Joseph, M.K (Michael Kennedy)

Joseph, M.K (Michael Kennedy)

In Brief

M.K. Joseph was one of New Zealand’s most important poets and novelists of the 1950s–70s. Diverse in subject and genre — he wrote war novels, science fiction, historical novels and adventure fantasy — Joseph’s work combines intellectual with populist elements, international with local interests, and experimentalism with a more traditional moral and metaphysical enquiry. A serviceman during World War II and a much-respected university professor, Joseph was an innovative teacher, a groundbreaking practitioner of science fiction and an expert, early commentator on film as a serious art form.


Joseph, M.K. (Michael Kennedy) (1914–81), was a poet and novelist of the 1950s–70s, one of the most important writers of that period, best known subsequently for his science fiction and the novel A Soldier’s Tale (1976). Diverse in subject and genre, his work combines intellectual with populist elements, international with local interests, and experimentalism of form with a more traditional moral and metaphysical enquiry.

He was born at Chingford, Essex, near London, a month before the outbreak of World War 1, and retained ‘sharp but disconnected memories’ of wartime London, including an incinerating zeppelin, according to an unpublished memoir of his early life which is the source for some of the following information. His ‘highly retentive visual memory’ would later give his writing a vividness that interacts with his intellectual inclination. His early life was secure but itinerant. Both parents were well-educated Catholics from families recently risen to middle-class, his mother a successful teacher and his father a talented polyglot and businessman. They lived in various places in post-war Belgium and France 1920–23, Joseph learning French and English simultaneously. A period of schooling in Rouen is affectionately remembered in the poem ‘Fragment of an Autobiography’ and in School Journal (July 1953), and also left its mark on A Soldier’s Tale (see also France). Returning to England in 1923, Joseph attended St Aloysius’s College, Highgate Hill, and would make use of the recollection for the filmic climax of The Time of Achamoth, set in Highgate Cemetery.

The family emigrated in 1924, settling at Bethlehem, near Tauranga, where Joseph’s father became a founder of the fruit industry and made close friendships with the Maori community through his fluency in the language. Joseph attended Tauranga District High School (travelling five miles by horse), then Te Puke HS and, as a junior scholarship holder, Sacred Heart College, Auckland, where J.C. Reid and Dan Davin were among his lasting friends. A voracious reader, he had already discovered Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Hugo Gernback’s Amazing Stories magazine and the other originators of modern science fiction.

At Auckland University College from 1931, he studied law for two years before transferring to a BA and MA in English (first class honours 1934). Also in his student years he served as special constable during the 1932 Queen Street Riots (with James Bertram and John Mulgan), attended meetings of the Friends of the Soviet Union (with Robert Lowry and R.A.K. Mason) and was, in his own words, the ‘simple-minded’ and ‘completely inexperienced’ secretary of Phoenix when it went through its fatal ‘shift in emphasis’ from literary journal to instrument of ‘Party strategy’. After two years as a junior lecturer under Arthur Sewell at Auckland, he entered Merton College, Oxford, in 1936, financed by a grandmother and grand-uncle now also in New Zealand.

His Oxford graduation coincided with the outbreak of World War 2, and he joined the Royal Field Artillery and later an Air Observation unit, serving in England, France, Belgium, Holland and Germany, and reputedly declining promotion above bombadier. This experience recurs in his poetry and fiction and is briefly recounted in his contribution to the ‘Beginnings’ series (Islands 27, 1979), source for direct quotations below.

Joseph returned to Auckland as a lecturer in English in 1946, carrying ‘absurd burdens of lecturing and marking’, and therefore able to write only as he had done during the war, ‘in random scraps of time’. He also found time for scholarly work, especially Byron the Poet (1964) and his Oxford University Press edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1969), and was promoted to professor in 1970. Professionally he was remembered as a lucid and popular teacher of wide literary sympathies and as an urbane, peacemaking colleague (Forrest Scott’s obituary in Zealandia, 22 Nov. 1981). His novel A Pound of Saffron (1962) gives a less gentle though still charitable view of Auckland’s academic life.

