The New Place; The Poetry of Settlement in New Zealand, 1852-1914
Victoria University Press, $29.95
New Zealand poetry begins with Ursula Bethell. Before her there were scribblers, versifiers, poetasters, bombasts, jinglists and hobbyists, but there were no poets. Harvey McQueen’s anthology of nineteenth and early twentieth century verse stops just short of Bethell.
It ought to be a grievous disadvantage to a poetry anthology to contain only second-rate verse rather than the real thing, but there is a longstanding and fairly honourable tradition of such collections in New Zealand. Alexander and Currie’s New Zealand Verse (1906), whose editors cheerfully acknowledge that what they have to offer is ‘minor verse’, covers much the same ground as The New Place. Contemporary anthologists, who would never use the epithet ‘minor’, fearing the élitist associations of its obverse, generally follow Alexander’s and Currie’s desire to be representative rather than judgemental in their selections. New Zealand Verse is a curiously up to date anthology. Its editors even express regret that they were unable to include verse ‘portraying the life of the rabbiting camp and the freezing works, or exemplifying directly the results of Universal Franchise’.
The New Place, then, falls into the mainstream of New Zealand anthologies that runs from New Zealand Verse through Kowhai Gold to the late unrelenting output of anthologies by Penguin Books. This is a mainstream from which Allen Curnow’s anthologies are brilliantly cantankerous dissensions. The ‘mainstream’ in New Zealand does not discriminate, or at least it pretends not to.
McQueen’s anthology is different from its Edwardian ancestor in that it includes minor verse in a 1980’s spirit of cultural construction that would have puzzled Alexander and Currie, who simply believed that Pegasus hadn’t quite landed yet.
Still, there’s much to be said for reading minor verse. Facile metres, obvious rhymes and clichéd expression offer the poetic equivalent of television soaps. We can throw away our minds for a time. Even the excruciating bits can be pleasurable. Take a poem that appears in both New Zealand Verse and The New Place, Jessie Mackay’s ‘Rona in the Moon’:
Rona Rona sister olden –
Rona in the moon!
You’ll never break your prison golden, –
Never, late or soon!
This is execrable as poetry, but the saccharine rhythms produce a kind of frisson, like early Beatles lyrics. The poem proceeds by way of pastiche or romantic gothic (‘There she heard the owlets wrangle/ With an angry hoot…’) through a wonderfully clumsy attempt at Maori-English demotic (“the moon!” she said in passion: / “Boil your lazy head!”) to a garbled rendition of Maori mythology.
What’s instructive about the latter is not that it measures how far we have come in terms of racial sensitivity but how absurdly wrong we get it whenever we let our good intentions overwhelm our natural reluctance to speak for some alien culture. Mackay almost gets it right (politically if not poetically) in a piece of doggerel not included in New Zealand Verse which mocks European bravery at Parihaka by adapting the colonial schoolboys’ chestnut ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’:
Gleamed all their muskets bare,
Frightening the children there,
Heroes to do the dare.
Charging a village, while
Plunged in potato fields,
Honour to hunger yields.
‘The Charge at Parihaka’
McQueen has a good eye for ‘representative’ pieces and his anthology contains plenty of fodder for English class discussions of colonisation in upper secondary classes. For the non-specialised reader there are pleasures to be gained in the many glorious flat notes in The New Place. My favourite is the refrain ‘Exult for Te Kooti, yoohoo’ from ‘The Song of Te Kooti’.
The value of McQueen’s anthology is that it provides a window onto the attitudes that have formed Pakeha culture. Chief among these are the cringe before nature, an attitude of benevolent condescension towards the Maori, a conspicuously displayed sense of national virtue. It’s invaluable to have to hand such formative poems as Domett’s sublimely ridiculous ‘Ranolf and Amohia’, Bracken’s unconsciously mock-heroic ‘The March of Te Rauparaha’. Pember Reeves”A Colonist in his Garden’ and Tregear’s ‘Te Whetu Plains’. Of these only the last is to be found in McQueen’s and Wedde’s Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse. We also find the whole of Baughan’s ‘The Bush Section’ and decent selections from McKee Wright, Arthur Adams, Mackay and the Scots dialect poet John Barr of Craigilee.
For myself I found most captivating Sir Charles Christopher Bowen’s ‘Moonlight in New Zealand’ (a title that conjures up a transplanted Cole Porter):
Pale shone the moonlight o’er the deep ravine
And the tall mountains rose on either side
With silvered summits and dark bases clothed
With awful shadows; ghastly white beneath,
Lay stretched the rough drear shingle-bed, save where
The mountain torrent rolled its gloomy flood,
Breaking the stillness with its sullen roar.
This is Wordsworthian nature description at its most sublime, preparing the way for weighty reflection on deep matters of the human heart. The debt of Wordsworth. indeed, is widely felt in The New Place. The contrast with contemporary Australian verse is significant here. The Australians of this period preferred Byron and Scott – particularly the former for his stance of romantic rebellion against authority. Absent also in The New Place is the Australian worrying at the particularities of landscape and language in the new country. Even if nineties Australian bush verse is written in jingling ballads, there is an attention to the local that doesn’t appear in New Zealand till the 1930s.
Reading through selections of late nineteenth-century Australian poetry one is struck by the lack of gentility, the obsession with weirdness of the landscape – and these are positive qualities. There’s no New Zealand equivalent of Joseph Furphy’s motto. ‘Temper democratic, bias offensively Australian’: the determination to rejoice in what others sneer at and to make that the sign of Australian identity, something positive and distinctive. The social concern in New Zealand verse is unctuous and full of protestant piety. Even Mckee Wright, the New Zealand Australian, supports religion and the great stations.
The poets in McQueen’s anthology are carapaced inside a worldview fashioned elsewhere which has begun in some instances to break down, but the process has not yet found any forceful or distinctive modes of expression. Their work is crabbed and stilted by its gentility, its piety, its lack of an awareness that the new place demands to be registered in its own terms. All this makes the collection immensely useful as a cultural record and source, but not as poetry.
Mark Williams teaches English at Canterbury University. His most recent work, Patrick White will be reviewed in a forthcoming edition of New Zealand Books.