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I can think of few New Zealand writers who have had their reputation fall as far, or as hard, as that of A.R.D. Fairburn. By the time of his death in 1957 he was 'widely regarded as New Zealand's foremost poet'. Nine years later in 1966--at quite an impressive speed for those days--there appeared a Collected Poems prefaced by his friend Denis Glover. Reviews of the Collected Poems were generally respectful, but this moment was Fairburn's peak. C.K. Stead soon initiated a tough-minded and, what was worse, thoroughly accurate attack on him in Landfall, later reprinted as 'A.R.D. Fairburn: The Argument Against'. It's tempting to assume that the ambitious 34-year-old Stead was feeling a bit of the anxiety of influence, since his own first book of poetry had appeared just two years before. In any case Stead eviscerated Fairburn with closely-supported statements such as: 'The language of the early lyrics, for all their virtues, is a self-enclosed literary language, lacking in precise reference. A great deal of "Dominion", in freeing itself from that "poetic" language, fails to achieve poetry because it fabricates the "reality" it pretends to reveal and denounce'.
Critics before Stead and since have tended to base any judgement of Fairburn's poetic achievement on an assessment of his long poems, most particularly 'Dominion', which was published in 1938. That poem was Fairburn's attempt to sum up his still-fledgling nation in five Eliotesque movements. But while 'Dominion' clearly aimed for grandeur, and while it is not a remarkably bad poem, it's not a remarkably good one either. Time, I suspect, has not helped. For every line in 'Dominion' worthy of The Waste Land's lyric intensity--lines like 'putting out/ white shoots under the wet sack of empire'--there are blocks of verse that nowadays could have been written by any moderately gifted undergraduate. In our era it's all too possible to imagine a contemporary anthology of representative New Zealand poetry without any extract from 'Dominion' in its pages. Who, on the other hand, could imagine such a volume without Denis Glover's much briefer but much more beloved 'The Magpies'?
After 1966 it was all downhill. The essay 'The Woman Problem', posthumously published in 1967, exposed Fairburn's misogynist streak just in time to catch the wave of feminism that was rising, and the Selected Letters published in 1981 rammed the matter home. As the gay rights movement developed, homophobia was also added to the list of Fairburn's sins, and he became Exhibit A during the cultural show-trials of the 1980s when the case was made for de-privileging the work of New Zealand's dead-white-male writers, the 'blokerati' as the historian James Belich was referring to them by 2001. Even Denys Trussell's sympathetic biography, published in 1984, and MacDonald Jackson's long and carefully argued introduction to a Selected Poems in 1995 could not stop the rot. By 2012 Jane Stafford and Mark Williams's massive 1,248-page Anthology of New Zealand Literature included only two poems by Fairburn, 'Rhyme of the Dead Self' and a portion from 'Dominion'; and John Newton's 2017 survey of New Zealand literature over the first half of the twentieth century dismissed Fairburn, along with Glover, as 'the mid-century poets who act out most plainly the pathology of self-conscious masculinity'.
But then, growing up in a country that has always had a self-consciously masculine ethos, Fairburn the poet in fact remained an outlier, a misfit, throughout his life. His tall rangy frame and solid middle-class Pakeha background offered him surprisingly little protection. Dreamy, impractical and sensitive as a youngster, he failed to matriculate from Auckland Grammar and became a good-for-nothing in the eyes of his family and the wider community. His interest in the arts only made everything worse: mad Ireland may have hurt Yeats into poetry, but mad New Zealand was determined to hurt Fairburn and his kind out of it. Fairburn's school-friend R.A.K. Mason famously dumped two hundred useless copies of his first book of poems off the Queen's Wharf, and when Fairburn and his wife returned in 1932 from a youthful stay in Britain, New Zealand Customs confiscated books in their luggage by Tolstoy and H.G. Wells on the grounds that these were subversive. At length Fairburn found the only refuge available, by living in Auckland among a remarkably small set of like-minded artistic people, and by playing up what Jackson terms the 'court jester' side of his personality. For it's notable that even within the Auckland arts scene Fairburn felt the need to entertain others and act the fool with an endless series of pranks and quips. And it was the personality and the bon mots that people remembered, perhaps so more than the poems. Thus in 1992 the architect Lillian Chrystall was easily able to recall for me that, when she'd married her husband David Chrystall decades earlier, Fairburn had remarked to her, 'you'll be able to contemplate the future, gazing into your crystal balls'. As Diderot has his Jean-Francois Rameau say: 'I played the fool, and they listened to me. They laughed. They cried out, "He's always charming"'.
But he lacked the skill-set to fit in. When Fairburn was penniless and on relief work during the depths of the Great Depression, his wife's parents loaned him and his young family a house-cow, but he 'milked it so erratically that it had to be given back'. With his politics often leaning rightwards and his verse looking towards the past, it was perhaps inevitable that he felt something of an outsider in the literary scene as well. Certainly Fairburn's experience of the gay literary subculture of Britain during his sojourn there in the early 1930s seems to have coloured his idea of what a literary scene actually was, and also to have sharpened his homophobia until in New Zealand he could be intolerant, and perhaps oddly envious, of the unmarried, unfettered Bohemian freedom of a quietly gay writer like Frank Sargeson. A generic Fairburn jape from the 1940s and 50s would see him appear drunk and naked at the door of an arts-scene party, sweep up a nubile woman in his arms and carry her outside in a manner that nowadays would seem the essence of the word 'inappropriate', before depositing her back on her feet unmolested. Whatever else such antics may have signified, this was undoubtedly the behaviour of a man unhappy in his marriage, something which along with fatherhood Fairburn saw increasingly as a trap. House and family were no sanctuary for him. Fairburn became 'a kind of married bachelor', as the poet Jean Alison once said to me, who resorted to long, wandering walks all over the Auckland isthmus and who 'would come to your house and stay for days and days, and never seemed to want to go home'. From the late 1930s he even conducted a lengthy and unhappy love affair, which Denys Trussell touches on with delicate brevity in his biography, and the collapse of this affair may have been a factor in the bitter words Fairburn wrote about the female sex in 'The Woman Problem' and then wisely chose to set aside.
