Tuesday, December 16, 2008
COLLECTED POEMS 1951-2006 By C.K. Stead
(Auckland University Press $59.99)
Reviewed by Peter Simpson in the New Zealand Herald's Canvas magazine Saturday 13 December and reproduced here with kind permission of Linda Herrick, Book Editor, NZ Herald.
Though, by my reckoning, C.K. Stead is the 15th New Zealand poet to publish a Collected Poems, few have accumulated such a sizeable and impressive body of work.
Among his compatriots only Baxter and Smithyman have written more, though poetry was their primary medium, whereas the prolific Stead has published more than a dozen books of fiction and seven of criticism as well as the 14 books (plus around 20 "Early Uncollected Poems") that make up this handsome, well-produced volume.
By his own admission, however, the fountain of poetry has never flowed uninterruptedly for Stead, the fickle unpredictability of the muse being a recurring theme, as in this 1997 poem:
Longed for so long
no longer expected
look! you're back
rarer than gold
than hen's teeth
whom I in my need
Evident in these lines is the pervasive musicality of Stead's writing, its subtle weaving of vowels and consonants into pleasing euphony. His verse is almost always easy on the ear, so that, despite its great length, the book is highly readable; it seldom flags.
Ironically, one of the duller patches is the volume Voices (1990), commissioned for the anniversary of the Treaty of Waitangi, where traditional versification makes the texture seem flatter than usual, though these 50-odd historical vignettes have other compensating virtues.
How many poets would have accepted a commission to commemorate publicly such a national occasion? By 1990, I imagine, not many, given that "nationalism" had among younger poets become something of a dirty word. But Stead was, and remains loyal to his origins.
He grew up admiring above all (among local writers) Allen Curnow and Frank Sargeson, the primary architects of literary nationalism, celebrating them in memorable poems, both before and after their deaths. Janet Frame, James K. Baxter, Maurice Duggan and Kendrick Smithyman also received poems in their honour.Like W.B. Yeats, Stead enjoys eulogising and mythologising favoured elders and contemporaries.
It is a mode he handles exceptionally well. Other poems celebrate writers from beyond these shores, including his modernist heroes Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and W.H. Auden and his contemporaries Peter Porter, Les Murray, Craig Raine and A.S. Byatt. On the other side of this coin are the sharply satirical poems such as Radivus the Bookman ("hacking out a column/of consensus bookchat/in his execrable prose") or those witty acts of character assassination perpetrated from behind the Roman mask of Catullus, a doubleness of persona (nice v nasty) cleverly recognised in the poem entitled C.K. ("One day I'll meet/ the bastard, surprise/him, introduce/myself. Hullo, C.K./I'm Karl. We haven't/met.' Let's/keep it like that,'/he says, unfriendly, /and turns away").
Using his initials instead of first names places Stead historically, as this practice was scarcely known before Yeats, Eliot and Auden adopted it early last century (soon imitated by locals such as R.A.K. Mason and A.R.D. Fairburn), and fell away after mid-century.
Adoption of C.K. Stead as his moniker signifies his commitment to the modernism associated with those writers. Eliot is a pervasive presence in the early poetry, as in the precocious Pictures in a Gallery Undersea, a multi-part Antipodean take on London, just as Eliot's Waste Land saw the imperial city from an American perspective.
In the 1960s the example of Auden helped Stead broaden his scope to include the world of politics under the impetus of his anger about the Vietnam war and New Zealand's involvement. The personal and the political are a heady mix in poems like You Have a Lot to Lose and April Notebook.By the 1970s and 80s the influence of Pound is felt (though not obtrusively - Stead has found his own distinctive voice) in a series of powerful, long poems, most with a basis in autobiography (variously refracted) and each with its characteristic metrical and structural pattern, including Quesada, Scoria, Walking Westward, Yes T.S. and Paris. Something the poems share, apart from musical distinction, is clarity - a quality celebrated in lines quoted in Yes T.S.: "Clear writers, like clear fountains, do not seem so/deep as they are; the turbid looks most profound - Landor."
Stead is never turbid.If there is, for my taste, a bit too much bookish chit-chat (and bad puns) in Stead's later volumes, there are also numerous memorable poems limpid in their details of scenes from a literary life lived as much in Europe (especially southern France) as in New Zealand, though Auckland - there is even a poem that mimics the shape of the Sky Tower - is undoubtedly the fixed foot where his poetic circumnavigations start and end. If cities as well as countries had poet laureates, Auckland's would have to be C.K. Stead.
Peter Simpson retires at the end of the year from the University of Auckland's English department. He is director of The Holloway Press.