Even five years ago, it would have seemed impossible that Brian Turner should win the country’s premier award for poetry. Not that anyone said anything much against his verse. But there was the quiet assumption that he worked his own slightly idiosyncratic patch while the ‘real action’ went on somewhere else. New Zealand poets, and some of its edgier critics, often seemed a bit more anxious about where that fashionable omega-point was supposed to be, than did prose-writers, say. There may be a number of reasons for this, as well as the obvious one that a lot more people read prose anyway, and you can’t whip them all into line as the more energetic guardians of poetry would like to do. Until fairly recently, it was a hard thing for the New Zealand Poetry Scene to hold more than a couple of truths as viable at the same time. Often it was a bit like attending a fundamentalist church. There wasn’t room for divergence if the sermon of the year happened to preach open form, Black Mountain pastiche, Ezra’s latter-day poundlings, confessional sprawl, the long line, the skinny line, or whatever. Those anxiously prescriptive voices are now more or less muted. Many writers never paid them much heed in any case, and the energetic diversity of contemporary writing simply makes the old critic-as-traffic-warden more obviously silly than ever. We now accept that there is no useful way of herding Smithyman and Adcock, Bornholdt and Ireland, Hawken and Cochrane, into any kind of corral where you can assign proprietorial brands that are supposed to declare either common valencies, or ranking values. That Brian Turner is now recognised as an important national voice is not because his recent volume, Beyond, is so very different to his five earlier collections. It is because there is now a much broader acceptance that poetry can do, as it has always done, a large number of things apart from what we may expect.
Consistency is perhaps the first thing one notices in reading over Turner’s work, a patient and deepening elaboration of where he believes values reside, and an equally patient refining in his way of announcing them. Turner doesn’t claim to be an experimenter, or to push poetry’s margins further than they were when his preference for usually loose, unrhymed rhythmic units, in fairly shortish lines and irregular stanzas, first proved adequate for his purposes. It is a form casual enough ‘to serve his laconic turn for the demotic, and sufficiently flexible to carry intricate sentences towards firm, declarative statement. (‘Contingency!’, one can hear the post-structuralist object, ‘Closure!’, unaware that the tide nibbling at his/her ankles isn’t actually coming in.)
For here, surely, is one of the most distinctive features of Turner’s poetry, where he puts himself so deliberately on the line, and confronts particular academic preferences head on. He believes that poetry matters because ideas matter, because feelings matter, and since ideas and feelings are primarily and recurringly present in that ordinary world where poetry’s business also happens to be, poetry itself is a matter of engagement, a necessarily moral act. The business of language is to be accurate, resonant, provocative. Whether, in the poem or out of it:
there’s a sense
that feelings count for more
than words, and that neither is merely
Not that Turner can’t do his share of intellectual pirouetting when he chooses to. ‘Earth Star’ wittily enough plays with the counters of convergence and chance, with the questions that ultimately may seem trivial, no matter how seemingly big, because they cannot be answered. His poetry is concerned with more important questions than how the world began, or how does God (if any) theoretically relate to goodness (even a little). Like the man in Robert Frost’s poem ‘The Most of It’, Turner is more interested in ‘counter love, original response’, in negotiating with reality about him, rather than fretting on insoluble conundra, than using poetry to circumvent taking a stand. His poetry prefers the tougher assignment of focus to the semantic game-plays of refraction.
As much from his verse as from his excellent journalism, you will pick up that Turner doesn’t go much on smart-arsery of various kinds (which he regards generally as a North Island activity), emotional sloppiness, taking your eye off the ball, or expecting epiphanies simply because it’s good when they do occur. He is suspicious of saying too much, of underrating your genes, of pat answers, and he greatly values and delights in the physical world’s inexhaustible variations. Anyone who threatens these is the Enemy.
Every writer is in descent from other writers, not simply in the sense of who may have nudged certain lines towards the shape they take, but in terms too of general disposition. Turner’s literary forebears are that long line of stoic hard-nosed negotiators, the compassionate sceptics who value things as they are, who insist on saying so as directly as they can.
Brian Turner’s latest collection Beyond (McIndoe, $16.95) was the winner of the poetry section of the New Zealand Book Awards.