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“Hark, hark, the dogs do bark”: Is Children’s Poetry Threatening Janet Frame in An Autobiography?

Nicolas Pierre BOILEAU

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  • 1 The word “explorations” is used by critics of Frame so as to pay a tribute to the author’s wishes: (...)

1Janet Frame is best remembered as a novelist and autobiographer even though she has also published two collections of poems, The Pocket Mirror being the most notorious: “When compared to her uncanny novels and compelling short stories, these works are relatively flat.” (Tinkler 108) Although her poetry is frowned on by critics, her works of fiction are often interrupted by verses, sometimes nonsensical like at the end of A State of Siege, and more often than not included whimsically (Living in the Maniototo 148-9), showing how necessary and significant the rhetoric of poetry is to her. These texts are likely to remain enigmatic for the reader as their presence seems at least bizarre and they trigger off an elopement into the imaginary world which Janet Frame evokes thereby. As Gina Mercer remarks: “One of the most fixed and impassable borders in literature is that between poetry and prose, yet Janet Frame repeatedly traverses this border, writing poetic prose and including whole chapters of poetry in her fictional explorations” (384).1 If it is true that they are perceived as incompatible forms, poetry included in autobiography, perhaps even more than in fiction, is likely to be perceived as incongruous. Indeed in his reference study of genre, Philippe Lejeune makes prose one of the defining features of autobiography: “We call autobiography the retrospective narrative in prose that someone makes of his own existence when he puts the principal accent upon his life, especially upon the story of his own personality” (Smith & Watson 1). In their Guide for interpreting Life Narratives, Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson refer to “poetic autobiography” which they define as “a mode of the lyric distinguished, according to James Olney, not by the content but by the “formal device of recapitulation and recall” (200) and conclude that it is a field that needs further investigation. Yet, Janet Frame neglects the rules of the genre and includes in a work that should be written in prose poems and songs that were part of her childhood, as well as some texts she wrote and published in local newspapers. The question is therefore to try and understand how the inclusion of poetry might threaten the genre of autobiography, as it originally threatened her own existence as an individual.

2Time and again, the narrative of Janet Frame’s autobiography is interrupted by insertions of poems and rhymes, especially low-quality popular songs which her mother and relatives used to sing. All these poems can be considered as autobiographical, not so much because they emanate from the author, but because they are used in addition to anecdotes and become her life. She does integrate some compositions, although these are not the most common, like those she writes after her mother’s death (An Autobiography 263-4), but only to show how imperfect they are. Therefore, the distinctive feature of these inclusions is that most of the poems do not belong to her and that they are abundantly quoted, “Hark, hark, the dogs do bark” for example appearing twice. Poems are as frequent as anecdotes and memories. The reference to literature is not uncommon in autobiography—Jean-Paul Sartre’s Les Mots, Simone de Beauvoir’s Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée or Doris Lessing’s Under my Skin for example are full of literary references which are presented as having participated in the formation of the author—but the quotations of texts are less frequent: A priori, le discours autobiographique n’est guère enclin à pratiquer cette “littérature au second degré”: un auteur qui fait de sa vie la matière de son récit en privilégiera les particularités plutôt que les lieux communs.” (Gasparini 104) Janet Frame uses poetry in order to express her own jouissance at the deception of language and comes to the realisation that the letter is the feature of her difference, of her existence as a separate subject: the quotation of La Fontaine’s fable “Le Corbeau et le Renard” (An Autobiography 345) cannot but alert us on the importance Frame attaches to the deception of language. As Claire Bazin argues, the autobiography is an illustration of the leitmotiv “literature saved my life”, which is to be taken at face value, since Janet Frame escaped from a leucotomy thanks to a literary prize she was awarded in the weeks preceding her operation. If it saved her life, it first threatened to erase her, before Janet was able to make literature and the symbolic order her definition.

