Charles Croot: Tinkering in the toolshed

New Zealand Haiku Anthology
New Zealand Poetry Society, price N/A

Black Before the Sun
New Zealand Poetry Society, $15.00

Poetry New Zealand VIII
Brick Row, $16.95

Kapiti Poems 7
Rawhiti Press, Whitireia Publishing, Daphne Brasell Associates, $24.95

In Kapiti Poems 7 Alistair Campbell has a funny/sad/rude (and accomplished) little poem, The Plumber, about a man whose wife caught him in the toolshed emulating Onan to the accompaniment of girlie magazines. In his solitary self-absorption I could not see him as other than a symbol of much of the work presented in these four recent New Zealand collections.

My classical education taught me to believe, nay expect, that a poem should either move one to laughter, admiration or tears by a glimpse of what it is to be human, or delight by the skill of its crafting, or both. If the first, there must be a sense of sharing; if the second, a sense of restraints recognised, sized up and triumphantly overcome.

The plumber in the toolshed will not be following this; neither, I fear, will many of the writers represented in the books under review. To read some 270 poems under a tight editorial deadline has been a chastening experience and in some respects a depressing one, but enlightening nevertheless. If these four collections give us a fair measure of the present state of New Zealand poetry ‑ and in several respects I think they do ‑ then it is past time to take stock of the situation and exclaim that the state of the art is not what it should be.

A first impression, confirmed by subsequent analysis of content, was that there is a distinct lack of “New Zealandness” in the poetry of our day. Perhaps this is as it should be; we are, after all, part of Marshall McLuhan’s or General Motors’ “Global Village”, and there is no reason why the poets of Johnsonville and Geraldine should not address themselves to the entire English‑speaking world if that’s what they want to do. They need to remember, though, that poetry attained credibility and stature in New Zealand through the work of writers who addressed questions of national identity and purpose, and provided some cogent answers. They should also bear in mind the awful fate of television in New Zealand, which ignored first the local and then the national interest and ended up as a purveyor of pap which nobody takes seriously any more.

Indeed, television’s penchant for frantic self‑promotion, its endemic form of navel‑gazing, has strong links both with Campbell’s plumber in the toolshed and with much of the poetry here collected. It is my contention that a poem ought to say more than “When I saw X I felt Y” (invoking the response “So what?”). In one of our four collections, two-fifths of the poems get no further, indeed attempt nothing more, than that; in another, two‑thirds. It is also my contention that a poem ought to do more than provide a visual snapshot of a scene or a situation, yet a fifth of the poems in one collection and a quarter of the poems in another just paint pictures without any detectable overlay of symbol, myth, emotion or meaning of any kind except, “when I was at X, this is how I saw it”.

Looking earnestly ‑ indeed, towards the end, desperately ‑ for poems that addressed situations and feelings that can be coherently shared, I found five (out of 46) in one collection and just one (out of 34) in the other. I must hasten to add that a third collection yielded 18 (out of 72), but more of that later.

I looked, too, for signs of care and originality in the form of the verse. This aspect of the quest was even more depressing: one collection yielded five poems of interest, another one, another none whatever. The fourth book ‑ and let’s now be specific ‑ proved to be the most perturbing of all.

This was New Zealand Haiku Anthology, an attractively produced and generously‑presented volume celebrating a simple Japanese verse‑form which, thanks to Ezra Pound and others, has taken the English‑speaking world by storm. Capturing a moment in time, a detail of nature observed and accompanying emotion subtly hinted at, a successful haiku is a miniature jewel of the poet’s craft. But alas, what have we here? A dismaying conglomeration of shapeless baubles! Only seven of the 157 items in this book can technically claim to be haiku at all.

Frankly, I don’t see the point of writing to a form if you don’t observe the discipline of that form. What would we think of an anthology of sonnets, none or few of which measured 14 lines? I think I’d be invoking the Trade Descriptions Act or laying a complaint with the Commerce Commission.

Cyril Childs, in an otherwise informative and cogent introduction to this anthology, brushes aside the question of form, implying that the essence of the “haiku frame” is “about brevity and clarity, about sparseness; about cutting out unnecessary words, not filling in every detail, about leaving room for the perspective and experiences of the reader.” Well, excuse me, but isn’t that really just a definition of modern poetry in general … or even of the short story, for that matter? And doesn’t the writing of haiku have something to do with choosing 17 syllables, arranging them 5‑7‑5, and constructing a verbal object that is rather more than the sum of its seemly parts?

I’m sorry, but I can’t see

needing a friend

I sit by

the delphiniums

as a satisfactory haiku. I can’t see

SKYBONE

moon

as a satisfactory anything. Yet both (and many more like them) are offered in this book as examples of a highly sophisticated verse‑form. Humbug. All but a few of the items here strike one as nothing more than jottings from a poet’s notebook, or what Campbell’s plumber might understand as a mere momentary scratch of the crotch.

