January 2002
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Magic, murder and the weather

this week's been all ears and edges
it's getting like a career
- Magazine

Richard Reeve interviews David Howard

RR: What first 'hurt you into poetry'? Can you trace a poetic embryology from your earliest attempts at writing to your most recent work?

DH: Even at Quinn's Road Primary I swallowed the poetry in the School Journal-I remember James K. Baxter's The Cave -  as if it was lemonade on a hot day. And there were weekend visits to my maternal grandfather, William McDowall, who would recite Burns in a gentle Glaswegian accent while my parents gardened, gossiped, and watched Kip Keino win the 1500m at the 1968 Olympics.

But these were false starts. Really I backed into poetry the way a truck-driver backs into an entrance: with my head screwed around, my eyes half-closed in order to focus better, and the fear (or perhaps the hope) that I might demolish something. My entrance was Louise Varese's translation of that adolescent credo A Season in Hell by Arthur Rimbaud. The poet was nineteen when he wrote it; I was twelve when I read it. I was going to be a poet; if anyone asked what I did all day I would glibly quote my hero: I wrote silences.

Naturally nobody asked. Instead the valve radio on top of the refrigerator delivered - like divine judgement - racing results as my apprehensive father attempted to get clear of the factory. My mother would smoulder, burning her children with first-degree criticisms of this that and the other. Humiliated, I withdrew into books. 

While I only had two 'real' friends, Ivan Rogers and Anthony Wyld, my fictive friends were several: George Herbert, Andrew Marvell, Osip Mandelstam, Eugenio Montale, and Fernando Pessoa. It was still a man's world; women, whether corporeal or literary, remained other. But a year later I was sweet on Elizabeth Bishop and Emily Dickinson; they were the first modern poets in English to attract me with that enquiring inclusiveness which distinguishes the feminine. 

Books are essentially owned by their language not their country of origin so I read everywhere and nowhere, although Vincent O'Sullivan's An Anthology of Twentieth-Century New Zealand Poetry (revised edition 1976) introduced me to local poets. An authentic poem is never redundant and that exemplary selection shames its successors: the politically correct eunuchs produced by Wedde and McQueen, and the market-survey-turned-canon packaged by Bornholdt, O'Brien and Williams.
At sixteen I began my earliest surviving poem, Egon Schiele; over the next four years it was remodelled into the series The Portrait Gallery. I remember sketching the lines I wear my godfather's hand-me-downs,/circumnavigate the civilised world/with a (soulful) waltz in the Christchurch Town Hall before the start of a Jeff Beck concert circa 1976-77. And, looking back, it's obvious popular music was a compelling accompaniment to my juvenilia. The streetwise attack of Magazine, Joy Division, and The Cure balanced my attraction to conceits; their mournful songs also strengthened my interest in elegy, the genre that dominates Shebang: Collected Poems 1980-2000.

RR: 'Rootlessness, isolation, spiritual impoverishment were the themes' - I think Macdonald Jackson wrote that about the deep 'longing' New Zealand writers in the 1930s had for a true sense of poetic integration with their culture and land. When I read your work, often I have a sense of some deep ontological 'loneliness' such as similarly appears in the work of a number of poets to whom you refer in Shebang: Curnow, Celan, Pessoa, Gurney, George. What does loneliness mean for you as a poet, and as a poet in New Zealand?

DH: The enterprise of writing is my attempt to overcome loneliness although, in a country that often inoculates against thought with an overdose of sport, that attempt can intensify feelings of being isolated, even feelings of not being. Like an athlete taking the field, at the moment of writing 'I' realize one possible self to the cost of many others. This 'self' is not defined as a subject, consciousness, or ego but by the quality of 'being there' with and through the word; everything else is peripheral-including the relationship between poetry, culture, and land. Because we have the population of a modest American city a poet (for God's sake, a poet) who expects the ear of his countrymen is deaf to their reality; anyway, it's in the nature of 'the bubble reputation' that it bursts into the air it was made of. Ask a former All-Black.

