For Heraclitus, against Plato and Bush
I first encountered the name Ted Jenner in 1991, when I was fossicking in the dimly-lit back shelves of the Rosehill College library. Ted was one of the writers included in The New Fiction, the fat, baffling collection of ‘experiments in prose’ edited and introduced by Michael Morrissey, a man whom I then imagined to be related to the lead singer of The Smiths. The texts in The New Fiction broke all the golden rules we had been taught by our English teachers at Rosehill: there were stories without plots, let alone trick endings, pages broken into multiple columns of texts, and characters whose names seemed to change with every new paragraph.
I duly showed the strange book to my English teacher, a rotund, bearded man who wore braces and loved GK Chesterton. He flipped through a few pages, turned up his bushy eyebrows slightly, and chuckled ‘Ah, yes! The zonked-out-of-one’s-skull in Ponsonby school of writing!’ But the strangest and most compelling piece in The New Fiction was written some distance from Ponsonby, and showed no sign of being the product of mind-altering substances. Ted Jenner’s ‘Progress Report on an Annotated Checklist for a Motuihe Island Gazetteer of Ethnographical Topology and Comparative Onomatography’ seemed to have little in common with the other texts in The New Fiction, let alone the Chesterton stories which our English teacher loved to read aloud.
Jenner’s text had been composed while he wandered around Motuihe, the two hundred hectare island nestled between Waiheke and Motutapu in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf. Jenner discussed the topography and history of Motuihe in a series of numbered paragraphs, and provided a carefully-drawn map to help his readers.
As I read for the first time through the ‘Progress Report’ I decided it must be an excerpt from one of the textbooks we had to read in geography classes, a piece of dull, pedagogical prose which had unaccountably been mixed in with the wild experiments that filled the rest of The New Fiction. I soon noticed, though, that the text’s careful structure and sober tone hid all manner of tricks and treats. The author was liable to interrupt a solemn discourse about one of Motuihe’s coves or cliffs with a story from Polynesian mythology, or a sudden invocation of a long-forgotten Mediterranean god, or a description of events occurring before his eyes. Layer upon layer of fact and allusion built up, as Jenner created a portrait of Motuihe Island that included his own, very subjective response to the place. Jenner seemed to ridicule the pretensions of his text, even as he added more and more detail to it:
12. A grove of forty olive trees, said to have been planted by Sir Logan Campbell, who farmed the island in 1843. Perhaps the largest plantation of olives in Australasia, the trees are authentically gnarled, the fruit is bitter. (Quotation here on the civilised and destructive impulse of nostalgia.)
Despite or because of the weight of his knowledge, Jenner was superbly alert to the scene before him, as he wandered across Motuihe:
7. A brilliantly screen-printed silk falcon swoops over the slender isthmus linking Hine-Rehia with Turanga-o-Kahu; here several groups of SE Asian ESL students establish pockets of cultural identity almost immediately upon disembarkation.
Jenner’s extraordinary text made me realise for the first time that there is no Chinese Wall between different types of writing, and that the ‘technical’ languages of subjects like botany, linguistics and geography can be as poetic as Keats’ nightingale and Wordworth’s daffodils. Long after I had forgotten about the other pieces in The New Fiction, I remembered Ted Jenner’s ‘Progress Report’, and wondered what else the man might have written.
Years after my escape from Rosehill College, I encountered Jenner’s name again, at the bottom of a series of contributions to the journal A Brief Description of the Whole World, which was founded by Alan Loney in 1996 and nowadays bears the less cumbersome moniker brief. Jenner’s gifts to A Brief Description of the Whole World included of translations of obscure, fragmentary poems written fifteen hundred years ago in Greece, and long, impressionistic accounts of life in modern-day Malawi. The ‘Notes on Contributors’ page at the back of Loney’s journal claimed that Jenner was teaching Greek and Latin at the University of Malawi, and had only intermittent contact with his literary friends in New Zealand. I found the idea of anybody teaching Homer and Plato in the hinterland of Africa surreal, and wondered if either Ted or Alan Loney was perpetrating some quirky postmodernist joke, but texts like ‘Luminous Details: Malawi 1998-2001’ were convincingly full of vivid detail:
Early morning mist dissolving over last season’s maize. Dry, shrivelled stalks rustling in the breeze like the pages of a Latin Grammar, rattling off their responses at the first hint of rain…Pied crows on campus scratching the blister domes of the library’s roof.