3In her study of the autobiography, Valérie Baisnée argues that Janet Frame’s aim is to show that poetry is “a delusive and alienating discourse” for the emerging subject (91). In the first volume, To the Is-Land, Janet Frame recalls how she was deceived by the meaning of words and how the enigma resulting from the lack of a correspondence between the word, its signification and her lived experience left her perplexed. The first poem inserted reads:

On his back in the meadow a little boy lay
with his face turned up to the sky
and he watched the clouds as one by one
they lazily floated by (…) (An Autobiography 14)

4This poem enables the author to show how the words of this imaginary world were taken literally by the children: “We lay together in the long summer grass, looking up at the clouds, reciting the poem, and knowing that each was feeling the same homesickness and longing for the sky” (14). The action described in the poem is mimicked by the Frames, as the narrator uses the same words almost. What is surprising in this first poem is that it is hardly a conventional poem, while poetry is often associated with strict rules and patterns, especially the necessity of rhymes and regularity. There is only one rhyme, the language is rather ordinary and the rhythm varies greatly. Furthermore, the literary interest of this text is somewhat negligible: it is taken from a schoolbook which Janet has come across years after the ritual of looking at the sky she describes; it is only a token of the nostalgia she was to feel for these first moments when the Frame children were discovering the world. This is not to say that this poem does not have any value, but it is surprising to find these insertions in a text by Janet Frame who is reputed to be difficult to read (Lawn). The question remains: why should Frame quote it? The quoted text and Frame’s give an impression of a needless repetition. It is almost as if Frame trusted the poem better than her own account to pass on to the reader the feeling she experienced then. For a moment it effaces the author and leaves room for another one, who, however, is not an authority: the author of the poem is not referred to, and probably unknown. The poem also fills in the gap left by the absence of a commentary on the feeling of nostalgia. It stands where there is no account of this nostalgia. It comes in lieu of an explanation and, paradoxically for an autobiography, seems to relegate Frame to the background. She is alienated in the discourse of someone else, although unidentified, so much so that she does not seem to produce her own account.

5Besides, the poetical text, which for its highly sophisticated style remains associated with what takes language as its object, illustrates the deceiving nature of language resulting from the division between the signifier and the signified. Janet Frame’s earliest experiences are moments in which the literal and the figurative are confused. It is on this experience of language as deceitful that Janet both grew up and was almost killed. In chapter 6, Janet Frame, with an ironic eye on her former self, tells us how she came to be known as “Thief” (An Autobiography 26) when she stole money from her father and bought chewing-gum with it. The world suddenly changes for her:

There were now more swaggers passing down Ferry Street and more coming to ask for food, they being confused in my mind with the rhyme,
Hark, hark, the dogs do bark,
the beggars are coming to town.
Some in rags, some in bags,
and some in velvet gown.
The rhyme haunted me. I thought of the fate of the beggars, and swaggers. (27)

6This rhyme is said to come from 13th-century England—it contains a mistake here; one should read jags (the name of a garment common in the Tudor period) and not “bags”—and is a source of confusion for Janet. Apparently, the haunting of the rhyme—because of its rhythm—precedes Janet’s access to reality. The rhyme is like a screen which prevents Janet from seeing reality as it is since she confuses the image of beggars as they appear in the text with the real beggars she can see wandering in the streets. Her experience is one of seeing only the reflected world of the poem. Poems therefore can be said to endanger Janet’s access to reality.

7Furthermore, these quotations threaten the autobiographical project as well. For the reader, there lacks the explanation which older Janet should be able to provide for the haunting nature, “magical” as it were, of this particular poem. An autobiography is generally defined by its balance between narrative and discourse, the discourse enabling to connect retrospectively the different stages of one’s existence. The enigma of this poem is reinforced by the fact that its first line is the title of the chapter, giving it the value of an event: it seems that these words stand for the experience. However, the reader is only left with an intuition of the tremendous importance of words upon the child: “Yet, as literal as ever, I puzzled over the reference to some of the beggars in ‘velvet gown’, for I knew that velvet was the cloth of kings and queens as well as, in my experience, the coat of beasties in the paddocks” (28). Janet gradually and tragically learns the “corruption of literature” (79) which endangers reality and deceives the little girl into taking literature at face value:

