Thursday, April 8, 2010

Launch of 'Goya Rules"

Here is Vince O'Sullivan's speech at the launch of 'Goya Rules'.

"I hope it doesn’t sound too like a cliché, when I say Harvey is very much a poet of his time. I say that because so much poetry at the moment sounds as though it wants to plug into something that is somewhere else; it even sounds, at times, as though it wants to sound as though it’s written by someone else. So let me begin with what strikes me first as I read Harvey. What interests him, and how he says it, rings with the values and the apprehensions, with the language and the rhythms, of those who share where he is, and when it is he is talking to them.

This volume takes on and takes in so much that matters to his generation, from what derives from the Thirties, when he was a boy, through the years of war succeeding war, into our own local political follies, our current views on the past, and what today actually looks like- which also means what pretty constantly troubles an intelligent observer. This is poetry with its eyes open to what goes on out there, as much as directing attention to what goes on as one thinks of mortality and illness.

'Goya Rules'. It’s a fine title for this clear-eyed take on what’s good, and what’s troublesome, in one man’s life. It’s there in this cleverly chosen cover – Goya’s depicting a celebration, the dancing, the music, the costumes. But there’s that sinister figure too that has joined the dance. And if you look at the faces in the crowd, the faces of any crowd, they’re not too lovely, many of them. Goya rules all right.

And yet one remembers there’s that other side to Goya, those compassionate portraits, the conveyed delight when the sun simply shines on women with their parasols – there’s a good deal more than just his celebrated darkness. And Harvey is alert to both. He had his own celebratory lines for what he calls ‘A perfect day for a Renoir party’; or when he invokes “Eve, mother of us all, isn’t she beautiful.’

There’s a good phrase where Harvey tells you where, as they say, he’s coming from – ‘it’s ‘an alcove in the universe that I inhabit.’ That alcove, that perspective that he writes from, so very often is a garden. He makes you attend to things outside your window in the way Ursula Bethell made you attend. As you move through these poems, poems that don’t for a minute back off Goya’s darkness, you’re even more aware of just how much delight he takes in every day. As Mansfield said about the short story, what holds us is ‘the life in the detail’. That, when the chips are down you might say, is perhaps the strongest defence we have against what in another poem is called ‘the horrifying banality’ of those people or those things that would deny the detail of others, the detail they don’t approve of. All poetry, if you like, is a stand against that.

And never forget that Harvey is a teacher. Right back with the Romans, their poet Horace made a point of it: the business of poetry is to instruct, and to delight. Teaching after all, like poetry, is based on the premise that somebody knows something that somebody else will be the better for knowing. I feel that so often as I read one of his poems. I’m the better for knowing what he tells me. But there’s that pleasure too in the shape and the how of the poems, the shape the telling takes.

And can I say this too. Harvey’s directness, his honesty, become a quality in what he writes, his knowing that there are things to face that are a long way from being fun. He puzzles about questions that have always puzzled – the ‘who are we, what are we here for, where are we going’ kind of questions. Or as he puts it in his fine poem about Ted Hughes’ Crow, ‘this is no simple flirtation with existence’. He knows entirely rational answers won’t quite do – as he says, ‘he’s already on/ the back foot for he knows reason unleashed / Robespierre.’ He knows, to quote again, ‘The spirit seeks more than the dead-end / But doubt remains predominant.’ And yet in his poem called ‘Unnoticed’, he has written words that could be set to music and sung at St Ninian’s. Like a good historian, he knows human continuity doesn’t run in straight lines.

It has been a privilege to say a few of the many things that might be said about this book. It’s good to say them to a group of friends who admire Harvey for his poetry, and for much more as well. I wouldn’t be the only one to think how appropriate to the man we know this line of his is: ‘Stoicism / under siege buckles but rallies, old habits hold.’

I’ll risk a final moment of unaccustomed masculine sentiment, if I may, to say if I imagine being bailed up by a Martian and had to answer, ‘What are the qualities you most value in New Zealanders,’ I’d take a short cut. I’d say, ‘You might do worse than take a look at Harvey McQueen.’ And if I were quizzed a bit more, on how I thought the man and his poetry intersect, I’d read the last paragraph of what I say at the beginning of this book – and thank you for the chance to say so. ‘These are poems in the long and admirable tradition of the humanist belief that to face the facts, to find the language for speaking of them, is also to live alertly, kindly, attentive to what day is and what it brings. For that is what this collection adds up to. It is an unashamed declaration to a world that gives much, that expects much, and poetry is the way to say so.' '

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