Secular Litany by M. K. Joseph

I was invited to write about a favourite poem by students from Auckland Girls Grammar. It was to be part of a collection “Dear to Me” published in July 2007 by Random House, the royalties going to Amnesty International (New Zealand). I wrote two essays – to give the students a choice. They chose this one. The other one was “Ozymandias” by P.B. Shelly.

Keywords: Education; Literature and Culture;

A copy of ‘Secular Litany’ by M. K. (Michael Kennedy) Joseph is on the notice board above my desk as I write. It was put there, many years ago, because of the couplet

That we may avoid distinction and exception
Worship the mean, cultivate the mediocre

especially as a warning against cultivating mediocrity. Not everyone can be top of the class, but no one need be mediocre, which my thesaurus couples with ‘banal’, ‘indifferent’, ‘pedestrian’, ‘undistinguished’ and ‘uninspired’. It is about an attitude of mind, to try to excel within the limitations that God gave each of us.

But you cant have a poem sitting up there for as long as this one has been, without pondering on its broader theme. From today’s perspective – fifty years after it was written – it describes a strange world, for almost all the images are now obsolete. Sure there are still the All Blacks and excellence is often lower on the intellectual agenda than the safe, the conventional wisdom, and the politically correct (although less so in some areas such as the arts and sport). But hardly anything else in the poem applies today. What New Zealander would ask of Saint Holidays to defend us ‘from all foreigners with their unintelligible cooking’ and even from ‘barbecues’? Did we once reject ‘kermesse [fairs and bazaars] and carnival, high day and festival’?

I wonder how many people today would know that a litany is a series of religious petitions? When the poem was written, people attended church services and would be aware of the ritual. Joseph, a regular church goer, could see those practices were dying. Today they are dead for most of us – known only to a minority.

So it is a list poem. You could change some of the examples – even leave them out – and while the poetic structure might be damaged, the sentiment would not. I have wondered whether the list could be modernised – not by me – for I have none of Joseph’s poetic talent. Sure we have our icons, but often they are a fashion soon forgotten. There would be less collective agreement about what they were. We are a more diverse society.

Joseph is, of course, satirising the early post-war attitudes as dull, philistine and conforming, but not so unrecognisably that the poem was ignored. It was even anthologised. The adult world it describes is on the edge of my childhood memories, even if it seems a long way from the world in which I now live.

This led me to ponder about what are the cultural commonalities between the New Zealand of that time and today? I even wrote a Listener column ( about it to illustrate the problem of cultural continuities – of how one generation connects with another – and to ask what really is at the heart of being New Zealander.

It became more personal when I reflect on my father who died a few years back. Like everyone else, Dad was not entirely in the mainstream, but the world which he came from is the one Joseph portrays. So how do I connect to Dad – other than through filial affection, our shared experiences and love? Did we have the same culture? And will my children, when they get to my age, be posed with the same problem? Are they already?

Towards the end of his life Dad became quite grumpy about social changes which were transforming his world. ‘Secular Litany’ illustrates the extent of the transformation. And it must be happening to my world too – perhaps even faster. So when I face a new world, say, of mobile phones or hiphop, I think of the transformation in the past and try to tolerate the one going on today. After all, the poem is about a society unwilling to tolerate diversity. I hope we do better today.

For despite talking about a world of long ago and long gone, the poem has a lot of my life story in it. Which is why I still keep it up on my noticeboard, above me as I write.

by M. K. Joseph

That we may never lack two Sundays in a week
One to rest and one to play
That we may worship in the liturgical drone
Of the race-commentator and the radio raconteur
That we may avoid distinction and exception
Worship the mean, cultivate the mediocre
Live in a state house, raise forcibly-educated children
Receive family benefits, and standard wages and a pension
And rest in peace in a state crematorium
Saint A1lblack
Saint Monday Raceday
Saint Stabilisation
Pray for us.

From all foreigners, with their unintelligible cooking
From the vicious habit of public enjoyment
From kermesse and carnival, high day and festival
From pubs cafes bullfights and barbecues
From Virgil and vintages, fountains and fresco-painting
From afterthought and apperception
From tragedy, from comedy
And from the arrow of God
Saint Anniversaryday
Saint Arborday
Saint Labourday
Defend us.

When the bottles are empty
And the keg runs sour
And the cinema is shut and darkened
And the radio gone up in smoke
And the sports-ground flooded
When the tote goes broke
And the favourite scratches
And the brass bands are silenced
And the car is rusted by the roadside
Saint Fathersday
Saint Mothersday
Saint Happybirthday
Have mercy on us.

And for your petitioner, poor little Jim,
Saint Hocus
Saint Focus
Saint Bogus
And Saint Billy Bungstarter
Have mercy on him.

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