Obituary – Bill Sewell

Bill Sewell (1951-2003)


Bill Sewell achieved excellence in an unusually wide variety of areas. While versatility is sometimes the province of the amateur, this was not so with Bill, whose manifold fruiting branches sprang from a single and solid trunk and were fed by the single sap of a passionate concern with language. The fruits he left are a vigorous record of writing in a range of forms – poetic, essayistic, critical, editorial, legal – which together remind us of the centrality of language in our lives, and the importance of using it with respect: which means with sensitivity and precision.

Bill was the only child of two academics. His father, Shakespeare scholar William Arthur Sewell (1903-72) was born in Yorkshire, studied at Leeds and Oxford, and after occupying academic posts in Cape Town, Auckland, Athens, Barcelona, Ankara and Beirut, became Professor of English at the University of Waikato. Bill has left a memoir of him in his contribution to the volume he edited, Sons of the Fathers (1997). In Auckland in 1945 Arthur Sewell met Rosemary Seymour, whom he married in 1951, the year in which Bill was born. She was later also to join the staff at Waikato, as a lecturer in women’s studies.

Bill’s early life was spent in Mediterranean countries; he was educated at the English public school Stowe, then at St Paul’s Collegiate School in Hamilton. He completed an MA(Hons) in German at Auckland in 1972, then wrote a doctoral thesis at Otago on the contemporary German poet, Hans Magnus Enzensberger. Bill’s attachment to German literature, especially Rilke’s poetry, remained keen all his life. Until 1988 Bill stayed in Dunedin, initially working as a lecturer and tutor in German at Otago, then as Robert Burns Fellow in 1981 and 1982. From 1983 to 1988 he was a publisher’s editor at John McIndoe Ltd, from 1984 also at the University of Otago Press, of which he became managing editor. This period saw the publication of his first three volumes of poetry, Solo Flight (1982), Wheels Within Wheels (1983), and Making the Far Land Glow (1986).

While Bill had hoped to find a permanent position in a New Zealand German Department, he later rejoiced that he had escaped this fate. With his move to Wellington in 1988 he embraced a change in career, completing an LLB at Victoria University and taking up a position from 1991 to 1997 as legal research officer (later senior legal research officer) at the Law Commission. At Bill’s funeral Sir Kenneth Keith pointed out that Bill’s achievements include a substantial contribution not only to New Zealand’s law-writing, but also to its law-making. Bill’s literary interests continued in the publishing of reviews and poetry, and from 1991 to 1993 he officiated as President of the New Zealand Poetry Society. In 1997 he left the Law Commission to become a freelance writer and editor, specialising in legal communication; from January 1998 he joined Harry Ricketts as editor of New Zealand Books, a post he held until just before his death. Ricketts and others have paid tribute to Bill’s excellence as an editor: his wide and deep knowledge of New Zealand writing and writers, his efficiency, accuracy, and fairness of mind. Most crucially, Bill was independent in his judgements, an observer rather than a participant in literary tussles. In Bridget Williams’ phrase, a man of quiet rectitude.

In the March issue of New Zealand Books Bill’s friend Brian Turner made an eloquent plea for the poetry in Making the Far Land Glow, describing it as “Sewell’s most lyrical performance”. Bill followed that volume with two more in which his achieved lyric voice served an ambition he had first essayed in Solo Flight: to treat in substantial cyclic form a pivotal occurrence in New Zealand history. Erebus: A Poem (1999) and The Ballad of Fifty-one (2003), with their pervasive moral vision, their versatility of perspective and technique, their richly allusive interweaving of levels personal, public and philosophical, are Bill’s most characteristic achievements, and may be his most enduring. Together with the anthology Essential New Zealand Poems (2001) which he co-edited with Lauris Edmond, they reveal what this writer essentially was: a sharply intelligent, alert, thoughtful, and stringent man who combined poetic flair with discriminating judgement; who cared as profoundly about his country’s social and political condition as he loved its mountains, clouds and tramping tracks; and who never allowed his ear for the sensual and evocative properties of words to override his respect for their meanings.

In temperament Bill was complicated: a restlessly romantic stoic. While he controlled his emotions with a mental self-discipline which made him an unusually private man, his friends were also allowed to enjoy those goblins in him – variously indignant, bemused, or chuckling – which gave such life to his poetry. He valued and cared for those friends as much as they did him. He is much missed.

Peter Russell


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