The Nationalist Canon 19201960

The canon which Allen Curnow established in the 1960 Penguin anthology, if one were to list the poets who received selections of ten or more pages, consisted of nine poets, eight male and one female, all of whom belonged to the near side of his

'historical divide', the decades between 1920 and 1960. They were Ursula Bethell, A. R. D. Fairburn, R. A. K. Mason, Charles Brasch, Curnow himself, Denis Glover, Keith Sinclair, Kendrick Smithyman and James K. Baxter. Women fared better if the grouping were extended to include a further six poets given six or eight pages: Blanche Baughan (the only poet from the far side of the historical divide), Robin Hyde and Gloria Rawlinson, alongside D'Arcy Cresswell, Charles Spear and C. K. Stead. Eileen Duggan, whose work Curnow wished to include, refused permission. With the exception of Cresswell, and a more generous evaluation by others of a number of 1950s poets — Alistair Campbell, M. K. Joseph and Louis Johnson — these assessments were very largely confirmed, for the period up to the 1950s, in the anthologies which appeared after 1960. Curnow's singling out of Kendrick Smithyman and C. K. Stead in addition to Baxter, among the newer post-Second World War poets, was also strikingly confirmed by their later development. In the later anthologies there has also been a general consensus about the new figures to be added to the 'canon' in the decades following: from the 1960s, Hone Tuwhare, Fleur Adcock and Vincent O'Sullivan, and from the early 1970s to the mid-1980s, Ian Wedde, Bill Manhire, Lauris Edmond and Elizabeth Smither.

League tables are one thing, of course, but how the poets are discussed by powerful anthologists is another, and often a great deal of cultural debate is generated around the edges of the main figures: in the weightings given to lesser figures and in the nature of the selections made from the more substantial figures. Much of the initial controversy which greeted Curnow's 1960 Penguin centred on its sparse selection of 1950s poets (the so-called 'Baxter generation'), and Baxter himself produced numerous anti-nationalist counter-readings of poets whom Curnow had under-represented, readings which spoke as eloquently of his own mytho-poetic and psychological interests as Curnow's readings reflected his own investment in cultural nationalist adaptations of modernist principles.

Curnow's subtle readings of his canonical poets recognized individual distinctions of tone, technique and thematic emphasis, but carefully assembled generalizations around a number of key formalist and modernist terms of approbation: 'tension' and ambivalence of attitude, a critical slant on colonial history and its still-active traces in contemporary society, a carefully wrought metaphoric or symbolic response to landscape (beyond colonial scenic pictorialism), complexity of language. All of these qualities functioned as markers of, as he put it in his discussion of Mansfield's 'To Stanislaw Wyspianski', 'the emergence of New Zealand as a characterizing emotional force in the work of a native poet', a sign of the inward engagement of 'the whole personality' in the problems of being a poet in New Zealand. Although the language of postcolonial theory was not available to Curnow, his emphasis on inward, unresolved tensions fits closely Stephen Slemon's argument that 'ambivalence of emplacement' — outside the 'illusion of a stable self/other, here/there binary division' — is 'the "always already" condition of Second-World settler and post-colonial literary writing', the source of its particular importance within the field of postcolonial analysis: '[In] the white literatures of Australia, or New Zealand, or Canada, or southern Africa, anti-

colonialist resistance has never been directed at an object or a discursive structure which can be seen as purely external to the self' (Slemon, 1996, p. 80).

It was nevertheless the case that some poets, and some poems, fitted the terms of cultural nationalism better than others. Fairburn, Glover, Brasch and Bethell — later, Baxter and Smithyman (but only in some of their poems) — lent themselves to the charting of a sophisticated iconography of New Zealand landscape, including its regional differences, which at the same time respected the varieties of preoccupation explored through their landscape meditations: Fairburn's love poetry and poetry of social comment; Glover's interest in the kiwi 'common man' explored though his lone 'Harry' and 'Arawata Bill' personae; Brasch's sense of alienation from landscape and history, and the same concern (though more personally focused) in some of Baxter's poetry; Bethell's religious meditations, grounded in the Canterbury landscape; and Smithyman's use of Northland landscapes to explore epistemological issues. However, poetry and poems whose personal, domestic or psychological interests could not be immediately anchored in an identifiable landscape or history, tended to move out of focus. A great deal of women's poetry fell into this category, as well as significant work by Baxter, Louis Johnson, Alistair Campbell and M. K. Joseph. Similarly, R. A. K. Mason's intense psychological questionings of sexuality and relationships, and his agnostic probings of religious belief, were downplayed in their own terms in order to reinforce the notion of an 'essential' New Zealand isolation as the formative, originary condition of his poetry (and thus an appropriate starting point for the nationalist tradition); Mason's emergent commitment to Marxism in the late 1920s, ambivalent though its relationship was to his development as a poet, was also largely ignored.

In his introduction to the 1985 Penguin anthology Wedde drew attention to the possibility of alternative, gender-inflected readings of the nationalist canon, proposing a 'structural line' of women's poetry, from Baughan, through Bethell, Duggan, Hyde and Rawlinson, as 'one of the great strengths' of New Zealand poetry. He identified this strength — somewhat vaguely — as an 'upwelling vigour of original language' and as 'a code of alert irony' (including here, as well, the later poets, Janet Frame, Fleur Adcock and Elizabeth Smither) in contradistinction to the 'celebrated humour' of the male poets. (Wedde and McQueen, 1985, p. 36). A more vigorously gender-inflected reading of New Zealand poetry, underpinned by a sustained polemic against Curnow's earlier readings and strongly focused on defining an alternative female poetics and its cultural implications, was advanced a decade later by Michele Leggott, herself an experimental poet exploring much of the territory identified in her reading of women poets in New Zealand. Focusing on Hyde and Duggan, Leggott placed them within 'a lost matrix of women poets', including Jessie Mackay (and Baughan and Bethell), who 'shaped New Zealand poetry in the first half of the century as a politically alert, humanitarian enterprise, diverse in its subjects and styles but run on sympathetic and highly reticulated energies that took as their point of departure the socially progressive atmosphere of the late colonial period'. Leggott's feminist reading thus also worked to break down the notion of a 'historical divide' located in the 1920s: the concerns of this matrix of women poets were rooted in the 'hope of cultural continuity' and 'the complications of endurance', rather than the 'carefully anatomized alienation of the male poets'. Her reading of Hyde and Duggan draws continuing attention to 'metamorphic, control-eluding figures' in their work, to coded representations of female experience (especially, female sexuality) in a culture that 'refused all talk of the body' (Leggott, 1995, pp. 267ff.).

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