It was only after Jenner’s return from a decade in Malawi in 2006 that I finally got to meet him, and to learn more about the life that lies behind the texts in Writers in Residence. Jenner grew up in the working class South Dunedin suburb of St Kilda, where his father practised medicine. In a recent interview he remembers wandering the windswept streets of his neighbourhood with gangs of friends, then going home and lying awake for hours in bed, listening to the waves pounding the dunes of St Kilda beach, worrying ‘that the vastness of the Southern Ocean might wash over me’. The St Kilda boy soon developed a fascination with the world of classical antiquity, largely because ‘it seemed so distant and exotic’. ‘If I’d grown up in modern Greece or Rome, then I probably would have been fascinated by Polynesia’, he suggests.
In the middle of the sixties the young Ted Jenner enrolled in Classics and English at Otago University. Over the next few years he published his first poems in the student magazine OU Review, learnt the Greek and Latin languages, discovered the poetry of Ezra Pound and TS Eliot and the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, and took part in some of the demonstrations against the Vietnam War which shook up New Zealand’s campuses in the second half of the sixties. ‘I was very much opposed to the war and inclined towards left-wing politics’, he remembers, ‘but my classical studies gave me a sense of pessimism. I saw that some of the problems we were struggling with in the twentieth century had existed in the world of Plato and Aristotle. I couldn’t abide the naïve optimism I found in parts of the protest movement and the counterculture’. Since graduating from Otago with two Masters Degree at the end of the ‘60s, Jenner has divided his time between Britain, continental Europe, Malawi, and New Zealand, working as a teacher in a succession of schools and universities. He has published a stream of poems, translations, imaginative prose pieces, and scholarly essays in a variety of journals, as well as several small collections of poems, the best-known of which is probably the 1980 Hawk Press volume A Memorial Brass. The verse and prose texts in Writers in Residence have their origins in Ted’s adventures over the past few decades; by bringing them together, Titus Books allows us to make an assessment of what was previously a scattered and hard-to-access oeuvre.
It is hard to read even a page of Writers in Residence without being impressed by the breadth and depth of Jenner’s learning. His writing is full of allusions to physics and philosophy as well as philology and poetry, and he ranges with disconcerting speed through many epochs of human and natural history. Despite his learning and his love of allusion, Jenner is never a show-off: in fact, the texts in Writers in Residence show a profound uneasiness with the Western intellectual tradition that stands behind them.
Jenner’s ambiguous attitude to tradition is reflected in his sceptical attitude to the Greeks. When he was asked why he spent some much time studying ancient Greek society, the great Swedish poet Gunnar Ekelof replied ‘because I hate it’. In certain moods, Ted Jenner might offer a similar answer. Instead of relegating the ancients to an idealised, untouchable past, Jenner is determined to show that their world is in many ways like our own. Jenner admires the pre-Socratic philosophers, especially Heraclitus, whose poetic, wildly speculative fragments resist attempts at simplification and generalisation, but he despises Plato and Plato’s many disciples. For Jenner, Plato’s elaborate philosophical system and authoritarian political prescriptions represent a hubris that appears again and again in the history of the Western world. He is fond of pointing out that Plato’s Republic was a favourite text of Hitler, Mussolini, and the late dictator of Malawi, H Kamuzu Banda. The certainty which Plato tried to find through philosophy is dangerous, Jenner believes, because it leads to the creation of closed, dogmatic systems of thought, and to the suppression of the facts and opinions that inevitably challenge such systems. In a memorable section of his ‘Progress Report’ on Motuihe Island, Jenner notes the danger that false certainty might close his eyes to the surprises that his subject matter brings:
19. There is a risk that the writer will hold fast to his notebook, in which the rubber constantly catches up with the pencil, and to his temporary conclusions, which, from this moment on (4 p.m.), will become definitive, unverifiable, beyond all recall, accurate, so to speak, corresponding to the truth.
