Obituary – Lauris Edmond

Lauris Edmond (1924 – 2000)

Lauris Edmond died at home without warning on Friday 28 January 2000. We lost a major poet, an accomplished woman of letters, and a marvellous personality. The shock that united mourners in Old St Paul’s and throughout the nation came from a bereavement quite as personal as it was cultural.

The loss to New Zealand Books is incalculable. With Martin Bond, Shelagh Duckham Cox, Pat Hawthorne, Vincent O’Sullivan, and John M Thomson, Lauris helped found the Peppercorn Press and launch what was then a quarterly in April 1991; she remained a member of the Press until her death. In December 1999 New Zealand Books remembered its founding editor John M Thomson. Like him, Lauris was one of the journal’s inspirers: she often contributed, and was always a practical helper; in recent years she was poetry editor; she provided political and literary guidance; and she involved her friends in the journal’s fortunes.

Lauris the poet was also a woman of letters. After her first collection, In Middle Air, appeared in 1975, her life was a literary one. Her services to literature defy summary. PEN, the NZ Writers Fund, the Indecent Publications Tribunal, the Board of the Stout Research Centre, the editorial board of the Journal of New Zealand Literature. Her Letters of A R D Fairburn has not been superseded. Her Women in Wartime was just one expression of her non-militant feminism. She never ceased working: Oxford will shortly publish her anthology of New Zealand love poems; and a wider anthology of New Zealand poetry, which she had been working on with Alistair Te Ariki Campbell and Bill Sewell, was nearly ready when she died.

Through countless poetry readings she transcended the printed page. I first met her in 1978 when she came to Hamilton with Alistair Campbell and Sam Hunt on an enlightened Department of Education’s “Poets in Schools” tour. I had reviewed The Pear Tree in 1977, and curiosity brought her to the University of Waikato, where in the 1960s she had completed her first degree. My earliest impression was of the musical, drawling, slightly old-fashioned modulation of her voice. Her early experience as a speech therapist groomed her instinctive feeling for the tactility of the voice. Her voice never changed.

Of three forthcoming collections of her poetry, one, luckily, is a CD she and her daughter Frances recorded for AUP, with music by Dorothy Buchanan. It will be launched during the New Zealand Festival. Another is Carnival of New Zealand Creatures, a new group set to music by Dorothy Buchanan, to be premiered at the April Bay of Islands Festival. The other collection, coming from AUP later this year, is Poems for Miss Black. Lauris’s enormous personal archive will certainly yield further publications.

Depending how they’re counted, Lauris has given us about fifteen volumes of poetry since 1975, plus a novel and three volumes of autobiography. Her honours include the Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship, the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, the OBE for services to literature, and an honorary doctorate from Massey. We have no comparable twenty-five year literary record.

Lauris’s works concern her life, youth’s eagerness, marriage breakdown, her daughter Rachel’s suicide, and above all her love for surviving children Virginia, Frances, Martin, Stephanie, and Katherine, and for her fifteen grandchildren. Friendships too, literature and art, her beloved Wellington; and increasingly towards the end, humanistic meditations on time, death, and the meaning of life.

Her abiding subject has been people, in settings we’re familiar with. The very familiarity of much in her work – the familial, the homely above all – is such that it surprises, in the end, to realise how few poets have ventured so deeply into this territory. In her eulogy, Bridget Williams drew upon words of Vincent O’Sullivan’s that go to the core of Lauris’s work: “There is a kind of poetry that begins and ends where most of us live most of the time – what you would call the gratitude for things being what they are.” Poetry for Lauris was for sharing the experiences of life, and where possible the wisdom gained from them.

Her personality and her poetry are inseparable. Memories of her will be metaphors of both. Lauris in her very feminine style of dress perhaps, often in green and yellow, sometimes a stylish shawl, a bright scarf, a colourful jacket, hair controlled but free. All very natural, but nothing without art. She wants only to talk in her pleasant drawl about what you’re doing, and tell you about her friends and work, and sometimes wonder about the mystery of life. Unforgettable occasions, never to happen again. But the poetry and the personality will endure.

The dead stay with you always
taking house-room, finding in you
their haven and harbour; and this happens
even though you know their going sealed off
for you a segment of the whole circle
of things …

(from “Rain in the Hills”)

Ken Arvidson

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