new zealand electronic poetry centre


Mary Stanley

about Mary Stanley


Introduction by Kendrick Smithyman.


The earliest poems here, "The New Philosopher", "Love by Candlelight" and "To the Atom", were the prizewinning group for the Jessie Mackay Memorial Award of 1945. Although Mary Stanley was to reject these when she put her small book together, the three poems continue to appeal to readers not only of her own but also those of a younger generation that have come across them. When gathering her poems she seems to have overlooked three other poems, from 1946. "Heraclitus at Ephesus Preached" and "Phoenix" were in Kiwi, 1947, which is the only record of "Phoenix". The Heraclitus poem survives in print but otherwise only as a torn but dated draft. "Time is a River" first appeared in the Year Book of the Arts in New Zealand No. 3: 1947 and was republished in the United States quarterly Voices, Spring 1948, a Commonwealth women’s issue. Starveling Year’s "Pastorale" had a companion piece, "Quatrain", twice typed out but not apparently sent off anywhere. Both of these pieces are stanzas from an original "Walls of Glass", which was at some time submitted for publication (perhaps with Landfall?) judging by the state of one text. That text is included here, from early ’48 most likely.

The "Three Festivals" come from about May 1948. "Two Sonnets for Stephen" are no earlier than August 1950; they appeared in October ’51 along with "Cut off by Tides…" which was then wrongly titled "Sonnet".

In May 1951 Louis Johnson invited Mary Stanley to submit a script which would make a "booklet … for a series of Poetry Pamphlets to be put out by Pegasus Press". A group of six pamphlets was planned, to "be out within a few months". By September 1951 a script of Starveling Year had gone to Pegasus. Some changes were made to it before publication. "Commerce of Christmas" appeared in January 1952, "The Widow" and "Put off Constricting Day" (originally "Whom God Hath Joined") in November of that year. On 6 March 1953 Albion Wright wrote to Mary Stanley to tell her "lots of review copies" of her little book had been sent out from Pegasus for "both here and overseas". Few reviews appeared. She published nothing more until April 1958, "On Looking into a Glossy Magazine" and "Poem for Felicity Sim", and nothing at all after "For Dog Lovers" and "Morepork", December 1958.

The blurb of Starveling Year credited her with appearing in Landfall, which was incorrect. The Acknowledgements include Here and Now, where she appeared once but for whatever reason that poem, "Commerce of Christmas", was not included in the book. Some small errors in the 1953 text have been silently corrected in these pages.

Mary Stanley left few papers. For some of the poems no worksheets or typed scripts survive, only what is in print. A few pieces remain, not ready for publication. Whatever she did before 1946, little of which exists now, she wrote sparingly from that time.

She was encouraged over the years by women friends, some themselves writing – when young, Barbara Dent and Ruth Gilbert were two of them – or active in other arts, as Una Platts and Molly Macalister were. It has been said that men dismissed what she did and this effectively silenced her, but men as different as A.R.D. Fairburn, M.K. Joseph, Robert Lowry, Frank Sargeson, Maurice Duggan, James K. Baxter, Robert Thompson and especially Louis Johnson treated her respectfully and gave her no reason to think they disparaged her poems. She submitted only once to Landfall, in its early days, and was rejected, although Charles Brasch asked more from her year by year, invariably cordial and enquiring on paper or in person, and when her book was coming out went to some trouble to find a sympathetic reviewer.

Mary Stanley suffered a major hurt with the death of her first husband in 1944, to which "Record Perpetual Loss" refers. She married again in 1946. The first of her three sons was born in 1947. Twelve months later rheumatoid arthritis was apparent. This continued for the rest of her life, at times easing only to return again with increasing complication and severity. She had an extraordinarily powerful will to resist the decline of her body which was ultimately so horrifying, and an unpredictable ingenuity in contriving to get around the handicaps which should have prevented her from gardening as long as she did or kept her from the piano when common sense protested that she could not do what demonstrably she was doing. She returned to primary school teaching, working particularly with remedial cases and with school music, fortunate in the principals, colleagues and school inspectors who sought as long as they could to keep her in the service, notably at Forrest Hill School, next door to Maurice Duggan’s home.

As well as succeeding with children in making music Mary Stanley had the knack of getting them to write although she could not do so for herself. A last attempt to get herself writing again for which anything remains is a sketch made after she had taught for a week at a Creative Writing school in Sydney in 1971:

In yellow sunlight a girl sits
Taking a tangelo apart
With long fingers
As wind combs her hair.
Will she also peel off
Her orange sweater,
Showing her breasts like fruit?
Among bronze trunks
Kookaburras cry her triumph.

One other script may be latecome. "Question without Answer" has revisions to the typescript, the only surviving text, in a longhand which belongs to her later years.


Last updated 04 December, 2002