Thursday, November 12, 2009

A reply to a fragment, probably taken out of context, from an interview with David Howard

Tim Jones has interviewed David Howard here. In the course of the interview David states, in the context of a scathing indictment of globalisation, that "Following New Zealand's political reorientation, our poetry has turned from British to American (rather than indigenous) models. This is change but not the liberation that many claim."*

What? Aside from the criticisms of Bill Manhire (which seem to have more to do with the IIML, and by extension VUP and Sport - for which the criticisms should probably be leveled at Fergus Barrowman - than his poetics) there is little or no actual discussion of what this means. Sure, anyone can see the Ashbery influence in Manhire's work (though to be honest I haven't really read much post 1990 - his work seemed to go downhill around then), but what does that mean?Strangely David praises Michele Leggot's DIA, saying that it "deservedly won the New Zealand Book Award for Poetry" in 1994. Michele took her Doctorate in Canada, on the work of American poet Louis Zukofsky. Her first work was published in Canada, and she is heavily influenced by US (and Canadian) language writing, and has been instrumental in bringing US poets to NZ to expose students to a larger range of practices (two talks given at the University of Auckland by Lyn Hejinian are available here and here).

As I've already stated the criticism of US influence in NZ is nothing new (and Allen Curnow's beloved Eliot and Auden were Americans, much as Eliot would have liked it to be otherwise), and besides, what, really is the alternative? Politics of regional genesis seem trite and petty. Just compare Auden to, say, Bruce Andrews, and you will see there are a multitude of different "America"'s, and such a matrix of practices extends beyond the US borders into Canada, the UK ... and has it's genesis in Fin de Siècle Europe.

As such, and in light of the fact that any pretence at autonomy (or regional "authenticity" - though Patrick Evans may disagree) is willful blindness - simply the importation of the idea of poetry (and with it the Greek Poesias) renders the attempt futile), what is the alternative to such? The fact that we now have global, instantaneous communication means that any attempt top cordon off the cultural precinct of our corner of the word (while subsequently trumpeting the "world class" qualities of our arts) is regressive in the extreme. I for one would rather join the world than engage in the CNZ brand of platitudinous marketing of "NZ identity".

*Obviously I'm writing this as a Pakeha writer. I would feel very uncomfortable appropriating "indigenous models" for my work, without the kind of full cultural engagement that I do not feel is possible; and even so I feel that such could easily turn into a kind of cultural tourism - cultural practices as commodities for consumption. The same kind of surface use of Maori idiom that one sees used by people who don't speak fluent Maori - meaning that the use of the word does not have the kind of full semantic underpinning and nuanced understanding of connotation as well as denotation that would be utilised if the word was English.


Cy Mathews said...

I hope you get a response to this, Ross. Personally, I think NZ hasn't learnt enough from US poetry.

Will Robe said...

I entirely disagree with your last point.

If you have a look through the dictionary of New Zealand English you'll see that plenty of Maori words have been adopted and are used with different degrees of frequency in normal conversation.

In regards to Maori words used in English with less frequency, I would argue they can be used, aside from a word actually 'in' the language, as both an acknowledgement of the original names of things in Aotearoa and a way to reference stories in the landscape that existed before the arrival of English.

Even the use of Maori words and idioms 'improperly,' 'out of context' or 'incorrectly' can bring shades of meaning to a work. For example, one could 'improperly' use a Maori word or idiom to comment on that impropriety or to demonstrate its use in Pakeha lingo in-itself.

And it is absurd to suggest that you cannot inhabit those idioms and use Maori language with feeling, meaning and even ownership. If done right the ownership goes both ways, and benefits both the poet and the language - invigorating both. For that, I will defer to Baxter.

Andrea said...

I agree and I really think that it's disingeneous for New Zealand artists to think that their work can or should exist in isolation from worldwide developments, whatever medium they are working in.

Often the old cliché about the work that is better known overseas is little known here holds true and the way the funding system works doesn't seem to help. It seems to me that the art world is quite closed in many ways.

I agree with what you're saying about indigenous models. Cultural appropriation can easily lead to exoticism in the less positive sense of the word.

Ross Brighton said...

