Welcome to my excuses, snivels, grovels, and apologies.
I did my best to read everything that was published—including on websites—by New Zealand poets in 2008. But no doubt I missed stuff. My thanks to those publishers and individuals who sent me their books and poems; your hats were at least in the ring. It also meant I encountered some people’s poems more than once—in journals and as personal submissions. And some poems I read many many many times.
I’d also like to thank Clare and Katie at the International Institute of Modern Letters who suffered my ongoing indecision, and the people (two) who gave me their opinions, then the fingers, when I pestered them for help.
So, for what they’re worth, here are a few general impressions about New Zealand poetry in 2008. Forsooth, but we’re a serious lot! The tone and subject matter of the majority of poems was overwhelmingly earnest. There was nothing particularly surprising about the subject matter—people mostly wrote about strong feelings or things they felt strongly about. That’s poetry for you, I guess, and many of the poems I selected reflect this intensity on a personal and/or political level.
I was, however, also pleased to find some silvery ease in Bob Orr’s poem, and out and out good humour in the poems by Gregory O’Brien and Richard von Sturmer. Humour can also be an excellent vehicle for the serious passenger or destination, as the poems by Jenny Bornholdt and Jean McCormack show.
Endings were the most common sites of failure—the zone where otherwise good poems most frequently lost the opportunity to become very good. Perhaps I place too great an importance on endings, but they’re so often the place that lifts you up or lets you down. The ending to Kerrin P. Sharpe’s ‘like rain the thunder’ takes my breath away, Richard von Sturmer’s decision to repeat the phrase ‘and the blue almond sky’ to conclude his sequence is brilliant, and who wouldn’t be moved by Hone Tuwhare’s voice at the end of Jean McCormack’s poem?
I was completely astounded by the volume of poetry some individuals had published in 2008. When not writing, some poets must have spent most of 2008 checking page proofs. The issue here is not so much quantity versus quality, because with poetry less isn’t automatically best, but I will say that not everything is interesting or significant just because it is set down in lines that don’t go all the way across the page.
I’m happy to be able to say that there were a great many good poems published in 2008. On the whole, the more established writers wrote the better poems, and the established publishers—Auckland University Press and Victoria University Press—produced the stronger books. I know saying this will annoy some people, but, as one of the few individuals who’s read just about every New Zealand poem published in 2008, that’s the way I saw it. It’ll be a tough year for the Montana judges: I could have chosen more than one poem from many of the poets represented here with poems sourced from books.
The poetry quality of our literary magazines and websites was a bit more evenly spread—though in terms of overall consistency Landfall, Sport, Turbine and Trout flew the flag. But of course I wasn’t looking for quality control across publications, I was after individual brilliance. As the Randall Jarrell quote goes: ‘A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times; a dozen or two dozen times and he is great.’ Many established writers are very practised at standing outside in the right weather, but that didn’t mean they were necessarily struck by lightning in 2008.
A number of poets seem to be writing what I, in the privacy of my own home, call post-Language poetry. Now, I’m no academic, so it’s best to go here for a good explanation of this exhilarating term. Post-Language poems tend to be a bit more challenging than conventional personal lyrics because some of the standard handholds—narrative, correct grammar and syntax, stable or readily identifiable narrators and subjects—are often missing, but not to the extent that the poems ever become really experimental. The subject matter tends to be personal rather than theoretical, and the manner of delivery often owes much to stream-of-consciousness. Sound like modernism? Maybe, but there is also usually an awareness of the inner workings of language—its embedded partialities and praxis, its history (the already said), its role as more than merely an innocent bystander pointing the way—operating as well. Sam Sampson, Johanna Aitchison, Emma Barnes, Joan Fleming, Hinemoana Baker, David Beach and Michele Leggott (and Alice Miller and Jo Thorpe) will no doubt be delighted to hear that they might, to varying degrees, be post-Language poets. Read their work to learn more about this thrilling new movement, but don’t hold your breath for a manifesto.
Over the year, I probably learned more about the vagaries of my own tastes than garnered great insights into New Zealand poetry’s state of play. My biggest challenge was trying to reconcile my liking for both well-made, conventional poems and more challenging, less conventional poems. In the end, I hope my selection confirms that it’s possible to have a foot in both camps.
A related dilemma was how to compare short poems with modest aims to longer, multi-layered poems—or how to compare pebbles with snow. Generally, the short, modest poems lost out. But not always, as the small but perfectly formed poems by Bob Orr, Gregory O’Brien, Tim Upperton, Peter Bland and Lynn Jenner show.
Another issue that reared its distressingly ugly head was whether I should select the poems I thought the best, or the ones I liked the best. On planet James, the two groups don’t always intersect. I’m happy to be seduced by all manner of gimmicks, gimcracks, clunks and twizzles. I can sometimes recognise a poem’s quality, but not like it as much as something I suspect might be a lesser poem. For example, after some angsting and a dash of sentimentality, I opted for Tim Upperton’s ‘Four bananas’ over his excellent sestina in Landfall 215. While the sestina is undoubtedly accomplished, I found its subject matter (schooling by cruel Catholic nuns) less fresh than that of the technically simpler poem about being a house husband (okay, I can’t say for certain that the speaker is male). As a domestic poem, ‘Four bananas’ also shares an interesting space with the poems by Jenny Bornholdt and Emma Neale.
