Monday, September 26, 2016

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“WHO WROTE ‘THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS’?” by MacDonald P. Jackson (McFarland & Company Publishers, North Carolina);

“THROUGH THE EYES OF A MINER” (second edition), assembled and edited by Simon Nathan, distributed by Potton and Burton at http://www.pottonandburton.co.nz/store/books/photographic/through-the-eyes-of-a-miner, $40;

“THE BLACK WIDOW” by Lee-Anne Cartier (Penguin $38:00)

            This week I am for a change forgoing my usual lengthy analysis of one book, and am giving you in this “Something New” section shorter accounts of three new books. It is not that they are of less merit than the ones I witter on about at greater length. It is simply that I find I can say what has to be said more concisely. In genre and intent the three books have nothing in common. In fact the only thing they have in common is that I am dealing with them together here. One is a painstaking work of literary scholarship. One is the oddly beautiful second edition of a photographic survey of vanished New Zealand working class life. And one is the reconstruction of a recent murder case.

Here goes:

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            There are some fiercely-contested literary matters about which the general public has heard, and there are some which are known only to specialists.

I must admit I had never heard of any controversy surrounding the authorship of The Night Before Christmas (also known as A Visit from St. Nicholas) until I bumped into Professor Emeritus MacDonald P. Jackson at a book launch some months ago. I remember Mac as one of my lecturers in English at the University of Auckland forty-odd years ago. He was the man who trained us in Bibliography and got us to fold bits of paper so that we would know the difference between a folio and a quarto and a duodecimo. He now has an international reputation as a leading scholar in providing correct attributions for the authorship of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays and in working out how and by whom such plays were printed. It’s a matter of extremely close textual analysis, including statistical tabulations of the linguistic preferences of authors and of the typographical habits of printers. (Look up on this blog my fleeting reference to Mac in the review of James Shapiro’s ContestedWill.)

Now, Mac informed me, he had written a book on the Night Before Christmas problem.

I admitted my ignorance. Like most people I can quote the first two lines of this popular American poem (“ ‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, / Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.”) and I know the names of at least some of the reindeer drawing Santa’s sleigh (Dasher, Dancer, Comet, Vixen etc.) although apparently Donner and Blitzen were originally called something else. I also had a vague idea that this was the poem that set the template for popular depictions of Santa Claus  - the jolly chap in the sleigh coming down the chimney to distribute presents. But there my knowledge ended. Maybe it’s because recitations and readings of the poem at Christmastime tend to be more an American tradition than a New Zealand one.

So Mac sent me a copy of his book and this is how it goes.

Apparently the 56 lines of anapaestic rhyming couplets first appeared in an obscure New York newspaper the Troy Sentinel in 1823. (Thinking of it as poem from the Victorian era, I was surprised at how early it appeared). It was printed anonymously under the title Account of a Visit From St. Nicholas. No pre-publication manuscript of the poem survives. Only 14 years later, in 1837, was the poem attributed to the New York Professor (of Greek and Oriental Literature) Clement Clarke Moore, who allowed it to appear in his collected poems a few years later. Some circumstances did seem to attach it to Moore and the poem has continued to be attributed to him. There is even a popular legend about how he wrote it. But the descendants of another minor poet, Henry Livingston, have always claimed that the poem was really Livingston’s. Be it noted that Livingston died in 1828, before the poem was attributed to Moore (who died in 1863) and before Livingston could contest its appearance in Moore’s collected poems.

Other books have been written arguing the case for Livingston rather than Moore. But as Mac Jackson notes early in the piece (p.8), Who Wrote ‘The Night Before Christmas’? is the first book to deploy “both traditional approaches to the determination of authorship  and the newly developed attribution methods of computational analysis.”

            Jackson’s opening chapters are on general impressions that point to Livingston’s authorship of the poem. Livingston’s verse is more cheerful and celebratory, as The Night Before Christmas is, whereas Moore’s poems show him to be a stern moralist. Livingston (who had a Dutch mother) was more likely to name two reindeer “Dunder” and “Blixem” as they are named in the poem’s first appearance. Livingston also wrote much anapaestic verse, which Moore never did.

Jackson then moves into the core of his own arguments – the chapters which show, by close statistical analysis, how rhymes are used in the two poets’ works, and connectives, and three-word links and phonemes; and what specific words appear with high frequency. All this evidence (duly tabulated) points to Livingston as the author of The Night Before Christmas.

In Chapter 19, Jackson desconstructs methodically the myth of how Moore is supposed to have written the poem, after seeing a jolly Dutchman while out shopping for a Christmas turkey. In Chapter 20 he gives us the Livingston family’s version of the poem’s origin, which is possibly more plausible. Moreover, one poem, which Moore definitely did write about Christmas, “Old Santeclaus” shows a punitive, moralistic attitude to children and Christmas quite at odds with The Night Before Christmas.

