The Yellow Buoy: Poems 2007–2012, by C.K. Stead, (Auckland University Press, 2013), 144 pp., $27.99
The poems of C.K. Stead ‘get poetry’. If I could choose any archetype for all budding poets to emulate it would be he who is perhaps the last of the double-initials-and-surname poets. The kind of adjectives one attaches to his style sound unflattering: honest, sturdy, reliable, unembellished, intelligible, sober, unfestooned, humble, un-baroque-or-rococo. Words are used artfully, but not deferred to or privileged above sense. The sound of words is not forgotten, but the poems are never in search of euphony. Images and metaphor abound, but again are precisely observed. Nothing seems exaggerated; nothing tries overtly to be or seem impressive. The subject has been selected because the poet knows it is interesting as is. Avoid ambition, poets. Avoid – ugh – flash. Avoid post-modernism. Embrace discipline. Stead’s durable archetype is of a poet like a plumber, no self-importance attached, just another well-functioning toilet at the end of a day’s work.
But there is no one ‘poetry’ to ‘get’ of course. Instead, it comes in many forms, equally as deserving of the word ‘poem’, and is equally admired – by opposing groups of readers, often. Every attentive reader has a set of poems they have read and admired: a set of ‘poems that get it’. A set of poems they are prepared to promote and defend. To me this is what a critic does, defending as one braying voice in the wilderness, clutching a poem ‘set’ and asserting an opinion. I admire critics that speak to their vision of the truth. I think their judgements, often more sharply drawn and decisive than our own, help us to shape or frame our own thinking. We may vehemently disagree, and perhaps even be hoodwinked by rhetoric to agree when perhaps we shouldn’t, but either way the conversation shapes us. The best critics to my mind are both curmudgeons and creeps: challenging the reader all the way. Accordingly, I have defaced my way through Stead’s latest collection, The Yellow Buoy: Poems 2007–2012, drawing creepy and curmudgeonly faces in the margins.
Stead is confirmed as one of New Zealand’s most eloquent critics. He also announces things people continue to find disagreeable. The recent social media storm based on Stead’s letter to the New Zealand Herald bounced into my Facebook feed with more than one person referring to the ‘old guard’ being put in their place by the new. Eleanor Catton, being young and a Booker prize-winner, trumped old fogey Stead with a single Tweet. What pained me in this was not Catton’s disgust (Stead seemed to quickly agree that he was likely wrong), but the idea of the old guard at all. And the idea that any older writer must be out of touch smacks of ageism. Out of touch with whom? Stead has been disagreed with since he was in his twenties. Throughout his life he has said things with an unambiguous straightforwardness. He has crossed swords with politically correct feminism – please do not misread this as Stead being anti-feminist – and his views on Maori policy caused a stand-off with New Zealand’s other Booker prize-winner Keri Hulme. Has Stead ever been a figure whom New Zealand letters bowed low to as its great authority? I don’t think so. A telltale quote from him (discussing his My Name Was Judas novel in 2007) establishes his preferred position: ‘I’m … attracted to the idea of this sceptical voice standing out against the building of new orthodoxies.’ The question is more: who in New Zealand literature, regardless of age, continues to write with the power and relevance that Stead exhibits in his latest collection?
In the case of Stead’s letter to the Herald, which seemed to some to be excusing young Auckland men of rape, I am of the opinion that his main concern had been to try and douse the incendiary outrage over the case with some old-fashioned dispassion. He had just returned to New Zealand from overseas to find, in the words of his poem ‘Ischaemia’ (see below) ‘a world of big things small and the small large’. On so emotionally charged an issue as the rape of young women, this was always going to involve some slippery footing. But you must admire that Stead was not gun-shy from expressing himself on the issue. If this had been a popular witch-hunt, we would be glad that Stead had had the nerve to stand against the mob. Catton pinpointed the hole in Stead’s rhetoric when he suggested that it was ‘time to change the subject’, saying: ‘Rape culture is: people who want to shut down conversations about rape.’ It was this in particular with which Stead was quick to agree with Catton. Stead is not one to shut down conversations, even if on occasions people might wish he would.
As an aside, I wonder whether Stead’s review of Catton’s The Luminaries in the Financial Times had any bearing on her disgust. While praising her talent, he is not a fan of the book: ‘Ingenuity outruns admiration and becomes tedious.’ Here’s Stead clutching his satchel of what he feels is valuable in a novel, which is realism in this instance, and eloquently swatting away what doesn’t conform. The Booker panel may disagree with him, as I do, but actually I must work hard to frame and express a clear counter-argument to Stead’s straight-speaking objections.
