The making of a ‘too hospitable’ canon, Mac Jackson

An Anthology of New Zealand Poetry in English
ed Jenny Bornholdt, Gregory O’Brien and Mark Williams
Oxford University Press, $49.95,
ISBN 0 19 558338 8

I cannot think that real poets have any competition,”  wrote Blake. But we lesser mortals like to create one. Ten years ago, Oxford poetry-lover and football fan John Sheeran compiled league tables of “1986 British and Irish Poetry Rankings”, structured after the Football League’s four divisions. His results, based on a survey of criticism and journalism, appeared in Poetry Review. At the top of division one (now the premier division) Seamus Heaney headed off Ted Hughes, with Geoffrey Hill and Tony Harrison in the next two spots. Anne Stevenson was the only woman in division one, Fleur Adcock holding fourth place in division two. Anthologists of New Zealand verse judge a rather different contest. Their job is to concoct an “all-time list”.

The country’s top 22, in order of the space allocated them in the new Oxford anthology, are: Allen Curnow, James K Baxter, Ian Wedde, Bill Manhire, A R D Fairburn, Hone Tuwhare, Robin Hyde, Kendrick Smithyman, Vincent O’Sullivan, Denis Glover, C K Stead, Ursula Bethell, Alistair Campbell, Fleur Adcock, Charles Brasch, Ruth Dallas, R A K Mason, Murray Edmond, Lauris Edmond, Elizabeth Smither, Eileen Duggan and Peter Bland, with M K Joseph missing out by only two or three lines. After Curnow and Baxter, most of the first division poets have around eight-to-12 pages, inclusion of Wedde’s long “Pathway to the Sea” giving him rather more. The pecking-order corresponds pretty well to what one might expect from a poll of reviewers, contributors to local literary journals and English department academics.

In a Landfall review — reprinted in his Answering to the Language (1989) — of Wedde’s and Harvey McQueen’s Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (1985), Stead set forth similar data comparing the new compilation with Curnow’s Penguin (1960), O’Sullivan’s Oxford anthology (1970) and his revised edition (1976). Stead was struck by the considerable stability over a quarter of a century of the notional “canon”.

The third edition of O’Sullivan’s Oxford book (1987) left its outlines intact, while adding new names. Jenny Bornholdt, Gregory O’Brien and Mark Williams make further minor modifications, without doing anything drastic. We sift through our country’s poetry so assiduously that there is now widespread agreement over a central “core”. Some poets whose first volumes date from the mid-1960s or the 1970s — Wedde, Manhire, Tuwhare, O’Sullivan, Stead and Adcock, for example — have by now published sufficiently substantial amounts of interesting verse to seem worthy of at least as much space as those predecessors whose work formed the staple of Curnow’s Penguin. Moreover, this is easily the largest anthology of New Zealand poetry so far, representing 100 named poets and three anonymous ones. On my count, 48 of those named were not included in O’Sullivan’s 1987 edition. Thirty-two of the 48 appear towards the front of the new book, which, with a few minor adjustments, presents the poets in reverse chronological order, this being determined not by dates of birth but by the dates at which they published their first collections.

This makes An Anthology of New Zealand Poetry in English a bit like a conflation and an updating of the Wedde-McQueen Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (1985) and the Evans-McQueen-Wedde Penguin Book of Contemporary New Zealand Poetry (1987) but without the poems in Maori. O’Sullivan in his revisions was much more cautious about adding new poets, waiting until they had impressed him as likely “stayers” through a mix of quality and quantity. And since O’Sullivan’s anthologies were of Twentieth Century New Zealand Poetry, eight of the names added to the new Oxford book come towards the end (the chronological beginning), though even here New Zealand poetry before Blanche Baughan is cramped into 26 pages, fewer than are assigned to Curnow. From our first national anthology, W F Alexander’s and A E Currie’s New Zealand Verse (1906), 10 out of 55 poets survive: Blanche Baughan, Arnold Wall, David  Wright, Jessie Mackay, Eleanor Montgomery, William Pember Reeves, Thomas Bracken, Arthur H Adams, John Barr and James Fitzgerald. Alfred Domett, whom Alexander and Currie pronounced “incomparably the greatest” of the poets represented in their volume, is not among the survivors.

Poets included by O’Sullivan who have been dropped are J R Hervey, Basil Dowling, Charles Spear, Hubert Witheford, Pat Wilson and Vivienne Joseph. O’Sullivan himself had dropped RaymondWard, Charles Doyle and Owen Leeming by 1987 and the present editors follow suit. Most of these people were immigrants and/or long-term emigrants.