So why did Moore let The Night Before Christmas be published in his collected poems, if he knew it wasn’t his? Because, speculates Jackson, he was by then too embarrassed to deny his authorship as it has been so widely reported.

Jackson concludes “Every attribution test…. classified ‘The Night before Christmas’ as belonging to Livingston’s poems, not Moore’s. The chief discriminators had not been cherry picked so as to bring about such a result. They were selected according to predetermined mathematical rules. It is hard to see why ‘The Night Before Christmas’ should consistently be linked to Livingston in these one-on-one contests if it was really written by Moore.” (p.131)

For good measure, he has a lengthy appendix giving other poems by Livingston.

I admit that some parts of this argument involve close analysis of texts, which makes for hard reading – but as often as possible, Jackson writes in a clear and accessible style and even allows this obscure contention to be fun.

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Born in Bohemia in 1887 and dying in Greymouth in 1967, Joseph Divis  returned to his old Czech and German stamping grounds for four years in the 1920s. Much later, during the Second World War, he was briefly detained as an enemy alien. But he was essentially a New Zealand working class man. He spent most of his time between 1909 and 1933 as a miner in some of New Zealand’s most famous (or notorious) mines: Waihi in the North Island, but mainly the mines of the South Island’s West Coast – Reefton, Denniston, Blackball, Waiuta. The small settlement of Waiuta became his final home.

But Divis had a second career. He was a photographer.

Edited and introduced by Simon Nathan, and published by the Friends of Waiuta, Through the Eyes of a Miner is a collection of the photography of Joseph Divis, beginning with his earliest days on the West Coast and ending in the 1930s. Simon Nathan is an eminent science historian (see the review of his JamesHector Explorer Scientist Leader elsewhere on this blog). For this revised edition of Through the Eyes of a Miner, Nathan tells me that “printing in grey duotones has worked well, and does justice to the high quality of Divis’s photography”.

Nathan’s notes and captions inform us of when and where Divis’s photographs were taken, and comment shrewdly upon what changes they record. It is notable that in the images taken underground in the mines, miners in the early twentieth century are seen wearing soft hats, as in the frontispiece, taken with a time release mechanism, of Divis himself holding a hammer drill. There are no such things as hard hats. Miners are also seen holding lighted candles, even next to boxes of gelignite. Safety standards were very different back then, in ways that seem alarming to us. There’s also the minor detail that miners in the 1900s tended to wear moustaches. By the 1930s they are all clean-shaven.

In a book of this sort, it is the photographs that do most of the talking.

It’s interesting that while he was a muscular miner, Davis was a dapper fellow when he was above ground and away from work. The many shots he took of himself in township streets, or above mining settlements, show a neat, respectably-dressed chap wearing a boater until the late 1920s when he switched to a homburg. Simon Nathan says we know little of his political affiliations, although it is clear that Divis was a socialist at heart  - there’s a shot of Divis in his twenties, among comrades and holding up a placard announcing Socialism, and another taken years later of him joining the men for a union meeting in the Waiuta Miners’ Hall. Even so, he seems to have been able to earn trust across class divides and mingle with middle-class homeowners and couples. The photographs are evidence of this. He took society photos, of weddings and couples in their happy homes, including the homes of mine managers, who were socially segregated up Nob Hill and away from the workers.

Divis proudly contributed panoramic photographs of mining towns to the old Auckland Weekly News. To our early 21st century eyes, the towns look raw and bleak – denuded of trees, roads rough earth or gravel, small and humble workers’ houses all with corrugated iron roofs and sometimes with corrugated iron chimneys, only one step away from the pioneers. But Divis sometimes made postcards out of these views and we easily forget how much pride there must have been in such new communities, no matter how harsh they look to us.

Queen carnivals, weddings, reunions, and, oops, that play about a Dutch Christmas, with all the kids dressed as Black Pete. (It wouldn’t be allowed now). As social commentary it is fascinating. Ditto as documentary, especially in the series of photos in which Divis recorded the whole process of recovering and refining ore.

But the best are the faces – especially those of the miners underground. A time capsule.

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            About eighty years ago, George Orwell wrote an essay about the pleasure people derive from reading, in newspapers, all the details of real-life murders. There is something, in many us, that is comforted by reading grisly accounts of what has afflicted other people. It’s like being safe indoors in front of a warm fire when a storm is raging outside.

            Written by Lee-Anne Cartier, the sister of the murder victim, The Black Widow doesn’t comfort me in the least. It’s the straightforward account of a sordid domestic murder – and maybe the word “sordid” is simply redundant here. Aren’t all domestic murders sordid? I closed the book feeling nothing other than sad.

