The Spike [or Victoria University College Review 1954]
The political capital, in New Zealand, has not often been identified with the literary avant-garde; but in the last five years that claim (for what it is worth) might not unfairly be made. I have been asked to write a note on literary publications in and around Victoria College during this period, and to suggest what part the college played in the local renaissance. It is easy to exaggerate in such matters. Literary movements are seldom organised in this country—the accidental grouping of a few young writers in one place may produce a spurt of activity; then the group breaks up, and the impulse ceases. What is left behind—if the impulse has been strong enough—is the published record, and a few new literary reputations.
The beginnings, in this case, can probably be traced to a small group of students at Weir House in the late 'forties. But a convenient starting-point is 1947, when Landfall was founded by Charles Brasch as a "national" New Zealand quarterly. The existence of such a periodical provided both encouragement to young writers, and a norm to vary against. In the same year, a Literary Society became active at V.U.C., largely as a projection of the Weir House group, and began to publish occasional broadsheets. The literary quality of Spike in 1947 and 1948 was unusually high: it was clear that at least three new poets—Pat Wilson, W. H. Oliver, and Alistair Campbell—had arrived. In December 1947, Landfall published Bruce Mason's The Glass Wig—certainly its most original and accomplished story by a younger writer; and a year later, along with work of two of the poets named above, a selection of poems by Hubert Witheford. In 1949 James Baxter moved to Wellington from the south.
This was the position, then, at the beginning of the period under review. Landfall had been appe; regularly for a couple of years: but it seems to have been felt (probably unjustifiably, as I have tried to indicate) that this was a "South Island" publication, not especially interested in experimental writing. In Wellington were now a number of young writers full of fresh ideas; the V.U.C. Literary Society provided a meeting-ground, and was already meditating an independent periodical of its own. The result was Hilltop, later Arachne, one of the most interesting experimental journals ever put out at a university college in New Zealand.
The first number of Hilltop appeared in April, 1949. Though in format a distinct advance on the typescript broadsheets, it still had something of the look of a parish magazine. But its ambitions were more than parochial: "Hilltop . ., page 41 is not a student magazine. It exists for all writers, in New Zealand and outside." A welcome strengthening of the contents was immediately visible; the first number included good short stories by P. J. Wilson and David Ballantyne, as well as poetry by Campbell, Baxter, Oliver, Pat Wilson and—a newcomer in these ranks—Louis Johnson. Critical articles included a comparison between New Zealand and Early American writing by R. T. Robertson, and a slashing attack on M. H. Holcroft by J. W. Winchester (Mr. Holcroft, in this uneasy post-war time of transition, seems to have been regarded in New Zealand as a kind of tribal idol, to be cast down or set up again with equal enthusiasm.) The most promising feature of the new periodical—apart from the fact that it offered payment for contributions—was the definite guarantee of continuity for at least several more issues.
Hilltop 2, in June 1949, had a new cover by John Drawbridge and a much more established air. It had also a more obvious university connextion: Dr. Peter Munz on "An Idea of History" and Professor Miles on the poetry of G. M. Hopkins provided two stimulating intellectual contributions; from Wellington Teachers' College came translations of Ronsard by Arthur Barker. An editorial, obviously provoked by the forthcoming referendum on military training in New Zealand, came out firmly (on the loftiest and most literary grounds) against conscription. This might be regarded as a whiff of the familiar V.U.C. brimstone; but a critical analysis of New Zealand poetry by James Baxter ended surprisingly with a quite serious recommendation of "orthodox Christianity". Verse contributions remained on a high level: in addition to poems by Charles Brasch and Kendrik Smithyman, Hilltop 2 contained some really exciting lyrics by Alistair Campbell, and a group of poems by Hubert Witheford which were firm in texture without darkening into impenetrability of symbol. Pat Wilson had a long loose ballad-poem unpromisingly entitled "World Views of History," but with some moments of vivid perception. Altogether this issue, though not yet fully integrated, showed accomplishment rather than promise, and fully justified the continued existence of the journal.