It is perhaps significant that four of the seven “regular” haiku in the book are by one of our most accomplished poets, Ruth Dallas. She deftly demonstrates some of the capabilities of the form, as in:

Underneath the moon

A blossoming cherry tree

Tethered to the earth

and in:

Framed in the window,

Insulators, power poles

Scribble out the view.

These have a satisfying completeness that results from harmony of thought, feeling and structure. This can be felt intuitively, but surely there is greater pleasure for the reader who can recognise the frame and sense the artist working within it, acknowledging constraints and turning them into virtues, while triumphantly exploiting the possibilities of the form.

No, New Zealand Haiku Anthology disappoints, even though (or perhaps because) several of the 19 writers represented ‑ and there are a few other Big Names among them ‑ demonstrate an ability to convey an image and turn a phrase. They should really take the time and trouble to work these jottings into poems; into haiku, perhaps.

The same stricture, I fear, must apply to all of the 23 writers whose jottings appear in the “Haiku” section of Black Before the Sun, not one of whom offers us a regular haiku. Granted, Yvonne Hardenbrook’s items, which made her joint winner of the New Zealand Poetry Society’s 1993 International Poetry Competition, pack an emotional punch and capture much of the spirit of the haiku, but neither that nor the fact that this American writer’s co‑winner (Kohjin Sakamoto) is Japanese prompts me to back off my criticism of lack of attention to form. Where there are rules, the game satisfies the spectators only if you keep to them, no rugby league fan would tolerate lineouts or mauls or four extra men on the field.

The lack of attention to form is also endemic throughout the rest of Black Before the Sun, which presents selected entries from the Poetry Society’s 1993 international contest. The “international” label satisfies the Trade Descriptions Act, as there is an Australian and a Romanian entry in the set (the latter betraying significant uncertainty about the use of prepositions in English … which a kinder editor could surely have corrected).

The book’s title is derived from a phrase in the winning poem, James Norcliffe’s hang gliders off Whitewash, which is certainly the most accomplished piece on display, though I can’t entirely endorse Leonard Lambert’s judgment of it as a poem with “a wonderful sense of unease, of disquiet, of a world off‑balance … a poem which hints, like all good poems, at something beyond itself, while remaining firmly and faithfully anchored in the actual and observable.” The actuality and the observation are there (when I saw X I felt Y), but the learned judge ‑ I respectfully submit, m’lud ‑ has imputed most of the rest. Norcliffe paints his picture well, but he doesn’t succeed in making us feel it as he seems to suggest we should.

At least he does try: many others don’t. The one poem in this collection that seems to me to expand our consciousness of a situation we can all empathise with is Stu Bagby’s Coping, a succinct and perceptive evocation of a funeral:

Clumsily mixing speed with respect

(not something you practise every day of your life)

they flee the chapel and congregate outside

with collective exhalation of breath.

In 17 measured, well‑crafted lines Bagby captures all the awkwardnesses and conflicting emotions of this familiar-but‑strange occasion, with some deft touches of mordant, Baxter‑like humour.

Which reminds me that I must put in somewhere that humour and wit are in conspicuously short supply in the 270 poems, versicles and scraps under review. Apart from Bagby and the aforementioned Campbell, only two other writers make any discernible attempt to have the reader smiling or chuckling. A pity; this is another aspect of verse-making in which New Zealanders used to be adept.

Three of the poems in this collection exhibit a keen awareness of form. Kay Cooke’s Mirror Image is precisely that ‑ an elegant 20‑line construction in which lines 1 and 20 are the same, as are lines 2 and 19, 3 and 18 and so on. The poem is saved from mechanical cuteness by the writer’s sensitive choice of image and phrase; it works well and makes an emotional impression. Glenda Fawkes’ Letter to the Editor makes clever use of page‑space to set up a resonant contrapuntal effect, while Wendy Morgan’s Eve is a well-constructed, subtle modern sonnet.

Poetry New Zealand VIII is the first issue from a new editor and a new publisher. Founded by David Drummond, Poetry New Zealand has always been intended as a forum for both new and established writers. The publisher’s blurb of the present edition states, “It is intended to serve as a showcase for experimental and innovative as well as traditional styles of poetry and to continue to develop as an increasingly important literary publication.”

Glancing back at earlier numbers, it is easy to discern ‑ and gratifying ‑ that Poetry New Zealand has indeed been gaining strength number by twice‑yearly number. If regularity of appearance and substantiality of format are to be taken as reliable measures, this periodical has clearly done better than most of its contemporaries. Editor Alistair Patterson claims descent for his journal from Louis Johnson’s New Zealand Poetry Yearbook and antelapsarian Landfall. The current issue presents work by 25 poets, of whom one‑third are well‑established names and another third new to me. A new editorial policy sees extra space and a cover portrait devoted to a featured writer, in this case Amanda Eason, whose first collection, Reasons for Loving, was published by Brick Row in 1992.

Eason is currently based in London, and her poems reflect, in straightforward and often appealing fashion, the experiences and attitudes of an expatriate. Is it a matter for regret that there is more of New Zealand in them than in most of the work on display by poets living among us? More disappointing, perhaps, that less than a quarter of the 46 poems here get beyond “This is what I felt” or “This is what I saw”, and that there is not a single poem in the collection which will be remembered for the beauty or the craftsmanship of its form.

