you fit the description: The selected poems of Peter Olds, with an introduction by Ian Wedde (Cold Hub Press, 2014), 296 pp., $49.95
Peter Olds is part of the Dunedin scenery, like Joan Butcher or the Chins. Only three other living Dunedin poets match his residuality: the itinerant David Eggleton (who is somewhat younger), David Karena-Holmes (also, currently, not of Dunedin. Older than Olds), and John Dickson (now of Christchurch. Of similar vintage to Olds). It is a privilege to sit down for a cup of tea with any of these men. Yea, verily, in Dunedin, our newest UNESCO City of Literature, it remains possible to meet a poet on the street, and thereafter retire to confer about metrification over tea or even a beverage of fermented hops in, say, the Octagon.
A tea-drinker – the poet these days refrains from alcohol – Olds is also a one-man peripatetic. Until health complications recently rendered him partly housebound, he walked everywhere, thinking, observing, muttering, writing, ‘the habit of walking & composing late at night.’ Despite his fame as a poet of the V8 (per poems ‘Psycho’ (1971) and ‘Revisiting V8 nostalgia’(1971)), his carbon footprint would be in this country’s lowest one per cent. Somewhat unusually, Olds took up smartphone use well before his literary peers, and may now have worked out how to recite his poems direct into text. This is speculation only of course, but dictaphonic composition would sit well with the literary character of Olds’ poems, which are talky, ironic, sometimes wrily self-deprecating pieces of running commentary.
In his introduction to you fit the description, Ian Wedde first portrays Olds as one of 1970s anthologist Arthur Baysting’s Young New Zealand Poets, then capitulates:
I say ‘we’ but of course that’s a presumption that, having done its generalising work, now needs to be broken open. Whatever general unanimity there was among those who identified – or were identified – with or as the ‘young New Zealand poets’, there were also multiple differences and distinctions and practices; and, as importantly, there was never a comprehensively self-aware community.
Olds doesn’t fit the description, if the description is ‘Antipodean derivative of Kerouac and Ginsberg, O’Hara and Berrigan’ (and Wedde acknowledges as much). Undoubtedly he has admired and learnt from those American writers (his long poem ‘Freeway’ (1973), for instance, owes much to Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’), but the poet has lived and read beyond their influence. He has also been a friend of Baxter, Brasch and Tuwhare, squatter, itinerant, barfly, psych-ward intern, Buddhist pensioner … The poems of five decades show a diversifying voice, the fabled imago of the poet evolving in the course of private discoveries of rhythm, stance, outlook and form into a distinctly local meditation.
In ‘Panic attack at 30,000 feet’ (2003), for instance, Olds employs an idiosyncratic platform on which to raise the possibility of poetic language. Ripe with metaphor, Olds’ poem is suspended in a state of ostensible hyper-agitation, further inflected by the innate surreality of air travel. The rich language and array of technical features betray a poet skilled at mining personal experience to make art:
I’m in an aeroplane surrounded by men in dark suits
with flour-bag hair, gold teeth & long pale hands
fingering cream papers, vinyl attaché cases with flip-up
screens, silver pens, little plastic cups of coffee &
cellophane quiche. And orange-blue light glints off
snow-mountains & sea. And far below, past confetti
Christchurch & black swan lake among white puffs
of water the wind blows cold like a hundred pale fingers
& mist stretches up to the sky (where apparently we are )
like a fork going through tomato spaghetti …
Counting the two similes at the end, there are seven metaphors in these first ten lines, resting stably on the rhetorical platform created by the poet: ‘me’ at the projected moment of what John Dolan has called ‘poetic occasion’. In Dr Dolan’s study, the ‘occasion of truth’ to be exploited is commonly the death of a friend or fellow poet, as epitomised by Milton’s ‘Lycidas’. Here, Olds exploits personal panic to make art apotheosising the panic attack as a knowable depth of the human condition.
Unsurprisingly given the influence of the Beats, drugs, alcohol, sex, madness, depression and vagrancy are recurrent themes in the earlier poetry. Obliquely, the themes reflect a longstanding poetic concern, from Blake to Ginsberg, to counteract modern society’s apparent endless deferral of experience or deeper reckoning, and for poetry to play a special role in this counteraction. The title poem, ‘You fit the description’ (1972), describing a late-night encounter with a policeman, concludes with the poet
minding my own poetry composing business,
a little happy, a little paranoid
that I’ve found a fitting description
for a new poem.
Ostentatiously counter-cultural, another early poem, ‘Christmas Day at Joe Tui’s’ (1971), captures the empathy of one stoner, a Dunedin-Chinese fish-and-chip shop owner, for another, one of ‘those Infidels who / have missed out on the Holy Dinner’:
… his own stoned face joining
mine in a blissful, telepathic grin … Later, four pieces
of battered fish rolled over this tongue, and Christmas once
again found its narrow way down the gullet of another
The poem celebrates not just the occasion itself but, implictly, poetry’s capacity to celebrate it. Like the title poem, ‘Christmas Day at Joe Tui’s’ is ultimately a poem about poetry (and poetic life). To that extent, it illustrates the developing literary techne of mindfulness identified by Wedde in his introduction.
