A long, sunny afternoon
At the Salvation Army Family Store a copy of Gisborne poet Jon Benson's 1979 collection, Wunna Those Cardboard Roads, had a $1 sticker on it.
A buck for a collection of the late poet's witty, slightly surreal and sometimes spiritually-inflected, works. A sixtieth of the price of a second-hand copy of the 1974 collaborative collection, Gypsies, by Benson and poet, raconteur and radio personality Gary McCormick.
Gisborne artist Brian Campbell's pen drawing for Wunna Those Cardboard Roads' cover features a wheelbarrow-pushing, pinstriped suit with a hat floating above the collar, and a clock heeled into the air, as the figure puffs down a cardboard road. The image captures the wit in Benson's poems such as Muttock's End. The poem's absurdity, recurring motifs and tension created by an absence, recalls Samuel Beckett's plays such as Waiting For Godot in which, ostensibly, nothing happens, as seen in this excerpt.
It might have happened at Muttock's End.
It haunts me all me daze.
That throbbing anxious feeling,
When something's gone,
And something's lost,
That a man may not get back.
I've spent the nights and days
Now, for some years,
Rummaging through the cupboards
And the drawers,
And finding that,
Which I know is there,
And finding nothing is lost
Yet now the feeling
Plagues me in m'sleep,
And even should I find out
What is missing,
I would then have to know
Where this thing dropped.
With the rawness in wind and the rattle of creek stones, and of bottles, in poet Sam Hunt's 1972 collection Bottle Creek, deep in the background, McCormick's poems in Gypsies tapped into the alternative-lifestyle spirit and politics of the times in New Zealand.
Like Bottle Creek, Gypsies (and, for that matter, the 1973 Sam Hunt collection of “poems & roadsongs”, South Into Winter) is not bound but sheaved as loose papers in wunna those cardboard folders. This unconventional, staple and glue-free production was one of controversial New Zealand publisher Alister Taylor's (The Little Red Schoolbook, Bullshit and Jellybeans) innovations.
In his poem Roadsongs, McCormick declares “This book is my flag” and references Sam Hunt's coinage of the term “roadsongs”.
“Road is of symbolic importance to this mobile generation/ Song has no pretensions about it/ These roadsongs are simple, emotional expressions of life in/ New Zealand, 1973-74.”
Gypsies' format and monochrome cover even echoes that of Hunt's South Into Winter. Benson and McCormick, however, took their “poems for the people” collection to local business Logan Printing who produced the artwork and printed the book. The collecvtion's dull red and black cover photograph features Benson in a scratchy wool jumper and, with a dog, looking across the bay from a raw Makorori Beach. While the image is free of gloss (literally) the title points to the 1970s' alternative lifestyle ideals of social equality, burgeoning New Zealandness, and of the troubadour, as well as a forked fingers wave at academia.
“It was romantic, open and new,” says McCormick of New Zealand poetry from the likes of James K Baxter, Hone Tuwhare, Sam Hunt and their heirs, himself and Benson.
A sense of New Zealand bleakness and humour thread through the works though, and many of McCormick's poems about troubled relationships are laced with a draught off the cold grate, the whistle of wind through the weatherboards. New Zealandness notwithstanding, it's also hard not to hear the influence of the band Split Enz's iconoclasm and mania, as well as the Englishness that tinges some of the band's Mental Notes tracks, in much of Benson's more mordant poetry. The poet's sense of the absurd is already apparent in Dance Of The Salted Peanuts., a piece from Gypsies, The piece is bitey satirical with a hint of Englishness about corporate greed but cloaked almost as one of those menacing children's stories, like a Rupert the Bear adventure.
When they started on their way,
On their way to Dilberry Dale,
They marched along in two by twos,
Each one had sporty polished shoes, They dusted the flowers and read the news,
The price of Rabbit was high.
The poem becomes more ominous as it rolls through the next five verses and ends with an even more ominous encounter with the Rabbits in Dilberry Dale.
“Jon was an original thinker and human being,” says McCormick.
“He was an open-minded, twinkling, funny, generous person out of left field. He was a very original guy.”
Hunt was an influence on his own poetry, says McCormick.
“I crossed the mud flats to the boat-shed as a 16 year old and showed some poems to him. He had the patience and kindness to read them. Something about Sam and what he does — I thought, ‘I'm not going to law school; I'm going to write.”
McCormick believes he and Benson were not only the first poets to busk their works in the street but were likely New Zealand's first buskers.
“The first show was in Whangamata where we read on a street corner and people would buy our books. We'd go into pubs and say ‘do you want a few poems in the garden bar?' They were great days.”
McCormick also busked in Auckland's Vulcan Lane, and in Palmerston North he was arrested for reading his poetry out loud in public, “a crime against the state”.
“We were people of our time. We were the early uptakers of that mood to hit the road. It was the same with musicians.
“It would be good to compile a social history of that time. There were all sorts of odd people wandering around. They were all good people in those early days leading to the Nambassa music festival. There was no cynicism.
“It was a long, sunny afternoon.”