In March this year Diana Bridge gave a talk at a Commonwealth studies conference at the University of Rajasthan at Jaipur in India. The talk was “an attempt to let an interested but undernourished academic audience hear some of our most interesting recent voices.”*
*[The original request was for the (non‑existent) “cultural attaché” of the High Commission to deliver a paper. The talk contained substantial chunks of poetry which have been abridged for this article. I would have liked to include in it also the voices of Jenny Bornholdt, Anne French, Bernadette Hall and Andrew Johnston, but somehow the paper, which was put together very quickly, grew in other directions. I would like to acknowledge the help of Lydia Wevers in supplementing my limited sources and resources at short notice.]
Her focus was on poetry of the last decade and a‑half. This is an edited version of that talk.
To some extent what I have to say may be taken as reproachful coda to the clutch of New Zealand voices selected for the 1994 Oxford Companion to Twentieth‑Century Poetry in English. As a selection, it is too small and woefully behind the times. For example, out of, its editor affirms, 35 New Zealand entries (I could spot only 29), only five women poets writing today are included.
Where I can I’ve used poems from a recent New Zealand anthology, 100 New Zealand Poems (by 100 New Zealand poets), compiled by Bill Manhire. This is a user‑friendly volume and full of surprises. One of them for me was the final poem, which was written by a 7‑year-old girl, Laura Ranger. As I talk, Laura’s first book of poems, released this month, is already into its third printing and is hitting the bestseller lists in an even bigger way than her anthologist’s did. This poem, called “Omanu Beach”, was also written when she was 7.
To the people
in the fishing boat
out at sea
we are on the horizon.
They might see me
paddling on the shore
with a stick
in the heart.
we were plodding
along the sand dunes.
The sun was spying on us
through a telescope,
from behind the trees.
The point I want to make first with “Omanu Beach” is the diversity of our poetic scene. Laura’s poem, alongside its sophisticated play with perspectives ‑ notably the radiating image of the sun spying through a telescope from behind the trees ‑ and its formal assurance, which is even more obvious on the page, has something interesting to say about the natural environment in which she places herself, and the writer’s relationship to it.
It’s a cliché to say that landscape has always been dominant in New Zealand writing. The New Zealander remains as infatuated with the environment as she or he did in the days when the taming of the land meant survival. Our landscape is new and raw, especially when it is compared with that of its nearest neighbouring piece of land, Australia. Those who saw Jane Campion’s The Piano will know what I mean.
In Laura’s poem the tranquillity of a fishing boat scene ‑ her natural “background”, though, of course, she turns this perspective on its head ‑ is quite savagely undermined by the foregrounded action of the protagonist, “me”, who is stabbing a jellyfish with a stick in the heart. The action is confidently exposed. The point lies in the “might” of “They might see me”; “They” ‑ the other ‑ seeing an untroubled stretch of horizon, seeing “me” paddling on the shoreline; in other words, seeing what they want or expect to see. Of course, it’s not a crime to stab the jellyfish who lie like a hazardous blanket along our beaches. But the fast accumulated, if natural, savagery of the language, the way in which the opening scene is outlined, and expectations of what might follow are outwitted, is unsettling in the way of most exciting poems. “Omanu Beach” is shot through with subversiveness. The sun spies from behind the trees as a child does. As a child poet does. As a poet does.
Next, to show that the tussle with nature, with our peculiarly New Zealand form of nature, is alive and well across the generations of writers, is a poem that appeared last year in the London Review of Books by the poet who is generally acknowledged to be the grand old man of New Zealand poetry today, Allen Curnow:
“Looking West, Late Afternoon, Low Water”
Look west, what looks
back is blood‑orange nightfall, the stooped
sky drowning another sun overboard
where the horizon was: till it snapped
those deep‑sea moorings and will be heard
oncoming, the sound of a scream, tsunami!
tsunanii! splintering deadwood of the boat
I lost half a life ago, swept
away with a judgement on the work
she’s amateur built but your friends won’t know.
Last seen, one inflatable rescue
craft stood on its tuck, bows to skyward
in fast failing light, a turning tide.
In “Looking West, Late Afternoon, Low Water” struggle with self, envisaged as struggle with the self’s physical setting, continues one of the most enduring and inseparable of metaphorical relationships. This poem reminds me strangely of Du Fu, China’s greatest poet. I think it is the way it is written out of, inserted into, intertwined in the closest of relationships ‑ as close as to share a sentence ‑ with landscape. It reminds me of Du Fu, too, in its assimilation of classical reference, its breadth of reference generally and the uncompromising way it confronts and sums up age and the nature of a life’s work.**
**[Peter Porter has a perceptive entry on Curnow in The Oxford Companion. He writes that Curnow’s poetry “has got more, not less, audacious with age”.]