Personally, what I found more distracting in Stead’s letter was the notion of returning to NZ to find the little country getting its silly head in a muddle. Stead, as The Yellow Buoy confirms, travels widely: to Croatia, Britain, Italy, Colombia and Venezuela. New Zealand is famously a nation of travellers – Stead the archetype again – and on returning surely we, or in this case he, can’t help but feel the big world weighing heavily at times on young parochial NZ and cringe – culturally – aloud. Expressing such an attitude in a public forum in Kiwiland can be both brave and massively condescending. We love it the other way around though, the worldly wise New Zealander cocking an eyebrow at parochially hidebound Europe or hysterically closeted America, and Stead sprang to international academic fame doing just that in the late 1960s with his book on T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats, The New Poetic. Here was the ex-pat New Zealand university teacher putting T.S. Eliot in his place. It is the interest in the poetry of Eliot and Yeats that has sustained sales of the book (the UK edition is published by the company I work for, and … checking our database … had a new edition as recently as 2007). But it was Stead’s revolutionary cutting down of the literary historical narrative Eliot had invented for himself – at that time accepted as the orthodoxy – that established his book’s reputation. As ever, his argument was explained clearly, interestingly and without an airy philosophical persiflage.
What is clear in his thoughts on Eliot is Stead’s belief that a poet cannot successfully wedge their ideas on critically valuable poetry into their own poems. Or at least, that when such poems (for example ‘Four Quartets’) are consciously constructed to do so they are weaker than more accidental works (for example ‘The Wasteland’). Therefore, Stead gives the impression he does not overthink his own poems, but allows them to wander where they will, but with a novelist’s well-honed appreciation that poetic works ought to be generous enough to give a reader coherent beginnings, middles and endings. A blunter reading of Eliot is that as we get older we become less inspired, even lazy, relying on the tropes and styles we developed vigorously in our youth and have fallen into the thrall of: going through the motions on automatic, ploughing a familiar field. When counter-examples spring to mind, numbering among them is a sprightly C.K. Stead, clearly undiluted by age.
Where I add little smileys to deface and devalue my first edition of Eliot’s Collected Poems, they show that his best poems are ‘the early funny ones’. And this is what makes both ‘Wasteland’ and ‘Quartets’ less interesting to me. The belief that as an artist grows up their work must become more serious, more studied, is the worst of all artistic delusions. It is too easy to insert oneself into whatever agreed programme of serious work is currently the vogue; it is harder to remain funny. There are maybe two jokes in the 130-odd pages of poems in The Yellow Buoy (naming a fish ‘Carp Diem’, and referring to there being clear skies above on Ascension Day); drollery has never been Stead’s thing. But is the T.S. Eliot equivalence rule also true: has his writing become less interesting? The hard questions I wanted to put to this late-in-the-day collection are the following: Has Stead’s poetry become weaker? Is it less relevant? Is he just going through the motions, ploughing a familiar field?
Obnoxious questions of a man now in his eighties, much? The poems are now so concerned with aging and death that these are, surely, questions invited by the poet. But even though the poems discuss death and ponder on the timing of the poet’s own, he seems capable to me of living to 100. It is true however that there is something of a well-ploughed-furrow-look to Stead’s writing. His style is proven, and the bounds of what poetry should be for his pen-hand are clear. This goes back to my earlier comparison of the poet as plumber. The manual for the toilet remains the same – cistern above, U-bend below – and he has no interest in reinventing the device. Stead is simply perfecting the craft, or (switching back metaphors) ploughing the furrow until the soil is like silk.
Are the poems ‘weaker’ than previous collections? Subjective as it may be, while I think I enjoyed the collection Dog (2002) more, there are many anthologisable poems here, and some truly moving writing. The final section, written between 2011 and 2012, is by far the strongest.
