about Rex Fairburn
Introduction to A.R.D. FAIRBURN SELECTED POEMS (Victoria University Press, 1995).
‘One of the most remarkable men ever to have been born in the southern hemisphere’,1 A.R.D. Fairburn pursued his many interests with an idiosyncratic flair and vitality that endeared him to friends and bemused the puritanical New Zealand public of his adult years. Peripatetic philosopher who ‘would argue the hind leg off a cow’,2 he spent over three decades teasing, heckling and chiding his countrymen in talk and in print. Passionate about ideas, this espouser of causes and tireless commentator on the arts, politics, economics, education and local customs was no less devoted to compost, boats and a game of golf. His journalism ranged from forecasts about the 1948 American presidential elections, through appreciation of the National Orchestra, to caveats on the pasteurisation of milk. His columns posed such questions as ‘Should writers be encouraged?’ and ‘Could parliament be improved?’ (‘Well, Guy Fawkes thought so. . .’). His letters to the editor covered topics as various as Fred Hoyle’s theories about the universe, the indecency of an all-white All Black tour of South Africa (where ‘an oppressed race and their oppressors live together in a bond of hatred’), Auckland municipal elections, brass band playing (‘a boisterous form of athletics’) and iodised salt.3 In prose that was invariably lucid, concrete and witty, he mocked earnest pretension, celebrated the creative and intellectual life, explored the burning issues of the day, and defended humane liberal values against humbug, wowserism, philistinism and cant.
‘Renaissance man’, in the eyes of English poet Edmund Blunden,4 Fairburn also played the role of sardonic court jester. Painter and fabric-printer, erratic kiwi handyman and thick-fingered bush-carpenter, pagan worshipper of sun, sea and the great outdoors, long-distance swimmer with a six foot three inches frame, gadfly in a society suffering from ‘spiritual lethargy’, Fairburn restlessly sought a religio, a mode of existence, that would confer meaning, uniting mind and body, individual and environment. He was a key figure among those of his generation who provoked their country into self-examination and a broadening of cultural horizons. His friend Douglas Robb saw him ‘in the role of the cheese-starter’: ‘just as a cheese-starter helps to mature cheese, so Rex helped to mature literary and artistic thought in New Zealand’.5 Denys Trussell’s fine biography, Fairburn (1984), places the many-sided poet within a phase of development not only of his homeland but of the Western world.
The outlines of his life may be briefly sketched. His grandfather, Edwin Fairburn, son of Bay of Islands missionaries, was the eleventh white child born in New Zealand, in 1827. Rex Fairburn (Arthur Rex Dugard) was born in Auckland, 2 February 1904, the eldest of three brothers. His father, Arthur, was an employee of the Colonial Sugar Refining Company who became the firm’s accountant. His mother, Teresa, had been a piano teacher and governess. Rex attended Auckland Grammar School, where he struck up an enduring friendship with R.A.K. Mason. From 1922 he worked for four years as an insurance clerk before taking a four-month trip to Norfolk Island. Late in August 1930 he boarded a ship bound for England, where his volume of verse He Shall Not Rise was published. In London he met people prominent in literature and the arts. He tramped through France and Spain, wrote for The New English Weekly, as well as reporting back to New Zealand newspapers, and in Wiltshire married Jocelyn Mays, an Aucklander who had been studying at the Slade School of Fine Arts. They were to have three daughters and one son, the first child being born before their return voyage to Auckland towards the end of 1932.
Fairburn thus exchanged England’s economic depression for New Zealand’s. He joined the thousands of unemployed, undertaking relief work on the roads, advocating Douglas Social Credit and supplementing his meagre income with payments for freelance articles. Lack of money was a lifelong complaint. In 1934 he became assistant secretary of the Auckland branch of the New Zealand Farmers’ Union and sub editor of Farming First.
Over the next fifteen years he remained busy as polemicist, journalist, social analyst, editor, lampoonist and poet. He formed a network of friendships that included many of the significant New Zealand makers and thinkers of the time. It was in 1940 that he first stayed at Terry Bond’s home on the Mahurangi peninsula, north of Auckland; this was to become the coastal Mecca luring him in ‘To a Friend in the Wilderness’. And it was during this period that he began his voluminous, often dazzlingly zany correspondence with Denis Glover.
His prose pamphlets and booklets included an indictment of the New Zealand Herald entitled Who Said Red Ruin? (1938), a Joycean ‘pollytickle parrotty’ of Michael Joseph Savage called The Sky is a Limpet (dated 1939, but not published till 1940), and the essay We New Zealanders (1944). In 1943 – after several months as an intractable military trainee – he was transferred into the New Zealand Broadcasting Service, where he worked for four years. Wellington bureaucrats were, he said, ‘so tight, they wouldn’t allow 1ZB to spend a quid on a landline to broadcast the Second Coming with the original cast’.6 In 1944 he also began a five-year stint as editor of the Compost Magazine, a forum from which he vigorously supported Dove Meyer Robinson’s ultimately successful Auckland campaign against the Brown’s Island sewerage scheme.
