A Place To Go On From (2015)

Jack Ross, ed.: Poetry NZ Yearbook 2 [Issue #50] (November 2015)


A Place To Go On From: The Collected Poems of Iain Lonie. Edited by David Howard. ISBN 978-1-927322-01-7. Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2015. RRP $50. 390 pp.

First of all, I think it’s important to stress just how carefully and sensitively David Howard has laboured to show off Iain Lonie’s poetry to its best advantage.

Editorial procedures often constitute the bit at the front of a book which readers skip in order to get to the good stuff inside, but there’s no doubt that appreciation of a poet, in particular, can be greatly helped or hindered by the wrong set of choices.

Take poor old Philip Larkin, for example. Given the precision and care with which he shaped each of his four published collections, it was quite a shock to his fans to encounter Anthony Thwaite’s boots-and-all gallimaufry of a Collected Poems when it first appeared in 1988. There were poems everywhere! New poems, unfinished poems, juvenilia – in a vaguely chronological order which completely obscured the choices Larkin himself had made about them over the years.

Initially unresponsive to such criticism, eventually Thwaite was forced to give in. He tried again in 2003. This time he included the four main collections, in full, with a small selection from the other materials included in his 1988 edition. In other words, fewer poems, but with better internal ordering. But which should one rely on? The fuller (but more chaotic) 1988 edition – or the less inclusive 2003 one?

At the end of a long debate, Archie Burnett’s Complete Poems of 2012 set out to include all the juvenilia, all the unfinished and uncollected material from 1988 (and elsewhere), and all four major books, clearly labelled and separated, with a far more carefully edited text and more copious information on everything. It might be overkill, but it does work.

Has all this hurt Larkin’s poetic reputation much? It’s hard to say, but it certainly hasn’t helped.

Howard has learnt from these (and many other) precedents. His Lonie edition includes each of the five collections – including the posthumous Winter Walk at Morning (1991) – clearly demarcated in its own section. Rather than putting in a single section of “unpublished” or “uncollected” work, Howard has intelligently and carefully shaped a series of chronological chapters from the poet’s manuscript and typescript remains.

It’s hard to see how this arrangement could be bettered, given the complex and debatable state of Lonie’s work, with so many undated poems available in multiple texts. Howard’s decision to include so much information in his endnotes is also a welcome one – as is the inclusion of Bill Sewell’s memoir, Bridie Lonie’s chronology, and Damian Love’s critical essay on the poet.

It’s doubtful that Lonie will ever require another editor: on this scale, at least. The great thing about David Howard’s book is that it virtually guarantees that he won’t need one.

But, after all that, what of the poems? Howard quotes a telling remark by Lonie’s eldest son Jonathan, written after reading his first collection Recreations (1967):
I never realised how close to Donovan it is, I suppose I judge all poetry by his, but it is perfect poetry and very musical [p.358]
It’s hard for a subsequent generation to realise how sincerely this could have been meant in 1968: folksinger Donovan Leitch (“Atlantis,” “Hurdy Gurdy Man”) has long ceased to be a name to conjure with. I’m not entirely sure that the comparison is entirely unjustified, though. There’s a great deal of attention paid to being a poet in this early phase of Lonie’s work: far less to what (if anything) he has to write about.

Certainly it’s odd to hear Lonie invoking Auden and the other thirties poets solely in terms of technique: with an apparent ideology bypass over the motivations behind their demotic techniques and phraseology.

Montale, too, a deeply personal poet eschewing the public brayings of his fascist contemporaries, is translated by Lonie with sensitivity and care, but with a strange disregard to anything but the immediate personal contexts of his verse.

Is that the verdict, then: technical brilliance and profound sensitivity foundering in a gulf of lyrical detachment? Not really. Lonie is a poet for particular moods, I would say: for a bitter mood of telling over past follies, past loves. Bitter, or bitter-sweet? Lonie was, after all, a classicist. There’s something Horatian in his attempts to be himself, to live in the world without compromise.

The more of his work I read, the more I become convinced that that in itself is quite a considerable achievement: to be true to something so evanescent by its very nature, with so little clue as to whether one has succeeded – will ever succeed – or not.

I suspect, then, that what I’ll be returning to most often in Lonie’s work is those last two collections openly dedicated to grief, The Entrance to Purgatory (1986) and the posthumous Winter Walk At Morning.

One of the loveliest things about this book is the way in which it represents the meeting of two very different poets – David Howard and Iain Lonie – somewhat alike in temperament, perhaps, in their concern for technical precision and tour-de-force, but very different people, who have been able to meet on these poetic grounds almost like Dante himself, walking with Virgil and Homer into the seven-walled castle of the great pagan poets at the beginning of the Inferno.


Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2 [Issue #50]. ISSN 0114-5770 (2014): 260-62.

[897 wds]

Poetry NZ Yearbook 2 (2015)

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