Under Government and Restraint: Tim Jones Interviews David Howard

By and | 19 March 2010

Williams could have looked through Curtainless Windows: Contemporary Russian Writing (Takahe 5, Spring 1990), discovering poems from Mikhail Aizenberg, Tatyana Shcherbina, Alexandra Sozonova, Ludmila Stokowska, and Sergey Stratanovsky – all translated by J. Kates, whose Zepyhr Press published The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova (1990). He would have learnt that the Cyrillic alphabet abbreviates 'emergency ration' to 'N.Z.', but for Shcherbina:

N.Z. is now only New Zealand.
Once it made me think of emergency rations,
I mean, a touch of the commie state – not its ill-wishers
but its orphans (that obscene look never wears thin)
a touch ever more unfeeling, without strands of wool
on its pelt, nor birthmarks.
You can love a hag's eyes and touch eyelids
where the eyelashes have fallen out, white and iris –
shot off into space at an enemy.
Only a single husk left over, a foil
with the superficial depth of a hologram.
You can scrutinize it, and wait until it revives,
skewer it on a Finnish knife –
the way spectators got into silent movies,
now that N.Z. is an antique canvas.

In America this material was commended by the likes of Marilyn Hacker, who wrote of Mikhail Aizenberg: 'American readers are introduced to the work of an important contemporary Russian poet, whose world-view and aesthetic will seem at once welcome in its otherness and pertinently familiar…In J. Kates' translations, these poems have a new and discrete life in English.' But not a life our scholars share – there's no acknowledgement in either Mark Williams' introduction or Gregory O'Brien's preface to Land of Seas: An Anthology of New Zealand Poetry (with E. Pavlov, Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2005).

Perhaps this is forgivable; their task was to showcase New Zealand poets to Russian readers, not to catalogue contacts. But Landfall 213: Russia (OUP, 2007) shows that a history missed is a history rewritten. What are we to make of the failure by Jacob Edmond, Gregory O'Brien, Evgeny Pavlov and Ian Wedde to recognise a direct precursor, The New Zealand Project? How can an essay entitled No Place like Home: Encounters between New Zealand and Russian Poetries fail to cite (to sight) Kates' translations, which also appeared in Takahe 15 (Winter 1993), especially when Edmond discusses the samizdat issue (Leningrad, 1989) of the open letter? [To be fair, when I directed his attention to this he was apologetic.]

The most simple in a complex of reasons for this neglect is marketing, which feeds our drive to follow (if not ally with) the perceived leader. When there's a lot of noise from one direction then heads naturally turn that way. Scholars of contemporary poetry look to Wellington with good reason. The obligation is not on the IIML/VUP/Sport nexus to quieten down, but on scholars to explore elsewhere before drawing conclusions. Too often when they turn their backs on the capital it's to use a Claude glass. Rita Angus' absurdist quip from 1947: ‘New Zealand is, in essence, medieval' could be whimsically applied today, with Bill Manhire our urbane Aristotle: an influential teacher, a model of professional generosity, whose centrality is simultaneously inspiring and an obstacle to seeing clearly.

Perhaps, all said and nothing done, I have woken up as a curmudgeon. If I think of New Zealand poetry then I think of a schoolchild in the front row, arms tightly folded, seeing no one but the registered teacher. If I think of, say, Arabic or Spanish poetry then I think of a schoolchild in the back row, arms wide open, looking over dozens of others, perhaps adopting this one's posture but that one's gesture then abandoning both. And I know that Arabic and Spanish are greater for engaging with an overt subject rather than pirouetting on a pinhead, which is the indulgence of the privileged. I can't regard the cynical non-poetry of Damien Wilkins as more deserving than the committed sequences of Bill Sewell, who wrote to Iain Lonie: 'no doubt/ the palace seems full of intruders.'

TJ: Again based on that interview, you are not enamoured of the role of artists within a capitalist system.

DH: Privilege and barbarism should be strangers; instead they are close relatives. Capitalism is that procedure whereby we sanctify greed. When our politicians reinforce the imperative of ‘economic growth' they are enlarging the cathedral – in order to maintain the cemetery out back. Poetry is what marks the headstones and honours those below. It is antipathetic to systems. William Morris offers the consolation, but also the impotence, of hope: ‘It is not this or that…machine which we want to get rid of, but the great intangible machine of commercial tyranny which oppresses the lives of all of us' (Art and Its Producers, 1881).

