B. 1924 D. 2004
Poetry is attendance upon the world - Janet Frame
About Janet Frame
Known primarily as a prose-writer, Janet Frame’s passion since the age of nine was for poetry. She never stopped writing poems, expressing the recurrent themes of nature, animals, people, death and writing itself, and aiming for a “truthful vocabulary of what is and is not”. Yet she only published one volume of poetry, The Pocket Mirror, during her lifetime. A posthumous selection of the overwhelming number of poems she left behind was published in The Goose Bath, the title referring to the container in which Frame kept the poems.
The majority of the poems here, recited by Frame in 2002, were later incorporated into The Goose Bath. Only one, ‘The Flowering Cherry’, read in 1974, comes from The Pocket Mirror. Its subtle use of rhetoric functions to enmesh humanity with nature, creating an entangled analogy between a pawnbroker’s sign and cherries. The sight of the tree creates a debt of immense wonder that can never be repaid, which identifies it with the pawnbroker. The William Blake quotation signals a characteristic intertextuality to evoke the despair and violence that can ensue from such a debt.
Frame read The Flowering Cherry in her prime. Her voice is assured, soft and gentle, yet astonishingly clear. She elucidates the poem’s complex meaning by letting the rhythm determine and stress the most significant words. The other poems, read nearly thirty years later, show the elderly Frame at ease with a broader NZ accent. Although she is sometimes breathless, the same precise enunciation illuminates the maximum value of each word.
‘The Icicles’ also shows nature from an idiosyncratic perspective, revealing an extraordinary mind at work, which constantly transgresses boundaries. Frame creates a tension between disparate words, such as congratulate and severity, or courage and hard hearts, that anthropomorphize icicles, only to have them melt and lose their identity. This interplay between figurative and literal introduces a cyclical narrative that gives a new insight on a universal situation.
The exchange between humanity and nature is expressed in ‘The Old Bull’ as well. Frame uses an extended metaphor to compare traffic to a herd, and a retired farmer and his prize bull are united in spending their last days watching cars pass by.
Frame’s own attitude to wonder waxes pedagogical in ‘Daniel’. Her mastery of language is evident and the word-play, echoed by the rhymes, demonstrates Frame’s sense of both music and humour.
‘Scarlet Tanager, Saratoga Springs’ shows Frame’s synergetic tendency to mix genres. Originally in the first person, it was printed as part of Living in the Maniototo. The bird is skilfully evoked; its experience becoming a trope for the protagonist’s own. In the novel, the poem figures her escape from the institution of marriage, enabling her to sing/write again.