What makes a good poem is whatever it takes to lift the words beyond the sum of their parts, beyond formula or well-intentioned recipe. A good poem may be loud or quiet, traditional or innovative, complex or simple. Like many good gifts, it may not be what I have always wanted, but I savour the delight as I fall in love with it.
For twelve months, such gifts landed in my post box. I never knew what to expect, but the pleasure in having one’s reading horizons widened in such a way is immeasurable. Alongside the steady feast from the University Presses (I applaud their commitment to poetry), poems arrived from eclectic sources. In my view, their appearance signalled a poetry community that is ‘alive and kicking.’
A few examples are worth noting. Steele Roberts continues to take risks that expand our appreciation of poetry, with collections such as Douglas Wright’s shift from the intimacy of dance to that of poetry in Laughing Mirror and the gorgeous production of Claire Beynon’s poems and images in Open Book. When the books are as lovingly made as Dunedin’s Kilmog Press examples (check out Mark Pirie’s Private Detective) or Auckland’s Soapbox Press (see Jack Ross's Papyri), the possibilities for the published poem are enhanced.
Stalwarts Landfall, Sport, JAAM, Brief, and Takahe, and other magazines, such as the Listener, New Zealand Books, and North & South are raising the profile of poetry. New arrivals such as Bravado present an excellent mix of new and established voices. Online sites Trout, Turbine, and The Lumière Reader also contribute to the poetry feast.
In 2006, the editors of Best New Zealand Poems, Anne Kennedy and Robert Sullivan, noted that ‘there were far fewer books or poems in periodicals by Maori and Asian writers than others, per capita.’ This is still the case, and so I welcome any move towards satisfying our hunger for Maori, Pacific Island, and Asian voices. Huia Press and the Earl of Seacliff Art Workshop are two publishing companies doing just that.
Taking my cue from Elizabeth Smither’s splendidly titled book The Year of Adverbs, and after a year of luxurious reading, I decided 2007 was the Year of the Poem. The stack of poems on my study floor measured at least 40 cm in height, and I had to find a way to reduce 40 cm to 25 poems. This was no easy task in a year rich in good poetry.
I have just finished reading Janet Frame’s posthumously published novel, Towards Another Summer (Vintage New Zealand, 2007), and I was struck by the way Charles Brasch’s familiar lines resonated through her exploration of where and how to be at home in the world:
The godwits vanish towards another summer.
Everywhere in light and calm the murmuring
Shadow of departure; distance looks our way;
And none knows where he will lie down at night.
Re-reading Brasch’s lines in view of poems written in 2007, I think we have fine-tuned our relationships with ‘distance’ and that ‘our way,’ whether we consider this to be a location, a route, or a fashion, is an open house. Distance still haunts us; we inhabit a grid of distance that is fuelled by geographical, cultural, temporal, personal, political, intellectual, emotional and spiritual forces. Our lives are governed by distance, but the fascinating dynamics that exist within that grid animate poetry. Distance in the 21st century produces connections, interconnections, misconnections, reconnections, and disconnections.
Most of the poems I have read, and indeed selected, exist beyond the shadow of Brasch’s reverberating line, but I was intrigued by the continued echo of distances (and an intimate counterpoint). Sarah Jane Barnett’s ‘The Drop Distance’ is a wonderful interplay of disconnections and interconnections like a telephone wire or computer connection that on the one hand keeps everything at bay but on the other hand draws everything tantalisingly close.
The contemplation of temporal distance can be glimpsed in two fine poems that respond to a lifetime of writing. C. K. Stead’s sublime representation of writing poems, ‘Into Extra Time,’ highlights a poetry collection that intimately and tenderly draws closer to things that matter. At the heart of the poem, a resistance to writing is met by ‘whatever takes place takes words.’ Stead’s line is the cornerstone of many poems in my editorial choices. In ‘Tidal,’ Alistair Te Ariki Campbell avows that ‘this is my last poem’ after seasons of winds that return poems and seasons of tides that lift them out of reach. This final poem that is born out of ‘tidal wrack’ is small and perfect and moving.
Linguistic distances are also negotiated. Johanna Aitchison’s ‘Miss Red in Japan’ explores the delicious accidents that befall a foreign language speaker through incongruous juxtapositions. The poem’s infectious and lively word play is a feature of her new collection. As a recent guest to these shores, Dora Malech whispers in our ears as though in a foreign tongue and through the dislocation of the dream state; one word/experience refracts into another word/ experience into another word/experience. ‘Dreaming in New Zealand’ is a terrifically fecund revelation of connections and disconnections that is marked by distance yet remains profoundly intimate.
