C.K. Stead

C.K. Stead is New Zealand’s poet laureate.

Poem: ‘Has been’

C.K. Stead, 21 January 2016

(Peter Reading, 1946-2011)

‘The only permanence I suppose is in having been’ –                     thus           in four words             conjugating present and...

Poem: ‘The Gift’

C.K. Stead, 30 June 2011

Brasch in his velvet voice and signature purple tie

complained to his journal that you had ‘interrupted’.

I wasn’t sorry. That was Somervell’s coffee shop

nineteen-fifty-three. Eighteen months later you and I

were skidding on the tide-out inner- harbour shelvings

below your house from whose ‘small room with large windows’ you saw

that geranium ‘wild...

The release in 2009 of the first two volumes of T.S. Eliot’s letters, and the year before of the final volume of Katherine Mansfield’s, raises questions about the relationship between these two and their spouses, Vivien Haigh-Wood and John Middleton Murry.* Why was Eliot distrustful, and even apprehensive, of Mansfield? What was Murry’s relationship with Vivien – and...

1. I lift the lid on our compost bin. At the corner

of sight, Fantail flickers like migraine through the sudden

insect cloud. I am supplier – flies the supplies.

2. Feather-weight, Fantail bounces back off invisible

ropes. He has perfected the hook and the jab. Dancer

he is deft snatcher in flight of invisible snacks.

3. Scriptwriter also of dark memorials, it’s said

he conceals...

Diary: truth and autobiographies

C.K. Stead, 27 April 2000

The New Zealand novelist Maurice Shadbolt recently published what he described as a ‘memoir’, explaining that this form differed from autobiography in that it claimed only to recount events as the author remembered them, making no promise of accuracy. Since Shadbolt had announced publicly, a year or so before, that he was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, the excuse for inaccuracy and invention was complete. An expectation was aroused which the book didn’t disappoint.

Poem: ‘Play It Again’: For Les Murray

C.K. Stead, 17 September 1998

For Les Murray on his 60th Birthday, 17 October 1998

Corporate raider in the larder of language

with more than a tyre to spare and girth to go

he lacks the classic pose of restraint his motto

‘Never say When’ his poems pack-horses unloaded

line by line under a blazing sky or in the

downpour that speaks in gutters and spouts of Excess.

Here the Golden Disobedience is practised.



C.K. Stead, 22 February 1996

Claire Clairmont was, briefly, Byron’s mistress, and the mother of his child Allegra. But was she also Shelley’s lover? Did she become pregnant by him? Did she give birth to his child?

The Master

C.K. Stead, 30 November 1995

Henry James’s injunction to the novelist was ‘Dramatise! Dramatise!’ Ezra Pound advocated ‘the presentative method’. A dozen lesser but important voices have urged that modern fiction must enact, not tell. The strongest intellectual pressures on the serious novelist in this century have all been, that is to say, in the direction – the ultimate direction – of the playscript or the screenplay and away from the elaboration of prose as prose. But what does the writer do in her novels who finds herself engaged outside them in writing screenplays? Does her fiction push back in the opposite direction, against the flow of history? Does the novel become a space for the kinds of writing which screenplays forbid – a large loose bag into which she can pop odd pieces of narrative embroidery?’

Perfect Companions

C.K. Stead, 8 June 1995

It would seem improper to begin a review of a biography by considering whether its subject was better described as ‘fair of face’ or‘ill-favoured’ if the subject were not Christina Stead (1902-83) and the question had not figured so importantly in her conception of herself. The pictorial evidence is contradictory; but it appears that as a young woman she had good features, a fine, keen, intelligent face, somewhat spoiled by prominent front teeth, which were removed when she was 40. She retained childhood memories of being rejected in favour of prettier girls; and in middle life she wrote of trying ‘to cure a serious feeling of rejection and discomfort which … affects my relations with people’.…