But the omission of Spear, in particular, is odd. In Landfall 78 (1966) David Moody rightly included Spear among a small group of poets who had made “authoritatively distinct contributions to New Zealand poetry since the war”. All three poet-anthologists, Curnow, O’Sullivan and Wedde have recognised his merits and neatly characterised the verse, as did Elizabeth Caffin in The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English. Spear’s “studiously minor” muse is (as he claimed) “attuned to doom”. In Twopence Coloured (1951) a post-war temper infiltrates the trim stanzas of a Rhymers’ Club aesthete and disturbing, sharply focused details loom from a phantasmagoria in miniature of historical, literary and personal anecdote. The effect is of surrealism compacted within a Book of Hours. It surprises me that Spear’s “medallions of decadent endgame”, as Wedde called them, should not have appealed to Gregory O’Brien, at least.

Personally I regret that Hervey has not made our top 100. His reputation was higher in 1940, when he won first and first-equal prizes in the long and short poems sections of the New Zealand Centennial literary competitions. Both Curnow and the first Oxford editors, Robert Chapman and Jonathan Bennett (1956), anthologised him, as well as Spear (and Dowling, Witheford and Wilson, for that matter) and in a memorial tribute in the eighth New Zealand Poetry Yearbook Louis Johnson judged that with Hervey’s death in 1958 New Zealand had lost “one of her best poets — certainly the best of his generation”. He thought Hervey’s “Threnos” “our most ‘anthologisable’ poem”. The Anglican vicar’s distinctive style owed something to the mature Yeats and something to Auden and other British poets of the 1930s, while also harking back to Donne, Herbert and the metaphysicals. It is cerebral and contemplative but carries the true voice of feeling when the abstractions mingle with clearly visualised images or boldly dramatised situations. The editors claim that for two or three decades Eileen Duggan’s work “was sidelined as a result of the nationalistic bias of the Caxton poets with their secular prejudice and male mythologising”. But clergyman Hervey, whose four volumes were all published by Caxton, has been sidelined by them.

A reviewer is lured into this kind of nitpicking by the fact that the editors have clearly aimed at being as “comprehensive” (the back cover’s term) as their predilections permit. In constructing their anthology they “proceeded by way of engaged reading and passionate discussion” until disagreements were resolved. They recited poems aloud. Governed by their sense of “literary value”, they included only poems that “hold some interest to us as poetry”. This is a reasonable policy, though “some interest” is a broad formulation: it seems unlikely that Bracken’s “Hymn to New Zealand” and “Not Understood” are there chiefly for their qualities “as poetry”. The editors note that the national anthem is “revisited parodically in David Eggleton’s ‘God Defend New Zealand’”, but they do not print Fairburn’s “Not Understood” for Bracken’s to serve as foil to.

We are not told whether any poets, their agents or estates withheld work. But this anthology has been rather a long time “in press”, amid rumblings of discontent. Can the editors have altogether avoided the unplanned omissions that have affected other anthologies? Alan Loney is one absentee. Was he “available for selection”?

“Looking at contemporary work, we have tried to paint as broad a canvas as possible,” the editors write, “including a rich diversity of poetry from different sources.” I think they are too hospitable and that much of the material by poets not represented by O’Sullivan is of minimal aesthetic interest. Admittedly, to say this is merely to set up one reader’s “personal taste” — complicated as it is by cultural conditioning, historical accident and the vagaries of individual growth — against the tastes of the editors. But often, it seems to me, language is not being made to work hard enough, so that poems fail to stimulate the imagination. My own attention perks up as I encounter the samplings from Andrew Johnston, Bornholdt, James Norcliffe, Janet Charman, Eggleton and Iain Sharp, to name a few of the Oxford newcomers. Other emerging talents are perhaps better suited to a different kind of anthology — to such showcases of recent New Zealand verse as Williams or Murray Edmond and Mary Paul have previously published, or to a compilation like Manhire’s 100 New Zealand Poems.

In his innovative New Oxford Book of Australian Verse (1986) Les Murray “imposed a working limit of three poems on everyone”, so as to avoid any “preoccupation with grading and weighting … in accordance with some idea of [poets’] relative importance” and so place the emphasis on pleasurable encounters with the poetry itself. The lesser painters of the “broad canvas” that opens the new Oxford volume might genuinely contribute to a sense of “rich diversity” in a book restricted to one poem a person. But, even then, could they (since the editors mention testing poems by reading them aloud to one another) provide the basis for a session that would intrigue, amuse and move an audience as would the following programme of items by poets not represented: G B Lancaster’s “What Used to Be”, M C Keane’s “The Blind Obedient Dead”, Dowling’s “The Early Days”, Hervey’s “The Return”, Spear’s “Animae Superstiti”, S Musgrove’s “Painted Saints Restored”, Witheford’s “Mokau Estuary, 5 am, November, 1943”, Arthur Baysting’s “Black Swans”, Christina Beer’s “Waiheke 1972 — Rocky Bay”, Anthony McCarten’s “The May Bride” and Lynda Earle’s “Dementia Praecox (or The Cowgirl Experience)”? I should happily read out the first 10 but would want the poet to perform the last.

