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In 2000, when I reviewed Bill Manhire's collection of essays and interviews, Doubtful Sounds, for the New Zealand Listener, I was struck by the curious discrepancy between Manhire's public persona and his poetry. In his interviews and essays Manhire seemed congenial and also confident about his work--at times even insouciant--while his poems themselves are famously retiring, hesitant and infused with melancholy. Above all, it seemed remarkable to me that a writer of such difficult verse should be viewed in New Zealand as an accessible and even as a beloved literary figure. No doubt it is naive to assume that a writer's oeuvre is nothing more than an extension of his personality, and no one would want to complain if Manhire's apparent clubbability has broadened his readership. His work can stand on its merits. However, as others before me have noted, critics have sometimes been reluctant to engage with Manhire's poetry, as if accepting that the spotlight of analysis might ruin its delicate effects. And perhaps Manhire's public attitude to literature has been a contributing factor in this, such as his insistence that 'I don't like that high cultural view of poetry at all, where it becomes a vehicle whereby people offer their superior wisdom to the world'.
Manhire has been at pains to imply that his poems are the mysterious results of humorous, good-natured bricolage. He describes 'Allen Curnow Meets Judge Dredd', for example, as 'an affectionate tease'. He suggests that the charm of 'Magasin' is that it contains 'a range of unlikely things' and 'ends with a disjointing, code-switching joke'. He likes to define his poetry as 'strongly marked by tonal drifts and lurches'. But it is possible for a reader to be too diffident in the face of a poet's claims to mystery. In their very difficulty Manhire's poems certainly require critical reading, even if such an approach must be smuggled in by means of the cuddlier labels--the reader's imaginative participation, or a poet-to-reader conversation--that Manhire is fond of using. Thus, partly because I wish to contradict some of Manhire's public claims, and partly because Manhire himself is still an active poet and literary figure, this essay should properly acknowledge that it is personal and opinionative.
To argue that, in my opinion, Manhire is a poet heavily influenced by Symbolist literature may not appear at first to be saying very much. Symbolism happened a long time ago and far away, in France in the later nineteenth century, and its influence has since been diffused across all of poetry. But the critic Edmund Wilson's comment on the movement, 'the symbols of the Symbolist school are usually chosen arbitrarily by the poet to stand for special ideas of his own--they are a sort of disguise for these ideas', seems particularly germane in relation to the experience of reading Manhire's poems. The almost contradictory combination of decorousness and incomprehensibility that is a characteristic feature of Manhire's writing seems to have appeared early in his work. Such a quality is part and parcel of an essentially Symbolist approach, which aims at suggesting the poet's message rather than stating it outright. Influenced, no doubt, by a variety of poetry--American, Modernist, Elizabethan, Anglo-Saxon--Manhire himself might be genuinely surprised by this argument. But Manhire has already noted in interview that the enigmatic qualities of other poets attracted him when young and that 'somewhere inside my head I also wanted a sense of mystery'. The standard definition of Symbolist poetry does appear, at least, to offer a way in to reading Manhire's poetry from its outset. Charles Chadwick describes the Symbolist movement, as exemplified by Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Mallarme and Valery, in the following terms:
Symbolism can therefore be defined as the art of expressing ideas and emotions not by describing them directly, nor by defining them through overt comparisons with concrete images, but by suggesting what these ideas and emotions are, by re-creating them in the mind of the reader through the use of unexplained symbols.
Hugh Lauder's careful analysis of two early Manhire poems, 'The Song' from How To Take Your Clothes Off At The Picnic and 'The Afterlife' from Good Looks, is a mostly Symbolist-oriented reading. Lauder interprets 'The Song' as a series of images commenting obliquely on a couple's relationship. These images are not logically connected except by what they have in common to say about the relationship, and even about the wider possibility of having any sort of human interaction. But in the poem the relationship itself is scarcely referred to. Similarly, Lauder makes a persuasive case that 'The Afterlife' offers an extended exploration of a single trope--as suggested in the title--where someone already dead goes through 'a series of developmental stages which parallel the growth of a child to adulthood in this world'. 'The Afterlife' is full of what Baudelaire termed 'correspondences': 'involving movement from the plane of material objects and the sensations they provoke to the plane of abstract concepts and personal feelings, from sights, sounds and smells to the notions or emotions they inspire'. The poem also exhibits a considerable amount of repetition, another early Symbolist device. But again the subject of the poem, the possible nature of life after death and its probable isolation, is never directly referred to.
John Newton's critical essay on the slippery use of the pronouns 'you' and 'I' in Manhire's early poetry points towards another issue that is related to Symbolism: Manhire is at his weakest when trying hardest to be communicative. Manhire has himself observed that: 'in my own writing, I'm struck by the frequency with which I use the word "you"'. However, this may simply indicate a poet reflecting on what is problematic in his own work. For, in my opinion, none of Manhire's I/you poems is among his very best. Even the poem 'Good Looks', which is one of the most successful in the early collection of the same name, does not really present a communication between individuals at all. Instead, it offers a speaker's one-sided address to someone who is in a coma. Characteristically, this fact is only hinted at, in lines of resignation: 'What did I think of, thinking/ you would wake?'. It is this guilty resignation which then accounts for the jumbled montage of images in the closing stanza of the poem, where the speaker seeks to escape his situation. He tries to escape from the pronoun 'I' into the more impersonal 'One', and to put the blame for the complex tragedy before him on the larger cosmos.
One travels out into the country
and jumps from the tallest tree
blaming the descent on clouds:
Thus, by the close of 'Good Looks' and the understanding that it is about dealing with someone in a coma, the meaning of the poem's first stanza, beginning 'We talk and talk till silence interrupts', and with its repetition of 'where' and 'where you' tucked into the ends of lines, is revealed. Furthermore, this new intelligibility proves every bit as heartbreaking as the poem's opening most likely felt for the reader in a visceral manner on its first perusal. The very private knowledge, coming from the collection's back cover, that the poems of this period 'record the death of a father' reinforces this further. The trickiness of a father-son relationship may also account for the speaker's shy statement that 'distance' is 'where/ I first knew you', but there is no other information to help. Similarly, there is nothing in the poem itself to explain the title, which may perhaps refer to the uncanny way that people in a coma appear only to be asleep. Nevertheless, for all its pathos, the poem displays a problem that bedevils truly ambitious writers: the lines are very good but not memorably great. The work almost concedes as much at its close, that its words are 'not splendid, just pretty'. Talented, would-be poets have drawers full of the merely very good. As Manhire remarks in his later poem, 'Allen Curnow Meets Judge Dredd': 'Don't think permanence is easy'.
Another successful--and much more memorable--Manhire poem which is not nearly as communicative as it first seems is 'Kevin', from the later collection Lifted. 'Kevin' is a sonnet on death which shares something of the spirit of T.S. Eliot's cry in Four Quartets (with Eliot himself echoing John Milton's Samson Agonistes), 'O dark, dark, dark. They all go into the dark'. When asked about what happens after death, the speaker quickly distracts himself by talking about his radio instead--or more specifically the 'inside' of the radio, from whence its distant messages both do, and do not, derive. But soon the speaker's musing on his radio returns to the imagery of death. He listens 'late at night'. The radio's glow is mysteriously both 'dark' and 'celestial', like the universe, but with a 'heaviness' of the nothing that is in a cave's confined, empty space. These are all hints, perhaps, of further lines from the same section of Milton's Samson Agonistes which, in turn, had influenced Eliot's gloomy pronouncement.
The Sun to me is dark
And silent as the Moon
When she deserts the night
Hid in her vacant, interlunar cave.
Manhire is thus unobtrusively attaching himself to the end of a considerable literary tradition of rumination on despair. But the first stanza nevertheless has a hopeful image tacked onto its close, 'the hive'. Hives are not empty spaces at all; rather, they are boxes full of life with their honey-producing bees. They hum with activity like the insides of old radios. In Symbolist fashion, then, through a series of apparently disjointed images, the speaker has moved from contemplating death to a distraction, to pessimism and some vague hope.
The second stanza thus begins hopefully with the very reason why people bother tuning into a radio: 'Music'. But the pleasant imagery that follows of the simple, sensual enjoyment of life around a fire rapidly becomes more and more desperate. The typical 'Someone' who is described--the speaker avoids any close identification with himself--is forced into 'burning his comfort/ surely to keep alive'. The imagery seems to collapse from the pleasures of listening to music into suggestions of the fear of aging and of the loss of sensual vitality, in much the same way that the flow of imagery also seemed to betray itself in the first stanza. The coyly euphemistic term 'lifts him' clearly refers to dying, to being taken dead out of one's chair and also to one's soul ascending to heaven--but what follows is not hopeful at all. Any afterlife postulated is really some sort of 'terrible breakfast show', dubious and inadequate at best. And the phrase 'breakfast show' may not even refer to a heaven, but to nothing more than the platitudes trotted out at our funerals before we are forgotten. In either case a 'breakfast show', a debased version of what we currently enjoy of our daily lives, is all to which the stanza's promising initial 'Music' leads us.
