Ida Valley the muse of poet’s legacy

The historic road on the lower slopes of Rough Ridge.Photo: Supplied
The historic road on the lower slopes of Rough Ridge.Photo: Supplied
David Loughrey researches a historic literary controversy in the Ida Valley, and discovers how the area became the creative hub of the Maniototo.

It was not hard to see, when I sat for a moment on one of the thousands of sculpted rocky outcrops that litter the hills above the Ida Valley, the inspirations for Jim Fletcher’s* award-winning yet intensely controversial one-word poem.

They came in pairs, flashing through the air like colourful meat bullets, hooting and croaking as they circled above, the clowns of the avian empire: paradise ducks.

They landed and gathered in small groups on the twisted schist, honking and wailing their way through some incomprehensible social pursuit, before heading for the nearest farm pond to float about in gently domestic duck couplings.

I was in the valley to research Fletcher’s story, his meteoric rise in the literary milieu of the late 1950s, when the tendrils of modernist literature and the fierce debate about its worth extended west from Dunedin and first took root in the harsh dry soil of the valleys of the Maniototo.

I wanted to find out about the man behind the famous one-word poem duck, a poem that took country boy Fletcher to literary heights, then dumped him broken and bereft back on his small farm a little way up the valley from Poolburn.

Fletcher died in 1985 during a screening of Rambo: First Blood Part II at the Patearoa community hall.

But he has left a legacy that has shaped the valley into a stronghold of poetic creativity that instils the joy of literary creation in every man, woman and child who lives there.

My first port of call was Ern Malley, a man who knew Fletcher at the height of his brief brush with fame, hoping to gain some insight into the poet’s life and motivations.

Malley lives in a mud-brick cottage on the lower slopes of Rough Ridge, the tortured range of hills  ripped through the mud and fractured rock of the Maniototo geography.

When I first met Malley, he immediately launched into his own strange stream of consciousness as I crunched my way through the sparkling frost on the path to his home.
 
"Rough Ridge and Raggedy Range," he shouted, referring to the stark slopes that line each side of the valley.

David Loughrey
David Loughrey.

 

"The land is littered with alliteration, the place is perfect for poets."

Inside the cottage, Malley, a man whose deeply creased visage reflected the cloven spurs and lacerated gorges of the Maniototo, showed me newspaper clippings he had kept from the 1950s, including one review of Fletcher’s opus duck before the tide of public taste turned against him.

"He laboured for months over that poem," Malley said.

"Yes, it was just one word, and the word was ‘duck’, but the issue of capitalisation itself took him most of the winter of ’56 to resolve.

"Should the ‘d’ be capitalised, or should the ‘k’ take the capital?

"I know it sounds pretty far out, but that was the level of creativity we were dealing with back then.

"We were breaking rules, at the forefront of a literary revolution, changing epochs ..."

The matter of pluralisation took Fletcher most of the following summer to resolve, Malley said.

In the end he spurned the word "ducks", feeling it was pretentious in the extreme, as Malley described it the sort of "rubbish" favoured by the Objectivists [a loose-knit group of second-generation Modernists from the 1930s] or the Confessionalists [poets that emerged in the 1950s and drew on personal history for their artistic inspiration].

Finally, in the spring of ’57, Fletcher had finished his work.

He sent the poem to the New Zealand Poetry Journal’s national poetry competition, and won first prize.

Early reviews show the sense of awe the one-word poem engendered.

It was described by one as "a triumph of deconstructuralism, its singularity of vision itself transmogrifying into a dual sensibility, stoically conforming to the ineluctability of metaphysics in a way that threatens the genre itself with an anarchic reductionalism".

Its metrical composition, the reviewer said, was its most obvious strength, precisely because it had none.

Following the win, Fletcher, a man more used to the silent sensibilities of the Ida, found himself thrust into the centre of Dunedin society, for a short time the star of many a writers’ salon, plied with Imperial Tokay and Duck a l’Orange and sought after by society ladies.But the adulation did not last.

Later reviews in prominent literary magazines described duck as "a monument to the modern fluffery of fleeting fads" and Fletcher as "a jumped-up country clodhopper with a talent bypass".

Another said duck was "just a single word, not a poem".

Invitations to parties and events quickly waned.

Malley remembers Fletcher’s return to the Ida under cover of darkness in 1958.

"It was sad.

"He used a word that rhymed with duck when the bus dropped him off, but there were no more rhymes for Jim.

"He never wrote another poem."

But happily, that was not the end of the story.

Ten years later, as the freewheeling liberal ideas of the 1960s took hold in the valley, Fletcher sensed his way-out poem might find a more receptive audience.

He began touring the Ida with his pack and wide-brimmed hat from Moa Flat to Poolburn and beyond to give readings, taking the stage in pubs, schoolrooms and shearing sheds to recite duck, sometimes repeating it two or three times as an encore for enthusiastic crowds.

As Malley tells it, that was the moment when many in the area put farming to one side and devoted their lives to poetry.

Some came up with their own one-word poems, notable examples being truck, by transport industry figure Eric McTivish, and Malley’s own hat, which won the Poolburn Cultural League prize in 1972, both using Ferguson’s technique of the lower-case first letter.

Malley fondly remembers reciting his poem before a screening of The Poseidon Adventure at the Lauder community hall late that year.

Of duck, he said: "It made the valley what it is today."

"There aren’t many around this area nowadays who aren’t poets, or at the very least painters."

As I headed off down the Ida Valley-Omakau Rd towards Dunedin, a lone paradise duck flew in front of my car and I couldn’t help but think of Fletcher’s legacy.

I wound down the window despite the winter cold, and yelled into the blue heavens this one word: "duck!"

* None of this is true.

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