It has to be a thin world surely if you ask for
an emblem at every turn, if you cannot see bees
arcing and mining the soft decaying galaxies
of the laden apricot tree without wanting
symbols – which of course are manifold – symbols
of so much else? What’s amiss with simply the huddle
and glut of bees, with those fuzzed globes
by the hundred and the clipped out sky
beyond them and the leaves that are black
if you angle the sun directly behind them,
being themselves, for themselves? I hold out
my palms like the opened pages of a book
and you pile apricots on them stacked three
deep, we ask just who can we give them to
round here who hasn’t had their whack of apricots
as it is? And I let my hands tilt and the plastic
bag that you hold rustles and plumps with their
rush, I hold one back and bite into it and its
taste is the taste of the colour exactly, and this
hour precisely, and memory I expect is storing
for an afternoon far removed from here
when the warm furred almost weightlessness
of the fruit I hold might very well be a symbol
of what’s lost and we keep wanting, which after
all is to crave the real, the branches cutting
across the sun, your standing there while I tell you,
‘Come on, you have to try one!’, and you do,
and the clamour of bees goes on above us, ‘This
will do’, both of us saying, ‘like this, being here!’
From Further Convictions Pending: Poems 1998–2008 by Vincent O’Sullivan. Posted with permission. I chose this poem for its great sense of being in the moment and its laid back feeling of summer's best, an ideal way to approach the 'silly' season.
|Further Convictions Pending|
This week's Editor, Helen McKinlay continues; 'on a sunny October day in Takaka, the first for a while and therefore not a day to expect a good audience, Vincent O’Sullivan, New Zealand’s Poet Laureate, spoke to a full and attentive house...the best the librarian could remember for a poet. Vincent had no need for a microphone. He read the poem above and some love poems. He read us a story from Families (Victoria University Press 2014) his latest book of short stories. We were enthralled and amused and, I felt, in a strange way comforted.'
AUTHENTICITY VERSUS SINCERITY
HELEN: To me it takes a lot of courage to be authentic in what one writes but it is that authenticity that gets the message across to the readers. I think most 'good' poets have that quality, that sense of being faithful to one’s own beliefs and values, free from peer pressure.
VINCENT: Yes, 'authentic' can be a troubling word, in that one person's authenticity may well be another's 'sincerity', which we know is a word that rightly unsettles critical discussion. At the moment, when as writers and readers we're under constant pressure of just too much information – numerous blogs and gossip sites, too much advice, too much clamour with vested interests, perhaps the hardest thing is to keep one's head, if not above, at least out of range of much of it. That's what for me authenticity comes down to – trusting your own voice, not because you think it superior, but because that is the only honest thing you can do – take the responsibility for what you write and think, without an eye to pleasing some other standard than your own, or letting your ear be captured by the most 'advantageous' clamour or clique. Poets graze with a herd only at their peril. As Chekov said, more or less, there's no such thing as a 'team' when it comes to writing. Nor is it a beauty contest. You don't have to sashay for the judges. Readers may go along with your own take on 'authentic' or dismiss it. That's not your business as a writer, which is to get language, form, the rest of it, 'lined up' with what can be said, without compromising oneself. It's about the most we can hope for.
THE “I” IN POETRY
HELEN: Writing in the first person gives an immediacy and an intimacy to the poem which allows the reader to experience an event for themselves. It seems to me that use of the “I” word is still frowned upon by many. Perhaps it’s a leftover from the days of ‘letter’ writing when too many “I”s implied an obsession with oneself.
You yourself mentioned the fact that poetry written in the first person is often assumed to be true, whereas fiction is not. This, you said applied to your own poetry, i.e. a love poem by you was not necessarily about you.
VINCENT: Yes, it still surprises me how difficult it can be for some readers to accept that the ‘I’ of the poem is not necessarily autobiographical. We seldom assume that with a short story or a novel, yet in poetry the first person can be as much a fiction as it can in prose. As Evelyn Waugh neatly put it of his own fiction, ‘I am not I, you are not he nor she, they are not they.’ Whatever else it is, any kind of writing is ‘made up’.
|Us, then, Vincent's latest poetry collection|
and Poetry winner of NZ Post Book Awards 2014
THE INEVITABLE BUT FASCINATING MEANING OF POETRY
HELEN: So many people angst about the meaning of a poem as if it were compulsory that they give an immediate analysis of what the poet meant. It worried me too once but now I find it easy to enjoy a poem without being able to pin down its meaning. Such things as the sounds of the words and the rhythm, matter just as much. I like to think that a reader has space to use their own imagination and thus extend the meaning of the work.
VINCENT: Some very good poets, like Robert Graves, insist that the least a poem should do is to make good prose sense. Others think quite the contrary – Wallace Stevens’ remark, for example, that ‘poetry should resist the intelligence almost successfully.’ The overarching fact of poetry is that it offers a swathe of possibilities, from total clarity to the most elusive symbolism. There’s no obligation to admire every kind of poetry, and there’ll always be enough of what we do care for us not to fret about what we don’t.
STORY IN POETRY
HELEN: It seems to me that poets talk about narrative in poetry but not so much story. You said that story is what drives your poetry. And yet a poem based on a story can often end up as poetic prose and at that stage we reach the discussion about what makes a poem a poem.
VINCENT: Once we have written a couple of lines, we are engaged with a narrative whether we like it or not. Even in what we might consider the purest lyric, there is a dramatically ‘staged’ voice, and so the fragment of a story, if not a completed one. What I mean by ‘story drives my poetry’ is that we can’t get out of the language we use, out of context, away from situation. And that’s a story.
