The Spike or Victoria University College Review 1948
Poetry [introduction by Charles Fennel
There is no judgment of poems this year. This is not because this country contains no inexhaustible supply of judges, yes, a supply far exceeding that of readers of verse. It is not, I am told, because the editors think that these many judges, or at least a certain, not negligible, number of them, cannot penetrate into these verses with commendable sensitivity and acumen.
It is rather, that they have doubts about the beauty and appropriateness of this very convention of judging. What benefit is it to the judge, that acute and sensitive man whose life is spent, presumably, in the admiration and creation of poetry, selecting his reading according to the needs of the moment and fairly indifferent to that which does not serve his present purpose. His sympathies are wide perhaps, but not unlimited. His impulses in the direction of criticism are satisfied by what he says of work of his own choice, and what he says of work imposed upon him will probable inspire him to inferior writing. Indeed, the national culture is better served if these men are not asked to divert their sensibilities in this somewhat frustrating fashion.
And what about the judged? The little workmanlike hints which are a feature of the judgments could be made more subtly and more helpfully in private contact. Anyway, they are not of crucial importance. It is of crucial importance that at least some readers experience the poems in the right way. And it is not with this purpose in view that one sends one's produce to the competition. Indeed, the sportsmanlike poet who on the receipt of his magazine at once consults the Judge's page is not obsessed, if he be prudent, by the question did this man understand my soul?' but rather by the more tickling one: 'did I obtain a first, or a guinea?'
Such thrills are excluded from this volume. The contributing poets do not hope to find in them the sympathy they require, and consider the spirit of sport, delightful otherwise, an undesirable intrusion upon the spirit of poetry. In this they are not impelled by an exaggerated appreciation of their own verse, but a proper regard for the spirit itself of poetry; for verse may be good or bad, and its influence on other men's souls may be enormous or negligible, but in as far as poetry is not serious it is not a matter for competition; rather, it is a joke. When a poem is very bad, one laughs; when page 20 it is extremely good, one also has the reaction of delirious laughter. Most verse exists between these two extremes. One claim that may at least be made for the poems which follow is that they are all a product of some sublimation and not constructed by any act of will. Their authors lived for a while in that blessed world that is bounded on one side by the ridiculous joke and on the other by the sublime one.
P. Wilson is of them all the least concerned about the game of living. His poems are descriptions of little experiences, told in a soft tone, mostly without any climax. Some of the great laws that govern being somehow seem to concern him, but he never philosophizes. His attiture to his abstract observations is rather sensual. In Little Verses' he pictures the spontaneous growth of what is beautiful from its insignificant beginning to greatness; his consciousness of the beautiful is never shown by more than' the quick and sudden glances you would not see. The salvation army-like chorus singing its homage for God in A Christmas Carol' does not hope for more reward than that its listeners may raise their heads.
Lorna Clendon has more sense of the hardness of life. In contrast to P. Wilson, her world is 'bound to the human world ', this boundness being its only security from an original state of utter helplessness. In accordance with this, the tone is resigned and placid.
The peculiar characteristic of W. Oliver's verse is the solidity of its thinking. The contrast between what lives by seasons and what lives independently from them is his primary belief; and both the power of eternity and the power of temporal things and their various interactions are developed in his work, with constant repetition of the same symbols. His private language having been developed he speaks in it with varying degrees of seriousness: in 'The Mediator' the woman, essentially a personification but assuming some half-defined humanity, is at one moment connected with eternity and at another, and more crucial one, exercises the influence which 'makes us one with earth and life'. At present however he is mostly more concerned with the sensual elaboration than the resolution of his duality.
In Elizabeth Entrican on the other hand the sensual approach is all and no spiritual resolutions are looked for. She seems, from the poems, a close approximation to a woodland nymph: she touches all the flowers.
In contrast to all the rest, the verse of 'a' seems in quite another sphere, at once more personal and more worldly. We feel that it is from his personal, specialized, attitudes that his inspiration comes; yet it functions among things once well-known, and so makes its communication—almost well-known, almost not known at all.
Alistair Campbell's work is by far the most striking. The poems here presented are only a selection from a complete volume to be published one day if the Gods are favourable. Their unusualness lies in their simplicity, the absence of anything but song and homage. The symbols are almost symbols of fable, but hard modern images easily slip into his universe on occasion without causing much upset. The reason is that the fabulous elements are to the poet entirely modern; they do not belong to a romantic world but rather are manifested, each in isolation, in the New Zealand environment. Homage is done to such objects of beauty as have always commanded the particular attention of poets, who have given to them very beautiful epithets not to be improved. Alistair Campbell quite happily revives these epithets, considering that many things can cause ugliness, but not the quality of having been very long admired. When expressing matters of some complexity he deeps far from the analytical and prefers the felicity of a conceit: 'more than sea to all my drownings'. But here intentionally only the easy poems have been selected, perhaps because the reader should at all costs be prevented from using the admirable, but over-intrusive exegetical apparatus with which this institution of learning is equipping him.