Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

Leigh Davis: From Willy's Gazette to Nameless

Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

Leigh Davis: From Willy's Gazette to Nameless

Article excerpt

This essay seeks to provide the first overview of a complex and important New Zealand writer whose work remains little known. The creative legacy of Leigh Davis (1955-2009) includes six published books, each one strikingly different and original, and while it may be fair to say there are uneven aspects, each of his projects represents something unique and demonstrates new possibilities for poetry. As he put it: 'Good poetry is a rare kind of language-game, full of risk'.1

Davis's work has certainly received some recognition-in 1983 Willy's Gazette was selected as Best First Book of Poetry at the national book awards, and in 2009 Stunning Debut of the Repairing of a Life posthumously won the Kathleen Grattan Award for Poetry-but it is surprising how rarely his work is read and discussed. All his books but one were self-published, and I know from trying to get one of his books into print that the publishers I approached simply could not relate to his work. Davis is absent from some recent anthologies and in others he tends to be represented only by a single poem from Willy's Gazette. That is the case, for example, in the huge recent collection The Auckland University Press Anthology of New Zealand Literature.2 His later work tends to be either not known or not understood, a situation that the present essay seeks to address.

Davis's challenging style has not been the only reason for this neglect. His career as a merchant banker, including a period with Fay Richwhite, has been treated as a serious obstacle by the local literary community.3 Yet businessmen have written great poetry-Wallace Stevens was Vice-President of an insurance company, and T. S. Eliot worked in Lloyd's Bank then became a Director of Faber and Faber. These were two of Davis's favourite poets, though what interested him was their writing rather than their careers. His own poetry did not contain explicit political content, so, if there were ideological problems, they needed to be found in his style. Indeed, a few critics have claimed that the 'slipperiness' and 'complexity' of Davis's style match the 'ambiguous' rhetoric that neo-liberalism uses to disguise its appalling politics. The most detailed argument of this kind is by Emma J. Fergusson, who draws upon Fredric Jameson's theoretical critique of postmodernism.4 Jameson offers useful insights into capitalism, but is clumsy when he aims his heavy artillery at contemporary poetry. Arguably what has been shown by such attempts to discover political undercurrents in Davis's poetry is simply the strength of the resistance to unfamiliar poetry within our literary scene. New Zealanders are certainly justified in being angry about Rogernomics, but the relationship between poetry and politics is always complex. Critics have tended to misinterpret the style and misjudge the tone of Davis's poetry because they are not familiar with its precedents. Fergusson, for example, links Davis with the Futurists but overlooks the work that more directly influenced him, such as John Berryman's Dream Songs, Robert Lowell's Notebook, Frank O'Hara's 'lunch poems', Ezra Pound's Cantos, or David Byrne's lyrics for Talking Heads. Each of those texts has the characteristics that she would find suspicious-they are rapid, obscure and fragmentary at times, and use a 'slippery' rhetoric-yet each writer represents a different political perspective. Neo-liberalism may exploit verbal ambiguity in its rhetoric (in phrases such as 'free market') but it does so furtively and for the limited, unsubtle purpose of a political sales job. A great deal of modern poetry exploits ambiguity or polysemy but does so for complex aesthetic reasons. Unlike politicians, poets draw attention to their method, encouraging the reader to recognize it and join in the artistic play. Davis was no exception, writing detailed essays on the subject such as 'Time, Text and Echoes (Where Poetry Is)'.5

Attitude to audience

Davis was concerned less with the 'postmodernism' that Jameson talks about than with the legacy of modernism. …

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