Shocks and conversations, Mark Williams

The Friday Poem: 100 New Zealand Poems 
Steve Braunias (ed)
David Bateman, $25.00,
ISBN 9780473450281

Short Poems of New Zealand
Jenny Bornholdt (ed)
Victoria University Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9781776562022

Two new poetry anthologies: one featuring beautifully composed small poems selected across the New Zealand literary landscape from Arnold Wall, born in 1869, to twelve-year-old “Mary”; in the other, poems published between 2015 and 2018 that are various in length, sometimes full of delinquency, and keen to display a spikey newness.

Steve Braunias, in his introduction to The Friday Poem, looks back admiringly to Arthur Baysting’s 1973 anthology The Young New Zealand Poets, finding there the excitement of a new generation of poets democratising literary language and shucking off the burdens of cultural nationalism. He sees his own anthology, compiled nearly 50 years later from poems published every Friday in The Spinoff, as continuing the loosening up of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Above all, he attaches his anthology to the outbreak of excitement and renovation that he finds in the earlier one. Excitement, indeed, is the dominant note of his introduction, a quality he identifies as central to the current literary moment and especially its brilliant newcomers. As one of Braunias’s poets observes, “It’s exciting to be writing during this time” – not as elegantly put as Wordsworth’s recall of a truly revolutionary moment, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven!”, but indicating a similar enthusiasm.

Baysting had the necessary mixture of subversiveness and authority to make his entry both a challenge to eminent voices (Allen Curnow or James K Baxter) and a welcome announcement of fresh ones. His book had chutzpah, too. Braunias notes that Baysting’s book cover describes it as “the most exciting collection of poetry to have appeared in New Zealand”, a fair estimation given that reader excitation had not much figured in the plans of prior editors. Certainly, the democratic distance of Baysting’s anthology from Curnow’s high-toned Penguins was exhilarating; and, without Ian Wedde’s historical responsibilities in his 1985 Penguin, Baysting was able to focus on what best expressed the present and indicated several of the major writers of following decades. Has Braunias, then, produced a book that reflects and announces, like The Young New Zealand Poets, a notable shift in practice, mood, and tolerance? Is his anthology indeed, as he claims, “evidence” of a moment of excitement and renovation, even of “some kind of revolution”? 

Hera Lindsay Bird’s “Keats is Dead So Fuck Me from Behind” is the annunciatory poem in this collection and was greeted with understandable excitement. The poem arrived with éclat, with its shock of explicit sexuality, extravagantly indecorous language and irreverence towards eminent ancestors. It was also a cunningly literary poem, its outrageous title referencing a poem by R A K Mason, in which the New Zealand poet, daunted by the great tradition of English poetry, sighingly situates himself bringing “up the rear”. But locating a literary or pedagogical context does not tame the poem’s affront to familiar ways of writing and reading New Zealand literature. Here was something in a new language – as unembarrassed about sexuality as Baxter’s bawdy poems, but without his macho bravado or creepy religiosity – something conveyed in an easy, deceptively personal, contemporary voice, but one also highly aware of the literary effects being generated. And the “shocking” content is clever, knowing, and sure of its reader (or of the reader it is inventing). Another line from the poem, “Bend me over like a substitute teacher”, is one that no New Zealand poet other than Bird, except perhaps Denis Glover, could have arrived at with its mixture of humour, sangfroid, unlikely use of simile, and embedding in the legendary tales of New Zealand teaching. 

Braunias’s case for a “new poetic”, to borrow a phrase put to good use by C K Stead, is centred on Bird. Still, the collection is pleasingly various in voice and style. Familiar tricks of the IIML cohabit happily with quite new ways of writing Māori poetry. Tayi Tibble is the outstanding example here, and Braunias justly makes much of her. Maggie Rainy-Smith’s “Jogging” dispenses with the anxieties of current sexual discourse to catch, retrospectively, the ambivalent complexity of sexual initiation for Catholic baby boomers: 

my first sex was technically
rape but consenting all the same
because I come from a generation
prepared to take half the blame
and I was grateful as a Catholic
to lose my virginity while saying no.