The extent, the complexity and the passion of Allen Curnow’s relationship to his beach is far from the sort of self-inflicted pastime Vincent O’Sullivan identifies as the 1950s and 1960s New Zealander’s relationship with nature in this excerpt from the Introduction to An Anthology of Twentieth Century New Zealand Poetry, Oxford University Press, second edition, 1976.
A man who lives in this country today does not generally have to come to terms with the land. For better or for worse, that land, for the time being, offers those who live with her too comfortable a life to talk of hostility. There is still hard physical work, but there is little feeling of a battle to be won, unless self‑imposed by mountaineering, the vagaries of the sea or the choice of back‑country jobs.
Allen Curnow’s struggle with “the vagaries of the sea” is larger than the sort of thing O’Sullivan was talking about. What has changed? The fact that the poem was written two and a half decades later? That in 1993 Allen Curnow himself was 82, alive to “unfinished business” and full of urgency? I would not, of course, like to suggest that the Curnow of the 1950s or 1960s could not have written this way. Though Curnow is acknowledged to have been writing over the last decade and a half with renewed vigour, as well as with an even more commanding fluency and, in poems like “Moro Assassinato”, a painful immediate grounding in political and social event ‑ that is one man’s direction. Where the O’Sullivan passage is useful in the context of my remarks is, I think, in pointing up a general contrast of atmosphere between poetry of a few decades back and poetry being written now.
Returning to the idea of identifying directions in recent verse, I think the most important of these may be summed up in this way:
‑ the struggle of women writers to reach the centre, from the margins; no one now seriously doubts that women poets (and novelists, short story writers and dramatists) are in there for good, variously voiced, skewing the old balance;
‑ the ongoing efforts of Maori, if not to capture the mainstream, to make sure their voice ‑ whether it is a voice that writes in Maori or in English or in both ‑ is no longer on the fringe;
‑ a sophistication wrested from the language, which can be recognised as a New Zealand sophistication.
You will notice how often I’ve found myself using words that have to do with struggle, which suggests a contrast with the blandness of the 1950s, 1960s, even 1970s scene, as summed up by O’Sullivan. While I would not want to tie recent writing to a particular political or ideological context, two developments in those areas make someone reading the passage today wince. The first is so obvious I shall only mention it in passing here; the exclusive abrasive use of the term man.
Next, to a 1990s New Zealand ear, which has been blasted by more than a decade’s worth of calls to economic reform and then habituated to the howls of pain which the process of economic restructuring has entailed, the idea of comfort has become less familiar. Though ours is still a lucky country in relative terms, our overall comfort has been unsettled, perhaps permanently. And this is obvious in much recent writing. In modern New Zealand the “user pays” and this applies pretty much across the spectrum. But some are paying and being seen to pay more heavily than others. Much contemporary Maori writing, for example, speaks with the voice of an impatient underclass, saying to a white ‑ or to a rich ‑ other as Roma Potiki says, [whatever you’ve done] “it’s not enough for me”.
Maori writers have increasingly since the 1970s and 1980s added an interesting formal possibility to New Zealand writing in English: the choice of introducing snatches or passages of Maori. Breaking into Maori can mean all sorts of things ‑ as breaking into Gujarati does in the poems of Sujata Bhatt.
In the first instance it functions as a statement of racial identity by the poet. (It could also, of course, function as a statement of solidarity with Maori language and culture by any New Zealander.) Predictably, the use of Maori in the context of a poem written in English ‑ perhaps I’d better call it an amalgam poem ‑ often operates as a turning of your back (or more graphic part of your anatomy) on the language of the pakeha majority. That language, in line with changing perspectives in other once colonised societies, may be ‑ and, in the 1980s and 1990s usually is ‑ regarded by the colonised portion of society as oppressive or inadequate, or a combination of both.
Sometimes there is a rueful, self‑reflexive play by the writer on his own unfamiliarity with what might have been his mother tongue, as in Apirana Taylor’s poem, “Sad Joke on a Marae”. The joining of English and Maori language in poems like this and less deliberately self ‑referential pieces has assisted in the breaking open of traditional poetic structures in New Zealand writing. And so may be seen as part of the larger process that has been going on in poetry written in English for more than 80 years now. What, apart from the specific and relatively small‑scale experiment of introducing Maori language and references into poetry, have we added to that process in New Zealand?
