new zealand electronic poetry centre

David Mitchell






                                To the Graduates
        of Secondary Teachers
     College ;

Good morning ! / Good morning to you all and my warmest thanks and appreciations to the English Dept. of the Auckland Teacher’s College ; ( and in particular to Mr. G. McDonald ) for providing this opportunity to address this group, ( already graduates ) who, soon, so soon ! will be English Teachers , standing before classes; my best wishes; and good luck to you all.
        My own experience of poetry as a boy, then as a teenager, was not obstructive. I recall writing in prose; stories as a young chap; stories which I later collected into a thick volume, entitled ‘Cowboy and Pirate Stories’ (1951) to distinguish them from my more formal ‘modern’ prose attempts at school, which were, at once stage anyhow, a weekly occurrence, and resulted in some set pieces, the fruit of language studies at that time, such as ; ‘A description of the interior of a house’ / and ‘ Buses or Trams for Wellington ’ / along with my ( serialised ) saga of ‘Flying Saucers Have Landed’ which formed a weekly column or two on the classroom wall newspaper.
        Earlier, I had ( laboriously ) copied out 4 pages exactly similar, and folded lengthwise of a ‘newspaper’ I had ‘ published ’ , and then attempted to sell these , at one penny a copy, to my Dad , Mother, sister & brother. This was the ‘Donald Street Post’ / one issue was all it achieved – year of ’47.
        Poems , there were, however, amongst the stories & illustrations in the books that lay about that old wooden house (formerly a manse), in Karori ; and later too, in Aro Street — I remember ‘Lord Randall’, and other scottish ballads ; ‘ Now wha be ye would cross Loch Guyle? / this dark & stormy water / why, I’m the chief of Ullin’s Isle / & this Lord Ullin’s daughter. ’
        It was not until the fifties that I consciously set my hand to emulating the old ‘makars’ . A secondary influence was my mother who, occasionally, ( at one stage it seemed every night ) pestered me with requests for vocabulary for her crosswords to which she seemed particularly devoted , in the early evening hours after the stove was lit , after dinner.
        Henry Lawson, Banjo Paterson, & Benjamin Disraeli were my father’s favourite authors, and I remember well a copy of Herman Melville’s ‘ Island Days ’ he handed me one day circa 1950; likewise ‘Mr. Midshipman Easy’ , and a Lawson Anthology, from which I recall an impression of a ballad about water lilies. He died in 1953.
        It may seem foolish, exaggerated or naïf , to claim that poetry was a solace during a boisterous three years that followed at secondary school, but the fact is that it was. I recall ‘Fresh Fields’ ( a school anthology ) with clear type, elements of good design, and silhouette illustrations published as marginalia , alongside each poem.
I recall ; ‘ An Irish Airman Foresees His Death ’ ‘Ozymandias’ and ‘ To Autumn ’ / & though of the first of these I , nowadays , can’t recall a single line; the other two remain all time favourites. Shakespeare, too, impressed me from an early age ( I remember from Karori primary school and later Te Aro, reciting songs from the plays, notably ‘Tell me where is fancy bred / where begot / where nourished / reply reply ’ — and — ‘ Full fathom five thy father lies ’ ) and ( during 16 mm films ( year of ’46 ) waiting ( interminably it seemed ) for the talking & speechifying to end, and the action to begin, along with my ( good ) classmate; one Michael Williment; similarly bored with ( what even then seemed to be ) vapid rhetoric, instead of the Battle of Agincourt , as we had been promised ! Ten years later, around 1957, I read Shakespeare’s sonnets and recall one or two lines that made immediate sense, were wise, and seemed very attractive. Love is not love that bends with the remover to remove, nay, it is

        an ever fixed mark; a star
        to every wandr’ing barque . . .
Sonnet No. 17 , which I was (later) able to commit to memory: -
words , which even now, today, still come back, come back across the years . . .

Who will believe my verse in time to come,
If it were fill'd with your most high deserts
Though, as yet, heaven knows, tis but as a tomb
Which hides your life and shews not half your parts.
If I could write , the bewdie of yr eyes 
Or in fresh numbers , number all your graces,
The age to come would say; This poet lies!
Such heavenly touches,  ne'er touch'd earthly faces
So,  should my papers , yellow'd with their age
Be scorn'd, as old men of less truth than tongue,
And your true rights be deemed a poet's rage
And stretched metre of some antique song
          But, Madame, were some child of ours alive that time,
          You should live twice! in it; and in my rhyme.

. . . the metrical nicety of which I strove earnestly to emulate in my first serious love poems / (the subject of which was thousands of miles away in Paris , France) composed in 1958/59:

It seems so long since last I held your eyes
Within my own; since last we balanced there
Since last around us with that dumb surprise
this world hung, fragile, in our private air . . .

