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Brigley on Carcanet's Twenty Contemporary New Zealand Poets

Zoë Brigley reviews
edited by Andrew Johnstone and Robyn Marsack

What does it mean to be a New Zealand poet, and how is New Zealand poetry different to that in the rest of the world? This is the unspoken question behind the recent anthology, Twenty Contemporary New Zealand Poets. The editors are Andrew Johnston, a poet of the ‘Wellington school’, and Robyn Marsack, director of the Scottish Poetry Library. This is obviously not the first book of its kind. Penguin published the groundbreaking anthology edited by Allen Curnow, the Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (1960), followed by updated versions in 1985 and 1990 and OUP has created a strong tradition too in publishing readers of New Zealand poetry, such as Fiona Farrell’s Yellow Pencils: Contemporary Poetry by New Zealand Women (1988).
There is a place for this anthology, however, because recent New Zealand anthologies have tended to be based on down-to-earth themes in collections like A Good Handful: Great New Zealand Poems About Sex (2008). Or the focus has been on New Zealanders as effective performers of poetry, e.g. Classic New Zealand Poets in Performance (2006). There is nothing wrong in these trends, except that New Zealand poets have at times been unfairly stereotyped as unsophisticated. The New Zealand poet, Eileen Duggan, expressed resentment at this typecasting when she commented: ‘We know that we are only poetasters, candles to the sun that is to come’.

The editors’ introduction to Twenty Contemporary New Zealand Poets is at pains to unravel some of these myths, stating ‘Long gone are the days when New Zealanders – and their writers – were best known for a certain laconic style’. What is found instead is a poetry that ‘overflows with talk, often setting aside the traditions that come with written language and its conventional forms of address in favour of a looser conversation that leaps from register to register’.
The editors seek to represent a diverse band of poets, but the introduction does not go into great detail in justifying its choices. Johnston and Marsack describe the achievement of the big beasts of New Zealand poetry, like Bill Manhire and Allen Curnow. They stress, too, the importance of Māori poets like Hone Tuwhare, and they note the influence of the feminist movement in allowing strong female poetics to emerge, first in the generation of Elizabeth Smither and Cilla McQueen, and also in the later generation of Bernadette Hall, Dinah Hawken and Jenny Bornholdt. Finally, the editors point out that in contrast to the anational, non-regional movement in New Zealand poetry, a new cohort of writers – they list Anne Kennedy, Glenn Colquhoun, James Brown and Tusiata Avia – embraces regionalism, suggesting that ‘local references present no barrier to enjoyment’. Quite a few of the chosen poets though go unmentioned and it might have been useful to have a more detailed and extensive introduction. What the anthology does include though is a statement of poetics from each contributor and I guess that the editors wanted to allow the poets to speak for themselves. Overall, the anthology does not group New Zealand poets into schools, but sees them as a network of individuals, each with a set of unique, if related poetics.

Looming large among the earlier writers included is the late Hone Tuwhare, the Māori poet whose has been compared to Chinua Achebe in Nigeria and George Lamming in Barbados. In his statement of poetics, Tuwhare talks about how he mimics the oral culture of the church and the working classes, and Tuhware’s poem, ‘Dear Cousin’ is a wonderful example of sensuous power and ribald humour:

For sweeteners, I’ll produce another pot,
of boiled fish-heads with onions, cracking
open the heads afterwards for the succulent
eyes and the brains: that will be a special
treat, because we’re both brainy buggers.

Tuwhare draws on his specific understanding of New Zealand life, and he believes that character and experience make a poet special. Discussing his mentor, R.A.K. Mason, Tuwhare explains ‘I can’t thieve his experience, and he can’t thieve mine – everyone’s unique’. Tuwhare is exceptionally generous too in stating that though, as a Māori poet, he is a ‘bridge between cultures’, Pākehā writers (New Zealanders of European descent) also bring a unique but significant vision to New Zealand writing through ‘their background of Irish or Scots or Welsh.’
Tuhware’s poetics are quite different to the ideas of C.K. Stead, who in writing about poetry states, ‘You can’t do it on your own; you need the help of those who have gone before’. Unlike Tuwhare, Stead does not emphasise a unique cultural position, but the place of the poet in a foreign literary tradition – that of Yeats, Eliot, Auden, Stevens and Dylan Thomas. In poems like ‘After the Wedding’, Stead’s setting is a Kaiwaka farm, yet the themes of nostalgia and reconciliation makes it a universal rather than a specific place:

In recollection summer is forever
renewing itself in the thickest
leafmould shade.

