Shelf Life: Reviews, replies and reminiscences by C.K. Stead (Auckland University Press, 2016), 452 pp., $45
C.K. Stead’s latest collection of ruminations, Shelf Life, is illuminating about what has driven and drives this venerable, multi-award-winning author. He states in an interview that what is important to him is observation: ‘It’s the escape – the relief! – from the ego. The world around you is what matters.’ The back-cover blurb tells the reader that ‘the guiding voice’ is ‘clear, incisive’. One is offered the image of an author polishing his prose and verse to transparency.
This is Stead’s fourth selection of assorted literary criticism and related prose, the last appearing eight years ago. He claims this is a milder, less controversial selection than the previous three. The retired don calls this non-fiction his ‘afternoon work’; ‘morning work’ is writing verse and fiction.
There are four sections, the first brimful of informative and chatty pieces on Katherine Mansfield, whose work has been a major focus of Stead’s academic life. The second and third sections comprise ‘as random as ever’ reviews, articles, etcetera, and interviews that are ‘more numerous’ than before. The last section, entitled ‘The Laureate Reflects’, is not random, but book-ends Shelf Life with five essays from Stead’s online blog as the current New Zealand Poet Laureate. They deal with some of last century’s big names in poetry, such as Yeats, Pound, Eliot, Auden, Hughes and Curnow. Their placement here is not at first clear, but gradually one absorbs implications from throughout the book as to the reason: this is where Stead fits in, these are his peers.
Early in the second section Stead gives a description of a poet that one could be forgiven for seeing as an idealised portrait of himself:
a temperament that seems reserved, controlled, decent, funny and intelligent; a craftsman not a showman, with a fine musical ear, whose work is dependable and of the highest order. And as well as witty and clever work, there are poems that catch moments of deep feeling; and equally of exhilaration …
Actually, this is part of an ‘advance review’ of a forthcoming poetry collection by Alan Roddick, Stead’s slightly younger contemporary. The preview is entitled ‘Roddick is Back – A Celebration’.
Stead is proud of the praise he has received for his first academic book, The New Poetic (1964). He met the well-known Irish poet, Paul Muldoon, who told him he’d been a ‘fan’ of the book for forty years. Stead goes on to cite another fan: ‘famous Seamus [Heaney]’. Elsewhere, Stead mentions that Heaney has written that the book ‘taught him to read Eliot’. After a lecture by Heaney, Stead gifted him a rare book ‘because he had expressed gratitude to me’. In an interview, in response to whether he thought Muldoon’s statement – that ‘poets disimprove as they get older’ – applied to him, Stead thought not: ‘I find as I get older that poetry comes more readily, not less. But I do admire Muldoon, and respect anything he has to say on the subject.’
These interactions with Roddick, Muldoon and Heaney reveal how effusive Stead can be when not feeling threatened or when flattered. In contrast, he writes a piece circling round the major English poet and former British Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes, whom Stead found ‘an alien temperament’ that he had ‘been resisting … most of my life’. He jibes that Hughes’ late career collection, Birthday Letters (1998), was so publicly successful it ‘sucked all the oxygen from the poetry scene and left it otherwise depleted’, that it did not offer ‘sharp new insights’, was ‘versifying’, and of Rain-Charm for the Duchy that ‘while the critics gasped, the wider public embraced him. If he was good enough for the Royals he was good enough for Britain.’
Similarly, Eleanor Catton, winner of the Man Booker Prize for The Luminaries in 2013, is given short shrift, but nevertheless Stead generously ‘allowed myself to pass over’ the novel’s ‘astrological structure’. He refers to ‘the chintzy upholstered tone of it all’, and comments that ‘the “wisdom” reads like pastiche. There is a feeling of precocious imitation – the literary equivalent, I sometimes felt, of unearned income.’ And so on. He does, however, admit, ‘I discover my own limits here – those of the impatient realist.’