It was no easier for him to commence writing in New Zealand in the 1930s than it was for him to live. As an aspiring poet Fairburn had much to learn, but also much to unlearn. In his fey and musical early lyrics, published in the collection He Shall Not Rise in 1930, he displays what Jackson calls 'a verse-maker's equivalent of his mother's skill on the piano'. The poems are five-finger exercises--their language and forms are mostly derived from British poetry, and in fact from a lushly Georgian, pseudo-Renaissance-era British poetry that was already well out of date. And the language seems to befoul the content. In the two short stanzas of 'In the Younger Land', for example, the poet stands on a Kiwi beach that has never 'flinched beneath a Roman host' while he feels 'the stir/ of ancient wrongs and vanished woes'. Any contemporary reader of this immediately thinks of Maori grievances after the Land Wars, but the poem's poorly focused and hackneyed phrases could refer just as well to some kind of inherited British woe--and more likely do so. As a whole the collection generates what W.S. Broughton, surveying it in 1968, termed: 'An uneasy impression that much of this is poetry with little to say'.
The famous exception is the collection's final poem, 'Rhyme of the Dead Self', a work exalting in some kind of personal transformation, with the speaker announcing that he has destroyed his younger self, which Broughton rightly terms 'one of the most variously interpretable of Fairburn's lyrics'. This time the poem gains its power from its combination of vagueness underscored by vehemence. Its three stanzas each consist of a sentence without punctuation that rushes forward, its speaker straining against the subtle rhyme scheme, with a kind of hasty violence that mirrors the poem's content. Even the title is somewhat ambiguous. For what kind of person is this 'Dead Self' in the 'Rhyme', this 'lily-white lad' who has just been murdered in the night by the speaker, yet whose only crime seems to be a taste for pretty literature and 'dreams of love'; and why is the newly mature speaker, who has been 'chuckling' like a madman, so proud of an act that appears to involve the dispatch of his own soul? Clearly the now 'dead pale youth' stands for more than the mere rejection of immature poetic writing by an ambitious poet: the very vagueness of the phrase 'pretty love-tales heighho the holly', which is the only reference to literature in the poem, makes this paradoxically explicit. Is Blakean innocence making way for a new, grown-up experience? The final stanza's image of the sloughed-off snakeskin, with its hint of a lost Eden, appears to suggest so. Is a tougher, manlier, sexualised maturity driving out a dreamy, prepubescent sentimentalism? The speaker seems to think so. Yet the adolescent intemperance of the poem, and the speaker's closing insistence that there will be no Christ-like rising 'on the third day or any other day', evidently indicates that something has been given up as well as gained from the night's effort at transformation. Even the archaic last word 'aye', meaning forever, seems in this case to work in the poem's favour, highlighting an on-going tension between the still recent rejection of the old self who 'lay a-dreaming' and the still uncertain espousal of the new self who is awake.
The poem, which dramatizes a psychological state by blending emotions--a sense of triumph at something gained mixed with bitterness at something gone--was an undoubted breakthrough for Fairburn, but breakthroughs are not always welcome for a young writer. To what exactly had Fairburn broken through? He'd accomplished only the nullification of all his previous work. Next for him came 'Dominion', which Stuart Murray rightly describes as no 'stepping stone for Fairburn in the 1930s'. After that, Fairburn's on-going weakness for a mannered style of writing, which expressed itself in more pseudo-Renaissance lyrics but also in his parodies and squibs, gave the rest of his literary life a hit-and-miss quality. Stead observes this in 'A.R.D. Fairburn: The Argument Against', when he notes the 'faded language' which Fairburn used and that 'At every stage in his career he resorted to that language'.
Language was a problem for which there was no obvious solution. The experiments in clipped, drastically understated prose carried out by Frank Sargeson were of little help. Sargeson began publishing stories in the magazine Tomorrow from 1935, and in 1936 Fairburn even reviewed Sargeson's first collection, Conversation with my Uncle and Other Sketches, in Tomorrow's pages--he praised Sargeson for assimilating robust American influences. Fairburn certainly could have mimicked these experiments; he had a gift for mimicry, which his 'Yes Please Gentlemen' (T.S. Eliot), 'Europe 1945' (W.H. Auden) and The Sky is a Limpet (James Joyce) display, and he could do a Sargeson. 'Glum Summer', an unkind parody of Sargesonian dialogue filtered through the long-running 'The Glums' sketches in the British radio-comedy programme Take It From Here, shows that he had the ability to produce a version of Sargeson's stylized Kiwi speech. For a time Fairburn was in friendly contact with Sargeson, addressing him in letters with such typically extravagant salutations as 'Dear Brother in Christ'. But Sargeson's prose style was too stripped-down for poetry since, whatever else poetry may be, it involves language somehow charged, in some way heightened. Instead, Fairburn had stumbled upon his answer in 'Rhyme of the Dead Self' when using a direct, neutral register enlivened by passion.
