Irony and After: New Bearings in NZ Poetry (2007)

Owen Bullock, ed. Poetry NZ 35 (September 2007)

Irony and After:
New Bearings in NZ Poetry

Bill Manhire (2012)

1 – The Anxiety of Influence

This is progress.
For instance, it is nearly dawn.
– Bill Manhire

For a long time now I’ve been wondering what the next big upheaval in New Zealand poetry was going to be.

The hero-saga of New Zealand poetry (in Allen Curnow’s version, at any rate) tells us that our first few derivative colonial bards (Thomas Bracken, Alfred Dobell, Edward Tregear) were succeeded by a group of pastoral Georgians, many of them women (Eileen Duggan, Jessie Mackay and – to a somewhat lesser degree – Ursula Bethell and Robin Hyde) who were in their turn displaced by hardheaded Modernists such as Curnow, A. R. D. Fairburn, Denis Glover and (of course) R. A. K. Mason.

This triumph of the sons over their predecessors fitted in very nicely with the theory of literary revolutions promulgated by the young Harold Bloom in his seminal critical text The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (1973). In the Oedipal drama described by Bloom, each poet’s relation to his predecessors became a source of acute anxiety. In short, poetry is one more manifestation of the Freudian family romance: sons plot to kill their father, the elder of the tribe, in order to monopolize the attentions of their mother, the Muse:
Every poem [says Bloom] is a misinterpretation of a parent poem. A poem is not an overcoming of anxiety, but is that anxiety. Poets' misinterpretations of poems are more drastic than critics' misinterpretations or criticism, but this is only a difference in degree and not at all in kind. There are no interpretations but only misinterpretations …
“A poem is not an overcoming of anxiety, but is that anxiety.” Note that last point as we begin to descend to cases. Let’s take, for example, the Bill Manhire poem “On Originality” (from his 1977 collection How to Take Your Clothes Off at the Picnic):
Poets, I want to follow them all,
out of the forest into the city
or out of the city into the forest.

The first one I throttle.
I remove his dagger
and tape it to my ankle in a shop doorway.
Then I step into the street
picking my nails.

Everything in these few lines is significant, is coded to make sense to other sufferers from this singular anxiety called influence (or “influenza,” as Bloom himself calls it: “an astral disease”). Our speaker wants to “follow” all poets, whether their genre be Virgilian pastoral (“out of the city into the forest”) or Juvenalian satire (“out of the forest into the city”). After killing the first of them, he steps “into the street / picking my nails” – a clear reference to Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) where the ideal modern artist is described as “within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible … indifferent, paring his fingernails.”

A clear reference, that is, to those in the know – to other readers of the great Modernists, with Joyce as their ultimate avatar. There’s an ironic wink here over the heads of a less learned audience, distracted by the serial-killer details of Manhire’s sinister protagonist’s pilgrim’s progress.
I trail the next one into the country.
On the bank of a river I drill
a clean hole in his forehead.

Moved by poetry
I put his wallet in a plain envelope
and mail it to the widow.

“Moved by poetry …” To Manhire, like Bloom, the poet is a killer. His art can only flourish in the dead body of his predecessors (in this case, presumably, Curnow and the other New Zealand expressive regionalists: Baxter, Louis Johnson, Kendrick Smithyman). I don’t know if he had particular originals in mind for the three poets he throttles, knifes and shoots in the course of the poem, but it wouldn’t much matter even if he did. The greatness of Manhire’s poem resides in the simplicity and pain behind lines such as:
It is a difficult world.
Each word is another bruise.

Of course the poem is a gag. Bill Manhire isn’t really a killer. His “originality,” here, consists of mixing the high art form of lyric poetry with the pop culture tropes of the hardboiled thriller. To us, now, that might seem a postmodern cliché, but one can see the overwhelming effect it must have had on the hothouse rhetorical earnestness of his elders when Manhire’s work first began to appear in the seventies. This was a new voice and a new attitude. Bill Manhire was cool in a way that no previous New Zealand poet had ever been. It was as if John Coltrane had suddenly stood up and started to play hot licks at a hootenanny barn dance.

And so it began, the birth of the cool. The Oedipal drama had moved into another act, the new Miles Davis / Manhire had arisen to dispatch old Satchmo / Curnow.