            Helen Milner was married to Philip Nisbet. Both had been married before. They lived in Christchurch. In May 2009, Philip (aged 47) was found dead. Helen claimed that he had been severely depressed and that he had committed suicide. She produced a suicide note, which she claimed Phil had written. Phil’s sister Lee-Anne Cartier wasn’t impressed. The note looked to her like a forgery and neither she nor other members of her family had ever heard of Phil suffering from severe depression. Lee-Anne Cartier was further troubled by how quickly after Phil’s death Helen got back together with the man who had been her life-mate before she married Phil.

            The police could find no hard evidence to proceed with an enquiry so, according to her own account, Cartier had to do her own investigation. She soon found that Helen Milner had a backstory of fraud and misrepresentation. Piece by piece, Cartier and other members of her family were able to gather evidence suggesting that Helen Milner had poisoned Phil Nesbit. Finally a coronial enquiry was authorised. The coroner concluded that there was no hard evidence that Phil Nisbet had committed suicide. In other words, Nisbet’s death could have been murder.

The police at last began a proper investigation.

In 2014, five years after Nisbet’s death, Helen Milner stood trial. Among other things, it emerged that early in 2008, Milner had taken out a life insurance policy on Phil, which carried a large payout. The policy stipulated that there would be no payout if the insured committed suicide within 13 months of the policy’s being taken out. Phil was murdered three months after the suicide clause ceased to apply. The evidence against Milner (there is plenty of it) was overwhelming. She was duly convicted and is currently serving a long stretch in Arohata prison.

Nowhere (not even in the fine print) does this book credit a ghost-writer or even an editor, so one has to assume that The Black Widow is as much Lee-Anne Cartier’s story as it can be.

She does not hold back on her opinions, either positive or negative. She is scathing about the police who at first refused to investigate her brother’s death properly, and who she holds guilty of allowing Helen Milner to almost get away with murder. She is effusive about all the people who helped her in her enquiries. Of the coroner who finally allowed a real investigation to take place, she writes:  “I think it’s women like Sue Johnson who our teenagers should be looking at as role model and striving to be like. If I could start all over again, education and career-wise, I would study law, work as a Crown solicitor, then work towards being a coroner….” (p.135). It is a little disconcerting that she once (p.74) talks about consulting a psychic medium, and some fastidious readers may be concerned that she is a very strong supporter of the Sensible Sentencing Trust, some of whose representatives gave her assistance when Helen Milner was tried and then when Milner lodged (unsuccessful) appeals. I must admit I also sometimes found it confusing keeping track of all the members of the author’s extended family. It would appear that nearly all the adults mentioned have been married twice, so there are plenty to family names to get around.

Lee-Anne Cartier is very loyal to her late brother, but she does have to mention sometimes that he may have been too trusting – even to the point of being gullible. Phil seems to have (almost?) fallen for cons by Helen Milner, which claimed, falsely, that Phil’s former partner was working as a prostitute and that Phil’s son by a previous partner was not really his.

Much of this book (including the last forty pages) is simply an assemblage of documents and transcripts, which point to Helen Milner’s guilt.

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "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 four or more years ago.
“THE HISTORY OF THE LIFE OF THE LATE MR. JONATHAN WILD THE GREAT” by Henry Fielding (first published in 1743)

