On Friday 26th October, in front of a screen on which was projected the extraordinary 1936 photograph by Spencer Digby of Iris Wilkinson – the poet who called herself Robin Hyde – five of us sat down to talk about a single poem of Hyde’s, ‘Young Knowledge’. A good-sized audience was there in Auckland Central Library’s whare wananga, including Hyde’s son, Derek Challis, and his wife Lynn.
All of us had particular interests in Hyde’s poem. Apart from Derek Challis seated in the audience, the two with the most obvious authority to talk about ‘Young Knowledge’ were Michele Leggott, editor of Hyde’s collected poems; and Mary Edmond-Paul, editor of Hyde’s autobiographical writings. Michele detailed the painstaking editorial work involved in assembling the poem from typescript pages whose coherence had been compromised; and locating it in the circumstances of Hyde’s life. At an early stage, then, we encountered the puzzle of what might appear to be two separate poems or at least two separate impulses spliced together; Michele argued for their coherence. So, by implication, did Mary, in terms of subjective or psychological coherence rather than manuscript evidence – though of course the text and its affects are not separate.
Though Iain Sharp modestly disclaimed any such direct connection with Hyde’s poem, he too had good credentials for talking about it. As the author of a superb illustrated biography of the explorer and artist Charles Heaphy, Iain was able to map the historical circumstances of the poem’s strange ‘turn’, the moment when its succession of intense, sometimes hallucinatory takes on what constitutes knowledge abruptly shifts to two historical moments and places in the nineteenth century. The first of these picks up and even cuts-and-pastes a fragment of Edward Markham’s account of settlers felling ship-building timber in Northland; and then relocates without transition to a place near the Arahura River on the South Island’s West Coast, visited by Heaphy in May 1846. Here, while looking for good arable land, the explorer seems to be ambushed by the poem at the moment he encounters a Maori community of ‘Greenstone people’ until then unknown to European settlers.
It’s at the moment of this encounter, at once vividly imagined by Hyde and factually documented in Heaphy’s journals (which Hyde had read close to the time she wrote the poem), as well as in a subsequently published magazine account, that Hyde’s poem releases its extraordinary burst of energy – its key moment of ‘mindfulness’, as Mary described it. Mindfulness is a concept used in modern clinical psychology since the 1970s, but related to much older Buddhist concepts of knowledge as acute awareness of and attention to the presentness of things, the present moment – sati in Pali, in Sanscrit smrti. Ranged against sati are the kinds of negative forces of anxiety and delusion with which Hyde was familiar.
Hyde was also familiar with ideas from Buddhism and translated them into her concept of ‘presentism’, which Mary referred to during the session. This interest was a factor in Hyde’s decision to travel to China in 1938. Her therapy under the enlightened ‘unselfish kindness’ of her psychiatrist Dr. Gilbert Tothill must have heightened her mindfulness of the ways those polarised conditions of acute perception and imaginative rhapsody sometimes complemented each other and sometimes clashed. The poem moves through strongly contrasted states of mind, sometimes blissful, at others filled with anger and despair, in strongly contrasting scenes and voices; so that the ‘Heaphy moment’, when it arrives in the narrative, has the impact of a dramatic crisis, the moment when the trajectory of the story pivots and changes direction, after which the voice or character of the poem is transformed, and moves or is impelled towards the closing resolution.
In the case of ‘Young Knowledge’, this crisis also seems to propel us into the present, and into an imagined scenario in which Heaphy decides not to reveal the whereabouts of this sanctuary, this unspoiled place, this Eden – but of course he does so in the end, as we know, because Hyde read his account of it, and we read hers.
Murray Edmond’s take on the poem suggests that it represents a new kind of historiography, a new way of knowing the past in the present; that a political or politicised poetics may provide the means by which poems become agents of ‘presentism’ and allow us to be mindful of the past now. In a sense, this poetics also resembles the concept of sati. It suggests that, whether the radical break in the poem at the Markham/Heaphy moment was wholly intentional, or partially the product of a fortuitous alignment of texts, its consequence is a moment of vivid knowledge, a heightened political consciousness of the impact of colonisation, and – implicitly – of its inevitable consequences in the present.
My thanks to the participants in this conversation for their marvellous contributions, and for their subsequent patient and tolerant help as I attempted to summarise what had been a fascinating and complex account of this extraordinary poem. And thanks, also, to the partners in this event: the National Library, Auckland Central Library, and the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre (nzepc) at Auckland University.
The recording of this session is made available here through the partnership with nzepc. If you’ve never visited this great resource, now’s your chance. And a special thanks to Tim Page, who expertly takes care of nzepc recordings, and who recorded this session on Robin Hyde’s ‘Young Knowledge’.