This ruefully deadpan revisiting of the internalised mores governing 1960s sexuality is as shocking in its way as “Fuck Me from Behind” is for a contemporary sexuality that is seemingly relaxed, but also patrolled by the guardians of prevailing norms.

Such moments as that which greeted Bird’s poem usually indicate a shift in cultural outlook, as well as literary practice. These shifts need to be articulated and argued as well as illustrated. Braunias is keen to announce his momentous shift without lapsing from the lively clarity of good journalism to the rebarbative arguments of the avant-garde or academia. Nevertheless, he carefully embeds his own anthology in the history of local anthologies, going back as far as W F Alexander and A E Currie’s 1906 New Zealand Verse, the contents of which he observes are mostly “junk”. Moreover, the editors, as he allows, “seem[ed] to agree”. The tentativeness of Alexander and Currie’s ur-anthology might be seen as a suitable warning against overstating the achievements of the present. Curnow approved of their editorial modesty and was cautious himself about announcing prematurely that New Zealand poetry had arrived. 

Braunias is not so cautious in advancing his transformative moment, and it might be said that the undoubted newness and quality of many of the poems in this book did not need to be inserted so energetically into a history of periodic renovation. Braunias has a good ear for poems that memorably record the now without cultural grandstanding. In the current scene – or that part of it he approves – he notes a predominance of women, and substantiates the positive force of that presence in the text. He represents poets with established reputations alongside newcomers; he recognises neglected ones like Gordon Challis; he draws attention to poets that deserve more attention, like Nick Ascroft. He gathers together poems that find linguistically arresting ways of registering the, often banal, activities of our time, notably watching television and fixating on the icons of yesterday. Above all, he picks up the casual voice and insouciant manner of current writing – saturated in media culture but ironic, politically aware but not pious, culturally curious but uninterested in nation. 

There is, then, evidence of something new in The Friday Poem, a shift to writing that brings new energy, or excitement, to a long entrenched turn against the self-consciously “poetic”. Braunias has made a selection of recent work that indicates a confident mood, fresh voices and new ways of doing things. Some of these, like Bird and Tibble, are likely to join the established and stellar poets included, like Manhire, Brian Turner, Wedde and Elizabeth Smither. There is a danger, though, amid so much excitement: that one takes the latest eructations of the unpoetic as revolutionary. Braunias resists that danger, but he tends to concentrate on the effects of the revolution he describes, rather than anatomising its constituent parts or defining the “new poetic” he has on offer. 

If Braunias is focused on the present moment, Bornholdt is removed from such immediate considerations. Her collection is not animated by revolutionary moments; it is observant of what connects good poetry from different periods, rather than eagerly promoting sharp breaks, aware of the qualities within poetic practice and form that make for longevity. The poems are not arranged in terms of the periods they belong to. They are, nevertheless, almost invisibly organised into thematic sections and they do conduct discrete conversations among themselves.

Bornholdt lets the poems do all the talking. Unlike the gregarious Braunias, she is a self-effacing editor. She is also a tougher judge. As one of the three editors, along with Bornholdt and Greg O’Brien, of the 1997 Anthology of New Zealand Poetry in English, which Braunias cites, I can confirm Greg’s view that Jenny was the toughest judge. It is this toughness that gives consistency to the selection of poems unconnected in terms of period or outlook or style. Because they are executed within a tight space, they have to be nimble, and one often finds that they turn on a phrase or line that produces surprise or reversal or bathos, as in Sam Duckor-Jones’s “text message”, where the bucolic atmosphere produced by a warbler shifts to trucks carrying lambs to slaughter, or Keri Hulme’s untitled poem in which the line “Ah, sweet life” gives way to cancers and tapeworms, or O’Brien’s conflating of the Pacific voyages of heroic historical figures with modern marine detritus: a bucket, a jandal, bits of plastic. 

