ve always considered the last-named a spectacularly wrong-headed poem, which misses the point of Auden’s Musee des Beaux Arts upon which is presumes to comment – but it is a poem that should appear in any complete Campbell.)
Okay – so this is the tombstone Campbell constructed for himself – the poems that he eventually came to see as his best. As such, its status is similar to that of the revised collections of his work (Early Days Yet etc.) that Allen Curnow put out every so often representing what he thought at some particular time was his “best” work. But like the Curnow collections, it is far from complete. And, just as we should one day see a genuine complete edition of Curnow, so, seven years after his death, should we now be seeing a complete and genuinely-edited Campbell rather than this stately monument.
There are two further problems with The Collected Poems of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell.
First, because the poems are presented thematically, rather than chronologically in the order in which the poet wrote them (or at least in the order in which they were first published), we are denied the pleasure of seeing how Campbell’s style and preoccupations changed over the years. This may be a problem only to somebody like me, who chooses to read the book from beginning to end. Even so, I do think there should have been some indication of when each poem was written and/or first published.
Second, while there are two good indexes (to titles and to first lines), there is no apparatus criticus – therefore there are no notes explaining the odd obscure reference, or the occasion of some poems. I am not saying that Campbell is ever a wilfully obscure poet – his references to history, to Polynesian and Classical mythology and to landscapes are usually clear and full, in the Romantic tradition to which he essentially belonged. Even so, a genuinely critical edition could have offered us more.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
There now. That will do for my grizzles about the presentation of the book, as I do not want to give the impression that I am dismissing the poems themselves. There is much to delight in here, much to enjoy and a few things to regret. In The Collected Poems of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, the poems are divided into six (thematically-based) sections, so here are a few comments on each in turn.
The first section Of Wild Places is given to Campbell’s poems of wild landscape in general. Almost inevitably it opens with “The Return” and probably the four best-known lines in all Campbell’s oeuvre:
“And again I see the long pouring headland,
And smoking coast with the high sea on the rocks,
The gulls flung from the sea, the dark hooded hills
Swarming with mist, and mist low on the sea.”
Most of these poems are firmly and unmistakably in the Romantic tradition. Winds moan, birds cry, high branches sigh, cliffs are often dark and threatening and there is much mist. Often I felt these poems’ affinity to the type of poetry the young James K. Baxter wrote – understandable given that Campbell and Baxter were contemporaries and fellow booze-artists in Wellington in the early 1950s. Indeed the “Reverie” section of Campbell’s elegy for Roy Dickson could well be something by Baxter himself:
“Sleep on, restless heart
In the wild fruit tree;
May quiet windfalls ease
Your troubled reverie” etc.
I enjoyed this section as a rich and juicy apple of nostalgia for a sort of poetry that nobody writes anymore.
I think that Robert Sullivan’s Foreword wants us to look most closely at the second section, Tongareva to Aotearoa. In part, this is because the poems in the second section allow us to consider Campbell as a “case” – the man with two deeply embedded cultures, Pasifika (Polynesian mother) and Palagi (Scots father). So our eyes here are supposed to be peeled for indications of cultural personhood. And indeed here we find most of the poems in which the man from Tongareva responds to his own heritage but also to New Zealand’s Maori background.
What is most interesting about “Sanctuary of Spirits”, his incantation-like nine-poem-long sequence about Te Rauparaha and Kapiti, is its moral ambiguity. Te Rauparaha’s ferocity in war is partly celebrated and partly deplored. There is something noble in the chief’s demeanour, but there is the unavoidable slaughter, the horrifying images of the slain and imprisoned Ngai Tahu after the genocidal raid on Akaroa. Te Rauparaha is like a god, but a psychotic god. Given this, the poem “An Old Chief Watches Young Men Exercising on Kapiti” (p.41) is a more convincing suggestion of the aesthetic appeal of battle and slaughter
“War delights me most,
but next to war
the sight of warriors
in battle exercise.
