An anxious Kiwi psyche, Bill Oliver

An anthology of New Zealand poetry in English

My brief is to look at this anthology from a socio-historical point of view. But before a document can be used as historical evidence it is necessary to ask what kind of document it is and to inquire into the likely agenda of its originator. The first step, then, is to look for the agenda by examining what the editors have done, as well as what they say.

The book’s most immediately apparent novelty is the organisation of authors in reverse chronological order of first publication in volume form. The editors justify this device as reflecting “the energies, the tremors, that recent poets send back into the past.” The effect is to confer a normative role upon the most recent generation. Further, the selections from many earlier writers give prominence to their later work. Almost two-thirds of the poems chosen were published between 1970 and 1994. These proportions suggest a revisionist programme similar to that of Allen Curnow in 1945 but in this case it lacks the kind of theoretical justification he provided.

A “presentist” anthology would be a legitimate venture and I would have no problem with the editors if they had announced that as their programme. But in fact they make a profession of ideological innocence. In a sense that is the case but not in one that does them much credit. Instead of an explicit programme there is a kind of porridge of implicit programmes which need a bit of sorting out. This will at least question the claims made in the introduction for inclusiveness and elasticity — “the key terms behind the organisation of the anthology — culture, poetry, tradition, canon — have been adopted in an open, explanatory manner rather than a closed, authoritative one.” And again: “We have based our inclusions ultimately on principles of literary value. That is to say, poems have not been included unless they hold some interest to us as poetry.

These claims may correctly indicate intention but they do not reflect performance. In an anthology which is over-generous both in overall bulk and in many individual selections, there are many examples of what the editors describe (with reference to Quentin Pope’s Kowhai Gold) as “occasional surprising meannesses”. Here they are more than occasional. Consider this list of those not included — Douglas Stewart, D’Arcy Cresswell, J R Hervey, Charles Spear, Basil Dowling, William Hart-Smith, Hubert Witheford, Pat Wilson, Charles Doyle, Alan Loney, Owen Leeming, Bill Sewell and Harry Ricketts. The introduction has nothing to say about the omission of writers nor about any who may have refused permission.

Most names on this list are pre-1970 and this reinforces the “presentist” character of the book. Further, most on it are expatriates and all are male. However, expatriation itself is no bar; Fleur Adcock (“New Zealand poetry has been enlarged by what she has continued to bring to it”) and (for no apparent reason) Len Lye are there. Probably an anti-expat prejudice was lurking about; the editorial nerve must have failed when it came to Adcock (and Katherine Mansfield, Robin Hyde and Peter Bland). Surely not all the excluded writers could have been left out on the “literary value” grounds which admitted so many of no greater achievement.

The inherent silliness of an anti-expat programme may have inhibited its avowal; New Zealand is patently a country characterised by constant two-way expatriation. Quite a number of those included have had lengthy periods away — Charles Brasch, Louis Johnson, Michael Jackson, Vincent O’Sullivan and Kevin Ireland. And there appears to be no discrimination against such reverse-expatriates as Alistair Campbell, Riemke Ensing, Albert Wendt, Michael Harlow and Alan Riach. New Zealand, and we should be thankful for it, is a country into and out of which people, including poets, float effortlessly.

The “woman question”, also raised by these omissions, is approached in a rather gingerly manner in the introduction — there was no head counting to ensure parity and the notion that there is a “women’s poetry” is dismissed. Others may take more interest in statistics: out of 100 writers (excepting Anon) 37 are women. And, in contrast to the absent males, every female poet I have heard of, and some I had not, are included. Further, though the introduction does not quite endorse the view that women writers have been done down by a male supremacist establishment, that programme is at least given credibility by a comment on Eileen Duggan — “sidelined as a result of the nationalistic bias of the Caxton poets with their secular prejudice and male mythologising.” If, in fact, the editors believe that there is some correlation between nationalism, secularism and “masculinism”, they should do more than merely throw off a phrase.

The editors also nod approvingly towards another current orthodoxy — that of cultural diversity. The historian Donald Akenson is quoted to demonstrate the cultural diversity within the “British” immigrant intake. The Scottish, Irish and Welsh and regional English inheritances are elevated into distinct cultures. There are two problems with this. The first is that those from England made up a considerable majority of the immigrant flow; the second is that they all wrote in English, including the Scottish variety of English. If some people in fact wrote in Gaelic they have had about as much impact as those who wrote in Norwegian, Serbo-Croat and Cantonese. Akenson, at least as used here, confuses the categories. Whatever the geographical origins of these settler fragments and whatever ethnic identity they (and their descendants) may have elected or invented, culturally they all fall within the wider scope of “English”. If this is cultural diversity it is a very minor example — for a comparison read Accordion Crimes or The Moor’s Last Sigh.

These novels show what a huge matter cultural diversity and the hybridity it engenders become when a number of distinct and powerful cultures compete and interpenetrate. But it is a mistake to expect hybridity in all post-colonial societies. In New Zealand the non-geographical English and the wholly non-English elements have been or have quickly become either intra-English or marginal. Further, the Maori inheritance, for all its power in some instances, lacks the breadth and diversity — in music, the visual arts and literature — to make more than a marginal cultural impact. The examples of Maori influence identified in the introduction are not instances of hybridity. Baxter in his Hemi days used a number of Maori words but within a verse structure that remained entirely English. And when Hone Tuwhare is cited as a writer of “Maori poetry written in English”— “Gissa smile Sun, giss yr best/ good mawnin one, fresh ‘n cool like” — he is using an English characterised by social location, not by ethnicity.

