Listening for the voice, Janet Hughes

Coming to it: Selected Poems
Sam Hunt
Potton and Burton, $30.00,
ISBN 9780947503802

Poeta: Selected and New Poems
Cilla McQueen
Otago University Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9781988531281

Watching for the Wingbeat: New and Selected Poems
Pat White
Cold Hub Press, $40.00,
ISBN 97804734444204

A “Selected Poems” doesn’t confer quite the accolade of a collected, with its connotations of canonisation. But the poet is more likely to have a hand in shaping it, and to be around to enjoy it; it is more likely to privilege reading pleasure; and it’s simply more likely to happen. Back when publishers were powerful arbiters and gatekeepers, a selected poems affirmed a career and a reputation. Now that there are more gates and fewer keepers, the fact of a selected probably carries less freight.

But a selected poems offers some specific satisfactions, as these three volumes attest. It can revive and compound the joys of the original slim volumes if you have read them, give you a crash course if you haven’t. It can impart biographical and historical perspective; and, above all, it can multiply the sparks that poems will strike off each other and expand the pleasure of immersion in a world filtered through a distinctive mind and voice. These poets have all persuaded readers, reviewers and judges that they are worth reading, so this review is more about the success of the books as “new and selected” collections than the way the poems reward first acquaintance.  

The Sam Hunt volume is simply subtitled “Selected”, but it is essentially the same deal as the others, taking in previously unpublished work. This I learned from the jacket flap, while the media release told me it features his early poems “prominently”. The book gives no indication of its organising principle, source titles or publication dates, so the poems are unmoored in time and the poet’s career. But it does include an index of first lines – the target audience is assumed to know Hunt’s popular work well, and be more likely to chase lines recalled from performance, than to study development or publication history. I can discern a rough chronological arc through the volume, with more partners and children in the early pages, more death and loss and resignation towards the end; but Hunt is so given to nostalgia, that clearly the event may long precede the poem. 

This volume is nicely designed and produced, feels good in the hand. It is cased, with creamy paper, generous margins, and a ribbon marker. Wrapped around the dust-jacket is a misty, high-keyed coastal image. The band of minimal landforms breaking still water in the middle distance seems to me to catch Hunt’s amalgam of immediacy and distance, tenderness and bluntness, his remote horizon. 

The collection canvasses Hunt’s habitual topics: place and landscape, weather and tides; relationships and loss; alcohol and ennui; fellowship and solitude; love, birth and death. It is a modest selection, considering that Hunt’s long, popular career has resulted in 22 collections, with a perhaps premature Collected Poems 1963–1980.  We recall him principally as a performer, an itinerant pub bard. We imagine him intoning poems before a live audience, in a ringing, declamatory style and a voice with an unmistakeable timbre, creamy and gritty at the same time.

Voice in the other sense – the one that comes off a page and resonates in the reader’s inward ear – is a big part of why we like a poet, or not. It’s an artifice, synthesised from linguistic and rhetorical means, some of them peculiar to poetry (say, line breaks), some of them (like syntax and punctuation) shared with prose. There is no guarantee of congruence between the voice you summon up from the encoded page and the one you hear from a poet in live performance. This may or may not matter, but it’s hard to avoid examining it when the live voice is as memorable and widely disseminated as Hunt’s. 

Much of the rhetorical force of Hunt’s poetry comes from the live delivery, particularly his way with rising or sustained inflections, and the vivid bardic persona he has cultivated. On the page, the poems are quieter things, sometimes less forceful, less stroppy or less intimate, depending on the subject, without that declamatory force. This has two implications for the audience. One is that any echo we can hope for of the familiar performance will be subdued and partial. The other is a more elusive change in the implied connection between speaker and audience. It shifts away from intimacy, so that even when the poem launches from a fundamentally intimate scenario, addressing a lover or the ghost of his mother, the larger contours of life and relationships are more apparently the subject.

So a reader who had never heard Hunt recite – there will be more now he has retired from the road – might well imagine the speaker without a platform, musing in quiet conversation, or solitary on a shoreline. This doesn’t mean the poems don’t succeed on the page; but they weigh differently without the rhetorical power of performance, so that the dominant note is elegiac. There are some blunt, gritty poems about sex and drinking and drifting; but even they often resonate with nostalgia or regret, seeking some accommodation with time and decay. On the page, they are maybe less defiant, more rueful. In “No Exit”, Hunt evokes the Taranaki coast: “narrow roads that only go / headlong for the sunset”; this is the place that, one way or another, he takes us to again and again. I have a sense that this modest selection is about the right amount of Hunt to corral between hard covers.

Cilla McQueen’s Poeta is a generous selection befitting her prolific, distinguished career. I want to say she has a very consistent voice (I’ve never heard her in person), but tested against the text the idea proves slippery, because McQueen commands such technical variety, and essays such a range of topics and approaches. The poems shift from spare to voluble, chatty to telegraphic, conversational to incantatory. Stylistic influences come and go; meaning is organised in every way from free verse paragraphs to elliptical concatenations. Nevertheless, the voice creates a firm sense of presence, defined by deftness and precision. It has a musicality to it always, fluid and free of grandiloquence, which lifts off the page and persists through all the diversity.