So, for me, the relationship between 'rootlessness, isolation, spiritual impoverishment' and literature is only secondarily a problem of inchoate nationhood. It properly belongs to Martin Heidegger's notion of 'disowned existence' and his in-sight that man turns away from himself, fleeing to other people rather than being threatened by them. That's how the ontological 'loneliness' you recognise in my work connects with Curnow, Celan, Pessoa, Gurney and George. They realize the process of writing embodies the desire to re-cover the self and to re-enter the world complete; they may even agree with Heidegger that Poetry is the foundation of the self through the word.  I imagine that's why Curnow wrote in his note to Collected Poems 1933-73

I had to get past the severities, not to say rigidities, of our New Zealand 
anti-myth: away from questions which present themselves as public 
and answerable, towards the questions which are always private 
and unanswerable. The geographical anxieties didn't disappear; 
but I began to find a personal and poetic use for them, rather than let 
them use me up.
While Curnow is exceptional in every sense, much recent New Zealand poetry (whose central character is a determinedly lower-case you) mistakes tonal homogeny for assurance that we are now, unlike the writers of the 1930s, 'self-possessed' and 'own' our society. I think the current scene shows the opposite, confirming us as an uncertain consumer satellite. What is happening here has already happened in America. Think of Sport's aesthetic in Wellington, then watch Washington's ex-laureate Robert Hass tease out strands of meaning from Stanley Plumly's analysis of literary tone:
 …instead of being an instrument to establish person, tone has become 
an instrument to establish personality. And the establishment of 
distinctions of personality by peripheral means is just what consumer 
society is about. Instead of real differences emanating from the life 
of the spirit, we are offered specious symbols of it, fantasies of our separateness by way of brands of cigarettes, jogging shoes, exotic food. 
Once free verse has become neutral, there must be an enormous impulse 
to use it in this way, to establish tone rather than to make form. Because
 it has no specific character, we make a specific character in it.
 [One Body: Some Notes on Form]
Many of my contemporaries seem to have succumbed to this impulse ('fleeing to other people') rather than working for and with a language that acts as the algebra of the imagination. Because both the notion of the self and the notion of the world are contingent upon an active imagination - an imagination that predicates the act of being through language - such poets lack even the authority of a ventriloquist, serving as (show-room) dummies. 

Perhaps this generational failure to 'establish person' is one reason I have no faith in the high rise of New Zealand literature. Our poetry has become one more product from a fast-food franchise. 'There's never been a better time' to order a McManhire with fries and Coke; it tastes good (and it is good) but you're hungry for more - just not more of the same - within half an hour. 

Ours is now the 'rootlessness, isolation, spiritual impoverishment' of a free-market satrap rather than that of a distant dominion. Despite wide-eyed but blind reviews ('a writer of the first rank' - really, like Chekhov, Melville, and Montale -), despite evangelical speeches at black-tie dinners for those oxymorons 'television personalities' and 'sporting heroes', I believe the memory many of us have is still the memory of an absence regardless of our ethnic origins

RR: Sexual and Platonic Love, warmth, friendship, these characteristically 'human' themes surface throughout Shebang, yet the poetic voice seems at all times quietly conscious of its own solitude, perhaps likewise of the solitude of 'person'. Can 'person' span what we conventionally know as 'the human'?

DH: I don't know. I write - that's how I am - yet every sentence divides subject from object, separating me from the world. If writing is primarily the act, and only secondarily the record, of separating then language also lets me enter the society it begets. While metaphor evidences that I think abstractly it has to deploy the concrete 'to make sense'. If I think to my self 'that makes no sense' then I appeal to the world even as I locate meaning within. I suppose that's why my poetic voice is necessarily 'conscious of its own solitude'.

The everyday is a conveyor-belt of evasions: from decision ('I'm not sure'), from participation ('I'll wait and see'), from honesty ('what else could I say'?), from love ('I'm not what you think'). Most of my colleagues have accepted, whatever their talents, that possessions and the debt they occasion will remain the two pillars supporting their ceiling; they avoid the new and slowly lose their youthful definition; repeating themselves, they withdraw from authenticity. This is human. 

Poets are all too human. Whether juggling two jobs or scribbling away the months on public money they moan that they have no profile. So what? They should enjoy their freedom from a popular readership; it lets them become honest writers rather than skilful performers who are defined by audience response. Do they really want to compromise the self for its billboard image? If literature is not responsible to and for more than the material then it is just another dish on the hedonist's menu. Already the novel is prominently listed on the Specials board; I'm in no hurry to chalk up poetry. 

No-one is above the conundrum of the world (as Salman Rushdie discovered) but I'm numb every time I read a newspaper: why does anyone care about who won where by what when there's a famine, a flood, and the locusts are coming? The truth is that no one really does; no one knows how to care now our destiny's technological, everything's taken care of, and we've ticked the correct box. Wonder why that cover-girl is smiling when she suspects (correctly) we want to humiliate her? She smiles because the everyday is where the terrified, over time, become indifferent in every sense. Writers are not immune so they need to keep their distance from this newsflash condition. 

