‘Best’ New Zealand poems? Like many former editors, I find that absolutist adjective far too Olympian for me. Let’s be more modest and say 25 poems I liked - poems with enough chew and depth to make them worth repeated tasting. Robyn Marsack, introducing Best New Zealand Poems 09, used the fine Scottish word ‘swithering’ to describe the agonies of indecision faced by the editor. If swithering were an Olympic sport, I reckon I’d qualify for the New Zealand team. Towards the end I sometimes found myself muttering, with Yeats, ‘we are too many’, before reminding myself that, of all human excesses, a surfeit of poetry is hardly the most disagreeable. And this year’s sample comes with a very long tail of excellent work trailing after it.
2010 was the year that marked the return of two comets long lost from the local poetry firmament. David Mitchell, who currently rests in silence in an Australian nursing home, was given printed voice again in Steal Away Boy for the first time since the near-legendary Pipe Dreams in Ponsonby appeared in 1972. And John Newton, whose first book appeared in 1985, also made a surprise return to poetry, perhaps an oblique result of his investigation into the world of James K. Baxter’s Jerusalem in The Double Rainbow, published a year earlier. Mitchell may not have cast such a long shadow over subsequent New Zealand poetry as Baxter, but his re-emergence inspired several affectionate poetic tributes from his contemporaries, and enthusiastic reviews from people discovering him for the first time. Mitchell’s extensive author page in the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre (nzepc) fills in the story for those who weren’t there at the time.
Long-time expatriate John Gallas has also kept a relatively low profile in his home country. I’d occasionally seen his poems in Sport, and in previous issues of Best New Zealand Poems, but I’d never read an entire volume of his work before Forty Lies. Its exuberant crankiness, perfectly matched with woodcuts by artist Sarah Kirby, was my discovery of the year, a delight from beginning to end. Like several other books by established figures, it inspired protracted agonies of swithering (which poem to include?). Gallas is published by Carcanet in the UK, so curious readers may need to order him online to encounter him at greater length.
The late Leigh Davis’s Stunning Debut of the Repairing of a Life, written in the grip of his terminal illness and winner of the 2009 Landfall Kathleen Grattan Award, also sent me back to his first book, Willy’s Gazette, which appeared to some fanfare when I was a student at Auckland University back in 1983, possibly one of the most confident debuts in New Zealand poetry. I have the perfect bound, Jack Books original, but I was pleased to discover that the entire book is accessible online, thanks once again to the valuable archival work being done by the nzepc. Davis’s final book makes more strenuous demands on the reader than his first, and SDotRoaL was one of several significant book-length sequences published in 2010 that are not represented in this selection; for me their effects were best appreciated entire, and tearing a piece from the cloth to paste in here didn’t seem to work. (Readers looking for a way into Davis’s final book could start with Roger Horrocks’ review-essay in Brief 41 – perhaps the nzepc will gather it up in due course.)
More intense swithering was caused by a number of collections that I finished with great pleasure, but nonetheless did not yield a poem that elbowed its way in here. A number of very good prose poems passed before my eyes, but most of them took the sly ‘hit and run’ approach of the single paragraph, striking a glancing blow before heading for the hills, and so only Lynn Jenner’s vision of Christchurch’s 2010 earthquake, refracted through the lens of Russian literature, found its way into this selection.
I find I have written a great deal about missing persons, poems, and books. I shall nevertheless resist the temptation to name the poems that were left ‘on the bench’, as 2008 editor James Brown put it: the poems which, on a different day, in a different light, might have been subbed in. I resist partly because it tempts me back into swithering and the quicksand of second thoughts, but also because it may not console the writers who almost made it onto the field. Suffice it to say that many of the poets who have appeared in previous issues were in that group, and might easily have made return appearances, and that there’s some exciting work coming through from the generation nipping at the heels of those represented here.
Of course the perpetual ‘missing person’ of the Best New Zealand Poems anthologies is series editor Bill Manhire, whose position excludes him from consideration. There is a small and very exclusive ghost-anthology of Manhire poems lurking in the ether. My choice for this year would be ‘The Oral Tradition’, but other anthologists can sift through The Victims of Lightning, and choose their own.
At the beginning of 2010, perhaps hoping to absorb wisdom or fortitude for the task ahead, I read Nicholson Baker’s (then) recently published ‘poetry novel’ The Anthologist. Baker’s tragi-comic anthologist Paul Chowder feels he’s fighting a losing battle on behalf of formal poetry in a world that has almost entirely gone over to so-called free verse. As someone who tends to favour so-called free verse myself, I was a little surprised to find that I’d chosen as many as three poems (by Geoff Cochrane, Cliff Fell and John Gallas) that adopted fairly strict forms. The aforementioned ‘long tail’ included several other strong formal poems: a fine ghazal from Mary Cresswell, Erin Scudder’s ‘Sextina’, and Janet Charman’s colloquial sonnets. Perhaps Paul Chowder was still whispering in my ear. On balance, though, I think I was just registering the ongoing attraction to the liberating possibilities of form amongst poets who more often ‘admire and do otherwise’.
One assertion from the novel that did resonate with me was Chowder’s remark that ‘Anthology knowledge isn’t real knowledge. You have to read the unchosen poems to understand the chosen ones.’ Which brings me to the possibly quixotic and old-fashioned hope that reading books, as well as individual poems, is one result these anthologies might achieve.