It has been said that Olds is a town-mouse-equivalent of Central Otago poet Brian Turner, both writers using reflective narratives of circumstantial personal experience throughout their oeuvres. The grandfather of this romantic tendency in New Zealand poetry is Baxter. On some accounts (including his own), Baxter was a sermonising hypocrite; notwithstanding, his later confessionalist poetry – in particular Autumn Testament and Jerusalem Sonnets – has become a benchmark of would-be authentic ‘New Zealand’ poetry. The influence of Baxter is at its worst in Olds’ elegiac, derivative poem ‘Four notes / Jim Baxter one year gone’ (1975), at its best in later work like ‘The shell’ (2013), here quoted in full:
If you hold the shell to your ear you will hear the sounds
of the sea and the vibrations of the ship as it sails from
Lyttelton to Wellington ‘overnight’ across Cook Strait—
or so my grandmother told me …
Hold the shell to your ear, hear the sounds of the sea:
the sandhill’s grasses whistling over sliding sand where a boy
leaves his sandals. Stand at the lace curtains on tip-toe and watch
the ship’s long, low lights gleam through North Beach’s mist
on its way to Wellington. The surf booming from a sea-shell
like a bakelite radio tuned to Aunt Daisy.
The maiden-hair fern on the table; the black polished stove
with its row of vents glowing like ship’s lights.
And after you’ve seen and heard it all, it’s time for bed …
The shell is put back on the shelf next to the clock and pencils
and the envelopes for writing letters to people in faraway places:
people who eat porridge without burning their lips.
Wedde perceives American influences such as Plath, O’Hara, Creeley, Ginsberg and Kerouac, and they are certainly there, but the influence of Baxter and the voice of introspective deliberation (‘The surf booming from a sea-shell / like a bakelite radio tuned to Aunt Daisy’) has been as formative as any.
Obviously, personal friendship was one reason for the influence, but there is another – both poets identified with a religious backdrop. Olds was the son of a Methodist minister, and grew up in the small town of Milton, an hour’s drive south of Dunedin. A well-known novelty, Milton has street names honouring dead writers from a now limp canon, Ossian, Cowper and Abercrombie among them. For all that his poetry is digressive, narrative-oriented, conversational, it is easy to see how such early influences could lead the young Olds to identify with the vatic power of language and poetry’s associated mystique. An established literary figure yet a rebel, Baxter was for the Miltonic escapee – who professes no fondness for Christianity – a liberating example of the poet-seer’s defiant non-conformity.
Physically a fine-looking publication, you fit the description is an annal of distinctly local flavour, almost Roman or ancient Chinese in its diligent recording of daily life. ‘The goose paddock’ (1986), for instance, lacking any specific geographical referents, is surely a poem about Omimi near Seacliff, and evocatively captures the same dilapidated landscape and inhabitants as now, almost 30 years later:
After I left the boulder beach & the dilapidated
boatshed with the one black gumboot (that some
one-legged fisherman is probably looking for)
I walked up a small gully till I came to a camp:
tin bivvy & the chimney against overhanging bush
& rock. A haven for sheep – sheep droppings in
The not-so-old ash. A haven also for divers – after
The small juicy paua – & shooters who stalk
The feral geese that live in the area.
The geese described might be 2000 years old, and Olds Catullus or Petronius. Instead, the poet was born to chronicle meanderings of a Dunedin bus in ‘There’s still snow on Flagstaff’ (2006), or life on the banks of the littered Leith in ‘Under the Dundas Street bridge’ (2011). With the date of composition recorded after each work, the poems are artefacts of a creative life lived and published in a changing cultural landscape.
Despite Greg O’Brien elevating you fit the description to Book of the Year late last year on Radio New Zealand, Olds has for a long time skirted the literary limelight. Though honoured from time to time, and a prolific author, he has ever been a misfit, sidestepped by some literati on account of his devotion to small publishing enterprises and penchant for the company of margin-dwellers. You fit the description has special value as a go-to compendium of Olds’ poetry, yet would not have come into existence without the efforts of independent publishing house, Cold Hub Press. In a way, its existence tells a story about New Zealand literature, a frail enterprise propped up by institutions, the state and, when these fail, literary Stakhanovites like Cold Hub’s publisher, Roger Hickin. Kudos, then, to Mr Hickin, for this is a book to own.
RICHARD REEVE is a Dunedin poet. His next collection of poems, Generation Kitchen, will be published by Otago University Press in 2015.