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Poetry and language & typography.

Reconsidering Bill Pearson's essay 'Fretful Sleepers' as part of the 1996 Auckland University Winter Lecture series, Linda Smith admitted that perhaps the only part of his essay that she truly understood was the last line: 'London, 1952.' In this self-deprecating way, she neatly drew attention to the physical and intellectual disjunction that looms as large as the 'Almighty Norm' in that particular essay. Revisiting Allen Curnow's Poetry and Language, I feel drawn to a similar conclusion, except that the part I truly claim to understand is slightly more substantial and appears on the title-page--'Christchurch: at the Caxton Club Press, 1935'. (1)

In some ways, Poetry and Language presents the inverse of Pearson's essay: instead of an essay that ostensibly offers New Zealand as its subject while physically demonstrating the opposite, Poetry and Language clearly states that it was produced in Christchurch, New Zealand, and yet, except for a solitary mention in the final section, there is little in its content or presentation to suggest that its subject is New Zealand. It is a manifesto. Its stark layout and design attest to that, but despite its neutral guise, I would argue, it has proved to be a manifesto for New Zealand literature, even though its author may not have conceived it as such.

Whatever Allen Curnow's intention may have been, I would like to make some observations based on an examination of the striking bibliographic codes of this particular book. My approach owes something to Jerome McGann's formulation of what he describes in the title of one of his books as The Textual Condition. There, he states that '[t]he meaning of works committed into language is carried at the bibliographic as well as the linguistic level, and that the transmission of such works is as much a part of their meaning as anything else we can distinguish about them'. (2)

Eric Gill. His name appears in the second line of the text proper, but his influence is apparent from a first glance at the title-page. Gill Sans-serif, a typeface designed as appropriate to the machine age, is parsimoniously distributed to provide the bare details of a bibliography: title, author, place of publication, publisher and date. Spacing (as opposed to type size, as is usual) is all that distinguishes title from author (perhaps suggesting the inseparability of the message from the messenger) and the dominant central area of white space draws attention to the publisher's logotype, that of the Caxton Club Press. (It is interesting to note that this logotype was the least stylised of those adopted by Caxton and squeezed their name between the plates of a bookbinding press. Such an arrangement of elements calls to mind the Bauhaus and could be taken as a graphic representation of Walter Gropius's doctrine: 'Art and Technology--a new unity', although I most certainly would not suggest that Caxton's typographer, Denis Glover, was an advocate of the avant-garde New Typography.) Jerome McGann has argued that the effect of such a visual strategy can be 'to involve the reader's visual encounter with the text, in the arguments which the text is making ... the physical presentation of pages like this is simultaneously a display of their conceptual content' (Textual, p. 105). I would suggest that this was certainly the case with Poetry and Language and the Caxton literary publications that were to follow.


Writing poetry is an art.

Art (Mr Eric Gill's definition) is skill in making.


Christchurch, in the early 1930s, offered a particularly propitious environment for the arts, amidst which this peculiarly forceful assertion by Allen Curnow does not seem out of place. However, the necessity to make such a statement at all hints at the particular vigour of the visual arts at this time. In her thesis on the artist Rata Lovell-Smith, Ann Elias comments that '[m]any of these discussions from the thirties ... echo in particular the writings of Eric Gill, whose book, Art and a Changing Civilisation, must have been familiar to many New Zealanders connected with the arts'. (3) Its publication, a year before Curnow's booklet, would suggest that it was a topical influence, and references to it certainly pepper Curnow's writing, but in order to understand its influence in the New Zealand context it is illuminating to turn to another text, The Bulletin of the National Art Association of New Zealand for February, March and April of 1926.

In an article examining the relationship between poetry and painting, Johannes Andersen notes recent developments in both these arts--he cites imagism in poetry and cubism in painting--that appear to him to have 'cast off form'. (4) He concludes by reiterating his own conception of art: 'Painting and poetry are windows of escape for the flight of the imagination into the regions of the ideal; every picture, every poem, provided it does not offend, opens the way to another world' ('Poetry and Painting', p. 62). This description of 'fine' art would have been acceptable to most of the Art Societies around the country at this time, as well as, no doubt, to Harry Tombs who was shortly thereafter to establish Fine Arts (N.Z.) Ltd. to produce de luxe, limited edition books.