He began publishing poetry in the 1940s in and Yearbook of the Arts. His collections are Imaginary Islands: Poems (1950), The Living Countries: Poems (1959), A Selection of Poetry (Poetry Magazine supplement, with notes by the author, 1965) and Inscription on a Paper Dart: Selected Poems 1945–72 (1974), which contained significant new work. He has usually been described as a poet of scholarly elegance and erudition, a ‘university wit’ (W.H. Oliver), and is indeed skilled in wordplay, satire, literary pastiche and learned meditation. Yet words like ‘academic’ do not recognise what K.O. Arvidson called ‘a certain richness in the poems’, or what MacD.P. Jackson meant when he asked ‘what other New Zealand poet could conduct a philosophical argument in relaxed blank verse to the point where the bland voice of the logician rises to something akin to passion?’ While Joseph eschewed intensely subjective verse, his best work often obliquely frames personal feeling, as when the perfect metaphysical pastiche ‘Meditation on a Time-Piece’ emerges as a deeply felt affirmation of marital love; or when the apparently light impressionism of ‘Girl, Boy, Flower, Bicycle’ takes on intimations of eternity. (For many years this poem was widely anthologised in overseas collections and textbooks.) He brings learning and a highly resourceful diction to confront the moral complexities of cruelty and mercy, apocalypse and hope, art and philistinism, but is capable also of creating a visual, even filmic sense of cosmic scale, as in the awesome Wellsian montage of past and future disguised under the innocent title of ‘Epitaph to a Poetry Reading’.

His meditative and metaphysical inclination works in fruitful tension with the belief stated in Byron the Poet that ‘art is about itself’. Images of mirrors, ‘shadows dancing’ and reflexivity thus recur, two decades before postmodernism took hold in New Zealand; so do variations on popular culture (‘Murder Story’, ‘Cinema’, ‘Funfair’); as do complex games of what later became called intertextuality. The opening page of I’ll Soldier No More alludes to Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ (‘The rain was falling softly, all over Germany’), the opening of The Hole in the Zero to Yeats (‘nine bean rows’) and in The Time of Achamoth one time-travel stopover is in the mind of the unnamed H.G. Wells as he conceives the word ‘Morlocks’. All significantly enrich the immediate text.

Though habitually and expertly literary, Joseph is likely to link radio’s space-adventurer Jet Morgan with Botticelli (‘Mars Ascending’), TV’s ‘Gunlaw’ Matt Dillon with Samuel Johnson (‘The Rosy Cats of Doctor Paracelsus’), Plato’s Republic with the movie matinee (‘Cinema’). He can be a poet of collages and connections and evasions (‘Unoriginal Poem’) as readily as of the pathos of war (‘Elegy for the Unburied Dead’) or of paternal love (‘For My Children’, adapted from the earlier ‘For My Son’).

His imagination mostly worked beyond the local; a poem for Allen Curnow and Kendrick Smithyman is an updated version of the legend of Icarus. But his contributions to specifically New Zealand poetry are considerable, including the satiric ‘Secular Litany’, one of the best-known 1950s poems for its attack on the Kiwi philistinism of ‘Saint Allblack / Saint Monday Raceday’ (see also Sport); grey city sketches like ‘Elegy in a City Railyard’ and ‘The Drunkard and the Crane’; and meditations on the history and geography of New Zealand like ‘Mercury Bay Eclogue’ and ‘Distilled Water’. Joseph was co-winner, with Keith Sinclair, of the 1953 Landfall Poetry Award for the sequence ‘The Lovers and the City’. He is well represented in all anthologies, most substantially the Oxford Book of New Zealand Writing Since 1945, ed. MacD.P. Jackson and Vincent O’Sullivan (1983).

