about Len Lye
My Word My World: Len Lye’s Poetry
This essay appeared in Landfall 205 (Autumn 2003),179-85, as a contribution to the magazine’s ‘Lost and Found’ column (devoted to the rediscovery of New Zealand writers).
There has not yet been a full-scale anthology of New Zealand experimental poetry comparable to overseas anthologies such as Jerome Rothenberg and George Quasha’s America a Prophecy: A New Reading of American Poetry from Pre-Columbian Times to the Present or Rothenberg’s Revolution of the Word: A New Gathering of American Avant-Garde Poetry 1914-1945. Such an anthology would subject our tradition to ‘a new reading,’ giving a new centrality to some previously peripheral writers and offering a surprising new slant on familiar writers by focusing on their most experimental work.
The early section would surely centre on Len Lye as major ancestor and role model, a position currently occupied in the canon by R.A.K. Mason (1905-71) and A.R.D. Fairburn (1904-75) – though their own experimental work would give them an honoured place in this anthology also. These poets were not much younger (3 and 4 years respectively), but they were the first of a new wave of writers who chose to stay in New Zealand, in contrast to Lye (1901-1980) and earlier expatriates such as Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923), D’Arcy Cresswell (1896-1960), and Rewi Alley (1897-1987). Lye had first learned about modernism around 1920 when he discovered Ezra Pound’s book Gaudier-Brzeska in a New Zealand public library – it became his bible and made him impatient to get overseas. Moving to England (in 1926) Lye established many direct links with the avant-gardists who would feature half a century later in Rothenberg’s anthologies – for example, he knew Gertrude Stein and did a koru-like symbol for one of her books, he collaborated with Laura Riding, he contributed to transition, and he designed covers for the Hours Press (which published writers such as Pound) (1).
About half of Lye’s poetry still remains unpublished (2). In addition, only a tiny fraction of his (mostly theoretical) prose writing has reached print, but that’s another story. Lye was never greatly concerned about publication – the pleasure of writing was the main thing. Robert Graves and Laura Riding did publish No Trouble, a beautifully hand-printed collection of experimental prose pieces by Lye, in 1930, alongside books by themselves and Stein. No Trouble made quite a few references to New Zealand, including some swipes at its conservatism (‘I was dragged up among the tombstones’). Robert Herring’s London-based Life and Letters Today published various pieces by Lye in the late 1930s (such as ‘Song Time Stuff,’ a series of prose poems). More of Lye’s prose poetry appeared in 1940 in the London Bulletin, the magazine of the British Surrealist movement. Five years after moving to New York in 1944, Lye published a poem in The Tiger’s Eye, an important literary magazine of the period and a jumping-off place for the artists later known as the Abstract Expressionists. The magazine accepted two more items from Lye but then ceased publication. After that, publication of his experimental writing was confined to short samples included in essays on his film or sculpture work.
Lye is an outstanding example of a multi-media artist, as were many of the Futurists and Surrealists whom he admired. If he talked about poetry it was natural for him to link it to music or the visual arts. He is best known, and probably did his best work, as a film-maker and kinetic sculptor, and he also did innovative work in painting and photography. But even if we did not know this work, his poetry would still be notable because it has a distinctive, original voice and in its areas of interest it achieves remarkable effects. Lye was determined to find new ways to articulate sense experience and the life of the body. His freewheeling approach to syntax and phrasing matched his maverick approach to the basic codes and conventions of film-making. In all the media he used, he focused on movement (‘kinetics,’ he called it), physical sensation (‘Body English’), and non-rational experience (‘the Old Brain’). These interests and the way they impelled him to take risks with form as well as content are what I mean in Lye’s case by the term ‘experimental.’ For him, this approach to art was deadly serious, the only way not to sell short ‘the vastness of individuality.’
Poetry would seem an ideal site for experiments with language. Yet the only examples he had encountered in New Zealand represented Victorian taste – ‘a lot of romanticised junk.’ He did not take poetry seriously until friends in London introduced him to the right stuff. The poetry that excited him had an extreme or ecstatic energy – he acknowledged but could not share the dark, ironic tone of reigning modernist T.S. Eliot. Lye’s prose work ‘Grass Clippings’ contains vivid responses to the poets and prose writers he personally admired. First, he enthused about the style of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake for being ‘beautifully intactly lifted right from spontaneous mind-level first thought,’ with ‘no straight-jacketing into everyday workshop grammar.’ Gertrude Stein’s writing was an ‘oak word bank scrubbed clean and strata built pure Bach fugue stitched with buttons sewn in a big Dutch of a room full of daylight.’ (Lye was fascinated by the precise detail of 17th century Dutch interior paintings such as Vermeer’s ‘The Lace Maker.’) He had a great respect for Gerard Manley Hopkins whom he described slipping away from his monastery to study alphabet-like stones in a river, imagined as ‘sharp crystal clear words smoothed by spring water, some put in place by trout’s nosings.’ Arthur Rimbaud’s writing achieved an ‘intense tang of feelings’ as it evoked ‘the haze of a hill’s base, the stark of a gallow’s arm, the dank of a woods in the mystery of wandering alone.’ A collection of Rimbaud’s poetry translated by Norman Cameron was one of Lye’s favourite books; he painted the cover of his copy and carried it with him on his missions as a wartime documentary film-maker so it could provide him with ‘an anchor to reality’ while ‘overnighting in bleakness.’