2 – The Birth of Soul

I like typewriters because they are always turned on.
– Will Joy Christie

And yet, how tedious it has started to sound, this revolution of the ironic and knowing over the ponderous and crafted. Curnow came back with a vengeance, like a roaring lion, with his own version of the postmodern aesthetic (most notably in An Incorrigible Music (1979), but actually in the whole mass of his later work). After all, if cool, postmodern irony was the new ideal, how easy it was to produce!

It’s salutary, in this respect, to compare the crystalline reserve of early Manhire, a mask covering unspeakable depths, with the more facile playacting of James Brown’s “Loneliness” (from Favourite Monsters, 2002):
I was just sitting there, wandering lonely as a cloud, when
– honest to heaven – looking out of the window
I saw Elvis. I know I know, but honest to heaven
it was him – or my name’s not James Brown.

The Wordsworth reference segues easily into the Elvis / James Brown joke, and, yes, there’s still anguish there, but one can’t help feeling that it’s ever-so-slightly put on for the occasion. Whatever shock-value and impetus this poetic movement once possessed, it appears to have left the building. Which leaves us all sitting by the microphone waiting for the next big thing, the new Moloch before whom we can all prostrate ourselves. Is it Glenn Colquhoun? Bill Direen? Who will it be?

Meanwhile Harold Bloom himself had become unhappy with his old critical pontifications, and had written a preface to the 1997 reprint of his most famous book in which he lamented its failure to account for the protean genius of poetic shapeshifters such as Dante and Shakespeare …

And, really, it does seem very dated, this Freudian primal myth of emasculation and cannibalism performed by each new greedy generation on the last. It seems very male, among other things. Where are the daughters of the tribe in this scenario? When Michele Leggott revived the submerged voices of Bethell and Hyde in her 1994 text DIA, where was the anxiety? Was she trying to eat them, replace them? Was she Electra to Manhire and Wedde’s Oedipus?

Many questions, few answers.

What I’d like to do now is to recount my own poetic displacement myth, designed not so much to supplant the Colonialist / Modernist / Postmodernist map we’ve hitherto accepted as the true face of New Zealand poetic history, as to supplement and perhaps complicate it a little.

The recent Hollywood film Ray popularized the idea of the musical revolution accomplished by blind bluesman Ray Charles when he set out to combine the emotional intensity of Gospel with the sexual raunch of Honky-tonk. The Devil’s music had met up with the Lord’s, and the result was Soul – a new, overarching genre designation which continued to dominate successive generations of Funk, New Jack Swing and Hip-hop artists. Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Mary J. Blige and (yes) James Brown were all, according to this paradigm, soul artists, nourished by this strange fusion between the church and the dancehall. Pop and Jazz continued to flourish on either side of Soul, albeit with innumerable cross-overs and connections, but there was nevertheless a distinction which had to be felt rather than described. There was a reason why Whitney Houston was pop whereas her mother’s old friend Aretha Franklin had soul.

Is it impossibly pompous of me to claim that for some time now I’ve been observing the growth of a similar trend in the most distant provinces of New Zealand poetry, far from the corridors of cultural power?

So what are the characteristics of this new poetry? Who are its high priests and priestesses? To whom do they owe allegiance? These are complex questions, to which I have (as yet) only provisional answers. All I can say is that of late I’ve observed a strange metamorphosis taking place among the “despised students of the Humanities” (to quote from Troy Kennedy Martin’s classic 80s thriller, Edge of Darkness).

On the one hand we have a generation of graduate students trained in the austere uncertainties of deconstruction – bookworms to whom Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, Žižek and Baudrillard are household names. This, I suppose, might be described as their gospel, their source of intellectual rigour and intensity.

On the other hand we have the emotional realities of being “doomed – bourgeois – in love” as Whit Stillman’s preppie comedy Metropolitan (1990) put it. Some of the writers I have in mind are a country mile from being bourgeois, but you get the general idea: no money, no prospect of making any, a crippling student debt, and far too much education for their own comfort.

