12 Dec 2020

Denis Glover's life in letters: Sarah Shieff

From Saturday Morning, 9:35 am on 12 December 2020

"Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle" - many New Zealanders know Denis Glover as the author of the iconic poem The Magpies.

The late poet, printer and publisher also left behind a tarnished personal legacy, of womanising, drinking and a chaotic private life.

Detail from the cover of "Letters of Denis Glover"

Detail from the cover of "Letters of Denis Glover" Photo: supplied

Sarah Shieff hopes to widen our understanding of Glover beyond his flaws to include his wit, gift for friendship, and his bravery.

She's spent over 7 years reviewing thousands of his letters and has selected a few hundred to tell his story in a soon-to-be-released collection Letters of Denis Glover (Otago University Press).

Shieff is an associate professor at the University of Waikato and for a decade edited the Journal of New Zealand Literature.

Her previous books including Talking Music: Conversations with New Zealand musicians and Letters of Frank Sargeson.

Glover was a feckless lover and an incorrigible drunk yet intelligent attractive women were able to look past the grog blossom complexion, terrible teeth and cauliflower ear, she says.

“I think he was probably a really charming person,” Shieff says.

Sarah Shieff

Sarah Shieff Photo: supplied

Glover was a great mentor and supporter of New Zealand writing particularly during his time at The Caxton Press, but Shieff says after the war there is a sense that his life was a slight anti-climax.

“One of the constant themes in his life was his urgent need to test his own courage and the war gave him a very engrossing medium for testing himself against his own standards.”

Glover’s chaotic life led to his time at Caxton Press ending in his sacking.

“The Caxton Press needed commercial work to keep going, but Glover’s drunkenness and his absenteeism really became completely chaotic.”

Glover was dismissive of Katherine Mansfield, or “Little Kathy” as he called her, but a big supporter of Janet Frame whose career he helped launch.

He could also be acerbic about other writers even those among his close friends. Despite his prickly personality, Shieff says she came to like “the misogynistic old fart” spending time with him though his letters.

“It is all part of a very complex, hugely energetic personality that that I found it very easy to be close to for the seven years of the project.”

Glover’s final years were blighted by alcoholism, she hopes the letters give a more balanced view of his life.

“The sad decline is really a sad decline, but I hope that the letters are enough to counter balance the sad memories that lots of people have of those last years.”