Lye also collected the writings of many indigenous cultures. He cited the sentence ‘What is it road for me here they are standing up hills’ as an example of the power of ‘Aboriginal word-imagery’ - in this case, ‘mentally necklacing the mind’s ideas of walking.’ (Rothenberg would later collect many similar texts in his anthologies Technicians of the Sacred and Shaking the Pumpkin.)
Such were Lye’s models for poetry, along with the work of William Blake. He also liked writing to have a strain of down-to-earth humour, one of the qualities he shared with his close friend Robert Graves. Other friends included Dylan Thomas, Norman Cameron and Surrealist poet David Gascoyne. What it was like to hang out with this group was memorably described by William Samson:
I met a number of Norman’s friends – an astounded cherub called Thomas, a clerky-looking fellow called Gascoyne, egg-domed Len Lye like an ascetic coster in his raffish cap…. What impressed me most was that, unlike certain other writers manqués, they did not discuss literary theory or whine about their souls and sensitivities – they made up things there and then, grabbed down extraordinary stories and myths from the air, wrote down doggerel and verse’ (3).
In the 1940s Lye developed what he called ‘myth’ poetry based on his intense, almost animistic response to nature. One cloudy night on the Atlantic seaboard he wrote ‘What Strata’ (originally ‘In a Crab’s Eye’), linking the sea with the zodiac constellation Cancer the Crab. The poem ends:
Who can stare out the stare of a crab would swear
We know from the sharp descriptions in Happy Moments that Lye could write about land and sea realistically. Consider, for example, his childhood fishing at Cape Campbell:
These pools were homes for flounder and sole… Wavy movements of the fins around the edges would raise some sand to identify them. You’d creep up, stand on one, put a barbed spear between your toes, and that was supper.
Both his prose and poetry were rich in references to seascapes; but in the case of the myth poems this geography became sensuous and surreal in the light of the Old Brain. In 1947 Lye developed the habit of writing a prose-poem on the back of each new painting before giving it to a friend. Though triggered off by a specific image, the poem was always surprising, seeming to reveal a strange tribal mythology concealed within the patterns of an abstract painting. He described the earth responding to the touch of sunlight, lightning, snow and hot lava. Marine creatures led a vivid sex life:
It is night-time 60 feet deep by a coral reef. A coral king leaves his skin of rock. A queen of starfish leaves her shell. They meet as they really are and make ideas of the sea. He puts red and she puts yellow. That makes phosphorus and they see. Some finished phosphorus by that stem of seaweed will float to the top and be their memories. They make a lot of memories and go back to their shells. They always are new to each other out of their shells.
The poems brought all the senses into play, evoking an intensely active and physical world in which darkness, thunder and fire were as much living beings as seeds or fish. The most common theme was evolution or metamorphosis - a snake began standing on its tail, plants learned to walk, branches became birds. Human beings turned up occasionally but were still very much part of nature. ‘The Seer’ described the discovery of eyesight by the first man who had previously explored the world in darkness:
[He] wanted to know more of the log than he could feel with his feet. He thought of what he felt so long and hard that he made a waterfall of seeing come out of his head and fall on the log. So he saw with his head what he felt with his feet and it was the earth in the shape of a black log. With his seeing he watered it and it grew green branches….
Today when people stand up straight and still on hills and feel the earth with their feet they are most like a tree because a tree has its heart in its roots.
Such myth poems were informed by Lye's memories of New Zealand landscapes, by his lifetime interest in indigenous mythologies, and by his own paintings and films (such as Tusalava). It is a pity that Lye made no attempt to publish this large body of work, even after the l960s when the growth of interest in ‘deep image’ and ‘ethnopoetics’ (stimulated by magazines such as Alcheringa) enlarged the audience for work of this kind.
