THE ACTIVITY OF EVIDENCE: ROBERT CREELEY’S NEW ZEALAND
You send me your poems,
I’ll send you mine.
Things tend to awaken
Even through random communication.
Let us suddenly
proclaim spring. And jeer
at the others,
all the others.
I will send a picture too
if you will send me one of you.
(Creeley, ‘The Conspiracy.’ For Love 37)
Continuing a tradition of leaving the country to live as expatriates in Europe was a common experience among young American writers in the early 1950s. As Kenneth Rexroth would note during the next decade:
One of the most interesting things about these young postwar poets is their decentralization (it has never been noticed that this is also true of the contemporary novelists). They grew up not only in independence of the capital – the literary marketplace – but far away from it and in deliberate antagonism to it. They couldn’t very well do anything else. To this day few of them have been published in the respectable literary quarterlies. (‘The New American Poetry’)
Creeley’s movement away from America was primarily a financial decision. He and his wife Ann were starting a family and had very little money. So they moved to the south of France (which didn’t work out) and ended up in Bañalbufar on the Spanish island of Mallorca.
Much of Creeley's experience of Bañalbufar is recorded in his novel The Island (1963); his state of mind at the time is expressed in letters to other writers. But before The Island came a collection of short stories called The Gold Diggers, published by Creeley and Ann under their own imprint, The Divers Press, in 1954.
It is here, in The Gold Diggers, that New Zealand first appears on the outskirts of Creeley’s printed imagination.
We had to have the dignity of our own statement. We had to have it in a form that would be available to other people. (Creeley, quoted in Edelberg 35)
Beginning ‘A Death’ from Creeley’s The Gold Diggers is like sitting down next to someone in the middle of telling a personal anecdote:
Ahead of them the path went round the trees, and into a clearing of stones, which had rolled from the higher points of the hill to make a sort of flat and broken plateau above the sea. (Collected Prose 27)
Gradually you piece together who ‘they’ are: a woman, her son, her brother and his wife and their children. Indeed, the relations between these people and their circumstances is the primary concern of the story. To the extent that ‘A Death’ has a subject, that is it.
As in Creeley’s ‘projective’ (or open form) poems such as ‘I Know a Man,’ a rapid juxtaposing movement from one perspective to the next forces you to be present in the story alive with the characters – there is no waiting on an explanation to come from elsewhere.
Did you see the boat, his wife said. She knew it was her brother’s wife. She knew her own husband was dead. She saw the faces all in front of her, and if she cried out at them, she was still in love with everything. (Collected Prose 31)
The un-discussed death of the story’s title is another ‘displaced’ person, a foreigner in an English-speaking country who:
sat in a chair in the yard which he had made. There was no car. The street was long, and at the end there was a tram-stop. People spoke English but he answered them, no se. He was a Greek with rings in his ears, and his hands were folded in his lap. (Collected Prose 29-30)
So they pitied her. What was it like, they thought. What ever could it be like, in the heathen country of New Zealand. (Collected Prose 28)
I know the early reference to NZ in Creeley – in The Gold Diggers – I read it when I was at high school in the 1960s and was amazed. (Murray Edmond)
That ‘eye’ (or is it I) for the words ‘New Zealand’ in texts by overseas writers is well known to New Zealanders. Some say it’s an inferiority complex: ‘We know deep down that we are only a little country, that no-one knows where we are, that we might slip off the edge of the globe and no-one will notice.’ (Phillips)
How did that New Zealand get there?
Biographer Ekbert Faas reveals that the characters of ‘A Death’ derive from a real experience Robert Creeley had on Mallorca in late 1953.
A novelist and war reporter named Godfrey Blunden, along with his French wife and their three kids as well as Blunden’s widowed sister-in-law and her son, had arrived in Banalfubar to look for a house. They had been sent there by Robert Graves. Finally there’d be a small writer’s colony. (Faas and Trombacco138)
Godfrey Blunden (who informs the character James in ‘A Death’) was an expatriate and exiled Australian. He surfaces again in Creeley’s novel The Island.
So that’s one possible explanation. A thin veil of disguise for the deliberate ‘use’ of another man’s circumstance – or perhaps even stereotypical American confusion of the sort described by Mark Twain in Following the Equator,where Australia and New Zealand are joined in many an American’s imagination by a bridge.
Several months before the arrival of Godfrey Blunden in Bañalbufar, however, Creeley had sent off a letter to the heathen country. That letter is held by the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington, and begins: ‘Dear Mr Hoggard.’
Letter from Robert Creeley to Noel Hoggard. Noel Farr Hoggard Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library
75-184-07/07. Reproduced with the permission of Penelope Creeley and the Alexander Turnbull Library.
[Transcript: The Divers Press
Bañalbufar * Mallorca * Spain
Ans. 9/5/53. March 6, 1953.