            There are times when you know something is a great piece of writing, but do regret that it sticks so relentlessly to the same tone.
            This is essentially my reaction to Henry Fielding’s History of the Life of the Late Jonathan Wild the Great. Though the length of a short novel (about 180 pages in the Everyman’s edition on my shelf), and though filled with varied picaresque incident, the satirical tone of Jonathan Wild is so consistent throughout, and the same satirical targets hit so often, that one reads impatiently to the conclusion.
As I’ve noted before on this blog, I took the time some years back to read my way through all the works of Henry Fielding (1707-54) that are still part of the canon, and I have made posts on most of them – his play TheTragedy of Tragedies (or The Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great); his travel book Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon; his fantasy-satire A Journey From This World to the Next; and his novels Joseph Andrews (still my favourite) and Amelia. I have yet to make a posting on what is usually esteemed his greatest novel, Tom Jones, but I will get around to it someday. In reading all the above I have of course read only a fraction of everything Fielding wrote in his 47 years. His prodigious quantities of journalism would fill many large volumes and he wrote more than a dozen plays, nearly all of which are now read by specialists only.
            I hesitated before doing a posting on Jonathan Wild for the reason I’ve already given, but here I go anyway. Written after he had already published his first great novel Joseph Andrews, Jonathan Wild appeared originally in Fielding’s Miscellanies, as did A Journey From This World to the Next. In essence it is a parody of “Newgate” books that had a tendency to glamourize the lives of criminals. Fielding writes a mock-heroic biography of a real criminal. Jonathan Wild (c.1682-1725) was notorious for playing both sides of the law. He posed as a respectable businessman who industriously recovered stolen goods and returned them to their owners, while managing to turn in some of the thieves. In this guise he was known as a “thief-taker”. In fact it was he himself who ran London’s gangs of thieves and burglars. He took a generous commission for returning goods his own gangs had stolen and the only thieves he ever dobbed in were those who were expendable to him.
Fielding begins with a mock-heroic account of Jonathan Wild’s ancestors and of his seven years’ transportation in America, and of his sordid quarrels with his mistress Laetitia Snap, who is in fact sleeping with Tom Smirk. Jonathan Wild loses at cards to the cheating Count La Ruse, so he induces Bob Bagshot to rob the count on the highway. He then threatens Bagshot into allowing him to take most of the loot. Jonathan Wild sums up his youthful philosophy when he says: “I had rather stand on the summit of a dunghill than at the bottom of a hill in Paradise” (Book One, Chapter Five)
Showing no mercy for friends or relations, Jonathan Wild proceeds (in Book Two) to ruin his childhood “friend” Thomas Heartfree, a very trusting jeweller, by getting Count La Ruse to buy up much of his stock on credit with no intention of paying him. He has one of his friends captured and hanged for stealing money from Heartfree. Fielding remarks ironically: “These persons are of that pitiful order of mortals who are in contempt called good-natured; being indeed sent into the world by nature with the same design with which men put little fish into a pike-pond, in order to be devoured by that voracious water-hero.” (Book Two, Chapter One) When Heartfree is almost bankrupt, he is locked up for debt. Wild wishes to seduce Heartfree’s wife and comes to her with a plan he says will liberate her husband. It involves taking both her and Heartfree’s remaining stock over to Holland. But en route Wild attempts to rape Mrs. Heartfree. They are captured by a French privateer. Wild is set adrift in a boat, rescued by another French ship, but, once safely in England again, attempts to double-cross his rescuer.
Wild then (Book Three) concocts a scheme to have a man robbed of his wealth by the young hothead Fireblood, but the scheme miscarries, and Fireblood attempts to cheat Wild out of such loot as he has gained. Wild continues to persecute Heartfree. It is only now that Heartfree begins to realize the extent of Wild’s villainy and attempts to have him arrested. With perjured evidence from his cronies, Wild has Heartfree arrested instead. Fielding comments: “Wild, indeed, always kept as much truth as was possible in everything; and this, he said, was turning the cannon of the enemy upon themselves.” (Book Three, Chapter Five) By this time, Wild is running his regular business of trading back stolen goods for profit. Wild marries Laetitia Snap (whose sister Theodosia has been impregnated by the count). They quarrel almost immediately and the sluttish Laetitia is soon having an affair with Fireblood. One gang member, Blueskin, refuses to give over some stolen goods. Wild has him sent to Newgate. There is no honour among thieves.
But now (Book Four) Wild’s fortunes turn for the worse. A new law through parliament severely punishes receivers of stolen goods. He himself is caught out and sent to prison. His wife Laetitia visits him there in tears – but she’s actually crying because she herself has been arrested as a pickpocket. They part with mutual curses. Heartfree’s faithful friend Friendly tries to have Heartfree bailed out, but with no success. On the perjured evidence of Fireblood and others Heartfree is condemned to hang. At which point, miraculously, his wife arrives… and he is reprieved and pardoned. Fireblood had been caught red-handed at some crime and a magistrate realised how worthless his testimony against Heartfree was.
Mrs. Heartfree gives an account of her adventures since she and Wild were parted on the French privateer. These cover four chapters, and involve her at least three times having to preserve her virtue against men who wish to seduce her (including the count who had once conspired with Wild). As she is in the midst of relating these adventures, there is an uproar in the prison as Wild discovers Fireblood with his wife Laetitia (i.e. Fielding clearly and crudely contrasts the Heartfrees’ fidelity with the promiscuity of the criminals).
Wild’s career ends after a long, absurd lecture to him from one of the prison’s incompetent chaplains. It is worth quoting:
