Obituary — Harvey McQueen

Harvey McQueen


Harvey McQueen, who died in Wellington on December 25, was a poet, anthologist, reviewer, memoirist, educational journalist and author, past president of PEN (now New Zealand Society of Authors (PEN NZ Inc)), and literary gardener – a versatile presence. In the last two years of his life, despite illness, he became the unexpected master of a new literary form – the personal blog.

Much about McQueen’s literary career seemed unexpected, partly because of his genuine modesty, and partly because he came into literature as a high school teacher and public servant. In 1974 he was the conventional schools inspector in jacket and tie who (with Lois Cox) compiled a student anthology (Ten Modern New Zealand Poets) that donated wide readership to a generation of unconventional and tie-less poets. Sam Hunt, Kevin Ireland, Bill Manhire and Albert Wendt gained much from being placed alongside better-known names like Fleur Adcock, James K Baxter and Janet Frame. A keen nose for tangy new work and astute choice of more familiar ingredients was the characteristic recipe for McQueen’s anthologies.

His next surprise was to publish a collection of his own sometimes uncomfortably personal poetry, Against the Maelstrom (1981). That’s not expected of assistant directors of curriculum development. And in partnership with Ian Wedde, he dropped an unexpected bomb into conformist NZ Lit when their Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse featured for the first time in a national collection a substantial selection of Maori oral texts. If that seems obvious now, it wasn’t in 1985. They redefined New Zealand poetry without obeisance to Curnow’s more doctrinaire definition in the original 1960 Penguin.

A principled and independent streak had caused McQueen as a student to withdraw from training for the Presbyterian ministry, and it ruffled the even tenor of his way again in 1985, at age 51, when he resigned from well-paid, well-pensioned public service, after being passed over for a high-level promotion. In reality, the decision was a leap for life from the bureaucratic tower-block, perhaps prompted by his happy second marriage, also in 1985, to the equally independent-minded writer and editor Anne Else.

He did well as a freelance educational consultant and journalist, with even a bit of acting for TV commercials on the side, as when he embodied an entire enraptured concert audience for the NZSO. But he was not long off the stage. In 1987 his columns in the National Business Review impressed Prime Minister David Lange, who was then engaging with the education portfolio. As education speech writer and later press secretary, McQueen became the Big Man’s admirer, mentor, minder and mate, in years when “Tomorrow’s Schools” was consolation for a government in disarray and a leader in decline.

McQueen’s The Ninth Floor: Inside the Prime Minister’s Office (1991) is, I wrote in the Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature, “an informed commentary on the educational and political history, while his sympathetic treatment of Lange gives a narrative undertow close to tragedy.” Even more unusually, he used the same experience for a verse sequence, “Beehive” (in Pingandy, 1999). Plenty of poets snipe superficially at politicians, but no other has been able to make poetry out of knowing from the inside how they spend their day, or link their doings to his own inner life – as when a phone call from Lange comes right after one that brought news of the tragic death of McQueen’s stepson.

During these stressful years on the inside edge of the political battlefield, he managed to co-edit the Penguin Book of Contemporary New Zealand Poetry (with Wedde and Miriama Evans, 1989), and at the opposite end of literary chronology, The New Place: The Poetry of Settlement in New Zealand 1852-1914 (1993). Brit-flavoured colonial verse is not cool these days – McQueen the unexpected again. Though he was not a heavyweight scholar, this collection of a neglected era’s poets judged on their merits, and his related author entries in the Oxford Companion, made a contribution that some day will be understood as valuable.

McQueen continued to weave a challenging course between public leadership and private writing. On short-term appointments, he headed the Council for Teacher Education and the Teachers’ Registration Board/Teachers’ Council. He also qualified as a justice of the peace. His ONZM in 2002 recognised services to both education and literature.

Reduced mobility caused by myositis (“my cruel malady,” he called it in a late poem) meant his last years were devoted to literature, including some vigorous reviewing for New Zealand Books and the New Zealand Listener. That, and cooking, nature-watching, his marriage, friendships and conversation. And gardening, for he sprang another surprise, and acquired a popular following as New Zealand’s literary gardener.  This Piece of Earth (2004) is a delightfully eclectic mix of gardener’s calendar, bird guide, cookbook, love-letter, autobiographical memoir and wide-ranging meditation – all old forms, in a new combination. He followed it with an anthology of New Zealand garden poems, The Earth’s Deep Breathing (2007).

Despite debilitation, he grew stronger as a writer, in poetry and prose. In his last year, he published an engaging daily blog, “Stoat Spring,” as reliably as the public servant showing up at the office; and two books. Goya Rules (his seventh collection) contains probably his best poetry, and These I Have Loved is an anthology of his favourite New Zealand poems. As before, the selection from his eclectic reading is steered by personal judgment rather than obligation or orthodoxy. In a final gesture of his freedom from fashionable literary correctness, he unashamedly took a line from Rupert Brooke for his title.

McQueen may have been underrated by some because he was hard to label, and disinclined to seek celebrity. It is premature to make large claims. Let’s just say he was, overall, a more creative and formative literary presence than has been noticed, took poetry to thousands of new readers, and made poetry out of the daily living and inner life of contemporary educated New Zealanders – everyone, that is, who reads this journal.

Roger Robinson


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