Will - while I may agree with some of what you say, the point I'm trying to make is that, in the context of poetry - which by and large focuses on the utilization of the subtleties of language such as connotation, pun, homophony, etc etc - the use of token Maori words, without a full understanding of how they function as such, seems to me often to be linguistic tourism or exoticism, in that the kind of care for linguistic subtleties is not deployed in Maori as it is in English.

Ross Brighton said...

oh, and Cy -
I'm not that pessimistic - it's kind of like Canada, without the major figures like Steve McCaffery or bpNichol. It looks horrifically conservative, but there's lots of cool stuff too. It's just not in many of the anthologies. ANd the seventies and eighties produced some amazing work here - for the lates 60s - early seventies just look at the AUP Big Smoke anthology edited by Michele Leggott, Murray Edmond and Alan Brunton, all of whom are very impressive poets in their own right - I've recently started paying far more attention to Alan Brunton's work, and it's more amazing than I ever realized.

Richard Taylor said...

This argument has been going on for a long time. I recall seeing a critique of reactions here to Creeley* touring, here in that locals were, it was felt, falling at his feet and so on. This was in the 80s I think. Also there is the other argument that tries to counter Wystan Curnow, Roger Horrocks, Leggott and others who teach US Poetry or taught in some cases.
This 'other argument' is a reaction against the reaction against the old British "traditional" influence and so on.
So some NZrs reject US poetry.

I sit on the fence bit! But I think we are past the point where we "need" US poetry or whatever - what we need if we need anything is to look everywhere. I think there was a time when and there still is that we need to look at US developments. But there is rich "mine" of poetic development in many other parts of the world, and many young poets forget about what is right here! This may be what Howard is "warning" against.

Actually in one of his essays Manhire acknowledges his debt to US poetry. Alan Curnow was influenced both by Dylan Thomas - who was a personal friend of his - and Wallace Stevens. But also Pound and Eliot; but Curnow (as they were) was enthusiastic about Browning's poetry and much else. Smithyman was interested in everything in the world!

Smithyman seems to me to be almost our most original poet - a truly unique NZ voice.

I agree that DIA by the way is a great book - Leggott also is influenced by Ian Wedde and many other NZ (esp women) poets. (From interviews I have heard and some writings.)

In the end a writer just has to go his or her way - Howard is a very excellent poet - and has that individualistic outlook. I have met him a few times, and I like his work - and he seems a good fellow. But he is very strong in his views. So he probably likes finding his own ideas.

But US Poetry has developed from European influences and so on. And having looked at it we need to get back to our own stuff - our own poetics, sociology, art, work, politics, history etc Wystan Curnow seems to move between both worlds quite well and say Smithyman did also - even in many of his poems.

*Robert Creeley had strong connections to NZ - he married a NZr and was here a lot,wrote a poetry book "set in" Auckland and so on. He was influenced by NZ as much as he influenced us.

Other Americans tend to be rather one sided, and it is hard these days to feel comfortable with the US itself; considering it's political make up and history of invading and attacking other countries since WWII. And this unease maybe the source of the repudiation by some writers here of US influences.. But perhaps enough of the US poets and some of the US people are sufficiently critical of this aspect of US Imperialism...

Cy Mathews said...

Hey Ross,

I didn't mean to seem pessimistic, I agree there's a lot of good stuff going on here. Where "we" could learn from the US (and I use quotations mark because I'm skeptical of grouping writers together on grounds of nationality in the first place) is in being open to a diversity of outside influence - from Pound onwards, there's been a widespread interest in the US at looking beyond their national and linguistic borders for ideas and inspiration. As Richard just said, we need to look everywhere.

I also miss the kind of humour and irreverence one finds in certain strains of US poetry - not enough poets here have looked at each other and said, as Asbery said to Koch in 1960, "I think we need to be more crazy."

Ross Brighton said...

Yes Cy, I agree. One of the points I was trying to make was the breadth of influence visible in a lot of work that either comes from the US or seems to show predominantly US influence. And as for humour I'm with you as well - there still seems to be that Curnow dourness everywhere, or the overseriousness of early Baxter that seems eerily similar to Stephen Dedalus and thus hard to take seriously. And I'm not free from such - a lot of my work could be too 'poetic', though I'm comfortable with the implications of that.