Sentiments similar to those expressed by Johannes Andersen were obviously Gill's target when he wrote:
 You cannot write about art as though it were an affair of angels,
 of purely spiritual beings. You cannot write about things as if
 they only existed in the imagination, as if they were bought by
 nobody and as though they were not made of material which somebody
 has to pay for. (5)

Art and a Changing Civilisation was a reaction against the 'fine art' movements which Gill saw as an inevitable consequence of the separation of artist and worker brought about by industrialisation. He believed that decorative or ornamental embellishments were simply surplus to the requirements of functionality demanded by the machine age.

Curnow was even more specific, targeting Georgianism as representative of the sorts of excess that Gill complained of. Their 'poetical' language he declared to be 'quasi-dead' (Poetry, p. 12) with no useful function, but it was the austere bibliographic presentation given to his arguments by Caxton that was as much an assertion of a new literary age as anything Curnow wrote. Gone were the days when '[f]ine printing to him [the New Zealand printer] meant decorative printing'. (6) Pages cluttered with fleurons and ornate, looping typefaces conveyed a preciousness that was antithesis to a new 'serious' literature.

From Gill, Curnow also appears to have derived a conception of the artist as essential cultural worker. As such, art was a serious business, worthy of a vocational dedication, and Caxton's and Curnow's decision to devote a book to the subject of poetry and language is itself evidence of this. However, when coupled with the reprimanding tone directed at 'those "literary" people--professors of English, graduates, editors of newspaper literary columns and their satellites--who have not yet passed the elementary understanding of the art of poetry' (Poetry, p. 3), a particularly earnest commitment is evident. This generation of writers had something important to say and they were determined to see it appear in a format comparable to that available in England, and, therefore, not suffer the fate attributed to Masons early self-published poems.

The spare style of Poetry and Language clearly conformed to Gill's prescription, but there were further correspondences within the body of the text. In section two, Curnow placed similar stress on the material of art, in this case language. He explained the importance of written language, which has 'exactness proper to art' (Poetry, p. 7), in fixing human experience in a material form. The importance of a 'living' spoken language was stressed, such that 'Poetry must have its feet on the familiar earth of plain speech' (Poetry, p. 9), which closely corresponded with Gill's call for the 'ordinary use of common language' (Art, p. 13). Similarly, Curnow's criticism that formulaic usage resulted from the separation of poetry from its 'original human uses' (Poetry, p. 12) paralleled Gill's concerns about the separation of the artist from the worker.

Nevertheless, it was Gill's ideas about the art of printing that were to have the most far-reaching effect in terms of the development of a New Zealand literary canon. In Art and a Changing Civilisation he stated: 'Machine printing must be invisible ... [in] the sense that no "artistic business" must be allowed to obtrude between author and reader' (pp. 119-20). This elementalism accorded with modernist developments in the visual arts that sought to shake off outmoded aesthetic conventions by a move away from representation. The effect on typography of such a minimalist approach, which supposedly severed visible links with the past, was to offer Curnow a virtual blank slate on which to inscribe a new literary ideology. Swept away was the frivolous 'artistic business' of the Georgians, deemed irrelevant--'quasi-dead'--and, in its place, a hard, new functionalism that offered poetry with a purpose:
 To each age its own experience.
 To each age its own language.
 To each age its own literature.

(Poetry, p. 11)

Curnow's call to arts echoed Pound's call 'to make it new'. Gone were the rata blossoms and kowhai as Curnow and the Caxton Club Press re-aligned poetry in New Zealand with contemporary English models.

Bibliographically, the English models for Caxton were the Nonesuch and Bodley Head Presses which, while acknowledging the Arts and Crafts tradition, willingly embraced the benefits offered by mechanisation. The achievement of the Bodley Head Press, as explained by Jerome McGann, is particularly pertinent: 'Printing runs were small as the books were being offered to a special audience. Indeed, the press succeeded in no small part because it helped to consolidate such an audience. To be a Bodley Head author, or reader, defined you as a certain type of person--aesthetic and very modern'. (7) For Bodley Head, one could easily substitute Caxton, whose special success in consolidating an audience for New Zealand literature is unmatched. In fact, its formative title of the Caxton Club Press makes this aim even more explicit.

Although Curnow is explicit that the function of language is the communication of experience, there is nothing in Poetry and Language that suggests that the thing to be communicated is some form of cultural nationalism, as was so evident in the introduction to his 1945 anthology of verse. Rather, it is simply an expression of the desire to communicate, to take part in the intellectual community that is represented by the form of the book, to enter into the 'textual condition'. However, it is this particular form of the book--'aesthetic and very modern'--that served his and Caxton's purposes so well.

