Obituary — Meg Campbell

Meg (Aline Margaret) Campbell (1937-2007)

Meg Campbell died at home in Pukerua Bay on November 17 2007, 24 hours before the launch of her sixth collection, Poems Adrift (Te Kotare Press).

Meg Campbell’s poems have typically reflected on her often intense experiences of childhood, marriage, mental illness, home life, family roles and friendships. Growing up mainly in Palmerston North, she had a disorienting childhood, including an unhappy boarding school period that began at the age of eight, and a rebellious expulsion from Samuel Marsden Collegiate School. At Victoria University she became a promising actor, with successful roles at Unity Theatre, she qualified in speech and drama from Trinity College, London, and planned to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. This talent would resurface 20 years later when she began to write poetry characterised by its dramatic energy of voice.

The defining moment of her life came at a literary party in 1957 when she met poet Alistair Te Ariki Campbell. Coming one year after the party in Cambridge, England, where Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes first met, this Wellington encounter seems destined to accrue a similar if less tragic mythic permanence. The relationship, and the body of poetry it has produced on both sides, are the subject of an important essay by Joy MacKenzie in Between the Lives (2005), drawn largely from personal letters and conversations.

The Campbells married in 1958, and were soon caring for one child from Campbell’s previous marriage to Fleur Adcock, as well as their own first child. A very troublesome decade followed, during which Meg Campbell spent several periods as a psychiatric patient in Porirua Hospital, receiving electric-convulsive therapy. Determined to regain self-respect and identity, she began to write poems, publishing the first, “Solitary Confinement,” in 1979. Only two years later her first book, The Way Back, won the PEN First Book Award for poetry.

Her subsequent volumes were A Durable Fire (1982), Orpheus (1990), The Better Part (in effect a selected poems, 2000), Resistance (2005), and Poems Adrift. She was one of the four poets in How Things Are (1996), and had work in several Kapiti area publications. Though she habitually described herself as a “realist” rather than “romantic”, her apparently personal or domestic poems can forge unexpected links with the mythic or the universal. Her imagery, too, is often not adequately described by the term “realist,” as in her elegy for John M Thomson (first editor of New Zealand Books):

We speak of our love for him
as something rare as the slow
blush of the moon in eclipse,
and close to the earth, and dusky.   

 

The new work in Poems Adrift confirms Meg Campbell as a vigorous and distinct poetic voice that in her late 60s was still developing. The potent imagery and verbal energy often here interact with a droll wit, especially in exploring her religious impulses and uncertainties. Like all of Meg Campbell’s poems, they convey sensitivity of outlook, a feisty identity, and an irrepressible spirit.

Roger Robinson

 

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