Richard -
I am by no means promoting an American-centric view, simply saying that I think that a knee-jerk reactionary position isn't neccesarily defensable.

I am well aware of the strings of influence involved in the US in general (though more the avant side), and Leggott - she wrote her masters on Wedde. I too read a lot of continental writings - I love Kurt Schwitters.

I'd be suspicious of labeling Smithyman truly unique NZ voice - what does that really mean? what is the "we" of NZ, as Cy stated with his scare quotes - and does this imply that someone who demonstrates influence (as everyone does) is less "NZ"? that's murky water.

Richard Taylor said...

re Smithyman - I don't know - it just seems to me he is quite unique but I agree there may be others, and how do we know what is especially NZ is indeed moot.

After all we get such as me! And Charles Spear.

A Curnow is predominantly a bit dour and dark for me also which is why I prefer a lot of his son Wystan's writings.

I like Ashbery and Schuyler and others of the so-called NY School.

Tim Jones said...

Ross, it was good to see you mention Kurt Schwitters, or more precisely, it was good to see a poet mentioned from outside literature-in-English. People seem to get very het up about the UK-vs-US influence debate - but how many New Zealand poets draw on the wonderful poetic traditions that exist in non-English languages, so much of which is now at least partially accessible via translations?

It's evident from my interview with him that David Howard has this wider awareness. I am very fond of Russian poetry and I guess it leaves some sort of mark (a small stain, perhaps) on my own. Who are the many others I am lamentably failing to mention?

Ross Brighton said...

For a start, few people seem to remember that the langpo kind of thing wasn't only a US phenomenon, and there was a lot going on in Canada (often centred around Sound and Concrete poetry, and bilingual as well, and thus more radical - if such a thing is quantifyable).

There's a lot of amazing south American poetry - much great oncrete and Visual work.

The European Modernists - Paul Celan, the french Surrealists, all the Dadaists..... Lettrism (I'm a big fan of Henri Chopin, though Steve McCaffery describes him as an ultralettrist).

I'm very big on Heiner Muller as well.

This list is very eurocentric, but I hope to remedy that. Any recomendations as far as contemporary/20th C African, Asian or Middle Eastern lit would be greatly appreciated - and Iim sure there's stuff in Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris' Poems For the Millenium that'll help there. in the Poets for... series there's a selected Miyazawa Kenji which I hope to get a copy of.

Tim Jones said...

Ruth Dallas's poetry was heavily influenced by her reading of Chinese poetry, and by Buddhist philosophy - I don't have the sources to hand right now.

Ross Brighton said...

I'll have to look into her further - She's never really grabbed me enough to give her more than a cursory look. I'd assume there'd be similar influences in Robin Hyde/Iris Wilkinson's work, along with the high modernist tendencies and the Nietzsche, Biblical and Apocalyptic influences in the Book of Nadath (which is very interesting indeed).

Ted Jenner's an interesting one to try (and fail) to pin down as well.

maps said...

Surely the point is - what is a writer *doing* with an influence?

I haven't read Howard's interview yet but I have long felt that a lot of the contemporary avant-garde American poetry which young writers in New Zealand's metropolitan centres assimilate with such avidity - hell, I was one of the assimilators! - doesn't really equip them to deal with a lot of the reality around them.

This is because, in my opinion, the poetics of people like Ashbery (whose work I actually still enjoy) and Silliman (whose work I have never enjoyed) is rooted in a very thin slice of American society - a highly mobile, highly educated, highly sophisticated layer of liberal intellectuals whose world only very occasional overlaps with the world of the vast majority of Americans, let alone non-Americans.

And I do think that the poetics of people like Ashbery and Silliman actually unwittingly valourise this exclusive world, by setting up the tastes of its inhabitants as the tastes we all should have.

Silliman is quite explicit about this in all those dreary manifestoes he used to write - he thinks that any writer who doesn't write in fragmentary, highly allusive manner (a manner which is really just a reproduction of the conditions of his twenty-first century urban American world) is somehow beyond the pale.

