Turning Point

A short while after my novel Black Earth/White Bones was published, I got a message from a man called Peter Goddard, saying how much he liked the book. I don’t know how other writers feel about communications like this but, for me, they are the best kind of feedback, more satisfying than even the most laudatory review. Reviewers are paid to give their opinion. They serve as gatekeepers in the publishing process. Readers are the very reason for the book’s existence. When one of them takes the trouble to write and tell you that you have done a good job, you feel affirmed in a special way. In this case, though, the message was special for another, additional reason. I knew Peter Goddard, although I had not seen him for almost fifty years. He had once been my English teacher and form master at Auckland Grammar School.

Peter is one of two teachers I remember best. (The other is Freddy Orange, our Maths and Physics master). I picture him as a plumpish man, with short, straight dark hair, going a little thin at the temples; dark eyes and a rich, dark voice. Age? It’s hard to tell but I guess he must have been in his early thirties. He taught us literature in the old style: Henry V and Romeo and Juliet, Lycidas and The Ancient Mariner, Bleak House  and Tess of the D’Urbevilles. I was just at an age when I could start to appreciate the richness and the depth of these works, although Henry V was a bit of a stretch and I shared my classmates’ belief that the best thing about John Donne was the dirty bits in some of the Elegies. More important than these classics, though, were Peter’s attempts to introduce us to modern literature. In his class, I read my first New Zealand novel – I’ll Soldier No More by M. K. Joseph – along with Eliot’s poems and Christopher Fry’s A Phoenix Too Frequent. I have a feeling there was Dylan Thomas, too, although I may be wrong about that.

I can’t say I fully appreciated all of this stuff. I did not feel I was stepping into a room full of treasures that dazzled me with their evident beauty and value. It was more like sitting down in a restaurant that served rather odd food, full of complex and subtle tastes, which I wasn’t sure whether I liked or not. Thinking back on the experience makes me wonder about the modern pedagogical practice of trying to give students ‘things that interest them’, as if the immediate, explicit reaction to a work is the thing that matters most. Was I interested in Bleak House? Would I rather have read something else, something more ‘relevant’, more connected to my own experience? I really don’t know. If you had asked me at the time, I might well have said that I did not like it very much and yet, although I haven’t read the book again since, it is still one of my favourite Dickens novels. That first encounter has stayed with me for fifty years.

That said, however, there was one moment in Peter’s teaching that did make an immediate impact. Some time during 1960, he read us some beat poetry – Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlingheti or Corso, about as up to date as you could get at that time. He then got us to write things of our own, encouraging us to abandon the constraints of normal language. The experience was a liberation. For the first time I realised that poetry could connect with my world and my preoccupations in a way that I had not thought possible. It would be melodramatic to say that I became a writer at that moment but not too far off the mark.

I had already bought myself a Smith Corona portable and taught myself to touch-type and now I started to churn out poetry. Most of it was dreadful late-teenage angst but here and there was evidence of lighter touch and the first signs of some aesthetic distance. One such piece finished up in the school magazine for that year. It was about a hundred lines long and entitled Reflections on the Condition of the Modern World. After some standard denunciations of middle-class values, it developed into a eulogy for Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, launched by the Soviet Union in 1957…

see them there below
earthlubbers
while thy flight
            (little russian ballbearing)
takes thee streaking upward into neverventured strylight
look at the wonders circling slow
moonsilver spiraltwisting
starstreaks shyskywinking
sunblaze gyrating anglewise
and old mother earth slewing slowly
from time into timelessness
look at the moon
             (little electronic pea)
see her there
ah
bleaming greencheese muin
lookuponmenot
cleave notthy sky
let not the whorle thou wouldst make
supwallow this jussleff plantet
let it peaceful lie
while i
              (the product of a meteorlogical mind)
spin
longitudinalateraly on
parallegrammatically on
the suns small grandchild
dog in the moon

In his message, Peter said that he had never thought of me as a writer. He remembered me as one of the science boys, which, indeed, I was. I was in the science stream and English was not my best subject by any means, although I had won a couple of essay prizes. What he did not realise was that in the secret life I led in the privacy of my bedroom at home I was in avid pursuit of meanings that could not be expressed in mathematical equations. His lesson on the Beat Poets connected that world with the public world of school. I came out, in other words.

I can’t remember now whether I told Peter that his teaching had made a difference like that. I can’t even remember whether I replied to his note. I always try to and I certainly hope I did in this case. If not, though, this post should serve as my thanks.

One Response to “Turning Point”

  1. Pickledeel Says:

    A similar round of lessons from my English teacher too (shades of “Dead Poets Society)…Here is hoping yours has enough science in him to be across blogging and to read this.

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