Section 6 - Notes on YES and NO
6.0 To apprehend New Zealand poetry as a moon, that is the object of the present investigation. To see each of this art’s bright artefacts as sections of a singular whole with the separate existence and dark body of a globe.
6.1 What is this lunar thing? On its bright face it is New Zealand poetry, the set of those New Zealand vernacular representations where the environment is read into the literature. But this bright surface has an occult body. This other mass, this back, is the product of two mediating forces, two dominant forms of making sense, each with a lot of conscriptive power: the narrative of the nation-state and the narrative of personal experience.
6.2 These latter formations are occluded by the glare of the writing.
6.3 A classical statement of these two intertwined is contained in Curnow’s 1968 comments:
Poetry, it may be supposed, does not exist to define things. Rather, things provide the terms, as they uniquely offer themselves to the poet, by which alone the definitions that we call poems are possible. It may happen that the mere learning to read a landscape, in a country colonized not much over a century ago, and doubtfully taking up the burden of its national identity, is a necessary, if rudimentary, accomplishment for a poet. He will attempt this, not out of patriotic piety, but out of his own search for self-definition.9
6.4 In this argument Curnow remains mesmerised by physiognomy. The poetry is held to resemble, and to be necessarily caused by, the country. It is as the linkage between the southwesterly and the rectangle, in poetry regarded as a search for self-definition, the clamour for national things, and their problematic lamination. And there is something else – puritan poetics. What is missing is a poetics of pleasure.
6.5 What is a classic artwork? It appears to be mediation’s perfect product, inflected. The inflection is a sign of trouble. A classic is at the beginning or the end of a change in a population’s process of making and weighting sense. A classic is therefore a complexity of those signs, at their extreme points.
6.6 Allen Curnow’s Lone Kauri Road, the poem bookending his 1972 Trees, Effigies, Moving Objects, is a classic artwork.
6.6.1 Until this work, time and the conceptions of language as ideas in Curnow’s writing had been incubating only. Relatively muted, they had been compositional ideas criss-crossing all of the poet’s narrative, the narrative of the nation’s history, and their convergence. In Lone Kauri Road these compositional ideas blow up. Time is revealed in the sheer of one process, the representation of a coastal sunset in the west, against another, the process of writing. The poem is the Big Bang in New Zealand poetry. It is the most dramatic delamination of scene and the conceptions of language set among New Zealand words. And the central reflex of the poem, that things looked at hard look back harder, with its soft connection to Nietzsche’s parable of the abyss, sets a distinctive velocity and violence in all of Curnow’s subsequent writing. There is a sense in which Lone Kauri Road is the shocking calibration of his following books. Much of his poetry after 1972 is changed by it. The writing that emerges after 1972 is frequently more monosyllabic and singular. There is frequently little drama on the face of the poems. These poems seem full, often, of what they cannot bear. They have an aspect of unnatural calmness and precise manners, as figures in an aftermath:
the day, or how
will we have found
entry, by chained
bolted door of an
empty dark shed
of a hall, mile
from the next town-
ship, as many from
the last lit lamp?10
The first time I looked seaward, westward
it was looking back yellowly,
a dulling incandescence of the eye of day.
It was looking back over its raised hand.
Everything was backing away..
A tui clucked, shat, whistled thrice.
My gaze was directed where the branch had been.
An engine fell mute into the shadow of the valley
where the shadow had been.11
6.6.3 After a lifetime of palpating New Zealand-in-poetry this object crosses over, in Lone Kauri Road, and reveals that under the
on the pen, the paper...12
there has always been occurring, instead, the palpating of language.
6.6.4 It is important this poem is called Lone Kauri Road. It complicates my argument nicely. This west Auckland road is in a precipitous valley, on an escarpment tilted down to sea. You trace a long fall when you drive this road. It is actually vertiginous. Vertigo is the defining sensation in Lone Kauri Road. The space thus encourages, teaches, the story. The environment is a powerful component in the event of the poem. We want so much to say, the physiognomy frames the temper. The literature thus operates a lot like the landscape. The place is vital and suitable to it.
6.7 Notice how Curnow’s poetry is now read. As you re-read the work time after time it comes to have a descant. The work accelerates towards abstraction. It is poetry in motion. With the withering away of the need to exemplify anything for national art, in Curnow’s writing from 1972, national art emerges. The object of the writer’s eye appears to loosen. His text weathers. It does not ask to be read as once it was. For Curnow the text moves thus, from New Zealand poetry to New Zealand Poetry. But as the writing journeys away from a concept of nationhood, toward greater immersion in its own form, it takes country with it. And it is a travelling backwards, this journey, like the travel of the writer’s beloved Erewhonians13. The poetry loops. It remains one form of representation, re-reading but remaining consistent with its past. And the writing relaxes. It reveals its new excitement with itself in a flowing of minor vernacular words. The writing – those repetitions and habitual objects – comes out as it comes to be read, decade-by-decade, in different presents. As a lowering tide reveals the bones of a reef.