Passion, that keystone for any Romantic poet, was the necessary element: but how to handle it? In 'To Daphnis and Chloe in the Park', published in Recent Poems in 1941, Fairburn tried to contain strong emotions under pressure inside the body of the poem by means of an ironic parallel to myth, with passion then bursting forth in something like an italicised chorus intoned by some kind of poet-speaker. Most of the lyric is in free verse, which was a concession to contemporary taste but also a way to place more emphasis on what was being said than on formal prettiness. Fairburn's pair of lovers, forced to evade a prurient world and meet on the quiet in a wooded area, are ironically compared to the naive, though ultimately successful, lovers in Longus's second-century Greek romance Daphnis and Chloe, until Fairburn chooses to close his opening stanzas with an admonitory refrain: 'but you're going to get hurt'. Unfortunately, however, the mythological generalizing in 'To Daphnis and Chloe in the Park' works against any sense of immediacy. Fairburn's solution is to set up a lavish vocabulary in his opening stanzas, and then for the rest of the poem he plunges into an Audenesque tone as he tries for a world-weary, anti-puritan message, though this leads only to further generalizing. The poem finishes up with an envoi which offers little more than a sententious direct warning. In it the poet-speaker admonishes his lovers anew to hurry 'before the heart grows cold/ the mind desperate and the body old', while at the same time, since the poet seems to be speaking from mature experience, the poem's undertone remains pessimistic about the lovers' chances. Present at times are several of the elements of Fairburn's later and better lyrics--unadorned speech, a rather loose construction, an emphasis on passion, a degree of pessimism, a contrasting undertone--but these are not yet in balance and produce no drama.
Written at about the same time, 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci' is a much less ambitious but altogether more satisfactory poem, even though it's been labelled merely an 'acid social commentary' on capital punishment. Again there is an ironic comparison in the poem's high-literary title, this time to Keats's famous ballad, but that's about as far as the comparison goes. The woman in Fairburn's antipodean version is not a bewitching lover, though she's still pitiless and bent on destruction. 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci' is recounted by a poet-speaker, presumably acting for Fairburn himself, who meets a loquacious woman on a train. The woman is a self-righteous harridan who wants a murderer to be hanged, and the poem then exposes her as more bloodthirsty than any criminal. Capital punishment was a hot social issue in New Zealand at the time when the poem was composed. The Labour government of 1935 had commuted all death sentences to life imprisonment and in 1941 it passed an act abolishing the death penalty for murder. Meanwhile the opposition National Party had pledged to reintroduce capital punishment, and later did so.
Buttonholing the poet in a railway carriage, the woman in 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci' inveighs against the 'spoil-sport' government's softness on crime, and Fairburn gives his verse a racy edge for its period. The woman uses the phrase 'murdering bastard', and her spoken words have their vulgar tone amplified by her apparent 'husband escort paramour' and his spivvy clothes. In addition, the poet-speaker adds a sexy Freudian spin to the penetrative 'gallows' action' of a body thrusting down through a trapdoor when he implies that thinking of this excites the woman's '(strictly biological) satisfaction'. Towards the end of the poem, sensing the poet's silent disapproval of her tirade, the woman rounds on him with 'you don't believe in religion do you?', although she herself has already made a mockery of Christian forgiveness. The poet reacts to all this only with further silence, mostly because of the depth of his disgust and anger. Charitably he imagines that his more lenient view of punishing murderers just might increase the 'threat/ to this poor woman's life and honour', but he doesn't speak up and then feels a confusion of blame and shame at his own failure of political and social courage. He closes the poem by thinking of the title of another literary work, Tennyson's 'A Dream of Fair Women'. In 'A Dream of Fair Women' Tennyson imagines an encounter with eight famous women whose beauty and actions have changed the course of history, but now in this Kiwi case any such sense of fairness seems 'a lemon', something as remote and anachronistic as mercy.
'La Belle Dame Sans Merci' is written in prosy, heavily rhyming couplets (though there are some unrhymed lines) and has a dashed-off quality that belies the care with which it is structured. For it's the framing circumstances in the poem that form the key to its success. The poet begins, well before the woman appears, by describing himself as world-weary and nearing the limits of his ability to cope. He's a restless traveller on some kind of train journey, already too restless for the physical and mental comforts of a bag of chocolates and a novel, and he's hoping now for the 'hypnotic peace/ of wheels clicking on rails'. The woman and her husband who enter the poet's carriage upset him by their mere presence, even before the woman begins her tirade, and the poet thinks of having previously met her kind in his 'stifling crayfish dreams' (crayfish are boiled alive) from which he typically wakes screaming. The woman's outburst of anger is indeed murderous, but so too is the poet's own silent anger at her, and this, along with the poet's shame at his poor response to her words, becomes merely the last straw on a bad day, since the poet is already unhappy. Thus the bitterness in the poet's portrayal of the woman reflects something of his own prior and unexplained sadness. In this way Fairburn supplies 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci' with a surprising dramatic boost, by giving the overriding emotion of the poem (outrage at the woman's vicious opinions) an underlying emotional counterpoint (sadness in the poet's own life). This contrapuntal technique is one Fairburn often uses later in his other successful lyrics--and the contrapuntal emotion that he most often puts on display is sadness.