P.O. Box 188
Te Aro, Wellington, N.Z.
Dear Mr Hoggard:
I hope to start a quarterly broadsheet some-
time this summer, under the auspices of the above press. The
emphasis will be on poetry for the most part, and on younger
writers, etc. Otherwise, there will be about a page and a half
given to notes and short articles on related materials. To that
end, I wonder if you would be kind enough to help me with some
notes, perhaps, as to what is going on where you are, and what
books, or what work, etc., seems to you worth attention.
The problem is always one of communication,
and god knows we have little enough in the way of facilities. I
hope the broadsheet can effect something, toward that end. I
don’t at all want to suggest this or that emphasis as proper –
if a man has just written some monumental work on the cultiva-
tion of tomatoes, etc., and if you can prove it pertinent, etc.,
then very great indeed. Likewise, if there is work there you
think ought to have more circulation, etc., I should also welcome
the chance to look at it. The only possible suggestion would be,
that room for any given article, and so on, will be limited –
and so the greatest degree of condensation you can get short of
literal incoherence, will be best. If you can prove something
by simply quoting, etc., then so much the better. Best of all
are exact references (viz, to books by title, author, a publisher,
etc.) wherever they are called for.
I hope it does interest you; in any case shall
look for a letter whenever you can find the time. And all best
luck with your little magazine.
What was it like, they thought. What ever could it be like, in the heathen country of New Zealand. (Creeley, Collected Prose 28)
The fact that Robert Creeley writes to Noel Hoggard, editor of the New Zealand little magazine Arena, doesn’t surprise me. Writing to Canadian poet Irving Layton later that year, Creeley states his intention to produce:
an actual representation of what the hell there is, actually, in every country I can get into. I’m not interested in local criteria except as they may show some particularly dismal situation (worth the noting etc.), or be characters of a particular force in the writing from wherever etc. I want French, German, Italian work as well as ‘American’ – but I can do nothing if everyone insists, immediately, on the safety of the cocoon etc. (Faas and Reed66)
Since coming across the letter, however, I have often wondered how Noel Hoggard answered on 9/5/53. Nothing to report here in the heathen antipodean isles? Or perhaps: Bit of bickering going on about whether we should be looking inwards or outwards to find ourselves in our poetry. Jury still out on that one.
I’m pretty sure he would have noted his intention to run an advertisement in the next issue of Arena (No. 34, 1953) as follows:
Under the auspices of The Divers Press, Banalbufar, Mallorca (Spain) Robert Creeley, the American poet, proposes to publish a quarterly broadsheet with the emphasis on poetry and younger writers.
From what I can gather, the quarterly broadsheet is a mythical magazine intended to stimulate activity, which develops into The Black Mountain Review.
But this is speculation. There are no further exchanges between Creeley and Hoggard in the Arena archive.
Noel Hoggard at Handcraft Press, 1950s. Noel Farr Hoggard Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library 75-184-13/19.
Reproduced with permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library.
Here is Noel Hoggard working in his backyard shed above the sea in Pukerua Bay, north of Wellington city.
At least that’s where I imagine he is.
Pinned to the wall behind him are page proofs from Arena, which moves through a variety of name changes in its lifetime and by 1950 (No. 24) has settled on Arena: New Zealand International Quarterly, ‘seeking closer contact with overseas countries through the medium of cultural association and mutual exchange of ideas in literature.’
As an ‘International Quarterly’ Arena is an outlet for up and coming New Zealand writers such as Louis Johnson and James K Baxter who are looking beyond more nationalist elders such as Allen Curnow and Charles Brasch. For a low budget operation, Arena also receives a surprising number of international subscriptions and magazines from overseas editors.
But it would be difficult to argue that Arena forged the way for a New Zealand avant garde.
New Zealand writer and fellow publisher Dennis McEldowney had doubts about Hoggard’s editorial practice:
ungratefully I concluded that his ability to pick future winners was not due to acute discernment so much as to lack of it. If everything went in something was bound to be of interest. […] I began to wonder whether anyone received rejection slips from him. (McEldowney 32)
Nonetheless Hoggard’s network during a period of New Zealand’s ostensible ‘isolation’ from American literary influences is impressive. For a short moment New Zealand was on the inside of a conspiracy that would come to influence the emergence of a radical new poetry – one driven in part by American poet and editor Cid Corman.
Cid’s virtue. The tenacity. Damn well admirable. And the openness. What makes it possible to call him an idiot & remain in communication. More, I figure he’s got some head certainly; not like myself, to jump in (I put that smugly). Anyhow, he seems the man, if only because – there is the magazine, & damn well seems as tho it’s coming off (Creeley to Olson, 11 Feb 1951. Butterick136)
Well before a new generation of New Zealand writers recognised American voices in their verse, Cid Corman is pushing Noel Hoggard to get Arena’s readers to attend to developments in American writing, as evidenced in a letter of 30 April 1953.