Even an attempt to make an exhaustive catalogue of the contents of a tiny piece of the world like Motuihe Island is doomed to failure, because reality is infinitely complex and continually in flux. To experience reality properly we need poetry, myth, and magic, as much as philosophy, philology and physics. Plato was wrong to want to exclude poets from his Republic. Jenner’s horror of dogmatic ideology and rigid categories is reflected in his continual undermining of scholarly conventions and procedures. His texts show us the limits of our understandings of the world, and the inadvisability of using dogma to cover for our ignorance. More than a few of the pieces in Writers in Residence feature a narrator or monologuist whose pretensions to omniscience are gradually undermined, until confusion replaces certainty.
Jenner’s texts often use extreme detail to disturb established ways of looking at the world, and to force us to see things afresh. He has never had much of an appetite for creating fictional worlds: the texts in Writers in Residence are set in real places. Jenner rejects the clichés of travel writing, though, in favour of an intense apprehension of the teeming world around him. In the middle of one of his poems about the Scandinavian wilderness, Tomas Transtromer suddenly exclaims:
This is not Africa.
This is not Europe.
This is nowhere other than ‘here’. Like Transtromer, Jenner is determined to make us see the particulars that our general theories and categories can hide. Ted’s attention to detail reflects the influence of the French ‘miniaturist’ poets Francis Ponge and Michael Deguy, as well as the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. Heidegger often notes that the normal, everyday world around us – ‘the given’, in his jargon – is usually something we take for granted, a sort of ‘equipment’ that we use to achieve our ends. In moments of crisis or inspiration, though, we can experience a ‘break in familiarity’ that suddenly makes us aware of the concreteness and sheer detail of the world that surrounds us. This sort of experience can be disconcerting. In Jean-Paul Sartre’s Heidegger-inspired novel Nausea, the anti-hero describes his sudden apprehension of the presence of what he had long taken for granted:
A little while ago, just as I was coming into my room, I stopped short because I felt in my hand a cold object which held my attention through a sort of personality. I opened my hand, looked: I was simply holding the door-knob. This morning in the library, when the Self-Taught Man came to say good morning to me, it took me ten seconds to recognise him. I saw an unknown face, barely a face. Then there was his hand like a fat white worm in my own hand. I dropped it almost immediately and the arm fell back flabbily.
Jenner’s text ‘Writers in Residence 1: A Quiet Shape’ dramatises a similar experience:
My head is a quiet, earthbound shape excreting a running monologue, insistent (‘I wish there was nothing else’) or obsessive (‘if there was something else?’). My wet feet mark the linoleum of the bathroom with traces of a methodical snail-wake…
Even if it can initially be disconcerting, the experience of viewing the world afresh can eventually enrich our sense of where and who we are. Writers in Residence has many moments of hard-won beauty, when we see details and connections that had been hidden by our certainties and schemas. Near the end of ‘Luminous Details’, for instance, the writer finds his past, and perhaps his future, in a tiny fragment of Africa:
Holding to one ear the spiral shell of the fresh-water snail that plays host to the bilharzia fluke, I hear the dumping of breakers on a west-coast beach (Piha?), even ‘the turn of the waves and the scutter of receding pebbles’ (Pound out of Homer) at a distance of almost four hundred kilometres from the Indian Ocean.
Ted Jenner should be read for his erudition, his wit, his remarkable attention to detail, and his insistence on remaining continually open to the richness and flux of the world. Writers in Residence is the fruit of decades of travel, study, thought, and writing. It’s a book I’ve been waiting for since 1991.