And if you are guilty of theft, you make some atonement by suffering for it, which many others do not. Happy is it indeed for those few who are detected in their sins and brought to exemplary punishment for them in this world. So far, therefore, from repining at your fate when you come to the tree, you should exult and rejoice in it; and, to say the truth, I question whether, to a wise man, the catastrophe of many of those who die by a halter is not more to be envied than pitied. Nothing is so sinful as sin, and murder is the greatest of all sins. It follows, that whoever commits murder is happy in suffering for it. If, therefore, a man who commits murder is so happy in dying for it, how much better must it be for you, who have committed a less crime!” (Book Four, Chapter Thirteen)
On the gallows, just before he is hanged, Wild picks the chaplain’s pocket. Fielding concludes with a list of Wild’s Machiavellian “virtues” and an account of how his criminal confederates met their ends and how the Heartfrees prospered.
Clearly, then, this is a mock-heroic and heavily ironical account of a thief and murderer, only very loosely based in the life of a real criminal. As Fielding remarks shrewdly before the tale begins:
To confess the truth, my narrative is rather of such actions which he might have performed, or would, or should have performed, than what he really did; and may, in reality, as well suit any other such great man, as the person himself whose name it bears.  (Fielding’s Preface)
There are three layers to the book – an account of the historical Jonathan Wild; Fielding’s satire on the prime minister Robert Walpole (there are many allusions to Walpole and his party in the guise of Wild and his gang); and Fielding’s determination to show that “great men” such as prime ministers and conquerors are in reality mere rogues like Wild writ large. This book was written in 1742, just after the resignation of Walpole, who was notorious for keeping control of the Commons with bribes and patronage. Says Fielding: “I think we may be excused for suspecting that the splendid palaces of the great are often no other than Newgate with the mask on.” (Fielding’s Preface)
Fielding is angered that “greatness” too often means merely the exercise of power without goodness. He writes:
Now as to that greatness which is totally devoid of goodness, it seems to me in Nature to resemble the false sublime in poetry, whose bombast is, by the ignorant and ill-judging vulgar, often mistaken for solid wit and eloquence, whilst it is in effect the very reverse. Thus pride, ostentation, insolence, cruelty, and every kind of villainy, are often construed into true greatness of mind, in which we always include an idea of goodness.” (Fielding’s Preface)
To this extent, the intention of the satire is something similar to Tolstoy’s attacks on Napoleon in the end-piece to War and Peace. (Fielding often compares Wild to Alexander and Caesar). Both writers are saying that we are too often told to admire public people for all the wrong reasons, and in the process true virtue is ignored, or simply does not play well in heroic fiction. Men esteemed great are “the perfection of diabolism.” (Book One, Chapter One) Such satire is evident when Jonathan Wild reasons, like an ur-Nietszche:
 The art of policy is the art of multiplication, the degrees of greatness being constituted by those two little words more or less. Mankind are first properly to be considered under two grand divisions, those that use their own hands and those who employ the hands of others. The former are the base and rabble; the latter, the genteel part of the creation. The mercantile part of the world, therefore, wisely use the term employing hands, and justly prefer each other as they employ more or fewer; for thus one merchant says he is greater than another because he employs more hands… Now suppose a prig [a cant term for thief] had as many tools as any prime minister ever had, would he not be as great as any prime minister whatsoever? Undoubtedly he would What then have I to do in the pursuit of greatness but to procure a gang and to make the use of this gang centre in myself?” (Book One, Chapter Fourteen)
Wild robbing, receiving and selling stolen goods, contriving at murder and betraying members of his own gang is a version of a prime minister jockeying for parliamentary power, exercising patronage, forming and breaking alliances, using public money for his own purposes etc.
            This, at any rate, is the intention. But does the book actually play this way? The effect of the mock-heroic style is to draw our attention to the sordid nature of the crimes and the private lives of criminals. The mood of the book is most like a satire on the type of “true history” broadsheet of a criminal that would be hawked about at a public execution. Wild’s relationship with his sluttish wife is one signal that there is nothing glamorous in the criminal’s life, and when scenes between them are reported in high heroic language the irony is very heavy indeed. You find it in such things as the extended metaphor describing Wild’s reaction to finding his wife in Fireblood’s arms in the prison: 
As the generous bull, who, having long depastured among a number of cows, and thence contracted an opinion that all these cows are his own property, if he beholds another bull bestride a cow within his walks, he roars aloud, and threatens instant vengeance with his horns, till the whole parish are alarmed with his bellowing; not with less noise nor less dreadful menaces did the fury of Wild burst forth and terrify the whole gate”. (Book Four, Chapter Ten)
            The glaring faults of the book are obvious. There is no intelligent virtue to offset Wild’s villainy. Heartfree is so guileless, innocent and helpless that he comes close to suggesting virtue means weakness and gullibility. Is this similar to the problem Fielding later faced in making a virtuous heroine of the long-suffering Amelia? Mrs. Heartfree shows some gumption in her various escapes during her journeys, but the four chapters in which she relates these are an obvious intrusion in the narrative. There are some good moments – perhaps Wild’s picking the parson’s pocket (to get a cork-screw) on the gallows is the best – but in the end the satiric purpose is so obvious and so often repeated that reading this is like being continuously thumped over the head.