HELEN: One of the most popular questions for writers apart from where do you get your inspiration from is the one: 'How many hours a day do you work?' Your own comment on inspiration, incidentally, was not to wait for it just get on with writing. In my experience writing isn’t just about sitting down with a pen and putting words to paper or on the computer, for so many hours a day. One needs to get out and about give it a break. My mind then clarifies, comes up with better ideas, works on its own.
VINCENT: Almost anything one says is likely to be a generalisation, and so immediately suspect. Every writer’s way of working is likely to be distinctive to him or her, and I’m hesitant to say much about this side of being a writer. Until the poem or whatever is actually completed or published, to talk about it isn’t much more than chatter.
| Vincent with his tokotoko matua the laureate's talking stick.|
Photo by Mark Beatty, National Library NZ.
VINCENT: I meant it’s important to have time when the business of writing doesn’t matter. Life’s bigger than that. And yes, like many writers I suppose, I’d prefer to be lazy, but you don’t quite have the choice.
HELEN: Your answers to the above questions all enforce the importance of freedom to a poet, that sense of being faithful to one’s own beliefs and values, the personal authenticity. The poet and writer Annie Dillard once said ‘There is always the temptation in life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for years on end. It is all so self-conscious, so apparently moral. But I won't have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous ... more extravagant and bright. We are ... raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.’
It is sad that many poets have been imprisoned for espousing the same ideals but I must admit that I was startled when I read the words ‘I miss pure evil’ the first line of your poem Freedom (Us, then 2013) which continues;
‘I miss the hiss when glaring iron goes dunk into water.
I miss God…’
This poem bought up many thoughts for me, among them, isn’t there enough evil without missing it? Is he giving us a wake up call? And then I refocused on the title…FREEDOM.
Eleanor Roosevelt said, ‘Freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being. With freedom comes responsibility' (an oft-quoted phrase). 'For the person who is unwilling to grow up, the person who does not want to carry his own weight, this is a frightening prospect.' It is this concept, that makes your line ‘I miss pure evil’ in relation to freedom, so interesting. You could be talking about the freedom which comes from redemption, or the Rasputin like need to sin in order to be forgiven. And then there is the concept of original sin. Or as American singer Don Henley said, ‘in the old days, words like sin and Satan had a moral certitude. Today, they're replaced with self-help jargon, words like dysfunction and antisocial behaviour, discouraging any responsibility for one's actions.’
VINCENT: New Zealanders, for all our self-flattery about being independent and the rest of it, can be pretty timid souls, and to say anything too directly can rattle our assumptions about ourselves. We don’t like being uncomfortable, we don’t like being thrown into responsibility, hence a soothing political blandness, as we well know, immediately appeals to us. What I was getting at in that poem is that if we sign away our conceptions of good and evil, this can lead to a fairly colourless or deluding life. It doesn’t mean one has to embrace absolutes, but it does mean deciding where one’s boundaries reside. I dislike our easy ‘middle of the road’ sloppiness about certain issues because taking a considered stand isn’t always ‘nice’ or agreeable.
HELEN: Yes what you say is true. It isn't always 'nice' or agreeable. But sometimes it's worth the risk. Thank you Vincent for joining me in this short discussion. This extract from your poem 'Puritan Sunday' (Us, then, 2013) seems an appropriate way to finish.
‘if the shelves in the kitchen are to be
arranged with the labels always neatly printed,
both myrrh and arsenic forbidden substances,
the glass-case locked with its glinty sequins,
the Coronation clackers, the sentimental
mementoes grubbed with thumbs,
then count me out.
Editor's Note: Vincent shares another poem today which I have posted on my blog gurglewords. 'Not included in the footnotes' is a wonderful poem, full of humour, which illustrates what Vincent has said himself, that Catholicism was part of his upbringing, one of his main environmental influences.
I am very appreciative of the time Vincent has spent on the above topics and the careful consideration he has given each one. Thank you for that Vincent and for sharing your wonderful poetry with us. May the next year of your laureate bring you much pleasure!
Biography Books Interviews and Commentaries:
Vincent O'Sullivan has publications in most branches of literature, from short stories to poetry, to biography, to plays and novels. He is also the recipients of many awards. His NZ Book Council page here gives a comprehensive list. Below are a selection of other useful websites for those who want to know more.
Vincent's Poet Laureate Blog: As Poet Laureate he keeps a blog, one which features other poets (‘I’m not one to write about myself.’) go here to read it.
Biography and books: go to Victoria University Press
Human interest article by Stephen Stratford: go here
1.Kathryn Ryan talks to Vincent on Radio New Zealand National, about his work and life and also, Requiem for the Fallen, his collaboration with NZ composer Ross Harris, written for the centenary of the First World War.
2. Arts on Sunday with Lynn Freeman. On Radio New Zealand National.Vincent discusses his collection of poems, Us, then, and how his move to Dunedin has found its way into his writing.
1. Go to Victoria University Press for a number of mini reviews of his poetry.
2. Go to the The Poetry Archive an initiative of the British Arts Council for an in depth commentary.
3. Go here for the Listener Review of Us, then, Vincent's last book of poems.
This week's editor Helen McKinlay is a published poet and children's author who lives in the top of the South Island, New Zealand. She blogs at gurglewords.
Please check out the rich variety of offerings from other Tuesday Poets in the left hand sidebar. And do have an enjoyable and relaxing festive season and a Happy New Year.