Tony Beyer: Inspired by an affronted sense of mission: the poetry scene today
That it is possible to attempt a full and satisfying existence without ever reading or thinking about poetry is demonstrated in the way of life chosen by the vast majority of New Zealanders. Exposed at school, or, worse, slightly later at university, most even quite sophisticated readers are immune to the blandishments of contemporary verse. Strangely but predictably, it would seem that the resulting Gulag of perceived neglect, incestuous and ephemeral publication, poor sales and uninformed or malicious reviewing has provided splendid emotional grist for New Zealand poets whose works have been comparable with anything in the forefront of the craft in English over the past few decades. Sporadic encouragements from the Arts Council or odd endearing circles of sycophants have seldom been as inspiring as this affronted sense of mission.
This is one only mildly exaggerated view. Outside the trade itself there is plenty of evidence of interest thwarted by the severity and self-regard of mainstream practitioners. Many people write, quote (often unaware), read and love poetry for many purposes in their lives. Not necessarily devotees in an active and detailed sense, they can be met all over the country. Their needs are ill served by occasional one-off writing workshops and monthly readings aloud in pubs, surely the worst imaginable venue for them.
A severe blow was struck at the niche ecology of New Zealand poetry with the Listener‘s change of format early last year. Apart from the old size being just right for a noise cushion under my typewriter, the loss of the weekly poem has left a gap. As important as the poems were the letters of protest every two or three years from somebody who has actually read one and found it didn’t rhyme. Silly as it invariably was, this debate in a public non-academic forum kept concern with the nature of poetry generally alive and promoted honesty from both readers and writers. Other than Metro and More, and good on them, no broad spectrum publications now bother with poetry. Literary magazines are too specialised and inaccessible for most readers, and newspapers too local and lazy. One daily has insisted on calling its monthly token couple of stanzas ‘Poets’ Corner’, a pointed instance of grave humour.
Of the present crop of literary periodicals, Printout has made a promising start in Auckland. Christchurch’s Takahe has excellent poetry editors who deserve the support of a wider range of contributors and subscribers. The editorial expertise at Sport has confined itself to prose, with a somewhat evaporated house-style becoming established in the poetry printed so far. It has been years since Landfall took any serious interest in New Zealand poetry. At the boutique end of the market, the annuals Vital Writing and Soho Square have opted for gentility. The latter firmly placed on the map examples of New Zealand poetry innocuous enough to appeal to English taste, which has never approved of fervour among 20th-century poets unless they showed willing to undertake other forms of social service like death in war, emigration or royal appointment.
Among book publications a recent favourite has been Bob Orr’s Breeze from Auckland University Press, who sound as if they ought to be too stern an outfit to handle something so suave and yet sincere, so visual and calmly visionary. It has also been good to note innovative design from Hazard Press and a really concerted lunge by Victoria University Press to seize the high ground, although neither has yet produced an unquestionably convincing individual volume.
Beyond the compromised cadences of C K Stead’s sesquicentennial effort, it is difficult to predict the likely flavour of New Zealand poetry in the 90s. There has not yet begun to emerge a fin-de-siècle decadence (we had that in the 80s), or more than the usual lounge-lizardry. Following several healthy revisions of the white male devised canon, women and ethnically focused poets are operating confidently, both within and without specific programmes of appropriateness. Currently preferred American influences ‑always a crucial factor here ‑ appear to be more academic than those of the past, with some rather frigid local outcomes.
Politically correct or not, ancestor-bashing can come easily with hindsight. The central tradition of New Zealand poetry in English at least, and it is a compelling and honourable one, has occurred within the lifetime of its oldest extant participants. Constant additions to this progress reinterpret it and its sources, helping us to read with greater clarity the words of our predecessors and contemporaries. As New Zealand readers, receptive or prejudiced, careless or cautiously attentive, our task remains what it has always been: to support and celebrate what is done well here; to look with good will upon genuine intentions to do well; and to apply with good-natured rigour our judgment of the spurious or misguided. All this can only enhance the scope of any satisfying way of life.
Tony Beyer is a poet who teaches English at Auckland Grammar School.