Letters of Denis Glover, selected and edited by Sarah Shieff(Otago University Press, 2020), 800pp, $79.95
Letters are perhaps the least likely genre to produce good enduring writing. Unlike writers’ diaries, that most self-conscious genre so memorably manipulated by a Pepys or a Woolf, letters, especially those written in long-hand, are transactional, at once spontaneous and habitual, and seldom submitted to revision. They are the medium most likely to induce regret in the writer and discomfort in the reader given that they often seem to induce writers to show off and parade themselves at their unbuttoned worst, such as the epistolary bawdiness, hokum and spleen of T.S. Eliot or Phillip Larkin addressing their pet-named pals. But for readers who manage to find writers’ lives interesting, collections of letters are frequently read as a substitute for an unwritten autobiography, albeit one that is even less reliable than the latter’s self-curated disclosures, given the myriad manners literary letterists assume for their various recipients.
Denis Glover wrote a pair of autobiographies, Hot Water Sailor and Land Lubber Ho!, which while rich in good-humoured anecdote, decidedly suffered from mid-century male reticence, their author skipping through or dancing around most of what readers would have been keen to learn more about. Gordon Ogilvie’s 1999 biography filled in many of the blanks, but this present edition of Glover’s letters, a volume of over 800 pages assiduously selected and edited by Sarah Shieff, is a significant achievement. Glover remains an anthology staple, generations of school children having quardle-oodle-ardle-wardle-doodled through ‘The Magpies’, a familiarity that has dulled our recognition of what an extraordinarily economical, evocative and subtle poem it is. Beyond his poetry, Glover looms perhaps even larger on the literary landscape for having founded The Caxton Press, without which New Zealand’s literary history almost certainly would have been considerably less interesting. Even for those readers who are unsympathetic to the masculinist and nationalist literary milieu in which Glover played a decisive role, this book provides an armoury of ammunition with which to storm the bygone but still contested barricades manned by the ghosts of Sargeson, Curnow and Brasch. For sympathisers such as me, it is an invaluable opportunity to trace the determined rise and long, lilting decline of a fascinating but flawed man. The portrait of the poet and printer, gadfly and barfly, sailor and suitor that emerges is far more equivocal and ambiguous than I had expected: a Janus-faced figure who in many ways failed to reach his full potential but whose achievements still surely warrant our respect.
The letters are largely what one familiar with the Glover persona might expect: often delightfully tangy, full of brio and bluster, playfully self-deprecating. There are many tall tales to enjoy, zingers and casual learnedness in which to revel. Some omissions are regrettable: for example, only nineteen letters and twenty-two pages cover the years from the formation of The Caxton Press in early 1936 until Glover’s departure in 1942, during which time the press issued some forty books under its own imprint, including seven by Glover, four by Curnow, three by Mason, two by Bethell, Fairburn’s Dominion and Sargeson’s A Man & His Wife, as well as fine editions of the brothers Grimm, Boccaccio, Milton and Bensemann’s Fantastica. This, of course, is the much discussed period of literary nationalism, and whatever one might think of its priorities and privileges, many durable and interesting poems and stories were written and published by this necessarily self-supporting yet disparate group. Lack of comment from Glover about this time is to be rued. But perhaps he was simply too busy to have time for correspondence. When Glover was least productive with poetry and print, the volume of his letters swells appreciably. As Glover found himself with a surfeit of time on his hands, it seems he turned himself to complicating the lives of talented and successful women such as Olive Johnson, his bibliographer and a significant librarian and scholar, and Janet Paul, the publisher, typographer, art historian and painter. Glover undertook simultaneous operations on multiple fronts; his sallies were marked by aching need and deep-seated ambivalence. During the 60s and 70s swathes of cris de coeur and billets-doux were issued by the smitten but ever ambivalent Glover as he vacillated between self-pity and complaint on one hand and joy and hope on the other. Some of the most moving passages in this book are in a letter dated 8 June 1970 to Janet Paul’s daughter Charlotte, in which Glover writes of ‘the perplexities that are better shared’, and pleads his case for the hand of her mother, even while telling Charlotte that ‘I have made it clear that I come last’—that is, after Charlotte and her sisters.
This is not to suggest that these letters will disappoint those with more specialised interests. Aficionados of the dark arts will find much worth attending to, though doing so requires some spadework given the heft of this book. For instance, in a letter of 9 July 1964 to ‘Cher mon Charles’ Brasch, Glover provides a fascinating ratiocination of his design for Curnow’s Poems 1949–57, a self-appraisal that covers binding cloth, spine printing, facing title page (‘looks like a Grecian Urn’), ‘over-stated’ title page, acknowledgements, body type and more besides. In Glover’s unequivocal words: ‘Printing? I’ve never set a page of type that I wouldn’t wish to set all over again.’