As a poet I know every thing that has happened to me is still going on - and many 'things' that never happened are also going on, which is why I'm neither a journalist nor a diarist. Clearly interior time does not follow Greenwich. Francesco Clemente observed that there are many times in a work. I try to synchronise the inner with the outer by writing. This is possible because language is (literally) the non-linear history of 'the human'; if it is informed by silence, which is the history of the eternal, then it is authentic and engenders 'person'. While my poetry has been written off as 'rhetorical' it is rhetorical because I approach troping as logos. Between the device of language and the act of writing lies God's silence. 

I guess that 'person' can span 'the human' in poetry only because rhetoric is both the art of speaking and the art of listening. When I speak I feel alone; when I hear I know others are there for me. For nearly a century the Aristotelian notion of poetry as rhetoric has been slighted but it is impossible for a poet to wring the neck of rhetoric; if he succeeds he ceases to be a poet and, in the process, forgoes his humanity. This is because poetic rhetoric has an ontological power; it begets as surely as the 'little death' of love and it's just as honest.

I hope authentic poetry can redeem the everyday - I'm heading that way in a new collaboration with the photographer Fiona Pardington. She's refreshing because she abhors doctrinaire feminism yet directs her own show; her images are sensuous yet astringent, and when she tackles sex I can hear Jacob wrestling with the angel. Ask me again in three years.

RR: Earlier, you mentioned the influence of the metaphysical poet George Herbert, and later your 'attraction to conceits'. How does poetry inform your vocation as a pyrotechnician?

DH: Now there's a question that begs for hot air-or recourse to Theodor Adorno's wilful essay on fireworks. It's possible to plot a whimsical parallel between the silence that underwrites a poem and the space that is articulated by fireworks. I use explosives to 'write' on the night so that an audience can say they've 'seen the light'. I want the same response from my readers; the sense that something wonderful has announced itself, however briefly, and in doing so has removed the cataracts of habit such that they can see anew. Just as there is an optimum order for the parts of speech in a sentence, so there is one for the various pyrotechnic effects in a display. If a poem operates within the context of locale and tradition, then a pyrotechnic display operates within the constraints of site and brief. In both professions it is necessary to connect apparently disparate elements in order to make things whole. But, really, all of these assertions are thin as tissue-paper and fit for the same purpose. 

Whereas a poem charges past the ephemeral on its way to the eternal, a fireworks display delights precisely because it is fleeting. Pyrotechnic effects don't accrete like metaphors into a conceit; instead they disappear into either darkness or the more intense light of their successors in the firing sequence. Poetry can brand the mind for as long as forever is, but fireworks turn into smoke that clears with the crowd. 

Although I've enjoyed acting as pyrotechnician to the All Blacks and as Tour Supervisor (SFX) to Metallica and Janet Jackson these roles are literally diverting. While it cannot match rugby or rock for physical thrills the rhythm of poetry is closer to my own. Opposing Auden's ghost, I believe memorable poetry can make things happen because it works to 'establish person' rather than personality; not even courtly spectacles such as those designed by Leonardo in 1490 and Bernini in 1638 can claim as much. And the fastest number 8 isn't in the running.

RR: Like Quasimodo or Celan (or even Beckett in The Unnameable), you seem to 'call' silence into the poem. Some sort of silence - the white nullity of the page between stanzas, the forestalled, significant details in a narrative - can be as salient an experience as the words themselves. As a thinking poet, what is your relation to silence? How is this relation manifest in the life of 'person'?

DH: It was a writer as unfashionable yet insightful as Thomas Carlyle who asserted: Under all speech that is good for anything there lies a silence that is better. Silence is deep as Eternity. Edging towards the eternal, albeit as clumsily as a schoolboy edges towards an office-girl at the bus-stop, I withdraw my language from the silence it aspires to; that's why David Eggleton observed of my work: Poetry itself is treated as a form of prayer. God is beyond the post-modern. In linking two particulars a metaphor spans the silence where the creator most critics snicker over announces His power, articulating 'me'; moreover, this silence gives my creation its power. 

