new zealand electronic poetry centre

S o m e   s h e l l s   i n   a   t o b a c c o   t i n
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    Preface: David Howard

A Fossil Leaf?

It's difficult to argue with a headstone. Many writers attempt to, believing their words will act as spells against mortality. And what if they succeed? Each generation necessarily ‘illuminates’ its reading of the past with the concerns of the present, and earlier writers often suffer in consequence. They are faulted by their successors for failing to do what they never attempted, then denied respect for what they did do because it wasn’t prescient.

In The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature Elizabeth Caffin views the poetry of Ruth Dallas as ‘increasingly isolated from the whole field of human engagement … and in particular from any contemporary discourse about poetry’.  I agree with the observation but not with its pejorative tone.

With a navigator’s eye, for sixty years Dallas plotted the passing in order to enjoy the constant. She would describe the deciduous so that the reader could see the evergreen. I suppose this is what most good poets do. And Dallas is a good poet, one whose quiet but ambitious precision is unfashionable and likely to remain so while younger poets treat the line as a piece of elastic to be pulled every which way. Rather than ask what Dallas was isolated from, let’s consider what she was engaged with:

If I had lived in a large city that is where I should have found the imagery I needed to express outwardly the poetry I felt within, but I had never lived for any length of time out of touch with the natural world. Like most New Zealanders I lived in a single-storied house in a city that remained in contact with the surrounding countryside. That is how the Chinese poets lived, too, so that their outlook on life seemed nearer to mine than the outlook of many European city dwellers. In contrast to European thought, they saw themselves as occupying only one facet of the myriad-faceted natural world, not as central figures, which is a view with which I sympathized. (CH, p.121)

While Dallas’s work might be ‘increasingly isolated’ from urban chatter, ‘human engagement’ is obvious in her ability to present personal concern against the unconcern of others and, ultimately, of the natural world.  Her minor Romantic oeuvre is not for those who imagine literature is primarily entertainment and would (through the wilful play of cleverness as distinct from intelligence) reduce language to the status of an after-dinner mint, a cigar, or a glass of champagne. Occasionally clumsy, she refuses to pirouette on the head of a pin. Instead she dares to say something about some thing:

        I place some shells in a tobacco tin,
        And take them home,
        Together with a fossil leaf.  (TJOAMV, p. 59)