What gives it meaning? Anne French

The Tudor Style
Elizabeth Smither,
Auckland University Press, $19.95

Guardians, not Angels
Stephen Oliver,
Hazard Press, $19.95

Rob Jackaman,
Hazard Press, $19.95

Days Beside Water
Gregory O’Brien,
Auckland University Press, $19.95

Gregory O’Brien,
Little Esther Books, $13.00, available from the author

New Zealand poetry is, it would seem, alive and vigorous. There’s plenty of being published and the slim volumes are even getting four-colour covers, so it must sell. There are pubs, in Auckland at least, where poetry is read aloud one night of the week, an activity begun nearly 20 years ago at the Globe by David Mitchell. (Wellington’s Poetry Society has been going strong for even longer.) There are recordings of poets, radio programmes about poetry and even, from time to time, poetry – or poets – on television. Kids are studying Lauris Edmond and Hone Tuwhare in the fifth form, and answer school certificate questions on their work. Metro publishes the stuff.

And out there in the world, people are writing it, bundling it into envelopes, and sending it off to publishers. “If only,” think the publishers, grimacing under the weight of the morning post, “they all bought poetry as assiduously as they write it.” So who buys it? And, more elusively, why?

In The New Poetic, published 30 years ago, C K Stead explained why, after the Georgians, poetry hasn’t been popular. Popular taste is now satisfied in other ways, which has the advantage of leaving poets free to speak only to each other – or something like that. It is true that there’s a snobbery about poets – if so-and-so sells well, their work must be second-rate. Mind you, it shouldn’t not sell too conspicuously.

But a distinction is drawn between “selling” and “serious”. On this scale, Lauris Edmond is incomparably worse than Michael Harlow, say. Fleur Adcock has long been deeply suspect, though also for geographical reasons; Jenny Bornholdt and Robert Sullivan are rising stars; Keri Hulme is dubious; Hone Tuwhare is a worry, but being Maori offsets the negative effect of his popularity somewhat.

None of this is new. Fifty years ago the same slur was put on Eileen Duggan (who sold big here, and also in the United States) and Robin Hyde (who had a London publisher, unlike Allen Curnow). Too much success, ladies! You need a good hard frost to polish you off.

But if poets are suspicious of success, the world is not. Poetry looks suspiciously peripheral. Line it up alongside the novel – even magic realism – and it just doesn’t seem serious. Worse, it may not be clearly “about” anything. (Aboutness is another of those scales on which to place poets. A Michele Leggott poem is less clearly “about” something than one by Kendrick Smithyman, which makes her more “interesting”, critically speaking. Or so it is said.) Poetry takes liberties with language (not quite like advertising); it’s sometimes baffling and the bafflement could be intentional. Worst of all, it often has a whiff of strong emotion about it, an ammonia reek of peed pants.

Poets, naturally, have to take up a position somewhere along these axes. For some, it’s most important to be seen in the latest fashion, even if afterwards they blush at their reckless adoption of floral ties or grunge. (Graduates of writing courses are more prone to this than most.) Others care less about making that kind of impact, and prefer to be the derros and bag ladies of literature; resolutely heading off towards inconsequentialism just when the novel discovers wit, pace, topicality and international sales.

Not everyone wants to be fashionable. Elizabeth Smither, for instance, knows all about classic lines and the flattering effect of navy blue and beige. The Tudor Style gathers the work of 20 years, a total of 120 poems, and shows an extraordinary consistency from first to last. Mind you, she has selected rigorously from the early books, and many of the personal and particular poems in her first book, Here Come the Clouds, for instance, have been expunged. Looking back on the first book, I found a less guarded, more impetuous, warmer Elizabeth Smither than I expected.

Nonetheless, the first poem in the selection, ‘Change of name’, has many similarities with the last. Elliptical syntax, odd punctuation, whimsy, the appeal to religious metaphor as an index of ultimate value, are all consistently there. Literature has always been a rich source of subject-matter for Smither. Although she abandoned the Browning-esque dramatic monologue early on, she is still interested in what happens in nineteenth-century novels. Looking at pansies puts her in mind of Jane Eyre as surely as it ever did (‘Pansies’, A Pattern of Marching, 1989).