A Storm in His Luggage

C.K. Stead, 26 January 1995

In a letter dated 22 January 1934 to his protégé James Laughlin, Pound makes passing reference to R.P. Blackmur, who had written a long unflattering essay, ‘Masks of Ezra Pound’, in an issue of the periodical Hound and Horn (which Pound renamed Bitch & Bugle). Next day he refers to it again – ‘24 depressing pages’. A year later there is an angry letter to Blackmur on the subject, sent, however, to Laughlin, perhaps to be sent on. Blackmur is accused of ‘placid and conceited ignorance’: ‘you pups who are born omniscient … and utterly indifferent to FACT never never never will understand the need for data before assumption.’ Three years later there is a reference to Blackamoor; and in 1949 the article was still not forgotten.’…’

Poem: ‘Sylvia Plath’

C.K. Stead, 12 May 1994

Ten days after I was, you were born. Heading out past sixty, I’m still hanging on But you baled out at thirty, telling the world ‘Dying is an art. I do it exceptionally well.’ Now you’re a young poet of deserved fame, I An ageing one of modest reputation. From where I sit, cool Daddy looks at you. He sees the pain, and the brat – and the brat in pain. Living is...


C.K. Stead, 10 June 1993

Gemmy Fairly appears at the edge of a small mid-19th-century settlement out of the ‘empty’ north Queensland hinterland. He is 29 and has spent 16 years among Aborigines who rescued him after he was cast overboard from a passing ship. He has almost forgotten his own language, and has acquired the semi-mystical consciousness of the tribes-people. He is taken in by the McIvor family – Jock and Ellen, their small daughters Janet and Meg and nephew Lachlan Beattie. Soon his presence is causing concern. The community lives in a state of apprehension (what is feared is not at all clear) about the blacks, and it is thought Gemmy might still be communicating with them. There is also a feeling that his ‘whiteness’ has been compromised: that he is in some sense ‘unclean’. The McIvors’ nearest neighbour and friend, Barney Mason, is particularly anxious, and his unscrupulous roust-about, Andy McKillop, who sees two black men visit Gemmy and talk with him, plays on these fears.’

Petal by Petal

C.K. Stead, 27 May 1993

In the Woody Allen movie Hannah and Her Sisters Eliot (Michael Caine) contrives to cross paths on a Manhattan street with his sister-in-law. Lee (Barbara Hershey), with whom he has fallen in love. He pretends to be hunting for a bookshop: she shows him the way to it and there he finds, as if by chance, E.E. Cummings’s Collected Poems, which he insists on buying for her. Putting her into a taxi he tells her, twice, to be sure to read the poem on page 112, which he says makes him think of her. Later we see her lying on a bed with the book, and hear her, voice-over, reading the second and the final stanzas of ‘somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond’:

At Sweetpea Mansions

C.K. Stead, 28 January 1993

Helen Garner’s Cosmo Cosmolino contains two short stories together with the novella that gives the book its title. There are connections between the three. Ursula, a friend of the unnamed narrator of the first story, is mother of Kim who dies in the second; and Kim’s boyfriend, Raymond, will reappear, along with his brother Alby, in the third. There are also angel figures in the first story and in the novella; and in the second story the men who make Raymond watch the cremation of Kim’s body may be dark angels, or minor devils, or simply crematorium workers with some knowledge of the dead girl. The epigraph is Rilke’s: ‘Every angel is terrible.’

Dream on

C.K. Stead, 3 December 1992

In my experience the dreams that are recovered (most are lost) fall into two categories – the majority, which are pedestrian and seldom interesting, and the few which are so different from the many as to belong almost to a distinct category of experience. Vivid, full of atmosphere, these latter are insistently ‘significant’ beyond their literal import while at the same time resisting any simple symbolic interpretation; and if they can be retained through the levels of waking, they often seem worth recording. There is for me, in other words, a poetry and a prose of dreams.’

God’s Gift to Australia

C.K. Stead, 24 September 1992

Seen from London WCI, New Zealand looks to bear about the same physical relation to Australia as the British Isles to continental Europe – just offshore. In fact, although we are near-neighbours and natural partners in one of the world’s great emptinesses, there are 1200 miles of usually rough ocean between Sydney and Auckland, and even more of social, historical and climatic difference.’

O Harashbery!