Out of these two elements has come the most extraordinarily passionate and disturbing poetry of our time. Some of the these writers who’ve already published books – and whose work can therefore be conveniently accessed – include Olivia Macassey (Love in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Titus, 2006), Will Christie (Luce Cannon, Titus, 2007), Jen Crawford (Admissions, Five Islands Press, 2000), Thérèse Lloyd (many things happened, Pania, 2006) and Tracey Slaughter (Her Body Rises, Random House, 2005).
Among the men, I might mention Scott Hamilton (To the Moon, in Seven Easy Stages, Titus, 2007), and possibly that revered elder statesman Richard Taylor (Conversation with a Stone, Titus, 2007).

You mustn’t take my word for it (I wouldn’t want you to, in any case). Who, after all, is their Manhire, their Curnow? Do they gather under anyone’s umbrella? I think the whole point is that they don’t. There is no school. They’ve all come independently to the same conclusions: “My rigorous poststructuralist schooling tells me to distrust emotion and enthrone the intellect, to detect aporia [gaps] in all simple statements of feeling., and yet – I hurt. I hurt so much, I’ve been hurt so much that I have to cry about it. I crave the simplicity of childhood yet know that I can never go back to it. That was horrible, too, a lot of the time.”

In “Outhwaite Park,” for instance, Olivia Macassey invites:
… three tears
for the people we used to fuck
for backbones scraped on the washing machine
for the strangers who slept outside your bedroom door
and the schoolgirls and drag queens playing table tennis
and the cockroaches breeding in the microwave;
and the four am trains and six am busses,
mint icecreams, roofs of carparks, moulting hedgehogs
lit by the phonebox, the grass overrun by wirewoves
and rotting cardboard, my summer clothes, my love

But isn’t this just the same old Romantic cult of childhood all over again, you ask? Is this the revolution? “Token wonder girls and one trick ponies, and … wooden clothespegs made into hard unhappy dolls.” (Macassey, “Outer Suburb”) Not so. Let’s take another example, Scott Hamilton’s “1918,” a prose poem about the great influenza pandemic:
When Queenie got the cramps we took her to the small house behind the marae, and laid her out on a clean sheet, and fetched a bucket of creekwater, and cooled her stomach and hips, and washed the mushrooms under her arms. The younger kids giggled beside the bed, expecting another baby cousin. First her fingernails then her hands turned black; her breasts swelled, popped their nipples, and dribbled blue-black milk. We couldn’t straighten her arms in the coffin, so we folded them across her chest. She looked like she was diving into herself.

Scott’s a Marxist and (some would say) an ideologue. But in this case it has the effect of making him value individual experience of world-historical events above the facile paradoxes of postmodernism. His work reverses the cliché about R. A. K. Mason, that his conversion to the Left made it impossible for him to write more poetry. For Scott, it’s precisely Marxism that enables his poetry – a complex realm of abandoned loners and doomed explorers heading for the frontier. It’s as if he’s decided to show us once and for all that Auden’s Orators (1932) holds the seeds of a new poetic, rather than being the “fair notion fatally injured” its own author called it.

3 – The Law of Attraction

Maybe I have spent too much time these last 40 years thinking about Celan & translating his work, & maybe Celan's work has been too essential for my own writing for me to have a detached view on this, but the association of PC with Britney Spears makes me shudder...
– Pierre Joris

When I posted my poem-sequence “The Britney Suite” (first published in 2001) on The Imaginary Museum, my online blog, a couple of months ago, it was actually in response to a number of people who’d demanded to see it, presumably intrigued by the conceit of engineering a meeting between anguished concentration-camp-survivor poet Paul Celan and blonde pop goddess Britney Spears.

I was a little disconcerted to see that the point of this jarring juxtaposition escaped Pierre Joris. But I was far more surprised to see how many people rose to my defense. They could see what I was talking about. They understood the idea of trying to bridge the gaping abysses cutting across our culture.

Recently I watched a documentary called The Secret, which purported to offer the answer to all of life’s problems in the (so-called) “law of attraction.” The universe, claimed the various snake-oil salesmen and hokum-peddlers in this made-for-TV-but-gone-straight-to-DVD movie, will supply you with anything you call to yourself. If you expect a flat tyre and a bill in the letterbox, that’s what the universe will send you. In effect, anything you receive you’ve asked for in advance.
Of course this is a simplistic way to go about explaining the inconceivably complex gestalt of life, the universe, and everything, but it’s so dumb it’s almost wise. If only it could be so! “Thinking positive” and “having a good attitude” may be irritating clichés, but the placebo effect indubitably works sometimes. Your mental attitude does affect your physical health.