The agility of their footwork,
the black contorted faces,
the stabbing tongues,
the crack of stick on stick
as nakedly they parry –
these stir my old blood more
than the seas that hurl their darts
across the boulder banks of Okupe,
or the thunderclouds
that spread their plumes
above the hidden forehead
Campbell could use the imagery and context of Maori mythology to add resonance to a domestic situation, as in “Utu”, which recalls the angst of adultery. Similarly, one of his best-known sequences “The Dark Lord of Savaiki” attempts to reconstruct the meeting and courtship of his father and mother in the context of both the island where they met and its (legendary) past. Showing his attention to these islands, “Elegy for Anzac Day” is more about the wrench of leaving ancestral islands than it is about its titular subject, the Gallipoli campaign. It is clear that the (eleven poem) sequence “Cook Island Rhapsodies” was written later in his career when he had become the famous and occasionally feted poet.
But there is a trap into which Campbell sometimes falls, ironically seen clearly in the 20-part sequence “Soul Traps”. The domestic celebration gets buried under the grandiose mythological references. In “Soul Traps”, Campbell set out to honour his grandparents, but in poetising this simple impulse, the desire for monumentality overtakes him and he ends up with a creation story and invocation of many gods. And – yes – a goddess walks memorably into this poem when his active member is stirred by the sight of a young woman, in the fifth poem in the sequence “A Girl From Avarua” (p.69)
“ I saw you once in Avarua,
a superb young woman
leaning across the counter
of a piecart,
talking to the girl:
tall with a splendid figure
shown to advantage
by your posture –
high breasts, a narrow waist
and swelling hips,
a lovely bottom, legs
tightly encased in jeans
reaching to mid-calf,
brown hair with red lights,
black eyes and a baby face
pale gold in colour….”
Too long to quote, I think the most successful poem Campbell wrote, with a consistent and dominating image controlling his tendency to saunter about a subject, is “Tongareva’ (pp.95-98) where sexual intercourse and procreation are linked, by as many perspectives as possible, to the pull of the moon and the island tides.
Is it blasphemous to see the four “Personal Sonnets” as both forced and mawkish? And am I insensitive to detect the special curse of prosy-ness (or unmusical chopped prose), to which Campbell sometimes fell prey, in the sequence “Parihaka Grieving”?
It is possible that the third section of this collection, Love Poems, is even harder to judge dispassionately than the second. Doubtless the poems all arise from the strong and forceful emotions of heterosexual love, but often one is unsure if Campbell is praising or rhapsodising a real woman or a generic force of nature. He so often speaks in poetic generalities rather than addressing the particularities of a real woman (her looks, her habits etc.). Thus from the poem “Intacta”:
“To be loved by her was an act
Of Heaven, as the rains fall
Or the winds fell. She was perhaps
All women who long for children….” (p.120)
Campbell is romantic in the sense of giving a majestic or mythic setting for love, rather than a real person (is he worshipping Eve or Lilith?). The poems that do speak of a real relationship with a real woman are often direct second-person address (“you”). Oddly, the most affecting of all his love poems is the simple and heartfelt “Absence” (p.149), which is literally about a woman who is not there, and the loneliness of the blundering narrator.
Of course love does also encompass lust, and the most scatological Campbell ever gets is “Drinking Horn”, about mad drunken lust.
The War Poems section consists of two long sequences of poems.
The 14-part sequence “Gallipoli” has echoes of classical legend and mythology, in which Campbell was as well-versed as he was in Pacific mythology, and Campbell was far from the first to compare the botched Dardanelles campaign with the war of Troy. But gradually in the sequence such echoed heroics are displaced by a sense of both the sordor and the pointlessness of the campaign.
The very long (66-part) sequence “28 (Maori) Battalion” gives me much pause when judged as poetry. There is real reportage and settling of the historical score as the battalion struggles and dies through Greece, Crete, North Africa and Italy. Mainly it sets about celebrating the Maori warrior spirit and individual heroes or victims, but it turns severely melancholy in its conclusion as Campbell recalls his soldier-brother Stuart’s death. The critic in me blushes once again to find fault with a canonical poet, but here reportage really often does become lengthened prose.
After having said this blasphemous and insensitive thing, however, I must confess that the section I liked least is the fifth, Poets of Our Youth. It consists of five long “Letters” addressed to friends of Campbell’s youth, some of whom were living and some dead at the time Campbell was writing. John Mansfield Thomson, Harry Orsman, Pat Wilson, James K.Baxter and John Kelly. Not only are Campbell’s “letters” prosy, but (no matter how revealing they may be for some future biographer of Campbell), they amount to personal, poetic and occasionally academic gossip. They are an older man’s memories of being a student and a budding poet in the 1950s with what too often sounds like boastfulness about his youthful sexual prowess and the ease with which he could pick up and bed women. Chimes at midnight stuff.