C.K. Stead, 23 April 1992

I remember the pleasure of my first reading of Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems when it came out in 1964 in a City Lights edition uniform (except that it was blue and red, not black and white) with Ginsberg’s Howl, Kaddish and Reality Sandwiches. Two years later O’Hara was dead, killed by a dune buggy at an all-night party on Fire Island. There was something Keatsian about his poetry, its vividness and particularity, and its spontaneity, though there might be difficulties for a critic who wanted to argue, as Matthew Arnold did when he tried to rescue Keats from the aesthetes, that ‘there was flint and iron in him.’

Here to take Karl Stead to lunch

C.K. Stead, 30 January 1992

I first saw Barry Humphries on stage in the Phillip Street Theatre in Sydney in 1956 or 57, and got to know him in Auckland in the early Sixties after we had both come back from our first visits to London. Barry’s second wife, Rosalind Tong, a dancer, was an Aucklander. Sometimes Barry would put on a lunch-hour show at the University, which was where I first encountered the then rather down-market but already very funny Edna Everage. There was an evening when Barry and Rosalind took my wife and me to a sort of teen-club under the street where there was a band and dancing. We were all aged about thirty and felt out of place; my inclination was to be inconspicuous, but with Barry Humphries for company it was impossible. The Beatles hadn’t yet begun the fashion that allowed men to grow their hair long; and in Australia and New Zealand the short-back-and-sides was almost a moral obligation, as was the jacket and tie. Barry’s hair was long, partly as a protest (his headmaster in Melbourne was given to saying, ‘Long hair is dirty hair’), and partly because at that time this was the hair that came out from under Edna’s hat. He wore an overcoat and no tie, and looked rather like a tramp, and we hadn’t been long at our table before he had made everyone aware of his presence. When the band began something with a strong beat he suddenly launched himself backwards into the crowd.

Diary: New Zealand Writers

C.K. Stead, 21 November 1991

In the Forties, a New Zealand schoolboy writing my first poems and fictions, I didn’t know there were any living New Zealand writers. My literary excitements came mostly from British but also from American writers, past and present. I was not of a generation that looked to England as ‘Home’. ‘Colonial’ was a word I would have resented. But my (and I mean our) situation, which seemed to me perfectly ordinary, seems unordinary enough, when looked back upon, to need a descriptive term. ‘Post-colonial’, perhaps – but in what degree ‘post’? I belonged to one of what I think V.S. Naipaul has called the client cultures.’

Christ’s Teeth

C.K. Stead, 10 October 1991

‘Dates, dates arc of die essence; and it will be found that I date quite exactly the breakdown of the imaginative exploit of the Cantos: between the completion of the late sequence called “Rock-Drill”, and the inauguration of the next, called “Thrones”.’ This is Donald Davie in his introduction to Studies in Ezra Pound, offered as Volume IV of his Collected Works, and including the whole of Ezra Pound: Poet as Sculptor (1964), followed by a single essay from 1972, then ‘Six Notes on Ezra Pound’ from Trying to Explain (1980 – nowhere actually named in the present volume), and nine essays and reviews written since. Excluded without mention is his 1975 Pound in the Fontana Modern Masters series, a book that mixed some of his best critical insights with strange eruptions of moralising petulance.’

Ancient Orthodoxies

C.K. Stead, 23 May 1991

‘Aller Moor’, the first poem in Antidotes, begins

Second Wind

C.K. Stead, 16 February 1989

Much of the best poetry in English at least since the Romantics, is, in a controversial phrase used by Allen Curnow in the introduction to one of his two anthologies of New Zealand poetry, ‘local and special at the point where we pick up the traces’. The phrase typically says what Curnow wants it to say – that the poet and therefore the poem are visibly products of a region – while protecting it-self against anticipated complaints that such a view is insular. When I last wrote about Curnow, in 1963, I backed my text with references to an essay by Allen Tate defending regionalism in literature against an internationalist position which Tate cleverly described as ‘the new provincialism’.’

