A Canoe in Midstream: Poems New and Old
Canterbury University Press, $25.00,
This year I taught a class of bright year nine students an introductory unit on poetry based on Jewels in the Water, an anthology of New Zealand poetry for schools, published by Leaders Press. We started with a treasure hunt: I asked students to find poems that included a skua and a penguin, a dalek, a railway station at Ranfurly, “a frustrated miner digging for jewels” and so on. The aim was to get students to read as many poems as possible. They also made a list of which poems had caught their eye and looked interesting for further study.
A poem from the anthology that was commonly chosen and appreciated by students was Apirana Taylor’s “Soft Leaf Falls of Light”, a poem composed entirely of combinations of five words:
Soft leaf falls of light
soft light falls of leaf
leaf soft light falls
light soft leaf falls
light falls leaf soft
light light light
soft leaf falls of light.
What was admired was the simplicity of language and the patterning of words: “like a leaf turning in light”, as one student commented. The power of the poem lies in its complete lack of elaboration and pretension; poetry doesn’t have to be flowery, it can be an elegant pattern built out of the simplest words. Like many of Taylor’s poems, this one has a concrete visual sensibility. Although primarily known as a performance poet, Taylor is also a concrete poet, and the visual composition of some poems is reminiscent of the bold patterns of Maori weaving.
I’ve introduced many students to Taylor’s work and it has met with almost universal approval. Taylor has toured many schools and his readings, which include the telling of stories, and the playing of traditional Maori instruments and the guitar, appeal to students. A few years ago, Taylor performed at Porirua College, where I was then teaching, and students clearly connected with both the poems and the performer. Taylor’s extensive touring and performance work provides a key to appreciating the simplicity of much of his poetry. We are used to thinking of young adult novelists but less so of young adult poets. Taylor’s audience, however, like Glenn Colquhoun’s, is a broad church, and the poems in the book with their delight in simple sound patterns evoke a child’s delight in words. “Rat a tat tat” begins:
rat a tat tat
who’s that knocking
rat a tat tat
rat a tat tat
it’s machine-gun Johnny
chatter chat chat
chatter chat chat
The appeal and strength of Taylor’s poetry lie in his confidence in simplicity: simple words and patterns will suffice; elaboration is avoided. There’s a consistency of voice and tone running throughout his work, and punctuation is kept to a minimum. The directness of Taylor’s poetry at times gives his work an explosive force. In perhaps his best-known poem “Sad Joke on a Marae”, it’s the stark rawness of the persona’s mihi that delivers the poem’s blow:
Then I spoke
My name is Tu the freezing worker.
Ngati D.B. is my tribe.
The pub is my Marae.
My fist is my taiaha.
Jail is my home.
In the starkness and pain of this pared-down English and rudimentary Maori a connection with a past is established:
Tihei Mauriora I cried.
the tekoteko and the ghosts
though I said nothing but
for that’s all I knew.
The experience of urban drift and the colonial suppression of Maori language results in bitterness, anger and a kind of haunting of language, as if there are voices and forces outside the scope of the poet’s own tongue that need to be heard and acknowledged. Yet it’s through such elementary words that a connection with these ghosts can still be established: “they understood/the tekoteko and the ghosts”.
There are over 150 short poems in A Canoe in Midstream, and towards the end of the collection these poems tend to blur into each other. If Taylor’s poems are like songs, then the problem of failing interest has to do with the length of the set. There’s little sense of progression in the book in terms of content or style. My hunch is that this lack of development isn’t due to a shortage of talent; rather, it’s a conscious decision on Taylor’s part to keep his work direct and uncomplicated – but in a lengthy collection the keep-it-simple approach acts as a rope that towards the end keeps the canoe tethered. Simplicity has its dangers.
Harvey Molloy’s first poetry collection Moonshot was published in 2008.