Apollo in George Street – The Life of David McKee Wright, by Michael Sharkey (Puncher and Wattman, 2010) 450 pp., $45.99.
The poet David McKee Wright (1869–1928) might now be seen as a literary anti-hero with many wrong ideas. This would be to do him an injustice. When we look carefully at settler cultures in Australasia through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, we find riches and limitations – both artistic significance and artistic bathos. This period and its works need to be judged in their own terms, not just through the eyes of our own social and critical theory. That is a major success of this biography. It is a meticulous study that has given back to McKee Wright and the trans-Tasman societies in which he spent his adult life some of the dimensions of actuality.
Sharkey does not sentimentalise. We do not see Wright and his milieu in the golden glow of a romantic past. This biographer pulls no punches about the nastiness of some of the notions with which his subject flirted, nor about his poetic failures. For all that Wright emerges as a libertarian – a loveable, gifted and generous man of natural charm and elegance. Some might also say a dandy and a philanderer; but the evidence in this book shows him living successively with three women, two of whom he continued to support after he had left them.
Since Karl Stead’s The New Poetic (1964) and Anthony Kingsbury’s (1968) thesis, Poetry in New Zealand, 1850–1930, it has been conventional wisdom to see the late-Victorian/Edwardian/Georgian period as at best transitional, at worst a poetic backwater. Imperialist rhetoric, worn-out romantic styles and blind jingoism were common. Early Modernist art and poetics had not yet shifted us, en masse, into the modern. Wright’s life in Australasia (1887–1928) coincides with this transition and has many of its qualities. Capable of penning the most abject doggerel, he nonetheless had talent and a real knowledge, both of classical literatures and the mainstream of English poetry. He was not a dilettante, and through his slow arrival at poetic maturity was always aware of the best his art might do.
An imaginative child, he was one of the sons of Anne and William McKee Wright. His mother died when he was eight; his father, a powerful, articulate and austere Presbyterian churchman in Northern Ireland dominated his youth. In adolescence David received a public school education in England then came to New Zealand where there were already extensive family connections. It was 1887 and he was already writing. Here he became known as a balladeer, most famously through his 1897 collection Station Ballads and Other Verses, influenced by his years as a rouseabout on Otago farms. He moved to Sydney from New Zealand in 1910; there he wrote a vast number of ‘topicals’ (poems on current affairs), satirical and serious, and became a famous editor of the Sydney Bulletin’s literary pages. He was aware of early Modernism, but had reservations. Writing seriously in jest, his 1919 comment on vers libreconcedes it has valid ground of its own.
there is a difference between
between free verse and words
merely strung together to
link commonplace to commonplace.
He was well-acquainted with Yeats and the literary phase of the ‘Celtic revival’. For a time he considered himself to be a part of this.
By the 1920s he was considered a ‘formalist’ insofar as he used traditional forms and techniques, but definitely not in the sense meant by Stalin’s cultural enforcers later in the Soviet Union. Wright’s ‘formalism’ was not inflexible, and as he grew older his natural urbanity and eclecticism allowed him to bring to the literary pages of the Bulletincommentary on Chinese ‘concrete imagery’ poetics, on the symbolist poet, Aleksandr Blok, on Arabic poetry.
Sharkey deals even–handedly with the good and the bad of Wright’s poetics. His account of how the poet juggled with his art as the First World War increased in bloodiness and futility is fascinating. He could be ‘right wing’ in Bulletin editorials, yet supplying anti-war and anti-conscription material to the Australian Worker, edited by Henry Brooke. It gets even more layered. The Bulletin itself, though officially in favour of a ‘yes’ vote for conscription, defended the rights of the Worker to express views against it. We may guess from this constantly evolving situation that the poet’s heart beat ‘leftward’ for peace and civil society, while his pen, needing stable income, sometimes wrote ‘rightwards’, following the line of the Bulletin’s owner.