Catullus, the Roman poet of the last century bc, appears in a number of poems; Stead has turned to him in previous collections. To mistake this as pretentiousness though is a misstep, because the allusions involve no movement away from the here-and-now, heart-on-sleeve realism that are the man’s poetic touchstones. Stead loves a good story, and admires the storytellers. His mind seems often adrift on the many stories that have affected him. And in the here-and-now, this is his honest voice, draping the stories on the world around him. Something chimes for Stead in the proudly tragic figure of Catullus, pining for the bed-hopping Clodia; or else turning curmudgeon and cursing her name. Another Catullus story he returns to often is that of Caesar forgiving Catullus’s defamatory writings on him and inviting the poet to dinner. This is a Catullus Stead sees himself in the shoes of, a little prickly, a little flawed perhaps, but unapologetic. In ‘Catullus receives the ONZ’ (Order of New Zealand), he is this offender of Caesar, this ‘masturbator’, ‘who … dishonoured your flag’, and remains ‘present … Nothing … was ever done/ to earn your high regard’. He’ll take that ONZ, but he will not turn toady.
Stead would like this to be his only image to the world, the unapologetic announcer of his hard truths. He spells this out near the end of the ‘Venezuela’ sequence (to my mind the best of the longer sequences in the book): ‘Someone tells me my poems/ are “warm”. I tell myself, “Next time, add more salt.”’ To depict him only as curmudgeon, however, is to overlook that ‘warm’ quality, revealed perhaps despite himself. The poems are often likeable because of his poetic persona’s kindliness, his soft heart. He is captivated by flowers, and is a big hugger: on meeting Barry Humphries, ‘We hug at the door because/ men our age are prone to deaths/ on doorsteps.’
Stead-as-Catullus appears in what will likely be the most famous of the poems in the collection ‘Ischaemia’. In this instance, it’s more Catullus-as-Stead. Like the poems in the 2007 collection The Black River, this poem concerns his mini-stroke (the ‘ischaemia’ of the title) and the resulting, temporary, cognitive impairments, here attributed to Catullus. Stead was unable to read, while remaining ‘articulate … with memory unimpaired’. A cruel and ironic affliction for a compulsive reader. The poem won a prize for medical poetry, and appears crafted to do so, which I personally enjoy. Many of Stead’s poems are essentially diaristic, if always well-turned and determinedly intelligible to a reader; but when he really wants to turn it on, tell a story and ‘do’ poetry, he has some serious control and power. Catullus, unable to read, instead reads ‘the world’ which he lists: ‘the face of a fox’, ‘carp in the millpond; a cat high-stepping through fern’.
Following the nice metonymy in ‘The wise white togas say I will soon be cured’, the poem desultorily gets to its crux: ‘the brain-fog clears and words reveal themselves/ with their … secrets’. This is such psychologically and philosophically rich ground – words revealing themselves, the secrets of words – a whole other poem might be lowered into the suggestive richness of this one with a coalminer’s lamp on its helmet. But this is not for Stead; he tells what is around, what happens, what thoughts may pass and to where, but he doesn’t muse on things or allow to linger any ideas too airy. He does not want to be profound. Instead the poet is just pleased to be alive, to have a future, that the reading and writing will continue, and that he will annoy Clodia with further poems. It is a tight and neat piece of writing, like the best of the poems here.
Those that rewarded me the most re-readings were on death and aging. It is an arena where the older poet has an edge over a younger counterpart. To be young, middle-aged even, and evoke death, allows for some shock and awe. But extinction is still at a distance. Stead, up to his armpits in swampy old age, speaks soberly, clearly, insightfully. Death and dying do not need to be wielded to impress, they are just there: death is ‘the other storm –/ the one with the gentle bite’. This is where the collection has particular distinction. Stead’s honesty and realism of style put us in his shoes: we are reader as Stead (as Catullus).
He remembers not just the immortal dead, the likes of Catullus, Dickens, Wordsworth, Thomas, Mansfield, Larkin, but also the more ordinary: those he has known. Many poems are ‘in memory’, and New Zealand’s literary figures associated with Stead are counted off, Sargeson and Curnow looming the largest. These are some of the best poems too. ‘Waving Goodbye’ for Robin Dudding has the simple and striking aside, ‘Summer is always ending’. In ‘The Return’ (part of the ‘Venezuela’ sequence), a poem in memory of Allen Curnow, Stead awakes from a dream of crossing the street and hugging Curnow to ‘the big rain smacking/ the shiny open/ hands of tropical/ trees’, and reflects ‘that we of another … time did/ not hug, that I was/ the one “somewhere/ overseas” while you … had gone/ further afield to/ that faraway/ nonplace from which/ no traveller returns’. There are many further quotable poems of this ilk, but the section-ending ‘The Silence’ with Frank Sargeson is a particularly good one. Here, Stead is Dante while Sargeson is Dante’s old teacher and ‘sodomite’ Brunetto Latini, leading him through hell: ‘as we ambled/ down the avenues of the damned … he, brushing ash from his sleeve/ went on, “… listen/ always to the silence until/ you hear it whisper its name.” So/ he faded into fire, and I,/ half-waking, wrote to remember/ all he’d said – and listened for/ the silence, and could not hear it.’ Forget homophobia – this is, of course, a fond remembrance. Stead does not think Sargeson is in hell; he knows very well the corporeal original is nowhere (as quoted later from another lost acquaintance: ‘The only permanence … is in having been’). And for that matter, an earlier poem about an aging gay American couple, Willard and Ken, swimming in the Med together is very sweet.
