“Let certainty be tempered with disbelief.” –
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
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
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
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