In 1947 Fairburn resigned from the Broadcasting Service and earned a living through the hand-blocking of fabric designs based on Maori cave drawings; for thirty years his curtains hung in Government House, and prints sold in the United Nations Gift Shop in New York. In 1948 a friend from his days in London, Lucy Wertheim, organised through Fairburn the gift to the Auckland City Art Gallery of a large collection of contemporary British paintings, and in that same year he was appointed to a tutorship in the English Department of Auckland University College. In 1950 he became a lecturer at the university’s Elam School of Fine Arts.
In 1956 he underwent an operation to remove a tumour from the left kidney. The carcinoma was, he wrote to Glover, ‘sent to Wellington for full diagnosis’: he pictured it ‘roaring through the Waikato, rocking through the gorges of the King Country, rolling onward through the dark, pausing briefly for a cup of tea and a pie at Taumarunui, then once more being hurtled southward, ever southward – at last emerging from the tunnel and being met at the station of the Capital City by . . . some pathetic porter from the Pathology Dept. Just to think of the party you could have thrown it, had you only known.’7 Fairburn died at his Devonport home on 25 March 1957.
Like any complex personality, Fairburn’s was a mass of contradictions. He was a ‘tribal man’ who often felt a misfit. Gregarious, a centre of attention at parties, he formed a lifetime habit of going on solitary walkabouts. Poetic celebrant of ‘the instant of joy’ and exuberant clown, he was subject to fits of the blackest melancholia. Zealous about a host of activities, he was periodically plagued by a sense of profound futility. Ardent lover of life, he was haunted by fears of death. His poetry ranges the full gamut of his attitudes and moods
At the time of his death Fairburn was widely regarded as New Zealand’s foremost poet. In New Zealand Literature: A Survey (1959), E.H. McCormick gave him prominence in a chapter on writers who had emerged during that key decade in our national literary history, ‘The Thirties’. The lyrics of Strange Rendezvous were seen as celebrating love ‘in all its complexity’ – carnal, spiritual, youthful, wild, domesticated: ‘Sensuous, passionate, profound, these love poems are unique in our literature.’ ‘To a Friend in the Wilderness’ was praised as ‘a splendid affirmation’ of the poet’s ‘humanistic faith’: ‘Of no poem can it be said more truly that it gives form and consciousness to the anarchy of life in New Zealand.’8 Selections from Fairburn’s verse occupied more pages than anybody else’s in Allen Curnow’s expanded Caxton anthology, A Book of New Zealand Verse 1923-1950 (1951) and in his The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (1960). As early as 1947 Curnow had judged: ‘There has been no other New Zealand poet whose verse, over such a range of theme and form, displays such energy, sureness, and positive command – within whatever limits – of the lyric or ballad tradition; nor one who knows better the language he writes in.’9 And in the introduction to his Penguin book Curnow praised ‘To a Friend’: ‘in his final poetic testament . . . he has spoken "the truth of his joy" uniquely, and for his countrymen’.10 In a Landfall review of Three Poems and Strange Rendezvous, Denis Glover had hailed ‘the publication of these two books within a few months of each other’ as ‘the most important event in our poetry for a number of years’.11 In an article written immediately after Fairburn’s death, Erik Schwimmer and Louis Johnson judged that ‘In a mere handful of poems about men and women, he surpasses any of our poets for warmth, tenderness, and a depth of passionate understanding.’12 A sense of Fairburn’s importance, not to say preeminence, prevailed.
By the time the Collected Poems (1966) appeared, the nine-year withdrawal of Fairburn’s charismatic presence from the literary scene allowed the poems to be assessed with a dispassionate eye. Vincent O’Sullivan judged that in Dominion it is ‘only rarely . . . that social observation is embodied in language and imagery which adds to it, expresses it, but is not identical with it’.13 Ignoring the other two long poems, he located the core of Fairburn’s poetic achievement in the mature lyrics of love and death. W.S. Broughton also concluded that ‘where his lyric gifts are fused with his imaginative insights into the verities of human experience, Fairburn has left us poetry of a high order’. Yet he devoted the bulk of his review to evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of Dominion, which he considered ‘an important centre piece in Fairburn’s work’ and ‘a moving document’ of the ‘nightmare’ of the depression, though ‘not finally a successful poem’. While venturing the opinion that of the Three Poems ‘only The Voyage seems to sustain its arguments through all the tonal shifts that are part of each poem’s progression’, Broughton subjected neither of the later long poems to analysis.14 More briefly, James Bertram found ‘a considerable body of lyrical work that is impressive both in its finish and its generous range of human sympathies; and a fools’ gallery of satirical verse that is sometimes really funny, and always witty and pointed’, but considered that it is on the Three Poems that ‘Fairburn’s reputation as a major New Zealand writer will probably rest’.15 C.K. Stead’s closely argued view was that Fairburn never fulfilled the youthful promise of He Shall Not Rise. In Dominion he detected, on the one hand, ‘a violence of the will’ fabricating ‘public rant’, and on the other, ‘the old high tremulous emotive talk Fairburn all his life went on producing and running away from’. He lamented the segregation in Fairburn’s poetic persona of the solemn, high-toned lyricist from the funny man; the combination might have created a stronger, tougher poetry with its built-in defence works of irony and wit. He admired ‘Wild Love’ and one or two short lyrics, and especially ‘Disquisition on Death’, where the impulse governing the poem seemed ‘strong enough to resist Fairburn’s efforts to pull it all together into an orderly conclusion’.16