We have added some different ideas of euphony and rhythm generally and some expectations and contexts that derive, consciously or unconsciously, from Maori language and culture. I’ll let a poem ‑ once again an “amalgam poem” ‑ sum up some of the things I’ve just been talking about. It’s from “Jazz Waiata” by Robert Sullivan, author of two books of poetry, published in 1990 and 1993. Sullivan is under 30 ‑ and a winning combination of Maori and Irish ancestry:
We do what we should, wishing that we shouldn’t. So I sit outside
your door, whistling to a bloody cockatoo, wondering when you’ll
let me off the hook. I’ve really had it, this isn’t love!
What have I done to deserve it, Kim? leaving me in the eye
of the needle, a thread without a stitch.
He atua, he tangata, haere mai te mauri! I believe in an eighth
day of creation, in both ends and means, but for all that land
I found nowhere to stand. Te whenua, te whenua,
engari kaore he turanga waewae. Some kind of future.
I suggest this piece works immediately as a confrontation of rhythms: from the kind of Eliot‑in‑Four‑Quartets mode of the first line through the street talk of the next, into Maori oratorical and so on, each section running, sharp‑edged, up against the next. The aural patchwork is reinforced by shifts of register: English canonical references send themselves up ‑”leaving me in the eye/ of the needle”, “I believe in an eighth day of creation” ‑ or are double‑punctured by their placing ‑ “I believe in an eighth/ day of creation, in both ends and means”. The subversive echo of the Apostles’ Creed tails off into a banal rhyme that almost extinguishes the dead serious message: “but for all that land/ I found nowhere to stand”. The amalgam in semantic and linguistic terms is distinctively New Zealand. And the ending of Sullivan’s poem ‑ “Some kind of future” ‑ is as wide open as the position in which our multicultural society finds itself today.
As radical, and in some ways more risky than the interweaving of two languages into a new poetic, are Michele Leggott’s continuing experiments with “language poetry” and “concrete poetry”. Leggott sometimes teeters on the brink of unintelligibility. Take a step back and the contour of her work overall is like a game of yo‑yo, letting the string out so far that she risks crashing to earth, having lost all but a tiny group of like‑minded practitioners, but then drawing us, her more ordinary readers, back up with her engaging sensuousness and sparkle. In a poem like “Honey Bee”, it is these qualities that overwhelm, or make minor, occasional difficulties of vocabulary, complexities of junction, or images that overreach.
Leggott does clever things with joins, or the lack of them. In Dia, her latest collection, her experimentation with language poetry can be seen to have born rich fruit. Leggott dances in the joins of language, making almost every phrase do double duty in art and life (I think of a conjunction like “draped word/ perfect”, bringing action and artifice into a sharp embrace), to achieve a climax that was implicit in the very first lines: “let’s go out there/ and do the poem”.
Where Leggott works with open form and dazzling conjunction to open up new ground, and shift the ground from under the reader’s feet, Bill Manhire disrupts expected perspectives in an equally language‑based but different way.
Despite a certain elusiveness, generic and personal, Manhire cannot escape the label of grand middle‑aged man ‑ in contrast to Curnow’s “old man” ‑ of New Zealand verse. He is the poet whose work probably does most to support the judgement of a new, peculiarly New Zealand sophistication appearing in poetry. This so‑called sophistication is not an easy thing to define. In Manhire’s case it is rooted in an eye, and an ear, for word play, into which is incorporated a distinctively New Zealand dimension. His first book, Malady, published in 1970, consisted of four words: malady, melody, my lady, these words patterned every which way on the page. He has never lost that sense of possibilities and patternings to dislodge the expected, arriving at orderings that puncture the ordinarily elevated ‑ and elevate the ordinary into lyric status.
Manhire’s recent work is characterised by the need to come at his topic not only from an unexpected angle, or variety of angles, but from all angles. In “Isabella notes”, from Of Pavlova, Poetry and Paradigms: Essays in honour of Harry Orsman, published in 1993, he tackles the identity of Isabella of Castile. His subject is pursued (or rather is seen to pursue herself) lexically. The starting point is appropriate for the recipient of these “notes”, and of the volume, is a lexicographer. Manhire’s subject is explored in a democratic mixture of styles ‑ verse and prose, children’s game and song ‑ and through casting her in a possible and impossible mix of parts. She is conceived of as airport image, as far eastern product and in a number of historically impossible situations ‑ Isabella eating an apple (not a peach), Isabella as subject of the Lowland school of painting; as the Isabel of poets, rather than of painters. The tools of the search are foregrounded throughout the “notes”: the alphabet, the dictionary, the word processor with its spellcheck, the encylopaedia and back to the word. Most hauntingly for me, Isabel is explored as a sound:
Isabel, three syllables,
or four, Isabella, a village
between two castles, each
high on its hill, and the light
still there in the evening
when she rides out on her favourite horse.