The third, brief stanza is especially chilling if the reader has assumed that Kevin is the speaker's inquiring son, since the speaker now flatly announces that, not only has he no idea where our dead ancestors go, but that we 'barely know' them anyway in the time we have on earth. Our 'mothers and fathers' may 'lift' us by raising us, but they also bequeath to us the gift of mortality. Perhaps the only thing we really share in common with them is the frightful certainty of extinction. The stanza's heavy end-rhymes drag everyone--parents, speaker and reader--towards the final image, the massive, out-of-date valve radios which once dominated New Zealand living-rooms and now fill the living-rooms of New Zealanders' collective memory. Through its very vagueness the image incites in the reader a feeling of terror. In reality, however, since radios are receivers which pick up what goes into them and convert it into sound, into the very music which the speaker was praising in the second stanza, then perhaps Manhire's message may not be as utterly bleak as it first appears. Nevertheless, the poem's close is so upsetting that most readers do not linger to wonder exactly who Kevin might be. By the close we know nothing about him, even though his familiar but meaningless name supplies the poem's title--no more, it might be said, than we can know of God. Indeed, within the poem Kevin, like God, does not speak directly but merely poses questions that cannot be answered. His name rhymes with 'heaven'. Is the speaker's willingness to acknowledge Kevin's ambiguous presence good news, or not? Kevin is somewhere in the background of this one-sided poem, making us all uncomfortable.
Manhire is, therefore, hardly the nonchalant trickster whose image he likes to project in public. Rather, he is the New Zealand poet of solipsism. Certainly, it is solipsism which underpins his first successes in poetry, such as 'Wingatui' in Good Looks. 'Wingatui' is an early example of Manhire recreating a particular state of mind in a poem which then exists, in itself, as a discrete object. After its initial publication the poem famously appeared in Private Eye magazine's 'Pseud's Corner', which occasioned an amused reaction from New Zealand writers. British incomprehension of the poem, it was felt, stemmed from a lack of basic awareness about New Zealand: that Wingatui is a South Island racecourse, that 'birdcage' in New Zealand English refers to the enclosure where horses are paraded before and after races, and that 'silks' therefore refers to the jockeys' clothes. Nobody, however, amidst all the merriment at Pommy parochialism and foolishness, bothered to explicate the poem's somewhat daunting last line.
'Wingatui' presents the reader with a version of the seductive romance of loss through the trope of life as a gamble. The poem takes place at a racetrack. The opening makes clear that it is night, probably after the races are finished. The speaker is sitting in a car 'with the headlights off', presumably to save the battery with the intention of staying put for a long time. The first line is part of a monologue overheard by the reader, and it is the beginning of several instructions the speaker addresses to himself in the poem, as if the speaker were self-consciously adopting a pose. The speaker passively observes the yellow light of the moon moving across the fence of the enclosure and looking like his recollection of the jockeys' racing colours. Nature is illuminating the place where winners parade, rather than the car where the loser chooses to sit. The last two lines, prompted perhaps by the airy spaciousness of the image of a birdcage, then rehearse statements of self-pity. Both lines are rounded off with rhymes gathered from the poem: 'lost' from 'off', and 'two' more heavily from 'moon' and the repeated 'You': 'You might have touched that sky you lost/ You might have split that azure violin in two'.
However, both of the poem's final lines use the tentative 'might have', rather than the more straightforward 'almost'. They suggest that this is not really a romantic matter of the speaker having risked everything and lost--it is, instead, maybe a case of never having gambled in the first place. If the speaker had taken a chance in life, he might have reached for the sky and managed to get it. Now he is left with nothing in the night but a pose of noble failure. The very last line serves as a repetition and psychological intensifier of the penultimate line. It contains a remarkable compression of imagery that could have come straight from Mallarme. Presumably, the obscure expression 'azure violin' is derived from a language cue, from the notion of being so successful at something as to 'play it like a violin'. The speaker might have got his sky-goal and played on it so successfully that he would have split the instrument in two, dividing it up into winnings. But to gamble and lose one must first make a commitment beyond unfocused imaginings. The very obscurity of the last line helps to keep the poem vague, and to encourage the reader to work at understanding the full implications of the preceding lines.
Over time Manhire seems to have focused his poems more tightly by, in general, limiting each to one unifying trope and by using the minimum number of lines possible. In turn, this is compensated for by a looseness in the language that comes from eschewing rhetoric for a relaxed, conversational style and occasionally even a flat tone of voice. It is possible to see these qualities appearing in some of the early poems. 'The Poetry Reading' from How To Take Your Clothes Off At The Picnic limits itself to dramatising a hackneyed literary recitation, with the poet-speaker gushing over cliched 'green fields/ Which are to be found in England'. But the reader must infer even this situation from the brief suggestions made available, rather than from any framing statement in the poem. The poet-speaker then ties himself into syntactic knots in the third stanza, confusing his fields with the somewhat incidental animals living in them. At length he is unable to distinguish even between a reference to the wider public and to the field animals, culminating in the ambiguous 'they' of the poem's final line: 'In which they have chosen to make their homes'--it is a line which refers to almost nothing at all. Thus any sense in the poet-speaker's subject matter is fatally compromised through his pandering to the expectations of his audience. Perhaps the speaker would have been better off starting with: 'The green paddocks'. Instead, he has hamstrung himself by the assumptions with which his poem commences.
Another early poem which succeeds because Manhire keeps his imagery unified is the much-admired 'Declining the Naked Horse' in Good Looks. With the grammatical terminology of 'declining' a verb as a trigger, the poem pokes fun at language snobbery. The expression 'naked horse' is a nonsense term, but the poem stolidly runs through its forms anyway like something from an old Latin textbook, having its naked horse put in an appearance again and again. (In fact, it is not 'naked horse' as such but the verb 'come' which is declined; although this is just the sort of pedantry that the poem takes aim at.) The lines start with simple and correctly standard grammatical inflections that become ever more complex, until the poem simply falls into the demotic--which, paradoxically, turns out to be the most complex form of all: 'The naked horse would of come into the room again if we hadn't of stopped it'. Indeed, the final inflection is also the most human, since it plainly suggests that it is tired of all this naked horsing about and brings the pointless repetition to a halt. Furthermore, whatever the final line may amount to as an instance of the decline of standards, it is the only line in the poem that really has something to say. There is a little of concrete poetry about 'Declining the Naked Horse', but again also something of Symbolism, since readers are presented with a mysterious and vague verbal object and invited to make of it what they will.
A poem which also stands out in Good Looks is 'Wellington', where New Zealand's entire capital city becomes a single trope for the kind of country where citizens are willing to trade personal freedom for greater material prosperity. The poem opens complacently and offers up a series of cliches about a go-ahead place to live, until the flow of lines seems almost interrupted with:
And down on Lambton Quay
the lads in cars go past, it's raining,
and the boys from Muldoon Real Estate
are breaking someone's arm.
Suddenly, all is not well--not even with the weather, which quite literarily rains on the parade of inanity that has preceded it. New Zealand readers at the time of publication knew that these interrupting lines referred to Robert Muldoon, the country's Prime Minister, and to his famously autocratic way of governing the nation as if it were his personal kingdom. In addition, 'the boys' is a New Zealand term often applied to local thugs, although in this case, since the boys work for 'Muldoon Real Estate', they are most probably the police clearing the street of disruptive 'lads in cars'. The boys are thus beating up the lads--or at least, this is the initial assumption the reader is likely to make. In fact, the police are breaking the arm of 'someone' who may, or may not, be one of the lads who was driving past, and who may not have really been disturbing the peace at all. For the next lines of the poem suggest that this act of police brutality serves mainly as 'instructive entertainment' aimed at intimidating everyone else on the street.