Some of his 1940s poems were more extreme in their self-conscious questioning of language. The work of the poets Laura Riding and e.e.cummings may have provided a model for the intricate wordplay of poems such as ‘t w i’ which is about the strangeness of writing as it expresses an individual’s subjectivity yet also objectivises it (as signs, as ink, as lines of type):
why should writ (y) ing should i
There were often links between Lye’s poetry and his theoretical essays, and his most extreme experiments with syntax tend also to be his most didactic, a tendency also apparent in cummings and Riding. The results are mixed, but in the best poems of this kind Lye’s thinking is so lateral that the poem or prose-poem takes off into a lively dance of its own. In Song Time Stuff, a largely didactic sequence of prose poems, there are quirky surprises such as ‘Chair in Your Hair,’ a tribute to Cézanne as the father of modern painting:
Painting painting where is thy mind sting: there there under the chair: not under the chair says poppa Cézanne in the legs of the chair says poppa Cézanne: that old chair? Chair in your hair Cézanne Cézanne. A chair in the mind is worth none in the bush. A chair is a chair so leave it there.
Lye’s interest in ‘subjective versus objective’ links the reality effect of Cézanne’s portrait of a man in a chair with Gertrude Stein’s sense of language - her ‘oak word bank scrubbed clean’ - as in her famous phrase ‘A rose is a rose is a rose.’
An unpublished poem written at the end of the war carries the heavy title ‘Subjectivity of Objectivity’ but succeeds in turning philosophical speculation into a surreal game:
Sea squirts squids
See that periscope
The political world has little time for philosophy and such a debate is doomed to end in a burst of objective violence:
Pistols are pulled
In the best of his poems, Lye stands back from his ideas and concentrates on thinking mythically or creating vivid accounts of art-making and art experience. ‘Knife Apple Sheer Brush’ is a sensuous tribute to his artist friend Stanley William Hayter, written for The Tiger’s Eye after seeing an exhibition of Hayter’s work in January l948. It begins:
Lye goes on to celebrate Hayter's pictures as ‘hypnotic mind juice’, as ‘living candescent signs’, and as ‘priceless scarecrows / Guarding the seeds of experience.’
‘An Adolescent Jump’ ends with an epiphany for Joe, a flash of insight experienced at the end of a wet and frustrating night. It transforms a drab New York street:
An incandescent jump took place across
Faces splashed with freedom
Joe lay immersed
Feeling no pain
Some of Lye’s most striking prose writing takes the form of a stream of consciousness, but to an unusual degree these are thoughts in which the body features as prominently as the mind. He said of his long phenomenological work ‘Chair’: ‘It is in honour of the wandering sitting resting unlimbering body's body.’ Though his starting-point was often something commonplace, a small event of the day, he would bring it to life by elaborating on all the mental and physical processes involved. For example, ‘Brown Paper Bag’ describes walking along a busy New York street and crossing to the other side:
I paddle along back to my shaded cove of a room while the objective imagery of me and the street is being transmitted to me by senses of weight and muscle and nerve action helped out by senses of light and sound...[with] kerb and street and sidewalk and traffic lights and people as interesting craft with laws of tides and navigation all synchronised in my spatial relationship with them… I am now completely myself, a canoe on the sidewalk, a swimmer in a sea of crocodiles to traverse the road of a river... And this organism that possesses my name got me out into the sunshine to experience being alive...a body with a name on its prow.
In both his myth poems and his stream-of-consciousness prose Lye was fascinated by the act of walking, the ‘I’ moving through space with a heightened sense of feet feeling the ground as eyes weighed up passing objects. He also liked to describe the partnership of mind and body in the activity of writing itself:
To think words ‘individual happiness now’ means an experience of immediacy... feeling alive with wattage from the senses. I have to stop writing to feel it in me as the enjoyment of sitting and feeling the pressure of a good weighted leg across the thigh near the knee on top of the other and the bread-board on the slope of the crossed leg's thigh with the left hand's fingers holding the plain yellow note-paper, and the pen-nib ink flowing on it as the nib makes a pleasant rubbing sound on the sounding board of the bread-board and I can feel its vibrations transmitted to my thigh bone and I'm dealing with sensation and…
In his manuscript this deliberately unfinished sentence became a drawing of his own hand writing the word ‘bone’ on a piece of paper on his thigh, a Lye’s-eye-view of ‘my word my world.’ Throughout a long life spent exploring such themes as movement, energy, process – and the dialogue between mind and body (and their meeting-ground, the Old Brain) – Lye would switch constantly back and forth between words and images.
(2) Thanks to the Len Lye Foundation for permission to quote from four Lye texts that are appearing here in print for the first time. Landfall’s ‘Lost and Found’ section provides an opportunity to acknowledge the New Zealand editors involved in recovering Lye’s work. Alan Loney (who is our closest equivalent to a Rothenberg in his championing of alternative traditions) gave a number of Lye’s poems their first publication in Parallax and A Brief Description of the Whole World. Wystan Curnow co-edited Figures of Motion: Len Lye Selected Writings. Michele Leggott and her team put a selection of Lye’s unpublished poems on the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre website (www.nzepc.auckland.ac.nz). And Peter Simpson and the Holloway Press have just produced Happy Moments, the book of prose pieces about growing up in New Zealand that Lye wrote in 1960.
© Roger Horrocks