Perhaps the poet's sadness in 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci' is unhappiness in love, since it's the woman in the carriage rather than her husband who really seems to get on the poet's nerves. Perhaps. And perhaps it was the sadness of the failed love affair mentioned by Denys Trussell that underpinned the burst of major love lyrics which Fairburn produced next during the late 1930s and early 1940s, poems then published in his collections of the 1940s and 50s. These are works which I think--or rather I agree with other critics such as Jackson, Trussell and Broughton--form the basis of his real poetic achievement. MacDonald Jackson argues that these love poems are unique in New Zealand literature, and many of the works do follow the arc of a love affair, poems such as the rather over-lush 'Wild Love', the more measured 'A Farewell', the bitter 'The Revenge', and even the relatively late 'Beggar to Burgher'. In this late poem a poor wanderer 'defeated in his loins' looks back on a brief liaison he had with the wife of a wealthy householder. The wanderer exults in having cuckolded the rich householder, though the sad emotional undercurrent of this poem--sad at least for the reader--is that neither the poor wandering beggar nor the rich burgher seems much interested in the woman as anything other than a sexual trophy in their rivalry, a rivalry based on wounded pride. In 1943 Fairburn himself commented to a friend about the love poems he wrote during this time: 'they were written out of the fullest & most shattering experience, without any regard for literary fashion, and you make me very happy when you say they are intense and passionate'. In any event the poems were the result of a period of extreme fertility; they were not always pretty and they were not written by Fairburn to his wife.
Certainly there seems something illicit about the relationship presented in one of the most successful and celebrated of these love lyrics, Fairburn's sex-on-the-beach poem, 'The Cave'. Fairburn brings us into the work through his use of the first-person plural, which may partly help explain why, after its publication, the poem's referral to coitus seemed so daring as to obscure almost everything else about it. A pair of lovers steal away to a cave on a beach and there, while making love, escape 'from the days/ that had hunted us like wolves, and from ourselves,/ in the brief eternity of the flesh'. While the location of the cave is not specified, the evocativeness and detail of the poem's descriptive parts give the setting a realistic feel, and Jackson cannily observes of the work's longish, irregular lines that any poetic response to 'the hills, bush, cliffs and bays of his native country nearly always nudges Fairburn away from orthodox metres to more expansive forms'. Fairburn also goes to a lot of trouble to give what might be called a mythic or archetypal resonance to the poem's very personal act, anticipating literary criticism's vogue for this sort of thing, even though James Frazer's The Golden Bough (1890) and Maud Bodkin's Archetypal Patterns of Poetry (1934) were already well-established critical texts. This may be why Fairburn closes his first stanza with the rather grand claim that the dark cave-mouth seems a 'sole emblem of mystery and death in that enormous noon' and why in the second stanza he insists that the lovers' excited stealing away towards the cave 'was a fatality felt and unspoken', urging them on a biologically-driven course 'unbroken as the genealogy of man'. The lovers are participants in an age-old cycle.
However, it is in the fourth stanza that Fairburn pushes his use of myth and archetypes to the extreme, hinting that the heat generated by the lovers' sexual activity should sear the cave walls and also, since ancient cave dwellers decorated the walls of their caves, that there should appear Edenic 'shapes of leaves and flowers/ printed on the rock' in the manner of prehistoric cave drawings. These magical markings would then be found by other lovers in generations to come, by other couples stealing away from everyone at a picnic and following the same pattern of sexual desire 'two worlds hence' (meaning, presumably, in a different world of time and also possibly a different world of place) 'because the form of the dream is always the same'. Lovers can be counted on to do what lovers do, and 'find consummation' in the swansdown of a bed, outside 'in grass', or in a cave, taking part in a vital, archetypal experience which they themselves recognise as compelling and recurring because it is natural. For this reason, at the end of the poem when the lovers return to their ordinary lives, their sexual act can remain behind them 'entombed'--at once finished and buried away--but at the same time with the act's 'essence' being part of the eternal recurrences of nature itself and of those other lovers who 'by salt-water coasts/ in the sea's beauty dwell'. Thus the poem's lovers, Fairburn implies in a simple paradox, can be at their most involved in what matters in life when shut away from the world in 'a pocket of night in the sun-faced rock', enjoying their mutual moment of 'brief eternity'.
But although the many archetypal and symbolic strategies of the poem may implicate the lovers in 'the whole history of humankind', as Jackson points out, it is not these largely rhetorical flourishes which give the poem its drama. Quite the reverse. The poem's sense of passion comes from its underlying contrapuntal emotion, which is an almost desperate sadness that such loving should be so ephemeral. This is because the lovers' sex act seems to be a moment of mutual escape from daily life rather than an especially enjoyable event in an ongoing relationship. When the lovers return to their ordinary lives, despite having been 'transfigured' and 'redeemed' in an orgasmic 'brief eternity of the flesh', everything that matters is left behind them. In fact the difficulties of their everyday lives are quite explicitly described near the start of the poem as hunting them 'like wolves'. Though the poem insists at length on the naturalness of the lovers' sexual act--and this can seem a bit overegged, even for its time--these do not appear to be happy people in an untroubled relationship. Theirs is a hidden love, not sanctioned by the world, where the sex act must be kept 'entombed'. Thus at the very start of the poem the cave is called 'a place of defeat,/ the nest of an extinct bird, or the hole where the sea hoards its bones', because only inside a cave can the everyday awfulness of the lovers' real lives be banished by a brief act of love together. After its sad start the poem ends post-coitally with a more positive, 'transfigured' reference to the area, 'salt-water coasts/ in the sea's beauty', but how long will the good feelings last?