I have only read Stead’s poetry, essays and criticism, not his fiction. This, I have been told, is an error of omission, as it is the man’s strong suit. I can imagine it might be so from the poems. All display the kind of generosity and craft one might expect when reading the poetry of a writer whose day job is fiction. Perhaps it’s an oversimplification, but I find writers of successful fiction have a stronger sense of the work’s need to be read and appreciated by a readership than those dwelling predominantly in the nebulous world of ‘poetry’. Poetry need not be nebulous of course, nor game-playing, abstruse, convoluted. No poem here could be called language poetry; nor could any of the imagery or metaphor be thought of, as Stead once accurately described Auden’s, as whimsical. The closest Stead wanders to whimsy is the stanza during his ‘Liguria’ sequence: ‘The waves/ talk among themselves/ of broken/ promises.’ But this is perhaps better attributed to the punning of breaking waves/breaking promises, and so is not in the event whimsical but factual: both waves and promises break.
Rather, Stead’s metaphors tend to be tasked with bringing visual clarity to an image, making it vivid and new. A fantail on the wing for instance ‘flickers like a migraine’. All sufferers of migraines will instantly recognise the image. Occasionally an image will not be new in itself, as in the much-used allusion to a Trojan horse, yet Stead manages to refresh it: ‘Autumn comes in a/ cloud like a Trojan/ horse full of/ bangs and flashing/ blades’.
So, for all my creepy praise, when did I draw my curmudgeonly faces? Not often. I have a pet peeve that he overuses exclamation marks at the end of poems (very Romantic of him), but arguably this shows his fearless sincerity. I also object to the word ‘sonnet’ used so lightly of any fourteen-lined, sonnet-shaped poem – in the way an Italian might of a ‘risotto’ made from quinoa. But this is so common as to make my pedantry seem out-of-touch. And it must be said that a number of the soi-disant ‘sonnets’ are excellent.
Stead, then, is not old hat in dusty defence of the old guard. He is present as one of New Zealand’s best writers. He ‘gets’ poetry and can deliver that in lucid and affecting ways. He also ‘gets’ the modern world: one poem is on digital clouds. In fact the only chink in his modernity lies in the poem ‘Public notice’, where he asks the world to tell him if they know the song he heard many years ago with the line ‘Estate senza te’ in it. Good Lorde, Google it, man. For the record it is the 1967 single of the French crooner Cristophe singing in Italian, and titled ‘Estate senza te’. It’s on YouTube. Released for the tidiness of this review in the same year as The New Poetic.
Two other poems must be mentioned. And this means skipping over his translations – which are an interesting insight into what appeals to him in the writing of others, and how different he is from it – and his lyrical evocations of nature. The first is the best poem in the entire collection, ‘Greeneland’ at the end of the ‘Venezuela’ sequence. I quote it in full:
In the concrete enclosure
the man in charge of garbage
is not a man. He is garbage –
looks like it, stinks of it,
is it. He has become what he serves.
His dog is his human part.
The rest is given over
to remnant and rot
and their rendering
to earth or fire
so we may rise clean and clear
in our glass containers
to the blue of the rooftop pool
and at night
to dine among the stars.
Caracas, May 2008
Finally, his poem ‘Why poetry?’. This lists all of the ways Stead uses poetry: to capture the beauty of a moment as perfectly as he can; to be honest; to find the truth in dreams; to allow a little lyricism; to probe the human condition and to consider suffering and death. It is a better review of his collection than the one above.
NICK ASCROFT is a poet and writer and former magazine editor, who grew up in Oamaru and graduated in linguistics from the University of Otago. He currently works for Bloomsbury in London.