Kevin Ireland's golden rideby Mark Broatch
Poet Kevin Ireland is celebrating 50 years in print but don’t think for a moment any laurels are being rested upon.
The scow’s flat pale bow eases through the glittering harbour, the thin winter sunshine throwing shrinking shadows as the canvas sails are yanked in on lines via antique winches.
In his youth, Kevin Ireland saw such craft trading the reaches of the Manukau and Waitemata harbours. “Today they’re an oddity and a tourist attraction and a thoroughly worthwhile museum piece.” This is a typical Ireland thought. A lifetime wrestling with poetry – described by Coleridge as the best words in the best order – has swelled his synaptic connections to the size of twigs; his sentences are complete, roving, unique.
The scow is berthing directly in front of our restaurant on Auckland’s waterfront. We are meeting ahead of the launch of his 300-page Selected Poems 1963-2013, which is Ireland’s 20th book of poetry and marks 50 years in print and his 80th birthday.
He claims chronic unproductivity, but those eight decades have been crowded. He was born in Auckland in 1933, went to live in England in 1959 and stayed for 25 years, working at the Times for most of them. But his heart stayed home. He diligently sent back poems to Robin “Bob” Dudding, editor of Landfall, Mate, Islands, and the source of the phrase: “We write pretty good poetry in this country.”
Ireland married young, an overseas union of which not much is spoken. Then came the beloved, formidable Yorkshirewoman Caroline; they had two sons. A few years ago, she died suddenly and he grieved. But in 2011, at 78, he married again, to his old friend Janet Wilson, 63, a professor of English and post-colonial studies in Northhampton in the English Midlands. For the moment, she lives there. He still lives in Devonport, getting on a plane as often as he can. Marriage suits the man, as much as standing still does not.
Shelves of books have his name on the spine, poetry but also novels, memoirs, short stories. He has had writing stints at Auckland and Canterbury universities; was the Sargeson Fellow in 1987, a few years after Janet Frame; was given an award and $60,000 by a Prime Minister; and has an honorary doctorate and an OBE. He was assistant editor of Quote Unquote, a sharp but doomed 1990s books magazine, when I first met him.
But if we’re talking achievements, we should not forget the social. He loves company, chat, a glass or three. He is a great luncher. Last week’s regular gathering of seasoned authors, for instance, began at noon on the dot and serviettes were downed at 5pm. “Just about ready for dinner. Huhuhah.” Ireland has at least three laughs, a hehe that punctuates the middle of those thought-filled sentences, a palate-cleansing, slightly rude huhuhah, and a rolling, breathy, helpless rumble: huhuhuhuhuhuhah.
Today, as he compares the “oily, sweetish, dainty” nature of pinot gris with a Montrachet premier cru he once had that cost the equivalent of a second-hand car (someone else paid), I ask him the question everyone always wants to know of authors: why do you write?
“It pays everyone to have a harmless obsession. I don’t think that writing does much harm to anyone, except perhaps yourself. Huhuhah. It is obsessive because why else would you do something that has so little monetary reward? This is a lifetime of grinding away at words.”
He’s not sure about the exact nature of writers, but he likes their company. “They’re seldom completely rounded people.” Publishers and editors should also have an obsessional side, he thinks. “It’s a kink, and it’s lucky when one tribe meets the other tribe and the kinks fit. Huhuhah. The kinks link.”
Even though he’s in his ninth decade, there are no plans to stop: he’s already 50 drafts into the next collection. It’s always about the next book.
“You know that a certain time in your life has ended and that you can move on and start the new one. You feel that the loneliness and so on has been rewarded. Publication is the great consolation. You feel chuffed, not because your name is out there, but because you’ve given your poem an independent life.” You can’t rush a collection.
“Some people try to sit down and write books. That might suit some personalities but I don’t think it suits most. Just busily accumulating is the way that most books get done, and why some poets survive and others don’t.”
He worries about a future when poets are published only online. “I would hate to be starting off now, because I had a golden ride. I was very lucky in the timing. And hugely lucky to have someone like Robin Dudding. There is nothing like seeing a little magazine that somebody may have produced in their garage – hehe – for poets to get a feeling of what it’s like. The world very seldom sees little Johnny Keatses, Jimmy Baxters, Ron Masons coming along, doing marvellous work at 19. Most 19-year-old poets are interesting only for their potential.”
Dudding, who died in 2008, kept Ireland in print and on track. Dudding was a poet-spotter, also recognising the talents of Ian Wedde and Bill Manhire, he says.
Ireland’s poetry has been described as full of imagination and trickiness, yet lean. His forms are carefully patterned and his themes recur, such as the big one: love.
