Reviewed by Peter Pierce
IF WE were able to talk comfortably of an Australasian literature, rather than its Australian and New Zealand sub-branches, then C. K. Stead would be regarded as one of the dominant writers of the past half century.
In common with some of his Australian counterparts, he has been an academic and writer (but asks: "Do good poets / Make bad professors?"), a poet (14 books) and author of fiction (11 novels, two books of stories and counting). As a novelist, he has written of the Maori Wars, Katherine Mansfield, the disastrous campaign in Crete in 1941. For 20 years he was professor of English at the University of Auckland, whose press has sumptuously published Stead's Collected Poems 1951-2006.
But on this side of the Tasman, how well known to Australian readers is Christian Karlson (Karl) Stead or any other living New Zealand writer from New Zealand?
A century ago the cultural traffic was decidedly two-way. A long line of Kiwi poets (Douglas Stewart), novelists (Jean Devanny) and editors (David McKee Wright) made their careers in Australia. The Bulletin found its audience in both countries.
Henry Lawson twice lived in what he called "Maoriland", to teach and in search of stories. And this is not yet to mention Anzac. The neglect of New Zealand literature and culture by most Australian critics and readers has been a significant if scantly remarked cultural loss for this country.
In the foreword to this book, and realising how much of a long life is depicted within it, Stead declares that: "I have tried, on the whole, to represent my own history as it occurred, and not to make it look better, or myself wiser, more mature, more adroit than I was at the time."
He confesses himself to have been "obsessed with poetic form throughout". Thus besides using regular forms such as the sonnet, there are concrete poems, bricolage (his verses interspersed with quotations from writers and painters), "versions" of the Roman poet Catullus, long poems that carry a strong narrative line, work through controlled digression, such as Walking Westward (1979).
In the poem A Natural Grace, Stead delivers a credo: "Since all who make are passionate for line /Proportion, strength and take what's near and serves." This pragmatic sense of craft informs his choices of subjects. Many times and places are traversed.
The poet encounters imposing and humble figures from the past - emperors and private soldiers - as well as many cities, from Auckland to Melbourne, London, Washington. As he admits: "Travel is my vice."
You Have A Lot To Lose limpidly restates his poetic principles: "Hard. Bright. Clean. Particular." Prose writer Ernest Hemingway, one of many influences subsumed here, would have endorsed each word in that lapidary line.
Stead's very early verse presents a too strenuous and assertive "I". T. S. Eliot inhibited him then but soon enough Stead would move into confident absorption and imitation, as in the long and funny poem, Yes T. S.
He is perhaps less content when more formal (as he concedes in the enlightening section of notes at the end of the book). Thus Voices (1990), commissioned for the sesquicentenary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, has a ceremonial leadenness, although evidently it worked best as radio.
Elsewhere there is a happily unsuppressed, coarse undergraduate humour.
Stead is persistently engaged by the political world - the fall of Saigon, the anti-Springbok rugby tour demonstrations of 1981, the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour.
Some of the most moving poems are to other poets, for instance to Les Murray on his 60th birthday: "Corporate raider / in the larder / of language", or to Alan Curnow after his death: "As a man he wrote of islands, / talked tides and distances, / and seldom bought his round." Acerbity seasons admiration.
Stead bristles when he hears that a biographer is "wanting" his life: "The world's sure it / knows you better than / you know yourself."
But Stead is a fit subject for critical appreciation at least, a towering talent, cosmopolitan, lucidly intelligent. Few writers on either side of the Tasman have matched Stead's multifaceted achievements.
In May 2005 he suffered a migraine that turned out to be a stroke. There was a poem at the end of it, as jaunty as one would expect: "You're alive, Karlson / you're writing!"
Indeed, he is.