What is the significance of Smither’s religious references? I had always taken them for a kind of poetic prop, used for their oddness and charm, as in a poem called ‘Saints’ names’ (‘But most pleasing are the obscure saints / With odd spellings: St Bernardette Soubirous / St Fidelis of Sigmaringa, Sts Charles Lwanga & Companions… ‘). But seeing the full sweep of her work makes me inclined to reconsider. Take, for instance, another early poem, ‘Mission impossible’, from Here Come the Clouds. It is about Jesus in Paradise, immediately after the Crucifixion, receiving a proposition from the Father about going back to the world:

… Just to see a few friends.
Walk around a bit like happier times.
Be in their rooms without locks. Console them


But there’s also an echo of something else – Vincent O’Sullivan’s “TELEX TO JIX RE SUNDAY” from The Pilate Tapes – and the Smither poem came first by a good ten years. Unlike the ambiguous O’Sullivan, Smither seems surer about godhead, and less self-consciously witty. This is a religious poem, in a way that “TELEX TO JIX” is not, and in a manner not seen much in New Zealand poetry these days. It’s also a good example of the way in which New Zealand poets influence each other – I’m reasonably certain O’Sullivan would have no conscious recollection of the Smither poem, yet it must be one of his sources, amongst others.

Elizabeth Smither’s poems do not make great claims for themselves. Their preoccupations are unfashionable and some of their virtues, such as intelligibility, formalism, an almost faultless control of tone, are not those prized much by the modish, though their unexpected metaphors, their glancing, vivid conjunctions, their interest in oddness make them almost fashionable.

It disturbs my re-reading of Stephen Spender
To have these letters attached like fish hooks
On last lines: The map of everywhere we’d been N
I’m haunted by their emptiness G.


In contrast to Smither’s composed poetry of understatement, Stephen Oliver is self‑consciously a man of grand thoughts. Like Smither, he began publishing in the early seventies; unlike her, he writes poetry as a kind of emotional diary. Guardians, not Angels is his third book of poetry and according to the blurb it “covers a decade of living”, mostly in Australia and New Zealand. Oliver’s the kind of poet who invents words (“aeromancy”, “mystic-scape”, “irradiance”, “rockorabilia”) and mis-spells others (“absinth”, “mid-night”), does not shrink from capitalising things, like the Age, or Autumn, or Ghetto Blasters, or an Asteroid, but also quotes Bob Dylan and goes to the movies.

He refers to poems by Janet Frame and Allen Curnow, doesn’t care for Derrida or Bukowski, believes in Art, History, and Conservation. His brand of sententiousness might appeal to people who cut their teeth on rock lyrics. “We came to each other with obviousness,/ I wanted to say something but could not./ I wanted to say with immediate cognition/ yes, that is precisely what escapes. ” (‘Denied the Invisibles’)

Hazard Press is one of the few publishers still doing poetry. The editing can be less than thorough (yes, Amelia, poetry needs editing too. Did you think it was above it?) which slightly spoils the effect of the lovely design and production. But its intention, “to make individual volumes of high quality work by Australasian poets more available in their own and neighbouring countries, with the possibility of extending the series further afield”, is distinctly bullish.

Will it work? Considering the vast literary distance between the two countries (about 25,000 km by my estimate), it may be a good idea at the wrong time. It’s over 40 years since the Bulletin‘s Red Page took any notice of New Zealand writing and the only Australian writers (novelists, too) to make an impact on New Zealand readers have had the assistance of the Penguin or Picador imprints.

Rob Jackaman is co-editor of Hazard’s poetry series, in which his latest book, Distances, appears. Like Oliver, Jackaman has been around for a while (though I was astounded to find that this is his tenth book). This is “open form” poetry – to you, reader, words spread all over the page, in dumps, with suggestive spacing in place of punctuation. There was a time when the open form poets had fights with the people who arranged their stuff in regular blocks with a straight left-hand margin. These days I’m inclined to think no one much cares. But the danger of open form is that it looks off-putting, hard work to read and make sense of.

Don’t be deterred by the scatter of words. (Jackaman has some advice for you: “It’s the black bits we’re taught // to read // not those seductive / spaces between, // then // when we get the right code // the dues // pile up”.) The poems are approachable, for the most part, and say interesting things. Watch out for the spaces, which usually indicate the poet is pausing significantly:

She went for a trip with two friends
long hair long dresses barefoot
local conservatives


That’s from a poem in eight parts called “Susan Musgrave’s Dance”, which takes you through the streets of Kingston, Ont, across Canada, and back down the Pacific to the West Coast near Karamea. Connections emerge in the rest of the book to other places and other occasions. The caravan he holidays in at the end of the book (“she jerks in the wind / against her moorings”) is somehow like Susan Musgrave, who “reads like a vessel in a sharp / chop / jittering with energy against / her moorings.”