Over the last three decades criticism has, with one notable exception, had little to add. Overdue recognition of Allen Curnow’s stature, as he has continued to augment a remarkable body of verse well into the 1990s, has tended to cast other poets of his generation into comparative neglect. James K. Baxter’s life and work also served to eclipse theirs. Younger poets have looked increasingly to American models – to less trim, tidy and decorous structures, or to more oblique and elliptical kinds of expression than Fairburn typically attempted. Feminism has focused on women poets slighted by the ‘masculinist’ tradition enshrined in Curnow’s anthologies. The one attempt at a full critical appraisal of Fairburn’s verse has been Denys Trussell’s: in his biography of Fairburn he shows himself to be not only appreciative of the man but also perfectly attuned to his accomplishment as poet. His commentary on individual poems, while always sympathetic, is judicious in diagnosing the precise nature of their failures and successes. For Trussell, ‘To a Friend in the Wilderness’, with its ‘luminous largesse of feeling’ is ‘the touchstone that, in its ideas, its weft of language, its progression and its repose, reveals the best in the shape of Rex Fairburn’s spirit’.17
In May 1931, when Fairburn was in England, Walter de la Mare invited him to Sunday tea at his home in Buckinghamshire, and it is of a late-Romantic such as de la Mare, or the Yeats of the Celtic Twilight, or Ernest Dowson in the 1890s that one is reminded in reading the volume of verse that Fairburn had published in the previous year, He Shall Not Rise, with its languid cadences and dreamy diction. These are lyrics that rely above all on what Ezra Pound called melopoeia:18 in the disposition of phonemes and the interplay of syntax and line Fairburn displays a verse-maker’s equivalent of his mother’s skill on the piano.
Music in poetry can range from the cantabile of Shakespeare’s sonnets, in which the speaking, arguing, meditating voice can always be heard, to the vigorously stressed exclamatory rhetoric of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s sprung rhythm. The youthful Fairburn’s musical effects are less substantial, but serve admirably to convey a bittersweet sense of the changes wrought by time, the fragility of beauty, and the brevity of joy. The speaker of ‘All I Have Desired’ claims that all he has longed for ‘really’ is ‘the peace / and the forgetting / of the instant of love; / and the flat calm of death’. In a poet in his early twenties this must be something of a pose, but the lines foreshadow Fairburn’s later lyric themes. In ‘Diogenes’ the cynic’s desire is to be ‘lulled in a sleep that should outlast the world’.
There are traces, too, of Fairburn the satirist and wit. ‘Winds’ has an air of elegant self-mockery. ‘Song’ (‘Oh, youth has thoughts a-plenty’) offers the thought that ‘Wisdom, with a winding-sheet / is coming here to tea’. ‘Song at Dawn’ introduces a new tone with its fantasy of ‘the amorous dead’ and their ‘sly tongues’. And ‘All I Have Desired’ presents the bee as ‘pandar / to the blossoms’ and the sea as ‘a weeping strumpet’: the influence of Rupert Brooke may perhaps be detected there. ‘The Flowers’, with its knowing play on the Latin root in the phrase ‘the vulgar dead’, has a nice ironic edge: lilies and violets are gathered and ‘tortured’ into bouquets to decorate a coffin, but the flowers have their revenge as the corpse is buried where poppies thrive in the earth to which it returns. In ‘Amarantus’ Fairburn, like R.A.K. Mason in ‘Sonnet of my Everlasting Hand’, writes of the immortality not of spirit but of matter.
But most poems in He Shall Not Rise luxuriate in a decorative melancholy or weave picturesque fancies. Quatrains and other rhymed stanzas predominate, but for the longer pieces Fairburn favours a fluent, basically iambic verse – with irregular rhymes and half rhymes in ‘Release’, unrhymed in ‘Odysseus’ (‘Odysseus, the old wanderer’); in fact ‘Odysseus’ consists of relaxed iambic pentameters, punctuated by shorter lines. ‘Release’ imagines that ‘Time, the old grey Robber-God’ has died, so that ‘all things’ throng into ‘one immortal moment’, but to depict this ‘timeless and immutable state’ the poem must employ the language of mutability and loss; a balance between an awareness of time’s processes and the feeling that they can be transcended remained central to Fairburn as lyricist. In the free verse piece on ‘Odysseus’, the hero, ‘home at last from the long voyagings’, grows restless, philosophises that ‘It’s only a fool who lets his dreams come true’, and sets to sea once more; the poet envisions the hero and his crew fetching up on a pohutukawa-lined New Zealand beach before resuming his ‘endless quest’. The poem is interesting not only for the attempt to make an imaginative link between New Zealand and Homeric Greece but also for some foreshadowings of ‘The Voyage’, and for its enactment of a conflict between engagement and retreat that would persist in Fairburn’s verse as late as ‘To a Friend in the Wilderness’. The shorter ‘Odysseus’ piece dramatises the same emotional tug-of-war – between the turbulent ocean and ‘the sunlit hills and meadows’ of Ithaca; and in ‘Wandering Willie’s Song’ the struggle is between the urge to ‘r[i]de forth alone’ and nostalgia for ‘the green garden’ and ‘little room’ of a boyhood home.
