Mark Pirie as Romantic Satirist

I became aware of Mark Pirie as a figure on the local literary scene in Aotearoa a good few years ago because of the prominence he gained as the principal editor of the well presented literary magazine JAAM.

I read none of Mark Pirie's books of poetry until The Blues on the occasion of its launch in 2001. I recorded my impressions in some notes which I mean to append to this essay when they turn up again in my papers.

I have since read most of Mark Pirie's books of poetry but I do not intend to comment on them individually at length. Instead I will offer some general comments on his poetry to date.

Early in his literary career Mark Pirie identified himself with the X Generation. My impression of this generation in literature is that they prefer realistic writing. Perhaps as a generation they had no more troubles and are no more adventuresome or reckless in relationships than any other, but they certainly seem franker in their reports of their early life struggles and problems.

So it is not surprising that in his poetry Mark Pirie has written extensively about the love life of the young. I don't know whether he writes from observation, imagination or experience, and it does not matter, but in fact his romantic writing seems to be distinctive indeed.

Mark Pirie uses a verse style for his love poetry (as much else) that is spare and brief. It is unrhymed. His love poems tend to be worded from the viewpoint of a young male relating to a young female. The presentation is quite bluntly realistic, but there is usually a surreal angle dropped into the text.

Much of Mark Pirie's verse outside the love poetry is overtly satiric, and even the love poetry has a satiric edge, so it is quite appropriate to describe Mark Pirie as a romantic satirist. However all his writings can be seen as social comedy.

I do in fact think that the romantic satire is the finest element of Mark Pirie's poetry to date, and indeed very fine work. There would be several dozen pieces scattered across his first six books that fall under the heading of love poetry written as romantic satire. I would actually like to see all this material collected and published as a separate book on its own. It might be that it would be too much of a good thing. But I suspect in fact it would read as a substantial and impressive treatment comparable to A E Housman's Shropshire Lad or even Heine's whimsical love poems as an expression of the Weltschmerz of Pirie's generation as those works are of Housman's and Heine's.

Love poetry is an important part of poetry as a whole. There are poets who seem incapable of writing love poetry and offer very little of it, for instance Allen Curnow, or even more surprising WilliamWordsworth. It is not easy to write love poetry, and even poets who make a point of doing so find it hard to come up with. So there is a real value in a volume of love poetry such as Mark Pirie has produced and has available to be collected as a separate publication.

Such work doesn't grow on trees and is to be treasured highly. Michael O'Leary is particularly admired for his ability to write convincing love poetry.

I do think it was one of the historic prospects that people of the X Generation would come up with fine love poetry, Mark Pirie for one has done so.

As I understand it, Mark Pirie is still in his thirties, so he is still a young man. His love poetry goes back it seems to the earliest days of his poetry writing 18 years ago. So it is very much an achievement of youth.

And why not, since his subject is young love, or love with the intensity and innocence of youth but the knowingness and irony in it of a real poetic talent? One gets the impression that other topics increasingly have come to occupy Mark Pirie's books of poetry with the passing decade.

Mark Pirie is already an outstanding editor and publisher, and as such is to be compared strongly with Noel Hoggard and Denis Glover. I leave Hoggard out of consideration here because his poetry has never had a large import. But it is worth noting that Denis Glover wrote and published his own poetry for twenty years from 1931 before his poetry really commanded and received acclaim with the collected Sings Harry and Arawata Bill sequences in 1951 and 1953.

Although some of Glover's poems prior to 1950 were anthologised, it has been forgotten that until 1951 Glover's standing was as a printer and publisher, and his poetry was largely satiric in quite a rough and ready way. In other words Glover hardly counted as a serious poet before 1950. Thereafter he went on to write an extensive bulk of poetry which is consistently Georgian in its techniques. Denis Glover was affectionately regarded as a poet and man by J H E Schroder (see his sonnet to Glover). My own view is that Glover's Georgianism was the worse for a slapdash craftsmanship, so that Glover's poetry from 1950 on looks like a wrecked oeuvre, but nevertheless it should all of it including the newspaper poems be collected in print. I am sorry that Denis Glover's literary executor, his son Rupert Glover has not furthered such an outcome so far.

My point in the comparison between Mark Pirie and Denis Glover is that as in Glover's case Mark Pirie might not really achieve his major literary production until 20 years on the literary scene, that for 20 years he too like Glover may simply count as a minor satirist until finally striking a mother lode maybe ten years on from now. That may be so.

But in fact there is nothing in Denis Glover's corpus comparable to Mark Pirie's love poetry dating from his earliest youth. So while in some ways Glover and Pirie look alike as publishers and satirists, in other ways Pirie may well prove to have had a literary accomplishment in his youth of a far higher order. Why should this be so?

I suspect it is due to the influence of Louis Johnson's poetry. Mark Pirie got to know and admire Louis Johnson's poetry very early on and went on to write his MA thesis on Louis Johnson. So there are strong sympathies on Pirie's part for Johnson's approach to poetry.

In terms of style Mark Pirie is the opposite of Louis Johnson. Pirie's verse is spare, cut down, uncluttered, whereas Louis Johnson's verse is noticeably voluble in words and ideas. It may even have been a natural reaction to Johnson's overflowing abundance that turned Pirie to the succinct poem. But in fact when you discount differences of style there is much in common between Pirie and Johnson.

Principally for a significant portion of their poetry those similarities are these:

  • There is a strong drive in both men to be realistic in subject and presentation.
  • There is also a persistent fund of intelligent reflection, both men showing effective imagination, in Pirie's case often as surreal touches.
  • There is in both men a very deep insight into and persistent attention to the love relationships of men and women.

My impression is that the best of Louis Johnson's love poetry has yet to be collected from the magazines where it appeared in the early 1960s and has yet to be published in book form. So just how intimate and convincing Johnson was in treating such interrelations people forty years later may overlook, but as a conscientious student of Louis Johnson's literary work it may well be that Mark Pirie was someone in the know in this regard from the early 1990s. If so, once more credit can go to Louis Johnson for his good works and influence as a poet, editor and critic.

F. W. Nielsen Wright

Pirie, Mark, Shoot (Christchurch: Sudden Valley Press, 1999).
- No Joke (Christchurch: Sudden Valley Press, 2001).
- The Blues (Paekakariki: Earl of Seacliff Art Workshop, 2001).
- Reading the Will: Satires and Poems 1992-2001 (Christchurch: Sudden Valley Press, 2001).
- Dumber (Paekakariki: Earl of Seacliff Art Workshop, 2003).
- Gallery: A Selection (Cambridge, UK: Salt Publishing, 2003)

F. W. Nielsen Wright is the author of the epic poem The Alexandrians. He lives in Wellington and is publisher for Original Books.

Article © F. W. Nielsen Wright, 2003, Revised and Abridged 2010