Not all of the poem's lines have been regarded as successful. Jackson views the expression 'clouds and islands trembling in your eyes' as a cliche, arguing that it nonetheless serves to associate the poem's woman with the seascape. He also dislikes the orgasmic 'the flame on your mouth'. Stead is very critical of this latter phrase, using it to argue that 'Fairburn was constantly in search of the big experience, the explosive moment'. Neither line has been saved, if we consider this point of view, by any proper sense of distancing: there has been no helpful application of irony, wit, novelty of image or some other form of cleverness. Both lines are, alas, sincere. But the lines' very sincerity is crucial to Fairburn's conception of the poem, namely, that this sexual encounter is not a seduction, not a case of some predatory man having his way somewhere out of sight with a shy maiden. It is a sexual encounter of equals, equally consensual (the eyes) and equally satisfying (the flame), and sincerely emphasising this point, that the couple meet as equals, was sufficiently important for Fairburn, even back in the pre-feminist era when he wrote 'The Cave', to risk damaging his own poem. Instead, it is the dramatizing presence of an emotional counterpoint that gives the poem its saving resonance, and the presence or absence of such a counterpoint is a good rule of thumb for judging Fairburn's lyrics. A mere glance at 'Epithalamium', which has an erotic theme similar to that of 'The Cave' although it was written earlier, can demonstrate this rule. 'Epithalamium' is a poem from which any resonant counterpoint is absent. Stead quite rightly makes fun of its hackneyed lines like 'Strip quickly darling' and 'Leap on the bed', and adds that they are written 'without any consciousness of the potential absurdity of the visual image they evoke'.
It's certainly a contrapuntal emotion that dramatizes 'Full Fathom Five', a surreal, sparsely punctuated and rambling piece of free verse on the difficulties of the poet's trade which Fairburn published along with his love poetry during the early 1940s. 'Full Fathom Five', as Jackson claims, is a glance 'at the dilemma of the Romantic consciousness in an uncongenial modern age', a poem with its sadness wrapped in an outer layer of charm, its whimsy anticipating Bill Manhire and his imitators. Someone speaking in a calm and detached tone remembers a man, now deceased, as a bit of an oddball. The man is not explicitly referred to as a poet though let us assume here that he was, since he certainly had a poetic sensibility. This poet was a 'curious lover' of shells--curious in the sense of him being both strange and inquisitive--and of the 'hallucinations' of water. For under the water in 'Full Fathom Five', as the Shakespearian title hints, the world up in the daylight suffers 'a sea-change' into an aquatic 'rich and strange' world of the imagination. Indeed, so seductive was this underwater world of the imagination for the poet, so much time did he spend down there, the speaker tells us, that when resurfacing to his ordinary life the poet would first need to pay a bill put to him by one of the aquatic denizens of the imagination, a beguiling mermaid.
But even while living on 'the sea-bottom of the age', a new stanza suggests, the poet found no true release from the real world above, since what lay below was of necessity still a transformed version of that world up beyond the surface. He encountered 'particulars he did not care to speak about', not even with fellow literary types, or 'water diviners'. The proffered list that follows of examples of these particulars is bizarre though highly suggestive. Underwater the poet sees mossy, long undisturbed corpses in a strangely mangled form. The corpses with their bodies inside their skulls look unreal and so less than human, and perhaps they are numerous too, since the poet compares them to mere 'specks' on an old photograph. The poet sees 'trumpets', instruments of noisy communication and beauty, which have been discarded from the world above. He sees starfishes, creatures which were star-like successes above the water in 'impossible heavens' but which have now fallen below and are deemed 'eccentric', and which are lost, 'fretting on uncharted rocks'. He sees whole worlds as 'continents' abandoned and 'still', with their houses and trees in which innocent children live and play forsaken because the owners have grown up to adulthood, so that their dwellings seem like only 'a child's drawing'. Finally he sees political radicals whom he characterises as dolphins, creatures that live in water but breathe the upper air, who seem tired and tangled in 'honey-coloured cobwebs' of disputatious language while they wait for a revolution which does not come.
Nevertheless, a further stanza insists, the poet 'was happy down there' underwater, though chiefly for the isolation his imaginative life afforded him from reality. He was free from material worries such as statistics, but also from mental stresses such as any irritating psychological talk about 'yet another dimension of the mind'. Living in the world of the imagination under the sea may have left the poet among 'things sad and unspeakable', but it was plainly preferable to living in the world up above the surface so that the poet's tragedy, the final stanza makes clear, was that he could not remain underwater and 'drown'. He had to go up and exist in the cultural 'desert' of reality, submitting himself to judgment there by others. In this uncongenial environment, the speaker says, he died horribly, perhaps from thirst with his bones picked clean by ants, or perhaps more directly from being eaten alive by those insects. In any case, the last line of the poem mentions a 'rainbow of silence' coming from the dying poet's lips. But is this a positive or a negative image? Could the colourful rainbow indicate poems, albeit unwritten ones, emanating from the expiring poet's mouth? Or could the image of a rainbow, God's reminder in the Bible that there would be no more occasions on which floodwaters might cover the earth, indicate how the people in the daylight world were happy that now nothing but a satisfying silence emanated from the troublesome poet's parched throat? Trussell suggests that despite the whimsy of its imagery 'Full Fathom Five' is 'a metaphorical deep dive into the self' and that the 'rainbow of silence' might even indicate Fairburn's anticipation of his own failure as a poet, his inability to find 'new or fertile ground for the spirit'.