Isabel and Ferdinand
and God: Castile this side
of the ruined wall, on the other
Alhambra, and the artist painting
the girl’s face, a mist
in front of the eye, children at school,
all things bright, and beautiful.
I mentioned Manhire’s generic elusiveness. This may be construed as a democratisation of expected form. The title, “notes”, explodes any preconceived notion of poetic sequence the reader may bring to bear. Isabella as subject is broken down and examined in the disparate range of structures that comprise the exercise as a whole. Formal eclecticism is paralleled in the “Isabella notes”, as elsewhere in Manhire’s work, by the author’s readiness to consider his subject from any point of view. Manhire has a special knack of including the ordinarily prosaic or banal into his work and making it lyric in its new context. The way in which the jaded hymn line that concludes this poem operates is a case in point.
The method is writ large across another large‑scale poem, which makes the point of a distinctive New Zealand voice more clearly and consistently than any other piece I can think of. “An Amazing Week in New Zealand” may be Manhire’s answer to the long or narrative poem that the poet writing in English these days seems to feel under some pressure to provide.
The piece, which comes with the caption, “So for six days he crusaded and on the seventh he flew to Australia”, describes the visit to New Zealand in 1959 of American evangelist Billy Graham and it is written from the vantage point of a boy from a small South island town, pre‑adolescent, head full of being a scout, of Kipling, but becoming aware, too, of a world of pop song and lipstick. The boy on the brink of adolescence in the backward little country, its backwardness underlined by the dated scenario and the wickedly outdated slang and song ‑ we know we can write about anything these days, but to go out of your way to choose material as unlikely as this?
That it can be done and done well enough to achieve a blend of high sly comedy and detail observed ‑ always ‑ with an eye on itself and disparate strands orchestrated with Manhire’s special sureness of touch into a crescendo poised between affirmation and negation ‑ you’ll have to take on trust. But it’s probably helpful to know when you read the words, “I am not going forward”, that ‑ not to put too fine a point on it ‑ 10 years ago a small country, still finding its feet in the world, stood up to a similar smooth‑talking power from the same part of the world as Billy Graham and said “No” to the entry of its nuclear ships into our ports.
New Zealand has had more than a few milestones to celebrate, or confront, in the last few years: our ‑ not uncontroversial ‑ celebration of the sesquicentenary of nationhood; other landmarks in the ongoing attempt at renegotiating a relationship between pakeha New Zealanders and Maori; the less contentious celebration of a century of female suffrage in 1993. These milestones are often ironically viewed. But there is, too, a sense of achievement.
I finish with a poem by Dinah Hawken, “The Tug of War”, an extract from the long sequence that forms her second collection, Small Stories of Devotion. Hawken’s is a quiet but persistently upfront feminist voice. Her concerns also extend to the area of foreign affairs. She was, like me, a diplomatic spouse for many years, mostly stationed in North America. Her feminist ‑ or, here, I should perhaps say “womanist” ‑ solution is expressed in the concluding third section of this poem in a sustained play on the words “love” and “let go”, “get going” and “live”. The first two thirds of the piece are composed in a poetry that is near prose, its prosaic quality foregrounded in a deliberate precision of description, abetted by a conventional syntax. The combinational play of the last six lines, indented on the page to underline their formal difference from the preceding two sections, represents a powerful formal option, that operates also as a woman’s view of history, and a womanist option for living.
The poem is conceived as a colonial photograph, which comes to life. As you listen, think of the rope as a syntax that its women protagonists, and its author, will ‑ at the precisely judged height of the tussle ‑ let go:
“The Tug of War”
It is a scene that rises in her mind, a long line of men, say 100,
facing north, holding a long rope. A long line of women, say 110,
facing south, facing the men, holding the same long rope.
They are all dressed in late 19th century clothes, standing ready
on the shoreline of a long New Zealand beach. A long line of surf is breaking. …
… So the tug
of war begins. Equal weight and equal strength on each
side. Centuries of struggle are rising
in the blood of each man and each woman and at the exact
moment that they judge the men to be at the height
of their physical and mental power, the women
let the rope go. ,
They love to let go and they love to get going:
they get themselves going and they let themselves go.
They let love go and they get love going:
they get others going and they let others go.
They let life go and they get life going,
they live to give love and they love to let live.
Diana Bridge works on Chinese classical poetry. Her husband is New Zealand’s High Commissioner to India.