Poem: ‘The Radiant Way’

C.K. Stead, 15 September 1988

A good student, ‘The place is lumbered,’ he tells me ‘with a Rump of ageing Hippies’ – and it’s true I can see Blakemen trapped in their burning beards and hair. For lack of invention the Age strikes some to pillars of Marxist/Feminist/Post-Structuralist salt. Stiff-jointed liberals dance to escape insult. ‘Academics are Saussure they know...

Standing up to the city slickers

C.K. Stead, 18 February 1988

Les Murray (b.1938) grew up on a dairy farm in northern New South Wales, an only child whose mother died of what seems to have been a medical misadventure when he was 12. The farmhouse was hardly more than a timber shell with an iron roof – there was no lining or ceiling, and conditions were primitive. He was a fat boy, and still quakes inwardly when he finds himself in a school-yard, remembering taunts of long ago. (One of his cleverest poems, ‘Quintets for Robert Morley’, is a tribute to the skills, social, psychological and physical, developed by the world’s heavyweights.)’

Mrs Bowdenhood

C.K. Stead, 26 November 1987

Katherine Mansfield, unlucky in life, has been lucky in death. Where some figures sink under successive waves of literary fashion, she remains buoyant. One Mansfield vanishes but another takes its place. If you measure simply by the fictional product you might conclude she has had more than her fair share of attention. If you take, not the work, but the writer, then the attention seems entirely justified. Three major books on her to appear in the past decade have all been biographies – one by an American, one by a New Zealander, and now one by an Englishwoman. In all of them she appears not only as a writer of some importance in the development of modern fiction, but also as a presence in and influence upon the lives and work of a number of major figures, most notably D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf.

War Book

C.K. Stead, 18 December 1986

My grandmother, who was born about 1880, was proud of the fact that both her parents were born in New Zealand. It made her, she used to say, ‘a real Pig Islander’. A story she told me more than once was of how my great-great-grandfather John Flatt, a lay catechist, had fallen out with the Church Missionary Society by suggesting that its missionaries in New Zealand were acquiring too much Maori land. Twenty years ago, in the British Museum, I looked up evidence Flatt gave, while in London in 1834, to a Select Committee of the House of Lords looking into ‘the State of the Islands of New Zealand’. I found that he had defended the acquisition of land by missionaries, saying – a familiar argument later on – that they had no other way, in that remote place, of providing a future for their children.’

Chiara Ridolfi

C.K. Stead, 9 October 1986

Penelope Fitzgerald’s Innocence is set in Florence, the principal characters are Italian, and I kept asking myself: how is it done? She knows quite a lot about Italian society: but more important, she has somehow got inside her Italian characters, so that when a young Englishwoman appears on the scene she really seems a foreigner and not, as one might expect, the focus of the novel’s consciousness. Imagination is part of the mystery; the other part is pace. This novel seems to impose its own slow pace on the reader. Probably that means one has a sense that nothing we are told is insignificant. It has, not opacity, but density. It is a book that never seems to settle back, as so much currently admired fiction does, into a conventional exercise, fiction as a pastiche of itself.

C.K. Stead writes about Christina Stead

C.K. Stead, 4 September 1986

In 1965, in London, I met Robie Macauley, editor of the Kenyon Review, who had accepted a story of mine. He asked was I related to Christina Stead. I had never heard of her. He told me she had written one of the great novels of the century, The Man Who Loved Children. When my story appeared someone wrote to Janet Frame recommending it. She wrote to say how much she’d enjoyed it but asking why I was now writing as a woman. This confusion was sorted out when I found that the next issue of the Kenyon Review contained Christina Stead’s novella ‘The Puzzle-Headed Girl’. Occasionally since that time I have been sent proof copies of novels by American women, with a letter addressing me as ‘Ms Stead’ and asking for pre-publication comment. Names, of course, are always more significant to their bearers than to anyone else. I like to claim the major Stead as my Great Australian Aunt.

In my game (and yours, reader) it was always the Frogmen had the clever theories. We did the dirty work

using the English language like a roguish trowel. Tonight, two rubberised heads have set their Zodiac on course

from Okahu Bay. Past the container port, around Marsden Wharf, they’re ferrying a transitive verb

called Bomb. In a hired campervan a man and a woman smoke, check their...

