Essential New Zealand Poems: Facing the Empty Page, selected by Siobhan Harvey, James Norcliffe and Harry Ricketts, (Godwit, 2014), 318 pp., $45
This new collection has a splendid format: a lovely, tiered landscape cover subtly suggesting geological depth and solidity; plus interior, etiolated, black-and-white ‘wash’-type landscape photo-images that are at the same time attractively old fashioned and aggressively up to date – like a cousin of a tinted photo in Granta. The general production of the book makes for a handsome tome that sits well in the hand. The compilation is presented as a sequel to the earlier Essential New Zealand Poems selected by Lauris Edmond and Bill Sewell published in 2001. It is surprising to reflect that, to the best of my knowledge, this is the first generalised selection since that millennial tome.
In the interim, we have been flooded with theme/subject/geographic anthologies; specific interest anthologies – about Auckland, Wellington, cricket, animals, photography, love, spirituality, science fiction, nuclear protest, peace and Pasifika. Enough poetry, in short, to keep us well occupied when not attending to email, texts, over-the-teacups blogs and the dread platitudes of social media. There have been time-specific collections like Big Smoke: NZ Poems 1960–1975, Mark Williams’ earlier New Zealand Poetry 1972–1986, and other anthologies that promised the modern, the contemporary or the new. Significantly, the most aggressively up-to-date and radical of the aspirant ‘new’ – The Young New Zealand Poets edited by Arthur Baysting, published back in the heady-hip era of the early 1970s – is the one that has dated the most. How quickly does the new seem less than youthful, the contemporary become past, and the modern lose its modernity. Then much more recently there was that great whale (alas in need of some flensing) of a book, the Anthology of New Zealand Literature, edited by Jane Stafford and Mark Williams. This anthology – which had an obvious canonical intention that the editors were curiously at pains to deny – sustained vigorous attack in the form of listings of those writers not included.
To turn to the book under review, first some considerations of the current anthology’s use of the word ‘essential’. ‘Essential’ strongly suggests cultural necessity: if you don’t have these commodities in your repertoire, you will perish. If ‘the essential’ is not deployed as a criterion, the selection may well include trivial, whimsical, capricious, fashionable, or lightweight material. Though all of the aforementioned can be fun, essential is a term that tends to valorise the notion of ‘the canon’ without using that currently out of favour term. The predecessor volume, edited by Sewell and Edmond, more accurately followed through the implications of the word ‘essential’ with a historical chronology and an unmistakable hierarchical scheme: Curnow got four poems, Stead three, Arvidson two and so on, with the majority getting one. Fair enough.
The new Essential New Zealand Poems makes a selection of 150 poems written by 150 poets. And 150 New Zealand Poems would have been a much more accurate title that would have neatly resolved the ‘essential’ dilemma. This apparent poetic egalitarianism results in a crude democracy, where the great Allen Curnow gets one page and a bit, while the bordering-on-prose poem of Stephanie de Montalk is liberally spread over five and a half pages. Curnow’s best poems invariably contain the full music of language – alliterations, assonances and onomatopoeia – richly suffused with his heavyweight themes of death, sex and the power of the landscape. We can only marvel at and remain grateful for such poetic virtuosity. The idea of music in poetry, especially onomatopoeia, is nearing extinction, and the poem of sliced-up prose has become more the norm. But then take a listen to Rhian Gallagher’s ‘… water of no-going / sluggish as a trough, forsaken / grey-song trundling round the town’s back’.
Baxter is represented by a kick-the-shins Auckland poem – a half broadsheet-pamphleteer work obviously better suited to oral delivery in the smoky haze of a pub than committed to cold print. Not Baxter at his romantic, beautiful, toned best. Much as one admires Baxter’s enormous oeuvre, his private life comes under caustic moral scrutiny by his wife J.C. Sturm. Beware: her poem bites.
So Essential New Zealand Poems tends to parallel Bill Manhire’s 100 New Zealand Poems, with this difference: it seems to have an ill-disguised agenda. The poems selected by Manhire were ones that he liked or admired – nothing more and nothing less – and it was clear no canon was being attempted. This was a potpourri, not a pot of message. (It also had the expository charm of explanatory footnotes and the brilliant idea of concealing authorship until the index.) Alas, the term ‘essential’ fundamentally undermines the notion of mere liking as a mode of selection. The editors even jokingly remark their selection could have been entitled Some Rather Good New Zealand Poems the Three of Us Rather Like. Notice how the word ‘rather’ suggests a playful or whimsical mode of choice, whereas the subtext of ‘essential’ in the title clearly leans toward a more canonical selection. It’s a ‘clever’ stratagem, which tends towards trying to have it both ways.