But verse continued to flow. An exception to my argument for the presence of an emotional counterpoint as a good way of judging Fairburn's lyrics is 'Poem' (sometimes referred to by the start of its first line, 'Age will unfasten us'), another of the major works arising from Fairburn's affair. But 'Poem' is an exception only in that sadness doesn't underscore or counterpoint the poem's main emotional theme, which is love, so much as collide with it head on. The result is an even higher voltage of passion than usual, a level of feeling which 'To Daphnis and Chloe in the Park' aspired to but could never attain. Indeed if 'A Farewell', which Fairburn also wrote at about the same time and which explores similar subject matter, is all composure and resignation at parting ('You must live, get on with your life'), then 'Poem' is one long scream of pain. But it was not always perceived as such. On reading the work Frank Sargeson commented in a letter to Denis Glover that 'Poem' was 'a wonderful tour de force, but hell, at his age [Fairburn] shouldn't be writing straight love lyrics'. However, 'Poem' is anything but a straight love lyric. In 'Poem' the fundamental fact of a pair of lover's deep feelings for each other, normally a cause for simple joy, is jammed up against the sadness of love's inevitable loss. What's more, the view that love is real but inescapably temporary, that it cannot outlast the forces arrayed against it, is a mind-set more common to a love affair than to, say, the youthful discovery of one's soulmate. So too is the distinct aura in the poem of Liebestod, or some kind of erotic violence that might result from a passionate but hopeless liaison.
The rather anonymous title of 'Poem' suggests that the verse is about no one specific--while almost certainly it is for a particular unnamed lover--somewhat in the old-fashioned manner of Renaissance sonnets. Also the poem itself proceeds by taking tropes that were already common amongst Renaissance love poetry and inverting them: the idea that love can outlast death, the idea that the whole world is contained within the lovers themselves, and the idea that love can overcome any obstacle. All this is managed in three compact stanzas of free verse, in a neutral language with a slightly confidential tone, and with the lines bound together by irregular rhymes so light that their presence is easily missed.
The poem begins with a stanza stating that the love felt by the poet and his lover will not survive death. In what seems a kind of thought experiment, the poet imagines his lover dead beside him 'on the cold bed', her body now only the emptied 'husk of love' while he lies 'powerless' next to her. Whether the poet is powerless because he is unable to halt her death or because he is dying too is not actually explained, but the setting and the fact that the poet's limbs are heavily stained with his lover's blood strongly hint at the latter, that she has died violently, perhaps by his hand, and he intends to join her in death. But already, from the poem's first line, there is a suggestion that the pair will not be together in death, since 'age', the passing of time, can only 'unfasten' and weaken them, driving them apart. In the second line this message is made even more explicit by a bald pronouncement on what happens with the passing of the flesh: 'our world will end'. After a suicide pact the lovers would not find themselves in some sort of special, otherworldly place together. Love does not outlast death.
In the second stanza Fairburn upends the view that two lovers together make all the world that matters. The world was already 'old' when the pair entered it in their 'rebirth', a term that suggests Fairburn is borrowing from the Platonic idea of the pre-existence of the soul before birth, an idea also present in Wordsworth's famous 'Intimations of Immortality' ode. But however far back the human soul may go before its awakening to life and the discovery of love, says the poet, the world with its moon and deserts goes back even further. What is more, the poet announces in a lugubrious manner, nothing about us is eternal because 'Time will devour our days,/ love die before we die.' Not only will love not outlast death, but it seems that love will not even be steadfast all through the lovers' lives. The poet now addresses his lover directly, as if to ensure that she knows he is not merely generalising, and describes a dawn which does not find them sleeping fondly together, 'in one dream' and with heaven all around them. Instead, he imagines them waking up when love has faded, so that the world they see around them has also faded and is decaying, with 'dust on the leaves and thin/ light from the famished sun', and in which they can feel their own sad 'dryness of the heart'. On such a day the world will simply go on without them, or more accurately, the lovers' world will be 'past, and a new age begun'. The pair will be absented from any part of the future: asleep because they are without love, or perhaps asleep because they are dead--though ultimately both. This is what happens without the choice of Liebestod, without a dramatic escape from life in a suicide pact: love simply fades and the world goes on anyway.
Given only these two awful choices, death or fading away, then love plainly cannot overcome its obstacles; yet love is what matters in this poem and the notion of love-suicide is returned to. In the last stanza the poet flits through a series of images which are all connected to an attempt at rising up: a medieval troubadour coming up from Southern France while singing courtly love songs, someone struggling to wake up from a deep sleep, and a swimmer trying to keep above the surface of the sea. But all of these mingled images suggest the poet desperately attempting to maintain a last hold on consciousness while expiring beside his lover's corpse. Furthermore, in the final stanza the poet's sudden change of tone to something more strident has an extra sense of tragedy built into it, since his efforts at holding fast to his lover have already been doomed to failure by the claims in both of the previous stanzas. However, all is not quite lost. In their last seconds together the pair would have the 'flame and shadow', the hot and cold, of their fleeting shared past, and against the odds they might succeed for a brief moment in being perfectly united as 'one shape, one thought, the living form/ of love itself'. Then the poet would die in the most passionate way conceivable, warmed still by his lover's remaining body-warmth and the memories of their love, with his lover's name upon his lips. Significantly, though, the poem has already made it very clear in the previous stanzas that this high-romantic gesture must ultimately be futile--even though this is conveniently forgotten or discounted in the final stanza--and this perhaps leaves the implication, which is never stated in the poem at all, that stolen moments in the here and now are best.
