For a small
country, New Zealand is host to a surprisingly large number of first-rate
poets. This has been true since the 1930s, but New Zealand poetry
has never been in stronger shape than it is today. Dozens of writers,
of all ages, are producing worthwhile work. The aim of this site
is to showcase some of it. Were not saying that every New
Zealand poem worth considering from 2001 can be found here. Heaven
forbid! Were just opening up possibilities for further investigation.
This is a little window display, not the whole shop.
When Bill Manhire
and I first discussed the possibility of setting up the site, we
agreed that the Best American Poetry series, published yearly
by Scribner since 1988, would be a useful guide. Too much politics
should not be read into this. We werent necessarily pinning
our allegiance to American rather than Anglophile styles of verse-making.
We just thought that the people associated with the Scribner project
had made some sensible decisions that we wished to emulate.
seemed manageable, whereas a quarterly, monthly or holy cow!
weekly frequency definitely didnt. Limiting each poet to a
single poem is an adroit way of sidestepping issues of rank and
status that invariably cause pain and land editors in trouble. Democracy
is further served by restricting the tenure of each editor to a
single year. Thus the deficiencies of one selectors taste
can be rectified in subsequent years. Since I was first up, I was
also relieved to know I was making a relatively short-term commitment
rather than signing my life away.
to the Scribner model proved necessary because New Zealand is a
very different country from the United States. The Scribner editors
have settled on a tally of 75 poems per volume. Matching that figure
seemed somewhat presumptuous, even vainglorious, given that the
population of the States is more than 90 times that of New Zealand.
On the other hand, it was plainly lunatic to divide 75 by 90 and
allow ourselves only an eighth of a poem (or whatever the arithmetic
comes to). A tally of 25 poems seemed a fairly happy compromise
between the warring dictates of national pride and due humility.
editors almost invariably make their selections from literary magazines.
In the States, there are hundreds to choose from. In New Zealand,
theres just a handful. To broaden my range of options, I granted
myself the right to pick from books published in 2001 as well as
magazines. The obvious objection is that most poetry books gather
the labours of several years, not just one. I havent let this
worry me too much. The interpretation here of 2001 is
a generous one.
Indeed, I found
myself eyeing some of the productions of 2000 such as Nick
Ascrofts From the Author Of, Paula Greens Chrome
and Murray Edmonds Laminations with a deep sense
of loss. And when I tried to sneak in a poem I love from Michele
Leggotts superb 1999 volume As Far As I Can See, Bill
had to tug at my sleeve and remind me that this was cheating.
The 2001 instalment
of Best American Poetry includes a marvellous extended piece
by New York poet J. D. McClatchy called Tattoos (or
Tattooes in British spelling). The last of its three
sections is titled New Zealand, 1890 and its about
Maori tattooing. I coveted this poem and wondered for a while if
our definitions could be stretched to embrace it. But I decided
in the end that this, too, would be cheating. The intention of this
site is to present poems by New Zealanders, wherever their imagination
is located, rather than poems about New Zealand. Not that were
in the business of inspecting birth certificates, citizenship papers
and passports to determine who does or doesnt qualify as a
New Zealander. A steady association with the country is sufficient.
I saw no need,
when making my selections, to hunt actively for New Zealandness.
I figured it was bound to turn up anyway. Irrespective of their
modus operandi, poets cant avoid local geography, history
and terminology for long. There was a time when New Zealand writers
fretted obsessively over questions of national identity
and felt a need to explain any indigenous oddities for the benefit
of British readers. Not now. Today, most of our poets see no problem
in mixing news from the parish pump with wider learning. Ian Weddes
Commonplace Odes are modelled on Horatian precepts. In To
Death (included here), he mentions Archytas, the Greek mathematician
from the 4th century BC, and someone by the ancient Roman name of
Quintilius. Yet he also slips in a reference to Picton, a little
seaside town at the top of the South Island. I like that. Alan Bruntons
Movie moves, among other locales, from an Egyptian archaeological
site to a Brazilian river and then, through green paddocks,
to an Auckland pub. I like that too.
will be picked up more readily, of course, by New Zealanders than
by readers from other places. In the art world, one of the countrys
most significant events in recent years was an exhibition called
Parihaka: The Art of Passive Resistance, held at Wellingtons
City Gallery from August 2000 to January 2001. This focused on a
particularly disgraceful incident in the history of Maori-European
contact the expulsion of pacifist leaders Te Whiti o Rongomai
and Tohu Kakahi and their people from their land by Crown forces
in 1881. Gregory OBrien was one of the curators of the exhibition.
His splendidly meditative Ode to Te Whiti o Rongomai
is included here, as is Elizabeth Smithers pithy and moving
Te Whiti and Tohu. While I believe that these fine poems
are accessible to readers everywhere, I also recognise that theyll
probably make their most profound impact on a home audience familiar
with the background.