And because, in a tally of people I had known, those of fiction (and of the past and distance that transformed them into a kind of fiction) (…) and the people in songs and in fantasy exceeded those of flesh and blood, I thought of Ferry Street as a place of mysterious people who might appear in the flesh or just as readily in poems and songs. (18)

8The poems quoted can be divided into two categories. Some are left to the reader’s judgement: Frame seems to confide in the effect they might have on the reader instead of trying to explain the reasons why such and such poem might have stayed in her mind. Some other poems are accompanied with a commentary and therefore easier to analyse: “Then I celebrated and mourned Mother in a handful of poems. Their movement is not good but they do give details of what I was thinking” (263). Frame quotes poems she wrote because of their value as a testimony of the feelings she experienced then. Brigitte Barry claims that “Ce qui nous importe ici, c’est que Janet Frame cite certains de ses poèmes dans son autobiographie” (Barry 22). I would rather emphasise the importance of the way this raw material is included: most of the time, the reader has to decipher some texts whose meaning seems self-evident and Frame’s commentaries, which help, are marginal.

9Low-quality rhyming couplets are said to have been of a tremendous importance for the author: they accompany her through her development as a person. “The poetry that I then explored was generally an easy kind of poetry made more attractive for me by the usual handsome photograph of the young poet in his soldier’s uniform” (An Autobiography 123). A number of such rhymes and songs, the quality of which Frame regards as insignificant, are quoted for the sentimental value that Frame attaches to them: they are inconsequential events which contribute to a “contractual effect” (Lejeune 45): they reinforce the autobiographical and referential pacts inherent to the genre as they are elements which only the author of a life can know. Furthermore, they probably inscribe Janet in the New Zealand world of the time. In terms of the selection of memories for her family novel, these poems are of paramount importance because they introduce the family as idyllically united by poems: “I felt that our family, too, was gathered into the song” (Frame 19). Here, we see that apparently this reflection is not a present construction about her past. On the contrary the choice of the tense for “feel” reveals that for young Janet poetry, even popular and apparently insignificant, had a personal signification which went beyond the actual scope of the songs. “I knew he was singing about us. I believed that most or all of the songs our mother and father sung referred to our life and places they had known.” This fascination with the world of poetry can be understood by the way words are treasured in her family: “Mother, who revered all poets, was right, as usual, and her habit of murmuring from time to time ‘Only the poets know, only the poets know’ was now explicable to me” (88). What a strange show it must have been for the young child to see her mother’s droning out almost as a religious person. This revelation comes after Myrtle, Janet’s sister, dies and Janet, like her mother, finds comfort in poetry, a form of poetry which is appreciated for its rhythm, its incantatory power. Again, reality is made accessible through its written existence only. It is quite noticeable that in this chapter numerous poems are quoted, and the narrative is almost reduced to nothing, the text moving along with the remembrance of poems which must be quoted, rather than being directed by the remembrance of the events which followed Myrtle’s death. Poetry is foregrounded and the Frames step aside. These quotations are so numerous that one wonders whether it is the death of her sister and her reaction to it that matters or the memory of the best poems which expressed her feelings, as if, to parody the title of an article by Claire Bazin, “sometimes only one letter is missing and…” At any rate, Myrtle disappears and is replaced by long quotations of poems, just as Janet Frame seems to remain in hiding behind the polished surface of this sophisticated language of poetry which is substituted for Frame’s text.

10Yet this example further reinforces our conviction that there also exists an ontological relationship between Janet Frame and these inserted texts. As a child, Janet associates her mother with poetry, and in a process of identification she herself becomes poems: “And so, as I sang, I seemed to be my mother going about my work, feeling lonely and sad and depending on the song of the dove for comfort” (63). Lottie Frame wanted to be a poet; she actually published some texts in local papers. Janet seems to try and be what her mother desires: poetry. Janet dedicates herself to this function in order to answer her mother’s desires.