But this was much later, following as it did, five or six years of adolescent anguish commencing in 1953, & including six months with one leg in plaster from ankle to hip, & learning to cope with bullies, on all fronts, or so it seemed, at  home at school at church & in the world at large.
        Gradually, the fights & the setbacks of those years / 53, 54, 55 faded away and I discovered ( in January 1956 ) that I, too ‘was human , and capable of love ’ . So I developed a phone call a night habit, (which at one stage threatened to tie up the local phone box completely ;) — returning home, moody, disconsolate, to complete my ‘prep’ / for the next day’s lessons, parsing latin passages & learning french verbs, ( poorly ) and vocabulary ( a touch better ) . Following this , whether or not my younger brother Stu was cooking up a potful of raisin fudge, there was always the jazz programme on the old columbus, steam radio; especially 2yc dj thursday nites. Which I extended with an old pair of brushes and sticks, drum practice ! a la Shelley Mann, Joe Morello, right there on the kitchen table , with a sheet of newspaper over the scoured deal planks, white with use, scrubbing & regular abrasives, playing along , with Brubeck, Mulligan, Coltrane , Gillespie & Bird , Chas. Parker; & others — others — like ( for eks ) The MJQ! & W. Herman’s 3rd. herd, B. Goodman, Fats Waller, G. Miller, Ella & Louise & F. A. Sinatra; to name a few.
        The poem followed, usually quite easily, in sharpened pencil in a school exercise book ( a red Covered Well. Coll. Lab book; in fact; ) and replete with de rigueur modish avoidance of Capitals; a ‘lower case’ Affectation I’d acquired from I don’t really know where, perhaps i) e.e. cummings, perhaps certain ii) sleeve notes on record covers; perhaps just a nod towards the general iii) stylistic novelty of the fifties canon — and furnished with marginalia drawings / stick figures & figurines , in various poses; like innocent & soulful, man, if you know, if you care to recall what I mean.
        I recall one poem entitled ‘ arrividerci roma ’ borrowed from a popular song title of the times, written to a real girl & expressing some of the anguish of a true ( lost ) first love; a girl who received this work as a gift and later wrote to me , mentioning it , including a snap shot of herself taken in the Coliseum, a photograph I treasure to this day.
        There was a short piece at the outset entitled ‘ Advice to pessimists ’ which ended with the injunction:

‘ & live without ill humour
for cheerfulness is prime
— Don’t carry on a rumour
& be happy — all, the time. ’

and various other gems of similar didactic portent, along with a record of an ongoing experiment with the substance of literature — the words of usage — the New Zealand language — the protagonists stomach in one ( longer ) work being described as
                                                        dis ( flutter ) turbed
a Joycean hiatus which even at the time seemed a bit fey to the young ; (& occasional), lunch hour audience of my long suffering fellows at school; ‘Waal, heres to you ! 6b3; (1956) & heres to you 6ST; (’57)’; Likewise, laconic athwart the clear noon shadows, back o’ the fives courts; prefabricated classroom dwellers all: ‘Here’s to you, o rambling boys / may all yr ramblin’ / well, jes, bring you joy . . . ’
        So, the first collection of poems by this author remains lost, ‘ unseen by human eye ’ & also by that of a much admired, respected, form & English master; one R. ( mickey ) Michael ; my chief regret concerning the whole two years being that though repeatedly asked I did not show this collection to a living soul; and this includes Ray Michael.
        I do recall that there were more than 30 poems in it by the end of 1957; so that should show that at least I was capable of considering the thread that runs through a collation of individual works, and the organization needed to produce a volume. The fact that each poem had been read aloud; to audiences, in the ‘Tête a Tête’, ‘Rendezvous’, & ‘Man Friday’ cafes, to my mother at home, & to some of my fellows at Wellington College, before the end of 1957 is not generally recognised or remembered. It shows that at least I was capable of persisting, in a difficult, painstaking endeavour which had, to the average citizen’s eye, no obvious merit or value. I suppose there were others more or less engaged in the production of ‘pure’ poems, but I did not meet them until later, at University, & Teacher’s College.
        And so, a word of warning about the privacy of writers; be considerate & kind — & good luck to you all ! After all, one never knows who one is teaching. John Fowles, the author of ‘ The French Lieutenant’s Woman ’ described himself as ‘ a dead loss at school — the kid always looking out the window and ‘lost in a dream’. ’

Waal, thank you; thank you kindly for your patience; & might I repeat my best wishes for next year. I do hope you have been able to accept the anecdotal nature of this address, and by comparison, and imagination, adduce something of benefit to your own situation , as I am sure, historically, teachers of language & literature in this country have been able so to do.
        For the more formally minded, who , absolutely require a lesson plan; here is something basic, that (well presented) can sometimes work:

A. Write upon the chalkboard , in suitable form and vocabulary for the age group you are teaching, the grand old themes of all art.
These may include;     i) Nature
                                 ii) The transitoriness of life
                                iii) Time
                                iv) War
                                v) Love
                               vi) God
                               vii) Pets
                               viii) Social Criticism; fair / unfair
                                ix) Epics / heroes / heroines.

B. Now play the ‘ word association ’ game. Give students an agreed upon time beforehand , say One minute , to make their own list of words that occur spontaneously, after you have written the theme word up on the chalkboard.

C. Now play with the words . Remember ALL creativity is play.

D. Now put your self in the word list.

E. Now, play with the words again. Remember that all play is creative.

F. Stop when you are satisfied with the results.

G. Inter relate themes if you wish.

H. Now, read your work aloud, in public, to an audience, or publish it , which amounts to the same thing !


                                D. J. Mitchell
                                English Dept;
                                Secondary ( Graduates )
                                One year training Course.
                                care /
                                        Mr. G. McDonald
                                        Epsom Teacher’s
                                        College / AUCKLAND 1983


ęDavid Mitchell

Last updated 30 March, 2010