Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 28, No. 12. 1965.
Johnson's Bread And A Pension: — A Lesser Achievement
Johnson's Bread And A Pension:
A Lesser Achievement
"But this is my own making— a paper palace,
Memorial to the pauperdom of words—
The wrong words, frenzied for the pale occasion.
Too sure that therein bloomed the clash of swords,
Greatness attained upon the wings of vision:
Half a life spent to heap a large Alas!"
The poet discusses himself. In The White Elephant Mr. Johnson sets out to give an understanding of what it is to be a poet, and how his poetic activity appears in retrospect. Sympathy for the poet is clearly the aim of the poem, and the first impression is a vague combination of resignation and sorrow—which is all very well, if we are sure that the difficulties of the poet's craft as Mr. Johnson has experienced them are entirely the consequence of "the pauperdom of words." The nature of this doubt is clarified by an obvious and familiar parallel,
"Words strain, crack and sometimes break under the burden.
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still."
T. S. Eliot in Four Quartets is making substantially the same complaint—that words are not in themselves strong enough to convey the experience "attained on wings of vision"—but the differences between the two poets are striking. The words there act out the meaning of the lines, they evoke as well as describe. Eliot justifies his observation because the reader is completely aware that the poet has tested the powers and resources of words to the utmost, and knows their limitations because his control over them is absolute.
Any similar justification is not open to Mr. Johnson, as a glance at the above stanza will demonstrate. It is reasonable, for example, to describe the cupboard as a "paper palace," even if one of the main associations of the word "palace" is "opulence" or "richness" and the cupboard "will never outlive its ugliness." The word "pauperdom" is novel and concise. But, link the ideas of this phrase together — "palace," "memorial," "pauperdom" —and something essentially ridiculous happens. The question "Who would ever build a palace to commemorate pauperdom?" may sound unfair or pinpricking, but it is indicative of the haphazard way in which words come together in these poems.
The last line in this stanza is also worthy of comment. It is very easy to talk about sound relationships in a line, or a stanza, and to imply that this always produces a useful poetic effect. Here there are certainly sound relationships, between "half a life" and "heap a large," and "a large" and "Alas!", but instead of fulfilling any constructive function in the stanza, they give the line a crude "bounce," destroying the sense of loss which the line is trying to convey.
Words "mess" together. Prosy discourse is all that this particular arrangement of words is suited for, the stanza form and rhyme pattern imposing no control or shape upon what is being said. The words tell the reader what the poet wants to say, that is, what ideas or perceptions he has, but lack almost entirely a more profound relationship to one another.
It is worth exploring this particular distinction somewhat further in the poems contained in Bread and a Pension. For example, a first reading of the title poem brings out its criticism of society and the values and limitations of the "decent man," which is put in the ordinary terms of everyday "decent" life—"bread and a pension and not a hard life on the whole," "life without difference or hard words." Even if a not particularly striking or immediately challenging view of our society, it nevertheless has point and is worth expressing. But— how is it expressed? The rhythm of the lines is essentially prosaic, but this in itself need not be a fault if the poem is trying to evoke the attitude of the majority, to substantiate what the reader is told about their complete lack of sensitivity, of emotional and intellectual response to their circumstances. For the tone of the poem is undeniably flat and neutral, giving an impression of uncritical tolerance.
If, however, a closer inspection of the phrasing is made, this view is open to question. In the last three lines of the poem
"For these were decent: did as they were told, fed prisoners, buried the dead, and on occasion loaded the death-cart with those who were sent to the flames."
the poet takes over from "I" and provides a brief description of the activity which earned the "decent men" their pensions. There is a suggestion of tenseness in the lines which is occasioned principally by the use of short phrases introduced by a firm verb, and becomes apparent largely in contrast with the rest of the poem, giving the impression of the poet busily and seriously putting the situation into perspective.
The last line is presumably intended to clinch this impression, but by the time we reach "flames," the effect is quite lost—any horror that might have been expressed in "loaded the deathcart" (a phrase which seems in this context both unspecific and weightless) is utterly dispersed by the way in which the line tails off to "flames."
This reasserts the quality of the rest of the poem, suggesting that this is another "pale occasion" where the words are only minimally successful in the work they are supposed to do. The poem as a whole seems to be an expression of Mr. Johnson's characteristic poetic manner, rather than manifesting any close or deliberate relationship between tone (or mood) and subject, an impression which is substantiated by a considerable number of the poems in this collection and particularly those which employ this stanza form.
Sometimes we find talk with little point, breathless and undisciplined, as in My Wife Doesn't Understand Me; sometimes the pose of the reflective man, as in North Island Road; sometimes the man of experience, as in No Roses All The Way—but the poems just "run on," and it is this which seems to be their common denominator. With few exceptions Mr.
Johnson talks flatly and uninterestingly of his ideas, experiences and perceptions, in a way which robs them of much possible strength and vitality.
There is one further point worth making about Mr. Johnson's techniques and matter. He has defended the likeness of some of his work to that of other poets by saying: "Originality in itself became a relatively unimportant matter with the advent of Eliot: synthesis replaced it in the poet's curriculum." This was quoted by Mr. Mitcalfe in his "Listener" review as an adequate defence, but in the greater portion of Bread and a Pension at least, one essential condition is quite lacking. T. S. Eliot's poetic method was "synthesis." which implies not only that his work is a complex structure made up of other men's bricks, but also that the structure is something quite independent of its origins, that the shape is new and the act of synthesis has given it a distinctive cast.
We can see clearly the presence of other men's bricks throughout Mr. Johnson's poems, for example the tone, attitude and thought of W. H. Auden's Quest sonnets are repeated in lines like:
"That is the purpose of heroes after all— …
To tell them, after travail, that home's best.
And that the giants really aren't so tall."
and many others: there is perhaps a nod in Hopkins' direction in "this melting morning. A wear and tear
Of surf and shouting leaves my hand inert …"
and so on. The significant failure is that few of these syntheses become particular—where such relationships can be established (and the part Auden plays seems altogether too great) the immediate reaction is not to say "By Johnson, out of Auden, or Eliot, or …" but "inferior Auden, weakened Eliot … the attitude or expression recognisable but reduced to prosiness." I cannot help feeling that Mr. Johnson's defence is in fact one of the major judgments of this volume at least, for by recognising his relationship to other poets one also recognises how much less his achievement actually is.
Such a note is perhaps too uncompromising a conclusion, but I find myself very much in sympathy with Mr. D. P. Jackson, who reviewed Bread and a Pension for Landfall Vol. 19 No. 1, and whose review I would thoroughly recommend.