The current Essential New Zealand Poems also somewhat sneakily begins in the 1950s and runs up to the present, thereby neatly sidestepping Mason, Fairburn, early Curnow and Glover, Robin Hyde and Ursula Bethell – all included in the earlier version. Discounting the notion of essential, it would have been more honest to name the book 150 New Zealand Poems from 1957 (say) to 2014.
The introduction breezily asserts: ‘The battles, the finger-wagging, the manifestos of the 1950s, 1960s, and the 1970s now seem as quaint and dated as paisley and flares.’ Begone Curnow vs Louis Johnson and the Wellington school! Evaporate the Auckland mudflats school vs the Wellington Cabbage Patch urban realists! In fact, it’s difficult to find a ‘manifesto’ in our literature; manifestos are usually short, punchy and bad-tempered, even in favour of violence.
So we don’t need the cannon, but we do need the canon. To my knowledge, the notion that an anthology should not smack of the canon in New Zealand began with Terry Sturm’s compendium The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature back in 1990, which ‘dared’ to include romance and other popular novelists and children’s fiction in a general survey. This generous though unfortunate extension, dutifully falling into line with overseas trends, is of course only possible in small cultures like that of New Zealand’s. In England or the United States it would never be entertained. Thus the strategy, unwittingly or unconsciously, affirms our sense of being small and unimportant, while seeking to aspire to being a larger (or desperately distinctive) culture, through throwing everything into the editorial basket.
Let me make the point in another way. If the work of Kendrick Smithyman, Alan Brunton, Stephen Oliver and Leigh Davis should not be included in a collection of essential New Zealand poems, would this be an accurate or valid selection? I would contend not. Obviously others could be added, such as Ken Arvidson, W.H. Oliver, Wystan Curnow (see his masterpiece Modern Colours), Hubert Witheford, Keith Sinclair, Mark Young, Mary Stanley, Jo Thorpe and Amanda Eason. Not to mention prolific stalwarts like Ron Riddell and Denys Trussell. How about Ila Selwyn or Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle or Sam Sampson? In a recent PANSA newsletter Mark Pirie, that powerhouse of poetic energy, lists an additional 150 poets not included (!) Nevertheless, this compilation does give a wide-ranging sample of the range and diversity of recent New Zealand poetry.
What is noticeable about what I consider the four most prominent omissions is that they are all difficult, confrontational poets. To summarise their difficulties: tortured syntax and encyclopaedic historical and geographic references (Smithyman); switchback hip style larded with scattergun cultural references (Brunton); startling fusion of the keenly observed with philosophic complexity expressed in an invigorating syntax (Stephen Oliver); breath-taking shifts of thought and imagery transfused by a playful intellectual wit (Davis). The finely turned verses of Richard Reeve and the always superb Vincent O’Sullivan offer a challenge that much of the poetry in the selection does not. Too much contemporary poetry is too relaxed and has failed to take note of Yeats’s dictum that poetry must involve a passionate syntax.
While Essential New Zealand Poems exhibits an admirable pluralism – evidence of poetic versatility and vitality – its choices are occasionally bewilderingly uneven. Some excellent poets like Janet Frame, Peter Bland, Geoff Cochrane, Dinah Hawken and Bill Manhire have work that doesn’t exhibit their outstanding talents to the full. On the other hand, I found myself liking the earlier fine poems of Alistair Paterson and Riemke Ensing. I continue to feel that the earlier work of C.K. Stead, included in Curnow’s expertly edited 1960 anthology, remains his best.
Mid-career woman poets Chris Price, Anna Jackson and Emma Neale have never written better. It’s hard to read Tusiata Avia’s poem ‘Wild Dogs Under My Skirt’ with lines like ‘I even want my legs like centipedes / the black ones / that sting and swell for weeks without wincing a bit’. Tony Beyer’s all-time classic ‘Cut Lilac’ – previously anthologised nine times – is just as finely honed as I remember when I first read it decades ago in Comment. One of the pleasures of this anthology is the number of mature-aged people who have turned to poetry in their middle years, rather than in their impetuous youth (one suspects apprenticeships have been served in the small hours of the night): so there are talented older rising poets like Maris O’Rourke, Nicholas Reid, John Horrocks, Karen Zelas and Rae Varcoe. This collection also strongly represents Māori and Polynesian poets, such as Tusiata Avia, Hinemoana Baker, Alistair Campbell, Keri Hulme, Selina Tusitala Marsh, Courtney Sina Meredith, Karlo Mila, Kiri Piahana-Wong, John Pule, J.C. Sturm, Robert Sullivan, Apirana Taylor, Hone Tuwhare and Albert Wendt – with Tusiata Avia’s poem being my personal favourite of the poems selected because of its savage directness.