I have always been attracted to poems in voices outside the usual frequencies of contemporary poetry. You know the chords—casual, personable, conversational, polite, witty, confessional, quietly insightful, etc. I’m trying to use them now. Most established poets have found a voice within these parameters and settled into it, sometimes rather too comfortably. ‘I’d like my work to be / all the things it’s not, // but each of us is stuck / with his own particular schtick’ laments Geoff Cochrane (‘Analgesia’, Sport 36). I know the feeling, so was overjoyed when reviewing the selection to realise I’d chosen poems by Bernadette Hall, Sonja Yelich, Cliff Fell, Hinemoana Baker and Emma Barnes (this last being a clever assemblage of clichés) that take on other voices. Chris Orsman’s poem confounds me here, for while in the voice of someone making landfall in Antarctica in 1895, it isn’t that far removed from Orsman’s own poetic voice.
The poems by Bernadette Hall, Emma Barnes, Johanna Aitchison, Amy Brown and Lynn Jenner could all be grouped together as feminist poems, or at least poems that draw attention to differences between male and female perceptions of the world. But of course they were selected because of how well they work; indeed, what’s probably most striking is how differently they work.
As one might expect, most of the poems are in free verse. Sequences by Sam Hunt and Richard von Sturmer put the form’s freedoms to great use, ebbing and flowing through a variety of sounds and sediments. Jenny Bornholdt’s long poem criss-crosses interior and exterior spaces in lots of little conversations braided with beautiful understatements. Cliff Fell’s marvelously ambivalent tribute to Ernest Rutherford cleverly removes the letters e (electron charge) and r (target-to-detector distance), literally turning its substance into a world altered by Rutherford’s equations. Amy Brown’s amazing sequence utilises a range of forms, including a stunning sestina and villanelle (forms which recur in her book The Propaganda Poster Girl), as well as different points of view. The formal control that Richard Reeve displays in his untitled proem ‘Unheeding any language . . . ’ (and throughout his book In Continents) is equally impressive. David Beach delivers one of his unique prose sonnets, wherein no first-person narrators ever appear, yet a wry observing personality is nonetheless strongly manifest.
I think David Beach a witty poet, yet wit is another highly contentious commodity. What might seem clever or funny to one person can induce groans in another. Wit often comes down to personal calibrations of subtlety—how much is a line belting you over the head or missing you completely; how much is it smugly patting itself on the back; how perfect is its combination of mystery, suggestion and timing? Wit can happen anywhere in a poem, but, again, endings are often crux points. In Richard von Sturmer’s sequence, the last line of ‘The Great Slug’ produces a pleasurable groan, but I prefer the nutty logic of ‘Dinosaurs’, which perhaps pokes fun at our fondness for comparisons, no matter how ridiculous.
It was suggested to me that, if faced with a choice between similar poems, I might favour those that voiced uniquely New Zealand subjects. That made me realise that I wasn’t particularly interested in uniquely New Zealand subjects, and was happy to presume that the South Pacific would emerge naturally. It did and it didn’t. The poems by Sam Hunt, Jean McCormack, David Beach, Cliff Fell, Jenny Bornholdt and Bob Orr are all identifiably New Zealand poems. Other poems could come from many countries, whereas some—by Peter Bland, Kerrin P. Sharpe, Amy Brown, Tom Weston and Chris Orsman—take place in definite elsewheres.
I was also uninterested in the gender or ethnicity of poets—indeed I’d rather not have known who the authors were. Writer reputation caused me some anxiety, and I had to hang tough when excluding writers whose work I and/or a lot of other people, on the whole, admire. The weight of the past can be very great, but this exercise was about my opinion of individual poems published in 2008.
I was charged with selecting twenty-five poems, but, in the end, I couldn’t. Maybe I set the bar slightly too high, maybe I just overdosed (reading did become a bit like eating too many chocolates), but in the final shakedown I could only find around twenty I was absolutely sure about. After that there was a pool of around ten, all of which could have filled the final five spots. Settling on these tortured me for weeks. So I’d like to acknowledge the ones that missed out and say, were this a selection for a weird sport involving teams of twenty-five, I’d sub five of the following on at halftime.
‘I should not be the least impaired by this’, Alice Miller (Landfall 216)
‘ ’Ula’, Mariana Isara (Trout 15)
‘An ABC of Allegience’, Jo Thorpe (JAAM 26)
‘Endgame’, James Norcliffe (The Iowa Review 38/2)
You, as an armchair coach, can decide which five you’d take off.
That’s it. Remember to judge the selection on its substance as well as its absences, lest we all become like the blind man in the dark room looking for the black cat that isn’t there. The ending to Tom Weston’s contribution provides an excellent summation of the task of editing: ‘This is the tongue and the taking, every step retraced.’ But I’ll leave the last words to Marianne Moore from her poem ‘Poetry’:
I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
it, after all, a place for the genuine.
 The Poems of Marianne Moore, ed. Grace Schulman, Faber and Faber Ltd, 2003