Hilltop 3 (September, 1949) kept the same larger size and format but with a higher proportion of prose to verse. If there was nothing with the distinction of the best things in the June issue, this was a good solid number: Mary Boyd contributed a valuable "Pacific Review", Barbara Thompson wrote on the Marionette Theatre in New Zealand, establishing continuity with a very good account of the Osaka Puppet Theatre by R. T. Robertson in an early Broadsheet); there was crisp prose fiction from Lorna Clendon, John O'Shea and James Baxter, and rhapsodic prose from Louis Johnson on his chosen theme of The Eternal Female. A rather inconclusive editorial on publishing in New Zealand insisted again on the need "to print as much of the work of each contributor as possible, either in one number, or in successive numbers" (surely the extreme statement of the writer's, as against the editor's, point of view!). The fact was, of course, that several of Hilltop's leading contributors had books on the way, and were perturbed by printing delays. But the length of the Correspondence columns in Hilltop 3 seemed evidence of a lively and widening interest in the magazine.
In 1950 came an abrupt volte-face: the "revolt of the Armadillans". (An early broadsheet of the Literary Society had been entitled "First Placard of the page 42 Armadillan Absolutists"; it had proclaimed that language was an absolute, poetry was for the few, and had seemed to advocate a deliberate and self-conscious aestheticism.) So now Hilltop became Arachne; sophistication, cosmopolitanism and the airing of literary theories had set in.
Hilltop—as the slightly naive, outdoor title might suggest—had been a straightforward and unpretentious publication, with a fairly wide public appeal. Arachne, with a smoother, neater cover design and a brand-new myth to support the change of title, had an obvious touch of modishness and literary affectation. An editorial note did rather more than the myth to clarify matters. "A magazine centring around certain specific principles" was now thought possible: the first principle appeared to be a rejection of the literary self-sufficiency of the 'thirties and of the social approach to writing, and an attempt to select certain chosen influences from past cultures in order to find "some sort of international context for Arachne." There were signs here of the common post-war distrust of political solutions and collectivist methods; of a preference for private symbolism and a predilection for philosophical anarchism; more simply, of a return to Art for Art's sake, All this, of course, with a dash of Existentialism and a strange tenderness for the significant figure of The Outsider.
Pride of place in Arachne's first number was given to the fantastic, delicately-contrived but undeniably precious poems of Charles Spear (as yet unpublished in book form). Helen Shaw contributed a subtle and introspective story about motherhood. There were articles on Sartre, on "Anarchism in New Zealand", on Pound's "Pisan Cantos"; but perhaps most characteristic of the new tone were some Diary Notes by Erik Schwimmer, and a translation (or a re-translation) by the same writer from Camus' "Le Mythe de Sisyphe". New Zealand Criticism was discussed in fairly heated correspondence; and an anthology of "Arachne poets" was promised (prematurely, as it proved). Other material in Arachne was closer to what had gone before: and the appearance meantime of Here and Now, as another independent periodical in Auckland, probably drew off some political and general comment, and helped to leave Arachne in splendid isolation. There was to be no further issue in 1950.
In February 1951 appeared Arachne Number Two; Number Three followed in December of the same year. Now printed at the Pegasus Press, and retaining the same Mervyn Taylor cover design, these were two very handsome and expensive issues: partly on this account, they were to form Arachne's swan-song.
Number Two, in a clear and sensible editorial, accepted the fact that Arachne must be a "little magazine", presenting a combination of traditional and experimental work. And in a valuable (but rather overdue) explanatory article entitled "Background to a Magazine," Hubert Witheford grappled with Arachne's famous "principles". "The condition which Arachne is committed to explore is, from the side of the individual, his isolation—from that of the community, its disintegration." A new ethic was needed which Christianity was considered unlikely to supply; meantime, some fragments of culture might be shored against our ruin. "In action as in art the problem is one of style. . . . Only here and there are there words and actions which give form to an inner life. We cannot be sure that these will be too weak to link the dispensation which is passing with the new one for which we hope." It was all very tentative and a little despairing, page 43 but it was deeply-felt, and it did something to bring Arachne's literary effort into perspective.
The contents of the last two numbers must be here very summarily treated. "The Empty Country," a note on Wordsworth's poetry in New Zealand by W. H. Oliver, was probably the most thoughtful and distinguished piece of literary criticism yet to appear. "Verses by Six Poets" brought Basil Dowling and Peter Alcock into this company; Elizabeth Entrican had a very musical little dirge; Erik Schwimmer dealt faithfully in review with the first published verse collections of Hubert Witheford and Alistair Campbell.
