Friday, February 27, 2009

Miss Greenwood

Miss Greenwood

In the two-teacher secondary department at Akaroa District High School Miss Greenwood taught English, Geography, Art, Music and Horticulture. The school gardens won prizes for the best in Canterbury - she worked long hours in them and lessons saw our labour put to use. ("What do you do in horticulture?" Mum asked. "Shovel horse shit", I replied.) Miss Greenwood opened up new worlds of art, music, and literature. For a bookworm boy she’s just what the life-doctor ordered. Here is a poem of belated acknowledgment:

Blast me for an idiot
when Miss Greenwood put on
Jesu joy of man's desiring
spurred by the rest
I sounded "yuk"
her look of pain
her brilliant student
a ZB upbringing no excuse
my audience built by challenging hers
never questioned next door, Sticky's H20
she had her revenge
she hustled us to orchestra
Strauss, Sibelius
& on the bus coming home
Finlandia bouncing in every bone
I was hooked and delivered scaled
She once said looking straight at me
"You're not fully adult until you love Mozart."
a teacher's success can never be measured
too late now, but I apologise Miss Greenwood
third movement scherzo (allegro vivace.

After playing seven-a-side rugby at Hagley Park we went to the National Orchestra. The bruises from the morning's rugby forgotten I was rapt.
We had two poetry books, Mount Helicon and Grass from Parnassus. I still have them both - one bought school texts then. She took us through them, we chanted poems together, we chose a stanza, copied it out and illustrated it. I pored over both books at night. (I didn’t tell my classmates about this. I sensed their disapproval or at least misunderstanding). Many lines remain, a layer in my literary midden: "There's a breathless hush on the close tonight"; ""The Albatross fell off and sank like lead into the sea"; "I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree"; "Oh England is a pleasant place for them that's rich and high."
Miss Greenwood’s conviction that poetry counted proved contagious – it entered my bloodstream, though an opportunity was missed - we talked about the poems and ideas in them, but she never suggested I write poems nor did she give any creative writing lessons.
But she did something else that was important for me. There was only one New Zealand poem in the two anthologies - Pember Reeves, "God girt her about with the surges" with its borrowed diction. To make up that deficiency she put up on the blackboard - no banda or zerox in those days - for us to copy New Zealand poems, Dora Wilcox's Onawe, McKee Wright's Arlington and Blanche Baughan's The Old Place. All deal with questions of displacement and change as well as reflecting the pioneer values of my childhood. [What I didn’t realise was that they also contained their own indoctrination] But they represented an attempt to speak the language of our place. Poetry could be about places I knew. Onawe, the pear-shaped peninsula at the head of the harbour where we fished for flounder, was where Te Rauparaha swept down from the north to capture and destroy the local pah.

...Here once the Haka sounded; and din of battle
Shook the grey crags,
Triumphant shout and agonized death-rattle
Startled the shags...
Tena koe Pakeha! within this fortification
Grows English grass -
Tena koe! subtle conqueror of a nation
Doomed, doomed to pass!

Arlington - Granddad McQueen once managed a station like that and in his cups in his declining years bewailed the passing of that way of life.

...The good old boss of Arlington was everybody's friend,
He liked to keep the wages up right to the very end;
If diggers' horses went astray they always could be found
The cow that roamed across the run was never in the pound.
He was a white man through and through, cheery and fair and plain,
And now he'll never ride the rounds of Arlington again...

The Old Place, was the world I knew - summer droughts and winter floods, the Bush Paddock and old-timers gossiping about the room where Mary died and John...

...Yes well! I'm leaving the place. Apples look red on that bough.
I set the slips with my own hand. Well - they're another man's now.
The breezy bluff: an' the clover that smells so over the land
Drowning the reek of the rubbish that plucks the profit out o' your hand:

Poetry was not something from the other side of the world. Poems could be made in New Zealand. I was fascinated to learn that the old lady slowly pedaling around on a creaky bicycle was Blanche Baughan. Writers were actual people. And New Zealanders too. I mentioned this to Miss Greenwood. She lent me a book by a woman called Mansfield. I struggled to read the stories. They had no story, no plot. Miss Greenwood said that one day I’d understand.

The slips that she helped plant have lasted my lifetime.

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