A variety of voices, Mark Williams

100 New Zealand Poems
Bill Manhire (ed),
Godwit, $29.95

Some years ago I edited a small anthology of New Zealand poetry. It was a truly hellish experience. Some poets wanted to know how much space had been given to rivals, some wanted their friends’ work included. Some refused to be included at all, others bullied the publisher to make sure they were included. One phoned me collect from a great distance to tell me I was a bastard for not obtaining permissions, a wholly unfounded charge.

The most horrendous difficulty arose over two poets both of whom seemed to me indispensible. One of these would only be included if he received more money than the going rate, the other would only be included if all the poets received exactly the same rate of payment, however trivial.

Poets, in other words, are not without egotism and are sometimes quarrelsome. The trick any anthologist faces in so small a literary community is to keep a steady eye on the poems themselves and ignore the ancient Appallacian feuds among the poets. This is especially important where there is an inverse relation between the size of the egotism and the size of the talent, a not unusual phenomenon.

It’s also desirable not to be too distracted by the ferocious disputes about race, gender and class. We all know that it’s no longer possible to consider poems sub specie aeternitatis, and that ideology is present whenever aesthetic judgements are made. Still, there’s nothing more frustrating than the mentality which counts the numbers of Maori, women and islanders (Pacific and South), and produces something politically correct and dead boring.

Bill Manhire has found an exemplary solution to anthology production in this country. He has disciplined the egotisms of the poets by allowing each poet only one poem, a method similar to Les Murray’s in his Oxford Book of Australian Poetry. More important, he has included an extraordinary range of poems – populist and high-brow, serious and nonsense, well-made and ragged, ridiculous and sublime, colonial and post-colonial, provincial and cosmopolitan. Thus, he has neatly sidestepped the pointless disputes about literary merit versus cultural representation that bedevil anthology production these days. He has cunningly subverted both the pretensions of aetheticism and the cringing sensitivity of political correctness.

The result is splendidly readable, but you have to read it in the right spirit. There’s no point in looking for a new map of the field, with eminences noted, priorities neatly arranged, directions asserted – everything in its right place gathering dust. The only way to approach this anthology is to clear your head of prescriptive assumptions about what poems are and how they ought to behave.

If you absolutely must have some sort of defining guideline, try D H Lawrence’s phrase “acts of attention”. The poems in this book are all in one way or another acts of attention to language, to the world, or to the rocky marriage between the two. As such they all have value, though some have little in the way of literary merit. At any rate, approaching this anthology, it won’t help to have too fixed an idea of what distinguishes a good poem from a bad one or proper diction from ordinary speech, or cliché from poetic language.

For a start some of the poems here are bad. No previous editor of a literary journal or anthology would have dreamed of publishing Florence E Allen’s ‘What Next?’ which begins:

I was kneeling in my garden, one lovely sunny morn,
I had planned a busy schedule and had commenced my task at dawn.
Bill set off with the car and trailer to take branches and hedge clippings to the tip
I was wishing I could have accompanied him. It is always an interesting trip.
Except for the birds chirping in the branches, the scene was peaceful and still
When all of a sudden, I had a dreadful experience, forget it I never will.
I felt a tremendous bang on my head and a sensation like a hand running down my back.

 

I guess one would have to categorise this poem as an undramatic monologue. It tells a story, although the teller is not a dramatised speaker as in a Robert Frost poem, but rather the author herself, speaking to us directly and with utterly naive frankness. The story itself is distinctly primitive, the poet recounts to us how a passing shag has dropped an eel on her back.

One can imagine the same event told in a different style. In Aldous Huxley’s Chrome Yellow (I think it is) two lovers on the roof of an English castle are spattered when a dog drops out of a passing aeroplane. In Huxley’s novel the extraordinary event is literary and a joke; in Allen’s poem it is experiential and earnest. The tone of exclamatory surprise is meant to persuade that this really happened.

