Self evident

by Nelson Wattie / 26 April, 2008
CK Stead defies his critics with sharp, clear, rational argument.

The case of CK Stead is a curious one. On one side of the scales is a prolific and extensive achievement in many literary genres, a major contribution to New Zealand literature and international criticism, and, on the other, an absence of popularity in certain quarters.

Stead acknowledges this uncomfortable dichotomy himself. In a recent witty poem, he had the private man, loved by family and friends, encounter the abrasive public image and confessed that even the former dislikes the latter. In the present volume, he writes much of friendship, but also discusses a deeply hurtful incident when a group of mainly Wellington writers turned on him angrily over the case of a flat for their use in London. His account makes a convincing case that the anger was irrational and vindictive, as well as self-defeating.

Even so, the question needs to be asked: why does Stead arouse such fierce opposition? When I put it to those who should know - his self-appointed enemies - I usually get nothing but abusive, sometimes obscene, ad hominem comments. The most coherent answer seems to be: "He puts too much of himself into his work."

Now this is strange. Most readers agree that one of the primary factors of literary enjoyment is the "voice" in the work. Even in third-person styles, the voice in good work is unmistakable and unique. So why is Stead picked on for this universal feature? Presumably, it is not the fact of the self in the work, but the character of that self that causes offence.

In a typically nose-thumbing gesture, in Book Self: The Reader as Writer and the Writer as Critic, Stead approaches the matter of self in the text head-on and defies his critics with sharp, clear, rational argument, putting their vague murmurs to shame.

There is a whole range of demonstrations here, from the deeply personal to the nearly impersonal in written style. In a series of essays, journalistic articles, travel pieces and diary notes, he sometimes takes himself as subject matter, sometimes some person or object outside himself, and frequently both. The result is entertaining, sometimes illuminating, but also uneven.

No one, for example, should expect to learn much about French literature and language from Stead's essay on the subject, The Sweetshop Window. His voice here is dilettantish and faintly puzzled. What one learns instead is something about the way this writer's mind works and how he reacts to the "other".

But his accounts of some 20th-century anglophone poetry in a series of brilliant essays at the centre of the book are a reminder that Stead is the author of a fabulously successful introduction to literary modernism, The New Poetic. His comments on such poets as John Ashbery, WH Auden, John Berryman, TS Eliot, Robert Lowell and Ezra Pound and his analyses of particular poems reward close reading, and any disagreement with them needs to be expressed with the same clarity, logical argument and respect for literary and aesthetic values that Stead applies.

His generous comments on a wide range of New Zealand writers also deserve that sort of respect: one does not have to agree with his judgments, but any disagreement needs to observe the rules of courtesy, debate and literary logic, without pulling punches when that seems appropriate. Some of these writers, such as Frank Sargeson, Janet Frame, Bill Pearson and Kendrick Smithyman, were colleagues and/or personal friends. Others are clearly enemies. In one case, Michael King, an opponent, was gradually won over to become a sometimes reluctant ally.

All this brings us back to the issue of self: the best way to read this book, I believe, is to treat it as a kind of auto-biography. As such, its structure is unorthodox, and, tellingly, it is an intellectual and artistic autobiography rather than a "personal" one. It is the story of - love it or hate it - a remarkably interesting New Zealand mind.

Nelson Wattie is a Wellington writer and translator and co-editor of The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature.

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