Like all anthologists,
I found that some works resist being broken into pieces. I wanted
to take an extract from my old friend Michael OLearys
book-length love-poem He Waiatanui Kia Aroha, but my attempts
failed; it needs to be read entire. Likewise, no single poem from
Hone Tuwhares Piggyback Moon seemed quite to capture
the warm, rebellious spirit of the whole. I hope I havent
done too much damage to some of the poems I did decide to wrench
from their original settings. I urge everybody to read all of Weddes
Commonplace Odes, not just the one featured here. I think
Alistair Te Ariki Campbells poem Its Greece
can stand alone, but it undoubtedly takes on added resonance as
part of his wonderful sequence Maori Battalion. And
The Footstool gives no more than a taste of Leigh Davis
extraordinary work General Motors, best viewed on his website
some poems more or less picked themselves. Kate Camps Unfinished
Love Theorem was used for a set of questions in the 2001 Bursary
English examination, tackled by thousands of young New Zealanders
who intend going to university. Its surely rare, anywhere
in the world, for a poet under 30 to be honoured in this way. Thus
Kates Theorem was an irresistible choice.
one of New Zealands literary colossi, died in September 2001,
aged 90. His intellect remained vigorous till the end. In fact,
his last collection, The Bells of Saint Babels, won
the poetry section of the 2001 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.
It would have been unthinkable not to include something from it.
My avaricious first instinct was to seize the title poem, which
runs for pages. On balance, I preferred When and Where,
which might be read as Curnows valedictory message: Gently
as I stroke/ this childs head, Im thinking, Goodbye!/
Its all yours now, the seasons crop.
I have also
included A Pair of Sandals by James K. Baxter. This
is a bit cheeky, since A Pair of Sandals clearly wasnt
written in 2001. Baxter died in 1972. But the poem was published
for the first time in a 2001 selection of Baxters work edited
by Paul Millar. I wanted to salute the excellent work Millar has
done in retrieving Baxters more fugitive poems and making
them accessible to contemporary readers. I also wanted to acknowledge
Baxters continuing presence as the countrys most powerful
and troubling literary ghost. His radical social views
are still argued over. One of the more attractive aspects of Baxters
complex and not always agreeable personality was his steadfast championing
of misfits, outcasts and underdogs. I hope Peter Olds wont
mind if I say his beautifully compassionate Disjointed On
Wellington Railway Station is, in this regard, a Baxter poem.
versatile craftsman, Baxter tried his hand at virtually every verse-form
at some point during his career. There was one form, however, he
made especially his own (although Lawrence Durrell is said to be
the inventor): the sonnet consisting of seven unrhymed couplets.
Mention the word sonnet to a literary-minded New Zealander
and chances are the Baxterian model will spring to mind ahead of
the Petrarchan or Shakespearean versions. Since Baxters death,
other New Zealand poets C. K. Stead, Leigh Davis, Paula Green
(very different writers from one another) have taken up the
form. Two Baxterian sonnets are included here: Anna Jacksons
short-lined Watch and Richard Reeves long-lined
In March 2002,
New Yorker Billy Collins visited New Zealand as a guest at Wellingtons
biennial Writers and Readers Week and read his poems to a full house
in one of the citys biggest venues. I had a chance to interview
him for the books pages I edit for the Sunday Star-Times.
I guess it doesnt define my taste very much to say I like
Collins kind of poetry. Everybody does. But Collins is unusually
lucid and helpful in defining the kind of poetry he
writes. Almost invariably written in the first person, his poems
address us sociably as fellow citizens, generally beginning in a
low-key, conversational manner before heading somewhere unexpected.
Its a style of writing thats common among New Zealand
poets too. Look, for example, at Jenny Bornholdts Being
a Poet, Bob Orrs The Tyre Shop and Brian
Turners Semi-Kiwi. Thats not to say were
a nation of Billy Collins impersonators. The careers of the three
poets Ive just mentioned were all under way long before Collins
became famous. An unbuttoned, vernacular style of writing suits
the sort of country we are.
the only style at work in these islands, though. There are many
other possibilities for poetry besides the conversational
narrative, dramatic, linguistic, devotional. My biases, of course,
are bound to show (especially my inclination towards the Collinsesque),
but Ive tried to indicate the range of verse currently being
written by New Zealanders. Bernadette Halls The Lay
Sister, for instance, is a marvellously succinct little narrative.
Campbells Its Greece is a skilfully constructed
dramatic monologue. Chris Prices Rose and fell
mediates with remarkable sure-footedness between medieval story-telling
(theres even a mention of Grendel) and gnomic postmodernism.
I wish you
all happy reading! And I wish my successors good luck.