11The repetition of the insertions, pleasant as it might be at first, becomes quite wearisome: the rhymes certainly were popular in New-Zealand then; they certainly had a magical power of signifying for the child, but they are likely to be skipped over when read, especially as Frame seems to rely on the quotation only, as if she believed they would necessarily have the same effect on the reader. Chapter 14 of To the Is-Land for instance contains 6 poems in less than 6 pages, reversing the balance of powers between prose and verse in this autobiographical text. Similarly in chapter 18 we read:

During the Easter of 1936, as a celebration of the election of a Labour Government and the possible arrival of the days described in Uncle Scrim’s song,
There’s a new day in view,
there I gold in the blue
there is hope in the hearts of men…
we went for our first family holiday, on the train to Rakaia, travelling in a first class ‘bird cage’ on our annual free ticket. (82)

12Uncle Scrim’s song is quoted but as if between brackets; the sentence continues after the quotation as if uninterrupted and the poem might as well have remained unquoted, as it only repeats what the text already infers. This leads us to argue that the poems could appear superfluous: detached from the text, they are never completely quoted and are scarcely linked to the story or the anecdote, as far as explanation is concerned. Giving the impression that Frame still knows them by heart and quotes them without having checked the correctness of her memory, they are inserted regardless of their meaning. Note for example that Rilke’s “Reste tranquille si soudain”, the poem in which the phrase “an angel at my table” appears, an important phrase which gave its title to the second volume of the autobiography and the film by Jane Campion, is truncated in a way that makes it even more enigmatic than it was meant to be:

  • 2 Epigraph to the second volume.

Reste tranquille, si soudain
L'Ange à ta table se décide ;
Efface doucement les quelques rides
Que fait la nappe sous ton pain.2

13This habit of quoting incoherent pieces is easier to spot when Janet Frame quotes well-known texts, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

I quickly learned to Play ‘Puck’, a staccato piece in F Major, meant to depict, I supposed, the frolicking of Puck:
Over bush over briar
Thorough flood thorough fire
I do wander everywhere
Swifter than the moone’s sphere
Then, once again, there was more music to be bought, this time a collection that, Jessie assured me, would last for years. (107)

14Mixing “Over hill, over dale,” and “Thorough bush, thorough briar”, one wonders why Janet should have selected those two lines out of the four which constitute the beginning of the Fairy’s reply to Puck in act 2 scene 1 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, if it were not for a deficiency in her recollection. The quotation reveals that the lines are a token of her memory and for their evocative power, but not for the meaning of the original text, because the following line, which is normally part of the same sentence, should have prevented Janet from associating this couplet with Puck, since they are uttered by the Fairy: “And I serve the Fairy Queen”. At any rate, the poem here is superfluous in the sense that it is another text which repeats the same message and, on its own, this does not help the reader understand the meaning of the anecdote which Janet goes on recounting. However, being a literary quotation, it hints at the possible function these poems serve for Janet Frame: that of defining herself as a literary artefact. “La littérature est alors l’ensemble des jeux de langage qui constituent un usage luxueux de la langue. C’est ce que j’ai appelé, d’après Shusterman, la théorie du surclassement. L’économie dans laquelle nous nous situons est une économie de la dépense linguistique, non de l’épargne” (Lecercle 30). Janet Frame is not content with just telling the reader how important poetry was, she illustrates it by adding superfluous texts to her own, so that her image gradually becomes one of a pure literary world (An Autobiography 82). It is important to remark that in An Angel at my Table and The Envoy from Mirror City quotations gradually become less frequent and references more literary, thereby emphasizing that Janet Frame has grown up and that she now selects the poems according to her education.

