Kevin Ireland on Denis Glover: The musical drunkard, captured

Kevin Ireland remembers, and reviews, the legendary and much-loved poet Denis Glover - "one of the most brilliant, entertaining, argumentative, kindly, sometimes obstreperous and always intriguing beings I have ever met."

After four decades the images of Denis Glover are so strong and his voice remains so clear in memory that I cannot read him today without seeing the man and hearing his distinct crackle, rant, bark and slur.

During and after 1951, I made many visits to Wellington and worked there for a while in the mid-1950s, when the capital possessed the most active Bohemian enticements in the country, and I had the good fortune to make a number of what I would now call "tours of distraction" when Glover arrived there in about 1954, not searching for Bohemia as I was (in his forties, he was just over twice my age and appeared to be considerably older), but complaining as loudly as any other justified sinner that Christchurch no longer had the decency to hold out ‘suitable professional opportunities’ for him.

In those days an overnight weekday visit on the correctly named Limited Express, from Auckland to Wellington, cost only about thirty shillings and it was always celebrated with a scrambled-egg breakfast somewhere near the railway station, following the train’s near-certain late arrival. This would be followed by a short walk up to the Molesworth Street pub, where Glover would often install himself at the morning tea break of the Wingfield Press nearby.

Glover’s Caxton Press in Christchurch had been taken over from him and financially rescued, and Albion Wright’s Pegasus Press had its limits and eventually closed its doors to him, but now Harry Tombs (a son of the Tombs part of the Whitcombe and Tombs partnership) was the indulgent owner of a quality printery in Wellington’s Wingfield Street and it appeared to be accepted as a condition of service that, after Glover had made his presence felt there for a couple of hours, Harry’s apprentices would send samples of their work to Molesworth Street for Glover to approve (or not), and printers would bring pulls of their galleys for him to cast a swift and accurate eye through. They knew where to find him but they never pushed their luck and hung about for a beer.

These morning sessions, conducted almost always with the glowering approval and protection of the publican’s wife, saw Glover take over the bar as a private court with a small team of favourites and with friendly ambassadors such as myself. Here he was at his best and most animated; always unfailingly clean-speaking and polite. With a couple of glasses behind his belt he was quick at his supervising, always alert and witty, and full of quotes, compliments, dazzling comments and good cheer. Usually he would drift back to make his presence felt at the Press, then only pop out from time to time for a necessary reviver, but it was never a good idea to stay if he was in the mood for more. He was a ferocious boozer when a thirst possessed him. It was a set-up that called for more dedication and guile than I thought possible, given these moments of irascibility, but Glover was much loved and somehow the job lasted for years.

Today, I can only wonder how those who did not visit Glover on his home turf in any pub (or plastered at a public reading) now interpret him. For me, looking through his poems has an immediate, never-fading and brilliantly coloured personal impact, with unforgettable echoes of declamatory, often garrulous, statement and splutter. His image and sound are always there. Indeed, every so often the poems still seem sometimes to suggest a faint whiff of the beer and gin or whatever else, at the time when I first heard them, happened to be near at hand. I can’t think of another New Zealand poet whose poems occasionally make my nose twitch.

I’ve looked again through my now time-stained copy of the 1981 Penguin edition of the poems, called Denis Glover: Selected Poems, which were selected by Glover himself, though since he died in the year before their publication, instead of an explanatory introduction by the poet, they begin with a short and helpful essay by his friend Allen Curnow. The Penguin selection contained approximately 220 poems, which offer a very broad approach to a lifetime’s work, but missed out a few good ones and included a lot that Glover must have been fond of but rather clutter up the view.

This welcome ‘new’ book is actually a reprint of Bill Manhire’s 1995 choices, also called Denis Glover: Selected Poems. It includes several of the missing poems and drops about 100 of those that Glover, like most poets given the chance, couldn’t bear to part with because they hold special references or signals to people and events, and to private occasions – all of which forgive, though only for their maker, the fact that they simply don’t come off. This reissue serves up the very best of one of our finest and most popular writers. It’s a wonderful selection, accompanied by an introduction that’s a model of non-insistent pointers to the strengths and huge pleasures that Glover has gifted to us.

