Shelf Life: Reviews, Replies and Reminiscences by C K Stead.
Auckland: AUP (2016).
Shelf Life: Reviews, Replies and Reminiscences by C K Stead gathers together Stead’s occasional writing. Every morning for the last thirty years, C. K. Stead has written fiction and poetry. Shelf Life collects the best of his work, reviews, essays, interviews and diaries, lectures and opinion pieces. It also includes reflections and blog posts. Stead writes about his travels, experiences overseas, his witty interviews, his close relationships with other writers and his various writing awards. It is a generous and interesting book for anyone interested in Stead’s views on a number of literary topics.
In this collection, a sequel to the successful Answering to the Language, The Writer at Work and Book Self, Stead takes the reader through essays in “The Mansfield File”, collects works of criticism and review in ‘book talk’, and writes about everything from David Bain to Parnell (Auckland). This book is probably mellower than one might expect from Stead, who is generally known for his acerbic wit, although there are some passages which might occasion some controversy.
Stead, for example, believes there may be more benefit to be gained for a writer by reading good literature rather than enrolling in creative writing classes. He queries Keri Hulme’s ability to claim a prize for The Bone People on the basis of her tenuous one-eighth Maori ancestry. He continues his lifelong interest in Katherine Mansfield’s life and work.
The book opens with “The Mansfield File”, a wonderful series of essays about the writer, which includes writing about Mansfield’s Married Man, Tom & Viv and Murray & Mansfield, A Note on Larkin on Mansfield and a piece about Margaret Scott, who was ‘the Turnbull Library’s Mansfield expert and the chief transcriber of that famously difficult handwriting.’ Stead ends the essay with this paragraph on the debt readers owe to Scott’s erudite work on Mansfield:
We are all in Margaret’s debt for her transcriptions, and as a source of information. Her book Recollecting Mansfield is both entertaining and informative and includes colourful recollections of L M (Ida Baker) and others. I remember Margaret with fondness as a notable co-worker in the field of Mansfield studies, an elegant, witty and intelligent writer, and one whose e-messages I have sadly missed since the shades of dementia began to close around her two or three years ago.
In Chapter 2, “Book Talk: Sixteen Reviews”, there are essays on Hugh Kenner, Kevin Ireland, Alan Roddick, James Wood and many more. His review of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (which won the Man Booker Prize) is entitled “Virginia Woolf’s Nightmare?” In the review, Stead describes the book thus:
Exhaustively ‘authentic’, the story is also shamelessly implausible – in its particular events but more, in their fortuitous combinations. I discover my own limits here – those of the impatient realist. My difficulty is similar to one I have with much of Peter Carey’s work (and Catton is quite his equal): that it doesn’t allow me to forget, even for a moment, that this is fiction – the novel as game, played brilliantly, but at such length and so elaborately I couldn’t entirely overcome that impatience. Ingenuity outruns admiration and becomes tedious. I finished the novel acknowledging enormous talent, but feeling the demands made on time and attention offered insufficient human or intellectual return.
Chapter 3, “First Person” contains 19 essays ranging from “My First Book”, “My Parnell”, “The Case of David Bain” to interviews given by him and to his childhood during World War I. One of the first book of Stead’s that I possessed was The New Poetic. Stead tells us in the first essay of this section that it was his Bristol University PhD thesis. He goes on to say:
During the preceding decade I had been publishing poems and reviews, and had won the first BNZ Katherine Mansfield short story prize, so I had already some kind of presence on the literary scene, and it seemed rather late for a first book. Published by Blackwood Paul, the poems were printed at the Caxton Press by Leo Bensemann, a typical ‘fine book’ of its time, with thirty-plus well-worked poems. It was a young poet’s assemblage in differing styles and forms; a record of finding (and sometimes losing) ways forward.
The New Poetic was a study of twentieth-century poetic Modernism, published first in the Hutchinson University Library, then as a Pelican, and in America as a Harper Torchbook. Stead says:
It was a book which revised the standard view of the Georgian poets, dividing them into two distinct groups, and spoke up for Yeats against the Leavisite (negative) view of him.