It's no accident that for the multi-lingual Jew Celan the mother tongue is also the other tongue-it shapes itself around the ineffable (I'll avoid a portentous capital letter) to produce order. In poetry the silence, scored by lineation and stanzaic breaks, is active; it is where meaning is released. It's not enough to break up text with a ragged right margin; this can produce the simulacrum of a poem while failing to enact the imaginal that animates silence. When lineation only establishes rhythm, which pivots upon silence as much as it does upon a stressed syllable, the text lacks the integrity of either fine prose or realized poetry. Lineation is the syntax of active silence. Some poets overvalue tone, which combinations of words own, to the detriment of the silence that in-spires. Others detail surfing, shopping, a meeting in the street, and presume that their voices will be more 'authentic' because of such documentation. But this is to confuse the trivial with the authoritative. While fine poems can include the anecdotal such material is not of itself a measure of 'person' because it is working silence that establishes authenticity, not subject-matter or tone. Quasimodo and Celan witness this; Ginsberg and Sexton don't. 

However indifferent to the Babel of daily concerns, to the internal chatter that confounds rather than informs thought, silence is not foreign; it belongs to us because it is where God rests. I don't write poems to amuse either my self or others; I write poems to compose a self that apprehends another and the Other. If I sound 'up my self' then tough but it appears to me that many careerists are unprepared to accept the seriousness (and pleasure) of living inwardly. They play with words as a way of attracting attention, advancing through a corridor rather than a cathedral arch. It's an inconsequential approach unworthy of the tradition they're working in. 

While Dante often personified love, he noted in Vita nuova XXV that Love does not exist in itself as a substance. It is, rather, an accident of a substance. I sometimes wonder if this is not true of silence. At the moment I'm composing a poem of parataxically opposed nouns with clauses that comment on those nouns. Why? Because silence, like love, is invisible; if lineation makes it visible, takes it for a walk, gives it voice, then parataxis might also. I'm looking to foreshorten the audience's perspective, to generate the impressive frailty of, say, a Giacometti sculpture. And, as I scribble, I'm listening to an unfinished conversation such as might occur between an apparition and a relict. 

RR: 'Not I but the voice of God within me' - Beckett was apparently fascinated with this pronunciation from St John. You declare that 'silence is not foreign; it belongs to us because it is where God rests.' If authentic poetry is the manifold, inexorable afflatus of 'person' and 'silence', can it be truly democratic?

DH: To answer this I need to detour through the fifth century. It's possible Beckett shares the attraction of St John of the Cross to Pseudo-Dionysus, who views the universe as emanating from God and returning to Him by way of hierarchical procession. In this procession God is self-revealing; we are charged with first knowing this revelation and then unknowing it in union with the divine. We begin with what can be affirmed about God, but then whatever has been affirmed is necessarily denied if we are to progress; finally there is a negation of all that has been denied which places us in a divine state of 'unknowing'. I think that's why, as the curtain starts down on Beckett's Not I, Mouth utters: hit on it in the end…then back…God is love

I regard silence much as I do love-it's active because it proceeds from and returns to God. This process is continuous, so there's an affirmation on my part of similarity and, simultaneously, a denial of dissimilarity as I try for an 'unknowing' that Beckett would laugh over. In this context the notion of afflatus [Lat. afflare 'to blow upon'] is unhelpful. Whether we approach poetry as philosophy, rhetoric, art or history it is the story of engagement; whether or not God breathes upon us we are still required to breathe for our selves. 

The separation of Church and State at the birth of modern democracy compromised the role of the artist, as did a nationalism that acted throughout the nineteenth century as the de facto state religion. The power of multinational companies now renders nationalism anachronistic, however the weakness of the Church remains problematic for artists, who usually have more sympathy for spiritual than for corporate patrons.

If modern democracies have often been indifferent to high culture because it is peripheral to the marketplace (although the visual arts are an exceptional example of art as commodity) then this is less of a problem for the poet than the painter. The poem, unlike the painting, can have little value as an artefact; it is primarily process and only 'completed' when read. The poem needs the breath of another 'to blow upon' it. I'm not clear if that necessarily makes poetry 'truly democratic'; what I am clear about is that a forgery, a text where neither 'person' nor 'silence' is engaged, can never be democratic because it comes to nothing.

Modern democracies have abrogated the notion of citizen for that of consumer. While insisting in its legislative role on a social contract, the government has become little more than a regulator of commerce-and an ineffectual one at that. Only those who have worked to 'establish person' can remove the unjust label 'consumer' that is sewn on them as a yellow star was on David Vogel, Primo Levi and Paul Celan. And what sews on that designer label? Television. Echoing Adorno, Neil Postman observes in Amusing Our Selves To Death: It is in the nature of the medium that it must suppress the content of ideas in order to… accommodate the values of show business.