There is consistency, too, in the poet’s way of thinking, framing things. The setting is often domestic, with an intimate scale or close view. The touch is light, and the approach and tone finely tuned and flexible; the thought is often complex and subtle, as is the technical craft. McQueen can do whimsy, and it has tended to define her popular image: we’ve had “Dogwobble” on buses and “Crikey!” on posters on power poles. But the comic mimicry with which “Crikey” captures the daft distraction of new love involves quite some technical sophistication. She brings the same light touch to the gamut of moods and subjects, rendering bigger, harder things manageable without diminishing them. 

In a 2004 interview with Nick Ascroft, McQueen speaks of “the stringencies and discipline of working with language in order to make something tougher and more concentrated than mere consecutive utterances”, and the toughness and deliberate craft can be discerned under and through the superficial lightness. The early “Vegetable Garden Poem 1”, for instance, catalogues the contents, sights and sounds of a suburban garden. At the fulcrum of the poem, the speaker, disturbed by a passing train, hides from the waving passengers, but reveals herself abruptly to the reader: “A friend of ours shot himself/ yesterday. / Imagine.” The scrupulous cataloguing is resumed, now revealed as evasion, and a strenuous effort “to get things straight”. This sophistication worn lightly makes Poeta reward revisiting amply, yet the poems present no obstacles on first approach.

The collection is organised into thematic groups, described as “rooms”, and is roughly chronological. And each poem is annotated helpfully with the volume and date of its first publication. It’s a good book to browse, though a title index might have been handy. The format is spacious and the page well-designed and, again, the hardback format and ribbon marker signal substance; but this intent does not carry through consistently in the production values. A printed hard cover incorporates the design functions of a dust jacket without its utility. And then the paper, so optically white it’s faintly purple, does a particular disservice to McQueen’s lovely monochrome illustrations. Her abstract ink and pencil “scores” end up in reproduction looking oddly like photocopies. 

The Pat White volume is less monumentally conceived, being soft-covered, but strikingly designed. Beautiful use is made of a Woollaston ink-drawing, representing the poet’s rural perspective, and the typography and cream paper complete the package gracefully. The selection, credited to the publisher, is generous and presented chronologically by source volume.

White’s observation of his surroundings is what commentators fasten onto, perhaps unsurprisingly as he is also a painter, but I think this sells him short. Yes, he evokes places and moments acutely, with patient attention and a sharp eye, but usually in the service of ideas, narratives and intertextual dialogue. He sits well within the tradition of the thinking bloke, the artistic outdoorsman (it’s a gendered genre, I think, almost always) – attuned to the natural world and rural environments as settings for deep and wide reflection, filtered through scholarship. 

The poems are rich in variety and insight. They deal with local places and personal moments, and also explore New Zealand colonial and European history, geopolitical upheavals, environmental politics, the legacies of writers and artists. The selection follows White through gradual stylistic shifts – away from mannered layouts, towards looser, more voluble verse paragraphs and plainer speaking. Some of the movement reflects changing trends in poetry, some the development of a more flexible, colloquial voice, as White hones his skill with longer forms and sequences.

I don’t find the voice consistently compelling. It doesn’t lift off the page readily, sometimes at all. The connection with the reader falters intermittently, with a metaphor that tries too hard, a sentence that gets tangled, a soaring arc that crash-lands. But the difficulties become less distracting with close attention, which White’s extended syntax demands of the reader anyway, and it can be well worth pushing through. At their best, the poems have an elegiac ring and a compelling contour, particularly in the powerful Gallipoli sequence.

The lapses sometimes come down to mechanics, mostly punctuation. In poetry, you can break as many rules as you can get away with. You can replace punctuation with visual cues such as line breaks; or you can retain prose conventions, so they interact with rhythmic structures. What you can’t get away with is mixing up these two sets of options within a poem – not, at least, without tripping up the reader. So if you follow some questions with question marks, others in the same poem with naked line-breaks, for example, or if you use commas without primary sentence punctuation, the reader will stumble and scan for missing cues, even if they have no idea why. And misplaced commas can simply get in the way of meaning. White reads best – and most clearly – when he eventually ditches sentence punctuation and lets the sense and lineation carry his strung-out syntactical sequences.

A selected poems celebrates a poet at the top of their game, inviting retrospection. Intimations of the contours of 20th-century poetics can be discerned in these summative collections from acclaimed Pākehā poets. Now the communication codes and publishing models of that period are under all kinds of pressure, and poetry, after threatening to vanish, is finding multiple new modes and directions. These poets’ successors are likely to be from more diverse backgrounds, to connect with their audiences by different means, and to compose in new forms for different publics. And the pinnacle of poetic achievement is likely to be marked quite differently, almost certainly not by issuing a book. 

Janet Hughes is a Wellington reviewer, editor and poet.

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