new zealand electronic poetry centre

David Mitchell




A Speech;

Given to the Annual Conference
of Social Workers;

24 August 1982;

 North Shore Teacher’s College
2 – 5 p.m.

N.Z. Society through the Eyes
of the Arts :

The question being – ‘ do the
golden gifts and talents, tarnish
and dull, in contact with the
strictures of the social order
that are placed upon them

I am sure, as I begin this talk by thanking the organisers for the opportunity to speak to social workers, I am sure that nobody will mind very much if I start by asking a question. Would any person here, who has ever, ( from early childhood until now ) written a poem, please be so kind as to signify by raising ( both our collective level of social consciousness ) and his , or her, good right arm. Thank you.
            Parts b.) and c.) of this enquiry may be even more interesting. Please indicate in a similar manner, if the poem was published in any way – perhaps self-published in a household, or in a classroom magazine, or again, perhaps in a pamphlet or booklet form, or even in a newspaper, magazine, or anthology of some kind. Thank you once again.
            Now, finally, let us see how many of these poems were read aloud to an audience – actually performed in public, read to the family, to the class, to the literary society, whatever? Thank you very much, a third time.
            You see, we are traditionally a poetic nation after all – a creative nation. You may deduce what you may, from this, but I wish to imply , further, that this creativity must be valued in the social order , for the general well being of all, and that it is not.
            Reading poems in public has been my interest since the 1950s & I am happy to report that public readings are thriving.
            It seems to me that public poetry readings , especially those organised so as to allow unpublished poets a platform and a voice , go part of the way towards an attempt to redress the imbalance between our sadly neglected social creativity and the pressures of modern life. For over two years , I have been privileged to hear poems from a wide selection of ordinary New Zealanders at weekly readings in Auckland. Nothing has reinforced more strongly my conviction that there is at once a very deep strain of creativity latent in the populace and a tremendous social value in its expression.
            I have always assumed that every child born of woman , is by nature creative. One has only to look about , to see empirical evidence of this irreducible fact. And yet, it hardly needs stating here, in such professional company, that, sadly, somehow or other, the golden gifts do in fact tarnish and dull, in contact with the strictures of the social order that are imposed on them.
            Surely, then, we must be continually on our guard to protect and improve the quality of life for every individual in that social order – not merely , the privileged few. It is here that the Arts and Artists are of paramount human significance, reflecting the social order and suggesting continually the possibilities and directions for meaningful social change.
            I suppose we must agree, however, that the most valid and exploratory of our artists , have been in an important sense, also the most selfish, but this in due course of a creative life-time , is normal. We may be edified to contrast this attitude with the jaundiced average man in the street’s view, of artists as ego-maniac , dole bludgers.
            The balance required for any creative, growing New Zealander now, more than ever, seems to demand, that resolute, pragmatic, marketable ( hence mercantile ) skills in life have an urgent priority over all others, including those of self expression in all aspects of the humanities. And, from age 5 to adulthood, our education system is geared to this imbalance.
            This is no new thing to you, I am sure , as it is not, to countless millions of souls on the face of this pretty, blue-green, fragile planet – all of whom are born creative and must sooner or later come to terms with the social functioning of their own creativity. That Mozart, or Adolph Hitler, managed or did not manage an acceptable synthesis, is legend, holocaust and history. That James K. Baxter – that Katherine Mansfield are reviled in some quarters, still, in their own country for their egocentricity – their selfishness – is a shameful scandal and a miserable libel – yet uncomfortably familiar to us here today, with our half awareness of a staggering philistinism, coupled with a collective inferiority complex unparalleled in Western nations this century.
            If the artist in New Zealand is seen as selfish – it is because he has had to be – dedicated to the solitary improvement of his work – in a climate of thought – harsh, suspicious, intolerant, repressive – at best, patronising in the meanest, most niggardly manner possible. Baxter and Mansfield , knew this , and suffered for the knowledge.
            Quite simply, the Arts in New Zealand , have always been seen by politicians , as they have been seen elsewhere in colonial societies – as decorative transplants, adapting well if watered sparsely, and pruned with vigour.
            It seems to me , that only recently has there been any strength among artists here – notably during the 60s and 70s and increasingly it is a social strength , that bodes well for the future. That it has also become a political strength, argues nothing more than a concurrent increasing of political awareness overall on the part of the middle generation of New Zealanders, an awareness that in many cases , previously, was as insipid, as collaborative or as absent , as was any real, comprehensive or vital interest in the social functioning of the arts.
            I am not an apologist for crass tub-thumping in the performing arts – for poetry catatonically rendered with all the filigree grace of a trip hammer; or that, spieled off with a soapbox whine. I don’t need Susan Sontag to tell me Communism IS Fascism – nor do I champion the ultra effete minimal, visual arts – all of which have long been motes in my eye and vapid vocabularies of puerile rage to my ear.
            Politically, I am an old-fashioned N.Z. Labour party supporter and have always believed ( and still do believe ) in the social value of the arts, adequately funded.
            This country, this planet, needs every artist, every poet it can possibly get – and will be instantly richer in the social sense, for merely saying so.
            We don’t need Amnesty International to tell us, do we, that we have seen, in the last decade, artists, writers, musicians, arrested, imprisoned, executed piecemeal, for simply lifting up the voice , the brush, the pen. What is there left to be said for the social justice of a regime , such as that in South America, that can imprison a poet in a football stadium, smash his hands with rifle butts to stop him playing the guitar and singing his songs and his poems, and then shoot him out of hand, along with thousands of others who were, likewise born creative ?
            Does it importune us to realise that the very soldiers who perpetrated these abominations , were also, some loving mother’s sons, born with natural creativity and, as I believe , with a basic blueprint for good in their souls, for good not evil ?
            Indeed, it would seem, that golden gifts and talents do in fact tarnish and dull in contact with the strictures of the social order that are placed upon them.
            Does it occur to us, that similar, even more loathsome crimes are committed by left wing regimes. Have we read Solzenitzyn ? Do we believe that one race is not capable of propaganda, repression, tortures and murder and another is ? Do we believe , that one class, or one government, is not capable ? Must we be always on our guard, vocal, humane ?
            Or should we adapt our art, our social skills, our life performance to be less selfish, more conformist – more successful, better selling hence more affluent, affluent, ahem, respectable – less open to surveillance?

So then, the alleged selfishness of my contemporaries in the Arts in New Zealand, to me is laudable – because ultimately it is selflessness.
            I believe, that given time, the efforts instigated during the 60s and 70s, will continue to develop strongly indigenous artforms that have nothing to do with, on the one hand, the insular thinking, & on the other , the international copyist attitudes that have hindered their recognition & acceptance in the past. Like it or not, N.Z. has changed utterly and her artists have been, more than ever before part of that change.
            Increasingly, I believe, New Zealanders are going to buy books, go to poetry readings, gallery openings, dance workshops – at performances & mini spectacles of all kinds.
            I believe the negative/positive ion imbalance from those idiot screens will affect New Zealanders less & less as they watch television less ( and more selectively ), as they buy more ( and more cheaply produced ) books and as they read more.
            And they will realise, as they have done before, that social justice IS arohanui; ‘ great tribal love for the many ’ – for people, not for things – and they will realise that the arts are at once all New Zealanders’ , very own-selfless-possessions, and the artists are all New Zealanders’ very own-selfless-people.


ęDavid Mitchell

Last updated 5 March, 2010