In the essay, “One Thing Leads to Another”, gives the impression of his life as a writer in the decades since he left the English department of the University of Auckland. I was astonished that he lists poetry as being the most important aspect of his writing life, as I’ve always regarded him as one of New Zealand’s foremost literary critics. Perhaps from the following paragraph in which he writes about his career in writing, we can see why he focuses on poetry:
I’ve always regarded myself as a writer first and an academic second. Teaching was my profession, writing my vocation. Of the three literary modes, poetry, fiction and criticism, poetry was for me the most important, the most demanding and satisfying, but also the most mysterious and ungovernable. I taught myself the basics very early, and I was a competent technician. But poems – real poems as distinct from verse exercises – came and went according to determinants which could seem almost independent of the will.
The focus in the final section, 4, “The Laureate Reflects”, is on other poets, such as Allen Curnow, Ezra Pound, Ted Hughes, the Irish Poets and Poetry, Stephen Spender and his son Matthew.
In the essay “Allen Curnow – ‘Poet Laureate’?”, Stead writes that ‘Resonant phrases from these poems entered one stratum of the national consciousness at that time and have remained there.’ Curnow’s poem, “Landfall in Unknown Seas” is perhaps one of the most famous New Zealand poems. The poem celebrates Tasman’s landing in New Zealand. Stead writes that it is ‘a beautifully structured sequence which runs through the excitements of preparation for the voyage and anticipation of success.’ He goes on to say:
All of this, together with the lovely clarity with which Douglas Lilburn’s accompanying music catches the poem’s moods and transitions, put poetry for a moment right into the public arena. The time was right for this, and Curnow had seen the need of the moment and had seized it memorably.
The first part of Stead’s essay on “Irish Poets and Poetry” concentrates on Yeats, on whom he had written a chapter in his first critical book, The New Poetic. He then focuses on Seamus Heaney, whose first lecture he heard when Heaney was Professor of Poetry at Oxford. He writes of Heaney:
As a young man, Heaney told me, he had been unable to read Eliot until he read my book. In the title essay of his book, The Government of the Tongue, and again in a lecture called “Learning from Eliot”, he goes on about this at some length.
In the essay, Stead also writes about meeting the Harvard critic Helen Vendler, the Yeats biographer Roy Foster and the editor of Yeats letters, John Kelly.
In the essay on “‘Taddeo Grande’ – Ted Hughes”, Stead writes of his first encounter with the poet’s work when he bought Hughes’ book The Hawk in the Rain for his wife’s birthday in 1957. Since reading Jonathan Bate’s biography of the poet, Stead says that he feels he’s been resisting Hughes most of his life.
There’s an anxiety about this, a habit of critical conscientiousness learned when young, a feeling almost of guilt as if, as a serious reader of poetry, it’s my duty to have an opinion.
He then goes on to give a wonderful exegesis of the poet’s life and work. Stead writes that Hughes’ Birthday Letters
is the collection that gives this biography its shape. Bate takes a line here from Hughes himself – that the whole Plath debacle had deflected him for many years from ‘the true voice of feeling.’ ‘Everything I’ve written since the early 1960’, Hughes wrote in a letter, ‘has been evading. It was a kind of desperation that I finally did publish them. […] If only I had done the equivalent 30 years ago I might have had a more fruitful career.’
This is a fascinating collection of 436 pages of erudite, wonderful writing that would be of interest not only to the engaged literary reader of Stead’s work, but to those who appreciate Stead’s wit, poetry, criticism and references and who are familiar with the authors and books about which he writes.
Patricia Prime, a regular contributor to takahē, is co-editor of Kokako and assistant editor of Haibun Today. Patricia’s primary interest is Japanese short form poetry: haiku, tanka, haibun and tanka prose and she has published a book of collaborative tanka sequences called Shizuka (2015).
First published takahe 89