And then after these remarkable achievements Fairburn's gift gradually began to desert him, as sometimes happens with lyric poets. Denys Trussell notes that 'the flow of lyric poetry [...] after 1950, began to dry up'. The late 1940s saw the publication of two more long poems, 'The Voyage' (1948) and 'To a Friend in the Wilderness' (1949), which like 'Dominion' seem weightier in their ambition than in their achievement. Fairburn's influences were still there: the plaintive opening of 'To a Friend in the Wilderness' sounds as if it may have been filched from Donne's 'The Canonization'. Fairburn still wrote lyrics but often they had an exhausted quality to them, like 'Walking on My Feet' and 'Down on My Luck', and increasingly the things he wrote were mere squibs and parodies, little more than the ghosts of the poems he wanted to write. He seemed destined to become something of a crank, which intelligent people with isolated minds often do, so that his actions and opinions declined further into a mix of charming eccentricity and embarrassing prejudice. But he still had a presence in the literary scene and dominated those around him more by noise and gesture than by output. He impressed newcomers like James K. Baxter, a writer who might be considered the inheritor of Fairburn's Romantic position as New Zealand's most public poet. Baxter memorialised Fairburn cannily in his own 'Pig Island Letters' with:
The truth behind the lie behind the truth
That Fairburn told us, gaunt
As the great moa, throwing the twisted blunt
Darts in a pub this side of Puhoi--
Fairburn lived on only until 1957. He died of cancer at the tragically young age of 53 and--even though it wasn't true--left behind him a myth of poetic potential cut short.
'The truth behind the lie behind the truth': it's not a bad description of the emotional resonance in Fairburn's finest poems. And in his later years he had one more fine poem in him, one more to leave behind, the often anthologised 'I'm Older than You, Please Listen'. It's a poem which incorporates and compacts much of the central theme of 'Dominion' into thirty lines, by suggesting New Zealand is a country so young and fatally undeveloped that any talented youth would be best advised to leave. From a glance at the jokey title and a taste of the satirical opening the poem appears to be just another squib--written in short, energetic trimeters held together by irregular rhymes--but it soon takes on the same vehement tone as 'Rhyme of the Dead Self'. An early critic even announced that the poem had 'an appropriate sinewy verse that blends lyricism and a sardonic tone'. Indeed, 'I'm Older than You, Please Listen' seems almost in conversation with 'Rhyme of the Dead Self', bookending Fairburn's poetic career. It has the same suggestion of options which are not options, and behind all the outward vehemence there is the same ambivalence about personal transformation. But this time instead of proposing some form of radical adjustment to manage one's circumstances, the situation for the young is declared hopeless. The only solution to developing yourself in undeveloped New Zealand is to run away, and that is no solution.
The first half of the poem is avuncular advice, the speech of an older man, perhaps but not necessarily Fairburn, counselling a young man who is just starting out in life. Best to get out 'before the roots are down'. The older man's arguments for abandoning New Zealand are carefully reasoned, carefully elaborated, and a little complacent. In their clever appeal to human selfishness and their easy assumption of superiority in the face of others' weakness, these lines appear reminiscent, at least in feel, to the Grand Inquisitor's arguments put to Christ in The Brothers Karamazov. Much is at stake. The dismissal of 'a sort of second-grade heaven' and the fear of 'becoming a butt for the malice/ of those who have stayed and soured' encompass the incessant debate on philistinism conducted by New Zealand's mid-twentieth-century provincial intelligentsia, caught economically in a few lines of verse.
The second half of 'I'm Older than You, Please Listen' kicks off with the first of six 'if' clauses (twice as many as the three 'before' clauses near the poem's start) and expounds the benefits of living overseas; but the poem's tone in the second half changes subtly to sound far more insistent than anything earlier. The language ceases to be the reasoned advice of an experienced old hand and becomes instead the language of advertising jingles, jaunty, pushy and with catchier imagery. This quickening is reinforced by the repetition of 'if' clauses crowded together, the reduced number of run-on lines and also by a new regularity in the rhyme scheme: two abcb quatrains and then an even more insistent couplet, followed by a final abcb quatrain. But what is on offer to the young man--money and status with no waiting--is also as shallow as anything in consumer advertising, because any attentive reader understands that what is not being said in this poem is just as important as the claims that are made. Spiritual or cultural fulfilment is not in the picture. Even if the British-born novelist M.K. Joseph could observe of his suave young Professor James Rankin in A Pound of Saffron, 'Like other successful New Zealanders in England, he had adapted very fully to English middle-class norms', adaptation to life in another country is not the same as being born there. From childhood the roots are already down, and it is the fate of those in provincial lands to have a choice in life only between spiritual and cultural poverty at home or something similar abroad. But this the older man dispensing advice cannot bring himself to admit.
It's not hard to glimpse Fairburn's own predicament, his own thwarted experience, lurking behind the poem's jokey language. But a less obvious undercurrent concerns the degree to which the ageing Fairburn may have been aware that his own talent was shutting down. 'I'm Older than You, Please Listen' could be the saddest poem this sad poet ever wrote. Despite his vaunted gift for friendship, I don't suppose Fairburn was really a nice man; we know so much about each other in the modern era that none of us can ever be considered truly nice anymore. But whatever it is about the public artist that later generations may line up to judge, it is the private artist who writes the poems, and behind the awkward facade of unpleasant postures and exhibitionism the private Fairburn wrote his best work out of a very personal suffering, a sadness that can still move us.
1. Jackson, MacDonald. P.. 'Introduction': A.R.D. Fairburn, Selected Poems. Wellington, Victoria University Press, 1995. Accessed at http://www.nzepc.auckland.ac.nz/authors/fairburn/vupmac.asp
2. Fairburn, A.R.D. Collected Poems. Christchurch, Pegasus Press, 1966. All quotations from Fairburn's poetry are from the Collected Poems.
3. Stead, C.K.. 'A.R.D. Fairburn: The Argument Against.' Kin of Place. Auckland, Auckland University Press, 2002: 71.
4. Belich, James. Paradise Reforged: A History of the New Zealanders from the 1880s to the Year 2000. Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 2001: 337.
5. Newton, John. Hard Frost: Structures of Feeling in New Zealand Literature 1908-1945. Wellington, Victoria University Press, 2017: 203.