The longer ‘Odysseus’ poem is not the only one that peoples New Zealand with legendary Greeks. Fairburn’s grandfather had dreamed of an Auckland that would be a South Pacific Athens,19 and in ‘Hellas’ the poet imagines local conversation with Grecian lads, maids and philosophers of old, and has visions of Aphrodite and other pagan gods replacing ‘the gallows-god’ of Christianity. The impulse is similar to that behind Mason’s ‘Wayfarers’, which tells of an intense inner life that ‘here in Penrose brought Aeneas through / to calm Ausonian lands from bloody Troy’. But Fairburn is also more than half in earnest in envisaging a personal religion with a Grecian emphasis on the physical, on the natural sun-drenched environment and on romantic love.
The best known poem in He Shall Not Rise – with the possible exception of ‘In the Younger Land’, which speaks of ‘the shadow of an old despair’ haunting our country – is the one that ends the volume and provides its title: in ‘Rhyme of the Dead Self’ the poet proclaims his slaughter of the ‘lily-white lad’ whose head was ‘full of pretty love-tales’. This violent rejection of his earliest poetic self is couched in curious terms: it is unclear whether overtones of the late-night horror movie in the murderer’s ‘claws’ and ‘chuckling’ are a calculated irony at the expense of the speaker’s melodramatics or a symptom of the poet’s strain. In any case, the ‘pale youth’ with his ‘dreams of love’ was not killed; but he was forced to grow up.
‘Disquisition on Death’, written in 1929, further loosens the fluid long line of ‘Odysseus, the old wanderer’ to create a free verse that only sporadically returns to an iambic pentameter base. Five years earlier Fairburn had declared in a letter to Mason: ‘the contemplation of death alternately fascinates and terrifies me’.20 ‘Disquisition’, a mix of autobiography, philosophising, story telling and soothsaying, in a tradition that reaches back to the Middle Ages, offers a series of takes on the topic. The poem has more energy than anything in He Shall Not Rise. In syntax and vocabulary it is far closer to speech, so that it carries something like the full range of Fairburn’s thinking, arguing, performing personality. Images of great beauty – such as that which compares Leonardo’s death to the ‘gentle passage / of a dove . . . that drifts / on slumbrous wings to the darkness of the forest’ coexist with the homely, the colloquial and the sardonic, as in the poet’s fancied assault on Kant, caricatured as a nagging old man: ‘I came upon him in a corner of the park / and pushed my umbrella through his newspaper, / so that he died old with no dazzling of eyes’. Fairburn’s creative faculties are deeply engaged, as in the evocative, ‘cinematic’ lines in which ‘My Lord Barebones’ assumes an unaccustomed role:
The poem ends with the account of a love affair and ‘of the decease of love’, but with the promise of an ‘Easter day’.
Holding that ‘reason is but a foolish serpent that takes / its tongue in its teeth and attempts to swallow itself’, Fairburn, in ‘Disquisition’ and elsewhere, rejects the metaphysicians, along with ‘Onan, Calvin, Automaton’, and declares a Keatsian confidence in the holiness of the heart’s affections and the transforming power of the imagination, together with ‘a Lawrentian faith in an instinctive life of the blood and the sun’.21 In a letter to Guy Mountain of September 1931 he pontificated: ‘Whatever your heart affirms in those moments when it escapes the bondage of fear – that is true’, adding that universal truth could only be reached through a personal truth known ‘in those mystical glimpses of Being which come when the Imagination is dealing fearlessly and strongly with whatever experience comes your way’.22 ‘Disquisition’ makes a similar claim:
Fairburn’s obvious antecedents here are Blake and the nineteenth-century Romantics, but the message goes back at least as far as the Songs and Sonnets of John Donne.23 Repeatedly in Fairburn’s love poetry an intuition of the essential and the timeless is set against consciousness of mortality and change. His lyrics gain strength from the conflict. ‘I believe that the meaning of life is to be realised in the tension between Time and Eternity’, he once wrote, when asked to formulate a personal creed, and the poetry gives content to that bare announcement.24 As Allen Curnow has written, ‘Fairburn at his best is master of a lyric economy, in which what is said expresses the unspoken counter-statement’.25
In ‘Winter Night’ the tension is maintained by the elaboration of a single conceit, as the speaker and the woman he loves warm themselves indoors by the hearth: the coal that fuels the fire is the carbonised residue of ancient, long-decayed forests that were once green with springtime growth, and in the fireplace the embers themselves are dying. Yet they, in turn, represent a ‘harvest of the sun’ that shone on those primeval ‘buried woods’. Fairburn even connects the flaring of ‘little blue flames’ with violets that once flowered on woodland pathways; this decorative fancy, echoed by James K. Baxter in his ‘Crossing Cook Strait’,26 brings the conventional notion that ‘beauty is but a flower’ within the poem’s ambit. Similarly, the opening line, in which ‘candles gutter and burn out’, besides helping to set the scene, recalls the commonplace analogy behind, for example, Macbeth’s ‘Out, out, brief candle.’ Through the multiple associations of his images as they relate to his feelings for the woman and his sense of ‘infinite riches in a little room’, Fairburn achieves a balance of the kind captured by Elizabethan John Lyly in his exchange: ‘Is not her beauty subject to time?’ ‘No more than time is to standing still.’27 The poem recognises the geological scale of time’s relentless operations, but views them in terms of eternal cycles and describes a state of mind in which temporal and spatial contraction allows the lover’s individual consciousness to become a self-sufficient microcosm enclosing ‘the sum of life’. Warmth and cold, light and darkness, waking and sleeping, growth and decay, life and death, time and eternity are woven into the verbal fabric. The artistry lies in the precision with which each detail of the setting and of the poet’s reverie is recorded at the right point to create a firm emotional contour to the experience of reading the poem: the material is shaped into ‘a beginning, a middle, and an end’. And there is a satisfying temporal progression as the fire dies down, the enclosing walls darken and the poet-speaker drifts towards sleep.