These are the contradictions of New Zealand poetry and the choice that needs to be made is whether to escape into the universal, or remain committed to the unique, the specific and the particular. Yet being a poet in New Zealand can be fruitful, because, as Gregory O’ Brien states in his manifesto, ‘Like a satellite orbiting the outer edges of things, New Zealand is a good location from which to observe and absorb influences from all directions.’

I wish that I had more space to map out these influences in this review, but with such a small space for discussion, I can only mention a few of the poems and poets that especially moved me. The late Allen Curnow of course deserves a mention: his art of recording ‘burningly clear’ memories that work out of intricate human and natural worlds. Vincent O’Sullivan’s metaphors still resonate, especially in ‘Right on’, where

A dead overturned beetle can look as if
it’s feeling in several fob-pockets at once.

Employing metaphor for a political purpose, Robert Sullivan has much to admire in his poetry; for example his poem ‘After the UM Rapporteur Supported Māori Customary Rights’ describes the silencing of Māori prose and, studying English words, he states that

all the key teeth thrown
on the table are English played by the ancestors of Westminster.

Elizabeth Smither too uses striking metaphor and symbolism, so in ‘The sea question’, the soothing power of the ocean is far more healing than any mind doctor:

It doesn’t presume to wear a white coat
but it questions you like a psychologist
as you walk beside it on its long couch.

Smither is a trailblazer for the two generations of women writers mentioned in the introduction, whose concerns range from gender to colonialism. Bernadette Hall discusses her Irish background and remembers her Irish mother’s saying: ‘We’re doin’ all right in this little land we stole from the Maoris’. Thinking back, Hall is ‘amazed by its honesty’ and dedicates herself to writing about complex New Zealand identities.

Other women writers use the New Zealand flora and fauna as a means to write about gender. In an extract from her long poem ‘Writing Home’, Dinah Hawken imagines herself as a whale and envisions leaping ‘right our of this pack (this pod!) of sparring males’. Tusiata Avia, too, draws on the natural world to empower her female speaker who calls for

legs as sharp as dogs’ teeth
wild dogs

What is fascinating about Avia and the later poets included in the anthology is their rejection of the universal versus regional dilemma. Brian Turner writes convincingly that ‘regional and provincial are not synonyms’ and suggests that being regional makes poetry ‘more authentic, affirms that the author actually comes from somewhere that counts in ways that intensify and enhance life.’ Glenn Colquhoun embraces a sense of regionality in his poem, ‘The indigenous Pakeha’, a paradoxical title that offers a line of escape from the Pākehā writer’s sense of detachment. Colquhoin proclaims ‘Either I don’t belong to anyone / Or else I’m indigenous everywhere’.

So what does it mean to be a New Zealand poet, and how is New Zealand poetry different to that in the rest of the world? As the editors point out, what has perplexed readers in the past has been the element of ‘anti-poetry’ in New Zealand: ‘a suspicion of the “poetic”, of the tendency to romanticise, to idealise, to move away from the real world into the realm of pure ideas’. New Zealand poetry is certainly richly embedded in the material world, but it would be wrong to dismiss it as merely addressing down-to-earth or unsophisticated themes. Attuned to human and natural environments, the best New Zealand poetry offers a philosophical and wry vision of the world. To stereotype the New Zealand poet as tainted by ‘provincial narrowness’ is unmerited, but the best New Zealand poets have turned the accusation of provincialism to their advantage. To conclude quoting Gregory O’Brien again, such poets are ‘leavened and peppered by a growing awareness of our place in the Pacific and the wondrous, ramshackle cultural setting in which we find ourselves.’

Zoë Brigley is a Welsh poet and scholar currently based in America. Her debut collection from Bloodaxe is The Secret.
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