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


            You and Lord Byron have just spent the night trawling through the brothels (male and female) of Venice. The dawn is breaking and you are now feeling the impact of all the alcohol you have drunk. Byron is a poet, so with alcohol affecting your head and music in your ears and some half-remembered experiences of groping and fumbling and the gondola rocking, you tell yourself that you are living poetry. Not that you’ve written or read or heard any poetry tonight and not that your club-footed friend has shared any, but just because… well… this is experience, isn’t it? So who needs words? Poetry is life, isn’t it?
You and Baudelaire are staggering through early morning Paris with the sun shouting down alleys. He is strutting in that odd way he does when he’s had opium. He thinks he’s as tall as a church tower. You yourself are both high and louche – opium and Chablis are a heady mix. Such thoughts float through your head. Such menacing and intoxicating rhythms. “Epatez la bourgeoisie!” you yelp. You are filled with such ideas, such images. Baudelaire will go home and write his ideas down, and when he wakes, and after he has asked his mother for more money, he will work at his ideas and craft them and turn them into poems. You yourself don’t write poems, but you have lived poetry, haven’t you?
You’ve just been pissing up large with Dylan Thomas in Swansea or London or maybe New York in his last days. Boy can that boyo knock them back! And God what sly skill he has in scrounging money for the next one! But is his bar-room chatter and raconteurship his poetry? His pisshead wife says that her pisshead husband actually spends hour and hours in the boatshed at Laugharne, “rehashing his adolescence”, but also labouring over just one line to get it right. Maybe that’s why, in about 23 years as a poet, he doesn’t write all that much, and what he does write is mainly written when he is very young. But you’ve been in his company and you’ve pissed up large with him, so that makes you a poet too, doesn’t it?
You will note, cunning and perceptive reader, that each of the preceding three paragraphs ends with a rhetorical question.
 And the implied answer to each rhetorical question is
Recently, in the midst of one of those prolonged and rather pointless Facebook “controversies” (i.e. increasingly hysterical trading of insults), I saw somebody declare that “Poetry is a life-style, an attitude, a being. There are no exclusions.”
Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! on quite a few counts. Poetry might be associated with these things. Obviously every poet lives in his or her own way (I dislike the American yuppie term “lifestyle”), every poet has a raft of attitudes, and as to being  - well I assume that poets actually exist. But people who have nothing to do with poetry also have “a life-style, an attitude, a being”. Unless this Facebook polemicist is going to get prescriptive and say that poetry is associated with a particular sort oflife-style… attitude… being” then the statement becomes meaningless.
Poetry in the end is words and how skilfully or meaningfully or rousingly or feelingly or perceptively they are written and used. Just as there is no music without sounds, so is there no poetry without words. How we live our lives will, if we are poets, have a lot to do with the type of poems we produce. But it is the producing of poems themselves that makes us poets – not the lives we live.
Increasingly (and especially in the realms of performance poetry, pub poetry and poetry slams) I find the “life” being confused with the “work”. << I have been to a performance, knocked back a few, got high and enjoyed myself …. therefore I have lived poetry. I have entered into and experienced poetry by being with my Bohemian mates. >>
Since at least the Romantic era, there has been the increasing tendency to see the way a poet lived his (or her) life as being as important as – or even more important than – the poetry that he or she produced. Hence my scenarios about Byron, Baudelaire and Thomas. The template of a poet is as a rebel, or sexual adventurer, or prodigious imbiber of alcohol or drugs, giving two fingers (or one finger) to respectable society. I suspect this is what fuels the idea of poetry as life-style… attitude… being”. You get this attitude towards Allen Ginsberg and the Beats or James K.Baxter or Sam Hunt – often recognition and adulation from people who haven’t read a word any of these people have written.
Biggest victim of this approach has to be teenage poet Arthur Rimbaud. What a tidal wave of memoirs, biographies, plays, films, and documentaries about his life there has been! What is being admired is the runaway from respectability; the boy who walks the railway tracks from Paris; the legend of the scruffy kid who wows older male poets and cohabits with one of them; the social rebel and outcast. All of which leaves out a number of obvious points. (a.) Rimbaud’s volte-face into respectability after teenagerdom was over; (b.) the fact that thousands of other kids have been finger-waving “rebels” without being poets; and therefore – logically (c.) the fact that the only thing distinguishing Rimbaud from a horde of others is that he wrote poems.
And how many of his soi-disant admirers actually read his poetry? Seriously, now – have you read Le Bateau Ivre or Illuminations or Une Saison en Enfer? [Even more thorny – have you read them in French? Okay – a good translation can be interesting, but let’s not pretend it’s the original poems.] There are some genuine admirers of the poetry of this kid with an adult intelligence but a teenage sensibility. More widespread, however, is an endorsement of the life rather than the work.
Poetry is not a good raucous night at the pub or café, though poetry may be found there. Poetry is not humming and dancing, though I’m sure these things can be interesting performances. Poetry is words skilfully deployed.
As for what distinguishes “good” from “bad” poetry, that is a sermon for another day.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“BACK WITH THE HUMAN CONDITION” by Nick Ascroft (Victoria University Press, $25); “BILLY BUTTON – A Life” by Bill Sutton (HB Poetry Press, $20 – may be ordered from suttb70@gmail.com)
I have been reading with great pleasure and sometimes with sincere puzzlement Nick Ascroft’s third collection of poetry Back with the Human Condition. I at once get an image of the jester with cap and bells. Here he is, the court fool, licensed to joke about the most serious matters, but in his foolery being very penetrating and acute. What could be more serious than some of the themes Ascroft handles? And yet what finesse, what apparent lightness of touch, what verbal dazzle, what refusal to take himself seriously even when he is deathly serious. It’s a lesson in sheer poetic skill.
To judge by the way Ascroft’s collection is arranged into four parts, you would assume that the human condition is dominated by the four titles given to these parts – Love, Money, Complaints and Death.
The first section, “Love”, does not contain a single love poem in the conventional and expected sense of the term. The poems in this section are about the exuberance, variety and randomness of life, with a sedulous avoidance of direct address to any beloved. The tone is set in part by a title such as “Whereby I Compare You to a Cow and Try to Dig My Way Out”. [Yes, carper, the title addresses a second person, but the poem isn’t in that voice.] How absurd much love is, even as the poet babbles. How much his own metaphors trip him up in verbal slapstick.
To read a poem like “The Little Allegories of the Evening Treed under Bushels of Bushes in a Rainstorm” is to be reminded of one of the agonies of love – the ultimate separateness of the beholder from the beheld; the lover’s inability to fully identify with the person who is loved; the hell of individual viewpoint where:
“…The dead philosophies fossilised in our metaphors
of back and front, this is my dead metaphor for me.

