Punching above its poetic weight, Michael Hulse

99 Ways into New Zealand Poetry 
Paula Green and Harry Ricketts
Vintage, $44.99,
ISBN 9781869791780

 

First, let me get off my chest a grouch about the physical presentation of this book. It’s thick, it’s heavy, and it won’t open flat on the desk. The experience of reading it is one of physical combat and discomfort. The inclusion of large numbers of illustrations, many in colour, has entailed a decision to use glossy paper, which adds an annoyance factor to the experience. For the cumbersomeness of the object, it’s presumably not the authors but the publishers who must be blamed. Thoughts of lifestyle magazines, or coffee table books, may have fuddled their minds as they set about designing this poetry primer – whatever it was, they created a monster that requires persistence in a reader.

Well, it is worth persisting. Paula Green and Harry Ricketts have rolled up their sleeves and written a book that serves several purposes at once. It is a history of poetry in New Zealand, an introduction to poetic forms illustrated from the practice of New Zealand poets, a concise anthology with comments by the poets, a plea for the plurality of the art in modern New Zealand, and more. All things considered, they’ve succeeded wonderfully.

The history is at its solid narrative best in Ricketts’s chapter on poetry before 1945. He’s even-handed on the dreary William Pember Reeves, and prints “A Colonist in His Garden” entire (and pauses over Allen Curnow’s change of heart regarding this poem); he has brief but useful things to say about Mason, Bethell and Fairburn; he tracks the changing fortunes of Eileen Duggan. Throughout the chapter, Ricketts is clearly writing from a position of strength – if I were a young reader coming fresh to New Zealand poetry, I’d trust this guide. The same young reader (I tell myself) might also be glad to have Bethell’s echo of a psalm pointed out, or Curnow’s use of “he” to mean a poet of either sex explained as “standard practice at the time” – details which some might want to think self-evident, and in no need of explanation, are close to becoming recondite information in today’s changed understanding of cultural awareness, not only in New Zealand.

A quarter of the space is taken up with a survey of forms – ballad, sonnet, sestina etc – as used by New Zealanders. Green is energetic in her discussion of the ode in the hands of Ian Wedde and C K Stead, and sensibly opts never to say what an ode might actually be. When she reads Andrew Johnston’s sestinas, it takes her forever to mention John Ashbery, and she sidesteps the issue of why anyone would want to write a sestina in the first place. (Ricketts is more candid about the villanelle: “Many poets have never written one nor wanted to.”) In this survey of forms, the least effective part of the book, I was struck by two defaults: one, an unreadiness to become meaningfully technical in the examination of formal poetry (which I take to be a recognition that many readers would be uninformed, and would respond with unwillingness); and, two, a lack of any discussion of free verse. Since free verse is the mainstream orthodoxy across the English-speaking world, and various sub-sets (such as L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry) are part of the set that we call free verse, the absence of any agreed taxonomy and language in which to speak of free verse is debilitating. The freedom of the verse that precedes the closing regular iambic pentameter in the first of Baxter’s “Jerusalem Sonnets” is very different from the freedom of Sonja Yelich’s “plateau honey” or Janet Frame’s “Instructions for Bombing with Napalm”, for instance. The absence of “form” is itself a “form”, or more properly “forms”. To have tackled this seriously, even on the relatively small scale of poetry in New Zealand alone, would have been a forbidding task. (A third default, in my view, is the failure to challenge the use of the word “open”, in “open form” and related formulations – but that would have entailed the immense task of unravelling the present period’s orthodoxies and preconceptions.)

The anthology function of this book is a hidden strength – hidden, in that the poems have to be excavated from all the prose. As well as the pieces I have named already, they include James Brown’s “Cashpoint: A Pantoum”, Curnow’s “The Skeleton of the Great Moa in the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch”, Vincent O’Sullivan’s “The Solipsist on the Veranda”, Bill Manhire’s “Lifted”, and Michele Leggott’s “wonderful to relate” – that is to say, the selections range intelligently, both historically and aesthetically. Baxter and Curnow, Manhire and Bornholdt emerge as favourites, but with no sense that they are unfairly elbowing out others; this is a genuinely equable book. And with reason. Threaded throughout every section are references to the anthologies that have defined the emerging corpus of poetry in the islands, anthologies that once expressed the discerning taste of the one person who did more than any other to shape and define the art in New Zealand, Allen Curnow, and which latterly have snowed upon us in a blizzard of paper, so that notions of authority have been divorced from anthology-making for good. A chapter on “canon-building” (unusually, co-written by Green and Ricketts) says the usual things on this subject, and, in a book conspicuous for its generosity to all, surprises by observing, “Not all poetry is good.”

In that generosity lies what I take to be the true centre of this primer, a plea for plurality in New Zealand’s poetry. It’s not so much spelled out, let alone shouted, as quietly implied across a spectrum of preoccupations. Green and Ricketts find room for Pacific poetry and Asian connections, for visual poetry and digital poetry, for comic verse and children’s poetry. I wondered if I ought to be surprised to see Maori poetry, and women’s poetry, still assigned separate sections, but the wondering didn’t occupy me long; I simply noticed that Hone Tuwhare’s portrait photo was the only one in the book to occupy a full page, and that the poetry of Katherine Mansfield didn’t feature in the chapter on women’s poetry (or anywhere else – this is sad treatment for the writer of one of the WWI’s finest poems, the sonnet in memory of her brother). The fact is that Green and Ricketts have gathered a non-hierarchical assembly of New Zealand poems and poets, so inclusive as to be virtually non-selective, and what bonds them is not a concatenation of judgements but rather the motifs that even a short history sees recurring in different locations and guises (Curnow’s “trick of standing upright here” being the salient example). This, and of course the facts of a shared geography and history, provide the sufficient foundation for a plural understanding of New Zealand poetry, in which (say) Wedde’s assimilation of Horace is emancipated from cultural complication (charges of elitism etc) and stands more straightforwardly as a poet-to-poet affinity.

In the end, having enjoyed the book despite its uselessness for bedside or bathroom (and despite its “99” being a number with no more meaning than the “99” red balloons in Nena’s song), I found myself pleased by the questions it brings into focus. One concerns the brevity of New Zealand’s history in poetry. It is so brief that it is still possible for nearly every poet the country’s ever produced to feature in these pages, right down to writers whose first books have crossed my editorial desk at The Warwick Review in the last couple of years. At the same time, it isn’t brief at all, since it extends back as far as the roots of the poetries of all the peoples who have enriched the art in New Zealand (Horace and Keats are honorary New Zealanders). The other thought is even simpler. New Zealand has been punching above its weight for decades in the art of poetry, and shows no sign of stopping. This excellent and indispensable compendium proves the point on every page.

 

Michael Hulse is an English poet and translator.

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