Braunias describes Bird’s “Keats Is Dead” as his “anthology’s dark star, its central gravitational pull”; it is futile to seek such a centring work in Bornholdt’s anthology. Bornholdt is not arguing a case or announcing a new poetic moment or movement. She doesn’t need a poem that gathers all the others together or storms the barricades of contemporary taste. There are poems, like Dinah Hawken’s piece from The Harbour Poems with its stunning last line “the green verb releasing everything”, that seem to concentrate lines of attention in the book, as the poet moves from nature to language for ways of being in the world, picked up elsewhere in poems like Ruth Dallas’s “The Pool” (“Ripples from a stone / Dropped in a pool / Like a poem’s meaning / Go travelling on”), even perhaps the surreal penetration of the lovers’ bodies by nature in Manhire’s “Poem”. In such poems, attention to being and care for language and how we live are so deeply interwoven as to be indistinguishable. 

There is overlap between the anthologies, as one might expect. And while each has its distinct taste and organising intelligence, it would be wrong to see Bornholdt as a genteel guide and Braunias as the gate-crashing cowboy. Wedde’s “Tony’s Tyre Service” in Bornholdt’s book would fit just as neatly into Braunias’s in respect of its pleasure in ordinary humanity and love of non-refined language. The poems Bornholdt has selected are not uniform or even similar, apart from being small and well-made. 

Short Poems of New Zealand is not exquisite or delicate. The poems are linguistically rich and various. Curnow’s crashing sounds in “Wild Iron” cohabit with Hone Tuwhare’s Dylan Thomas-like phrase, “the peach-moon’s / merriment” in “Sapwood and Milk”. Joanna Margaret Paul’s “meditation on blue” offers a delicate ekphrasis, while Geoff Cochrane’s untitled  “Savvy meters clack their blank eyes shut” is a feast of rich language, both sinuous and disturbing (“dice and knucklebones”). Tuwhare’s “Haiku (1)”, Ursula Bethell’s “Detail”, Eileen Duggan’s “Night”, and Cilla McQueen’s “The Mess We Made at Port Chalmers” are all established classics, but plenty of superb yet less familiar poems are here also: Ashleigh Young’s “Rooms”, Anna Livesey’s “Eleven Days” or “Ariel” by one of the veterans of The Young New Zealand Poets, Bob Orr. 

Braunias is conscious of literary history as sequential periods of dullness and excitement. Bornholdt maintains a distance from literary fashions and quarrels, but her collection is not an aesthetic exercise. Her poems are not exquisite miniatures, but concentrations in a limited space of the seemingly opposed qualities found forcibly conjoined in Geoff Cochrane’s work (well represented by both editors): wryness and lyricism, disclosure and distance, pain and beauty, memory and attention to the present. Cochrane has plenty of experience of the Bukowskian side of life to draw on, but his poems are precise, measured, almost affirmative in the fastidious clarity of their unredeemed images.

Bornholdt’s choice not to argue or elaborate in her brief introduction is a point of difference, not just from Braunias, but also from most prior anthologies. Curnow’s famous introductions to his Caxton and Penguin anthologies are probably as often cited as the works that illustrate them inside the covers. Baysting’s The Young New Zealand Poets even gives the poets the opportunity to introduce their own selections. Bornholdt’s reticence here is a kind of statement itself, directing attention to the work; she says more by saying less, appropriately in an anthology of such small poems. 

Numerous poems in Short Poems of New Zealand could fit in Braunias’s selection, by demotic energy if not by period. And both anthologies, however distinctly, are historically attuned. Braunias focuses on the now or the recent, but he pitches his choices and his case in historical terms, like all ambitious anthologisers, by reference to prior anthologies. Bornholdt constructs a kind of continuous conversation among our poets, one that seems to exist in an ahistorical present but which continually suggests points of contact between separated generations, such as Bernadette Hall and Duggan. 

These two anthologies do not sail past each other. Both are constrained, by the size of the poems represented or of the period covered. By concentrating on the small poem, Bornholdt allows herself to pick meticulously from the whole range of the national literature. Braunias focuses on a narrow period of production, but he gives it weight by situating it in the shifting history of literature and taste and by highlighting works that pronounce a confident, refreshingly shocking, newness.

Mark Williams has recently retired from the English programme at Victoria University of Wellington, where he enjoyed teaching, writing and even, at times, anthologising over the last decade.

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