The best New Zealand poems, like the best poems anywhere, are capable of changing our idea of what a poem is – surprising us, overtaking our expectations. The poem is both the winding road and the wild horse that gallops past us as we read, so that when we come around the last bend, there it is, waiting for our shock of recognition.

Such poems make the world bigger by taking us somewhere new. One of the great pleasures of selecting the Best New Zealand Poems 2005 was that the poems I came to enjoy re-reading most – the ones that stuck in my head, that became part of my mental furniture, and then part of the final list – weren’t always the ones I’d expected to enjoy most.

I would agree with those who say that in the English language, at least, we don’t live in an age of great poets. But we do live in an age of great poems, and they’re often found in unlikely places. To notice them, you have to be open to the notion of many poetries, rather than one dominant idea of what makes a poem. New Zealand is particularly good at nurturing the kind of variety that lets very good poems thrive.

And what’s especially refreshing about poetry from New Zealand, it seems to me, is that there is a high degree of local acceptance of this variety. There are inevitable regional allegiances – one’s favourite poets are often the poets one knows – but on top of that there is a broadness of taste, a willingness to be eclectic, that mostly avoids the kind of sectarianism that one sees elsewhere in the poetry world.

The result, in the past decade or so, is a growth in the public audience for poetry that seems to bear out David Lehman’s comment in his foreword to The Best American Poetry 2005: ‘It may turn out that the enlargement of poetry’s community of readers depends on a toleration … of other people’s ideas of what constitutes a good poem.’

It’s still the case, though, that in some parts of the world ‘poetry’ means one particular kind of poetry. I was reminded of this recently when I heard that a distinguished French poet, presented with a selection of New Zealand poems, responded that some were ‘not poems.’

It’s the same kind of tone you hear from people who respond that certain kinds of music are ‘not music.’ In France, in fact, ‘poetry’ is like ‘classical music,’ in the sense that however modern it is, it’s still has to be ‘classical’ – to aspire to the realms of high art – or else it’s not poetry. (If you want to make anything that resembles jazz, or pop, or folk, they give you a guitar and kick you out of the church.)

Across the Channel, in the home of English, there’s also a dominant paradigm; what’s surprising about many poems from Britain is just how unsurprising they are – how domesticated, how well-behaved– and how closely they adhere to a single register, the poet getting quietly worked up about something in the plainest conversational tone.

New Zealand, of course, used to be a rather British place, and had its own received way of writing poems. It was the injection of freedom that American models provided that turned things upside-down, leading to the proliferation of voices and styles on display in this year’s Best New Zealand Poetry.

Two of the poets who helped this revolution come about were Bill Manhire and Ian Wedde. I couldn’t include a poem from Manhire’s latest and best book Lifted because he is effectively the publisher of Best New Zealand Poems. But Ian Wedde’s ‘A Hymn to Beauty’ is here, a sprawling, exhilarating collage of lines from pop songs and philosophers.

If reading Wedde’s poem is like listening to someone spinning a radio dial through myriad serendipitous stations, reading Wystan Curnow’s is like taking in a Cubist painting. Jenny Bornholdt’s ‘Photograph’ is intensely visual, too, voicing in an inimitable New Zealand accent the script of the movie of the taking of a photo.

Anne Kennedy’s tour de force ‘Die die, live live’ is another brilliant script, this time of a rugby game. On the nature channel, meanwhile, Fiona Farrell’s similarly long and skinny poem gives us an eel’s-eye view: ‘I have lived as you have / lived: cautiously.’

Part of the variousness on show here, in fact, lies in the wide range of things that New Zealand poets write about; long gone are the days when some things were considered suitable for poetic treatment and others not. More often than not, it seems that the best New Zealand poems derive considerable energy from the tension between heightened language and ‘unpoetic’ subject. (James Brown’s breathless, tragicomic beat rant ‘No Rest’ leaps to mind.)


To describe all this variety, however, is not to say there isn’t constant pressure towards a new dominant poetic paradigm in New Zealand. It’s pretty easy to see what that is: a prosy, personal poem that purports to use language transparently, to ‘say something wonderful’ or to ‘tell us how it really is.’ What we’re being told about, often, is a kind of fervour or conviction that exists in the poet but hasn’t made it into the language of the poem.

What is most interesting about this paradigm is the ways that poets (or, rather, poems) resist it and turn it back on itself. Brian Turner, who lives on the Maniototo Plains of Central Otago, likes people to think of him as a regular Kiwi Bloke. The title of his poem ‘Cycling in the Maniototo’ is a blokish parody of Janet Frame’s novel Living in the Maniototo (which is mostly set in America) and the poem starts off with a classic anti-intellectual disclaimer: ‘I wouldn’t care to hear / why it’s said we’re here / in case it ruins / what it feels like now.’

But the poem does have something to say about ‘why it’s said we’re here’ – in fact that’s what it’s all about. What gives life meaning, the poem says, is the will – ‘the will // to keep on resolutely / keeping on’ – and, the poem suggests, making the kind of image that it concludes with:

     the skyline of the Old Man Range

     is a high wire
     on which the last
     of the snow is caught
     like strands of wool.

Between the will and the wool, we’ve somehow heard exactly what the poet said he ‘wouldn’t care to hear’. Turner is pulling the wool over our eyes – or is it over his eyes? (Turner confesses that ‘I baa at sheep, shout at magpies and moo with cattle’; the perfect partner to his poem, of course, is Stu Bagby’s, in which the cows talk in Italian.)

There are many deft ways in which these poets sidestep the standard contemporary New Zealand poem. Michele Amas turns clichés inside out to get closer to what it means to be the mother of a daughter. Karlo Mila gets up a head of steam about Pasifika self-stereotyping – ‘let me / write about / doing the do / that hasn’t been done / to death / quite yet’ and lets rip with a sardonic torrent of images.

Angela Andrews and Sonja Yelich, meanwhile, subvert the tendency to deliver a neatly wrapped anecdote by leaving us guessing more than a little about the fractured narratives in their poems. And Janet Charman artfully pares her story down to just 27 scrupulously chosen words.

The way Charman’s ‘love / you’re spilling it’ echoes Gregory O’Brien’s ‘I was / the overflowing one’ suggests a definition, if we need one, of what qualities these poems might share. They’re all overflowing with something; they’re pieces of language that brim over with more than everyday language holds – with sound, story, history, grief, love, comedy, and all sorts of unexpected meaning. The poem comes out of change, with changed language, and changes us:

     When I left the dying room
     I was the shape of everything
     into which I had been poured.

     And the room behind me was empty
     and I was filled
     to overflowing with it, where I went.
     (Gregory O’Brien, ‘Where I Went’)

Andrew Johnston, Editor
March 2006




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