Poems in the classroom, Jo Kahl

Essential New Zealand Poems
ed Lauris Edmond and Bill Sewell
Godwit, $29.95,
ISBN 1869620879

Why is it that fictional teachers are always teachers of English? How many times do you see on television or at the movies teachers attempting to teach geometry or double entry bookkeeping to the underprivileged? No, they are always standing in front of a class of misfits, clasping a slim volume in one hand and reading in an impassioned voice, “’Thus, though we cannot make our sun / Stand still, yet we will make him run.’ Now, Jason, what do you think Marvell was trying to say here?” To which the misunderstood genius in the back row replies, “Well, Miss, I think Marvell was really trying to point out how ephemeral life can be.” Yeah right!

Encouraging students to enjoy poetry can be a challenge even to the most inspirational, leaping-on-the-desk type of teacher. A good selection of poems makes the job a lot easier. A Cage of Words (chosen by Harvey McQueen and now, regrettably, out of print) was the one I favoured for many years. A 1980 selection, it contained the work of 46 New Zealand poets with over 100 favourites, ranging from “The Magpies” to “Revisiting V8 Nostalgia” – a good selection of the traditional canon and interesting newcomers and not too heavy to carry 30 copies from class to class. One method I employed was to give the books out to the class, ask them to read through a selection and see what took their fancy. This usually meant half an hour or so of precious peace and quiet followed by 70% of the class choosing A R D Fairburn’s “An Old Tale Re-told”:

I once knew a girl with a heart like an icicle
Who used to go riding around on a bicycle;
She never would stop when I called out or whistled:
If her eye caught mine she just pouted and bristled.
I loved her red hair and her bright blue socklets,
I wooed her with flowers and I wooed her with chocolates,
I sent her an apple, I sent her a book,
But she never would give me so much as a look…

 

According to the class, this was what a poem should be. It rhymed, it was easy to understand, it told a story, and it was funny! Never had A R D been so popular, never had a teacher been so despairing.

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Now, to add to the wealth of slim volumes, comes a not-so-slim volume with the impressive title Essential New Zealand Poems. In the introduction, the editors set themselves one main criterion for selection. They have, they contend, chosen poems that have an immediate impact, that will make a quick connection with “the heart and the ear”, that will engage the reader quickly, that will not shut people out. These are very desirable qualities when introducing poetry to the uninitiated. The editors also hope that such a volume will be a useful teaching tool, will “find a ready place in the classroom”. Then comes the slightly defensive disclaimer: “And so, with these readers in mind (rather than academics, or critics, or even poets themselves) we have included many of the major figures of the last hundred years…” As I am not an academic, critic or poet, but am a teacher, it seems I am in a good position to comment on their choices and the book’s effectiveness as a teaching tool.

The poems, by their very presence in the anthology, have established reputations and are considered to be worthy. (It is probably a little late for me to be advising Kevin Ireland not to give up his day job.) So commenting on the poems themselves is redundant. What is important here is to look at the poems and see what has been included, what has been left out, what sort of picture we get of New Zealand and of New Zealand poetry and, most importantly, could I use it in my teaching?

The use of “Essential” in the title is all very well – the poems chosen do convey an essence of New Zealand life: “High Country Weather”, “Jerusalem Sonnets 1”, “The Magpies” and extracts from “Sings Harry” and “Arawata Bill” – verses I remember from my own schooldays. “An Old Tale Retold” is mercifully missing and replaced by “Song at Summer’s End”, “Down on My Luck” and “A Farewell”. Fairburn, Mason, Curnow, Brasch, Campbell, Baxter, Joseph – all are there as they deserve to be if excellence were the only criterion.

But what of the new, younger poets who are already making an impact on the literary scene with subject matter more likely to attract the interest of a class of Year 12 students dealing with the essence of their New Zealand? James Brown and Kate Camp both appear but with only one poem each and not, I think, their best. In general, the selection builds a picture of a conservative 1950s New Zealand with subject matter that would puzzle today’s 16-year-olds. Peter Cape’s “Down the Hall on Saturday Night”, Fairburn’s “Down on My Luck” and Baxter’s “Calvary Street”, all contribute to this rather gloomy, Man Alone-ish literary dreariness:

The meal-brown scones display her knack,
Her polished oven spits with rage,
While in Grunt Grotto at the back
Dad sits and reads the Sporting Page,
Then ambles out in boots of lead
To weed around the parsnip bed.

 

“Grunt Grotto”? “The Sporting Page”? These incomprehensible expressions are a far cry from the imperatives that drive today’s students in the 21st century. This is not a reason to leave them out, but it is a reason to include more topical subject matter since appealing to young people is an expressed aim of the editors. Compare the content to that of Kate Camp:

I dreamed I was tied to a plane.

I dreamed of holding hands with Christian Cullen.
His fingers were surprisingly soft, like a woman’s
and he looked into my eyes softly, and hibiscus
flowers were all around us in some tropical place.

 

We appear to be monocultural too. Albert Wendt has a single poem. There are Maori poets: Roma Potiki, Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, Keri Hulme, Apirana Taylor, and Hone Tuwhare all feature, but the poems chosen seem strangely culturally neutral, and the Maori language appears hardly at all.

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So how does the volume stack up as a teaching tool? The accessibility criterion means that most of the poems are short, very few over a page long, and this leads to a certain sameness. This can be an advantage with some stimulating digestible morsels to put in front of a reluctant student, like Jeanette Stace’s “Camera”:

The camera tongue quick
licks at the moment,
sticks into place
the instant forever.

Time feels no trace
of the image skimmed,
flicked from its skin,
does not know it has been
minutely tricked.

 

Shorter is not necessarily better, though I could think of a few thousand school pupils who would disagree, and the lack of extended pieces of verse is, from a teaching point of view, a weakness. It does not enable the genre to be fully explored in all its different forms. The lack of any biographical detail about the poets is another weakness. Some, but by no means all, have dates but that is all the biographical information available. Some biographical background is a useful addition to gain interest and to explain a context, even if it is only a few lines, as in O’Brien’s, Bornholdt’s and Williams’ An Anthology of New Zealand Poetry in English.

The alphabetical ordering aids finding but not teaching. A cultural, chronological, or even thematic order would have helped here. For example, Glover’s “The Magpies” alongside Blanche Baughan’s “The Old Place” and Mary Stanley’s “Householder”. Or Laura Ranger’s “The Sea” –

the mist smudges out
Kapiti Island

the hills curve and rise
like loaves of bread

– alongside Campbell’s “Looking at Kapiti”:

Massive, remote, familiar, hung with spray,
You seem to guard our coast, sanctuary
To our lost faith, as if against the day
Invisible danger drifts across the sea.

 

Admittedly, this is the job of the teacher but some help along the way is always gratefully received.

And whoever plans to produce the next anthology of New Zealand verse suitable for use in schools, please don’t leave out the poem which is for me essential in the “must have” sense: Hone Tuwhare’s “Rain” – but then you may be wondering where is “My Love Late Walking” or “Dogknotting in Quezaltenango” or …

No anthology can totally satisfy. As a teaching tool, this one will have its uses, no better and no worse than a lot of anthologies, though heavy to carry in a pile of 30!

 

Jo Kahl is Head of English at the Correspondence School.

 

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Posted in Literature, Poetry and Review
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