Thursday, December 7, 2017

Addressing The Neglect of Janet Frame's Poetry

Introduction by Pamela Gordon

(written for Parleranno le tempeste, the Italian translation of a selection of Janet Frame’s poems, translated by Francesca Benocci and Eleonora Bello, published by Gabriele Cappelli, 2017)


‘They think I’m going to be a schoolteacher, but I’m going to be a poet’ wrote eminent New Zealand author Janet Frame in her adolescent diary. And this book of her selected poems in Italian translation resting in your hands now, shows that she achieved her goal. It might not seem in this day and age that the ambition to become a poet would be an audacious one, but the odds were stacked against Janet Frame. Born in 1924 in the provincial city of Dunedin, Frame grew up in the Great Depression in a financially stressed working class family for whom even the profession of teacher represented a distant pinnacle of success. In such an era the most a woman could hope for by way of literary achievement might be in the form of a hobby subsidised by the income of her middle-class husband. But on the maternal side of Frame’s family there was a history of faded gentility: the 19th Century migration of her forebears from the ‘Mother Country’ of England to the British colony had not entirely wiped out a memory of cultured ancestors (a doctor, a clergyman, an Oxford don). Frame’s mother Lottie was herself a prolific writer of verse who published her optimistic and charming rhymes in as many magazines and newspapers as would accept them. She also sold her verse from door to door and had dreams of earning a name as a songwriter. Mrs Frame recited favourite poems by Longfellow and other renowned poets in front of her children with a fervour that was infectious. As a child Lottie had met the young Katherine Mansfield who later became New Zealand’s first great writer. Lottie had worked as a domestic servant in the home of Mansfield’s grandmother where Mansfield and her family came for summer holidays. In relating the story of her tenuous but exciting brush with literary fame, Mrs Frame was, perhaps unconsciously, presenting her daughter with a model to aspire to.

            The young Janet Frame was an exceptional and outspoken student who excelled at academic endeavours and also garnered prizes for her poems and essays. Her schoolgirl poems were frequently published in newspapers and broadcast on children’s radio programmes. She was, therefore, an obvious candidate to be sent to teacher training college regardless of her secret desire to devote her life to writing. She qualified as a teacher with no trouble but by late September 1945, during her first year of teaching, her urge to be spending her time writing was overpowering. The educational authorities refused to release her from her obligations until the end of that year, so eventually Frame just walked out of the classroom. “It was the most wonderful moment of my life,” she said later in an interview. From then on her goal was unshakeable. The following year she completed her first book The Lagoon and Other Stories while working as a nurse-aid in a rest home. The stories were accepted immediately for publication by a publisher who unfortunately let the manuscript sit on his desk for five years before printing it. When the volume of stories was finally released in 1952 it won New Zealand’s most prestigious literary prize and from then on Janet Frame’s standing as a brilliant and original prose writer was assured. After completing her first novel Owls Do Cry Frame travelled to Europe in 1956 where she acquired British and American publishers and went on to forge an international reputation for her novels and stories. When she returned to her homeland at the age of 39 she was feted as a world famous novelist.

            Frame continued her stellar career, publishing steadily, travelling widely, winning prizes and holding fellowships around the globe. Among the many other honours she earned, in 1986 she was made an honorary foreign member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The citation described her work as 'a mighty exploration of human consciousness and its context in the natural world'. In 1993 Janet Frame was also awarded the Italian Premi Brancati Prize. In spite of her fame she preferred to enjoy a private existence with her family and friends. She did not court publicity and the resulting vacuum allowed gossip and speculation to grow. Frustrated by the often patronising and sometimes bizarre rumours about the relationship of her life to her work, in the 1980s she released a three volume autobiography in an attempt to ‘set the record straight’. The highly acclaimed trilogy now known as An Angel at My Table was a world-wide bestseller and was hailed as ‘one of the greatest autobiographies’ of the 20th century.

            In 1990 An Angel at My Table was adapted for the screen by Jane Campion and the story of Janet Frame’s early life (her autobiography covered only the first half of her life) attracted an even wider international audience than her celebrated books of prose had commanded. In New Zealand Frame became a beloved icon even for those who would never read the literary fiction that had made her a celebrity in the first place. Her books, which had been translated into several European languages since the early 1960s (Dutch, French, German, Italian and Spanish) were translated into many more languages.

            But where was the poetry? What had happened to the poet? One answer is that Frame’s poetry was ‘hidden in plain sight’ in her prose works, as academic Gina Mercer points out:

 ‘One of the most fixed and impassable borders in literature is that between poetry and prose, yet Janet Frame repeatedly traverses this border, writing poetic prose and including whole chapters of poetry in her fictional explorations.’

As well as the poems scattered throughout her novels, some of Frame’s short stories could be defined as ‘prose poems’ as was recognised by Bill Manhire when he included her story ‘A Note on the Russian War’ from The Lagoon and Other Stories in his 2005 anthology 121 New Zealand Poems. Possibly this kind of focus on the poetic nature of Frame’s prose helped to overshadow the fact that Frame was always producing poems as well. She did occasionally publish individual poems in magazines, but compared to the reputation she was gaining as a novelist, these sporadic publications appear to have been overlooked. Whenever Frame spoke in public, which she did far more than uninformed commentaries on her life might suggest, she almost always recited several of her own poems, to the delight of her audiences.