And very young (or relatively young) emerging writers will no doubt be flattered to be anthologised so soon in their careers. Among such are Kiri Piahana-Wong, Courtney Meredith, Ashleigh Young, Charlotte Trevella (whose first poem was published when she was ten) and Chris Tse. Of these, Young’s poem was the one that most appealed with its wry incantatory observations of family. I have to admit to a prejudice, which habit makes difficult to overcome, of preferring poems that look like poems and are not presented in block style with the solemn connotation of prose format. This reductive formalism, rather than the language poetry of (say) Leigh Davis, Tony Green or Lisa Samuels, will have to serve as avant gardism for this collection.
The great majority of the poems are serviceable-to-excellent poems that would pass muster anywhere, anytime. On the other hand, there are a number of so-so poems that could have come from the pen of many or any poet. Lines like ‘Then I went over the road / through the quiet night’ is poetry on automatic pilot. The only truly ‘difficult’ poem in this anthology is ‘Needs Work’ by James Brown, a semi-abstract philosophical list poem that richly resonates and reverberates – a work of minor genius. But then, by contrast, we have Bub Bridger’s ‘A Christmas Wish’, with its hopeful yearning for a Whetton; and a rollicky ballad-style poem by Margaret Mahy, clearly aimed at children. We have a misguided attack on Gauguin by Selina Tusitala Marsh which presumptuously concludes, ‘you / Gauguin, / piss us / off’. (Who is the ‘us’, one might ask?) We have a marvellous (and shocking) poem from Fleur Adcock (is she still really a New Zealand poet one wonders?); and Raewyn Alexander’s killer concluding line, ‘We rip open small towns with a kiss’. Editor Rickett’s poem ‘The Necessity of Failure’ is a superbly thoughtful consideration of the banality of success and the tonic qualities of its opposite.
The original Essential New Zealand Poems didn’t have biographical notes; the new Essential New Zealand Poems has included nearly 40 pages of bio notes. While these are useful and informative, it could be argued that those 40 pages could have been used to include work by excluded poets. Moreover, the editors have, with self-promotional overkill, included their own biographical notes twice (albeit each entry is recognisably different).
Essential New Zealand Poems will serve excellently to counteract the media’s lack of interest in poetry and for those who have not kept to date with younger poets or the increasingly Niagara-like flow of New Zealand poetry, as well as those who enjoy a ‘Saturday’ book. For regular poetry readers, though, who look back to the former more historically definitive Essential New Zealand Poems of Sewell and Edmond, it will seem more like an assemblage trying to pass itself as a canon of what it aspires yet arguably fails to be: essential.
To recap, here’s my canon of the delicious, and the necessary, and the essential from this compilation: ‘Having Sex with the Dead’ (Adcock); ‘The Status of the Night’ (Ascroft); ‘Wild Dogs under my Skirt’ (Avia); ‘Cut Lilac’ (Beyer); ‘World Without End’ (Brasch); ‘Needs Work’ (James Brown); ‘Poem for Magda’ (Challis); ‘You Will Know When You Get There’ (Curnow); ‘Sleeper’ (Dickson); ‘Late Song’ (Lauris Edmond); ‘The Lady Fisherman’ (French); ‘Salt Water Creek’ (Gallagher); ‘And, Yes’ (Harlow); ‘Facing the Empty Page’ (Nannestad); ‘A Colonial Farewell’ (Orsman); ‘Seeing You Asked’ (O’Sullivan); ‘Laying Your Ghost’ (Paterson); ‘Keeping Ravens’ (Price); ‘Summer Wedding’ (Reeve); ‘Bluff Seas’ (Reid); ‘The Necessity of Failure’ (Ricketts); ‘Leaf Flurry Tram’ (Smither); ‘Just This’ (Turner); ‘To Art and Praxis’ (Wedde); ‘Alpine’ (Wootton); ‘Doors’ (Young); ‘Small Islands of Difference’ (Zelas).
MICHAEL MORRISSEY is a novelist, short-story writer, poet and anthologist. He was the 2012 Writer-in-Residence at the University of Waikato. His two most recent books are the poetry collection Memory Gene Pool (Cold Hub Press), and the novel Tropic of Skorpeo (Steam Press).