Indeed, what matters during this moment of violence in the poem is the reaction of the citizen-speaker, who now begins to appear vaguely as a character. He speaks to himself with a generalised 'you', and once again this is a poem where the word 'you' has little connection to communication with others. Confronted by violence, the speaker reacts with denial. He seeks to duck back amid 'all the distant figures in the crowd'--it is the second time in the poem the expression 'distant figures' is used to describe the city's isolated population. Then, while still watching, the speaker hopes to let himself appear distracted by shop-window photographs of the 'desirable private/ properties' which are available, it seems, from Muldoon Real Estate. But soon the speaker is genuinely distracted by the properties available. Finally he asks himself, in continued reaction to the police brutality he has witnessed, whether he should put his hands above his head in a gesture of surrender or keep them in his pockets in a gesture of indifference. But this question is in reality only a false choice, since the option of active resistance has already been discounted. And in any event, for the speaker the whole issue is quickly replaced by more comfortingly materialist questions: 'Do you want a place/ without a garage, could you manage/ all those steps'.
The poem's concluding lines seem to force into compression much that has gone before: the speaker's willingness to give up his freedom in return for a good piece of Wellington real estate; the naked intentions of the 'man', the country's leader, towards any who oppose him; and also the speaker's and other citizens' likely futures, including our own, and the leader's future as well.
The answer is
the man would simply like you off the streets.
You haven't even got a window
and his is full of houses.
Despite the seductions of property values, the outlook does not seem good for the common people, who 'haven't even got a window'. Meanwhile the nation's leader appears set to own everything in town, even as he watches over it. Perhaps he is, in fact, the anonymous 'man himself' in the first half of the poem who 'is sitting on a little goldmine' and who only appeared at first glance to be an ordinary citizen doing well. 'Wellington' was popular at its time of publication for its topicality, but its use of the city as a trope for a larger message about human nature and denial means that it is likely to last.
Perhaps inevitably, with a poetic so intent on suggestiveness rather than explication, the titles of Manhire's poems become important indicators of each poem's topic or basic trope. The content of the brief 'Breaking the Habit' in the collection Milky Way Bar does not attempt to present quitting smoking as such but offers instead only a comment on the pressures borne by a person failing to give up tobacco.
Even the children lend a hand,
stealing from room to room,
wrapping your smoke-rings in a towel.
Without the hint of context supplied by the title, the poem would be much harder to comprehend. But with the title, as it were, having taken care of the task of communicating the meaning of the poem's situation, the poem itself is then free to develop mysteriously the notion that the times are somehow out of joint. The speaker's children have become the family's moral guardians, the supervisors instead of the supervised. They are taking on the job of cleaning up after a recalcitrant smoker. The sense of mystery would be untenable, however, if some indication of giving up smoking had to included within the body of the poem itself. This may be one reason why Manhire's titles become noticeably more detailed and informative in his mature collections.
A poem like 'Jalopy: The End of Love', for instance, requires its subtitle for the reader to grasp just what, in the poet's private idiom, the symbol of an old car is being used to stand for. Old things, whether cars or love relationships, acquire with time a certain dilapidated charm which then is expressed through euphemistic language, like the word 'jalopy'. Such expressions both highlight and obscure the cruel fact that the thing in question is reaching the end of its natural term. By 1991, when 'Jalopy: The End of Love' was published in Milky Way Bar, the New Zealand fleet was rapidly improving with the mass importation of second-hand cars from Japan, but anyone of Manhire's generation would easily recall a time when almost all New Zealand vehicles were broken-down old bombs. The poem begins by asking whether you see your car as old or as a 'jalopy'--an expression which dictionaries list as 'origin unknown'. Once again, the pronoun 'you' in the poem offers no more than the semblance of a direct communication as the speaker hurries to explain how universal the experience of an aging car is 'in the world'. It is apparent that the speaker is also addressing himself and his own case. One's car will definitely break down some day, inconveniently and far from help, both anywhere and nowhere, because: 'Well, it's an old car'.
Even by the fourth stanza there is not the slightest hint in the poem--apart from the subtitle--that the topic in question is anything other than the deterioration and unreliability of vehicular transport. In the same way, the insistent and chatty 'you' continues to belie any suggestion of intimate confession. But during the fifth stanza the true topic of the poem skitters into view for a moment, with: 'someone you used to love/ has that ancient photograph of you'. The topic is freed from the disguise of its symbol, and soon it is even referring to a specific place, 'high on the Coromandel'. Despite being a popular holiday destination, 'the Coromandel' is likely to mean more to the speaker here than to the generalised 'you'-as-everyman whom the speaker insists on addressing. Indeed, this evasiveness in itself calls into question the reliability of the line 'someone you used to love', hinting, perhaps, that 'someone who used to love you' may be just as close to the mark. At any rate, by the end of the sixth stanza this instant of illumination concerning a love now long past its prime is suddenly closed off again with: 'It's a jalopy'. In this curious poem, where an idiosyncratic symbol is employed purposefully not so much to suggest as to obscure the meaning, the reader is given two simple and plaintive facts in the final stanza. The closing 'it' of the poem--any sense of human relationship is now further reduced to an uninformative pronoun--is not going to start up again, and moreover: 'Whatever it is, it's finished'. A charming euphemism has been dissolved into a certain tone of bitterness over the breakdown of love, and in a manner far more effective than anything that might have been achieved in a more conventional I/You poem.
If the title offers an important clue in deciphering a Symbolist-style poem, then the open structure of such a poem means that the rounding off necessary at its close becomes inherently problematic. Sometimes, as in 'Wingatui' and 'Wellington', Manhire's strategy is to end with a compression of imagery that forces readers to do the imaginative work of finishing the poem themselves. On other occasions, taking almost the opposite approach, Manhire ends with what appears a deliberately throwaway line, rather suggesting that the poem is not so much completed as broken off. An example of this occurs in 'Our Father' from Milky Way Bar. Once again the salient feature of the poem, the absence of the father, is present in the lines only by implication. So absent is the father, in fact, that his arrivals have something of myth and miracle about them. His first shows him bringing home a heavy stone from the river 'shaped like a child's foot'. Even the most notable point about this stone is a sense of absence: its weight suggests the 'missing body' of the child whose impress seems to have shaped it. The reader is initially left asking how all this might be worthy of wonder, but the title and something in the naivety of the speaker's tone supply the answer: this poem is from a child's point of view. And like the stone, the child's poem is 'filled with the weight' of someone who is missing.
The father's second advent seems altogether more remarkable, with him holding:
our lost brother
high on his shoulders
after a two-day absence;
This may seem admirable, but only if taken at face value. Firstly, it is not clear whether the 'two-day absence' is the brother's or the father's. Possibly it was the father who was away, and the brother has been 'lost' only in the context of some childish game. More sinisterly, it is possible that the father had decamped for two days and taken his child with him, causing the family intense anxiety and then a memorable relief on his return. After this, during his third and final manifestation in the poem, the father is present only in recollection, showing his children 'the long pole' on an old-fashioned rope washing-line. It is hard to think of a more ordinary object, and yet the child-speaker recalls this event as marvellous. Despite this, however, the child appears to remember the situation principally for the pole being 'taller than twice' the father's height, rather than for the father's genuine presence, and also for the way the pole, in the last line, 'hoists/ our mother's washing out of reach'.
The content of the last line of the poem, standing separate as if to begin a new stanza, emphasises that this is a child's vision of need, at least in recall. But its form, trailing off, also displays a vague sense of yearning for what is 'out of reach', a yearning in contrast with the speaker's almost breathless excitement at the father's behaviour. The implied poverty of the old washing-line and the plainness--or perhaps even the unpleasantness--of the father's actions suggest a family where real happiness exists only in the falsifications of nostalgia. The father does not even appear very physically imposing, if he is only half the height of a clothesline pole. But no reader will have failed to miss the religious nuance in the poem's title, which suggests that the poem is to be read with humanity's relationship to God the Father in mind. Viewed in this light, the chronic absence of the father takes on a special meaning, and it is tempting to search the items of the poem for religious significance: the stone brought back with important markings, the brother who finally appears, the long pole that hoists something up, and the mother-figure associated with objects that may be present but which are beyond any easy grasp. Each item seems viable as a religious symbol, though each in itself remains vaguely 'out of reach'. More significant, perhaps, is the paltry nature of the father's miraculous acts. These acts seem to exist merely as an expression of the child-speaker's need for them, much as some commentators have argued that Godot, in Samuel Beckett's play Waiting For Godot, is merely a projection of its twin protagonists' spiritual desires. Again, the small stature of the father, which is implied at the poem's close, takes on significance. Once more the trailing last line, with its unfocused yearning for someone who may, or may not, return again, seems particularly apt.
