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Land of Seas

Land of Seas: An Anthology of New Zealand Poetry. Translated by Arkadii Dragomoschenko. Edited by Evgeny Pavlov and Mark Williams.

The idea of publishing an anthology of contemporary New Zealand poetry in Russian translation came from Canterbury University’s Evgeny Pavlov and the Russian poet Arkadii Dragomoschenko. The poems were selected and arranged by Associate Professor Mark Williams (also at Canterbury), then translated by a large team of Russian poets managed by Pavlov and headed by Dragomoschenko. In a piece published on the LeafSalon website (, Mark Williams suggested that for the Russian reader until now, ‘New Zealand meant mainly pastoral scenes and milk products in the supermarkets.’ (The fact that the anthology attracted sponsorship from dairy conglomerate Fonterra seems to confirm this view.) In assembling work for Land of Seas, however, Williams said he wanted ‘to present a more complex picture of New Zealand by way of its poetry, representing its history, its modernity, its cities, its humour and its particular ethnic arrangements between Maori and Pakeha.’ His choices were also influenced by the Russian response: a number of poems ‘to do with work, a favourite theme of the socialistic 1930s and 40s,’ were rejected as conjuring up dreary memories of socialist realism. The anthology was launched in May at the New Zealand Embassy in Moscow, with poets Ian Wedde, Gregory O’Brien and Tusiata Avia in attendance. A good time was reportedly had by all.

As might be expected, Land of Seas does not attempt to offer any radically new perspectives on what’s going on here, but Williams notes that ‘It was a curious and exhilarating experience to think about New Zealand poetry from a perspective outside the country itself.’ For those unable to read Russian but curious to find out what impression of our poetic landscape they might be getting over there, we publish here the English-language versions of the anthology’s Preface (by Gregory O’Brien) and Introduction (by Williams). And for those keen to play the ‘who’s in/who’s out’ game, there’s also a link to the contents pages at the foot of the Introduction.


Gregory O’Brien

When I was growing up in the late 1970s, import restrictions in New Zealand were among the tightest in the world, second only to those in Rumania – or so we were later told. Books published by New Directions or City Lights were virtually impossible to obtain. The Faber list trickling through from England was about as avant garde as it got. And the prices of those books that did make it here were hiked up with import duty, thanks to Robert Muldoon’s National Government. Like many of my generation, I emigrated across the Tasman Sea to far-less-regulated Australia, where you could buy Philip Whalen, Pablo Neruda and Gertrude Stein; you could see Bunuel and Godard movies, and you could fill in the gaps in your record collection from Morton Feldman to John Coltrane. These days, with the lifting of import tariffs and restrictions and the widespread ordering of books over the internet, New Zealand has moved much closer to the rest of the world. We no longer live in darkness, at least in this respect.

But there are a few kinds of darkness in which New Zealand remains immersed: the first a darkness synonymous with distance. If ‘provincial’ life is still a possibility in the globalised world then an obscure, antipodean group of islands would have to be one of the most likely sites. Travelling in Europe or the United States a few years back, I encountered many people who didn’t know where New Zealand was. Such is the shadowy nook in which we find ourselves. Of late, however, this obscurity has been to some extent replaced by another, different layer of darkness, this time a mythical one purveyed by Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. New Zealanders now find themselves cast in the global eye as hobbit-like beings shuffling around a country resembling nothing if not a Gothic film set. A map of Middle Earth has been superimposed on the existent land and already busloads of tourists are traipsing the country, visiting the sites (as opposed to the sights).

New Zealand, like anywhere else, contains patches of light and dark. Maybe things are a little more extreme here than in most other countries, given the isolation and diversity of the nation’s geography. The ‘harsh New Zealand light’ which local commentators have talked about in relation to the country’s visual arts for some decades certainly would seem to have cast some black shadows – as manifest in the brooding work of painters Colin McCahon (see ( and Ralph Hotere – or as registered in films such as Vincent Ward’s Vigil and Jane Campion’s The Piano. This quality has also registered in the country’s literary productions. The poet Hone Tuwhare (born 1922) has explored the darkness of Maori mythology, drawing ancient traditions alongside contemporary Maori experience, frequently evoking a sense of closeness to the land which is both mythological and physical. His poem ‘We, who live in darkness’ begins:

      It had been a long long time of it
      wriggling and squirming in the swamp of night.
      And what was time, anyway? Black intensities
      of black on black on black feeding on itself?
      Something immense? Measureless?

Tuwhare’s best work is an amalgam of various energies, drawing upon his Ngapuhi tribal origins, his childhood reading of the King James Bible and his working-class, socialist background. The end result is a fractious balancing of what might seem, at first glance, unharmonious elements.

Perhaps New Zealand’s most famous writer of recent times, and a student of some altogether different darknesses, is Janet Frame (born 1924), who died earlier this year. Known primarily for her novels and autobiographies (which were filmed by Jane Campion as An Angel at my Table), she was also a compelling poet, although her published poetry is contained in a single volume, The Pocket Mirror (1967), a book in which glimmers of clarity and beauty are offset by an almost debilitating darkness:

      When the Sun Shines More Years Than Fear
      When the sun shines more years than fear
      when birds fly more miles than anger
      when the sky holds more bird
      sails more cloud
      shines more sun
      than the palm of love carries hate,
      even then shall I in this weary
      seventy-year banquet say, Sunwaiter,
      Birdwaiter, Skywaiter,
      I have no hunger,
      remove my plate.