Although central to Curnow's (via Gill's) definition of poetry is the measure of skill, there is littler elaboration as to how this was to be determined. Again, recourse to the physical presentation of the text offers some useful insights. An aesthetic of spareness is announced in the terse note form and austere typeface, shorn of serifs. As noted earlier, this was in keeping with the broad sweep of the modernist movement in art which favoured more elemental frameworks. In fiction for example, Sargeson's mode of taciturn realism accords with such an aesthetic, and goes at least some of the way towards explaining its ready acceptance into the Caxton canon. More pertinently, Curnow's poetry itself was often praised in these terms, and it was to remain a persistent, if ill-defined, criterion for literary endeavours.

To demonstrate just how pervasive this aesthetic had become, it is necessary to telescope forward almost forty years, to 1973. It was at this time that Denis Glover again sought to publish Alien Curnow, but this time under a joint imprint of his own Catspaw Press and Bob Gormack's Nag's Head Press. Typically, Glover was candid in his views: 'Private press printers let themselves down by indulging in fearful fancies of decoration as if they were in competition with Woolworths ads'. (8) However, it was Gormack who was the printer, and he had already decided to go against his natural inclination for a more decorative approach. Most telling of his own typographical style was his cover design, or at least his initial plan for it: 'I thought originally of filling up the lower part of the cover with massed ornaments in colour, then made the bold decision (for me) to leave it stark William Caslon'. (9) The result was, in Gormack's opinion, 'all very stark and unornamental but it seems to suit Allen's work'. (10)

However, Poetry and Language pre-dates a body of Curnow's work, with which Glover boldly declared 'we can inform English poetry. Not that the epicene English, Bloomsbury self-centred, can either speak or write English'. (11) So, I shall return again to Christchurch, 1935, and Curnow's formative declarations on poetry. There, his emphasis on the communicability of language posits the poem as a vehicle, but this formulation is clearly prior to the investiture of poetry with a programme of cultural nationalism. The underlying assumption, however, and it is an important one, appears to be one of universal messages conveyed unimpeded by the direct means of communication that is the book--and the poem.

I have already suggested that much of Caxton's success is attributable to its ability to consolidate a small audience of readers. Despite a most evident streak of Miltonian libertarianism associated with the press ever since its inception (and which had its physical manifestation in the publication of a limited edition of Areopagitica), motivations for the press were never truly egalitarian, as only a cursory comparison with the efforts of the Progressive Publishing Society makes clear. (12) Moves towards a high culture that are implict in Caxton's bibliographic matrix inevitably tended to ignore the cultural pursuits of a number of New Zealanders. This was, in part, a deliberate move to challenge conventional definitions of culture, but as Bob Gormack's satires in Bookie so clearly demonstrated, a new cultural hegemony was beginning to assert itself.

Gormack's efforts can be taken simply as a reaction against the austerity adopted by Caxton, but I believe that they can also be read as an attempt to deal more directly with his material, social and economic environment than his more well-known contemporaries. Jerome McGann has suggested that '[t]he [decorative] textual move is the opposite of the transcendental ... the work forces us to attend to its immediate iconic condition' (Black, p. 75). By re-asserting the bookmaking practice in his own inimitable way, Gormack can be seen to be rejecting the concept of disinterested art, which stood apart from social practice, that was increasingly being encouraged by Caxton. By obscuring material conditions--the process of literature production--behind notions of 'invisible typography', Caxton succeeded in concealing their exploitation of the iconic power of the physical book as a representation of high culture from which artists, authors and intellectuals felt cut off. By appropriating this cultural infrastructure, Caxton assumed the right to determine the canon. Curnow, in particular, benefitted from the considerable institutional power that accrued with Caxton's adoption of such bibliographic codes. Correspondingly, where writers chose to look beyond this narrow English matrix, they were generally either marginalised or excluded from that canon.


Caxton's typography and the mystique that grew up around it appear to me to be integral to the establishment of an institutional framework for New Zealand literature, and, consequently, a reading of the bibliographic codes can tell us much about the ideology informing Curnow's writing. For example, the calculated format of Poetry and Language betrays Curnow's disingenuous assessment of the text as simply some offhand 'observations on poetry and language' (Poetry, p. 3). (Similarly, a later article in Book was entitled 'A Job for Poetry: Notes on an Impulse' [my italics].) It is precisely because Curnow appears to be less insistent on some larger symbolic order in Poetry and Language, of allotting the 'New Zealand scene some place in the larger current of history and time' (as he wrote in 'A Job for Poetry') that this seminal work offers such rich insights into the institution of New Zealand literature.