“Love alone is past a price/and all free reckoning”
He acknowledges that E.E. Cummings and Denis Glover influenced him greatly. “I often feel Glover and Mason and [Rex] Fairburn in particular were my real mentors.”
As for subjects, he keeps “harping on” about certain things. “You hope to make them more and more interesting, of course. I’ve been writing a few poems lately about things that I never thought I would. Things like physics and bits of thought floating about out there. In my next book, there’ll be one about the Big Bounce Theory, for instance.
That’s the follow-on from the Big Bang Theory. It all reassembles and goes bang again and again and again. Which is how the poem ends. Huhuhuhuhuhuhah.”
Pulling together the selected verse has been a job full of surprises. “Because you come across old poems that you can’t remember having written. You feel that some of them don’t work, but others really do. They catch your breath. The part of me that’s now gone, now departed, knew what he was doing when he did that.”
He was probably getting paid for doing something else at the time. The two decades in UK journalism he found “very relaxing”. All the journalists he knew would tell him about the books they would write. “By the end of the day, they’d written themselves out. I’ve heard libraries of books described to me by journalists in bar-rooms.”
He has always referred to these years as a long holiday, and himself as an accidental exile. “In the end I returned because this was the bit of me that wrote. Some people have managed to escape, like Joseph Conrad, from their background. Write in another language, and in another country. It was almost as if I carried a stigmata. Huhuhah. Whenever I sat down, this thing, whatever it was, would start to bleed in me.”
When he came back in 1985, to a job at the Listener and at the boom of the stockmarket, he saw a changed country, and realised he had a role to play. “I knew when I came back that I’d had it very easy and that I owed a lot to those who had stayed and – heh – carried the yoke when I’d been, as they thought, enjoying the fleshpots of Europe. So I paid my dues when I came back. I took on a lot of things.” That included the presidency of the writers’ association, Pen.
Ireland has never believed Kiwis are a passionless people. “I think there are phlegmatic sides, but that’s more a kind of vague provincialism that’s there as more of a ghost in our characters. It’s not a bad thing. I meet, almost every day, people who are passionate about some cause and commit themselves to doing good and putting things right. In England there’s a sense of being crushed by the state; here people kick against it. Everybody has their lazy sides, and New Zealanders have that in abundance, but on the whole, we bluff and bullshit our way through a lot of crises quite impressively.”
Writing doesn’t solve things, he says, but it does help identify and delineate them. “It helps us deal with the ghosts; things that oppress us should be written about and dealt with.”
He refuses to pass judgment on other poets these days, being more interested in their longevity. “Without staying power, poetry is a delightful but ephemeral thing.” He will say he finds some younger writers’ poetry “strangely detached”, but the fact that others are doing it is all that interests him. And that older poets are still producing.
“What I get huge pleasure out of is this extraordinary thought that within a couple of months of each other, Peter Bland, Fleur Adcock, Karl Stead, Vincent O’Sullivan and I have brought out major books.”
“Out there in the shadows, huddled behind our backs,/the older poets are evermore at it, jotting notes to feather/perfect adjustments to the flight-paths of their words.”
O’Sullivan, for his part, told the Listener that Ireland has got on quietly with writing poems that are deftly turned, witty, socially alert, compassionate. Both as a writer and a man, he’s never had “a flicker of the prance and strut that seemed de rigueur with some of his contemporaries”.
There’s another memoir coming. “I keep on starting it, and I get 20 pages in and then I give up. There are too many living people – hehe. Eventually I may crack it by writing the memoir around the poems, because these are the true memoir.
“At 80, all I have to say is to echo the words of a great black jazz musician who, when he got a presidential honour at the age of 100, said all he had to say was that if he’d have known he was going to live that long, he would have looked after himself a lot better. I don’t think people of 20 think much about being 80; I certainly didn’t.” Would he change anything? “Oh, probably not. Huhuhuhuhah.”
His wife is coming out for his birthday. “We hope to move around as citizens of the world. This is something that New Zealanders are good at. Bugger the carbon footprint, and quite rightly. We just jump on a plane and we’re off. It’s done nothing but good for the country.”
So still living, loving, fishing, as he has since he was a child before the war. It was at Cornwallis, in Auckland’s bushy west, that he first saw those boats. “Scows coming in over the bar, and of course plying about from farms in the Manukau up to Onehunga, carrying stock and ballast, and provisions.”
But Ireland is not one for dwelling in the past for long. Does he have any ambitions left?
“Finish the next book.”
Selected Poems 1963-2013, by Kevin Ireland (Steele Roberts, $40).
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