About poetry, sadly, there is much less to be mined. Glover’s critiques of people’s poetry are almost invariably illuminating, such as those on Curnow’s work, but he consistently deflects inquiry about his own work and devalues it as being ancillary to the general business of manliness. This is a pity: Glover was perhaps the most natural lyricist among his poetic coterie, and his best poems combine sensitivity to and adroit handling of the music of verse—its sound as independent from its sense—with terseness of statement. Admitting the disproportion of chaff to wheat, which increased as Glover aged, the finest are instantly memorable without sacrificing ambiguity and depth, at once particular in detail and general in significance.
So what do these letters reveal of Glover the man? Certainly the love letters mentioned above show Glover was far more self-reflective and sensitive to others’ feelings than his public persona let on. To his friends, he is boisterous, self-deprecating, long-suffering, trading in the expected suburban prejudices du jour, little gobbets of nastiness that jolt one out of the bubbly flow of witticisms and Latin tags. He doesn’t seem to have been particularly good at the business of living: after his time serving in the Royal Navy, he tended to balk at responsibility. Even printing, his second love after the sea, was relegated to something to do for fun. Certainly, Glover’s service during World War II, particularly his helming of a landing craft at Normandy, proved to be a defining interlude, and he returns to it frequently with undiminished investment throughout this book. The intensity of wartime experience and its sudden conclusion certainly affected Glover and no doubt contributed to his increasingly heavy drinking and the consequent loss of The Caxton Press. Later ventures were more or less itinerant and lackadaisical: his tenure at Wingfield Press seems to have been conducted from barstools, from which he assessed the proof sheets of his more conscientious colleagues. Of course, to a large measure this licence was earned by his evident excellence as a craftsman. But Glover, judging from these letters, was always painfully aware that he never made the most of gifts, and what he took for his finest moments, on Her Majesty’s fighting ships in Arctic waters and during Operation Neptune, could only be shared with fellow survivors of the maelstrom.
Glover has been posited as a Renaissance man, combining learnedness and devotion to craft with linguistic flair and the life of action. This model depends on a certain view of masculinity, one in which ‘manly’ virtues are complemented by contemplative pursuits, though never to the point of calling them into question. Exemplars would be Drake and Raleigh, perhaps Sydney. Even the brawling hard-drinking playwrights and poets Marlowe and Ben Jonson could be subsumed into this rubric. But Glover doesn’t really fit. He, like many of his associated contemporaries, seems to me far more akin to eighteenth-century characters, talkers and tuppers like Samuel Johnson or Swift, both of whom Glover was fond of quoting, and who, like Glover, suffered from a certain dissipation in their art. But despite Glover’s reservations, his poetry, especially that of Sings Harry and Arawata Bill, has proved itself deservedly durable.
Without Glover’s efforts as printer and publisher, New Zealand literature would have almost certainly turned out differently. Glover provided hope for many writers: without him perhaps Curnow would have drifted into the priesthood or journalism; Bethall may have continued to publish in England; we might have even less of Mason than we do now; and perhaps Frame might never have emerged from hospital, let alone been published. After all, few except the most quixotic persist without any hope of a readership. And Glover, with the help of a few equally bloody-minded collaborators, saw to it that they had one.
After his achievements at Caxton, the high points of his later publishing ventures were his husbandry of Curnow’s Poems 1949–57 with the short-lived Mermaid Press along with Trees, Effigies, Moving Objects and An Abominable Temper, and Other Poems with his Catspaw imprint in the 70s; and working with The Pegasus Press to see into print the respective collected poems of A.R.D. Fairburn and R.A.K. Mason.
But these were exceptions to a long slow denouement, and Glover’s death after a fall in 1980 was both sudden and unsurprising. Curnow’s tribute to his ‘oldest, closest, and best-loved friend’ gave notice of his ‘passion for excellence’, which cut through his habitual bombasticism, dissipation and self-defeating prejudices. As publisher of Bethell, Hyde and Frame, as well as queer writers like Cresswell, Sargeson and Brasch, Glover made the best books it was possible for him to make, devoting much time and energy to excellence in printing and design, overcoming material limitations and learning much in doing so, so that their work was given the greatest chance of survival in a largely indifferent world.
‘Those I love are many, those I hate are few,’ Glover wrote in a letter on 5 May 1980. Even if that love did not grant its recipients liberty from being skewered on Glover’s particularly pointed poignard, this book makes plain in Glover’s own words that those he loved were indeed many. With these letters at hand, we can now value his efforts more highly and view his frailties with more compassion and steadiness than his ‘perplexities’ allowed him to do for himself.
ROBERT MCLEAN is a poet, critic, reviewer, and collector of The Caxton Press. His collected poems were published in 2020 by Cold Hub Press. He lives in Lyttelton and works in Wellington for the New Zealand government.