The Spike Victoria University College Review 1944
The Poet's Mantle & Mr Vogt
The Poet's Mantle & Mr Vogt
"Roll back the memory over the rice pudding and the reindeer steak."
A Poem is a combination of words in which rhythm is created by various devices, the basic device being the break-up of the poem into groups of several words—' lines.' Rhythm is a pattern in the sound of words which combines with the meanings and images thev evoke to produce a special effect on the reader. It lends a stress and emphasis to the words through which it is heard, it vests them with a special significance. 'This is something more than ordinary speech' it implies.
Unless the poet deliberately seeks to amuse, his meanings and images should be worthy of the form he dares to employ. To use the strange incantations of poetry to say things that can be said in prose more simply and as adequately is to be like the young men in the mountain huts who. with such elaborate excuses, would crawl over to the women's bunks—to recite poetry.
Poetry is a way of writing which can give a more than normal power to words. The man whose world differs from the world that other people have written about may have need of that power if he is in express his vision. If you were to put the' meaning' of his poem into other words you might be left with a paradox or hackneyed platitude. That does not matter. What does matter is that he has spoken in his own accents and that he had to do this to tell what happened to him. For him paradox and platitude have become real.
It is no romantic lust for individualism that leads me to insist that it be' in his own accents.' If he uses the accents of anybody else he will mask his own experience with the language that belonged to the experience of someone else. The very things that were his and his alone to say will not be said.
My justification for writing down the above truisms is the publication last year of Mr. Anton Vogt's second volume of verse, Poems for a War," a work which has attained some popularity and which is a terrible illustration of their truth.
Before discussing the topography of the pit into which Mr. Vogt has fallen, let me say this as to the agency of his fall. He seems to possess to a high degree the sensitiveness—the ability to receive impressions from the outside world—which is a necessary attribute of the poet. But he does not possess the other qualities which enable that sensitiveness to be exploited so as to produce a work of art.
The most obvious consequence of this unmitigated sensitiveness is his excessive susceptibility to other people's style—notably that of W. H. Auden. Imitations of Auden are scattered throughout Poems for a War. 'For Norway in Loving Memory,' which might otherwise have been quite a good poem contains many other lines as derivative but not as funny as the one above this essay. From 'The Declaration'—a poem which begins with a line the human tongue can only with extreme violence be forced to utter
"Now we are where all those others were'—
let me quote a couplet from the penultimate stanza,
"And every day the fashionable madman rose
To roll old maps in new and different ways'
The first of these lines is from Auden's
"And fashionable madmen raise
Their loud, pedantic boring cry.'
The second line is objectionable in a more subtle way. It sounds like poetry (Auden's poetrv) but in fact can have no significance for its author or anyone else. The territorial settlements disturbed by the European dictators were no older than Mr. Vogt himself—the function of' old' is to contrast with 'new.' To this the meaningless 'different' is added and an iambic pentameter thus formed. No more suitable text could have been found for Verlaine's injunction,' Take eloquence and wring its neck." The rest of this poem is on much the same lines. Mr. Vogt may find it amusing evidence page 12 of the discord of reviewers that the least indulgent review I have seen of these' Poems for a War' considered' The Declaration' one of the best poems in the book though spoilt by a lame last line.
Mr. Vogt is as sensitive to other people's ideas as he is to their style. Many of his poems are reflections on the trend of events in our times of the kind to be expected from any sensitive and moderately intelligent man who knew his Auden and was acquainted with Marx. Despite the form of poetry they are made with little more passion or insight than in innumerable student editorials.
'And the truth seems to be that fact is fiction
Unless accompanied by equivalent action
And it's useless to say a single word
Unless you can make yourself heard"
Frequently even the rhythm of verse is lacking in Vogt's poems both in' public' and private' themes, and they can only be read as prose. Sometimes sensible prose.
'As if it really mattered that we were eloquent and bitter
It was always the same and there were always the same faces
Doing the same things in the same or different places,'
where the observation in the first two lines of good prose is acute and moving; it is marred by the pretentious echo of Eliot in the third. Sometimes silly prose. For instance, this gush' For England, In Grateful Appreciation'
'But I shall always think of England and be glad
Thank you again.
Thank you for the loveliness that outweighs
Your unspeakable squalor.'
Thank you for a record of justice, decency, humanity
Sometimes dreadfully betrayed.
In some of the more personal poems Vogt is led by the' fashionable madmen' (original sense) into the most absurd attitudes as when he declares—he of all people—
'I speak for the inarticulate'
In his poems about
'love leaping fiercely
over the stucco houses in the suburb,'
the triteness is of a more timeless kind but expressed with the same amiable slackness.
It would be misleading to suggest that there is nothing of value in 'Poems for a War.' There is not, I believe, very much. But Vogt's pathos is not always distasteful—the middle stanza of 'Blues' is good and here and there he writes with a naive, maudlin lyric note that is his own. He says that some day the world will be at peace—
'And a small boy will blow as hard as he is able
On a long silver bugle,
And behind him a little girl will come
Beating on a drum.
unfortunately he follows with this reflection
'And a million dead will suddenly rise
And live in the laughter in the children's eyes'
At the beginning of this article I said that poetry produces in the reader a special pleasure which I left undefined. It will remain undefined. I may say, however, that it is something more than the recognition in' poetry' of one's own vocal superficialities as large as life and three times as tearful. That is the pleasure the more debased Victorians derived from Mrs. Hemans. I do not believe it is the pleasure Mr. Vogt wishes to provide for the more enlightened of the New Zealanders. Party for that reason but principally for more barbaric ones I have dia ussed his work with greater brutality than is customary in the literary criticism of this country. After all' De mortuis nil nisi bontum" is a bad motto for a reviewer of poetry. Hubert Witheford