It might have been necessity that, in 1919, caused him to write what Sharkey has called ‘an awesomely bad poem’ – an epic in 35 eight-lined stanzas on Gallipoli that uses all the clichés of a hollow and set-piece patriotism – penned for a competition, which he won. It is part of the paradox of the man that, in the same year he was also writing a virtuoso sequence – a ‘Crown of Sonnets’ – that still reads impressively, despite occasional infelicities.
Wright also published many short stories and attempted a novel. This thankfully was unpublished – a strangely adolescent Pacific Island fantasy called The Lost Prima Donna. In it are all the worst aspects of Eurocentric mythologising and an ill-founded faith in the white races as the natural and stable governors of humanity. One is at a loss to explain how a man of sensibility and talent would waste a moment on material like this. Wright was well-read, yet shows no sign here of contact with the ethnographic and anthropological writings of his day. The text deals with ugly and witless racial stereotypes. It is a riddle, written in 1921 when his genuine creative powers were reaching their height.
He did finally abandon his more discreditable ideas. In 1924 he published Black Brother Poet in the Bulletin, a damning indictment of white racism, written by a ‘Queensland Aboriginal writer’. By the end of his life he seems to be fully in the libertarian stream of the twentieth century. Sharkey gives a succinct account of Wright, the humanitarian attacking fascism, advocating disarmament, subjecting capitalism to moral scrutiny. He had always rejected violence as an instrument of policy, and one of his last ‘topicals’, a good one called ‘Hell on High’ condemns the American intervention in Nicaragua in the 1920s and its bombing of left-wing forces.
He left virtually no letters, diaries or other ‘private’ writing. His biographer had to achieve a phenomenal feat of reconstruction, detailing the life from correspondence and interviews by Wright’s acquaintance. There’s also the paper-trail left in the public domain – New Zealand sermons, Australian editorials – with something of the inner as well as the public man in them. Luckily he lived among alert, active, articulate people who provided substantive, opinionated and relevant commentary. Wright is, therefore, strongly present to us in this biography.
Despite its confusions, the life has an inner line of development that Sharkey is particularly successful in following, without drowning in the dramatic shifts and contradictions. Such shifts include leaving his New Zealand wife and child, and his vocation as a temperance-preaching Congregationalist minister, to go to Australia in 1910. There he rejects wowserism, and passes from specified Christianity to generalized Pantheism. His vocation as poet-editor comes to the fore and he becomes a social drinker and bohemian in Sydney’s literary precinct. Attractive to women, he becomes involved with Beatrice Osborne, and, famously, Zora Cross, both writers. With them he has six further children and, for a short period, what appears to be a love triangle. As he passes between them he leaves one extant letter. It is to Zora, who head-hunted him, and it is used in the narrative to great effect.
He develops a complex nationalist loyalty to the Australasian world and its future possibilities, but retains close interest in his Irish and English origins. He was happy to belong here but did not tune into the poetic ‘accent’ of the landscapes and emergent settler cultures. Working on Otago farms was important personally, but did not inflect his poetic tongue, except in the vernacular of the ballad. His lyric poetry never quite broke with the literary experience of his youth, particularly the romantics and Tennyson.
New Zealand and Australia had the infrastructure of modern states when he arrived in them. He missed the period when extensive contact with Maori and Aborigines would have been common. Notwithstanding his Blue Mountains residence and much loved garden at ‘Greeanawn’, he was a townsman, relatively insulated from the indigenous and primordial aspects of these countries. Nor did he live to see a nationalist/modernist aesthetic concerning landscape. He dies just before the years in which Xavier Herbert published Capricornia(1938), Fairburn published Dominion (1938) and Curnow his Island and Time(1941).
It was his fate to live between two distinctive and active phases of literary development in Australasia – the first documentary, the second Modernist. He remains an accomplished lyricist within the limitations imposed by such timing. Apollo in George Street? Yes. Something of the Greek light was in him. What makes him more interesting than the god though is his humanity: less abstract, less rational than the Apollonian, and blessed by failings, by empathy, by confusions, by enthusiasms – some brilliant, some follies. This biography does a superb job of including him in our collective ancestry and helping us get to know him for what he was.
DENYS TRUSSEL is a pianist, poet, biographer and environmentalist. He lives in Auckland.