“Let certainty be tempered with disbelief.” – Fabricius

Crikey! Who would have thought that Wellington’s International Institute of Modern Letters could provide hazardous training experience for putative judges of Pop Idol. How, for goodness sake, can turning 4000 would-be warblers into a double handful of recordable (?) artists compare with filtering out 25 poems from a box housing numberless hopefuls? No ‘round up the usual suspects’ procedure can possibly suffice when you discover that, just as every New Zealander thinks singing for supper is a piece of cake, every second one writes poems and manages to get them published.

The good news is discovering that, yes, writing poems is good, having them sorted for book or magazine publication a better thing – and reading them, more often than not, a joy and cause for celebration. We write pretty good poems in this country.

Which is something that previous Best Poems editors quickly recognised. So it is only sensible, before attempting an Introduction to the present selection to draw readers’ attention to the introductory essays to the earlier volumes. Iain Sharp (2001) and Elizabeth Smither (2002) cover so much of the ground while saying, ‘Look, here’s a little taste of New Zealand poetry … enjoy’. It’d be foolish to say it all again when a touch of the keyboard will take you to those essays. Iain Sharp’s piece is particularly apposite because it explains in some detail the genesis of IIML’s Best Poems.

But ‘25 best’? As Bill Manhire describes in his ‘Welcome’ the IIML’s Best New Zealand Poems series is based on the US annual series The Best American Poetry (of 75 poems against New Zealand’s 25). I think it was the editor of the first American volume, poet John Ashbery, who, when submitting his selection suggested that ‘Best’ was not the best description. He suggested something like ‘75 OK American Poems, 1988’. That is a description that would suit me nicely, but Ashbery was told that commercial imperatives applied; me, I just do what I’m told. Suffice to say: pick another editor out of the available pool and the probability is that a completely different bunch of best and/or OK New Zealand poems would be winging their way through cyber-space.

There seem to be two possible selection approaches: attempt to find worthy examples of as wide a range of poetic expression as possible; or plump for the poems that you like best, even if there is the risk of too markedly revealing one’s own taste or lack of taste. We – my wife Lois has to accept at least 50 percent of the blame or praise for the present selection; I couldn’t have managed without her expert reading – plumped fairly firmly for the latter course. We were looking for poems to read and read again, ones that entertained, moved, involved us – ones that surprised and pleased, and celebrated skilled use of language. So there.

There was no conscious attempt to hunt out themes or preoccupations. However, a listing of recurring ideas in our selection could well frighten the horses and have the reader cry for expert light relief from such bards as Mr Jam Hipkins, poetic ego of comic columnist Jim Hopkins. Sick babies, sleepless parents, medical emergencies, accidental death, dogless dog-owners, insomnia, rotten teeth, babies again, and again, depression – how depressing, gloomy NZ Lit it all sounds. And yet it is nothing like this, because good writers observe, distil, report with flair, precision and imagination so that the small essays on experience enlighten, often provide jolts of recognition – and, as often, give rise to a belly laugh or two. So there.

Surprisingly Bush’s war in Iraq raised little poetic comment, although an editor who deals with much unpublished verse has said that he has seen more than enough ‘war poetry’ and has not been moved to encourage its dissemination. For our part, however, it is an honour to be able to publish Richard von Sturmer’s tanka sequence ‘Gathering Clouds’.

In several cases the poem chosen has been wrenched untimely from its proper context: Jenny Bornholdt’s lovely ode to a Paris hotel (as she says, really a love poem) comes from a family of poems that grew from her stay at Menton; Anna Jackson’s ‘Catullus for babies’ is only one of a set, ‘Catullus for children’, Gregory O’Brien’s ‘Dark Room’, a tribute to photographer Peter Black, was purpose-built for an edition of Sport devoted to that photographer; Anne Kennedy’s ‘I was a feminist in the eighties’ is not really typical of the book-length sequence of verse, Sing-Song, that charts 18 months in the life of a young family with a child grievously suffering from eczema, but it rather acts as a hinge for the poems on either side of it and stands as a wry commentary on the main action. Brian Turner’s poem needs its special context, too, but Turner provides that, tellingly, in his comment on the poem.

We have taken a leaf out of Iain Sharp’s 2001 book in publishing a poem by a long-dead author. In Iain’s case it was Baxter’s ‘A Pair of Sandals’, first published in 2001, nearly 30 years after the poet’s death. There were even more pressing reasons for Robin Hyde to appear in the 2003 edition of Best Poems. Only with the publication of Hyde’s collected poems in Michele Leggott’s magnificent volume Young Knowledge, was Hyde’s importance as a poet properly recognised. Robin Hyde died in 1939, but ‘Incidence’, first published in 2003’s Young Knowledge, is as ‘modern’ as anything in our selection. I am grateful to Michele for pointing us towards ‘Incidence’, and other acknowledgements are in order. Encourager, arm-twister, commissioning editor Bill Manhire has, of course, been there throughout as a brooding presence. In addition, Iain Sharp with his finger always on the pulse has been generous, and friend (and close relative) Catriona Ferguson has been an invaluable and knowledgeable sounding-board.

It has been rewarding to greet some old friends in the poetry world – Kevin Ireland, Peter Bland and, particularly, Gordon Challis, whose poem comes from his second collection, published last year, 40 years after his first. So, a personal note here. The first magazine I edited (with one other, David Walsh) was the second issue of Mate, in 1958. The contributors to that issue included Gordon Challis, Kevin Ireland and Lois Miller (aka Lois Dudding). In several ways, then, Best New Zealand Poems 2003 is the last link in a rather slow-growing circle. (As a matter of interest – and some pride – the other contributors to that issue of Mate were: Odo Strewe, Peter Fairbrother, Maurice Gee, Alan Roddick, Barry Crump [first publication], Frank Sargeson, John Graham, Charles Doyle and Anthony Stones.)

I believe that magazine gave some pleasure to quite a few people. I hope the same can be said for Best New Zealand Poems 2003.

Robin Dudding, Editor
March 2004




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