When, say, Kendrick Smithyman brought the influence of southern American 'regionalist' writers like Allen Tate to New Zealand, he did so because these writers offered him a style and a manner suitable to what he wanted to say about New Zealand. Could one do the same with, say, Silliman?

In my experience most of the writers who turn to him, and to other avant-garde contemporary Americans, do so because they want to set their faces against any sort of confrontation with New Zealand history and society. They want to escape, mentally at least, to the literary scenes of New York or San Francisco. I'd prefer them to spend a year in Ohura or Dargaville.

Ross Brighton said...

Scott -
I totally agree with you on Silliman - though he seems to have toned down a bit recently (his distribes normally now come with the disclaimer that he really does like some practitioners of the "school of quietude", and he has recently championed the "American Hybrid" anthology - the whole concept of which I have serious misgivings about, but that's a tangent for later). The thing with writers like Silliman, I think, is that they desperately want the recognition (or "market share") that their rivals - Tony Hoagland and Billy Collins, for example, have - but don't seem to realise that there's this massive boundary that is more generic than ideological or anything else. It's about audience - and they don't seem to realise that. I for one am perfectly happy writing fringe work for a fringe audience, and think it would be massively silly (or Silli-) of me to assume that readers of, say, Glenn Colquhoun, would want to read my work.

However I'm not sure you're conflation of the poetic mode with a certain cultural band, and the absolutism that is implied, works - after all the precursors for much of this were Continental Europeans, mostly non-anglophones, and such modes have been taken up in a lot of other geographical and cultural spaces - Harryette Mullen and Nathaniel Mackey have applied such to Black politics, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and Myung Mi Kim have done the same with the Korean experience - and there is major political value in the work of Lyn Hejinian, Susan Howe adn Bruce Andrews (who may be joining the conversation).

What you say about turning away from NZ may be true of some, but if it were it would come from a very simplistic understanding of what a large number of these writers which act as precident are doing, especially in the realm of identity politics. I feel that the reading of theory associated with such work has been central to my realising what it is to be Pakeha - and you know (I hope) that I'm not ignorant of NZ History.

You may not be able to do what Smithyman did with Silliman, but you could with Howe.

What bothers me though about geographically designated identity though is the quantification of "authenticity" that comes along with it. How is Dargaville more "NZ" than Christchurch, or Auckland, where 1/4 of the country's population live? It seems similar to the "Real America" politics of the McCain/Palin campaign last year, and the "south Island Myth" that the "real" NZer is a white high-country sheep farmer (I'm not saying that Smythyman is like that of course, but this is the territory that one can get into far too easily).

maps said...

It's because Ohura and Dargaville are *not* in 'New Zealand' that our young Bohemians ahould be exiled there. Or they could go to Hawera...

Ross Brighton said...

Hey, I'm by no means ragging on Smithyman, nor regionalism, just questioning the wholehearted rejection of other modes - surely the urban population deserves a poetic as well -
and coming from (and living the vast majority of my young life in)Canterbury, those chaps rejection of the "sth Is. Myth" is something I identify with less than John Newton's critique, or the rejection of that poetic outright by the (so called) FREED group etc.

To attempt to represent the rural, i think, for me would be as disingenuous as trying to write Maori poems (I use the word poems rather than Waiata to accentuate the break).

In all of this I'm much of a "different strokes for different folks" kind of guy I guess.

Sorry, this is a somewhat inebriated reply after getting home a bit late - I hope that can be forgiven.

Cy Mathews said...

To paraphrase Alexandro Jodorowsky (and he may have been paraphrasing someone else, I can't recall): I don't live in New Zealand, I live in myself.

For me, poetic community is a matter of (1) those writers I am fortunate enough to be in personal communication with, and (2) those writers I enjoy reading. Geographical proximity does have a role in determining who falls into category (1), but not in (2).

I can't really understand the concern that one's poetic orientation might not help to deal with the reality around one. What reality? I'm a New Zealander who likes a lot of (but not all) American, Serbian, British, New Zealand and Latin American poetry. I could just as well argue that the "reality" around me isn't set up to deal with me - but really, does it matter?

I think not.

A slightly inebriated post from me too. Friday night syndrome.