15The landmarks of Janet Frame’s childhood are thus literary references which are the souvenirs of this period, real objects that she places at the centre of her life-narrative. The numerous extracts are like a ritornello, a constant murmuring of poetic words. What is puzzling is that, despite the constant repetition of the deceptive nature of language Janet Frame never abandons this language which she could reject for its highly sophisticated and manipulative nature. On the contrary, she wants the imperfection(s) of language to be the matter of her autobiographical reconstruction; for example she inserts two poems that were published in the local newspaper:

When they, the brave, have gone have gone
and flowers weep with the lovely dew,
then the little bird, be glad, sing on,
sing and the world shall list you.
and we shall laugh, yet creeps a tear and clutches the heart a silent fear
when the soldiers march.
That poem and many others in a similar vein were printed in the local newspaper, and I was not ashamed of them as I am now. (123)

16Frame herself analyses the faults in the use of vocabulary, and its literary value is questioned. Yet this is not the reason why it should appear in the text. First we have seen that the value of the poem is less in question than the alienating power of language (Baisnée 121). It is the conventionality of language which cripples the subject. Claire Bazin shows how in the London episode of the Youth Hostel, when Janet is an adult, Janet’s unfortunate loss of identity is caused by the fact that she has been deceived by the letter which she has sent, the letter that she identifies so completely with having missed her addressee: “Your letter did not reach us.” (Bazin 312) On the other hand, poetic words also come to represent the subject, to be that by which Janet Frame is defined. The allusion to ancestral poems and to songs “suggest other expanding meanings, in the manner of James Joyce’s puns” (Stevens 100) In an article on Joyce’s epiphanies, Sophie Marret explains: “les épiphanies, indique Joyce, eurent pour fonction de le représenter en tant qu’écrivain, mais également de dire l’être même, avec lequel le lecteur entre en fusion à la lecture de ses textes” (Marret 26). Founding her analysis on Lacan’s theory concerning the letter, which he defined by its littoral function, i.e. the edge between the symbolic and the real, Sophie Marret states: “(les épiphanies) restent pour nous énigmatiques dans leur banalité” (26). The same function can be traced in the use Janet Frame makes of poems. A priori trivial, fragments of a popular culture that some could reject for their simplicity, these poems seem to convey something concerning the sense of her existence, regardless of their meaning. “Les épiphanies présentent le sens mais laissent en marge la signification” (28). This is particularly obvious when Janet Frame quotes foreign poems, especially the Spanish ones: we are told that she has translated them but she quotes them in Spanish in an autobiography that is written in English, therefore which addresses an audience that will, in its majority, remain ignorant of the meaning of these extracts (An Autobiography 332). The quotation is almost in contradiction with what she foregrounds generally, that is the importance of the utterance of poems, their sounds and music which cannot be reproduced in writing. Her sister’s talent comes from the way she recites poetry, which is best evidenced by the fact that she is broadcast on the radio (52-3). It is the murmur of her mother, her sisters and her father which has enabled Janet Frame to remember all these pieces and to integrate them, first in her growing up as a person, then in her texts. When she evokes the war, she remembers a few hymns that she and her class then sang:

Peace perfect peace in this dark world of sin
the blood of Jesus whispers peace within.

17I recall the seriousness and fervour of my singing, the (then innocently) sexual languor of the many hymns steeped in blood, such hymns being favourites with the girls” (125). Beyond the meaning of the words that are actually pronounced, there is the meaning of the whole process by which Janet Frame appropriates language; it is this process which in turn opens up a space for interpretation. Indeed the “sexual languor” is everything but obvious in the lines that are quoted. Again, the reader is found puzzling over the reason for the juxtaposition of these three very short extracts from other passages that might have been more symbolic. The importance attached to the recitation might be an explanation for Janet’s being diagnosed as schizophrenic: “L’expérience commune de la folie et de la littérature est celle du “ressassement”, non pas celle de la transcription d’une expérience extra-linguistique, à l’aune de la vérité, mais une expérience réflexive, intra-linguistique, où le langage est l’objet même de l’expérience” (Lecercle 296).

