A.R.D. Fairburn was a major poet of the 1920s–50s. Perhaps inevitably with such a vigorous and varied person, the man tended to loom larger than his writing until some years after his death. Fairburn’s literary activity included poetry, essays, reviews, criticism and editing. Yet he also painted, designed and printed fabrics, wrote art criticism and lectured on art. At times he was a political activist and organiser. No single work brings Fairburn’s many gifts together; rather, his lyric, satiric and discursive modes tend to operate separately. His essays and reviews over twenty-five years form a mosaic of the intellectual life of the country, and touch on most of the major issues of those years.
FROM THE OXFORD COMPANION TO NEW ZEALAND LITERATURE
Fairburn, A.R.D. (Arthur Rex Dugard) (1904–57), was a major poet of the 1920s–50s. He was a fourth-generation New Zealander, his great-grandfather having arrived as a missionary in 1819 and settled permanently in 1823. His grandfather, Edwin Fairburn, the eleventh Pākehā child born in New Zealand (in 1827), became a surveyor and an eccentric Utopian thinker, critic of society and novelist.
The poet’s father became a conservative businessman. The poet, eldest of three sons, was born in Auckland and attended Auckland GS 1918–20, leaving without academic qualifications. There he began his close friendship with the poet R.A.K. Mason, a year younger but much more precocious as a writer. After leaving school, he worked as a clerk for New Zealand Insurance for six frustrating years, resigning in 1926 to take a trip to Norfolk Island.
He was formally unemployed from his return in late 1926 until 1930, but did some freelance writing, publishing poems and articles in two of the Auckland papers, the Star and the Sun, 1927–29, and winning the poetry prize in the Sun Christmas Supplement in 1929. Several of these early poems were collected in Quentin Pope’s Kowhai Gold in 1930.
In August of that year he went to England to join the expatriate New Zealand poet Geoffrey de Montalk, and with de Montalk’s help published at his own expense his first volume of poetry, He Shall Not Rise, in late 1930. He married in England in 1931. Fairburn wrote poems and articles during this time both for the Auckland papers and for English periodicals.
It was a time of intellectual searching, as he formulated the rather disparate set of beliefs that remained his personal philosophy. In political and economic matters, he rejected the Marxism of his friends Mason and Clifton Firth and adopted a belief in Douglas Social Credit; at the same time he defined more explicitly a philosophy of vitalism related to that of D.H. Lawrence and reached a belief in back-to-nature organic farming.
In October 1932 Fairburn returned to New Zealand with his wife and child. From late 1932 to 1934 he was unable to find paid employment, and experienced at first hand the relief gang work that he depicts in Dominion. He published poems in the 1933 issues of Phoenix, edited by Mason, and in the one issue of the Caxton Club magazine Sirocco, edited by Denis Glover, and began to establish himself with the new generation of writers coming together around the printers Robert Lowry in Auckland and Glover in Christchurch.
Important at this time also was a friendship with Frank Sargeson, a relationship that later turned to enmity over the issues of state patronage of writers and the privileges and influence of homosexual writers. From its beginnings in 1934 he was one of the primary contributors to the radical Christchurch magazine Tomorrow, writing poetry, essays, reviews and opinions, and he contributed poetry to the Caxton Press collections of the 1930s: New Poems (1934), Another Argo (1935), Verse Alive (1936, drawn from Tomorrow), A Caxton Miscellany (1937) and Verse Alive Number Two (1937).
In 1938 Caxton published his major long poem of the Great Depression, Dominion, and in 1941 he contributed to the Caxton anthology Recent Poems with Mason, Glover and Allen Curnow. In 1943 Caxton brought out his collected Poems 1929–1941 and in 1946 the slighter The Rakehelly Man. His anonymous pamphlet attacking the Auckland Herald, Who Said Red Ruin?, was published by Ronald Holloway at the Griffin Press in 1938, and his brilliant Joycean satirical pamphlet parodying the speaking style of Michael Joseph Savage, the Prime Minister, The Sky is a Limpet: A Pollytickle Parroty, was published by Lowry in 1939. We New Zealanders: An Informal Essay was brought out by the Progressive Publishing Society in 1944.
During these years of intense literary activity, Fairburn was also working at jobs related to his political and social interests. From 1934 to 1942 he held various administrative posts with the Farmers’ Union, a Social Credit organisation, and helped to edit its journal, Farming First. He served in the army 1942–43, and then was manpowered into work with radio station 1ZB as a scriptwriter.
He remained there until 1947, when he resigned to set up a business as a fabric designer and printer. At the same time he served as the editor of Compost Magazine 1944–49. In 1948 he became a tutor in the Department of English at Auckland University College, and in 1950 lecturer in the history and theory of fine arts at the University’s Elam School of Art. He was also active as an editor in these years, doing much writing and editing for the Auckland monthly Here and Now 1949–52 and serving as poetry editor for the Yearbook of the Arts 1945–51.
Fairburn’s writing of poetry continued until 1952, when his work was collected in several volumes: his two long poems from 1948 and 1949, ‘The Voyage’ and ‘To a Friend in the Wilderness’, were collected along with ‘Dominion’ as Three Poems; and his shorter poems were collected in Strange Rendezvous: Poems 1929–1941 with Additions, published by Caxton. In the years following, he added only light verse. This diverse career was suddenly cut short by his death from cancer in 1957.
Posthumous publications included two volumes of light verse in 1958, The Disadvantages of Being Dead and Poetry Harbinger (with Glover); the Collected Poems, edited by Glover (1966); a selection of his prose, The Woman Problem and Other Prose, selected by Glover and Geoffrey Fairburn (1967); and The Letters of A.R.D. Fairburn, selected and edited by Lauris Edmond (1981).