In Number Three, Sir Apirana Ngata's "Introduction to Maori Poetry"—well worth publishing for its own sake—pointed down a road which New Zealand writers and students alike have shamefully neglected. Helen Shaw's moving story, "The Blind," was a notable prose contribution: here was "isolation" to oppose to the "disintegration" of Erik Schwimmer's existentialist treatment of German suicide-volunteers. The outstanding verse contribution was undoubtedly Louis Johnson's "Six Sonnets, Unpleasant," which created a new shiver both in poetry-reading groups and in the Education Board. The number closed with final tributes to Blake (the Blake Group of the original Literary Society, whose high priest was Pat Wilson, had continued its fortnightly meetings for a quite unprecedented number of years) and a short prose piece by Lily H. Trowern which suggested that traditional methods of writing might still have an unsuspected power.
So passed Arachne; the original group of writers was breaking up, some members went overseas, others found new places for publication. But it had undeniably been something of an achievement for a college literary society to produce, in three years, six continuous issues, no one of which was negligible. Inevitably, perhaps, the sequel was something of an anti-climax.
For by 1952, the literary climate was distinctly less favourable. There had been no issue of Spike since 1949, and the cramped columns of the regular student news-sheet Salient were always over-taxed with material that might fairly be termed unliterary. That the writing impulse had not entirely ceased was proved by the two Literary Issues of Salient, in July 1952 and September 1953: these were both produced with difficulty by devoted editors, and it was noteworthy that both issues relied entirely on local contributions. (Hilltop and Arachne had tried, as we have seen, to be more than student magazines: their chief literary "discoveries" had been Charles Spear in Christchurch and Helen Shaw in Auckland; Louis Johnson, it might be suggested, had discovered himself.) The Salient literary issues were meagre affairs in small print, though two fine engravings by Mervyn Taylor redeemed the nondescript covers. And three now established poets—James K. Baxter, Alistair Campbell and Louis Johnson—were available as contributors.
In his editorial in 1952, Peter Dronke seemed rather sceptical about the "Wellington revival", and most urgent about the need for intelligent literary criticism. Yet he claimed as "a landmark in New Zealand writing" a sequence of Prose Poems by James Baxter which can only have aroused very mixed feelings in that poet's firmest admirers. By contrast, the same writer's "Tantalus"—somewhat unfairly exposed on the back cover—had a rhythmic unity and concentration on a moral theme that gave it real poetic force. For the rest, John page 44 Cody's well-intentioned crusade on behalf of Modern Art was hardly literature. There was a fresh and lively story by Barry Mitcalfe, some promising verse by A. I, H. Paterson, and a scholarly note on Chaucer's "Troilus" by P. A. Hutchings.
The 1953 Literary Issue is so near in time that it need not, perhaps, be closely examined here. Edited by John Cody, it assembled a wider range of work than the 1952 issue. It reaffirmed the need for critical standards, and featured a series of V.U.C. comments on the arts in New Zealand (accompanied by a devastating cartoon by R. Brockie). There were two good poems by Baxter and Johnson ("Eleven o'Clock Blues" and "A Poet addresses his Poem"), and verse contributions from a number of new names, Jocelyn Henrici the most promising of these. Inevitably, these Salient issues were rather desultory in character, though the second of them—a real tribute to its editor—did have some coherence, and actually succeeded in making a profit.
May any valid conclusions be drawn from all this? That there was a Wellington literary revival seems beyond doubt: but clearly, it was not all of a piece. One is tempted to suggest that Hilltop, a modestly-produced but really creative literary paper, might have had a better chance of survival if it had continued along the original lines. Arachne, perhaps unwisely, attempted to be both more specialised and more beautiful; it was the printer's bills, as much as anything else, that delayed later numbers and finally brought about its demise. The Salient issues, progressively more journalistic, could not claim much continuity with the work of the original group; and this was a pity. Yet they earn their place in the story.
The strongest personalities to influence these different publications were probably Erik Schwimmer and Louis Johnson—the one was largely responsible for the "internationalism" of Arachne, the other for the urban outlook of Salient. And James Baxter, of course, is as chameleon-like as a true poet is always supposed to be. But if, as seems not unlikely, the enduring contribution of a brief moment of literary activity is seen to be the lyrical poetry of Alistair Campbell, the intellectual force and compression of Hubert Witheford, and the subtlety and mental agility of W. H. Oliver and P. S. Wilson, then this might fairly be described as a distinctive and seminal contribution from Victoria College to New Zealand literature.