K.O. Arvidson (1938-2011) | remembered by Alan Riach

August 16, 2011

Alan Riach pays tribute to the New Zealand poet K.O. Arvidson (1938-2011), who died recently.

Ken Arvidson was one of those very few people you meet in your life who is a co-ordinate point forever. He published one book of poems, Riding the Pendulum (Oxford University Press, 1973), collecting work from 1961 to 1969. Later, intermittently, individual poems appeared in magazines and anthologies. But the concise nature of the yield is not to be underestimated. If ever there was an argument against quantity as value, this is it.

I met him when I first arrived in New Zealand. I left Scotland in 1986 for a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Waikato, on the other side of the world. I knew nobody there. Glasgow to London to Los Angeles to somewhere in the Pacific to refuel, to Auckland, then the last, small plane to Hamilton. When I got off the plane and he met me at Hamilton airport, eyes shrewd, smile slightly crooked, cigarette between fingers, he had that look on his face and in his whole body as I approached him across the tarmac that is there in that line from his poem ‘The Tall Wind’ – a great poem that should be in every anthology –  ‘we’ll find out now what this young charlie knows’ – and I knew I was in good company and that I’d moved into some better context for conversation and exchange and respect and best of all, a liking. And forever equal to his giving, his implicit demand that such respect and liking should be maintained in balance.

It wasn’t always, and it never is, in any life, but that doesn’t matter: what matters is the example, the reliable fact of that co-ordinate point. For most of that first year in NZ for me, 86-87,  Ken and his wife Mary were in Britain, visiting my parents and encountering Dickens-country, Pip’s domain, Cooling Church and its lozenges, and Rochester, and I was in Hamilton, New Zealand, teaching Great Expectations and beginning to lecture, and using Ken’s office at the University of Waikato, which he’d kindly allowed me to do while he was away. I remember that office, his books there, the view from that window over the Waikato landscape to the mountains, and colleagues, the good company of those months, so clearly. I still have a collection of his letters to me from then, full of sharp observation, with a sense of a kind of residual wisdom about them.

Later, when I was a lecturer in the Department of English there, there was a whole stretch of years where the Department was altogether a great place to be, to work and learn and do good things.

Later again, I was teaching Scottish literature while Ken and Mary were travelling in Scotland, finding Orkney and the whole world of the Orkney archipelago particularly congenial and deeply affecting. The poems that came from his experience there are worth digging for. (‘Mid-Winter Orkney’ is available online from the NZ literary journal Sport, as is another travel-poem, mature, funny, bitter, ironic, from a journey in America: ‘Some Legends of the Civil War‘.) Other poems are utterly earthed in New Zealand. ‘Six o’ Clock in the Gluepot’ evokes the Auckland bar frequented by newspaper reporters, once upon a time: ‘So what’s it to be then? The question’s a hawk / On the point of hatching. The intoxicating air / Opens on more horizons than Cézanne.’ The ‘loveliness of exchange’ might turn to merely ‘affection’s flak…a bitter fall, and then the dark.’ Or, more optimistically, ‘a whole theatre of students getting your point at once, / Their jackets warm with rain, an indoors rainbow.’ Something that New Zealand offered him, and others too: ‘a breath of air, / Encountering again the child who knew itself / The centre, the unique spindle of the world.’ And ending, perfectly: ‘What’s it to be? / The enemy all along, gentlemen. It’s time.’ ‘Fish and Chips on the Merry-Go-Round’ takes a long, keen look at what Christianity, across centuries, might, at its best, still give ‘glints’ of. And ‘The Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss at Takahe Creek Above the Kaipara’ unwinds and explores all the bitter, longing, lonely implications of its title with rich, assiduous, slow, unstoppable momentum.

The way things are in the world, someone of Ken’s integrity and modesty is badly undervalued, even overlooked. But if you read his poems closely, they will give their worth and keep it, while others whose fashion might be glitzy will fade.

I’m told that at college he was in a class of boys discussing what literary character they would most like to be. Some opted for the-then newly-minted James Bond, one swot for David Copperfield. Ken said he’d rather be Banjo Patterson’s The Bastard from the Bush.

He had an element of greatness. There is that, to be said.

You can read more about New Zealand poets in our Introducing New Zealand poets project, including Alan Riach introducing Bill Manhire.

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