‘Winter Night’, written in England, is in trim iambic tetrameter quatrains. But it is a poem of some complexity, however orthodox its metre and lucid its language. In a review of a New Zealand Poetry Yearbook Fairburn asked: ‘Are not clarity and lucidity of the highest value in themselves? The act of expression is, in its purest essence, an act of ordering and making clear what was chaotic and obscure – initially for oneself, and then for somebody else.’ He suggested that ‘in any field, economy of means is the first principle of effectiveness’ and that ‘with good poetry there is always some immediacy of impact, whatever additional subtleties may be disclosed later’.28 Fairburn’s remarks are open to various objections – ‘communicability varies with the nature of experience’,29 and a too fastidious drive towards clarity may suppress those unconsciously generated elements that energise a poem and make for self-discovery – but they do indicate the spirit in which he himself composed.
‘The Cave’, set in New Zealand, is no less carefully organised than ‘Winter Night’, though its verse is irregular and unrhymed. His response to the hills, bush, cliffs and bays of his native country nearly always nudges Fairburn away from orthodox metres towards more expansive forms. Fairburn is ‘the inventor of sex as far as New Zealand poetry is concerned’,30 and this poem about lovemaking in a seaside cave had considerable impact on readers of the 1940s, though the narrative approach to the sexual act is decorously oblique. Initially the cave is associated with defeat, night, mystery and death, but for Fairburn these ‘negative principles . . . constitute the mode of our awareness’, permitting an intense realisation of value, and the poem celebrates the ‘brief eternity of the flesh’ that ‘transfigures’ and ‘redeems’ the lovers’ lives, linking them with ‘principles, essences, things that pervade the Universe . . . eternal and unchanging’, uniting them to the natural world and implicating them in the whole history of humankind.31 The language is sacramental, and ‘the secret place’ itself (‘womb’ and ‘tomb’) is a powerful symbol, resolving opposites. Like ‘Winter Night’, this poem has a clear progression: it moves steadily towards a resonant close, which is part emotive generalisation and part musical resolution, with the last line as a dying fall.
Drawing on a nineteenth-century poetic diction slightly toughened by its application to a particular incident and locale, ‘The Cave’ is not without flaws: such phrases as ‘clouds and islands trembling in your eyes’ and ‘the flame on your mouth’ recall the soft-focus effects of popular romance. Fairburn has, however, worked the clichés into his poem for a purpose. The first associates the woman with the seascape, with its ‘islands floating in the wind-whipped blue’, and the second falls within the following context:
Fairburn’s aim is to relate the experience to the prehistory of the race by evoking the fires and rock paintings of cave dwellers. But the image becomes grotesque if one tries to visualise it.
The other love poems cover a wide range. In ‘Wild Love’ Fairburn puts what he conceived to be ‘brutal facts’ into the ‘smooth, conventional and gentle form’ of the heroic couplet;32 the impassioned ‘Love Song’ consists of a series of unpunctuated trimeter lines, arranged in threes with little aid from syntax: the effect is of an almost disembodied voice uttering ‘the extremity of erotic longing’.33 Some poems, such as ‘Tapu’ and ‘The Estuary’, declare their local origins; others, such as ‘Night Song’ and ‘Well Known and Well Loved’, do not. ‘Now’ ends with a prayer, ‘To Daphnis and Chloe in the Park’ with a warning to young lovers to ‘take what you can / before the heart grows cold / the mind desperate and the body cold’. ‘Song’ (‘My head to my heart has said’) and ‘Empty House’ look forward to joyful reunion; ‘Sea-Wind and Setting Sun’ and ‘A Farewell’ regret a final separation. ‘Tom’s A-cold’, its title echoing the disguised Edgar in King Lear, harks back to anonymous Elizabethan ballads in which the crazed Tom o’ Bedlam bewails his lost mistress Maudline; ‘Poem’ is Fairburn’s alone and sui generis. And as comic counterpart to these intense love lyrics there is the rumbustious ballad ‘The Rakehelly Man’, with its Victorian melodrama of ‘black-hearted ruffian’ and ‘feckless maid’.
