Academic journal article Hecate

Opening the Archive: Robin Hyde, Eileen Duggan and the Persistence of Record

Academic journal article Hecate

Opening the Archive: Robin Hyde, Eileen Duggan and the Persistence of Record

Article excerpt

Eileen Duggan and Robin Hyde may between them lay the foundation of a New Zealand literature.(1)

When Gillian Boddy in 1991 quotes Pat Lawlor in 1935 quoting Jessie Mackay several years previously on the subject of her younger contemporaries Eileen Duggan and Robin Hyde, the voice on the wind seems impossibly distant. To find Mackay's statement and its original context is one search among many that might alter the sense we presently have of all three writers as peripheral to the founding of a canon of New Zealand poetry. Jessie Mackay - poet, journalist and critic herself - also announced in 1930 that Eileen Duggan had written poems "to lay up in heart's lavender for ever."(2) Somewhere between the desire for a foundation (public, communal, conditional) and the individual partisan act of preservation, lies the story of what happened to women poets and their work as literary codes were altered just before mid-century by a cultural nationalism inimical to previous competencies.

But don't forget the girl is a genius(3)

Lawlor finished his 1935 cameo of Robin Hyde with a flourish of affectionate territorial droit (the book was Confessions of a Journalist, published a year after Hyde's Journalese; has anyone looked at the parallel?) Like Mackay, Lawlor was pinpointing a hope poetry had for its constitution in the Thirties that sounds odd now. We did forget. Or rather, the forgetting was carefully arranged and now seems like natural consequence, an outworn mode giving way to newer forces. But ghosts rise, and the flutter of that word genius may still draw the fire Lawlor intended for it. "The girl" was in 1935 a single woman of twenty nine, author of one published prose work, two collections of poetry and a substantial body of journalism. She had also had two children, two breakdowns and two years' residence in an extramural ward of the mental hospital in Avondale - the same institution that claimed Eve Langley in the Forties and Janet Frame in the Fifties. What price genius in such contexts?

Where are the words that broke the heart with beauty? This is the age of the merely clever.(4)

There is a lost matrix of women poets whose presence in our literature needs urgent reappraisal. How it was lost, and why, are absorbing questions; but more important still is the matter and nature of matrix, with its suggestions of support, nurture, and numerousness. Jessie Mackay (1864-1938), Eileen Duggan (1894-1972), and Robin Hyde (1906-1939) were prominent figures in an earlier version of generational descent in New Zealand poetry, and they were conscious of the role. They knew and corresponded with each other and with the literary, editors (journalists) of the day who promoted and published them - notably John Schroder, Alan Mulgan, Charles Marris, and Pat Lawlor. They were vigorous reviewers and eloquent in their support of a wide range of causes that had in common a compassion for the outcast, dispossessed, or disempowered. Rights for women and children, the temperance movement, reform of discriminatory legislation against Maori, the loyalist cause in Spain, Scottish and Irish Home Rule, or unemployment problems closer to home were variously part of their brief. As unmarried, educated women supporting themselves in part - or wholly in Hyde's case - by journalism, they were culture workers who believed also in a code of social service. Blanche Edith Baughan (1870-1958) and Mary Ursula Bethell (1874-1945) span the generational gap after Mackay and before Duggan and Hyde, and suddenly we are looking at a capacity for shaping New Zealand poetry in the first half of the century as a politically alert, humanitarian enterprise, diverse in its subjects and styles but run on sympathetic and highly reticulated energies that took as their point of departure the socially progressive atmosphere of the late colonial period.(5)

These women made deliberate choices about what they wrote and at whom it was aimed. …

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