The best work here is nevertheless impressive. In Daughter: Post Operative Jenny Vuglar, another London‑based export, explores at impressive length a traumatic situation which the poet’s power of utterance and skill in fully developing images forces us to share. Considerably more mannered, less moving, but still impressive in its own way, is In the Year 499 of Columbus, America by Denys Trussell, who has produced a number of successful longer poems in recent years.

Norman Simms’ The Day of Conversion is a somewhat heavy‑handed attempt at humour, but there is verbal facility here which holds promise that this writer will successfully make the transition from prose to verse. More adept is James Norcliffe’s poem of the mechanical parrot, whose subject is a well‑known feature of Chancery Lane in Christchurch. There are interesting contributions also from Julie Leibrich, whose work has gained favourable attention lately, and from Jennifer Compton, who has gained a sound reputation as poet, playwright and actor in her adopted Australia.

In fact there are five expatriates included among the 25 authors in this gathering. Louis Johnson would perhaps not be best pleased that the Aucklanders have staged a coup and taken over the journal lock, stock and barrel ‑ 15 of the resident writers live north of Taupo, while there are three from Wellington and only two from the South Island (both from Christchurch). This geographical imbalance may be insignificant in itself, but it underlines the fact that in no sense can Poetry New Zealand VIII be regarded as a fair representation of what’s happening in verse across the nation. The new editor must work hard to ensure that issue IX dispels all suspicions that this important publication has been captured by a clique.

This is not a suspicion that falls on Kapiti Poems 7, despite its parochial title. For 10 years now Meg Campbell and friends have been providing an attractive forum for New Zealand poets from many regions and all stages of development. Kapiti Poems now operates in conjunction with the Whitireia Publishing Course and its annual poetry competition, which has further broadened the catchment. One does not expect to find a uniform standard of achievement in Kapiti Poems, but of the four collections under review this is the one that provides the most interest and the best view of upcoming talent.

No fewer than 68 writers are given space in this book’s 100‑plus pages. There are some well‑known names, among them Fleur Adcock, Alistair Campbell, Edith Campion, Lauris Edmond, Bernard Gadd, Sam Hunt, Harvey McQueen and J C Sturm. Each of these has paid less eminent companions the compliment of submitting a piece out of the top drawer. There is also a previously unpublished verse by the late Bruce Mason, a child’s secular grace.

I could pin the “X happened and I felt Y” label on only half the poems in this collection. Another 20 per cent were classified as “When I was at X, this is how I saw it”. Fully a quarter are poems with sufficient objectivity to have a broad appeal, though the lack of specifically “Kiwi” subjects and attitudes is again marked.

Five poets show particular concern with form. Fleur Adcock’s poem is one of her strict‑metre‑and‑rhyme jobs; this reactionary reader is still hoping that others will follow her forward into the past where there are rich artistic pickings to be made. Nancy Bruce has a piece in rhyming couplets, and makes effective use of this structure. Graham Johnson’s Ghosting is a kind of modern‑day station ballad (featuring the driver of a big rig); it’s somewhat lumpy in places, but vigorous and effective. Julie Leibrich has one of those “eight mini-poems on a theme” constructions which is a good one of its kind, while Andriani Somerset’s Genuflecting to Wallace Stevens is in a similar vein, with adept imitation that hovers between homage and parody as an added attraction; it is one of the most sophisticated and most satisfying offerings here.

Among the “new” writers, Penny Huber’s Sick Child marks the first appearance in print of a writer who combines admirable economy with a genuine feel for the power of words. Diane Brown’s Before the divorce we go to Disneyland combines narrative and descriptive skill with a flair for oblique allusion. Two shrinking violets who sign themselves “Ellora” and “Grace” each display skill at stretching in patterns of emotional interaction for which the reader can supply his or her own context, and while p n w donnelly is not yet our answer to e e cummings, the same week our fowls were stolen is a neat response to Hawera’s replacement of Ronald Hugh Morrieson’s home by a KFC outlet. (Need I add that this is one of very few intentionally humorous poems in the book?)

If I was called on to provide documentation of the present state of poetry in New Zealand to a visitor or overseas enquirer, I think Kapiti Poems 7 would be my choice. There are more signs of experimentation in subject‑matter and form there than in the other collections, more willingness to address a general audience, and more respect for poetry as a craft. Even that book, however, won’t be enough to dispel the impression that there are far too many of our literary plumbers tinkering with themselves in their toolsheds.

Charles Croot teaches in the department of university extension at Otago University.

Tagged with: , , , , , , ,
Posted in Literature, Poetry and Review
Search
Subscribe to NZ Books
We're pleased you're using the New Zealand Books archive.

To ensure the survival of this important journal, please consider
subscribing — only $44 a year, or $30 for digital-only.

Go to the Subscribe page.
Search by category

Read more