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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Vol 35 no. 23. 21st September 1972

Cosmic Violence

Cosmic Violence

(Here we most miss some reference the oldest Maori poetry.) The first example I would [unclear: c] of a new Zealand writer who has found words for [unclear: wh] Keats called "the giant agony of the world" is the [unclear: po] R.A.K Mason. Mason, these days, is something of [unclear: a] forgotten man. Of course he's in all the anthologies, [unclear: a] few of his best poems are so familiar they've been [unclear: wo] smooth as pebbles. It is somehow typical of latter-[unclear: day] attitudes to Mason that the lines of his most [unclear: frequent] quoted should be the sestet of his "Sonnet of Brother hood":

. . . then what
of these beleagured victims this our race
betrayed alike by Fate's gigantic plot
here in this far-pitched perilous hostile place
this solitary hard-assaulted spot fixed
at the friendless outer edge of space.

The assumption is commonly made that the poet is [unclear: he] speaking of New Zealand, as a sort of Tristan da [unclear: Cunh] snoring in the night on the remote fringes of [unclear: southern] oceans. But of course he is speaking of men isolated [unclear: o] earth, on the outer fringe of a hostile or indifferent universe; to read the poem otherwise is to diminish [unclear: it], to reduce a vision which, through narrow, reaches at least as far as Galileo's telescope.

This isn't, of course to claim that Mason is our first truly philosphical poet, or that his youthful attitude [unclear: of] almost total revolt is a satisfactory one. There had [unclear: been] philosophers haunting our shores before him one [unclear: think] of Samuel Butler's Erewhon, or the chunks of [unclear: undigest] German metaphysics in Domett's Ranolf and Mohia; [unclear: o] one recalls the work of other poets who project more easily acceptable views, such as Ursula Bethell, Eileen Duggan. J.R. Hervey, M.K. Joseph, J.E. Weir. What [unclear: ma]ters in poetry is not philosophical validity but urgency of apprehension, controlled intensity of expression. Mason is the one New Zealand poet who could write with utter conviction:

All the selves that have been slain
have so drenched this place with pain
how can any soul endure
where the whole ground is impure
with its own dead?. . .

Before our poetry could come of age, before it could learn any deeper resonance, one poet at least had to be crucified: and Mason was that poet. I think that for this I would honour him more than any other of our literary ancestors.

There is one other example I should like to cite of [unclear: "cos] attitudes, and it comes from an even more neglected poet, Ruth Dallas. Her Letter to a Chinese Poet, published a dozen years ago in Landfall, still seems to me [unclear: o] of the most impressive imaginative achievements in our verse reaching out from these islands across the [unclear: centurie] to pay tribute to a Chinese poet of the T'ang dynasy, [unclear: P] Chu-i, and easily assimilating Taoist or Buddhist [unclear: notions] of flux and recurrence, of a continuity that need not [unclear: be] baleful.

Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield

Charles Brasch

Charles Brasch

James K. Baxter

James K. Baxter

page break

Warming a set of new bones
In the old fire of the sun, in the fashion
Of all men, and lions, and blackbirds.
Finding myself upon the planet earth,
Abroad on a short journey Equipped with heart and lungs to last
Not as long as a house, or a peony rose,
Travelling in the midst of a multitude
Of soft and breathing creatures
In skins or various colours, feathers, fur,
A tender population
For a hard ball spinning
Indifferently through light and dark,
I turn to an old poem,
Fresh as this morning's rose.
Though a thousand summers have shed their blooms
Since the bones that guided brush or pen
Were dust upon the wind.

So men turned to a carved stick
That held the lonely history of the tribe.

Round the sun and round the sun and round.
We have left the tree and waterhole
For a wilderness of stars. . .
Round the sun and round the sun and round.

[unclear: th] Dallas ends this section of her poem with a tribute [unclear: the] makers, to all those who by the power of art have [unclear: eft] the earth richer than when they came."

[unclear: ive] chosen these two poets to illustrate two extremes. [unclear: olt] and acceptance, among possible attitudes to the [unclear: -old] human predicament. Art, like life, needs both [unclear: rebels] and its reconcilers. And those deceptively simple [unclear: s] of Ruth Dallas.

A tender population
For a hard ball spinning
Indifferently through light and dark—

[unclear: m] to me to "Accommodate violence" with a serenity [unclear: rthy] of the old Chinese master she is saluting.

[unclear: y] I add a word about two prose-writers, to comple[unclear: nt] the two poets already mentioned? These are, in my [unclear: w], the two most gifted writers of fiction New Zealand [unclear: claim], and both are women: Katherine Mansfield and [unclear: et] Frame.

[unclear: h] are impressionist writers; neither would commonly [unclear: thought] of as "philosophical." Yet clearly both write [unclear: of] experience, often painful experience, and both [unclear: off]-view of life that is tragic rather than consoling. [unclear: May] mind you of the well-known passage from Katherine [unclear: nsfield's] letters in which she writes to her husband:

. . . I've two "kick offs" in the writing game. One is joy—real joy—. . . and that sort of writing I could only do in just that state of being in some perfectly blissful way at peace . . .

The other "kick off" is my old original one . . .

Not hate or destruction (both are beneath contempt as real motives) but an extremely deep sense of hopelessness, of everything doomed to disaster, almost wilfully, stupidly . . .There! as I took out a cigarette paper I got it exactly—a cry against corruption—that is absolutely the nail on the head. Not a protest—a cry, and I mean corruption in the widest sense of the word, of course.

Because she was a supreme artist in words, and because she could sometimes write directly out of her own joy in the visible world, Katherine Mansfield has left us some of the most perfectly achieved lyrical stories of this century. But a shadow falls across the sunny lawn of The Garden Party; the sea At the Bay grows chill and numbing; in Bliss, Prelude and the rest we are seldom unaware of the snail under the nasturtium leaf. If this is an art in miniature, like Jane Austen's, it is still one that comprehends the full range of existential tensions, however delicately pointed. And in one tiny story, The Fly, though it may be directly referred to the time of the first World War and a single useless death, she has expanded a metaphor from King Lear into a haunting parable of the human condition—tortured, struggling, but doomed.

Janet Frame, most obviously the heir of Katherine Mansfield in her early stories of New Zealand childhood, in her equally acute sensibility and her comparable mastery of verbal texture, offers us a view of life infinitely sadder and more anguished than Katherine Mansfield's. The reasons for this have been acutely analysed by Professor Joan Stevens in a remarkable radio talk given earlier this year. For Janet Frame " life is a terrifying brilliance from which most of us must hide"; mortals are all in a state of siege; any apparent security we try to construct is illusion. Hers is a true art of crisis; but because she has made herself technically into a very fine social and satirical novelist, with an assured control over a much broader canvas than the short story can offer, she is able to map her own universe of pain and human isolation in a number of moving explorations of men and women who grope and collide and rarely find happiness: but in whom we can, indeed, recognise ourselves.

It has often been remarked that New Zealand lacks any major work of fiction—as large in scope or theme, say, as Henry Handel Richardson's Fortunes of Richard Mahony, or the later novels of Patrick White, which can establish for us a really representative slice of life Katherine Mansfield was moving towards this in her assembled sketches of the Burnell family; Robin Hyde tried it fragmentary, and under pressure in The God wits Fly; Sargeson made his most ambitious attempt in I saw in my Dream. But Janet Frame came closest to bringing it off, I believe, in Owls Do Cry—that distressing saga of a doomed family in Waimaru—and if her later and increasingly sophisticated novels are considered together, they add up to an analysis in depth—in terrifying depth, and pitched in an unremitting tenor of violence—of the quality of life as it is very often lived in these islands.