No ordinary poet, Cilla McQueen

Hone Tuwhare. A Biography
Janet Hunt
Godwit, $49.95,
ISBN l 86962 035 6

Tuwhare’s is a Maori voice. A master and lover of his second language, English, he revels in its ample dimensions, exploits its flexibility and universality, questions its conventions and adapts it joyfully to uses as political as they are poetic. Grounded in the oral Maori traditions of his early upbringing, he uses te reo Maori to inform the poetry, English to allow its essence to be heard.

To what extent is a poet’s work illuminated by knowledge of the life that produced it, and to what extent is an understanding of the life amplified by the poetry? Without knowledge of his poetry, I would still find Tuwhare’s life interesting to read, since it is the story of a personal journey within and between cultures by a man with an important place in each, who has the creative ability to be a bridge and a channel of communication. Without knowledge of the life, the poetry would still stand alone and powerful, uniquely Tuwhare.

Janet Hunt has produced a kaleidoscopic overview of the man’s life and his work, which she sees as symbiotic, inseparable from each other and from the deep roots of his native culture. She characterises her book as “an auto/biography: the bones of the story are a biographical narrative, but it is the words of the poet himself that give that narrative flesh and colour.” Less successful in literary analysis than in a sort of synthesis achieved by demonstrating this process of mutual enrichment, Hunt’s biographical narrative shows how Tuwhare’s life and work both reflect and influence his world: his personal history interwoven with other histories and with this country’s political and cultural development. The poetry is seen to grow from the conjunction of life and language, celebrating both.

As the life unfolds, its themes become clear, strands in an evolving spiral, experience and time moulding the unique characteristics of the poet’s voice. “In this,” says Hunt, “his relationship to his influences, his reading on one hand and his exposure to the breadth and depth of two oral cultures on the other, is pivotal.” Highly idiosyncratic, wide in range and register, variously seductive, wrathful, caressing, cajoling, gleeful, solemn, naive, declamatory – Tuwhare’s voice can be seen in the poems that stud this overview to tend, over time, towards simplicity. Hunt notes perceptively that the Maori child’s voice heard in “Time and the Child”, the first poem in No Ordinary Sun, still speaks in “Time Out”, written 30 years later. The flourishes of his long love affair with the English language fall away and the question from the early poem, “are you going man? // Where are going man where”, is answered by the child/man in the later poem: “in /a / resolute / search / for // my space / my beginnings / my Self.”

Pivotal also is his relationship to his two cultures. At the interface between them and influential in each, Tuwhare does a poet’s job of linking worlds and crossing at will between them, a node in the web of literary, political and whanau connections that David Eggleton calls the “energy circuits running through the land.” A glance at the names linked to Tuwhare’s at some point during his long life shows the breadth and depth of his connections with political activism, art, literature, theatre, publishing, local government and education. David Eggleton describes him as “a working class artist who has leapt the social divide, whose poems are a blunt response to the shifting pressures of subterranean class warfare.” Travelling often, with friends in all walks of life and having the ability to bring them together, he has been a catalyst at several crucial points in New Zealand’s cultural and political development.

His deepest connection is with the land. A member of the Communist Party in l943, he became involved with protest at the alienation from their land of the Ngati Whatua people of Orakei, and increasingly became aware of, and used, the power of language to focus attention and bring about change. The l975 Te Roopu o te Matakite land march brought some distinctively Maori poetry out of him, spiritual, sensual and deeply political. As convenor of the inaugural Maori Writers’ and Artists’ Conference at Te Kaha in l973, his statement might be a personal manifesto: “As artists we need to have direction and purpose. And this may only come if we maintain our contacts with the marae and the people of the land; the true guardian of the Mauri and living essence of us all.”

His research as Hocken Fellow on the papers of Dr Edward Shortland, “interpreter, ethnologist and political agent”, enhanced his historical awareness and triggered his creativity. R S Oppenheim had noted after the publication of No Ordinary Sun that the Maori experience is “not so much the intrusion of the past upon the present, as its simultaneity with the present.” Tuwhare gives insight – through colloquial example, as well as use of traditional forms – into Maori thought and character, into the old ways of his people and traditions of his language, no less intellectual for being unwritten.

Hunt identifies poetry’s first allegiance to speech, and remarks on the script-like quality of a Tuwhare poem, the written text conveying as best it can changes of tone, pitch, volume or character. Tuwhare likes to “see how it sounds, sound the music, sound the words”. For him poetry is essentially oral, an intimate connection between speaker and hearer formed by breath. He has described it as “the controlled insinuative inferences expelled by the body’s muscles in the spoken word.” It is intimate in its invitation to join in the adventures of a mind working at the level of sound and metaphor, synthesising and refining vocabulary and phrasing at the point of speech, listening for resonances, attentive to balance and flow. Silence is expressive, as in oratory.

Bill Manhire in a review of Sapwood and Milk saw Tuwhare as “an amiable participant in a world he never entirely controls.” From this apparently uncommitted viewpoint, he has the opportunity to make faux-naif, irreverent comments not only on society and its mores but on language itself. Relishing vocabulary and disrupting register at will, he jolts literary expectations in the mind of the European reader with creative and often anarchic usage, savouring the quirks and flaws of language along with its richness. In his hands it can be cat’s paw or taiaha. At times its delicious artifice is used with self-deprecating irony or flourished like a bullfighter’s cloak, at others adopted as a mask and dropped as suddenly.

Hunt comments that Tuwhare “glories in ungrammatical usages, wresting them from comfortable association to renewed vigour.” Tuwhare himself makes no apology:

It’s being enriched all the time … Who knows, in the former colonies – just how the language is spoken there? Samoans talking English – in Samoa, the way they’ve changed it, they’ve adopted the English language but they’ve put in their own. Same with Maori, it’s not exactly good grammar in a sense, but they’ve wrapped around it – same thing, you see.

Maori and European reviewers have frequently differed in their approach to Tuwhare’s work. Maori have esteemed above all its spiritual aspect. In the words of Hone Taumanu: “The strongest impulse which emanates from many of his poems draws from a spirituality, a sensitivity towards those images which spring from his cultural upbringing. He draws from the traditions and mythology of his forebears and is able to evoke the timelessness of his culture in verse.”

European criticism has tended to focus on technique apart from content. Evaluating critical response to
Tuwhare’s work, Hunt writes:

Time after time, especially at the beginning of his career, reviewers had discussed his writing with enthusiasm tempered in the closing paragraphs by reservations. By the end of the l970s that pattern of reception had been modified: his success had placed him in a stronger position and reviews were no longer opportunities for an “expert” to frame and direct the work of a neophyte. Society and the criteria of reception had also changed as Tuwhare’s work had developed.

What had at first seemed to some critics mere attempts to follow a conventional Western poetic reveals itself to be an impish and increasingly confident undermining of those rules, that system, forcing a rethink of received ideas, not only about language but about society as a whole.

Tuwhare speaks of art as “a very humble thing”. Hunt’s part in this book is self-effacing and transparent, her approach sympathetic to the man and respectful of his personal and cultural privacy. She nevertheless manages to reveal her subject by means of thorough but unobtrusive research and scholarship, augmented by a generous selection of photographs, poetry and examples of manuscript. Well-made and attractive, Hunt’s book is a rich and full-blooded portrait of the man and his language, celebrating his mana, his presence at the heart of Aotearoa.

Cilla McQueen is a poet and artist who lives in Bluff.

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