Privation magnifies appetite, but so does abundance. Whether blue or white, New Zealanders are greedy (once, say 10.47am on 17 June 1996, even I was greedy). We consume well above our share, and we go into debt to do so. That can't last, nor should we try to make it last. Dr Megan Clark (Director of New Zealand's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, or CSIRO) warns that 'in the next fifty years, we will need to produce as much food as we have ever produced in the entire human history.' How? Our lifestyle is founded and founders upon impossible assumptions, our arts are regarded by administrators (who should know better) as consumables, and more people ask themselves 'When Madonna adopts an orphan does she get stretchmarks?' than worry over the relationship between crop productivity, food distribution, and chronic malnutrition. Some prominent conservatives still view global warming as a mirage rather than a scout for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (whom, perversely, they almost believe in).

While empathy is always worth working for, and evil is only possible where there's a failure of empathy, I'm too worn to believe that the lyric fosters intimacy beyond a one-on-one reading – it's not a blueprint for unity between people(s). The rich slippage that means each reader experiences a different poem, even though the logical signification of the text appears fixed, suggests that unity is a beautiful illusion. In 1963 Greek students protested the assassination of a parliamentary deputy by collectively singing Yannis Ritsos' Epitaphios. The act of singing as an impromptu choir rather than the poem united them. When the voices lifted together then they rose upon the poem as though its lines were the rungs of a ladder that would soon be kicked away, although Ritsos understandably felt honoured. Sometimes an occasion transcribes a poem rather than a poem an occasion. The good poem must also and always be its own occasion. To recall Charles Brasch's early pointer:

… the arts do not exist in a void. They are products of the individual imagination and at the same time social phenomena; raised above the heat and dust of everyday life, and yet closely implicated in it. Any serious consideration of them is bound to involve an inquiry into their place in society and the social functions which they fulfil – what part they play in life, what use they are. This in turn must lead sooner or later to questions about society itself and what it exists for, and, eventually, about the nature of man.
(Landfall 1:1, March 1947)

Notwithstanding that the leading English-speaking figures of both modernism and post-modernism were born in America, local scholars often cite The Word is Freed generation as evidence that our poetry turned from British to American models in the 1970s – when New Zealand was also exploring new markets for its produce after Britain's entry into the EEC. Given the formative interest of Charles Brasch in Russian, of Kendrick Smithyman and Iain Lonie in Italian, of R.A.K Mason and James K. Baxter in Latin, of Hone Tuwhare in German, of Rewi Alley and Charles ‘Mike' Doyle in Chinese (there are other examples), this seems simplistic. Influence is a more complex matter than either national borders or pure metals. Even if a British-American switch is accepted, change is not necessarily liberation. The jewellery adopted might be a chain.

Here every writer worth the name attends to the native ahead of the exotic. And every writer worth the name also declares allegiance to an imaginary country where, say, Andrew Marvell, Akutagawa Ryunosuke, Tayyib Salih and Robert Walser are compatriots. A vigorous personal tradition will ignore boundaries and draw from more than one language. The knowledge economy was global before most people knew there was a globe: Erasmus and Sir Thomas More corresponded. So did Governor George Grey and Charles Darwin.

Whereas a writer is defined, in part, by his influences he also 'chooses' them; his work sets the terms of reference. This is not the case with trade, including that marketed as 'free'. Strong economies determine the terms for the weak, who accept these (as they often must) at their peril. New Zealand is not powerful politically, economically, or culturally. We extol our inventiveness yet, per head of population, the number of patents we register annually is well below that of most developed countries. Great travellers, we refuse to take the road less travelled. Thumb out, we wait by the highway while muttering We must keep up, we must keep up…

Our most artistically literate leader Helen Clark allowed GE trialing, thereby blunting our market edge and compromising our ‘point of difference' in a period when, given the CSIRO projection, GE crops must come to predominate in most countries. Unlike many trading partners, New Zealand can easily feed its people if required to. Given low population density and a high amount of arable land, the smart strategy for a group of islands remote from most markets is to maximise return on exports by becoming a boutique supplier of organic produce to the wealthy rather than adopting the Monsanto-influenced approach. But, political and business rhetoric notwithstanding, New Zealand prefers to follow rather than to lead. I remember the late Bruce Jesson:

You can see my problem as a New Zealand nationalist. How do you develop a sense of identity among people who lack any originality or confidence in themselves? Do not get me wrong. I am not saying that we are entirely a nation of mediocre and timid conformists. I have known plenty of New Zealanders who have been well-read, intellectually-stimulating, non-conformist, courageous and sometimes eccentric. They have tended to be marginalised, however. There is something about the structure and culture of this country that fosters the mediocre conformist.

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