new zealand electronic poetry centre


Kendrick Smithyman



The argument of 'place', or its importance, is largely a futile dispute between the regionalists and the internationalists. Or so I'm told. If New Zealand landscape or the myths made of it get into New Zealand poems, well and good, provided the poems are well and good. But we should be concerned with capable poetry and not with its incidentals, and New Zealandism is no more than an incidental. What significance has 'place' in 'Cristabel', in 'Venus and Adonis', 'Absalom and Architophel' or the 'Ode to the West Wind'? As an incidental concern 'place' has been and had to be quite understandably important. As a matter for live debate I think it is now disqualified.

My comment on question 8 is just as much speculation as the original suggestion. I cannot see why formalism is any more likely to hold back the development of poetry in this country than a lack of formalism is likely to promote nests of liberated songsters. It is, in view of the remarks on editors' venturings and the reference to difficulty in placing 'new departures', possibly felt that we are leaning towards stodginess or stiffness and sterility, which could be compensated or checked by more boldness and a break with the generally conservative practice of poetry here. Possibly so. But I doubt it. I have no fixed attitude (I think, but maybe I'm kidding myself) about the merits of traditional or non-traditional practice, and I see a fair sample of contemporary poetry.

Professor Gordon, if I follow the complaint correctly, is probably right. But surely this should not be so much a complaint as an observation? What is his argument: that writers are rather engaged with some strata of the community to the exclusion of others, that we haven't an overall view of the living community? But that is inevitable. There are not nearly enough stories or poems or books written by nearly enough writers with nearly enough experience or sympathy to provide a complete picture. It's not merely little Tom Brown who isn't written about: where are the studies of the University teachers at home or at College? Tom Brown being, in any case, a stereotype, an enormous abstract average, is the observation valid? Should we consider what is implicit in this making hay with a type? Concrete examples of Tom Brown in my small suburban street: a very old widower, a young carpenter and family, a small manufacturer, a radio mechanic, a bank manager (fairly sizeable branch), an ex-Indian Army major, but not T. Brown.

Your question: Do you find much willful obscurity in New Zealand verse? It's rather often asserted that there is obscurity, and willful at that, but it doesn't really seem frequent in this country's poetry. There is little that is obscure in the little poetry published here, and as for its being willful - well, it's scarcely worth the iteration the charge has since the production is small and only a small part of it is obscure, and only a fraction of the small part is possibly willful, in the sense that what is said could be just as well said more directly, by someone assumed to have sufficient craft to command his medium. (Much of what is alleged obscure is blurred and uncertain because of inadequate craftsmanship. And much is obscure because the reader's craftsmanship is insufficient, not the poet's.) When harrying willful more closely one begins to wonder how, short of buttonholing the poet, the arbiters of our poetry know that the obscurity they complain about is either willed, defiant, deliberate or cussed. Like the soldier who has odd accusations on his charge-sheet, the poet comes up before a court where the onus is not so much on those who lay the charges to prove guilt as it is on the defendant to prove innocence. An impossible situation in the literary courts where, pursuing the figure, the prosecutor is also judge and executioner. It appears to be generally agreed that obscurity is a bad thing. For those of my acquaintance who bring this especially succulent red herring into the neighbourhood I usually recommend a few minutes with Cleanth Brooks' study of Herrick's 'Corinna's going a-Maying', which you can find in The Well Wrought Urn, in the chapter titled 'What does poetry communicate?' The examples of the well-known and well-understood poem which is not well-understood can, of course, be multiplied far beyond this Herrick.
      The charge of obscurity is supposed to be something of a real killer when it's fired off by the biggest literate gun the local dailies can mount, or even when its banged away by a sober periodical. Incompetence produces some obscure writing, and perversity or jumped-up intellectuality produces some more. But as we discover how much we don't properly know of accepted poetry in the great range of our English literature it becomes us to be quieter. In Donne, for instance, our readings and our appreciations will have to be modified when some student has thoroughly explored his use of the Hermetic philosophy, alchemy and physic, which has been merely touched so far by Miss Gardner and by E. H. Duncan. Suppose an equivalent case in modern terms: aren't most of us going to find obscure a poet who makes systematic metaphor of Heisenberg's Principle of Indeterminacy?
      Society is complex in its activities and its relationships, and the members of a community are complex. A section of the poetry of an advanced and intricate community must inevitably be complex, and because complex, obscure - which is not to say that most of the obscurity can not eventually be understood in the major part. We have to recognise that we may not be able to recover the import of a poem's imagery, still less to correctly sympathise with the temper governed by a special (and perhaps in more cases than we may reckon, a typical) set of motivations. We have to reckon in short that the mirror which art holds to nature may be a dark glass reflecting a paddock where undoubtedly dark horses are capering.
      To my fancy Donne's is not obscure poetry, but rather a poetry of multiple reference and function. Because of my own temperament, or neuroses, I like complex poetry; bit I also like (if only relatively) uncomplicated poems. There are times when one can't be simple in writing, and those incidences are surely not to be reprehended.
      Touching some of the other questions: I think New Zealand poetry is increasingly urban, and the 'attitudes' of the poets are more various. I wouldn't mind the odd trip abroad, but I'm decidedly provincial in my tastes. I dislike public readings of poetry and detest readings on the radio. And I would like to be a full-time writer. My garden would look fine then.

The New Zealand Poetry Yearbook, vol. 4, 1954.

Last updated 11 May 2001