Monday, October 8, 2012

Something Thoughtful

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.

            In reviewing poetry in this week’s “Something New”, I noted one volume of poems reacting to literature and reacting to second-hand books. I can’t pretend that I haven’t tried this sort of thing myself. The following is a free-verse poem I wrote four years ago, reacting to the chance discovery of an old book. It appeared in rather different form in Poetry New Zealand #40 in 2010, where it was (with my consent) re-formatted and amended somewhat by the editor.
            I present it here in its original ragged and rather rave-like form.


Devil, bitch, she-wolf
once again you’ve crunched your teeth
into my malleable psyche
with inane cries of
England! England!

In a mosquito-buzzing bach,
a three-day refuge on Auckland’s black-sanded west coast,
I found you among the Vanity Fairs and Woman’s Days.

(also obtainable as one volume with Part One)
first published by the Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1935,
reprinted (with corrections) 1936, 1937, 1939,
1944, 1946, 1949
and last (to the point of the volume I am holding)
edited by W.A.C.Wilkinson M.A. and N.H.Wilkinson M.A.
(whoever they may have been),
hardback, cloth-bound, faded brick-red cover and spine,
ink-splash above the title, ink-dribble on the spine,
and inside the name “Glenys McLaren, Form 4P” in faded ink.
On the flyleaf the words “metaphors” and “similes”,
in another hand, from some lesson not too long after 1951.
The name “G.McLaren” also written in ink across the page-edges.

Inside, pencilled annotations.

Against Gray’s line “The rude Forefathers of the hamlet sleep”,
printed, the words “ham=town; hamlet=little town”;
titles of poems pencil-ticked, to be learnt as holiday tasks.
“From ‘The Passing of Arthur’”
“Kubla Khan”,
“On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic, 1802”,
“Upon Westminster Bridge”
“Break, Break, Break”
“O Captain! My Captain!”

Inside, line drawings by Gillian Alington
(whoever she may have been)
all saying “England! England!
as Chaucer’s widow and her daughters chase Reynard
through a suspiciously clean medieval village,
Harry V stands in full armour on the rubble of Harfleur,
pointing his sword,
leopard-and-fleur-de-lys banner flapping behind him,
daffodils toss their heads in sprightly dance,
at Flores in the Azores Sir Richard Grenville’s
ship is surrounded by Spaniards
and London snow falls for Robert Bridges.

Oh England! England!

Irony rises to scoff at the Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of it all,
the Georgian prettiness and tosh mixed in with the good stuff,
the out-of-dateness of poets nobody would now look at twice
(Ralph Hodgson,  Julian Grenfell,  John Masefield,  Alfred Noyes,  James Elroy Flecker)
Look how wrong the Wilkinsons W.A.C. and N.H. were
even with what was available in 1935
let alone (“with corrections”) 1951.
No Eliot, no Auden, not even a bleating Housman.
And one solitary Christina Rossetti, 
to stand for all women.
Some token non-English
(Burns, Yeats, Longfellow, and Whitman)
but it all says “England! England! England!
Poetry is patriotic,
is part of Our Glorious Heritage.
True Literature is English
makes a cultured gentleman and a sensitive lady,
stiffens the nerves,
helps us love robins, daffodils and the gentle rolling downs,
is indeed a splendid pastime.
But do not take it too seriously, dear children,
for it is essentially harmless fun.
Do not be tempted to become one of those arty, serious types
To prove the point, the volume closes with comic verse.
A.P.Herbert on playing golf.
P.G.Wodehouse on shooting gnu.

My vegetable anger grows vaster than empires and more quick.
New Zealand schoolchildren submitted to cultural colonialism,
imprinted with the wrong seasons, flora and fauna
in northern hemisphere lines.
Dragon Book of Verse, fire-breathing monster
to encourage the waving of Union Jacks on royal visits,
to make poetry an imperial project,
to devalue the local and the national and shut its mouth.

I tear my passion to tatters
about one antique text-book, randomly found, dead now
I win my credentials,
Happy Modernist, Post-Modernist, Post-Colonialist.
Stroke me for my righteous feelings!

Devil, bitch-dog, she-wolf,
you glare at me in another light.
Time is annihilated in that cover ink-blotch,  that Form 4P hand
It tells me that once,  even if unwillingly,
some child read poetry,
was taught it by rote to remember in adulthood.

You have got me in your claws.

She knew (or was allowed to know)
a traveller from an antique land
a beauteous evening calm and free,
by this still hearth, among these barren crags,
queen and huntress, chaste and fair,
the curfew tolling the knell,
unhand me, grey-beard loon.

Did nothing good come from that
even if it was mixed with “Oh to be in England”
and “Noon strikes on England, noon on Oxford town”?
Did no child delight in it,
no good teacher make them love it?
And are our own blessings unmixed?
What would you have them do?
Blog? Side-track poetry to the brighter senior forms only?
Let everyone believe it’s only prose gone wrong?
Deny it to the dummies of Form 4P, or their current equivalent?
Make them read Glover, Curnow, Adcock, Baxter, Mason?

Would you?

How you have corrupted me, she-wolf, she-dragon book!
Like that weak, wet Robert Browning cursing his Lost Leader
(Dragon Book of Verse, page 324),
I end up forgiving
and turn the pages
and hear the rain fall still.

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