The throwaway ending is a technique which Manhire makes frequent use of. A further example is the poem 'Magasin' from Milky Way Bar, which depicts an adolescent struggling to understand the shattering reality of his father's illness. The boy is encountering a world where grown-up men are not all-powerful and in which he too must establish his place. He reacts as if he were trying to learn a new language. He attempts to crowd out his thoughts on the seriousness of his father's liver illness by concentrating on magazines, on word associations and even on what the shape of a liver resembles. Thus it is perhaps not inappropriate that the poem should close with an offhand pun about 'the second leg at Trenthem' racecourse, in the context of a man's remaining limb being amputated. In fact, the very nonchalance of the poem's ending may suggest that the boy is beginning to adapt to this new, lugubrious and strangely fraternal environment that he is being drawn into, where blokes can enjoy the horse races even while they are losing out in the contest for life. Nonchalance is an important posture in Manhire's poetry, for in Manhire's world we feel that the cavalry is never really going to arrive on time. 'I like melancholy; I like a sense of humour,' Manhire has said in interview, and he often resorts to one of these stances, or sometimes both in rueful combination, to open or close a poem.
The cowboy trope, for example, is not so much employed as a vehicle as it is made the butt of humour in 'Out West', the poem that opens Milky Way Bar. The lines begin with redundancies--'hither and yon', 'here and there', 'in and out'--and are stuffed with cliches, as 'Wild Bill' Manhire plays at cowboys all over 'the known universe'. Such writing emphasises that, as the critic MacDonald Jackson puts it: 'the cowboy world of a youth's imagination is as much a linguistic as a cinematic construct'. Yet the youthful speaker's self-conscious curiosity about the composition of his highly artificial 'known universe' does not seem to do him any good. An imagined world does not bear too much examination--not least because in this case its connection to New Zealand reality is so tenuous. Other 'people', the 'friend', a 'someone' and then even 'the dog' disappear from the poem once the dictionary is consulted by Wild Bill over an incomprehensible expression; they are then 'lost in the gulches and the sages'. Finally, the youth is alone with 'one of the best-loved horses in the world' and 'might just as well mosey along'. But this horse, if we think of our own cowboy adventures in Kiwi back yards, is most likely a made-up creature: nothing but our own legs on which we hop along with suitable gestures. The youth is left for company, at the end of this poem of inquiry, with only a limited imaginative projection of his own self.
Thus despite its initial comedy, 'Out West' finishes by introducing a sombre note. But the final image of the far-off woman, 'lonely and beautiful', who finds the youth and his horse are gone, seems rather stuck on at the poem's close. Just who she is remains unclear, although it is possible that she is some sort of muse, now abandoned by the youthful Wild Bill's failing imaginative powers. William Wordsworth famously regretted the decline of his childhood capacity to identify imaginatively with nature as he grew into manhood, but one has to ask what exactly Wild William Manhire is losing in growing out of 'Out West'. A conjured-up world colonised by Hollywood film, in which the youth finds himself revealed as 'vermin/ with an excrescent t', may be as much an obstacle to further imaginative development as a spur. Perhaps it is better to go 'crossing the ford by starlight' and to learn something of reality, even if it means losing the girl at the end of the picture.
Occasionally the ending of a poem is simply the last in what appears a series of disconnected images. This is certainly the case in 'Masturbating', from the same collection as 'Out West'. The poem's images flow almost at random, as the poet-speaker's memories move in something like a stream of consciousness. The images display only one point in common: the inability of the authorities, particularly the religious authorities, to exercise control over the burgeoning earthiness of youth. The strictures of the church cannot keep the boy coming 'home from Bible Class' from his masturbatory reveries over 'dog-eared pages'. Gaynor, a teacher and presumably an early infatuation of the boy's, cannot teach correct spelling, and she is in any event merely 'a girl from Christchurch'. (The city's name provides another distant connection to the church's failing powers). Gaynor's father, the head of her family and the patriarchal equivalent of Godhead, is 'a bit touched', and in intimating his relation to organised religion the man demonstrates only his own foolishness; he bungles the childish game of revealing through gestures a church, a steeple and the people in its congregation by closing with 'there are the fingers'.
However, the poet-speaker himself suffers from just this same lack of control in the face of life. He seems, in the course of offering up his memories, unable to exercise proper mastery over the messy earthiness of his own poetic creation. He commences by recalling, in a rather poorly disguised version of himself, some masturbatory boy who ignores the lessons of the church. But next, after this failure at achieving any sort of distance in his poem, he actually introduces himself into the work--at the very moment when he tries to digress by mentioning a woman whom, in any case, he only half recalls. After this, the speaker slowly circles by seeming accident back to the topic of childhood once more. Then he finishes up his poem, as it began, with an image of the church's authority being defied--this is now reduced to a ridiculous parody--no longer by masturbation but still by means of errant 'fingers'.
Everything threatens to go out of control in the poem. Even the language of the poet-speaker's effusion defies restraint and seems unable to stay free from circling around sexual nuances. The poet-speaker explains that Gaynor was doing her 'country service', a rural-teaching requirement, but the expression is easily reminiscent of Hamlet's naughty reference to 'country matters'. It also hints that in this case the country figure of the 'local stock-and-station agent' might have been the person being serviced. Gaynor's father is described as 'touched' and ends up offering a display of his fingers--perhaps in a variation of the expression 'to give someone the fingers'--aimed at the church. The number of lines in each stanza also echoes this circling effect, moving from two to three to four and back again, with a final quatrain. The poem opens with, and then closes in, the present tense, and the poet-speaker remembers Gaynor from childhood, who then remembers her father from her own childhood. But the ending of this poem, with its ungainly failure to rhyme and complete any likely sense of pattern, pushes home its final point about the unruly messiness of life, as exemplified by the urgencies of sexual desire: that it seems impossible to regularise anything which is vital. The poem's insistently meandering narrative thus turns out to be inherent to its meaning. Furthermore, in a peculiarly suitable piece of circular logic, if the child is indeed father of the man, then it can be no surprise that the instinctively rebellious boy depicted on the page has grown up to become that most ungovernable of creatures, a poet, whose very poems will not submit to discipline.
One feature of Manhire's poetry which is plainly not Symbolist is his use of language cues. The linguistic playfulness of his poetry is much more a part of a Post-Modern aesthetic, and it is a salutary reminder that Manhire is not writing according to a programme laid down by nineteenth-century Frenchmen of belles-lettres. He is, rather, borrowing from a common stock of ideas about poetry to which Symbolism has made a major contribution. Therefore, given the interest that Post-Modernism displays in literature as a topic for poetry (itself a product of Symbolism's self-conscious substituting of the arts for other forms of transcendence), it seems natural that a number of Manhire's poems should focus on the business of being a poet. This topic appears early in Manhire's work, notably with 'On Originality' in How To Take Your Clothes Off At The Picnic. Manhire has himself compared this early poem to Walt Whitman's 'Poets to Come' and R.A.K. Mason's 'Song of Allegiance', but his own version of 'how a writer might go about acquiring an "authentic" voice' is altogether more humorous. He is aware of working a variation on an already well-established literary convention. With a nod towards Harold Bloom's 1973 work The Anxiety of Influence, which views poets as locked into a struggle against the mortmain of their literary precursors, Manhire uses the thoroughly uncollegial trope of assassination. Poets wreck other lives to create their poems, so that 'Each line is a fresh corpse', and in order to take on this power the speaker in his turn must kill and replace those who destroy to create. On killing his third poet, the speaker takes his victim's 'gun' of poetic techniques and adds his own arsenal to it, so that: 'Now I slide a gun into the gun'. At length he is able to go out into 'a difficult world', though exactly whether this is the difficult world of reality or of poetry is ambiguous. In any case, the speaker is now not only armed with a 'nest' of poetical weapons but also camouflaged by a 'lyrical foliage' for further assaults on both art and life, since his originality is really a sophisticated form of pillage.
Much of Manhire's poetry about literature retains this revisionist aspect of trying to find a new approach to a well-worn topic. The later 'Allen Curnow Meets Judge Dredd', from Milky Way Bar, has Curnow, the New Zealand poet of high culture par excellence, express himself through the low-culture medium of a character from a science-fiction comic. Judge Dredd is an action-hero whose motto is: 'I am the Law'. In this way the prescriptive tendencies of high culture are treated satirically--tendencies exemplified by Curnow's notorious insistence, in his massive 50-page introduction to The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, that New Zealand poetry should best confine itself to what is 'local and special'. The poet of high culture as action hero does not suffer or admit to doubts and certainly is not the type to get himself 'lost in thought'. Argumentative expressions such as 'nod for yes', 'who would contradict?' and 'hold it right there' punctuate the poet-speaker's monologue as, robbed of his customarily elitist manner of discourse (or, as Manhire might claim, with the true agenda of the poet's discourse revealed), the poet-speaker demands attention. Manhire has not effected code-switching here so much as code substitution.