About 1951 Joseph began ‘writing a series of sketches recording impressions of ordinary life in wartime Britain, France and Germany’. These became ‘a kind of low-key semi-documentary novel’, I’ll Soldier No More (1958), published by Paul’s Book Arcade and by Gollancz in England, where it was well received by reviewers such as Nancy Spain for its authenticity and balanced human insight. The novel provides a history of the European war from 1940 to 1946 through three conscripted artillerymen, one a New Zealander, Harry Gillies, who reappears briefly in A Pound of Saffron. It is a war novel with almost no close-up violent action, where a death is cause for prolonged grief and recrimination, and where the men’s internal lives are dominated by personal preoccupations—a wife’s infidelity, a mother’s death, a lover’s rejection, a sustaining Catholic faith, greed, fear, sleeplessness, toothache. Yet their essential heroism is all the more credibly established. The impressionistic sketches of war’s impact on the people of England, France, Belgium and Germany are extraordinarily sensitive, and as convincing as the novel’s minor cast of utterly unstereotyped soldiers. Lifting the book above realism and routine are eloquent passages that bring a cosmic dimension, especially a visionary overview of the world at war on Christmas Day 1943, which acts as a centrepiece of the narrative.

Joseph’s university novel, A Pound of Saffron, was conceived as ‘a tight plot with simplified "humours" characters, like a Ben Jonson comedy’, but ‘everyone insisted on reading it as some kind of roman à clef’, and ‘perhaps that has helped to give me a preference for science-fiction, historical romance and other forms of obvious fantasy’. His subsequent novels are the science fiction The Hole in the Zero (1967), a return to the moral issues of the European war in A Soldier’s Tale (1976), a time-travel exploration of evil and ‘the mysterious alternatives of history’ in The Time of Achamoth (1977), and the posthumously published historical novel of the medieval debacle of the Children’s Crusade, Kaspar’s Journey (1988). Two further novels remain unpublished, one an adventure fantasy set in a Europe controlled by victorious Nazis.

Joseph wrote quite often on New Zealand topics; for example, in a discerning study of the artist John Weeks in Landfall 34 (1955) or in his conservative but perceptive review of Janet Frame’s The Adaptable Man in Landfall 77 (1966). His professional views tended to be conservative, resisting the teaching of creative writing or contemporary literature, dismissing the concept of nationalism in literature, but these are not wholly consistent with his practice as an innovative teacher as well as practitioner of science fiction or his expert commentaries on film as a serious art form as early as 1949 for Here & Now. Nor was his urbane, Edwardian image wholly consistent with the adventurousness and idiosyncrasy of his writing. The narrator of Kaspar’s Journey has ‘a power of remaining apart’, casting a cool ‘spectator’s eye’ on the often lurid adventures that embroil him. Joseph sought the same detachment, writing of the great themes of European history in the idiom of a participant who yet remains at heart outside it all. The strategy of A Soldier’s Tale and The Time of Achamoth as well as Kaspar’s Journey, this can be read as an imaginative rendering of some of the formative experiences of modern New Zealand history. It produces moments of rare fictional power—the final pitying vision in Kaspar’s Journey of army after army struggling across Europe towards carnage, or the perplexed contemplation of brutal compassion that ends A Soldier’s Tale.

His ultimate importance may lie in such searching meditations on aggression and violence. Allen Curnow’s attack on Joseph’s moral integrity in the poem ‘Dichtung und Wahrheit’ may have been prompted by the recognition of the threat to his own status as the poet of violence. The craft and compassion of A Soldier’s Tale survived the assault. The novel stands as a statement of the duality with which ‘Cruelty and mercy share the same human heart’, just as I’ll Soldier No More ends with ‘the rude soldiery’ who are also ‘men walking like gods’ and the unspeakable final violence of The Time of Achamoth ends with a ‘terrible radiance on the face of the Holy One’.

Joseph has received little sustained critical attention. E.H. McCormick, Joan Stevens and J.C. Reid all wrote sympathetically on I’ll Soldier No More; W.H. Pearson considered the treatment of Maori characters in Essays on New Zealand Literature, ed. Wystan Curnow (1973); K.K. Ruthven’s structuralist analysis of A Soldier’s Tale (Islands 27, 1979) is of its time, highlighting the narratorial craft; and Roger Robinson placed Joseph as one of four significant recent novelists in The Commonwealth Novel Since 1960, ed. Bruce King (1991). An obituary by Dennis McEldowney (NZ Listener, 14 Nov. 1981) gives the most judicious overview, and is especially good on the care with which Joseph ‘achieved perfection time after time’ in such a variety of forms that ‘many future tracers of trends and categories will have to start at or near M.K. Joseph’. RR


Updated January 2017.