And so at length I arrive at what was to be the central purpose of this review. But in fact that is where the discussion has for the most part been. The emphasis on the last 25 years or so of writing is an historical statement. So too is the devaluation of expatriation, the suggestion that women need to be rescued from male amnesia and the assumption that New Zealand poetry exhibits marked cultural diversity. Whether these are valid historical positions or not is one question. Another, and for present purposes more important, is whether the editors have made it clear that their “subject position” is shaped by these programmes. We all “privilege” whatever flows from our “subject position”; editors shaping an anthology which will possibly be treated as prescriptive should both explore and clarify their standpoints. Here they have not done so; one is obliged to speculate.

Editorial attitudes inform the text and qualify the ways in which it may be used as evidence; different attitudes might have produced quite a different text. Here, whether or not they were fully aware of what they were doing, the editors have produced an anthology which over-emphasises the recent past, sets out to rescue neglected women and devalues expatriation. Nevertheless, as would be the case with any sufficiently bulky anthology, this one shows history and poetry intersecting in three ways.

First, past events and situations are called upon to frame and enhance present perceptions. Chris Orsman writes of gorse “yellowing our quaint history” and Gregory O’Brien describes how “the governor of Hokianga tried to put / a tax on the ownership of dogs and nearly started / another Maori war”. The past is wide open to such appropriations. Academic historians will manage only to look silly if they inquire just what Orsman means by “quaint”, and note that O’Brien has not got it quite right about the dog tax war. When it’s a matter of the past we are all cultural imperialists and fairly secure ones, for there is little chance that those we colonise — those who planted the gorse, for example — will read Edward Said’s Orientalism and tell us to keep off their patch. (Though their self-appointed latter-day spokespersons regularly do.)

Second, there are those writers who promote a general explanation of a sizable piece of the past. Their reconstructions become the reality “out there” from which the poem departs. Allen Curnow’s “island and time” reflections provide our most sophisticated example, though a good deal else going on in them. There is not much else going on in Fairburn’s “Dominion”, a more straightforward example of history as poetry. If, as is reported, Kendrick Smithyman left behind an immense poem about the colonisation of the north (“The Puhoi Cantos?”) we can look forward to more of this kind. And in Bill Manhire we have an exemplary anti-historicist; there is no reality “out there” in the past any more than in the present: “The land itself is only / smoke at anchor, drifting above / Antarctica’s white flower”.

In a third and much more problematic way, poetry and history intersect when a country’s poetry is used as evidence from which conclusions about that country are derived. This is an arbitrary proceeding; there is no good reason, other than the preference of the historian for one kind of reading matter over another, why poems should be chosen rather than newspaper editorials, speeches from the throne or company reports. No reason, that is, unless it is rather riskily assumed that poets are especially reliable witnesses. Further, this procedure must assume that there is a reality behind and beyond the poems. It must be considered relevant that they have authors who are intimately connected with their society and reflect it in their writings and that this connection is a matter for critical attention.

A possible connection of this kind is suggested when we consider the prevailing tone of the greater part of the volume and especially of its more recent freight. That tone is conversational and remains so even when (not very often) the voices are raised. (A more “literary” evaluation would surely remark upon the prevalence, especially in the more recent poets, of a flattish, plain and even prosy language entirely suitable for conversation.) A high proportion are “you” poems and in many others “we” includes “you”. Many suggest a location for the conversation: a quiet room, a beach, a cafe, a bed, a bush walk, a street corner, a deck, a garden, a doorway. Sometimes, though much less often, it is a public place — a hall, a street corner, a theatre, an arena of some kind. But these public places are not well filled; when the voice is raised it tends to echo around the empty seats.

The persistent “you” is a not an entirely simple device. Three uses predominate. First, it may indicate a specific person, at times more or less identifiable in the text or in a dedication, sharing or (sadly) not sharing the location — bed, table, beach, etc. In this usage absence is an especially poignant presence. Second, it conjures up a wider audience, occupying but not filling the meeting place; it summons those who are thought to need the message being delivered. And third, “you” is a way of saying “I” (as, in more formal times, “one” used to be), a device used to make a claim to be not without company, to have the sanction and the support of unspecified others. It is as if solitariness is just too hard to take — so the writer puts “you” in the place of “I” in the hope that someone will reply, Yes, I’m a bit like that too.   

These usages suggest a powerful anxiety to be heard and to be heeded and to conjure up company out of the void, an anxiety that leads to a great deal of confiding, commanding and (self-)consoling. They suggest, too, that these poets are compulsive communicators, not of the pattern of words as a self-contained text, but of feelings, notions and ideas about the business of going on living. In spite of the critical animus against the practice, the greater number of the poets here are inveterate senders of messages, devisers of arguments, persuaders who seek to convince and convert, even if a great deal of the time they are actually preaching to themselves.

Should one go on to suggest that New Zealand society is characterised by a comparable anxiety to make and maintain contact and a certain lack of confidence in one’s capacity to do so? That would be more or less in accord with the atomisation model developed by Miles Fairburn, in The Ideal Society and its Enemies, as an explanation of the character of an immigrant society. It is at least plausible to suggest that such literary conventions are engrained in and arise from an anxious Kiwi psyche.

Bill Oliver is an historian who has published poems from time to time since the 1950s and also a number of reviews of collections of poems.

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