However, anybody can play this game. Selecting the national poetry and cricket squads are equally thankless tasks and Bornholdt, O’Brien and Williams have done a conscientious job. The selections from First Division poets and those at the top of the Second Division are on the whole judicious, usually including a fair proportion of offerings familiar from previous anthologies but adding a few welcome novelties.

There are 17 poems by Eileen Duggan, reflecting the renewal of interest in her work, some of which the editors think “calls for more complex readings than she has received”. Maybe: “The Tides Run Up the Wairau”, which for the editors “recalls metaphysical verse”, strikes me as pure Mills and Boon. Bethell comes across as more impressive than ever. And it is a pleasant surprise to encounter such excellent choices (based on O’Sullivan’s) from Gordon Challis’s Building (1963). The eight or nine pages devoted to Dallas make enjoyable reading but omit most of her strongest poems. Everyone will have other favourite pieces whose absence they regret but that is inevitable.

As well as Wedde’s “Pathway to the Sea”, we get the whole of Baughan’s “A Bush Section”, Hyde’s “The Beaches” and “The Houses” from “Houses by the Sea”, Curnow’s “Moro Assassinato”, Gloria Rawlinson’s “The Islands Where I Was Born”, Glover’s “Sings Harry”, Brasch’s “Shoriken”, Joseph’s “Mercury Bay Eclogue”, Sinclair’s “Memorial to a Missionary”, Adcock’s “The Soho Hospital for Women”, Ken Arvidson’s “The Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss at Takahe Creek above the Kaipara” and Eggleton’s “Painting Mount Taranaki”, besides sizable chunks from Fairburn’s “Dominion”, Glover’s “Arawata Bill”, Smithyman’s “Reading the Maps” and several other long poems or sequences. Among older poets admitted to an Oxford anthology for the first time are Iain Lonie, Maurice Duggan, Ruth Gilbert, John Male and Len Lye. The first Lonie piece, the short “By Foreign Hands”, with its beautifully judged repetitions, arouses immediate admiration and his other poems do not disappoint, while Male, writing during the Italian campaign, worthily represents World War II poetry.

The cover design is attractive, featuring the painting “Pararaha” by Richard McWhannell but the deployment of text on the page would have made Glover or Bob Lowry wince. Setting titles and poems flush with a quite narrow left-hand margin, instead of centering them, is common enough these days but here the recto pages all have wider left-hand margins than the versos, so that the amount of white space down the middle of an opening is disproportionate to the amount at the sides. More damagingly, the text is often allowed to run far too close to the bottom of the page. Look, for example, at pp210, 229, 235 or 263, or almost any page of the introduction. As typographer Oliver Simon explained, “there should be more margin at the bottom of a page than at the top, otherwise the type area has the appearance of falling out of the page”. This is “merely” a matter of aesthetics, of course, but it is a pity that the inside of such an important book does not look as good as the outside. Readers inured to poor layout might retrain the eye by leafing through the Chapman and Bennett anthology, an excellent model — or, for a paperback, Curnow’s Penguin.

A reading of the new volume, supplemented by haphazard spot checks, reveals a few misprints, apart from small slips in the introduction and acknowledgements. The typo “tembling” occurs in the last excerpt from Brasch’s “The Estate”. In Bethell’s “Summer Afternoon” “by passivity” should be “my passivity” and in her “Warning of Winter” “Let me” should be “Let be”; in “The Long Harbour” grass should spring “sweet”, not “wet”. One line of Hyde’s “White Irises” has accidentally been left uncapitalised. In the “Elements” section of Fairburn’s “Dominion” for “tracery” read “treachery” and the layout of “Conversation in the Bush” has gone awry at the foot of the previous page (p432). In Bland’s “A Last Note from Menton” “Venice” has become “Vence”. The “j” has not printed in the third “jalopy” of Manhire’s “Jalopy: The End of Love” and in his “The Elaboration” “things” should be singular. So should “the houses” towards the top of p172 in Wedde’s “Pathway to the Sea”. And in the fifth stanza of same poem, Castaly (1980) and Driving into the Storm: Selected Poems (1987) have the parenthesis as “our shit”, rather than “ours in fact”. Perhaps Wedde made a trivial revision. At any rate, errors are neither many nor serious. But a determined effort might be made to eliminate such blemishes from any second edition.