6. Trussell, Denys. Fairburn. Auckland, Auckland University Press, 1984: 64, 128.
7. Jackson, MacDonald. P.. 'Introduction': A.R.D. Fairburn, Selected Poems. Op. cit..
8. Chrystall, Lillian. Personal communication, 3 Sept. 1992.
9. Diderot, Denis. Rameau's Nephew, 1891. This translation Johnson, Ian C., 2002. Accessed at http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks07/0700101h.html
10. Trussell, Denys. Fairburn. Op. cit.: 137.
11. Alison, Jean. Personal communication, 4 Sept. 1992.
12. Trussell, Denys. Fairburn. Op. cit.: 188, 190.
13. Jackson, MacDonald. P.. 'Introduction': A.R.D. Fairburn, Selected Poems. Op. cit..
14. Broughton, W.S. 'W. D'Arcy Cresswell, A.R.D. Fairburn, R.A.K. Mason: An Examination of Certain Aspects of their Lives and Works'. PhD Thesis, University of Auckland, 1968: 233.
15. Broughton, W.S. 'W. D'Arcy Cresswell, A.R.D. Fairburn, R.A.K. Mason: An Examination of Certain Aspects of their Lives and Works'. Op. cit.: 178.
16. The expression 'heighho the holly', which seems meant to indicate a generic Renaissance lyric, is in fact a quotation from Amiens's song in As You Like It, his bittersweet complaint that human insincerity and faithlessness are worse than the bitterest elements in nature. [Shakespeare, William. As You Like It. II.7].
17. Murray, Stuart. Never a Soul at Home: New Zealand Literary Nationalism and the 1930s. Wellington, Victoria University Press, 1998: 135.
18. Stead, C.K.. 'A.R.D. Fairburn: The Argument Against.' Kin of Place. Op. cit.: 68.
19. Lawrence Jones observes that 'One needs only to look at A.R.D. Fairburn's parody "Glum Summer" to see how eminently imitable and misleadingly simple was Sargeson's method'. Jones, Lawrence. Barbed Wire and Mirrors: Essays on New Zealand Prose. Dunedin, Otago University Press, 1987: 78.
20. Trussell, Denys. Fairburn. Op. cit.: 172.
21. Broughton, W.S. 'W. D'Arcy Cresswell, A.R.D. Fairburn, R.A.K. Mason: An Examination of Certain Aspects of their Lives and Works'. Op. cit.: 258.
22. See for example: Jackson, MacDonald. P.. 'Introduction': A.R.D. Fairburn, Selected Poems. Op. cit.. Broughton, W.S. 'W. D'Arcy Cresswell, A.R.D. Fairburn, R.A.K. Mason: An Examination of Certain Aspects of their Lives and Works'. Op. cit.: 207. Trussell, Denys. Fairburn. Op. cit.: 173.
23. Letter to Jasper Brett, 19 Jun. 1943. [Quoted in Broughton, W.S. 'W. D'Arcy Cresswell, A.R.D. Fairburn, R.A.K. Mason: An Examination of Certain Aspects of their Lives and Works'. Op. cit.: 206-7. Also Trussell, Denys. Fairburn. Op. cit.: 192.]
24. Jackson, MacDonald. P.. 'Poetry': The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English (ed. Sturm, Terry). Oxford University Press, Auckland, 1998: 436.
25. Jackson, MacDonald. P.. 'Introduction': A.R.D. Fairburn, Selected Poems. Op. cit..
26. Jackson, MacDonald. P.. 'Introduction': A.R.D. Fairburn, Selected Poems. Op. cit..
27. W.S. Broughton and Vincent O'Sullivan both comment on the carpe diem quality underlying 'The Cave', with Broughton focusing on the tension between the instant and eternity [Broughton, W.S. 'W. D'Arcy Cresswell, A.R.D. Fairburn, R.A.K. Mason: An Examination of Certain Aspects of their Lives and Works'. Op. cit.: 252] and O'Sullivan on how 'death's sting is partly drawn by the experience of love' [O'Sullivan, Vincent. 'A.R.D. Fairburn--Definitions of Emptiness' Comment, 28 Sept .1966: 33].
28. Stead, C.K.. 'A.R.D. Fairburn: The Argument Against.' Kin of Place. Op. cit.: 74.
29. Stead, C.K.. 'A.R.D. Fairburn: The Argument Against.' Kin of Place. Op. cit.: 76.
30. Jackson, MacDonald. P.. 'Introduction': A.R.D. Fairburn, Selected Poems. Op. cit..
31. Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. I.2.
32. Genesis, 9.9-17.
33. Trussell, Denys. Fairburn. Op. cit.: 188, 189.
34. Letter to Denis Glover, 10 Feb. 1943. [Sargeson, Frank. Letters of Frank Sargeson (ed. Shieff, Sarah). Auckland, Random House NZ Vintage, 2012: 58.]
35. Trussell, Denys. Fairburn. Op. cit.: 244.
36. Baxter, James K.. 'Pig Island Letters.' Collected Poems of James K. Baxter (ed. Weir, John). Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 2004: 280.
37. Broughton, W.S. 'W. D'Arcy Cresswell, A.R.D. Fairburn, R.A.K. Mason: An Examination of Certain Aspects of their Lives and Works'. Op. cit.: 257.
38. Joseph, M.K.. A Pound of Saffron. London, Victor Gollancz, 1962: 16.
Copyright Ian Richards, 2019
This essay was collected in The Poor Itch: Essays in New Zealand Literature, Lonely Arts Publishing, Osaka, 2021.
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