Fairburn’s output includes a lot of ‘funnydog things’, as he termed them,34 and more enduring poems of social comedy, such as ‘Yes Please Gentlemen’, ‘I’m Older Than You, Please Listen’, and ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, each with an element of dramatic monologue; the surrealistic ‘Full Fathom Five’, which glances at the dilemma of the Romantic consciousness in an uncongenial modern age; ‘The Sea’, in which the element that so attracted him serves as symbol for dissolution and transcendence of the ego; an ‘Epitaph’ poised between triumph and defeat; and ‘Walking on my Feet’, which looks back to the swagmen of the depression, but is also, in Allen Curnow’s nice formulation, ‘just the length of [Fairburn’s] life’.35
Curnow’s praise of Fairburn as ‘one who reconciled in a singular way, in his lyric style, the English and the traditional with the modern, the regional, and the personal’ still seems apt.36 But to appreciate the distinction of Fairburn’s rhymed verse in standard accentual-syllabic metres, an ear for the rhythmic subtleties possible within these strict forms is required. In some typewritten notes, prepared for his English literature classes at Auckland University College, Fairburn explained that ‘The specific quality of regular metrical verse . . . is created by the tension set up in the mind (and, one might say, in the muscles) between the fixed and anticipated pattern of the metre, and the organic rhythm of the actual speech superimposed upon it.’ The latter, ‘with its changes of meaning and emphasis, of speed and phonetic quality’, is woven over the top of the abstract metronomic beat, ‘lagging a little or treading on its heels, but never losing touch with it’. So the reader is aware of both systems at once: ‘order and freedom are made functions of each other, and each in this way contributes to the actuality of the concrete experience’.37
Fairburn’s rhyming stanzas have this kind of rhythmic life. His metrical skills are well illustrated in a simple ‘Georgian’ lyric. ‘Time takes us on his back and lumps us along’, as Fairburn writes in ‘To a Friend in the Wilderness’, and ‘Song at Summer’s End’ elaborates this familiar theme. Children play in a park within a smoky industrial town as summer and daytime draw to a close and factory workers bustle home. One aspect of Fairburn’s craft consists in the order in which the components of this scene are described. The poet’s gaze is like a movie-camera lens, panning, tilting up or down, changing from long shot to close up so as to focus on significant detail. Everything is natural as description, but the particulars are selected and given more or less prominence in accord with their symbolic overtones. The carefree children are contrasted with the routine-bound adults, and progress from youth to age is related to the passage of the seasons and the yielding of day to night. Trees are subject to the same cycle of growth and decay (with a pun on ‘limbs’ linking them to the human). And the scene itself changes meaningfully over the poem’s imagined time-span.
The metrical variations enliven the images and bring out their broader significance. The couplets, organised into three matching stanzas, are of four-beat lines, mostly trochaic but sometimes iambic, the traditional seven-syllable line (beginning and ending with a stress) allowing for easy transition. Occasionally two unstressed syllables are slipped between stresses, as at the beginning of the first, ‘Down in the park the children play’: the effect is of an appropriate lightheartedness. In contrast, juxtaposition of stresses adds weight, as in several key phrases of the sombre final stanza, in which various threads are drawn together:
The stanza’s first four words have the same lilt as ‘Down in the park’, but the movement slows with the piling up of stresses in ‘first leaf drops’ (a telling sign of autumn’s approach), ‘Day rolls onward’, and the emphatic ‘Time speaks gravely’. The tempo is further retarded by the uninterrupted closing series of five seven-syllable lines, so that a stress at the end of one line is followed by another at the beginning of the next: heavier and more frequent punctuation reflects the change from stanzas one and two. Through the placement of the phrase ‘floats / and dances’ to span two lines, with the first verb following a late caesura, the floating motion of the leaf is enacted; and ‘dances on the muddy pond’ is a dancing line containing three consecutive unstressed syllables. In the fourth and fifth lines quoted, ‘the world beyond’ is at once the actual and specific city with its factories fringing the park, and the realm of adult responsibility for which it stands; as the shadows of the buildings extend across the children’s playing area, so the grown-up ‘world of sweat and strife’ will soon encroach upon their liberty.
Again, the word ‘lengthen’ draws expressiveness from its position. The noun and its adjectival phrase fill up the preceding line, which merely establishes the existence of the shadows, and as the sentence passes across the line division to the juxtaposed verbs that bring them to life the lengthening of the shadows is imitated by the run of the verse. The early placement of the caesura after ‘lengthen’, on which the voice is forced to dwell, allows the next three feet the unimpeded onrush that vivifies the verb ‘sprawl’. A re-arrangement of the lines will perhaps make the point more succinctly than further analysis:
The change of word order eliminates Fairburn’s rhythmic subtleties, and the loss in effectiveness is considerable.
Similarly, in ‘day rolls onward towards the dark’, ‘day’ begins a line which itself ‘rolls onward’ towards the clinching rhyme word ‘dark’, the alliteration helping to stress the inevitable progression. In the concluding couplet time makes its most commanding appearance, as the last feature of the townscape is sketched in, the focal point around which everything else coheres. The striking clock, high over all, ‘speaks gravely’, like a stern parent calling children home, the subdued wordplay in ‘gravely’ and ‘wreathed’ hinting at time’s most complete triumph, death: ‘the world beyond’ is not only the city and adulthood, but also the ‘undiscovered country’ that is the destination of us all.
‘I have a piece of (rather free) verse half-written in my mind, giving a sort of résumé of the situation of lil’ ol’ Enzed’, Fairburn informed Denis Glover in a letter dated 3 May 1935.38 The flippant tone disguised a highly ambitious project, which resulted in Dominion (1938). Beginning as a response to the economic depression of the 1930s, the poem went through several stages of composition: Glover, who published it at his newly established Caxton Press, suggested some of the eventual reordering of its parts. The title points both to the Dominion of New Zealand and to that Edenic ‘dominion over the earth / and the forms of matter’ of which Fairburn writes in the penultimate section of the poem, ‘Dialogue’.