But what, in fact, the prescriptive poet of high culture describes in 'Allen Curnow Meets Judge Dredd' is not the proper way to write poetry but rather the way to manage the intense competitiveness of a poetic career. For just as W.B. Yeats is said to have observed at the first meeting of the Rhymers' Club in 1890, 'The one thing certain is that we are too many', so the poet-speaker sees himself as having been 'wedged solid' in with other aspiring scribblers at the start of his writing life. Certainly, when someone else's work seems to approach the next level, the poet is quick to appropriate it:
The time you rang the doorbell
confirms the sort of feeling
I've been feeling, just
nod for yes. But that's
my feeling, not yours.
Thus 'Allen Curnow Meets Judge Dredd' is stuffed with references which might--just might--conceivably be connected to events in Curnow's own career. The poet and his fellows being 'exhausted forty years ago' may refer to the common Modernist belief that the times for writing were not propitious. The 'electroflare' may refer to the rising influence of American poetry. Continuing 'where we soon left off' may refer to the publishing hiatus in Curnows work between 1962 and 1972. The 'whapp! market' may refer to Post-Modernism. The presence of 'the dog' may refer to the mundane in poetry not being frightened off by whapp!-style productions, and it may also be an oblique reference to the chained-up dog in Curnow's famous early poem 'House and Land'. 'I am a limbo wraith' may refer to Curnow's advanced age at the time of Manhire's writing, which made Curnow a mythic but still active figure in New Zealand literature, and still someone who might 'want some of your people' in both the sense of incorporating figures into poetry and getting rid of potential rivals. Indeed, the 'raw/ mental power of a new/ Blast Barclay' might be read as a reference to Curnow's younger rival, James K. Baxter, whom Curnow rather patronised as 'the colonial furor poeticus' in his Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse introduction. All of these suggestions are tenuous at best, partly because of the inherent difficulty Manhire faces in attempting to demolish the pretensions of high culture in such an oblique fashion. The mystery tends to blunt the satire.
It is somewhat difficult to know whether the action-hero persona in 'Allen Curnow Meets Judge Dredd' is driving the high-culture poet to his hardline pronouncements or vice-versa, but in the end even action-hero poets have to submit to the task of literary composition. This may account for the poet-speaker's surprisingly diffident announcement in the last stanza that:
I was wedged solid
from the start. I started
by writing something down.
Writing is, ultimately, a discipline, even for law-giver writers--and history itself judges writers on their oeuvres, rather than on their personalities or careers.
Manhire certainly does not present himself in public as a poet of heroic action (although, paradoxically, he has been extremely effective as an academic in promoting New Zealand literature and other New Zealand writers). The famous antithesis in the nation's literature of this disdain for heroism is undoubtedly the romantic figure of James K. Baxter, who had a ceaseless hunger for publicity. When still an aspiring poet Manhire occasionally encountered Baxter in Dunedin. Once, when Baxter offered a learned commentary before an audience on one of his own poems, Manhire, who was in attendance, felt that such a pronouncement 'struck me as astonishingly strange and silly--mostly because of a high seriousness that I couldn't really cope with'. Self-effacement has been Manhire's approach to literature instead, which makes the techniques of Symbolism highly suited to his temperament. His poems about being a poet are seldom personal, or at least not in the obvious way that Baxter's are. For self-effacement notwithstanding, it is a paradoxical fact that obliquity in verse can call as much attention to itself as complete and personal disclosure. Moreover, insisting as Manhire has again and again that poetry derives from 'the gaming halls of the imagination' can amount to prescriptiveness by other means.
Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that one of Manhire's most personal poems dealing with the literary life should appear only at the very end of his most recent collection, The Victims of Lightning. 'After Class' is prompted, perhaps, by the prospect of Manhire's retirement from teaching literature and creative writing courses at Victoria University of Wellington. The apparent looseness of the poem's construction is deceptive; it divides into two stanzas of ten lines, with lines 5 and 7 rhyming in each stanza. The basic trope of the first stanza is that, after graduating from 'class' at school, Manhire went on to spend his entire working life in education and was quite cut off, one might say, from the real world. This delay in dealing with the real world means that the poet's leaving school as an adult parallels his leaving school as a small child, and in the poem the two events have been laid over each other like a palimpsest. Leaving class to enter the world, both as a child and as an adult, is something that the speaker seems to do with a certain ambivalence: it requires a teacher-authority figure to tell him 'Go!'. The speaker then runs 'real fast' into the real world, through a combination of curiosity and fear, for life outside appears to be fraught with the ubiquity of death.
The first stanza of the poem, unusually for Manhire, proceeds through an elaboration of three fatal consequences of leaving class. As the poet tries to flee, each sudden disaster which befalls him seems less likely but no less dangerous than the previous one. The poet is hit by a car, run over by a horse and buried under a falling building. Whether these events actually occur or are merely contemplated as possibilities is unclear, but it is completely clear that the world outside class is no country for old men. Nevertheless, any sort of illumination comes as no real help. It seems that the dropping of 'those flares' of warning--the poet's use of 'those' includes the reader through an assumption of shared experience--merely allows everyone to see themselves in trouble all the better. The stanza finishes with three more images of fatal action, this time in consequence of attempting to face up to danger: drifting helplessly on land that has turned out to be ice, attempting to make one's way in the sea to a safety that is in fact beyond reach, and trying to appreciate or even welcome the destructive element of fire. If the outside world is so frightening, then it seems that time, acting a little like fate, has been doing the poet a kindness in keeping him inside and apart.
The second stanza, however, opens with a bald statement that nothing can reverse the process of ultimately succumbing to the nature of the world--certainly not time, nor even death, whether accidental or self-willed. Similarly, 'walks across a field' will not enable any escape. This latter expression is no doubt a reference to the last line of Boris Pasternak's poem 'Hamlet', itself taken from the grim Russian proverb: 'Life is not a stroll across a field'. The stanza then develops this second trope, in a strategy again unusual for a mature Manhire poem. As a child and, it seems, all the way through to retirement and being found out by time, the poet tried to use a 'hedge' on the way across life's field in which to sleep and thus disappear from the march of events. Literature plays a key early role in this hedging-cum-disappearance since it allows the poet to get 'lost in a book.' Plainly, the child-poet's willingness to get lost in reading is so worrisome for his parents that a doctor is called for--whether this is because such behaviour seems unnatural to them, or because the poet carries it to extremes, appears ambiguous. But it is too late. The poet is already gone through the willing suspension of disbelief off into vicarious experience, as an explorer, or perhaps even more appropriately, like a child who has been kidnapped.
The poet's successful lighting out for the imagination makes him 'famous because I was gone'--he becomes the public author of all those prize-winning poetry collections--though it also means that 'I finally seemed to vanish'. Probably, for a working poet, some sort of trade-off between a presence in reality and an absence into the realm of the imagination is required, but this a private matter which Manhire does not elaborate on in this very personal of poems: unless, perhaps, the reader goes back to the first stanza again with its alternate lists of fatal actions, since the chronology of this poem is out of sequence. But what is most important here is that any such trade-off cannot last forever.
Manhire, with his always somewhat rueful view of life, has been inclined to see his own work as thoughtful and disenchanted. It is a view of the world perhaps summed up by the determinedly anti-romantic narrator of Dostoyevsky's Notes From the Underground:
But it is precisely this cold, sickening half-despair, half-hope, this deliberately burying oneself in a cellar for forty years out of spite, this well-established and yet somehow unconvincing powerlessness to escape from the situation, all this poisonous accumulation of unsatisfied wishes in the breast, all these feverish vacillations, all these resolutions firmly taken for all time and repented of again after a few minutes, that give rise to and nourish that strange pleasure I was speaking of.
The danger inherent in such a view is the tendency to seek retreat from the world, a quality also present in the carefully guarded privacy of Symbolism and its yearning for literature as transcendence. Manhire has mentioned in interview that he believed he had reached an impasse in poetry in the mid-1980s, 'a stage where I felt, rightly or wrongly, that my poetry was becoming stale'. The result was a foray into short-story writing that then appeared to have a positive influence on his verse. Manhire has commented that the poems of his next collection, Milky Way Bar, 'developed an oblique narrative behaviour'. An important feature of this narrative tendency is that Manhire in his maturity has been willing to explore mindsets other than his own. Indeed, one of the strengths of Milky Way Bar, his best collection to date, is that it depicts a variety of mental landscapes and the life-stories that formed them. The poem 'Factory', for example, rehearses a story of rejection, either from the speaker being rebuffed on asking a woman for a date, or from the imagined rebuff of a woman whom the speaker never actually succeeded in asking. 'Milton', in similar fashion, presents the mighty legacy to scholarship of Paradise Lost and then transforms itself gradually into sympathetic considerations of John Milton the man. Thus it seems that, when no one was looking, the fledgling epic poet made a pair of pimply adolescents his guilty subject for less than high-toned reasons, namely loneliness and convenience. Success has a way of retroactively justifying people's motives, especially for people who are ancient pillars of the literary canon. In Manhire's work, then, the seeds of this newly empathic interest in other lives can perhaps be found earlier in the poem 'Zoetropes', from the collection of the same name that precedes Milky Way Bar. The poem may be viewed as in some respects a transitional piece.