A problem for anthologists is to know when the foot of a page in a textual source coincides with the end of a verse paragraph. For example, in reprinting Joseph’s “The Nurse’s Song of the Earth” — for which they deserve thanks — the editors leave a break after the third line on p304, because the previous line ended a page in Joseph’s Inscription on a Paper Dart: Selected Poems 1945-72 (1974) but a glance at The Living Countries (1959) reveals this to have been coincidental: there the paragraph remains unbroken.

The introduction, which is lucid, knowledgeable and sane, does not attempt any excessively ambitious overview of the development of poetry in this country. Rather, it offers a series of perspectives, makes interesting connections and explains the rationale for the selection: the editors “sought to” do this and “sought to” do that. Any narrative the anthology may contain “is not one of the triumphant evolution of consciousness from colonial dependence towards postcolonial national maturity but rather the story of struggle and interaction between different versions of where we are and how we perceive ourselves”. Moreover, the poems “talk to each other as well as addressing the world, its history and its particulars”.

The poets “talk to each other” too. Tuwhare, Leigh Davis and Robert Sullivan pay homage to Baxter, while John Newton alludes to his line, “The mountains crouch like tigers”, and Stead, Kevin Ireland, Dinah Hawken and Anne French all write “Baxterian” sonnets. One of Stead’s mentions Curnow, Smithyman and Sir Keith Sinclair, as well as prose-writers Maurice Duggan, Maurice Shadbolt and Maurice Gee. French refers to Curnow and Wedde. Bland writes his fine “Letters Home — New Zealand 1885” “for Allen Curnow” and in “A Last Note from Menton” addresses the deceased Johnson. Murray Edmond writes “About Wasps” “for Ian Wedde”. Brasch dedicates “Oreti Beach” to Dallas. The editors point to the persistence of “land and settlement” themes and to changes in attitude and style in how they are treated; to the foreshadowing of “language” poetry in Janet Frame’s gobbledygook “Impard a Willow-Cell in Sordure”; and to the way that Glover’s Arawata Bill is reincarnated in O’Sullivan’s very different “Butcher” poems which form a “major poetic sequence” comparable to roughly contemporary ones by Curnow, Baxter and Wedde. They find it “useful to think of [Lye] as a precursor of later poets such as Wystan Curnow, Richard von Sturmer and Michele Leggott”. Leggott takes the prize for making the most severe demands on the typesetter: her three pieces from “Tigers” form circles on the page.

The introduction notes “an increasing interest in New Zealand’s colonial period”, of which The Piano is one expression; outlines “the Auckland/Wellington split” of the late-1950s and 1960s and the “dispute about formal procedures” in the 1980s; explains that, without including poetry in Maori, the editors “have sought to recognise the strength of Maori poetry in English and to capture the different ways it deals with and addresses its world”; and sees Albert Wendt’s verse as “opening up the Pacific as a field of reference for New Zealand writers” — inclusion of Wendt’s powerful Polynesian folk-narrative, “The Contest”, would have extended the anthology’s range. There is a timely reminder that in nineteenth-century New Zealand “the various immigrant groups — Scots, Irish (Protestant and Catholic), English — maintained the distinctiveness that still marked those separate cultures in Britain”; the selection of early verse is intended to reflect those “several cultural strands in colonial society”.

The editors seem to me right to be wary of generalisations. “What is striking,” they say, “is the continual adaptation to local conditions of an enormous variety of influences from all sorts of sources — high culture and low culture, salon and street, literary and oral”. Their anthology affords ample opportunity for comparison and contrast — of different poems about (for example) fathers, drains, pioneers, bush-felling, caves, cancer, children, the bomb, moths, Vietnam, cars, mothers, fishing and drowning. Readers from outside New Zealand might be struck by the prominence of poems evoking coast or sea.

The editors also remark: “Perhaps no voice has been as important in establishing the distinctive stance and tone of the last few years as Bill Manhire”, who — in his unflustered recognition that “I live at the edge of the universe, / like everybody else” — “teaches us to relax about the old settler anxieties of where we are, where we were and where we might be” — those questions so movingly raised in the refrain of Baughan’s “A Bush Section”. But several of the more engaging of the newer poets also share features of Manhire’s style. They depend on a kind of wit, linguistic playfulness, quirks of fancy, mild shocks of surprise, readjustments of focus, a touch of whimsy. Manhire’s own verse can stir the emotions as well as stimulate and amuse, but the idea that poetry, in Geoffrey Grigson’s definition, “is a special dense use of … language, ordered for the memorable, durable conveyance of our feelings” is no longer in vogue. The best recent verse avoids sentimentality, pomposity and gush but poems energised by passion are more likely to be found in the chronologically earlier part of the anthology. It is a substantial, carefully considered collection which will doubtless become a standard text for many years.

Mac Jackson is professor of English at Auckland University.

Tagged with: , , , , , ,
Posted in Literature, Poetry, Review
Search the archive
Search by category