Diary: A New Zealander in London

C.K. Stead, 18 October 1984

Finding the sun pouring in through our London kitchen window K puts a chair in place and settles with a book. She expects the sun to rise to the left where there is plenty of sky. It doesn’t. It goes off to the right and disappears behind trees. When you come from the Southern Hemisphere you’re used to the idea that the seasons are reversed – summer in August, winter at Christmas. You’re prepared for it before you ever cross the Equator. All the literature tells you of it – the seasons as they occur in books rather than in ‘reality’; and our Christmas cards in New Zealand still sometimes show fir trees and snow. But in all the years of coming half-way around the world (I’ve now crossed the Equator 17 times) I don’t remember noticing this peculiar habit of the Northern sun. Because I’m not of a scientific bent it takes some hasty diagrams to convince myself that we haven’t made a mistake. But of course it’s true. If you imagine a stick figure in the Northern Hemisphere looking down the globe towards the sun’s path around the Equator, the sun moving east to west rises at the figure’s left and sets at his right hand. A corresponding figure in the Southern Hemisphere, looking north to the Equator, will see the sun rise from the right and pass over to the left – hence K’s (and my) expectation in our London kitchen.’

Poem: ‘Between’

C.K. Stead, 22 December 1983

Twirling an angry necklace on her fingers under the     lamp she was saying she couldn’t stand her teachers or her mother or her life and on the other     couch her mother who said she had sulked all afternoon was saying ‘Why hasn’t anyone any      pity for me?’ and that she was so tired she could scream...


C.K. Stead, 15 October 1981

Matthew Arnold worried that a literary reputation in England, unconfirmed by ‘the whole group of civilised nations’ (by which he meant Europe), might be merely provincial. At the same time he was pretty confident about which poets Europe ought, in due course, to favour. Wordsworth was admired at home but not abroad; and since Arnold was sure Wordsworth as a poet in English ranked second only to Shakespeare and Milton, and that among European poets of the 18th and 19th centuries only Goethe was superior, he anticipated a European recognition of Wordsworth which has never come. Arnold also liked to qualify and trim the literary verdicts which Europe had already handed down. Thus Byron had been overrated; and Goethe’s observations on Byron were manipulated by Arnold both to acknowledge a greatness and to set limits on it – a ‘splendid personality’ in poetry, but a slovenly artist and a childish intellect.

Our friend the novelist seventy – eight next week and he says he’s written his last book can’t think any more can’t write

connected sentences can’t remember the plots of his favourite Dickens he used to rehearse scene after scene not even sometimes the names

of his own novels can’t answer letters put down among cups pills other letters where forgotten one...


C.K. Stead, 7 May 1981

Katherine Mansfield was born in 1888, Sylvia Ashton-Warner in 1908 and Janet Frame in 1924 – three New Zealand women each of whom has achieved some measure of literary fame or reputation outside the country in which she was born. They have in common that they have worked uneasily in (and always breaking out of) the fictional mode. The fictions of all three are forms of autobiography while autobiography tends towards fiction. It is the self they are struggling always to define, or to create, and the self is founded on fact but not exclusively composed of it.

Homage to Ezra Pound

C.K. Stead, 19 March 1981

In 1949 when a panel of his fellow poets (including T.S. Eliot, Robert Lowell, W.H. Auden and Allen Tate) awarded Ezra Pound the Bollingen Prize for The Pisan Cantos there was an immediate and angry public debate. The reaction is not surprising and might have been worse had the texts of Pound’s wartime broadcasts over Rome Radio been publicly available. What is surprising is that the award was made to him and that thirty years later it appears to have been thoroughly deserved. Pound’s broadcasts contained naked anti-semitism and economic balderdash. His support for Mussolini in Italy was unwavering, even after the defeat. Canto 74 opens with ‘the tragedy’ of the death of Mussolini, who in the course of the sequence is bracketed with Manes, the Albigenses, and Pound himself, as heretic martyrs. In Canto 84, written during October 1945, Pound not only honours the memory of Mussolini (‘Il Capo’) and various dead Fascist ministers, but salutes the traitor premiers, Laval and Quisling, as they go to face their firing-squads.