Letter from Cid Corman to Noel Hoggard, 30 April 1953. Noel Farr Hoggard Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library
75-184-07/07. Reproduced with the permission of the estate of Cid Corman and the Alexander Turnbull Library.
rec. 9[?]/5/53. Ans . 4/6/53 (Airmail)
Thursday eve, April 30th, 1953
Sorry not to have received 32, but grateful for 33. My in-
terest is that of one keenly concerned about creative development
the world around. ARENA paints a discouraging picture of writing
in NZ. The work is generally thin and when, as in the instance of
Louis Johnson, there is intelligence, it gets frittered away in a
finger exercise of careful sounding sonnets. May’s bit on the
US scene is ridiculous, and pointless, it seems to me, to anyone now
on the spot. Intsead of lumping editors into “dogmatists” and “ec-
lectics” or some undesignated purgatorial category, why doesn’t he
trouble to state what JCRansom represents (or KENYON REVIEW) or
what I do (or ORIGIN), etc? There are dozens of mags in NY (little
ones) that are totally different. What does it signify? Anything?
Beyond a variety of furies? I am “friendly” with the editors of
GOLDEN GOOSE, IMAGI, QRL, KENYON REVIEW, SEWANEE REVIEW, etc. So
what? I would publish very little of what they do, if I had the
chance (& sometimes I have had it). Any editor worth his salt in
this effort (running a little mag) must have marked preferences. [obscured]
he should be hardheaded (even if it hurts the feelings of such [obscured]
your Miss Robinson). I don’t mean that he must be blind or tone [obscured]
But the little mag, for me, as I wrote in May’s TRACE (2), is [obscured]
avant-garde of our creative work. An editor must be “ready” for [obscured]
thing and everything, OPEN, but also highly critical and demanding.
Sure, he is often, he is always, subjective – but not only subjective.
The point is that I, as you, do my best. And I take editing very s[obscured]
eriously. And yet we will, we must, disagree. Etc. Again, then, t[obscured]
May to cut the generalities and conclusions and get into the exact [obscured]
Let me include a poem here that you may care to print; it is more
nearly what I would want poetry today to try for (I don’t mean that it
wholly succeeds); it, at least, attempts a clean speech, with rhythm
attached wholly to the emotional pitch and push, an honesty, in lang[obscured]
and structure. Or tell your readers to read William Carlos Williams [obscured]
Robert Creeley, if they want better examples.
The night is always outside
and I, in it, still close,
cold in it.
is such a far place: no birds
sing. A dog barks at me,
suddently, frightens me. A car
goes by; I go
in, leaving the dog in the street
alone. And morning, I tell myself,
Print this, please, if only to demonstrate to your readers that
there is an economy and clarity and cleanness possible to poetry,
that is worth aiming at and finding. The goal varies with the
poet and the poem. We speak a different language, but if we set
it down accurately, a recognition becomes possible that there is
a truth we can share, which is ourselves, each to each. For
My admiration always for your survival and your effort. Best
if I can be of any service to you, please let
me know – I’ve sent you copies of ORIGIN as
they’ve appeared (#’s 8 & 9 are printed, but not on hand)
PK Page of Canada has moved to Australia & a very fine poet, watch out for her (Mrs. [illegible])]
Corman is an active American correspondent with Arena, which publishes notes such as his ‘Focus on American Poetry,’ introducing ‘the major poets whom I consider worth being influenced by,’ including Charles Olson. (Arena 31, 7)
A consummate international networker, Corman is one of the reasons Robert Creeley is now known by a wider audience of writers and readers.
As well as airing Creeley’s first public reading in 1949 on his radio show ‘This is poetry,’ Corman also features Creeley’s writing in 1951 in his little magazine Origin. In the same year Arena’s contributors are invited to submit material to Origin and be ‘assured of international circulation and careful reading.’ (Arena 29, 19)
Corman’s intention is to establish Origin as a hub for avant-garde writers, bringing them ‘into active relation with each other, not as a school or group, but for mutual stimulation, exchange of thoughts, community of feeling.’ (The Gist of Origin 124)
The invitation comes a decade too soon for New Zealand writers, even though poets such as Kendrick Smithyman are receptive to American influences. (Paterson, Tne New Poetry 23)
From Cid Corman’s Origin, and related sources of ‘experimental’ poetry such as The Black Mountain Review, editor Donald Allen will eventually draw Creeley and other American writers into the mainstream through his anthology The New American Poetry 1945-1960.
‘In New Zealand and Australia poets seem to compete as to who was first to read it,’ recalls Bill Manhire, noting at the same time that ‘Creeley is probably the American poet who meant most to me when I was learning to write.’ (‘Breaking the Line’)
In 1976 Manhire will interview Creeley in Wellington for the New Zealand literary journal Islands. Local writers have well and truly awakened to American sounds