'Zoetropes' depicts a state of mind which both is, and is not, entirely Manhire's own. It is anchored in time and space with its coda, 'London 29.4.81', but the poem describes an experience common to almost all New Zealanders overseas. On reading newspapers, or similar, an expatriated New Zealander's peripheral vision tends to react to the unusual capital letter Z, having learned unconsciously that this will likely refer to news of his own country. This scanning is, to some degree, a symptom of homesickness. Manhire's poem, faithful to the precepts of Symbolism, tries not merely to describe this experience but to reproduce it. It begins, cheekily using the letter A, with 'A starting'. The poet-speaker's eye jumps to the word he sees beginning with Z only to be disappointed; he then reads further among 'other disappointments', which are not news of home either. The poem itself even consists of three separated groups of stanza-pairs that seem to straggle disjointedly down the page. Indeed, reading a foreign newspaper can be an unpleasant reminder for New Zealanders of just how unimportant their little nation is in the world. It is a glimpse, as if through the slits of a revolving disk, or zoetrope, not of an early version of moving pictures but of the nothingness of New Zealand on the global stage.
While reading, it seems the speaker's eye has mistakenly snagged on 'Zenana' which, as someone like an impressively literate poet might explain, is the place in the East where a harem is traditionally hidden from sight. Something privately valuable and yet not publicly valued, kept out of sight--this is, in fact, not a bad image for a New Zealander's view of his homeland when overseas. But to the extent that the poet-speaker muses on this at all, he thinks only of another word beginning with Z, 'Zero'. For zero, too, is nothing, like the country that is not there. But, just like one's remembered homeland when overseas and sizing up the wider world, this nothingness is also 'the quiet starting point/ of any scale of measurement'. The word 'scale' then becomes the cue for the poet-speaker's final, somewhat plaintive, home thoughts.
The land itself is only
smoke at anchor, drifting above
Antarctica's white flower,
tied by a thin red line
(5,000 miles) to Valparaiso.
The land of the long white cloud really does look, on a map, like little more than a wisp of smoke in the bottom corner, uncomfortably close to a bulbous Antarctica. (It seems curiously fated, in retrospect, that Manhire was to go on and write a whole series of poems about Antarctica from a New Zealand perspective.) Literary nationalism had fallen out of favour by the 1980s, or was itself subject to scrutiny, but in Manhire's poem the once common concept of New Zealand as a land defined by distance is reduced solely to noticing a longitudinal marker. The country is 5,000 miles from a place in Chile which few have ever heard of, 'tied' only to further insignificance. The poem's throwaway last line seems especially fitting in this context.
I cannot imagine Manhire as intending to rub New Zealanders' noses in their own global unimportance. But there is, nevertheless, a sense of insecurity in relation to the wider world which all New Zealanders share, making it a fit subject for exploration in art. This insecurity is also something that New Zealanders compensate for in various ways, and Manhire extends his examinations with 'Milky Way Bar', the poem which gives his next collection its title. The subject of the poem is populism. Through a series of statements made in a flat tone and with an irregular rhythm, the poem offers the kind of monologue one could well expect to hear in a public bar. Its speaker might easily be James Joyce's boozy citizen from the Cyclops chapter of Ulysses. In keeping with its subject matter, the poem proceeds by means of references lifted from popular culture: the Milky Way chocolate bar; the videogame 'Space Invaders' (mostly available at the time of the poem's publication in games arcades); and creatures from Mars. In depicting populism, 'Milky Way Bar' is marked by complacency and xenophobia: not at all Manhire's own mindset. It seems unfortunate, then, and perhaps even revealing, that the opening lines of the poem--'I live at the edge of the universe/ like everybody else'--have often been quoted in New Zealand as some sort of patriotic delineation of the local.
The populist need focus only on his home because outside it, as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, 'there is no there there'. The much-quoted opening sentence of 'Milky Way Bar' sounds appealing, particularly to New Zealanders, because the speaker's professed insignificance 'at the edge of the universe' seems only to reflect the condition of planet Earth on the margins of the greater cosmos. Indeed, such is the governing trope of the poem: that it may be humanity is not alone in the cosmos, but since we know nothing of life outside our own world, then in essence 'everybody else' is here. However, the poem's opening also carries with it an implication that the speaker's location--New Zealand is never directly mentioned--is the only place that matters, because this is where 'everybody' happens to be. Being a citizen of the only place that matters, then, leads in turn to the complacent thought that 'congratulations are in order'. In contrast, contemplating the rest of the universe in 'the stars' produces only brief moments of yearning and resignation. The speaker does not cry but 'merely blinks a little' over what might be outside his own immediate surroundings. He might talk of other places, but he sighs, quietly, instead. In fact, the speaker 'settles for' a sigh, which rather suggests that he is choosing to silence himself and repress any of his longings. There is, of course, some logical contradiction in feeling complacent about being where one is and yet requiring oneself to settle for not talking about other possibilities; but such contradictions are inherent to populism. The contradictions of the populist mindset, moreover, can be effectively expressed here, within the apparent contradictions of a typically mysterious Manhire poem.
Conformity remains the safest course for the populist, whose sense of achievement lies essentially in setting the bar low. In the second stanza the speaker recommences with the announcement:
But my whole pleasure is the inconspicuous;
I love the unimportant thing.
Manhire has purposefully given a positive and even rather educated tone to this first sentence of the second stanza, since educated people can be populists too. But as with the first stanza, this attractive opening slides quickly into the expression of much darker feelings. On going into town, to a place of recreation like the 'Twilight Arcade', the speaker can 'watch the Martian invaders'--without trying for any engagement with them. The Martian invaders are foreigners to this corner of the universe and clearly, if viewed as 'invaders', the speaker does not welcome their presence. The word 'invaders' is also politically loaded, since by 1991 the increasing number of Asian immigrants and tourists to New Zealand had led to populist talk of an 'Asian invasion'. The Martians' presence directly contradicts the speaker's assertion in the first stanza that he lives with 'everybody else'. His professed love of 'the unimportant thing' stands also in some contrast to his intolerance of anyone with minor differences from himself. Furthermore, the name 'Twilight Arcade' rather implies decline, and plainly the Martian outsiders are from a more advanced economy than that of the place the speaker is glad to live in. The Martians are 'pointing at what they want', or shopping, and the speaker appears to resent this. He notes that these foreign visitors are 'already appalled by our language', which may be a reference to the distinctive twang of New Zealand English, or perhaps, more unpleasantly, to the type of hostile barracking to which the Martians may sometimes be subjected.
At the end of the second stanza the poem is simply cut off, and it is possible to imagine that any third stanza might be very nasty indeed. Yet just as the first sentence of the poem is often quoted as a quintessentially New Zealand view of the world, the first sentence of the second stanza is occasionally employed by critics to refer to Manhire's own poetry. For Manhire, though, 'the inconspicuous' and 'the unimportant thing' are not goals in themselves but the means to a larger end. Any reader might be forgiven for wondering if Manhire could have contrived the popularity of these opening statements in both stanzas of 'Milky Way Bar' on purpose--certainly, their popularity seems to have worked usefully into the strategy of the poem. This is because, though initially appealing, the statements at the beginning of both stanzas point towards dangerous paths which can follow from intense concentration on the local, even though such dangers need not necessarily arise. In one sense, then, Manhire's poem is a further riposte to the prescriptive focus on the 'local and special' demanded by Allen Curnow in his introduction to the 1960 Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse and occasionally reiterated by others thereafter.