If this double-mindedness, this fusion of extreme intelligence and New Age moron-fodder repels you, you’ll probably be happier with a more comfortable range of poetry. If, however, your attraction to it is stronger than the repulsion, then you’re probably already of the Devil’s party without knowing it. In short, you have soul.

I’d like to finish by quoting from “The Uncanny Truth about Abelard,” (published in brief 25 (2002): 39-41), Olivia Macassey’s charting of the permeable membranes connecting her two worlds.

12:37 am on Oct. 4

“We deplore the disappearance of the real under the weight of too many images. But let’s not forget that the image disappears too because of reality”

– Jean Baudrillard c2000 (do you believe it? My lonely twin.)

9:16 pm on Nov. 16

for example I have no thought now of what you look like, except
that saints have your eyes. When they are dying.

Excisions. Elliptical scar around the nothing, and those dark thighs.
she could push her fingers in there, it is an eye
under the window, thinks a woman who thinks

1:23 am on Dec. 8
Yesterday I saw you (me) for the first time (for the hundredth time). You
told me that you have been reading those same letters etc; these coincidences no longer bother me. I can see where I have been thinking: my ghost on every page.

Already the quote marks are fading; they will be my things,
it will become my dream; you will afterwards believe – because you will only be me
You will no longer read me, it is beginning,
embraces me in the water, limping and howling,
follows me everywhere, saves for (me) the last card. I cover everything. I arrive.

Abelard had gotten it wrong – I was Abelard; I am him all along

all of the words will be mine.

Heloise, “a woman who thinks,” and Abelard, “my lonely twin” have been so chewed up, dispersed, mythologized and distanced by our histories that they’ve come to seem, finally, unapproachable. Macassey can see that, but she refuses to admit defeat. Her own levels of experience speak more strongly the more mediated they are by puppets and lonely quotes.

“Let’s not forget that the image disappears too because of reality …” Our nostalgia can be as much for the lost certainties of the intellect as for the simplicity of the unclouded heart.

Macassey’s poem, like so many others by the poets I’ve mentioned above, laments our incapacity to learn how to live in this strange dystopia we’ve built in the midst of plenty.

Can’t we all learn to get on? To understand each other? To stop being so goddamned horrible so much of the time? That is what the new poetry I’ve been seeing sprouting up, irrepressible, all around me, is about.

I’m afraid you didn’t realise what you were doing when you funded all those PhDs, imported those books of French theory, when you allowed those souls to grow up, angst-ridden and dispossessed, in the dark corners of your kingdom.
This is my nest of weapons.
This is my lyrical foliage.

So Bill Manhire, thirty years ago. I see no need to replay all those Bloomian fantasies of overthrowing the elders of the tribe, conducting a palace coup in the centre of culture. Can’t we embrace our elders instead of excommunicating them?

All the new poets want to do is to teach you how to feel again. However difficult that may be. If you don’t get it first time (thinking, perhaps, that you’re too smart), they’ll persevere. They’re patient. They’ve got soul.

  • Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. 1973. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Brown, James. Favourite Monsters. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2002.
  • Christie, Will Joy. Luce Cannon. Auckland: Titus Books, 2007.
  • Crawford, Jen. Admissions. New Poets Series 7. Wollongong: Five Islands Press, 2000.
  • Hamilton, Scott. To the Moon, In Seven Easy Steps. Auckland: Titus Books, 2007.
  • Lloyd, Thérèse. many things happened. Wellington: Pania Press, 2006.
  • Macassey, Olivia. “The Uncanny Truth about Abelard.” brief 25 (2002): 39-41.
  • Macassey, Olivia. “Outhwaite Park.” [Available at:]
  • Macassey, Olivia. Love in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Auckland: Titus Books, 2006.
  • Manhire, Bill. Collected Poems. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2001.
  • Ross, Jack. The Britney Suite. Auckland: Perdrix Press, 2001. [Available at:]
  • Secret, The. [Available at:]
  • Slaughter, Tracey. her body rises. Auckland: Random House, 2005.
  • Taylor, Richard. Conversation with a Stone. Auckland: Titus Books, 2007.


Poetry NZ 35 (2007): 95-103.
[Available at: The Imaginary Museum (10/8/07)]

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Poetry NZ 35 (2007)

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