The big questions—‘who am I?’ and ‘where do I come from?’—have taunted thinkers, academics and all manner of writers over the last century in New Zealand. These questions continue to provoke poetic responses. Yet such concerns are no longer staged as a drive to write the archetypal New Zealand Poem. Written during her Rathcoola Residency in County Cork, Fiona Farrell’s ‘The Way of the Dishes’ follows in the footsteps of the legend of a flying feast, her forbears and other travellers. The poem is in itself a feast of surprises as the figure of the tourist overlaps with the literary interloper. In ‘From Darkness to Light,’ Vivienne Plumb turns back to expose the fake façade of the Kerikeri New World Supermarket in an appealing display of the mobility of words.
If the majority of New Zealand poets are not out to capture National Verse, is it at all useful to consider recent poems in the light of ‘our way’? I am thinking of a poem (a way) as a route and as a process of discovery. ‘Our Way’ ought not to be viewed solely in terms of a classical paradigm but as a welcome range of possibilities, as Andrew Johnston implies in his excellent introduction to Best New Zealand Poems 2005. The academy is no longer the Keeper of the Canon but contributes much to the life of poetry. Poems emerge from university courses, secondary schools, bars, big cities, small villages, north and south. We hear poetry in cafés, pubs, libraries, bookshops, art galleries, and at festivals. We see it on the pavements and in shop windows. Poems are published in the mainstream and in the slipstream. Many poets refuse the parochial or provincial argument that elevates one city, one style, or one history over another.
A number of poets write with a sharp edge. Serie (Cherie) Barford’s ‘Making Starfish’ is a sequence of surprising revelations that end up in the sharp point of loneliness. In ‘hope,’ Alice Miller writes that ‘she plays/ the piano like a weapon’ in order to represent the potential disconnectedness of human relations and the fissure between the new and the old, the past and the present. She writes this stunning poem like a weapon as she herself is trying ‘to conceive/ a newness.’
Andrew Johnston’s ‘The Sunflower’ embeds a moving eulogy to his father in an old form (double sestina) that he reclaimed from John Ashbery’s similarly recycled version. Johnston’s poetic tour de force navigates the old and the new on so many levels, and he astutely gives hope to the tired poet/reader: ‘there is nothing new under the sun/ but much of it is mystery.’ I am drawn to the way mystery takes cover in the unfathomable, in the unfamiliar, and in all the bits we can’t remember.
Elizabeth Smither responds to the death of her father by responding to the gaps in memory in the exquisitely crafted ‘Sandwiches.’ The poet cannot recall the fillings, but the sandwiches are like ‘mattresses pressed on grief.’ In one of the most memorable poems I have read in ages, ‘Chemotherapy,’ Geoff Cochrane allows us a view of an unlit birthday candle that signposts an understated grief. These three remarkable poems are testimony to the continued power of poetry to face fundamental issues such as life and death within the simplest but most deeply moving detail.
Several poets are writing new routes through fairytales with delectable linguistic surprises. Anne Kennedy’s achingly contemporary voices in ‘The Pinkish Wine’ and the sizzling word play of Jessica Le Bas’s ‘and I have something to expiate’ are fine examples of this.
Others take a painting as a starting point to a fabulous route to elsewhere in order to recreate something other, as in the measured but alluring composure of Emma Neale’s ‘Kid Gloves,’ Vincent O’Sullivan’s canny ability to fill the distance between life and art in ‘Blame Vermeer,’ and Alison Wong’s quirky marriage of the titles of paintings to a ticketed union in ‘Reflection on a proposal of marriage.’
An economy of words characterises one vital strand of New Zealand poetry and is often viewed in terms of the everyday, the personal, and the easily understood. A number of poems in this selection find initial life in the spare, but these examples move off in different directions that underline the danger of imposing key features upon vital strands. Jenny Bornholdt’s evocative ‘Mrs Winter’s Jump’ shimmers with visual, aural and emotional connections that enable the poem to ‘jump’ beyond its individual parts. Bernadette Hall’s ‘Under Erebus’ also lifts off the page in carefully measured steps that culminate in the restrained yet poignant kick of the final line.
Angela Andrews employs selective detail to build a deeply human portrait in ‘The Wedding Present.’ Janet Charman uses ellipsis and syntactical agility in ‘busy with the short teacher.’ The economy of Anna Jackson’s ‘Second Puppet’ builds a visual centrepiece that is enigmatic, slightly unsettling and ultimately haunting. Each poem presents a line that is economical in its makeup but startling in its resonance: ‘We’re coming out from under dismal’; ‘You wonder if it’s going to be enough’; ‘She took a photo so we’d know’; ‘busy/ with/ don’t notice’; ‘It is my choice to be second puppet/ and not to laugh so much.’