Manhire has continued the exploration of alternative, and even unattractive, mental landscapes into his latest collection of poetry, The Victims of Lightning. The much-admired 'My Childhood in Ireland' is clearly an example. The speaker is offering some sort of alternative version to Manhire's own Scottish roots and his childhood in New Zealand's South Island. Each of the images offered in the poem's six stanzas is of some kind of failure in life, and indeed, the poem's structure itself seems a failed version of a ballad. The a,b,c,b rhyme-scheme of the first quatrain quickly breaks down into irregular, and occasionally internal, rhymes in the later stanzas. The trimeter rhythms of the opening soon become irregular. The initially poetic and evocative diction, such as 'walkers in rain' in the first stanza, deteriorates into cliches like 'My sister's new child was chained/ to her breast' and, at last, into the ugliness of 'the dog licked itself' and 'Asian bukkake'.
The failures in 'My Childhood in Ireland' all stem from the speaker's lapses of sympathetic imagination. In the first stanza he fails to explore the environment around him on both land and sea, so that he does not join with others to learn what they 'might be finding out there'. In the second stanza he fails to take up opportunities for love. He ignores the hints proffered in the book of love by a woman named 'Maeve' (a Gaelic name meaning 'intoxicating'). In fact, it appears the speaker has never fallen in love. He insists unconvincingly that he does not mind this--although the last words of the stanza, 'the world', are cut off by the break between quatrains from any predicate. In any case, in the third stanza the world does not so much pass the speaker by as it 'streamed away'. The speaker does not avail himself of any chance of escape into a wider sphere and its alternative ways of life, so that all things far away are 'ways beyond knowing'. In the fourth stanza the poet fails to make any imaginative connection with his own family. He observes his sister with her latest child slipping into 'a dark forest' of post-natal depression--melancholia has long been sentimentally associated with Ireland--but he does nothing to help. He sees reproduction and raising children as chains that bind the unfortunate and seems to have no progeny of his own. Moreover, in the fifth stanza the speaker does not listen to his own family members and so cares nothing for the patriarchal wisdom of his father. Instead he places his father's talk on the same level as the whining of a dog. The speaker is prepared to concede that the impersonal television is doing 'its best' at distracting the family with entertainment--and in the process the speaker personifies the TV as a family member--but the results are not edifying. While the father continues to make noises in the background, it is the dog which accepts defeat in its attempt at gaining sympathy through communication. It is licked and, in giving up, it 'licked itself'.
Exactly what part of its own body the dog licks is unspecified. But this forms a simple link to the final stanza where, now withdrawn from the world, the speaker seeks the consolations not of poetry but of pornography--the sort of thing that, Rousseau quipped, 'can only be read with one hand'. It is only in the virtual world of the Internet that the speaker feels free and, he notes, 'I wandered'. But he certainly does not wander, as in Wordsworth's case, 'lonely as a cloud', to be rewarded with hosts of golden daffodils in a direct experience that he can later enjoy in recall. Rather, he finds the dubious pleasures of 'what might make you happy' only in vicarious excitement, while watching fantasy people perform sex acts of a most degrading kind. The tendency inherent in Symbolism to retreat from the world, therefore, has become the subject of the poem. It may sometimes occur with others, as W.H. Auden said of W.B. Yeats, that 'Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry', but in the speaker's tale his own approach to Ireland seems merely to have resulted in Internet porn. Failure to exercise a sympathetic imaginativeness towards others, then, leads to a failure of one's cultural imagination. Instead of being 'lost in a book' like the boy-reader in 'After Class', the speaker can manage only the most debased form of the willing suspension of disbelief.
However, the moral of Manhire's poem is not as tidy as it might first appear. For all that the reader reacts with distaste to the last line, with its deliberately ugly rhyme of 'happy' and 'bukkake', and for all that readers of contemporary poetry are typically sympathetic and imaginative persons, most people in the modern world own computers and spend time surfing the Net. Furthermore most of us, if honest, would admit to having visited a pornographic site on the Internet on some occasion, simply in consequence of our human nature. Thus a certain hypocrisy in our reaction to the last line drags us back to the poem again, for our imagination always fails us in the end, in life and in art--and not least when confronted with mysterious poetry. In the age of virtual realities we are invited to read about Manhire's virtual childhood and to shudder with what used to be called 'the shock of recognition'.
The New Zealand poets of the so-called Freed generation, of which Manhire is usually considered a member, largely avoided the British-influenced, high-cultural pretensions and formality of their elders. They have tended instead to affect an informality which is partly American and pop-influenced, and partly drawn from New Zealand rural life--a style of life that was, in fact, steadily disappearing even as they took it up and appropriated it. Crudely put, Kiwi poets of the late-twentieth century, after Baxter, projected an image of themselves somewhere between rock stars and farmers. Manhire has always seemed a little uncomfortable amongst this, both as a public figure and also in terms of his literary output. For the work of the Freed poets was nothing if not exuberant; restrained melancholy was not their thing. Thus in 2001, in an apparent effort to set the cat among the pigeons, C.K. Stead could note that: '[Ian] Wedde, who was the bright star, the Mark Anthony of his generation, has been displaced by that quiet Cassius and supreme ironist Bill Manhire'. In following a style of writing which was first put together by Parisian intellectuals, an intensely literate style targeting the refined tastes of the elite, Manhire has always been a poet attached to, rather than integral with, his immediate literary confraternity. And for Manhire, therefore, the cultivation of a public face seems to have required something much more adroit than a gesture at generational rebellion.
Indeed, it is a very peculiar matter how certain poetry influenced by Symbolism or its aftermath, though opaque on a first perusal, can suggest to a reader that something inside the writing would reward further attention. Quite where this implied value lives in a poem seems impossible to pin down. In an interview with Andrew Johnson, Manhire has claimed that 'if writers aren't finding their way into mystery, even as they try to clarify something for themselves, then they might as well forget the whole deal'. From such a standpoint, it seems that clarity and mystery need to be in some sort of harmonious balance for a poem to succeed--and perhaps, too, the poem should explore the outer reaches of the poet's powers of perception and expression. But all this demands a remarkable degree of trust from the reader: trust which, a cynic might observe, compels a careful marketing of the brand. Perhaps this is where the insouciant and amiable public figure known as Bill Manhire comes in. Or then again, perhaps Manhire has been sincere all along. The essence of Symbolism, tout court, is that we just have to give up on struggling for a definitive analysis and feel the mood, and this is exactly and unequivocally what Manhire has been saying about his poetry from the start.
1. Richards, Ian. New Zealand Listener. Feb 5, 2000: 46. Reprinted in Reading New Zealand Writing. Reviews: 1990-2001. Lonely Arts Publishing, Wellington, 2001: 65-7. The poems by Manhire examined in this essay all appear in: Manhire, Bill. Collected Poems. Carcanet Press, Manchester, 2001, except for the two latest collections: Manhire, Bill. Lifted. Victoria University Press, Wellington, 2005, and Manhire Bill, The Victims of Lightning. Victoria University Press, Wellington, 2010.
2. Elizabeth Caffin, for example, has written of Manhire's 'crusade to bring people back to poetry' and his 'seeming nonchalance and modesty'. [Caffin, Elizabeth. The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English (ed. Sturm, Terry). Oxford University Press, Auckland, 1998: 501.]
3. John Newton comments on the hesitancy of critics in reading Manhire's early poems in: Newton, John. 'The Old Man's Example: Manhire in the Seventies' in Opening the Book: New Essays in New Zealand Writing (eds. Williams, Mark, and Leggott, Michele). Auckland University Press, Auckland, 1995: 162-4.
4. Manhire, Bill. 'Bill Manhire Interviewed by Iain Sharpe' in Doubtful Sounds: Essays and Interviews. Victoria University Press: Wellington, 2000: 38. The Sharpe interview occurred in 1991 and Manhire says something very similar nine years later in 2000, in the 'Afterword' to Doubtful Sounds: 'I can't bear the high romantic affectations that are attached to the idea of "the Poet", and I don't care for poetry that tries to hover above the planet like some abstract mystic flame'. ['Afterword: An E-mail Interview with Andrew Johnson' in Doubtful Sounds: Essays and Interviews. Op. Cit.: 283.]
5. Manhire, Bill. 'Breaking the Line: A View of American and New Zealand Poetry' in Doubtful Sounds: Essays and Interviews. Op. Cit.: 82.
6. Manhire, Bill. 'Bill Manhire Interviewed by Iain Sharpe' in Doubtful Sounds: Essays and Interviews. Op. Cit.: 42.
7. Manhire, Bill. 'Dirty Silence: Impure Sounds in New Zealand Poetry' in Doubtful Sounds: Essays and Interviews. Op. Cit.: 18, 19.
8. Manhire, Bill. 'Breaking the Line: A View of American and New Zealand Poetry' in Doubtful Sounds: Essays and Interviews. Op. Cit.: 82.
