Sounds like us, Harry Ricketts

Classic New Zealand Poets in Performance
Jack Ross and Jan Kemp (eds)
Auckland University Press, $45.00, 
ISBN 9781869403676

Contemporary New Zealand Poets in Performance
Jack Ross and Jan Kemp (eds)
Auckland University Press, $45.00, 
ISBN 9781869403959

Wordsworth had a Northern burr. Keats may well have sounded Cockney (one manuscript apparently has “sea-spry” for “sea-spray”, Leigh Hunt’s nickname for him, “Junkets”, perhaps twitted his accent). So when Keats read aloud the opening line of “Ode to a Nightingale”, it could have sounded something like: “My ‘eart haches an’ a drowsy numbness pines my sense”. But we will never know for sure quite how those poets sounded.

Not that everyone wants to know. Some people complain that poets are often bad readers of their work. They cite T S Eliot’s notoriously flat delivery and Ezra Pound’s weird bardic rant. All the same, I still want to know how the writer hears the lines in their head, where they put the emphasis. This enhances the effect of the poem, the inner rhythm as much as the sense.

So, as far as I am concerned, Jack Ross and Jan Kemp have done local poetry lovers a good turn with these two collections of our own poets reading their work. Classic New Zealand Poets in Performance runs from A R D Fairburn to Brian Turner, Contemporary New Zealand Poets in Performance from Peter Olds to Roma Potiki. Each collection is handsomely designed and, to accompany two CDs of the poets’ voices, contains the text of the poems plus brief biographical and bibliographic details. (A third collection, presumably of younger voices, is promised.) Some of the material dates back to Jan Kemp’s involvement in an earlier version of the project with Alan Smythe and Jonathan Lamb in 1974, most, though, stem from recordings she and others made in 2002.

In Classic New Zealand Poets, Albert Wendt scores highest with seven poems, followed by C K Stead and Vincent O’Sullivan with six apiece. James K Baxter, surprisingly, is allowed only three poems, the justly celebrated “Poem in the Matukituki Valley” and two lesser items. Surely, he deserved better. These recordings do remind you what a rounded, rather plummy voice he had.

The late Allen Curnow, also surprisingly, only gets five poems though these do include the iconic “House and Land”, “The Unhistoric Story” and “The Skeleton of the Giant Moa in the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch”. As a reader, Curnow tends towards the Eliotesque end (ie rather flat), but the small flicks he gives to “some” and “trick” in that much-quoted couplet “Not I, some child, born in a marvellous year,/Will learn the trick of standing upright here” are well worth catching. Apparently at a reading late in his life, Curnow made a slip delivering “The Bells of St Babel’s” and, remarking it was a pity to mar such a good poem, proceeded to read it all over again. A recording of that would be an interesting item.

My personal highlights include the clipped twang of R A K Mason’s “Flow at Full Moon”, Hone Tuwhare’s throaty, smoky rendering of “Rain”, Lauris Edmond’s bleakly elegiac “Before a Funeral” and, especially, Fleur Adcock’s throwaway delivery of “Smokers for Celibacy”, which makes the rhymes seem to appear almost as a surprise:

If it’s a choice between two objects of 
                             cylindrical shape
we go for the one that is seldom if ever guilty 
                                       of rape.
Cigarettes just lie there quietly in their packs
waiting until you call on one of them to help 
you relax.


So, readings by 27 poets, 12 of them dead. The obvious absentees, presumably because never recorded, are Ursula Bethell, Robin Hyde, and Eileen Duggan.

Contemporary New Zealand Poets in a similar format also contains 27 contributors. Again, the selection of poets is reasonably uncontentious though the choice of some of the individual poems seems a bit perverse. This is, after all, a record for posterity as much as anything else. There are fairly generous servings of Bill Manhire, Bernadette Hall, Ian Wedde (too many ‘Sonnets for Carlos’, not enough recent stuff), Sam Hunt, Cilla McQueen (too thin a selection), Apirana Taylor, and Anne French (but why nothing from The Male as Evader?). Keri Hulme’s inclusion seems a bit marginal, as does that of Richard Von Sturmer. On the other hand, Bill Sewell’s presence with four poems is particularly welcome, ditto that of Stephanie de Montalk.

With the huge increase in poetry readings over the last 30 years, some voices are extremely familiar. Everyone can do a Sam Hunt impersonation, that high, blokey, love-scarred, half-chant. And Bill Manhire’s signature twist of the voice, once heard, is unmistakably audible throughout his work. But that will not always be the case. Future listeners will be grateful to hear how these poets sounded. For them, it will fractionally help to close the gap between themselves and the foreign country of our own time, just as the comparable gap between us and the late 19th century is momentarily bridged by the famous faint, crackly 1890 recording of Tennyson reading “The Charge of the Light Brigade” in his just discernible Lincolnshire accent.


Harry Ricketts is co-editor of New Zealand Books and the author of eight collections of poems, mostly recently Your Secret Life (2005).


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