The first poetry book I ever bought was R.A.K. Mason’s Collected Poems, which opens with his debut collection The Beggar. The collected edition was published in 1962, and I got it for half price (eight shillings and sixpence!) twelve months later. I was sixteen, in my final year at high school. There was an introduction by Allen Curnow, declaring Mason ‘his country’s first wholly original, unmistakably gifted poet’. This may be why I still have, somewhere at the back of my head, the notion that there are real poets out there and that all the rest of us are just pretending. In New Zealand, Mason (1905–71) is a famous case of a brilliant young poet who somehow lost sight of himself. The Collected Poems is slender: just under eighty pages of actual verse.
The Beggar was originally self-published by the poet in 1924. (Two of the twenty-two poems also appeared that year in Harold Monro’s Chapbook.) Fame of course did not follow, and there’s a story that Mason despairingly threw 200 copies of The Beggar into Auckland Harbour. The tale is probably apocryphal, but over the years it has struck a chord with many New Zealand poets.
Those early poems are astonishingly assured. They are bleak, yet agitated, sardonic and stoic, full of powerful feeling. Often there’s a focus on outcast figures, one of whom is Christ. The poems owe a lot to Housman, alongside whom Mason once named Catullus and Beddoes as influences. That’s to say, they can seem strangely archaic even while they behave in actively modern ways. They are classically made yet very light on punctuation. They always seem to know what they are doing, though they often feel as if they are about to lurch out of control. Strong form works as a kind of straitjacket to arrest the possibility of emotional disintegration. It is now widely known (mainly via Rachel Barrowman’s fine 2003 biography) that Mason was bipolar. Many of the early poems owe something to the manic phases of his illness, just as his later inability to write may have been caused by debilitating mood swings.
In the opening poem of his second book, No New Thing (1934), Mason describes his ‘bitter verses’ as ‘sponges steeped in vinegar / useless to the happy-eyed / but handy for the crucified.’ My favourite poem from this collection is the sonnet ‘Footnote to John II 4’, where in a wonderful mix of assertiveness and insecurity the poet offers himself as a contemporary footnote to the Bible passage where Christ rejects his mother.
Don’t throw your arms around me in that way:
I know that what you tell me is the truth –
yes I suppose I loved you in my youth
as boys do love their mothers, so they say,
but all that’s gone from me this many a day:
I am a merciless cactus an uncouth
wild goat a jagged old spear the grim tooth
of a lone crag . . . Woman I cannot stay.
Each one of us must do his work of doom
and I shall do it even in despite
of her who brought me in pain from her womb,
whose blood made me, who used to bring the light
and sit on the bed up in my little room
and tell me stories and tuck me up at night.
The adolescent bluster of the octave is muted finally by the childlike monosyllables of the last couplet. This man needs a cuddle. For me, Mason’s ‘Footnote’ joins that remarkable group of English-language poems – others might include Keats’s ‘Grecian Urn’, Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’, and Yeats’s ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ – where the words themselves repudiate what the poem has in mind.
When I retired from Victoria University a few years ago, my colleagues, who are also my friends, gave me a very small package, then sat around looking enigmatic while I opened it. It turned out to be a copy of Mason’s The Beggar. The previous owner had written his name on the title page: ‘Curnow ’59’. Inside were various marginal emendations in Curnow’s hand, some of which would find their way into the Collected Poems. On the card protecting the tiny book someone had written: ‘Open with care.’ Good and sensible advice. You should always open R.A.K. Mason with care.
Image: detail from Collected Poems