Guest Blog By Tom Pudding:
Noel Ginn’s recently published posthumous memoir A Kiwi in Kerala (Steele Roberts 2008) is a delightful book that zigzags through many small chapters that are often self-contained mini-essays or mini-parables – the Methodist proselytiser of Ginn’s youth morphing to an ‘occidental’ sage observing the complexities of Kerala in the south of India.
Though episodic and sometimes verging on the preachy and predictable, Ginn’s intelligence and talent for words undercut the genre of a ‘spiritual’ odyssey. Ginn in old age is no longer a paid-up member of any sect:
One thing has always repelled me in the Bible, it is a pervading sense of man’s misery and inadequacy.
(A Kiwi in Kerala, Steele Roberts, Wellington, NZ, 2008, page 28)
Ginn was outed belatedly in old age as the surviving partner in an influential literary correspondence. The precocious James K Baxter wrote to Ginn during World War Two when Ginn was locked up in a conscientious objector’s camp in the wilds of the central North Island of New Zealand. A weighty tome Spark to a Waiting Fuse: James K Baxter's Correspondence with Noel Ginn, 1942-1946 (Paul Millar, Victoria University Press 2001) details this relationship. Most of the verse in this book, by either writer, is learner’s stuff – convoluted and pretentious – but Baxter’s great talent soon pared down to vividly expressed felt emotion, and orthodox publication, and acclaim.
Ginn pretty well gave up writing poetry by the age of 30, and only resumed when he was an octogenarian.
In this second phase, Ginn writes much more plainly and directly; not unlike Baxter’s trajectory towards his late, main, achievement of stripped-down insightful poetry. I came to Ginn’s poetry volume Dweller on the Threshold (Steele Roberts 1998) with trepidation for he has no reputation, and because so much verse is appalling. Thankfully, Ginn’s verse is readable, and I have gone back several times to reread some of it. He has something to say and has surprising lines that come out of left field. ‘To Look Back’ revisits memories of the past in a well-modulated but matter-of-fact way, and then the last line clinches with “nostalgia has a long skipping rope” which in context works unexpectedly and perfectly.
The personality that comes through Ginn’s poetry and memoir is winning. Here is someone on a lifelong quest for rigorous self-knowledge, and more than that, a getting beyond the self; this quest is recorded in telling verse.
One of the other refreshing things about Noel Ginn is that he is a New Zealand writer who opens himself up to Asia and learns from it.