In other words, one can scarcely imagine a more naive approach to voice and narrative method in a poem nor less heroic couplets than Allen’s (the scansion is wonderfully maladroit). Yet the spirit of inclusion operating here is not mocking. The note at the end of the anthology tells us that Allen’s “most interesting poems are homely, entertaining anecdotes eked out in curious rhyming couplets”. Poetry may be homely and anecdotal as well as profound, metaphysical or serious. The results in this case are immensely entertaining.

Some of the poems in the anthology are by children. One of these, the last, is among the “best” in the book, provided that we use best in sense of most attentive to and inventive with language. The poem is the result of someone reflecting deeply about words (as images and as sounds) and how they mean.

The toad sat on a red stool
it was a toadstool

The rain tied a bow
in the cloud’s hair
it was rainbow.

Which witch put sand
in my sandwich?

I stood under the bridge,
then I understood.

I sat on the ledge and
thought about what I know.
It was knowledge.

 

A literate and self-conscious adult might talk here about signifiers and signifieds or signs and referents; the point is that the terminologies don’t take us any closer to the realities they describe than the seven-year-old’s direct engagement with the pleasures and puzzlements of language.

One of the pieces in the anthology is not a “poem” at all; Owen Marshall’s “The Divided World” is a complete short story. I don’t feel this needs any particular explanation or justification in terms of the design-governing principles that inform this book. The passage is certainly a sustained and acute act of attention paid to words and to what we unsatisfactorily call the world (as though language isn’t part of the world).

Manhire’s coup here is that he has resisted the urge to lift a “poetic” bit out of a novel by, say, Anne Kennedy. He’s taken a representative passage of Marshall’s writing to show that good prose is virtually indistinguishable from good poetry. Manhire has done the same thing with the Janet Frame inclusion, which is from The Lagoon and Other Stories not from her book of poems, The Pocket Mirror. As the note at the back puts it, “Frame is a poet in all of her work”.

The same might be said of Margaret Mahy whose books, more than those of any other New Zealand writer with the possible exception of Janet Frame, derive from the conviction that literature is language that causes us to regard the world with amazement. Manhire has included “Bubble Trouble” which amazes if only by showing how many permutations of the letters b and 1 are possible.

Manhire’s ear is always exact and exacting. He has a knack for finding poems that subtly alter our perception of the poet, though he’s never afraid to use anthologisable pieces. Brasch’s “The islands”, Bethell’s “The Pause”, Lauris Edmond’s “The Names”, John Newton’s “Ferret Trap” – all these have been justly anthologised. But who would have thought of representing Baxter by “A Small Ode on Mixed Flatting”? At first glance it seems a slightly cheeky choice, like representing W H Auden by “A Day for a Lay”. But read the poem through and you’ll find the ballady, broadside tone of the whole thing is genuinely pleasing and preferable to the grumbling Jeremiah or self-flagellating mystic we have been supposed to take seriously.

The Allen Curnow poem chosen is a similarly inspired choice. Manhire has avoided the mandarin nationalism of “The Unhistoric Story” or the baroque splendours of “Organo ad Libitum”. He gives us instead the synaesthetic explosions of sound, colour and sense of “The Parakeets at Karekare”.

The danger in an anthology of this sort is cuteness. The inclusion of poems by children and children’s writers and fiction writers could achieve a cheekiness that has no sting, that risks nothing and takes on nothing substantial. At best this would result in a readable and enjoyable selection of poems that suit the editor’s ear or his quirky sense of humour.

In fact the book does take risks and it does challenge entrenched assumptions, not only about the nature of poems but also about the nature of anthologies. We had become used to anthologies organised like High Anglican churches with the congregation seated in well-behaved rows. Then there were the rowdy Congregationalist versions of late with lots of singing and piety. Manhire has simply listened with a very attentive and tolerant ear to the variety of voices making poetry in this country over a century. The result is not a teacher’s anthology, but it is an ideal one to learn from.

 

Mark Williams is a senior lecturer in English at Canterbury University.

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Posted in Literature, Poetry and Review
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