My moods are not your moods
They are quiet, blurt, subside, rattle in the bathroom
on the mirror’s metal. Squatting here on the seat
of a kitchen chair, embroiled over the keyboard

like a gargoyle, I confess them to the monitor,
thinly veiled in quatrains, then shush them,
let them obscure to a lyric, the allegory
of a sparrow lunching in a wheelbarrow.

Fiction – the depiction of anything that isn’t.
And words are the things that were.
My moods are not your moods – they live
in my legs and can’t be said, they are impositions….”

But the world buzzes with love in the sense of lived life. The poem “Spring Wedding” (written, with the strong traditional skills Ascroft can deploy, in four ten-lined stanzas of rhyming couplets) is about a stag itching its way through a landscape in a sort of prelude to rutting. “Juju”, just for the fun of it, is poem of extravagant imagery about a woman’s haircut. “The For” consists of ironical good wishes to bride and groom in a jocular rhyming-couplet epithalamium.  Later, in a mood of sheer playfulness, there are haiku as imagined drifting half between sleep and wakefulness on a sleeping car.
With a title like “Money”, one would imagine that the second section would have some satirical bite about our rule by Mammon, and indeed it does. The poem “Procyclical” ridicules finance and the big deals of the stock exchange, basically telling us how trivial money is from a cosmic perspective. It is Ascroft’s most direct satiric jab. Buried in “The Bearded Blog”, with its odd typography and page-filling layout, there are some pungent comments about finance. But the “Money” section of this collection could as well be called “Work”, as Ascroft is more concerned about the things money forces us to do than he is about money itself. There are a number of poems about work. “The Lord of Work” leads us to question what we mean by work anyway (as well as suggesting that work can become a controlling obsession.) “Chimps Can’t Take Pains” is jocular but (again showing the jester’s motley) makes a real point about how unique human beings are in subjecting themselves to a certain concept of work.
True to what has gone before, the third section, “Complaints”, is only in part about complaints. There is the fuggy experience of having to get up and face the day (“So Angry”) and of vegetables and unappetising healthy food (“Through a potato”) and of a harsh music-teacher (“No Irony: Music 203”) and of old imperialist maps (“The Unknown Cartographer”). And there is the awful fact that you never can capture music in words (“Never Was a Semiologist”) and yet that music occurs in spite of our formal descriptions of it (“An Accidental Phrasing”). And there is the awfulness of boring, time-killing everyday life (“Waiting for the Toast to Pop”) and the daunting prospect of growing older (“House, Kid, Dog”). I suppose some of these could be called complaints, but in most cases the poet’s good humour minimises the painful part.
Three particularly joyful pages are about the happy relief of pissing, after controlling one’s bladder for too long,  “Jonathan Relieves Himself Out a Bus Window in India”.
And so to the fourth section, “Death” – which begins not with graveyards and the Grim Reaper but with wry limericks. “This Poem is Guaranteed to Awaken a Coma Victim” makes light of comas (why not?) while “Poem Bomb” is a perfect sonnet lamenting the impotence of poetry in the face of real world tragedy. In fact it is a very good piece of satire at the expense of poets’ pretensions.
I am not over-emphasising the High Seriousness in Nick Ascroft’s wit, for there are some poems which I can see only as fantasias - “Limo Juice” and “The Thirst of Lucy’s Copy” are wordplays of a slightly intoxicated sort. “I Bid it Hello” appears to have a European winter setting and be half a kitchen reveries. I also have to make an admission, which some critics are loath to make under any circumstances. There were some poems that were completely impenetrable to me. I did not understand them at all. What on Earth is “The Ultrasonic Tweets I Scream” about?
At the other reach of achievement, there are great poems like “Impachydermatous Pride”, which could be an anthem for those who don’t like seeing animals locked up in a zoo – or at least the highbrow ones among them. The title poem “Back with the Human Condition” has a huge frame of reference, speculating on which of our pre-human genetic forebears we carry within us, but its touch is typically light.
I end by quoting in full “The Plume that Precedes a Word”, a careful reflection on the maddening gap between concept [or feeling] and language [words]. You will note that, like other poems in this collection, it is a perfect sonnet. Whatever else he chooses to do, Ascroft knows what form is and knows how to use it:

I drag these draping lopes of thought with pins
to pierce a word whose subtleties finesse
the sense I am intending to express.
My blood upon arriving at it thins
with nauseous disappointment: ugh, such dire
and Latinate humdrum. An instant prior
I had foreseen it dressed more finely via
a prophecy of counterfeited fire.
But this corona, plume or aura which
precedes the fittest word’s as much among
the word’s collation as its stocking-stitch
semantics and its flourish of the tongue –
and glottis – casting Plato’s gravity
in sound-shapes through the oral cavity.

*   *   *   *   *  *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *  

Late in his second collection of poetry, Billy Button – a Life, in the poem “Sunrise track”, Bill Sutton says “after two marriages and three careers / I am free to do what I like”.
Perhaps best known as a former Labour MP, Sutton has also worked as a research scientist and knows farming matters from his family’s farming background. This collection is frankly autobiographical. Dividing his poems into four sections (Early Years, Working Years, Later Years and Reflections) the 72-year-old Sutton prefaces each section with a prose account of his life. As he notes a number of times, he wrote some poetry as a youngster, but work, family, marriages and other aspects of life kept getting in the way of his writing any more poetry until he was retired.
Only in the last decade or so – “ free to do what I like” - has he sat down and worked at his poetry.
A world away from the verbal gymnastics of Nick Ascroft, the poems of Bill Sutton are simple, straightforward and colloquial. When he deals with childhood, he remembers comic-reading fantasies and the stalwart nature of his parents and aspects of a country life. The collection’s title is explained in the poem “The big rake” -  as a kid he was sometimes tormented with the nickname Billy Button. As a parent he recalls such things as children kindly trying to celebrate Father’s Day and he having to play along with the ritual (the poem “Dad’s Day”). Old friends are particularly celebrated, even if the friend is simply a curious passer-by asking about a tree in his front garden (“Tree Talk”). The older he gets, the more he reflects on partings and separations and of course the inevitability of death. But there’s a serenity and acceptance to the closing poems of the volume, especially “Mood Swing” and the beautiful “Restless Nights”. No raging against the dying of the light.
I enjoyed this volume for the clear way in which it presents a particular personality. If I were to fault it, it would simply be that some of the poems are a little too prose-ey, like anecdotes rather than crafted poems. In “Speaking from the heart”, Sutton tells what is an oddly moving story from his parliamentary days, but I think it might have sat better in a prose memoir.
I don’t want to end this brief notice with a dismissive kick, however. There is too much here to enjoy, Sutton’s sincerity and openness of spirit are clear throughout, and many poems hit just the right tone. I am most of a decade younger than Sutton, but I am old enough to remember the Rome Olympics, that inspired one of the best in the book, “Golden hour”, which I quote here in full:

That thunder-crack race
splitting the sleepy 50’s
from the dangerous 60’s
warning the world
the Boomers would be different.

No wonder the Germans
were shouting Schnell Schnell
Schnell as lightning
struck the stadium, a hero
who was fast, muscular
trained to endure
and driven by a V8 motor.

Lydiard was jubilant, vindicated
while the others lay sobbing
and boys I had boarded with
lined up to train
alongside the great Peter Snell
who raced only the world’s best
after that, beating them all.