9. For example, Manhire's closing comments in: 'Afterword: An E-mail Interview with Andrew Johnson' in Doubtful Sounds: Essays and Interviews. Op. Cit.: 289.
10. Wilson, Edmond. Axel's Castle. Collected in Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1920s and 30s. Library of America, New York, 2007: 658.
11. Manhire, Bill. 'Bill Manhire Interviewed by Iain Sharpe' in Doubtful Sounds: Essays and Interviews. Op. Cit.: 25.
12. Chadwick, Charles. Symbolism. Methuen, London, 1971: 2-3.
13. Lauder, Hugh. 'The Poetry of Bill Manhire.' Landfall 147, vol. 37, no. 3 (Sept. 1983): 306.
14. Chadwick, Charles. Symbolism. Op. Cit.: 14.
15. Newton, John. 'The Old Man's Example: Manhire in the Seventies.' Op. Cit.: 162-187.
16. Manhire, Bill. 'Breaking the Line: A View of American and New Zealand Poetry' in Doubtful Sounds: Essays and Interviews. Op. Cit.: 73.
17. Eliot, T.S. 'East Coker' in 'Four Quartets'. Collected Poems 1909-1962. Faber and Faber, London, 1963: 199. (Eliot's line borrows from Milton's Samson Agonistes, line 80.)
18. Milton, John. Samson Agonistes. 1671. Lines 86-9.
19. Wedde, Ian. 'Introduction' to The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (eds. Wedde, Ian and McQueen, Harvey). Penguin, Auckland, 1985: 26. Manhire, Bill. 'Bill Manhire Interviewed by Iain Sharpe' in Doubtful Sounds: Essays and Interviews. Op. Cit.: 31-2.
20. Peter Bland made a similar comment about Manhire limiting his poems to one trope when he noted 'Manhire's own strategies are always earthed in "concept"'. [Bland, Peter. 'Elegant Surprises' in Quote Unquote. April, 1996: 26-7.]
21. See, for example, an appreciation of the poem in: Barbour, Douglas. 'Writing Through the Margins: Sharon Thesen's and Bill Manhire's Apparently Lyric Poetry' in Australian and New Zealand Studies in Canada 4 (Fall 1990).
22. Manhire himself has hinted at something similar to this interpretation with his comment on the poem that: 'Sometimes lists quickly wear out their welcome'. [Manhire, Bill. 'The Poetry File: Lists' in Doubtful Sounds: Essays and Interviews. Op. Cit.: 92.]
23. It is, of course, possible to interpret the symbol of a 'jalopy' more broadly, or altogether differently. MacDonald Jackson, for example, sees it as referring to 'bygone youthful days'. [Jackson, MacDonald. 'Manhire, Bill (1946- )' in The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature (eds. Robinson, Roger and Wattie, Nelson). Oxford University Press, Auckland, 1998: 335.]
24. 'Our Father' is dedicated to the poet Charles Causley and appeared in: Causley at 70 (ed. Chambers, Harry). Calstock, Cornwell, 1987: 44.
25. Elizabeth Caffin comments similarly on 'Magasin' that: 'a potentially tragic hospital scene is defused, deflated, relieved but not altogether extinguished by a macabre pun'. [Caffin, Elizabeth. The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English (ed. Sturm, Terry). Op. Cit.: 501.]
26. 'Afterword: An E-mail Interview with Andrew Johnson' in Doubtful Sounds: Essays and Interviews. Op. Cit.: 285.
27. Jackson, MacDonald. 'Manhire, Bill (1946- )' in The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature. Op. Cit.: 335.
28. Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Act 3, scene 2, line 74.
29. Manhire, Bill. 'Breaking the Line: A View of American and New Zealand Poetry' in Doubtful Sounds: Essays and Interviews. Op. Cit.: 82.
30. Curnow, Allen. 'Introduction' to The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse. Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1960:17.
31. 'Allen Curnow Meets Judge Dredd' was first published in Landfall in June 1988, suggesting that Manhire has Curnow's early career in the mid-1940s in mind.
32. Curnow, Allen. The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse. Op. Cit.: 201.
33. Curnow, Allen. 'Introduction' to The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse. Op. Cit.: 62.
34. Manhire, Bill. 'Stranger at the Ranchslider' in Doubtful Sounds: Essays and Interviews. Op. Cit.: 200.
35. Manhire, Bill. 'Mutes and Earthquakes' in Doubtful Sounds: Essays and Interviews. Op. Cit.: 110.
36. Pasternak, Boris. Selected Poems (trans. Stallworthy, Jon). Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1984: 125. The same proverb opens Kendrick Smithyman's poem 'After Zhivago'.
37. Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Notes From the Underground (trans. Coulson, Jessie). Chapter 3.
38. Manhire, Bill. 'Bill Manhire Interviewed by Iain Sharpe' in Doubtful Sounds: Essays and Interviews. Op. Cit.: 36.
39. Manhire, Bill. 'Bill Manhire Interviewed by Iain Sharpe' in Doubtful Sounds: Essays and Interviews. Op. Cit.: 37.
40. Peter Bland, for example, in his review of Milky Way Bar, called it 'the best single collection of New Zealand poetry since Curnow's An Incorrigible Music back in 1979'. He also notes how Manhire moves towards 'an increasingly canny, fictional approach'. [Bland, Peter. 'Elegant Surprises' in Quote Unquote. Op. Cit.: 26-7.]
41. One of the most recent of many possible examples cites the poem's first two sentences as proof of yet another final break with: 'the agonised resentment and contempt that the 1930s realist writers felt was an inevitable concomitant of living here'. Furthermore, in the sort of gassy effusion often passing for New Zealand literary criticism, the opening of Manhire's poem is: 'allied to a lively consciousness of patterns of articulation that are ordinary and, if subjected to the intensely conscious gaze of the writer, alive with possibility'. [Jackson, Anna and Stafford, Jean. 'Introduction' to Floating Worlds: Essays on Contemporary New Zealand Fiction (eds. Jackson, Anna and Stafford, Jean). Victoria University Press, Wellington, 2009: 15.]
42. Stein, Gertrude. Everybody's Autobiography. Cooper Square Publishing, New York, 1971: 289. We might consider as well Marcel Proust's detailed dissection of snobbery among the provincial middle-classes at his fictional seaside town, Balbec: 'the suppression of all desire for, of all curiosity about, ways of life which are unfamiliar, of all hope of endearing oneself to new people [...] had the disagreeable effect of obliging them to label their discontent satisfaction and to lie everlastingly to themselves, two reasons why they were unhappy'. [Proust, Marcel. Remembrance of Things Past. Vol. 1: 'Within a Budding Grove' (trans. Scott Moncrieff, C.K. and Kilmartin, Terence). Chatto & Windus, London, 1981: 729.]
43. For example: Bland, Peter. 'Elegant Surprises' in Quote Unquote. Op. Cit.: 26-7.
44. For example: Evans, Patrick. 'Baby Factory' in the New Zealand Listener. Aug. 16, 2003. Evans, Patrick. '"Spectacular Babies": The Globalisation of New Zealand Fiction' in Kite 22, 2004: 5-14. My own reply to Evans appears in: Richards, Ian. 'Cosmopolitanism' in New Zealand Books vol. 12. no. 5. Dec. 2002: 2.
45. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Confessions (trans. Scholar, Angela). Book One.
46. Wordsworth, William. 'I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud'. 1804. Line 1.
47. Auden, W.H.. 'In Memory of W.B. Yeats.' Collected Shorter Poems 1927-1957. Faber and Faber, London, 1966: 142.
48. The Japanese word 'bukkake', ending in a 'kay' sound, does not rhyme purely with 'happy', any more than do 'sake' or 'karaoke'. But since English tends to change final 'kay' sounds to 'key', happy-bukkake works, quite appropriately, as a corrupt rhyme.
49. The expression originated in Herman Melville's essay 'Hawthorne and his Mosses' but was popularised by Edmund Wilson as the title for his 1943 anthology The Shock of Recognition: The Development of Literature in the United States Recorded by the Men Who Made It.
50. In similarly crude terms it could be argued that the next generation of writers, my own, affects the image of young urban professionals.
51. Stead, C.K.. 'Ian Wedde and the "From Wyston to Carlos" Lecture' in Kin of Place: Essays on 20 New Zealand Writers. Auckland University Press, Auckland, 2002: 363.
52. 'Afterword: An E-mail Interview with Andrew Johnson' in Doubtful Sounds: Essays and Interviews. Op. Cit.: 283-4.
Copyright Ian Richards, 2010
This essay was collected in The Poor Itch: Essays in New Zealand Literature, Lonely Arts Publishing, Osaka, 2021.
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