Perhaps Baker’s unhappy editor means to valorise his own position – but I prefer to read his statement as a plea to explore poetry vertically (‘diving’ into a book), as well as horizontally, leaping from link to link, one poet to another, as the web encourages us to do. A single poem can’t fully represent the poet’s vocal range, the complexity of their world, or the temperament that animates it. It’s not apparent from Jennifer Compton’s poem here, for instance, that much of the book it was plucked from remembers the small towns of rural New Zealand. Anna Livesey’s poem ‘Go’ may seem – to those who know her book, perhaps even to the author – wilfully unrepresentative. To them I can only say that my swithering hand hovered at length over more ‘substantial’ poems, including ‘Next Time’, the emotionally direct poem that seems (even to me) a more obvious choice. But I kept returning to ‘Go’ for its fizz, brevity, and cheerful refusal to explain itself. Not a word out of place. You’ll just have to seek out The Moonmen to find the very different, equally good poems it contains.
Re-entering the world of poets whose work you’re familiar with through the portal of a new book is a pleasure partly because of that very familiarity: it’s like meeting a friend you see once every year or two, catching up on what’s new and what remains reassuringly unchanged. Diabetes has been added to the list of Geoff Cochrane’s irritations this year, but it seems his nostalgia for the gorgeous damage of addiction remains undimmed. Kate Camp seems to be running with a different, more dangerous crowd these days. Jenny Bornholdt has retreated from the long lines and novelistic sweep of The Rocky Shore to more contained vessels, but her calm voice, like a small sturdy boat on deep water, remains instantly recognisable. So I hope that readers will both waterski cheerfully across the surface of the poems here (to borrow a metaphor from Billy Collins’ ‘Introduction to Poetry’), and use them as diving platforms from which to explore the riches that lurk below.
2010 also gave us the survey vessel 99 Ways Into New Zealand Poetry, Paula Green and Harry Ricketts’ capacious introduction to the art as currently practised in these islands. If Mitchell and Newton are comets returning from a distant orbit, then 99 Ways reveals a small and populous planet, teeming with colour and tribal custom. Pitched at an audience somewhere between secondary school and the general public, it’s a volume that wants to encourage the reader to enter the landscape of New Zealand poetry as an active participant. Green and Ricketts are generous in their reach, and their publisher, Random House, generously allowed the page count to swell accordingly, while keeping the price manageable. The full-colour cover art reproduced so extensively throughout the book is a reminder that New Zealand publishers still believe a book of poems deserves to look good – long may that attitude last. There are probably some furious disagreements with Green and Ricketts’ opinions, accounts, inclusions and exclusions raging out there in poetryland, but 99 Ways is a book that lays out the welcome mat for an art sometimes perceived as wilfully resistant and encrypted, rather than inviting and congenial.
One feature of the Best New Zealand Poems that makes them congenial company is the notes the poets are invited to supply. Some writers shyly prefer to let the poem speak for itself, others seem to feel it’s almost bad taste to explain – but I’m always delighted to be given a glimpse behind the curtain. Seeing backstage can illuminate without damaging the poem’s necessary mystery. In an oblique way, the notes may provide an education in poetic process, or give a context that enriches the first encounter. This year, for example, both Fleur Adcock’s and Anna Jackson’s accounts of their poems’ genesis offer evidence to back up Charles Simic’s contention that ‘Nothing genuine in a poem, or so I have learned the hard way, can be willed.’ Ian Wedde gives us a portrait of his poem’s dedicatee, and Miro Bilbrough a portrait of her poem’s lead actor, demonstrating the distance fact must travel in order to become poetry. James Brown reveals the methodology that produced ‘The Green Plastic Toy’. The notes – a feature ‘shamelessly cribbed’, as Bill Manhire puts it, from Best American Poetry – are always worth a visit.
At the end of a year’s reading, I don’t have any Olympian conclusions to offer about the state of New Zealand poetry – but I’ll mention one thing that struck me about the work I read. It would have been entirely possible, this year, to put together an alternative anthology of 25 very fine poems dealing with illness (especially cancer and dementia), hospitals, death, funerals and the afterlife. Perhaps this is true every year: mortality is one of poetry’s great occasions, after all, and the emotional heft of such poems makes them stand out from their more miscellaneous neighbours. Whatever the reason, it seems our poets are good at mortality. The contents page of that shadow-anthology would include Sarah Broom, Rachel Bush, Jennifer Compton, Mary Cresswell, Paula Green, Jeffrey Paparoa Holman, Mariana Isara, Anna Livesey, Cilla McQueen, Vivienne Plumb, Elizabeth Smither, Rae Varcoe, Sonja Yelich – and those are just the poets who immediately spring to mind – as well as the poems by Fleur Adcock, Sarah Jane Barnett and Bill Nelson that appear here. Now that February’s earthquake has so devastatingly magnified the impact of the September 2010 destruction in Christchurch, 2011 will no doubt see the subject erupt into lament and remembrance, two things that poetry remains good for once more pragmatic survival needs are met.
A decade of Best New Zealand Poems brings us, with this year’s 25, to a grand total of 250, and introduces two new incarnations for the work. Through a process I can only suppose far less agonising and protracted than my own, that number has been distilled into a Best of the Best New Zealand Poems print anthology, due for publication in May this year. In amplification of the book, and to coincide with its launch, recordings of the poems selected for that anthology will be added to the online issue in which they first appeared, allowing the writers’ distinctive voices to be heard around the world. Henceforward, each issue aims to incorporate a selection of readings.
In the meantime, welcome to the tip of this year’s poetry iceberg.