There are numerous other strands (ways) that twist and turn through New Zealand poetry. Not all poets favour an economy of words. Richard Reeve’s ‘Autumn’ is lush with intellectual, emotional, and aural rewards. Cliff Fell’s long and terrific ‘The M at the End of the Earth’ is part on-the-road road poem, part cinematic poem, part narrative poem, and part protest poem.
Finally, I applaud the presence of a political voice in a poetry landscape sustained by lyricism and postmodern detachment. Robert Sullivan is undoing the political mute button and writing with wit and a significantly sharp point in ‘After the UN Rapporteur Supported Maori Customary Rights.’
At one point in January the stack of best poems on my floor stood at 20 cms. I feel bad that so many of these gems remain in the shadows, so like Will in Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife, I want to cut a hole in the sky. My aim, however, is to reveal a simultaneous cluster of best poems:
Saradha Koirala’s magnificent replay of Little Red Riding Hood in ‘An old wolf of a day’ along with Erin Scudder’s ‘Little Red Herring,’ Harry Rickett’s moving eulogy ‘For Cecil,’ the delicious wit in Ashleigh Young’s ‘Robert Smith Month,’ Helen Rickerby’s ‘Passion’ and Tusiata Avia’s ‘Learning Russian,’ the daring of Sue Wootton to place Nabokov in a swamp to talk about time in ‘Bog Confessions,’ the ability of Marty Smith to juggle a political and poetic voice in the ‘The Stolen,’ the lyricism and mesmeric repetition in S. K. Johnson’s ‘She Has Contained,’ Kay McKenzie Cooke’s exquisite rendering of Wallace Stevens’s ‘no ideas but in things’ in ‘no new broom,’ the tenderness and divine space in David Howard’s ‘If It is Earth,’ the haunting disconnections of Jennifer Compton’s ‘Broken House,’ the stuttering symphony that constitutes Wystan Curnow’s ‘1925. RODCHENKO GOES TO PARIS, and finds much to write home about,’ the transcendent movement and stillness in Richard von Sturmer’s ‘At This Time,’ the finely judged mourning in Sue Reidy’s ‘This is the place,’ the delicious enigma in Charlotte Simmons’s ‘…and We All Discuss Cocteau Films,’ the supreme list in Rae Varcoe’s ‘Inscription,’ the wonderful routes through Fiona Kidman’s ‘Marilyn at Malibu,’ the fragility and the love in Jack Ross’s ‘Fragments (2),’ the lucidity and the love in Airini Beautrais’s ‘Twenty–three Love Poems,’ the shimmering (shivering) consolations and probabilities in Amy Brown’s ‘Brownian Motion,’ the gut-wrenching edginess of Katherine Liddy’s ‘Puberty,’ the more restrained edginess in Thérèse Lloyd’s ‘Feeding the Rats,’ and the nutty wordplay in Scott Kendrick’s ‘Gotter Getter Better.’
A good poem has the ability to lift us out of the mundane and make us laugh, weep, reflect and wonder, to entice us to reread it again and again, or to write poems of our own. This morning I picked up What The Roof Dreamt by Denis O’Connor and discovered a poem by Greg O’Brien, ‘The Invisible Fathers’, that moved me and astonished me and reminded me that best poems await us in unexpected places. May Best New Zealand Poems 2007 offer abundant rewards and encourage you to find further routes through New Zealand Poetry.
To celebrate the wit, humour and linguistic verve that is characteristic of many of our poets, I launch Best New Zealand Poems 2007 with a little display of fireworks in the shape of a scorchingly best poem by Chris Price (published in Snorkel #6):
Harriet and the Matches
Harriet hisses and spits —
her snaky locks match
her flame–red lips.
She’s a whiz with the fuzzbox
whipping up a storm
of distortion, burning up
the frets like Hendrix.
Men are often scared to step
too close for fear of the flick
of her tongue, like the flint
of a lighter at the end
of a loose thread hanging
from the sleeve of conversation
they take cover in, to hide
their fraying nerves. Harriet
makes them anxious. When
she does that trick, flicking the
match off the strike, it could fly
in any direction, burn the
hair off the back of your arm
or find a pool of unignited fuel
in you and then the whole thing
could go up. It’s best, around Harriet,
to stay cool, keep your trigger finger
on the extinguisher, hope
Paula Green, Editor