18Poetry is the image which Janet Frame seeks to construct of her. She is a woman of words and she wants this to appear, even though with an ironic eye: “Oh, how seriously took my dream of being a poet” (An Autobiography 336). As Sophie Marret writes about Joyce: “Donnés à lire, puis placés au centre de son projet esthétique, ces textes eurent pour fonction de le représenter comme artiste” (Marret 31). The power of words to define people is expressed quite unambiguously:

“e thought (the old exhibitionist man) a joke, giving him the name of Fizgig and admitting him to our circle of peculiar people, like old maids and gypsy Ma and the town prostitute and the Catholics and the Germans and Chinese, anyone who was different, with rhymes chanted about them. (An Autobiography 53)

19Here we note that the difference defining the individuality of a person or a group is linked to the songs that described them. It seems that the little girl is aware of the others’ existence only when they appear in a song: “‘Catholic dogs stink like frogs’. ‘Ching-chong Chinaman born in a jar christened in a teapot ha ha ha’, or the general rhyme that could refer to any race” (53). Janet Frame is duplicating this in her autobiography, the genre par excellence of the self-definition through words and literature. By becoming a pure being of letters, Janet Frame chooses poetry to symbolise this new existence. In this way, what once almost destroyed her sense of being becomes the means of defining oneself, in the retrospective act of autobiographical writing. This specific use in turn enables to consolidate rather than to weaken the genre: it reinforces the referential pact thanks to the multiple insertions of the tokens of Janet’s growing-up; furthermore, it comes to symbolise her life as a whole, that is a life whose reality can only be grasped in words. In chapter 15, Janet recounts how she wrote her first poem and showed it to Myrtle. Her sister, who seems to have understood the conventionality of poetry and the rules of its sophistication, wants Janet to change some phrases which she does not find poetic enough: “In spite of Myrtle’s insistence, I preferred ‘touch’ to ‘tint’ but in deference to her obvious wisdom and wider knowledge I changed the word to ‘tint’ when I took my poem to school. But later, when I wrote it in my notebook, I reverted to ‘touch the sky’, having my own way” (66). For Janet, the conventionality of language matters less than her own use of it (“having my own way”). Janet both shows how conventions might cripple the subject, for at least in appearance she erases her special feature, which consists in using ‘touch’ instead of ‘tint’, and how it is a place of total liberty, for in isolation she keeps her own way. This anecdote therefore confirms that Janet’s life is a life of poetic words, conventional or not: “Frame’s longing for peace, for being a ‘good girl’, not to ‘make trouble’, make her at times almost invisible in the narrative. We read many stories about other members of her family; her brother’s epilepsy, her sister’s dreams of fame and her sister’s disobedience. It is only when it comes to poetry that Janet as a character comes alive” (Gudmundsdóttir 105). The autobiography is a hybrid object in which poetry could jeopardise the genre by making the referential effect of the reading impossible. Indeed, as Janet emphasises the role played by these texts in her experience, she gradually creates a world that is pure word, pure letter, erasing the referential reality which it is supposed to be depicting. As a result Janet is paradoxically saved because she can live in this world, when the world that is usually assumed as “real” always rejected her as an outsider. Therefore she consolidates the autobiographical project which, when all is said and done, is the assumption that life can be expressed by words.

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1 The word “explorations” is used by critics of Frame so as to pay a tribute to the author’s wishes: “As various interviews testify, Frame favoured the term “exploration” over “novel” to describe much of her work. In recent years this preference has become an automatic critical reference.” (Cronin 19, note 5)

2 Epigraph to the second volume.

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Référence électronique

Nicolas Pierre BOILEAU, « “Hark, hark, the dogs do bark”: Is Children’s Poetry Threatening Janet Frame in An Autobiography? », E-rea [En ligne], 5.1 | 2007, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2007, consulté le 28 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.188

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Nicolas Pierre BOILEAU

Université Haute Bretagne - Rennes 2
Nicolas Pierre Boileau is completing his PhD on Virginia Woolf’s Moments of Being, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Janet Frame’s An Autobiography, and is a teaching assistant at the University of Rennes 2. He has published an article on the relation between Anaïs Nin’s diary and Freud’s theory, and several papers will shortly be published, including an article on the representation of sexual intercourse in Sylvia Plath’s and Janet Frame’s autobiographies, an article on autobiography and gender criticism and an article on how Janet Frame defines herself as the other.

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