The book is in part an extended elegy for Leo Bensemann, printer and artist. There is a fine Bensemann painting on the cover, and he appears in several poems, directly or as a presence behind the words (and the gaps) on the pages, especially in the poems about Golden Bay. His disappearance by death is not just mourned, but enacted in “Sequential (pro and con)”, in which everything draws apart from everything else. Jackaman begins by describing “Distances / unspeakably // real”, and things quite possibly “connectionless”, but the last poems in the book, confronting death, assert both significance and powerful connections.

After Rob Jackaman, Gregory O’Brien seems very young and very literary. Days Beside Water is a collection of “shorter poems”, containing several sequences, and Malachi (Little Esther Books) is a long poem of about fifty pages, in couplets. O’Brien has always been a Catholic poet, but his recent work seems even more so. Malachi stars a Renault full of nuns, and there’s a sequence based on the life of Mother Mary Aubert in Days Beside Water, as well as lots of incidental references to nuns and saints, and some religious graffiti. What does it add up to?

O’Brien is not the easiest of poets to follow; of all the poets whose work I have discussed here, he has least to say to those not in the know. As Jackaman would put it, his code is the hardest to crack. What to make of a poem like “New Place”, in which “You lie on a bed with three long / thin cats // one white, one ginger, one black… While 9000 miles / away”, Philip Guston (a painter?) “lies with three / tubes of paint … .and three // brushes beside him / in his grave”? I hardly like to say.

Next to Jackaman, who seems to have had the experiences he writes about and seeks to understand, O’Brien seems a bit bookish and theoretical. That may just be a matter of age. So – aha! – here’s another pair of axes (mine, this time): intelligible/ obscure on the one hand, and experiential/ theoretical on the other. I’m not against difficulty, if the subject-matter demands it. Some things are difficult. If literature is doing its job, it will engage with them. But obscurity for the sake of it is unrewarding for everyone. Time and again reading O’Brien’s work I find myself baffled. Take this, for instance:

The Orchardists

What might be, among friends
an orchard, this horizon
of vines, where sunlight tilts

the house and boys roll out
onto the lawn, a girl.
If the ocean found them

here, the world a steep place
they might fall from (as life
is for the slipping away)

a note left on the table:
All gone to beach.
Are you with us?

for Nicholas Jones, Waihi


You can say a number of things about the poem. It consists of three sentences, two of which are grammatically incomplete. The first lacks a main verb, the second lacks a complement. The third is a question (which is not answered, and seems unrelated to the first two statements). Are we to suppose that there is some kind of orchard, and a house, and a beach, and some people living there, and someone who might visit and find a note on the table? In any case, what makes it a poem? What is being communicated, and why is it important that the page be printed and you and I read it? Perhaps the clearest clue is given by the dedication. Let us suppose there is a house, at Waihi, and that Nicholas Jones was there once along with some other people, and that they all went to the beach and someone left a note for someone else. What makes this a poem? What gives it meaning, beyond the merely personal references no one but Nicholas Jones could understand?

Poetry’s primary purpose, it seems to me, is to communicate, to speak feelingly about things that other forms of communication find it hard to manage. It always has an audience, whether the reader is the poet at some future time, or someone else. If it fails to communicate with its audience, it has failed in its primary purpose.

My inclination at this point is to duck, and stay down for a good long time. But 1 think 1 should finish by quoting a couple of poems, just so we remember, you and I, what poetry is capable of. Elizabeth Smither, first.

Finger to finger

People comment on my cold fingers
But they are warm. They lay between
His that were white and translucent
In which the small injuries his fingers always had
Small bleedings, missing with nails, cuts
All his large economies, savings
My school shoes, ballet lessons, wasted music
Look up at me, like a leaf looks up at autumn.


And Rob Jackaman, who is hard to quote in smallish quantities:

Susan Musgrave’s Dance


A good man ‑ she says ‑ is hard
to find, not original, but her
follow-through is
the whole sex strangled and hanging
down marriage lines:
I feel the noose tighten
on my own neck
Are we all dead then, Susan,
sitting around a table pushing obituaries
at each other like half-broken poems?


Anne French is writer in residence at Massey University. Her most recent collection, Seven Days in Mykonos, is reviewed below.


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