The Spike or Victoria College Review 1938
One of the most valuable features of the "Spike" competitions is the opportunity afforded writers of subjecting their work to independent criticism. This year, for the first time, prose and verse were judged separately, a completely successful innovation that has been urged by judges in the past. This year the judging, which can be no small task, was undertaken by Professor von Zedlitz and Mr. Alan Mulgan, whose criticisms we publish below.
Of the contributions submitted, I have no hesitation in awarding first place to one of those signed "a"; but I'm by no means equally sure which of them is best. None of them—and there are a good many— is either ridiculous or wholly banal; some are very slight, several begin well and end rather feebly, and in general he is much more successful with echoes of other poetry than when once or twice he tries to be modern and clever. The choice seems to lie between "Jean," "Aphrodite," and "Green Avon." The first two are love poems; a third love poem, addressed to "Mona," seems less spontaneous, perhaps because it recalls Masefield, perhaps for reasons connected with the last line. "Aphrodite" seems too dilatory in reaching the apparent objective to be a "spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion," and it s very reminiscent of de la Mare. "Green Avon" also recalls de la Mare, and Meredith too, but on the whole I like it best. I also liked "Late Afternoon," and the beginning parts of three others: "Soft Flames," "Eternity," and "Tapestry," though one word dragged in for rhyme's sake brings the vision of a story by Kenneth Grahame, the fantasy of the coyly spinsterish dragon, pirouetting on her hind legs with a chase-me look.
In the past "Spike" has published some excellent poetry and the general level of merit has been a fairly high one. In my opinion, very few of this year's contributions reach that level. This view is not inconsistent with thinking that almost all the writers deserve some measure of praise and encouragement. The chief cause of failure seems to me to be soaring ambition. (By the way, one aspirant "soars" downward. An even more difficult achievement than Montgomery's stream "meandering level with its fount.") The rhythms of free verse require a more disciplined ear and a surer taste than do traditional settings; and the lure of the startling epithet is apt to lead the novice to disaster. Most of the would-be modern contributors have here and there a telling juxtaposition or a happy line:"Know the faint flesh at strife with the bladed bone," "and pushed the blanket of his flesh away," "in quivering equipoise," "drumming the macabre timber," even "makes the past one bilious blur," are isolated instances. But on the whole the desperate and so rarely successful chase after the striking word justifies Edmund Spenser:
Heapes of huge word upheaved hideously
Have marred the face of goodly poesy.
I think "Paradox" may be worth printing; it contains a thought, and the last line is good. Also "Vignettes"—amusing in parts. Victor Hugo said that a good rhyme occasionally may suggest a bright idea: but he uses the method very sparingly. "City Night" has promise, but its lush preciosity badly needs the knife (not the one that has been used to stab the Epstein statue of C.M.L.). "Newcomer" is dignified and intelligent, but typical of such a large mass of New Zealand verse, technically meritorious, not in the least ridiculous, and all the time hovering on the borderland of tripe. One might also mention another characteristic of this type of verse: the almost invariable dogging of the noun by the epithet. In university students, might this be due to the influence of Ovid? The Stephen Spenderish, "Poem for a Friend," has its gleams, and something of a Japanese flavour; but oh those technical words! And a last word for the most determined optimist among all pessimistic and death-seeking poet-philosophers, who proposes to be cremated, and page 50 then to be eaten of worms. No, in the present state of thanatochemistry one can't have it both ways.
Thank you for the pleasure, and, now and then only, the amusement of perusing these verses.
—G. W. von Zedlitz.
In the competition this year verse and prose have been separated, but no one form has been laid down for the prose entries, and there is almost enough variety in them to make me wonder what a biologist would feel like if he were asked to judge between a dog, a camel, a hedgehog and a spider. There are only eight entries, and, with two exceptions, the quality is not striking. One or two appear to have been dashed off, and are not much more than paragraphs. The two that are outstanding are C. G. Watson's "But There Will be Day," an essay, to which I have awarded the prize, and "Belinda," a story which is unsigned. I have chosen "But There Will be Day" because the writer has ideas and can express them. He has seen something more in a play than most people would see, and he has linked the lessons of the play with current affairs, from his point of view, in an original and forceful way. He knows what he wants to say, and says it clearly and directly, following the argument by the short effective route and working up to an excellent climax. The simplicity and force of the writing are refreshing.
"Belinda" is a rather thin, sketch-story of a girl in a factory. The minutiae of everyday life in Wellington are well observed, and there is something pathetic in the figure of this girl caught up in a commonplace coil of circumstances. Here also the English is simple and telling. The other entries do not call for much comment. "Murder" is a fantastic trifle about an admirer of Aldous Huxley who murders a woman in a crowded tram because she makes nasty remarks about her hero. The irony in the fact that Huxley believes in non-resistance may have escaped the writer. The end has a grim humour that suggests she might do something on a larger canvas. "Man in the Street" is an attempt to adapt style to the lot of a victim of the slump. It faintly suggests possibilities of a literature that would be much less polite than most New Zealand books, and therefore perhaps welcome.
In "Two Men Died," we have the too-familiar figure of a bishop. There might well be a close season for satirised bishops. This one lay between silk sheets. I doubt if even film stars sleep in silk sheets—not because they would be too expensive, but because they would not be comfortable. However, one can never be sure.