Okay, many other poets have used the “letter” form, and some (like Auden with his long, witty “Letter to Lord Byron”) have addressed the dead. But the form often edges to patent insincerity. We, as readers, know that such poems are not really written for their nominal recipients, but for us, the wide audience. And so there is an inbuilt show-offy-ness about them. “Look at me, giving you these intimate shared memories, which are really a way of publicly praising myself….”
Having noted this, though, I can’t ignore passages of insight and wit. The “Letter to Pat Wilson” contains this shrewd observation where Campbell notes how younger poets often overestimate how much they are changing poetic norms. He records that when young, he reflected on an older generation of poets and asks:
“What did we really rebel against?
What did we try to tear down? What did we
hope to put in its place? Can we be said
to have had a theory, a way of looking
at the world, that made our poems markedly
different from theirs? I must admit I didn’t
have a programme, and I suspected those
who did. As a young poet, learning my craft
was my sole concern and validation.” (p.251)
Also (and this shows my biases), I can’t help agreeing with Campbell’s verdict on the poetry of Curnow, expressed in his “Letter to James K.Baxter”:
“Few of us were influenced by our elders.
Like them we looked overseas for our
models. Curnow was our cleverest poet,
but who wrote better verse by following him?
Years of writing the topical Whim-Wham poems
gave him unrivalled technical skill
which he used to stunning effect in his
late poems. I can admire them, but I
don’t really like them, as I like your poems
or Denis Glover’s. Carving on cherry stones
was how you described, half in wonder,
half in mockery, the way that Curnow
wrote his poems….” (p.256)
“Admire” but not really “like” – yes, quite.
In some respects this capacious collection delivers us back where we began, as the final section Looking at Kapiti consists of the sensuality of landscape, except now focused more on the much mythologised island, across from what was Campbell’s home for the last forty-plus years of his life. Of course this section begins with what is probably Campbell’s his second-most-often quoted poem “Looking at Kapiti” (a manuscript copy of which appears as the photo on the back cover of the dustjacket):
“Sleep Leviathan, shouldering the Asian
Night sombre with fear, kindled by one star
Smouldering through the fog, while the goaded ocean
Recalls the fury of Te Rauparaha….” (p.273)
I have to assume (given that there are no dates of publication given in this volume) that these landscape poems date from later than the ones in the first section, for there is often a new terseness too them, and less of the florid and High Romantic. The poem “Under Mount Welcome”, for example, notes:
“For those who live on cliffs
in houses that ride the gales –
sheet iron flapping like sails –
it is easy to think of departure,
of vanishing without a trace,
sucked through a hole in the sky.”
There is a gentle, understated brilliance to a poem like “Gathering Cape Gooseberries” (pp.284-285), about finding and admiring the delicacy and tenacity of plants in such an inhospitable setting. There are also more poems about small domestic and wild creatures which surrounded Campbell’s home – mice, dogs, bumblebee, hedgehog. His pair of long “Bucolic Verses” become sentimentally doggy in a way calculated to alienate an ailurophile like me. The same is true of the 28-part “About the House” sequence, dedicated to Sam Hunt, and canine cute throughout. But it is redeemed by the rough honesty of Part X, entitled “Cheap Red Wine”
“Boasted the other day I drank
only cheap red wine, but with
fur on my tongue thick enough
to line my slippers, can I honestly
say I enjoyed it? I can’t keep
shaving the fur on my tongue,
so I’ll have to buy dearer wine
and stop boasting about the virtue
cheap red wine doesn’t have.” (p.310)
I will now enrage you by saying that I find Alistair Te Ariki Campbell an uneven poet, but then I’d be happy to say the same about Bill Shakespeare, Charlie Baudelaire, Emily, Wystan, Old Possum and the gang. It is inevitable when you read [most of] the poems of a single poet in one (two-week-long) gulp. In the end, of course, you have to judge a poet by individual poems, and not by grand conceptions.