Because I have production-managed live broadcasts to sixty million American homes I know how television choreographs sensation instead of investigating experience. Having toured with her, I'm aware that Janet Jackson is a modest and honourable woman; unfortunately the media 'superstar' is a narcotic. The elusive vagrant Poetry won't become one so long as the received (which is more a brand than a voice) is avoided for the individuated and therefore authentic. 

However ridiculous it sounds, and however partial my attempts, I work to preserve the sanctity of the subjective as it is declared in the poem by opposing a market where effective branding is mistaken for value. That's why, despite the talent of its graduates, I'm unimpressed with the commodification of poetry that Victoria University's courses in Creative Writing foster. A literary school with a publishing adjunct must become a production house. Irrespective of its declared aim to encourage writers to identify and articulate, as appropriate, their own distinctive voices the institution is necessarily concerned to establish itself as the dominant producer regardless of quality. The course requirement that by the end of the year each student will have completed a booklength work of literature, of publishable standard says it all. Art has become artefact and the subjective has been objectified so that it has an exchange-value. But to yoke art to market forces is to subscribe to an ideology every bit as tyrannical as that of Socialist Realism. I am heartened when I hear that 'poetry does not sell'-Poetry is not for sale.

If understanding is a precondition of citizenry then the opposite is true of consumerism. An indiscriminate mass consumes more than the same number of realised individuals. And poets must resist the pressure to become 'a product of' this that or the other; instead they must get real. The strength of poetry in totalitarian states, where it inspires large audiences who are out for more than enjoyment, suggests that oppression also forces the authentic voice to develop. If poetry is 'truly democratic' it is so because of, not in spite of, its ability to individuate.

RR: Do you believe beauty is truth?

DH: Elsewhere but not here. In the search for truth beauty is not a destination but a signpost; an appreciation of beauty will take us towards truth but the two are not synonymous. 

Beauty has utility as it alerts us to the ineffable but in doing so it reinforces the appreciative self as voyeur, a voyeur whose knowledge (of separation) is felt as a fall from grace, as pain; that pain in turn brings the possibility of beauty through the catharsis of reunion. I guess truth necessarily has beauty but beauty is not of itself truth, even though in God the one becomes the other because in Him subjectivity and objectivity are negated. 

The Brighton rock of beauty and the 'right hard' place of truth both rely upon perception, which is the process of internalisation. Formal religion is an attempt to externalise and socialise an essentially uncivil truth, whereas the conception of beauty remains internal and individual. We affirm Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I gloat over the visual alchemy of Kim Pieters; while I see gold another finds iron, and rusted at that. Beauty is the only aspect of truth most art accesses. Poetry is neither a teacher of codes nor a coded teaching; although a poem may be both its poetry does not reside in either function. 

Perhaps when Keats wrote Beauty is truth, truth beauty,-that is all /Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know he was deftly suggesting the opposite. Beauty is not truth, truth is not beauty on earth (which is why the words are ascribed to an urn); it must be altogether other in heaven. As Beckett said, I think anyone nowadays who pays the slightest attention to his own experience finds it the experience of a non-knower.

RR: What do you dislike about your own poetry?

DH: That it's the best I can do.

RR: One final question. What for you is the meaning of Theodor Adorno's proclamation, 'After Auschwitz there can be no poetry'?

DH: While I admire Adorno - he develops an aesthetic theory from the model of a fireworks display and also predicts the merging of advertising with entertainment-this judgement is a bulging suitcase that needs to be opened with care. Paul Celan's haunted and haunting Todesfuge was the occasion. The poem is so musical that its presentation of the death camps becomes obscenely seductive. I wonder if Adorno, who believes (as I do) that art acquires meaning by summoning an essence that is otherwise hidden in the empirical world, was questioning whether the demagogic searchlight of Auschwitz left anything hidden? Viewing beauty as an accusing absence in society, he has to condemn Celan for aestheticising genocide. Yet he also respects Celan as the poet who most resolutely stares down the unseen, who speaks to the inexpressible (which subsumes the unspeakable) while accepting that distortion is the condition of language's engagement with the particular.

Perhaps the challenge Adorno throws down like Pushkin's glove before the poor market-driven poet is to make the singular universal without stripping it of its singularity. By sticking with and to the individual poetry best represents the collective. As John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) admonished:

I'm not the same as when I began
I will not be treated as property
public image
public image you got what you wanted
public image belongs to me
It's my entrance
my own creation
my grand finale
my goodbye

(c) Deep South.  All Rights Reserved. 

See David Howard's work in our Poetry section.