As his varied career shows, Fairburn was a remarkably diverse man. His literary activity included poetry, essays, reviews and criticism, and editing; he painted, designed and printed fabrics, wrote art criticism and lectured on art; he was a political activist at times and an organiser, with strongly held beliefs and prejudices concerning the economic system, state patronage of the arts (which he vigorously opposed for individual writers and artists), sexuality and homosexuality, the role of women (he rivalled D.H. Lawrence in the extremity of his views) and organic farming.
A large, handsome man, he was physically active, a keen swimmer, sailor, long-distance walker and golfer; extremely convivial, he formed a remarkably diverse web of friendships. Perhaps inevitably with such a vigorous and varied person, the man tended to loom larger than the writings until some years after his death. Thus Curnow said in 1947 that ‘More than any other New Zealand poet, Mr Fairburn has value for what he is, as much as for what he writes’, and Sargeson, after his death, called him ‘one of the most extraordinary men born in the southern hemisphere’.
However, though the presence has faded, the writings remain to be assessed independently of it. Much of this diverse body of material will come to be of historical interest only, but there is much of lasting value. The journalism and reviewing are the most ephemeral. The essays and reviews over twenty-five years in journals as varied as Tomorrow, NZ Listener, New English Review, Compost Magazine, Year Book of the Arts, Parsons Packet and Landfall form an idiosyncratic mosaic of the intellectual life of the country, and touch on most of the major issues of those years.
Yet only one essay, ‘Aspects of New Zealand Art and Letters’ (in Art in New Zealand 1934), has become a landmark, one of the works that helped to set the agenda for a generation of writers. His prose jeux d’esprit and parodies have often dated, but his How to Ride a Bicycle in Seventeen Lovely Colours from 1947 (with Lowry’s inspired typographical play) remains an offbeat classic, and the exuberantly punning wordplay of The Sky is a Limpet retains its appeal. His letters, too, are likely to hold a place in that genre, especially his playful, witty letters to Glover.
Though the poetic satires and parodies were often ephemeral, the best hold up well: the playful humour of ‘Poem on the Advantages of Living at the Remuera End of the North Shore’, the self-parody of ‘Kowhai Poem’, the sharp parody of Sargeson in ‘Glum Summer’, the complex ambivalence of his love–hate relationship with New Zealand in ‘I’m Older Than You, Please Listen’, or the bitter edge of ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, a devastating attack on the supporters of capital punishment.
A few ballads such as ‘Walking on My Feet’ and ‘Down on My Luck’ are entirely successful, with the anonymous speakers taking on a role like that of Harry in Glover’s ‘Sings Harry’ poems. Probably his central accomplishment is in his short lyrics on traditional themes of time, death and sexual love. There are memorable ones from every phase of his career: ‘Let Us Make an End’ (1927), ‘Winter Night’ (1931), ‘A Farewell’ (1942), ‘Tapu’ and ‘The Cave’ (1943) and ‘Song at Summer’s End’ (1947).
In these lyrics, his easy command of rhythm and prosodic effects, his image-making ability, and his control of a middle range of diction, neither vernacular nor consciously poetic, result in poems that are lucid, direct and deceptively simple, with great emotional resonance. His closest approximation to major poetic works, the longer poems collected in Three Poems, are more ambitious but less perfect.
‘Dominion’ is the most significant New Zealand work to emerge from the Depression and contains many aspects of Fairburn—satirical, didactic, realistic, lyrical and discursive; yet they fail to cohere in a satisfying whole, and the influence of T.S. Eliot (in reaction against his earlier Georgian mode) is not fully assimilated. The lyrical quality and the lucidity of the best parts of ‘The Voyage’ and ‘To a Friend in the Wilderness’ make both poems attractive, but they lack the intellectual weight of great discursive poetry and are unlikely to be remembered as long as the best of the shorter works.
There is, in fact, no single, undeniably major work where Fairburn’s many gifts come together. Rather, his lyric, satiric and discursive modes tend to operate separately, either in separate poems or as distinct parts of long poems that are not entirely integrated. However, there is a unifying thread through the work, a romantic attitude towards Nature and the ‘natural’.
It is most directly stated in the discursive sections of the longer poems, as in his prediction in ‘Dominion’ that we shall come to the ‘fair earth for the stones of a new temple’, or in his statement of faith in ‘The Voyage’ in ‘the complete, the illimitable pattern’ which we cannot fully know but can serve, or in ‘To a Friend in the Wilderness’, his more Lawrentian celebration of the Life force expressed in ‘the phallic will’ and ‘the logic of generation’ and his faith in the knowledge gained in intense moments: ‘We know in the instant of joy that our warrant is sure / our faith not vain, our being not belied by death.’
Such ‘visionary’ moments, when ‘love’s bright eye’ may ‘ransom life / from the entanglements of time and fear’ (‘Disquisition on Death’) are celebrated in the lyrics, especially the love poems dealing with ‘the brief eternity of the flesh’ (‘The Cave’), and their loss is mourned. The natural values they affirm underlie the satires, for Fairburn’s targets are those individuals and institutions that block the natural and encourage the worship of false idols—capitalist greed, puritanical repression, social status and power, hypocrisy and the cult of the respectable.
While Fairburn is unlikely ever again to have quite the critical reputation he had in the decade following his death, the range of his best work in many genres, the underlying integrity of his vision and his considerable stylistic gifts secure him a place as one of the most important writers of his generation. LJ
MEDIA LINKS AND CLIPS
- Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand
- Biographical essay in Kotare 2008, Special Issue - Essays in New Zealand Literary Biography Series One: 'The Early Poets'
- New Zealand electronic poetry centre
Updated February 2022.