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How a new R.A.K. Mason collection shows the Kiwi poet in a different light

RAK Mason in 1967. Photo/Jack George/Supplied

R.A.K. Mason: Uncollected Poems may provide new answers to questions that have long puzzled readers and critics.

There used to be a legend that real New Zealand poetry began in the 1930s. The myth is much contested now, but as long as it flew, there were said to be four poets who set things going: Allen Curnow, ARD Fairburn, Denis Glover and, starting before the others, Ronald Allison Kells Mason.

But here’s the problem. If you pick up the collected poems of other canonical New Zealand poets (Curnow, say, or James K Baxter), you find yourself holding a doorstopper book that runs to many hundreds of pages. But if you pick up RAK Mason’s Collected Poems, it’s one very slim volume. Collected Poems was published in 1962, nine years before his death. Most of the poems included were written in the 1920s and early 1930s, before Mason was 25; the most recent was from 1951.

So, what happened to Ron Mason the poet? Was he overwhelmed by depression? Did he lose his youthful inspiration or just give up writing poetry? Edited by its publisher Roger Hickin, and with a detailed introduction by the poet Robert McLean, R.A.K. Mason: Uncollected Poems may provide new answers to these questions that have long puzzled readers and critics.

Mason’s life has been examined in detail a number of times. There is a scrupulously scholarly biography of him by Rachel Barrowman and a rather more simplistic one by John Caselberg. Both biographers show that Mason continued writing poetry well after Collected Poems was published. Hickin explains that both Barrowman and Caselberg “quote poems that were not included in, or were written after, the 1962 Collected Poems”. But of his own researches, Hickin writes, “a trawl through the Mason archive at the Hocken Collections revealed more. Clearly, a selection of this largely forgotten or unknown work was long overdue. And clearly the legend of the poet who lost his gift needed some correction.” Putting together Uncollected Poems, Hickin excluded poems that were clearly juvenilia, rough drafts of unfinished poems, or poems that were “try-outs” for other poems that have already been collected. But he still found much to include.

The general consensus used to be that Mason’s poetry got swamped by his politics. Immersed in left-wing causes, doing work for trade unions, editing and writing articles for the old communist newspaper the People’s Voice, Mason was too busy with agitprop and editorials to write real poems. Or maybe political activism had become a substitute for poetry. In Uncollected Poems there are indeed 40-odd pages of poetic agitprop from the 1940s and 50s – pieces such as Service for the Fallen, This Dark Will Lighten and China are designed for public performance before left-wing audiences. Hickin calls it “literary snobbism” to see these pieces as not being real poetry and describes them as “utterly successful pieces of proletarian writing”. Not all readers will necessarily agree with this view.

McLean notes that in his life, Mason kept a stringently curated canon, leaving out of his Collected Poems work of which other poets would have been proud. This work finds its way into Uncollected Poems and some of it reveals a surprising side to Mason. For one thing, there’s his sense of humour. He could have a “censorious missionary tone” in his earlier poetry, says McLean, and he “certainly deserves his reputation as a poet reeking of sex and death”. But in the poems now being published, we find “he also wrote tender and humorous poems, which delightedly poke the borax at his po-faced public persona”. There’s a good example in the self-referencing satire The Writer to His Wife.

McLean doesn’t deny that in many ways Mason’s style was old-fashioned and less modernist than late romantic. He took his cue from the idol of angsty teenagers, AE Housman, and “remained besotted with Housman throughout his life. He never felt the need to put up much of a fight against his influence.” But “although Mason remained essentially Georgian, he also read widely, and the Uncollected Poems show other unexpected influences, such as Eliot and Swift”. The last 30 pages of Uncollected Poems are poems from the 1960s. In style they are very like a return to Mason’s earliest poetry, being very personal rather than political, and with a strongly romantic flavour. But the older Mason is much more mellow and humorous than his teenage self, forgiving the world and in a way forgiving himself for his youthful angst.

It’s a matter of debate whether Uncollected Poems includes work as great as that in Collected Poems. But with its publication, Mason will never be seen in the same light again.

R.A.K. MASON: Uncollected Poems, edited by Roger Hickin, with an introduction by Robert McLean (Cold Hub Press, $37.50)

This article was first published in the October 26, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.