Stead reveals in Shelf Life that he has an interest in Zen Buddhism. He has expressed this interest at other times. For example, in 2010, when Stead was approached by a young scholar embarked on a doctorate about the relationship of Janet Frame’s work to Buddhism, he told the scholar that it was himself and not Frame who had the interest in Buddhism. In Cindy Gabrielle’s book The Unharnessed World: Janet Frame and Buddhist thought (2015), based on her doctorate, she quotes Stead speaking of the incident in a radio interview:
I very recently had an email … asking about Janet Frame’s interest in Zen Buddhism. Well, as far as I knew, Janet Frame had no more than [a] passing interest in Zen Buddhism. I was the one who has always had that interest and had it particularly at the time I wrote All Visitors Ashore.
In Shelf Life, Stead has continued to make assumptions about Frame in a review of her posthumously published novel In the Memorial Room (2013), a book that received enthusiastic and insightful reviews in the US, Australia and New Zealand. He shows himself both confused and erroneous about this novel that is redolent of the south of France, with sun, wind, waves, mountains and local characters interwoven in every chapter. He notices none of this, seeing only what he wants (needs) to see: ‘This is a looking-in-darkly rather than a looking-out-bravely novel … which makes surprisingly little, nothing in fact, of the visual lift offered by its Côte d’Azur setting.’
To this review Stead affixes a verse that barely rises above the level of doggerel, in which Frame does not see the blue sea or sky, or ‘orange roofs and ochre walls’, is deaf to gulls and the ‘twitter of swifts’, and concludes, ‘the solipsist’s/sad and solo cantata?’
Stead is the only solipsist here. In his memoir South-West of Eden (2010), Stead referred even more darkly to Frame, judging her a person who ‘rejected the whole human order, and whose work, structureless, directionless, brilliant, with flashes of genius, offered not hope but a black hole’.
In regard to Stead’s comments on Hughes, Catton and Frame, all one can deduce is that these authors escape his intellectual and imaginative parameters. Interspersed throughout Shelf Life is a barely suppressed anxiety about his own place in the literary pantheon or firmament:
The literary prizes and awards culture is almost totally geared to commerce; it distorts literary values, creates false reputations, and is pernicious – here and overseas. Judge Time … will sort it out … So we need not worry, if we take the long view.
The implication is, ‘I need not worry, if I take the long view.’
Though Stead considers that literary prizes ‘are for the most part a nonsense, at one level a critical distraction and at another simply a distortion of the market’, he has shown himself happy to participate in the ‘nonsense’. In recent years he has entered and won several competitions, including the inaugural 2014 Sarah Broom Poetry Prize.
Judith Dell Panny, in the penultimate paragraph of her 2009 literary biography of Stead, Plume of Bees, employs a proxy to make a big claim, a tactic Stead himself sometimes uses:
British critic and biographer Roger Lewis, in reviewing Stead’s latest novel, awards it five stars and writes of ‘the brilliance and plausibility of C.K. Stead … who, on the basis of My Name Was Judas, must surely be a prime candidate for the Nobel Prize’.
Panny is only making explicit what is implicit in some of Stead’s commentary on other literary contenders, especially in Shelf Life. Stead of course pours scorn on the Nobel Prize a number of times in a common Steadian strategy of weaving a pattern of implication and insinuation; of avoiding a bold claim; of not skiting, for that can be dangerous:
Feminists took offence at my novel The Death of the Body, which I still suspect might be, not my ‘best’, but my cleverest (always dangerous in ‘Aotearoa/New Zealand’).
Stead is renowned for his ‘lucidity’ of intellect and style. His own claim to intellectual rigour is often accepted without question, especially by general readers, some of whom have evinced an ‘appetite’ for his collections of non-fiction:
I knew there was a quite lively appetite here for intellectual and literary discussion that ranged wide in the world, and which, within our own borders, was not bound by, or too bothered about, ‘proprieties’.
Occasionally Stead’s lucidity is a mask for point-scoring and misrepresentation. His interest in Zen Buddhism must have lapsed, for on the evidence of Shelf Life he is not always buffing perception to clarity in ‘escape – the relief from the ego’. Sometimes, he is polishing a mirror.
One positive aspect of Shelf Life is that in lieu of Stead’s decision not to publish, in his lifetime, further memoirs after South-West of Eden, this book serves as a de facto memoir that gives glimpses into the relationship of the sensitive child, youth and young man of Eden to the now elderly reigning Poet Laureate of New Zealand.
DENIS HAROLD is an editor who lives near Dunedin.