A matter of balance, Harvey McQueen

Spirit Abroad: A Second Selection of New Zealand Spiritual Verse
ed Paul Morris, Harry Ricketts and Mike Grimshaw
Godwit, $39.95, ISBN 1869621115

Under Flagstaff: An Anthology of Dunedin Poetry
ed Robin Law and Heather Murray
University of Otago Press, $39.95,
ISBN 1877276405

Anthologists are in a no-win situation. Nearly always they will have left out of their selection at least one of the critic’s favourite pieces. However, if the collection is based on a theme rather than an attempt at being definitive, the editors have the licence to set their own definitions and criteria, and make their own selections within their chosen boundaries. The critics may huff and puff about these boundaries, but they have less reason to rail against the selection itself. The important thing is that the poems fit organically and comfortably into a larger whole. Overall coherence is more important than the individual pieces, but the individual poems contribute to that coherence. Any anthology is a matter of balance.

At first glance, a spiritual anthology from Kiwiland looks like a difficult project. Most commentators see us as a strongly secular society. In their introduction to Spirit Abroad: A Second Selection of New Zealand Spiritual Verse, editors Paul Morris, Harry Ricketts and Mike Grimshaw explain their definition of spirituality. It is not in anticipated religious terms but an exploration of “relationship between our spirit and our identity”, a continuation from their previous successful selection Spirit in a Strange Land. They use Allen Curnow’s statement that “The tension of a New Zealander’ was to be found “in the land his body inhabits but his spirit has not yet won” as their touchstone. Morris’s essay, which concludes the book, says that in wrestling with these questions “our poets have become our theologians.” Who are we? That’s a spiritual question, no matter what your answer.

Of course such a definition of spirituality can be queried, even discarded. The scene has changed greatly since the young Curnow articulated that theory. It fitted the nationalism of his earlier years, reflecting the political and social context of the times – a young dominion flexing its independence at the formation of the United Nations, a national sense of a growing identity, a pride in being Kiwi and in our uniqueness, while at the same time experiencing a feeling of cultural dislocation. It was a very eurocentric view of our situation. It was a very “blokey” view. Since then we have moved to a different context – a pluralistic society existing in a global village, as the Morris essay acknowledges: “Our plurality means we can no longer be encapsulated or contained in any story.”

I acknowledge a degree of interestedness – the anthologists have included a poem of mine, which speaks of Curnow’s tui. I wrote it during a week’s meeting revising the senior secondary school history syllabuses, struggling with these very issues of the indigenous, the local and the international.

These editors have created a coherent and organic anthology. Obviously a decision was made to have a generous, broad-church selection. It appears to reflect considerable editorial discussion to arrive at the final pattern and shape of an anthology. Poems flow in a spiralling fashion, suggesting much give and take over both content and order.

But they have made their task more difficult by the labelling of their six sections. The titles are contentious in their own right. As signposts they divert attention away from the selection itself. For instance, at first glance the editors appear to have accepted the blokey approach, with headings like “ANZACS/what’s worth fighting for” and “Welfare, Wharfies and Wealth”. The war section with its sense of loss is illustrative, for historically the two world wars had a far-reaching impact upon this little nation. As John Male writes, “These are years we have lost.” The “Welfare” selection challenges the myth of our egalitarianism. Further, there is counterpointing elsewhere, for example Fiona Farrell’s reply to the visiting novelist’s question “where is this country’s soul”. Amongst other things:

It is in my cousin’s jersey.
My aunt wrote that jersey
in purl and plain, using
nothing but a pair of pointed
sticks.

 

Most poets are limited to one or two poems. Curnow has four while Glover has five. Should Baxter have had more than two? If so, which ones? But overall there are some fascinating juxtapositions, such as Una Auld’s The Dreamer and the Sacred Cow and Dallas’s Milking Before Dawn. I found myself constantly checking back to make comparisons, such as between Hyde’s Journey from New Zealand and Adcock’s Instead of an Interview. It’s like going to a party rather reluctantly, and suddenly finding you are enjoying yourself. Thought-provoking is the word that springs to mind – the editors have logged onto one of the central, ongoing dialogues of our poetry.

There are some powerful poems in the first section, Curnow himself, Potiki, Stead, Sullivan, Tuwhare, Taylor, Kaa, Colquhoun. But first up are two poems from the 1930s and then two more from the 1940s. Their flowery, Georgian style reflects their period, and there is a risk they could put the casual reader off. On the other hand, maybe they’ll attract people who don’t read much poetry. I am not saying they should not have been included, they reflect a pre-Curnow style, a point of view – but I consider they should not have been placed upfront. Throughout the selection the anthologists play around with chronology, so why not at the beginning?

I approached Under Flagstaff wanting to like it. I had enjoyed Big Weather and Big Sky and expected a similar volume. Co-editor Robin Law died during its compilation. I understood that completing it was a labour of love. But somehow the collection doesn’t work for me. It’s too dour, reminding us constantly of the proximity of Antarctica. Dunedin is more vibrant, a place to celebrate, not just a city of nostalgic wistfulness with a “two-day summer”. The city this anthology portrays “kneels on the sober side of consciousness” in Nick Ascroft’s words; or in Rob Allan’s, it’s “a town of disappointments and delays”.

None of John Barr of Craigiliee’s humorous verse has been included. Barr was a popular poet, a social satirist, a rollicking toe-tapper in the Burns tradition. Any collection about Dunedin should include him. The inclusion of two poems from Hone Tuwhare breathes some vibrancy, but it’s not enough. Cilla McQueen – no relation – is generously represented but she has written other poems that could help change and broaden the mood – for example, some of her garden ones. The individual poems that stand out for me are often about death and defeat, such as Jenny Powell-Chambers’ Talking About Tomahawk and Brian Turner’s Otago Peninsula – “Nothing is left untouched by sparse sunlight,/slanting rain, fists of winds punching/ the ribs of the land”.

I believe the main reason for my discontent is the editorial decision to build the collection around geographical location spreading out from the Octagon. This shape severely limits the selection. In her introduction Law talks about a poetic map – there is even a map full of lines from the poems. It’s a good idea, but the tyranny of place identification means the inclusion of some weaker poems, and parochialism rules at the expense of the larger picture. This lessens the impact of the good poems, and means the “whole” is not as good as many of the “parts”. Dunedin is a place of heart and mind as well as a specific location under Flagstaff. I am convinced that a richer anthology about the ethos of the city and its environs would be possible.

 

Harvey McQueen is a Wellington-based poet, writer and educator whose latest book is This Piece of Earth: A Life in My Garden.

 

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