By virtue of language, Curnow explained, 'human experience may be fixed in a material form' (Poetry, p. 6), but it was this generations command of the means to fix their own activities in time that gave them such a dominant position in New Zealand's developing literary canon. The colophon on the last page of Poetry and Language served this function by providing precise details of the book's production, affirming Jerome McGann's assertion that '[t]o the interpreter, texts often appear as the images of time; to the maker of texts, however, they are the very events of time and history itself' (Textual, p. 186). Curnow's and Caxton's success lay in establishing a locally based cultural forum that, in appearance, differed little from what was available in England.

Curnow specifically acknowledged a debt to the Caxton Press, which, he said, 'created an audience for verse which formerly might have found none in New Zealand. Some verse they actually called into being because they were at hand to print it'. (13) Whereas before the establishment of a reliable local infrastructure literature in this country was represented by a small but diverse cross-section of literary endeavours, the Caxton Press pitched its authors as literary pioneers, striking out to claim the nationalist high ground. In this attitude they were the epitome of the modernist myth of the avant-garde, as formulated by the European, but primarily English, models from which they derived their inspiration and their authority. This was a nationalist movement grounded here only by virtue of the heavy cast iron presses that resided at Caxton's Victoria Street premises.

In The Textual Condition, McGann states that' [a]uthorship is a special form of human communicative exchange, and it cannot be carried on without interactions, cooperative and otherwise, with various persons and audiences' (p. 64). It was this desire for an audience, the desire to enter into the textual condition, that marks out this generation of writers as formative of a national literature. And it is this that returns me to the title of this article, and the title-page of Curnow's--or Glover's, or Gill's--work. Just as adherents to the New Typography (sometimes associated with the Bauhaus) innovatively manipulated not the type but the white space of the page to draw attention to their concerns, so did Caxton and Curnow selectively draw on a history of the book to achieve their aims of institutionalising New Zealand literature. By promulgating a national literature in a high quality format derived from English models, Caxton appropriated the authority of the dominant cultural matrix. This matrix found its clearest expression in poetry, for which the available printing technologies were most suited. It is for this reason that I have added to Curnow's title, reinscribing the white space: 'Poetry and Language & Typography'.


(1) Allen Curnow, Poetry and Language (Christchurch: Caxton Club Press, 1935), p. 1.

(2) Jerome McGann, The Textual Condition (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991), p. 149.

(3) Ann Elias, 'Rata Lovell-Smith' (M.A. Thesis. University of Auckland, 1979), p. 19.

(4) Johannes Andersen, 'Poetry and Painting--Their Relation', The Bulletin of the National Art Association of New Zealand 10, 11, 12 (February, March, April 1926), 62.

(5) Eric Gill, Art and a Changing Civilisation (London: Bodley Head Press, 1934), p. 10.

(6) Thomson, J.E.P., Denis Glover (Wellington: Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 24.

(7) Jerome McGann, Black Riders: The Visible Language of Modernism (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993), p. 78.

(8) Letter to Bob Gormack, 7 November 1973. Glover ms. 418-65 (Wellington: Alexander Turnbull Library).

(9) Letter to Denis Glover, 5 October 1973. Glover ms. 418-65 (Wellington: Alexander Turnbull Library).

(10) Letter to Denis Glover, 24 November 1973. Glover ms. 418-65 (Wellington: Alexander Turnbull Library).

(11) Letter to Bob Gormack, 11 November 1973. Glover ms. 418-65 (Wellington: Alexander Turnbull Library).

(12) For a fuller account of the range and number of works published by this organisation see chapter five of Rachel Barrowman's A Popular Vision: The Arts and the Left in New Zealand 1930-1950 (Wellington, Victoria University Press, 1991). Their activities, however, were a graphic demonstration of the gulf between ideals and the realities of the capital-intensive publishing industry.

(13) In his introduction to Glover's Selected Poems, Curnow admitted this with regards to his own volume Jack without Magic (Christchurch: Caxton Press, 1946): 'Glover had the paper, the typeface, the press; my poems, in this case, were simply the necessary something' (xv-xvi).
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Author:Waite, Noel
Publication:JNZL: Journal of New Zealand Literature
Date:Jan 1, 1997
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