Both Curnow and Manhire are excellent at getting across the fact that Glover doesn’t need a lot of examining and explaining, but that there are useful things to know about his writing to gain maximum enjoyment from the poems. Curnow is fine on Glover’s strength in the mainstream tradition of pastoral poetry going back more than 2000 years, as well as his relaxed ability with the formal accomplishments of rhyme and metre, so that he made his pastorals "deceptively casual-looking". And Curnow gets it exactly right when he describes how one of Glover’s special accomplishments is his way of conveying "crustiness".  And he is also convincing in the manner in which he insists that Glover processed himself into his poems, so that we may even understand him as a kind of ‘Harry’.

Manhire gives us a more stripped-down picture with firmer outlines, backed up by the anthologist’s latter-day advantage of being free to ignore how the poet may once have wished to appear in a variety of mobile poses and, instead, he presents him dead-stationary and under a spotlight. Fortunately, it’s precisely what needed to be done. He’s very good on form and vocabulary, and on Glover’s double effects, so the poet can look dramatically (and often simultaneously) both "comic and facetious… Serious and flippant, urgent and offhand, sentimental and heartless, inspired and banal… As pleased with the squib as the skyrocket."

Glover was all these accurate contrarinesses. He could write both with a dark concentration and a glittering inventive expansiveness:

Birds nimble in the bright air,

Fishes flim in the flood,

Trees listen for me for her –

And let it be understood

     The pocky cracked old moon

      Goes dancing to our tune.

but also:

Would he be done yet, Bill?

Asked the assistant-stoker.

– Better give him another minute or two:

He was a big joker.

Denis Glover (avec pipe) with Allen Curnow (sans pipe). Photo: Coll 7404-2-23-1, Gordon Ogilvie Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.

The covers of both books offer a clue to their approaches. Curnow’s Glover is an older version of the man, a newspaper snapshot looking so at ease that it could undeniably be called ‘theatrical’, complete with a naval-type beard, smiling benignly and wisely, well rigged-out in check sports-coat, stylish waistcoat and a carefully-tied cravat patterned appropriately with daggers.

Manhire and his publishers have used one of Clifton Firth’s terrific posed images of Glover at the age of 35, not long back from his remarkable war heroics in the Royal Navy, escorting convoys around a dangerous northern loop to Murmansk, in Russia, and earning a DSO for his deeds during the Normandy landings in France in 1944.

VUP’s Glover has a neat, service-type haircut, he’s clean-shaven and there’s a polish to his skin. He’s wearing a grey, formal suit with waistcoat, definitely spruced-up, yet with a carelessly crumpled collar and a crooked tie. There’s a feeling about the picture that’s just not quite right, suggesting that there’s something odd and perhaps implausible that he’d like to say after Firth has put away his camera… perhaps "Quardle, oodle, ardle, wardle, doodle"…. You feel the Penguin photo displays a well togged-up actor on stage. The VUP portrait is a poet perfectly confident in, and proud of, his glorious contradictions.

For me, the re-reading of this superbly well-chosen collection of poems brings back to life one of the most brilliant, entertaining, argumentative, kindly, sometimes obstreperous and always intriguing beings I have ever met. I open any page and there Glover is again in all his cranky distinction, eyes glittering, mischief in his grin and with some sharp observation to report about something that just happens to catch his momentary attention and is worth a hundred everyday and considered observations in most company. He was full of riches and the poems are the proof.

One night in the 1950s, I was heading back to where I shared a flat on the Terrace, in Wellington, when I saw a raucously drunk Glover washing his purple feet in a pond of water, which I’ve described as being close to the houses of parliament, though it was merely somewhere near that end of the city and, since it was about 65 years ago, I now forget exactly where. But the image of Glover remains precisely as it was and though this was already an almost 35-year-old memory I wrote in the early 1980s, shortly after his death, I still wouldn’t change a word of it:

Denis Glover: Selected Poems, edited by Bill Manhire (Victoria University Press, $30)

We value fearless, independent journalism. We hope you do too.

Newsroom has repeatedly broken big, important national news stories and established a platform for quality journalism on issues ranging from climate change, sexual harassment and bullying through to science, foreign affairs, women’s sports and politics.

But we need your support to continue, whether it is great, small, ongoing or a one-off donation. If you believe in high quality journalism being available for all please click to become a Newsroom supporter.

Become a Supporter


Newsroom does not allow comments directly on this website. We invite all readers who wish to discuss a story or leave a comment to visit us on Twitter or Facebook. We also welcome your news tips and feedback via email: Thank you.

With thanks to our partners