In its final form Dominion consists of five movements, which, except for ‘Dialogue’, are subdivided. The aggregation of disparate parts into a whole owes something to the innovations of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, and the concern with the social, the political and the urban is shared with British poets of the 1930s, such as Auden, MacNeice, Day Lewis and Spender.39 Working with relief gangs, Fairburn had known the suffering of the unemployed during ‘the sugarbag years’, as one historian has called them,40 and he had slated Gordon Coates and his Coalition Government during the 1935 election campaign. Dominion’s first movement, ironically headed ‘Utopia’, is a savage indictment of an economic system close to collapse. In fact Fairburn sketches a dystopia in which government bureaucrats are ‘the retinue of evil’, ‘councillors and legislators’ are ‘toads in plush’ and ‘the usurer’ is ‘bland angel of darkness’, while ‘the proletarian animal’ is ‘a crucified ape’; the ‘Church Hesitant’ founders in futility, while the press kowtows to the privileged; future generations, in cities and on farms, are ‘saddled with debt’; and greed, fear, bitterness and emptiness plague the spirit of the people.
Simplification, caricature and abuse are legitimate tools of trade of the satirist, who is under no obligation to paint fair and balanced pictures, and Fairburn’s anger was deeply felt, but the strident vituperation is poetically less satisfying than, for example, the more fully developed vignette of the ninth sub-section, where women emerge ‘from the bargain shops and basements / at dusk, as gazelles from drinking’, men light their pipes and scan evening papers ‘for news of doomsday’,
‘Album Leaves’, which follows, continues this shift away from sheer invective. The ‘album’ contains verbal snapshots, complete with captions, of the society Fairburn observes, a potted history of white colonisation of these islands (‘molten droppings / from earth’s bowels, gone cold’), bearing affinities with Curnow’s ‘The Unhistoric Story’, and a mordant parable linking the declines of the British and Roman empires. The effect is to trace a national malaise to the equivocal energies of nine teenth-century imperialism, and to broaden the theme to European and world upheaval. The local portraiture of ‘Back Street’ is especially fine, with its closing simile, in which ‘the taxi-drivers lounging in a knot / beside the rank of shining cars / discuss the speed of horses / as mariners the stars in their courses’. And ‘Conversation in the Bush’ simply juxtaposes two contrasting ways of looking at ‘the young and tender frond / of this punga’: to the first speaker it is ‘like the scroll of a fiddle: fit instrument / to play archaic tunes’, whereas the second sees ‘the shape of a coiled spring’. Here attitudes are encapsulated in images. The first is an Old World compound of the cultural, the traditional, the aesthetic and the enervated; the second a New World compound of the dynamic, the materialistic, the exploitative, the practical and the mechanistic.
In the countryside of ‘Utopia’, ‘the land is the space between the barbed-wire fences’, and in ‘Album Leaves’ the section headed ‘The Possessor’ tells a tale of ownership as spoliation. ‘Elements’, with its lyrical evocation of riding through ‘the clay country’ in summer haze, looks to our ‘natal earth’ itself as the ultimate source of regeneration, teacher of an instinctive wisdom, to be known by the body and its senses. With his world disintegrating about him, Fairburn grounds a residual faith in ‘the honesty of substance, touch of soil and wind and rock’. From this base, he moves to confront social issues in terms of dialectic, rather than of diatribe. ‘Dialogue’ is a debate between ‘A’ and ‘B’ – like MacNeice’s ‘An Eclogue for Christmas’, which had been published in 1934.41 Fairburn attempted ‘to catch up everything in the poem and resolve it (by way of a sort of bastard Hegelianism) in the final "Dialogue", which was intended as an affirmative crowning all that had gone before’.42 In an earlier version of the poem ‘A’ and ‘B’ had been two unemployed men, with ‘A’ complaining of mass expulsions from ‘the factories, the places of our servitude’. As published, ‘Dialogue’ is more general and philosophical. ‘B’ is a Nihilist, ready to ‘fall in the ripe hour / to blindest action, become the pure insensate / energy of destruction’. ‘A’ contends that revolution ‘unties the knot of power, and does it up again’, and while acknowledging ‘the evil in our blood that wars / continually with good’ and the vast web of ‘habit and inertia / that men have woven and are caught upon’, affirms the value of striving towards ‘limited good’ in the interests of our successors. His hard-won faith is given a biblical resonance, taken up in the short, apocalyptic closing section, ‘Struggle in a Mirror’, with its forebodings of the Second World War and submission to ‘the sacrament of death and renewal’:
As Denys Trussell has written of Dominion, the heterogeneous and intractable material ‘does seem to come together in a singular kind of poetry . . . the whole being immeasurably greater than the sum of its component weaknesses’43. It gains its power from the coincidence of personal, national and global crisis: it stands as the poetic record of Fairburn’s fight for spiritual survival amidst fragmentation and dismay.
