On a mission and not a word wasted

The day was uncommonly bright when Ern Malley* came to town.

The sun shone in a slightly ruthless way, reflecting a harsh light off the facades of Dunedin's office buildings.

The surrounding hills looked just a little stark.

The air was thin.

It was spring.

Malley was on his way to the University of Otago, where he said he had an appointment ``with someone important''.

Some background: Malley was close to Ida Valley one-word poet Jim Fletcher, who hit the heady heights of literary fame in the 1950s, and got a brief taste of the voluptuous delights of the Dunedin salon scene before the literary elite turned against him, leaving him broken and bereft back on his small farm, a little way up the valley from Poolburn.

Fletcher died in 1987 during a screening of Jaws: The Revenge at the Moa Creek community hall, but not before he saw a renaissance of the poetic form he pioneered, as it became fashionable again in the '60s and '70s.

Those at secondary school during the '50s will remember studying his most famous one-word poem duck as they studied for their matriculation examinations, those who read literary journals of the time will remember the many scholarly critiques of the work, and those who read the tabloids will remember the lurid details of Fletcher's extravagant lifestyle at the height of his fame.

I saw Malley staring wistfully into the display window of a fashionable menswear store on George St, the sort that caters for academic types and the cultural crowd.

He was wearing boots, a full length oilskin and a wide-brimmed hat, the epitome of a good country bloke shopping in town.

He had a smile on his face as wide as the Manio ...

``Don't even think it'', he yelled at me.

``The Ida Valley Progress and Poetry League has a patent on the phrase `a smile as wide as the Maniototo Plains', and it's the most hackneyed bloody phrase in the English language anyway.''

I stepped back, slightly shocked.

This wasn't the eccentric but cheerful fellow I had dealt with in the past.

I had met Malley and used his archive of faded newspaper articles and his rich store of memories when I researched Fletcher's life and work.

He appeared angry and was clearly frustrated, but he soon calmed down.

``I feel bloody ridiculous in this get-out,'' he told me.

``We all wear berets, round glasses and turtleneck jerseys up the Ida now; nobody wears this rubbish.''

Malley had some time before his meeting at the university, and for the offer of a coffee and a chocolate eclair (he said he was ``a bit short'' after paying for the bus ride to Dunedin) he told me why he was in the city.

He said the Ida was in a state.

``The farms are all overgrown, the sheep are running wild, the cows mostly wandered over the hill to Omakau; they must have sensed someone would get round to milking them on the other side of the Raggedy Range.

``Apparently they all left one night, found their way through the railway tunnels on the rail trail and refused to come back.''

Slowly but surely, he said, the influence of Jim Fletcher had taken hold in the Ida, and the hearts of the women and men of the valley were drawn away from farming to a new, more exciting pursuit: poetry.

Instead of boozy meetings with stock and station agents at the local pub, there were now poetry readings.

The publican had told him for the first time in history, sales of pinot noir had topped those of beer.

``That's all good,'' Malley told me.

``Everyone was sick of being country folk; it just gets old in the end - everyone's a bloody stereotype of a Maniototo bloody farmer - but the best thing is our literary output is absolutely top-notch - top-notch! - no question.''

The problem was the valley's economic indicators were all indicating its economic output was far from top-notch, as farming ground to a halt.

``The Ida Valley Progress and Poetry League made some money out of patenting phrases like `a smile as wide as the Maniototo Plains', `jeez, it's bloody hot' and `jeez, it's bloody cold', but the income doesn't sustain the area,'' Malley said.

Poetry sales were popular and competition for some of the better works pushed prices up, but as both buyers and sellers were all from within the valley, the net gain was zero.

Then, Malley said, the poetry and progress league had a brainstorming session, and a poet from Oturehua had a brilliant idea.

It was realised the university had fellowships for writing, dance, music and the like, but no specific fellowship for the valley's best product: one-word poems.

It was to pitch that idea that Malley was in Dunedin, and he already had support from local poets, two of whom had penned their own works in an act of solidarity.

The plan was to patent the one-word poem, and force the university to pay to use it after the fellowship was put in place.

As well, the league had figured, surely one of the valley's own one-word poets, being leaders in the field, would win the fellowship, securing a source of income for at least a year.

Malley seemed more relaxed and somehow enlivened by telling me his tale, and he left the cafe clutching a handful of sugar sachets and a salt shaker.

I write this a month later, having heard no news on the fellowship, and I can't help but hope against hope the university will agree to support something so uniquely of the dusty soil of the Ida Valley.

I hope before long I can bring you, dear readers, that good news, and again meet Ern Malley up the valley on the road to Ophir.

Perhaps we could watch a rerun of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace at the Poolburn community hall to celebrate.

And maybe, just maybe, he'll be sporting a smile as wide at the Maniototo Plains (patent fees for the use of this phrase paid in full to the Ida Valley Progress and Poetry League).

 

One-word poems

Recently penned one-word poems by Dunedin writers in support of the proposed fellowship. —

‘SCRUMPTIOUS’

‘‘The poem is a one-word anthology of my earlier one-word poems, including my debut poem Rump, my sports poem Scrum, my sea shanty poem Rum and my nonsense poem tious. SCRUMPTIOUS is terrifically, tantalisingly tasty on the tongue; sadly my one-word poetry career does not best serve my love of alliteration.’’
    — Ian Loughran


‘boot’

‘‘When William Wordsworth wrote that poetry is ‘‘the best words in the best order’’ he was surely anticipating the genius of Jim Fletcher. The well-wrought one-word poem is poetry at its most distilled and potent. The poem must provide a concrete image and yet go beyond the concrete to reach in many directions at once, as my poem, boot, in representing both the putting on and taking off of footwear, represents both the beginning and end of a journey. Like Fletcher, I have agonised over the format and punctuation of my poem. I considered BOOt, because one should always have a tea after a big fright; but since it should be a strong tea I wondered if the poem would be better expressed as booT. I was attracted for a while to the post-modern rendition b*&t and also experimented with a comma, but in the end I have opted for no punctuation and lower case throughout.’’
    — Sue Wootton
 

*None of this is true.


 

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Staggering across the Plains, and the Above Average, he at last found The Book of Stone, high above a gryphen of Granite.

The Book was open. He deciphered the legend, reading from left to right, as if the words were paginated.

"I am The Truth And
The Way Way
And Light The The"