The Poetry Kit
- Jennifer Compton
Early in 2006 Jennifer Compton was in Rome on a Whiting Fellowship and in May was due to go to the Sarajevo Poetry festival. The organisers of the festival asked her to produce an 'autoreflective confession about (her) poetics.' and she was happy to oblige. We are pleased to reproduce it here;
- I was born in Wellington, New Zealand in 1949.
- My mother, Dorothy, was a housewife who had left school at 14.
- My father, William, was the company director of a wooden box factory called H. Compton & Company Limited. His elder brother, Henry, was the managing director. My uncle and my father had both left school at 12. Because of the Depression of the late 1920s and 1930s. It hit New Zealand hard. Their father had been a coal carter and the horses were stabled in the backyard. But then he had started up a box factory.
- I remember the factory when was still in the family home in Kilbirnie, but the family no longer lived there. The office and morning tea room and the room to sharpen the band saws had taken over the house. The boxes were still made in the backyard in a big old shed. They were used to transport apples and tins of paint etcetera etcetera. But by the time I was 5 or 6, one of the first supermarkets in New Zealand was to be built next door, and the company got a good price for the property, which was turned into a car park, and they built a new factory on an industrial estate near our family home in Rongotai.
- Although my father and uncle were directors of the company, they worked alongside the men, making boxes. I seem to remember they hired between 2 and 6 men. They were always called The Men. I had a holiday job, briefly, in the factory, tailing out on the band saw. But I lasted 2 days. It was so boring. And noisy.
- In 1949, when I was born, peace and prosperity reigned. New Zealand was like a paradise. It was God's Own Country. We called it Godzone. Doctors were free. Schools and universities were free. Milk and butter were heavily subsidised and cost next to nothing. The world wanted to buy all the wool, meat, butter and cheese that we could produce. At very good prices. I was very happy, without even knowing I was happy, until I was about 10 years old. I was in a kind of golden dreaming. Playing hopscotch out on the pavement in front of our house, or skating around the roads, or going to swim at Lyall Bay beach. We would go for Sunday drives in the company car and visit relatives. I had bags and bags of cousins. We would get together and run wild. While the mothers drank tea and the fathers drank beer.
- But nothing lasts forever.
- My father became ill with the disease he would die of at the age of 50. It's called Burgher's disease. You can only get it if you have Eastern European Jewish blood so of course it took a long time to diagnose in New Zealand.
- Nobody wanted to buy wooden boxes any more. They were using the new fangled cardboard cartons.
- And the world wasn't nearly so keen on buying all of the primary produce New Zealand could produce.
- And television arrived in New Zealand. I suppose we became dissatisfied, restless, discontented. Bored.
- I know I got poetry. I caught poetry, as if it was a disease. Or maybe poetry caught me. We read New Zealand poets at school. I remember Denis Glover, James K. Baxter, Louis Johnson. There were even women poets. Katherine Mansfield, Janet Frame. And others. So I knew it was possible to be a woman, born in New Zealand, and to write poetry. To be a poet.
- I also remember the other poets we were introduced to. Shakespeare. T.S. Eliot. W.H. Auden. Dylan Thomas. And one poem by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. “Telling Lies To The Young Is Wrong.”
- Other poetries, North American, European, Asian, Chinese, Inuit – I had to find for myself. And I am still finding them.
- But – the poem that haunts me and inhabits me and informs me – the poem that kick started me and turned me into a complete useless – that most useless of human beings, the poet – the poem that told me of my destiny, as if it knew my destiny before I knew it, was by Denis Glover.
- Once the days were clear
- Like mountains in water
- And the mountains were always there
- And the mountain water.
- And I was a fool leaving
- Good land to moulder
- Leaving the fences sagging
- And the old man older.
- To follow my wild thoughts
- Away over the hill
- Where there is only the world
- And the world's ill.
- I knew I wanted to leave everything behind, and find the world, and the world's ill. Even though that would make me a fool. I wanted to be that fool.
- I sold a poem to the New Zealand Listener for 5 pounds (a great deal of money) when I was 14. And that was it. I was done for. For good and all.
- I was the first person in my family to pass the exam that entitled me to go to university, for free, and I did go for 6 weeks. But I dropped out. I just didn't want to do it. Not even for free. It would cost me too much.
- I met my husband, an actor, when I was 20. He was bored. I was bored. We set sail for Australia in 1972 and we never looked back.