Saturday, November 21, 2009

To Autumn

The word ‘proud’ is two-edged. On one side it is pompous, puffed-up power pretence. The other is a legitimate sense of achievement well-done and well-deserved, worthy of praise. In that second sense I feel proud to have co-edited The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse with Ian Wedde. It was a best-seller. A while back I met a retired high court judge. He told me for years he kept a copy of the anthology beside the bed and most evenings he read a few poems. He said he’d been through three copies.

I enjoyed working with Ian very much. Our decision to include Maori was not only timely but correct. We had long discussions, read everything separately that we could find, prepared short lists and then negotiated. It was remarkable how much our selections coincided. An example, we were surprised to find we both admired the poems of Charles Spear. There were disagreements, but we talked through these, compromised and made choices. We have not revealed the nature of these and I do not intend to now. Indeed, memory is rather blurred on such matters. What stands is the agreed script. And the recollection of the camaraderie of a good, close working relationship.

One of Ian’s appealing characteristics is his delight in ‘the luxury of the ordinary world.’ That quote appears in his blurb on the back of The Common Place Odes, one of Ian’s later volumes. Here’s one of his odes as an example:


How to prepare stuffed green peppers:
In plenty of green olive oil, cook
Garlic and onions, with a couple of red chilies.
Add the arborio rice and give it a stir.
Some cans of cheap Italian tomatoes are good.

A glass of red wine, and a huge handful
Of chopped parsley. Stuff the partly cooked
Rice into capped green peppers, and let
The rest stew slowly in the pot with the dolma.
When you life the lid praise the commonplace world

Where everything ends and then starts again –
Where are the songs of spring? I heard them at the end
Of last winter, they were starting to struggle out
Of the wet paddocks, they were choking on unpruned trellises.
And now a year later, like a good bourgeois,

Like the Sabine farm’s wry proprietor, turning
My back on landscape, I approach with sharp secateurs
The yellowed vine that runs round the verandah
Above the deck stained with summer’s libations.
Smoke from the house-fire blows away

Into the rainy mist on Mount Victoria, the place
I take my bursting heart on autumn mornings
So gorgeous I almost believe that beauty’s
All I need to know on earth, that my song
Can be without weariness, fever and fret.

Ian Wedde The Commonplace Odes

Such rapture about food. There are poems galore about cabbage trees, daffodils and dogs but much fewer about those most pleasurable activities, cooking and eating. Such a good Italian dish too. Luxuriating over food with language, that one human pleasure that’s easy to underestimate. But it’s more than food. It’s existence to exult ‘a bursting heart'.

But the poem also contains several layers. It’s part of a series based on the old Roman poet Horace whose retreat, his farm in the Sabine hills, figures prominently in his odes. My favourite English poet is John Keats. And my favourite poem is Keats’ To Autumn. Ian not only uses the title, he directly borrows a line ‘where are the songs of spring?’ while the line about the vines echoes another from Keats. There are other throw-backs, the concluding stanza echoes two other lines of the English poet’s odes, To a Grecian Urn and To a Nightingale. Keats knew the grief of existence's passing. But briefly in his To Autumn he transcended it. So does Ian even though he hints at it in the last stanza.

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