What became of Modernism?

C.K. Stead, 1 May 1980

What became of the Modernist movement? It was initiated by Pound and Eliot about the time of the First World War, and in America it set off a further wave of innovation (often referred to as ‘post-Modernism’) after the Second. Beats, Black Mountain Poets, the New York school of the Fifties – all these and others, though clearly different, are unimaginable without Pound, early Eliot, William Carlos Williams and perhaps Wallace Stevens as forerunners. This is the main stream of modern American poetry. In England the picture is very different. Pound is grudgingly acknowledged, distrusted, kept at a distance. Eliot holds his place, but not the revolutionary Eliot. Eliot didn’t convert England – England converted him; and Four Quartets is Modernism neutralised by good form. Who then won the poetic war in England?


Eliot v. Mansfield

3 March 2011

Jason Harding suggests that T.S. Eliot’s distrust of Katherine Mansfield had to do with a perception of Mansfield’s dislike of his wife, Vivien (Letters, 31 March). There are no grounds for this in the letters; and very clear grounds for an apprehension springing from the fact that his patron Lady Rothermere found the first issue of the Criterion ‘dull’ at a time when she was...

tarry easty

30 November 2000

Roy Foster (LRB, 30 November 2000) writes of Rapallo: ‘though there are plaques on all the apartments that housed the resident luminaries, nothing adorns 12 via Marsala, where the embarrassing Pound held court and praised Mussolini.’ If you approach 12 via Marsala from the seafront you go through a marble archway on which Pound’s residence there is recorded and several lines from...


24 September 1992

In my review of Thomas Keneally’s novel, Woman of an Inland Sea (LRB, 24 September), I wrote Dobell when I meant Drysdale.

Old Believers

26 October 1989

In the note accompanying Stephen Spender’s article (LRB, 26 October) you mention that he has been remembering a book called What I believe which included pieces by Einstein and Freud. It seems to me likely that the book he has in mind is one I have had on my shelves, and looked back at frequently, since 1952, called I believe, with the subtitle ‘The Personal Philosophies of 23 Eminent Men...


22 May 1986

SIR: Frank Kermode’s letter (Letters, 3 July) is no more a reply to mine than his review was a review of my book, Pound, Yeats, Eliot and the Modernist Movement. The first half of the book works its way through to a detailed study of the composition of The Waste Land, including the Pound-Eliot collaboration. The second half moves towards an analysis of how the Pisan Cantos works as a poem, and...


21 November 1985

SIR: My letter on the subject of The Bone People (Letters, 5 December 1985) was derived from an article written for a Canadian journal over a year ago: so Rod Edmond (Letters, 23 January) is wrong when he suggests that my discussion of the Pegasus Award is offered as an analogue for the Booker Prize. I am often puzzled by the Booker short list (why did A.S. Byatt’s Still Life not make it in 1985?)...

Apocalyptic Opacity

Frank Kermode, 24 September 1992

The title sounds apocalyptic, but all it means on the face of it is that this novel is set in New Zealand now. Doubtless it could be interpreted as having other implications, and there is some...

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Jonathan Bate, 27 July 1989

In Book Two of Disraeli’s Sybil, or The Two Nations the hero meets two strangers in the ruins of an abbey. One of them claims that the monasteries represented the only authentic communities...

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Liza Jarrett’s Hard Life

Paul Driver, 4 December 1986

Of the five new novels grouped here, only one, I think, breathes something of that ‘air of reality (solidity of specification)’ which seemed to Henry James ‘the supreme virtue...

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Frank Kermode, 22 May 1986

The advantages and disadvantages of modernity have long been canvassed, so that you could say the topic is ancient. Pancirolli wrote a very popular book on it in the 16th century, and it was...

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Signora Zabaggy

Michael Rose, 2 August 1984

Let’s begin with ‘Let’s begin with the tea towel.’ Thus Professor Curl Skidmore, narrator of C.K. Stead’s All Visitors Ashore, announcing his presence in a text...

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