            Although Janet Frame published only one volume of poems in her lifetime it was substantial, containing 170 poems. The Pocket Mirror, first published in New York in 1967, went on to win the New Zealand Award for Literary Achievement when it was published in her homeland in 1968. The Pocket Mirror was published in multiple editions and reprints, selling tens of thousands of copies which made it a bestseller by New Zealand standards. It is notable that permissions have been issued for well over one hundred of the Pocket Mirror poems. For fifty years its wide range of eminently quotable poems encompassing numerous styles and touching on a broad range of topics has been extensively mined for anthologies, for quotations, and for musical and other adaptations.

            Notwithstanding this commercial success Frame never published another poetry book. Why not? I believe the reasons are complex and that there is no one answer. The many factors include her own need to make a living which meant indulging the desire of her agents and publishers for the more saleable prose work. I experienced this pressure myself as Frame’s literary executor in possession of her unpublished poetry and prose manuscripts. I had to be steadfast in my resolve to see the posthumous poetry volume The Goose Bath published first, as I had been urged to do by my aunt. She had also been reluctant to expose herself to too much scrutiny or even adulation while she was alive, leading her to envisage posthumous publishing as part of her career as it had been for some of the poets she revered, for instance Emily Dickinson. When I tried to encourage her to publish her volume of poetry before her death, so that she might receive the due appreciation for it, she said to me ‘I don’t need anybody to tell me my work is good. Do it after I’m dead.’ It also has to be suggested that male envy is one of the reasons for the attempted suppression of Frame’s vocation as a poet. She emerged at the height of the influence of the so-called ‘mid-century misogynists’ and New Zealand had more than its share of sexist gatekeepers eager to dish out excoriating critiques of anyone who wasn’t a member of the old boy’s club. Several Frame scholars have identified patriarchal disapproval as a factor hampering Frame’s professional trajectory but that explanation has yet to become accepted in the mainstream narratives about Frame.

            Frame’s own diffidence about her poetry is often mentioned as a first reason for her self-censorship but I believe this is over-emphasised. She was, like most New Zealanders of her generation, self-effacing. She could be self-deprecating concerning her writing, her cooking and her various handcraft hobbies. But she was very good at all these. Frame came from a culture where humility was expected but not taken too seriously. “This old thing!” in the New Zealand idiom is a code for a beautifully homemade garment for which the wearer and the maker (one and the same) might appear to deflect admiration but is in context understood as an invitation for praise.

            As it turned out, The Goose Bath was an instant bestseller and it also scooped the prize for the best New Zealand poetry book of 2006. Frame’s poetry volumes reached well beyond the usual readership for poetry. Despite the popularity of her poetry and the fact of Frame’s inclusion in every major New Zealand poetry anthology in the late 20th Century, her status as a poet in her own right has been downplayed in New Zealand poetry circles. For instance a 2014 entry on New Zealand poetry written for the official government online Te Ara Encyclopedia omitted to mention Frame as one of the nation’s prominent poets. When challenged about this, historian Jock Phillips replied that Janet Frame was considered by the author of the article, John Newton, and by the entire Te Ara editorial team to be ‘not of huge influence or significance as a poet (as distinct from a novelist)’ and therefore did not rate mention in the article. The facts do not support their judgement. Frame’s two highly regarded poetry volumes were both prize-winners and bestsellers. The large corpus of poems appearing within her novels, when added to her many other published but uncollected poems, plus the hundreds in her two poetry collections, yield a sum total of published poems to rival the oeuvre of most well known poets who pursue their careers the conventional way by releasing a series of slim volumes and, dare I say it, drinking with the ‘in’ crowd. Over the years Frame read her work in public, was recorded for poetry archives, sent political poems as letters to the editor, circulated memorial poems for reading at the funerals of friends and colleagues, and she continued to supply individual poems for publication in books and magazines until the year before her death in 2004.

             Ten years after Frame’s death doctoral student Iolanda Cozzone noted that Janet Frame’s poetry had been ‘completely neglected by the Italian and international translation market.’ At that time there had been no volumes of Frame’s poetry translated into any language although many individual poems had been translated into languages such as Czech, French, German, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish etc. for anthologies and blogs. In her thesis ‘Perspectives on the Translation of Janet Frame’s Verse into Italian’ (2014) Cozzone linked the early biographical fallacies and myth-driven perspectives of Frame’s work to what she identified in 2014 as ‘the current lack of interest in Frame’s poetry’:

‘Perhaps partly due to this tendency to approach her and her work in an uninformed way, critics and scholars have denied Frame her role of poet.’

            Luckily, the story does not end there. Cozzone was not the only one to identify and address the neglect of Frame’s poetry in translation. At the same time as Frame was being discounted as a poet by certain New Zealand literary bureaucrats, several translations of her selected poetry were in preparation elsewhere. This Italian edition Parleranno le Tempeste is the third selected poems in translation to appear in three years. Hungrig Bland Orden was published in 2015 in Sweden, followed by Huesos de Jilguero in Mexican Spanish the same year.

            We must be grateful to the translators and publishers who value the poetic imagination of Janet Frame and who make the effort to render her unique voice, her keen insights and observations, her empathy and wisdom, her fluent use of words and rhythms, her puns and allusions, her startling metaphors, her humour and mischief, into a new language for the delight of new readers. Enjoy!

Pamela Gordon
Janet Frame Literary Trust
Dunedin, New Zealand
8 March 2017

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