In Dominion the satirist, the lyricist and the thinker take turns to speak. In ‘To a Friend in the Wilderness’, written over a decade later, in 1949, the Romantic is given free rein. Here Fairburn’s ‘search for meaning’, while still involving his country and the whole of modern civilisation, focuses on a personal moral dilemma.44 The result is a satisfying consistency of tone, a matching of form to content and the assimilation of thought by feeling. ‘To a Friend’ is a more unified, more serene production than Dominion.
In 1940 Fairburn, in Auckland, had written to Terry Bond, at Mahurangi, that at times he contemplated ‘just getting up and walking out of it all, and building myself a Paul Klee-ish hut on bamboo sticks above the mangroves in front of your place’, so as to indulge ‘in Oriental reverie’, descending fortnightly to ‘collect my ration of small mud-dwelling marine insects’.45 Fairburn’s last long poem is couched as an epistolary argument with a friend (two letters each) who proposes just such a strategic retreat to a local seaside Arcady:
It is this invitation that Fairburn sets out to answer. ‘To a Friend’ takes up an ancient poetic debate – between town and country, the active and the contemplative lives. The lure of a simple, hedonistic existence, in harmony with the cycle of the seasons on a northern littoral, is strong, and Fairburn evokes the changing scene in richly sensuous detail. In the metropolis effort is bedeviled by doubts and fears, and social concern sours into disgust and despair. But in this meeting place of land, sea and sky ‘fact and faith will be one’, and a man may be reconciled to his mortality:
The promise is not of mere escapism, but of the energising freedom that comes from a purer vision of nature’s purposes, though Fairburn does luxuriate momentarily in nostalgia for ‘the paths of childhood’ and echo the phrase ‘my little room’ from the opening poem of He Shall Not Rise, ‘Wandering Willie’s Song’. Fairburn’s verse, departing from and returning to iambic pentameters, ebbs and flows with the currents of emotion, gathering up his habitual themes of faith and works, love and death, time and eternity, and the ‘tension between the ideal / and the real, between desire and defeat’. Although ‘neither sacred nor secular page, / gives a standard spelling for Ought’ and ‘in terms of thought’ the problems of the ages are ‘insoluble’, the poet rejects his friend’s entreaties, countering a brief tirade, in the face of his initial hesitations, that recalls the bitter mood of Dominion. He remains committed to ‘all that is human’, to collective endeavour within the march of history; he is bonded to ‘my clansmen, my accomplices’. ‘I am alive, and I do not mean to leave / till the game is up, and my hand has lost its power’. The poem progresses steadily towards the resounding assertion:
This is personal testimony, which we are free to dismiss. ‘To a Friend’ makes its claims not on the intellect but on the emotions and the senses. It is closer to music than to discourse. It needs to be read aloud. Fairburn himself delivered ‘these soaring lines with difficulty, and with pain’.46 The poem is a structure of feelings, a sequence of moods, the contradictory impulses being resolved in the poignant coda:
In 1952 Strange Rendezvous and Three Poems gathered the poems by which Fairburn wished to be remembered. This selection is based firmly on those two volumes. Of the three long poems, Dominion and ‘To a Friend in the Wilderness’ are printed in full; ‘The Voyage’ has been omitted. Whatever reservations we may have about the overall effectiveness of Dominion, it is a milestone in New Zealand’s poetic history, as an experiment in the kind of modernist long poem made possible by T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and as Fairburn’s attempt, in the aftermath of the economic depression, ‘to compass in verse the New Zealand he sees – and the world he sees from New Zealand’.47 And admirers of Fairburn’s poetry agree that ‘To a Friend in the Wilderness’ is the most fully satisfying of the Three Poems. ‘The Voyage’, its flamboyant histrionics well suited to its radio presentation of 1952, is a serious work of considerable interest, but lacks the savage intensity of the harsher sections of Dominion, on the one hand, and the coherence and romantic amplitude of feeling of ‘To a Friend in the Wilderness’, on the other.
Most of the poems in Strange Rendezvous have been included, though with a bias against satirical and comic verses, many of them mere squibs. I also offer a fair sampling from He Shall Not Rise (1930), Fairburn’s first collection, which he later disparaged, but which shows a remarkable youthful talent expressing itself in a style that, though now unfashionable, can still afford aesthetic pleasure, convey knowledge of the transience of earthly things, and evoke emotions and moods. The remaining pieces chosen are two from The Rakehelly Man (1946), including the title poem, and four that did not appear within any book published by Fairburn in his lifetime: two of these, ‘Straw’ and ‘First Things’, have never been reprinted before, although ‘Straw’, in particular, is evidently backed by some strong personal feelings.
Space being limited, I have largely ignored Fairburn’s lavish output of topical gibes, literary spoofs and rhymed witticisms. Although many remain funny, they are essentially jeux d’esprit, making no claims on posterity. Fairburn’s sportful vein is represented by ‘The Rakehelly Man’ and ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, while his mordant mode is amply displayed in Dominion. The poems are ordered according to their date of first publication, with one or two minor exceptions, as explained in the notes. This policy has the agreeable result of ending the selection with ‘Terms of Appointment’, in which the paradoxes of human existence are offered as grim but lushly stated creed, and last of all, ‘Down on my Luck’, in which Fairburn speaks as cliff-top wanderer, ‘close to the end of my tether’.
Fairburn’s verse volumes are listed in the Textual Notes; Olive Johnson fully records all his publications.