The Spike or Victoria College Review 1946
Let me say first that while glad of the chance of looking at these samples of University poetry, I have never been addicted to expressing definitive opinions about literature, and certainly do not claim to be a critic. I feel as Thomas Gray did when he wrote to Mason: "You know I do not love, much less pique myself on criticism, and think even a bad verse as good a thing or better than the best observation that ever was made upon it." Even the germs of creative energy are precious in a world so ridden with mechanism as ours, and the number of poems submitted to "Spike" this year (37) is a heartening sign of life.
My main dissatisfaction with the entries as a whole is that suffer from a prevalent carelessness. They are apt to straggle and sprawl, and some are slipshod both in thought and expression. As a corrective, I should suggest a disciplinary course in the commonly despised Georgians, Flecker for example, or A. E. Housman. A fine English poet of my acquaintance once remarked that he was "a terrible surgeon" with his own poems, and the maxim "When in doubt, cut it out," is a useful one for poets of all ages. A poem must have form, whether traditional or modernist. But first there must be something to say. One gets the impression from several of these poems that the writer, aware of a dreamy, nostalgic, amorous, or world-reform page 19 ing mood, decided to put it down in verse without either the urgent impulse or the patient either the urgent impulse or the patient grappling with ideas, words, and images. which will issue in effective combination. Most good poems are not produced without labour and expense of spirit. And even when the inspiration is there, much of the creative process consists of hard work; a laborious search for the exact word and vivid image, a painstaking craftsmanship rather like carpentry. Occasionally a poem may be written down complete and perfect in an effortless creative flow—the words seem to come of their own accord, to be given rather than found. Mr Siegfried Sassoon, for instance, describes the making of his famous poem "Everyone Sang" as more like an act of remembering than of conscious thought. But he adds that this happened only once in his poetic career, and the normal experience of poetry seems to coincide more often with that of Wordsworth, who (his sister tells us) would frequently make himself ill and sleepless hunting for the right word. But if I go on like this I shall soon be out of my depth. All I mean to do is to stress the importance of three things in verse-writing—care, economy, and directness.
Now for the entries themselves. While granting that most have some merit and none perhaps is wholly bad, I must point out one or two really incredible lapses. This, for instance, in alove poem:
Displaying your beautiful teeth
Such purity and whiteness like tombstones gleaming through the night.
That is bathos. Or this, in another love poem (apparently serious):
And yet I linger here
Hoping some trace of you still lives
Some faint pervading odour
I will find out—sniff, sniff.
This leaves one speechless, or sniffless, If written in jest it is not funny, and if in earnest it is—excruciatingly so.
M. G. Wilson submitted a batch of eleven poems about beauty, silence, sensations when flying, nostalgia (when overseas) and homecoming, but all are marred by technical weakness and sentimentality.
A. Campbell, in "Stele" and "William Blake," seems to promise something which he does not quite fulfil—the thoughts are vaguely interesting but somehow uncrystallized.
"Anno Hominis I" by Alum Falconer begins well but loses itself in rhetoric:
Up from the toil of centuries
The proletariat arrive.
Maybe, but the poem doesn't arrive. It has a ring of propaganda more than of belief, and while strong belief often produces good poetry, mere propaganda never does.
J. T. Gunn has some effective lines in each of his five pieces, but their tendency to verbal extravagance makes them unconvincing as a whole.
Several translations of French verse by Catherine Crosse strike me as very competently done, but can hardly qualify for a prize.
Of the original work, I find most interesting those by G. H. Datson, Pat Wilson, and W. H. Oliver, all of whom, I think, possess genuine talent. The appeal of G. H. Datson is drily, almost aridly intellectual, but his lines have an astringent sharpness which I like:
Through the moss-sodden door chinking,
Strips of light sharpen the dark,
Probe with their fingers
Upon the wall, ricketly with bare pictures,
Cut across the boarded floor, littered with glass
And dead candle-ends
Pat Wilson's longish poem "Perfect before Practice" has fluency and refinement of feeling, but falls short of excellence, in my opinion, through being too diffuse, as well as through the regrettable flatness of some of the lines. But there are lines like this too:
And the owl in the sleepless tree has his lines to say.
And some skilful use has been made of repetition. I should give this poem second place. and first to W. H. Oliver's "Poem in Winter." This is a gravely beautiful poem in which the fit matching of form with subject has achieved something like that inevitability for which the true poet strives. Mr Oliver has a sensitive ear for the values of words, and there is a quietly evocaive quality in his calm rhythms and cadences. Of the thought I shall say nothing, except that it is simple and restrained and refreshingly affirmative. My only criticism of the poem as a whole is that it seems to me somewhat impersonal and oblique, and that here and there Mr Oliver falls into a bad habit of modernism—what I will call the article-epithet-noun habit; as in the first stanza, "The ultimate collapse," "the dark clour," "the close frost." These however, are minor faults in an otherwise fine poem.