As a survivor not only of the gloomy Anglo-Saxon hangover which was, and to a lesser extent still is, the bad end of New Zealand provincial life, Frame also endured eight years in and out of psychiatric wards during what was a grim era in the history of such institutions. During that time, Frame narrowly escaped having a lobotomy, only being saved by a timely literary award which drew her plight to the attention of a sympathetic doctor. Frame has certainly come to embody the notion of artist as outsider. Yet, paradoxically, when she died, the nation embraced her as though she was emblematic of something quintessentially ‘New Zealand’. A memorial service, attended by 1500 citizens, among them Prime Minister Helen Clark, was held in Dunedin two weeks after her death. The fact that Frame has become such a national figure may well reflect the degree to which all New Zealanders consider themselves outsiders – certainly the predominantly European population are as ‘outside’ Europe as it is geographically possible to be. Perhaps, as nigh-on-invisible members of the international community, the nation recognised Frame’s underdog status as mirroring its own.

The figure of the pioneering writer could also conveniently be thought of as an inheritor of the settler mentality and the rugged individualism which forged this country – a cast of body and mind which, within a generation or two, was mutating into a dull stay-at-home conservatism.

Frame, then, configures as one of ours, but at one remove.

Tuwhare, the country’s greatest Maori poet, also embodies this insider/outsider paradox. As a member of the tangata whenua – ‘the people of the land’ – he is resolutely ‘inside’ this land, culturally; and yet in relation to New Zealand, circa 2004, he is also an ‘outsider’: Tuwhare’s favoured poetic persona is that of the unruly interloper, the proletarian man of passion and action who also embodies soulful communion with the land and its produce.

The conundrum remains: are we a nation of outsiders trying to get in, or of insiders trying to get out? Do we live in darkness or, as was much touted on New Year’s Eve 2000, are we ‘the first to see the light’? (A hilltop near New Zealand’s East Cape was the first landmass to soak up the dawn of the new millennium.) Or are we balanced precariously – and brilliantly in the case of Janet Frame – between the inside and the outside, the local and the global, the darkness and the light?

Tuwhare and Frame are both useful reference points when considering New Zealand poetry, particularly from the past two decades. Their writing contains postcolonial energies while drawing on a rich heritage of European culture as it has been reconstituted this far from its source. In their different ways they attend closely to the ‘local’. The poems that follow might suggest both how close New Zealand poetry has been/is to what is happening elsewhere – in matters of poetics – while also, I would guess, giving a sense of the particular conditions, preoccupations and character of some recent New Zealand work.

The country’s provincialism – once a source of conservatism and dullness – now make it unpredictable and ‘local’ in the best sense. New Zealand – or Aotearoa as it is called by Maori – has reconfigured as a fine place for the maverick, independent artist. At home in such a culturally diverse and dynamic land there is much to attend to. Yet New Zealanders also travel a lot – and living in the South Pacific means you have to travel great distances to get just about anywhere.

While plotting something of the evolution of poetry in New Zealand, this anthology includes recent poems which reflect both the mobility of the poets, be it on a 747 or a blank page, as well as their attentiveness to the earth beneath their feet. The first anthology of writing by Maori was aptly titled Into the World of Light (Heinemann, 1979). The evolving pattern of light and dark which is the history of poetry in this country can be glimpsed through the poems presented here.


Further information on New Zealand poetry can be obtained from the New Zealand Book Council (, the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre (, and Best New Zealand poems ( The most recent overview of the country’s poetry is An Anthology of New Zealand Poetry (in English), edited by Jenny Bornholdt, Gregory O’Brien and Mark Williams, published by Oxford University Press in 1996.

About this author...


Mark Williams

This anthology is intended to provide a picture of New Zealand poetry from the late-colonial period to the present. It is not organised chronologically, but by way of the various efforts to figure the place in words – in a phrase of Allen Curnow’s, ‘to introduce the landscape to the language’. The selection has been arranged to allow the poems themselves to tell a series of related narratives: of the efforts of mental landscapes to knit themselves to disconcertingly different physical ones; of the contests about who owns the land and what settlement has done to it; of the pleasures, maladies and politics of the body, of the strangeness locked into suburban and domestic life; of the collisions of personal and public realms in the tropes of memory, love, place.

For the European navigators no less than their Polynesians precursors, New Zealand began in legend and myth. It was discovered first by Polynesian navigators as part of their great migration throughout the central and southern Pacific, then by Europeans looking for ‘something else’. From the beginnings of discovery and settlement New Zealand was a place in language. Words figured it before it was seen. Once seen, it was fashioned from words as much as things. Nineteenth-century European settlers were drawn to a place consciously mythologised by colonial entrepeneurs so that it conjured an imagery of bountiful nature, temperate climate, a noble indigenous people, once savage, now tamed. Nature, in the accounts of the New Zealand Company formed in the 1830s to promote English settlement, laid itself before the cultivator. But each discovery also involved loss: the discoverers sensing gain, met reversal; those discovered refused to remove themselves from the pliant scene of conquest or to play their assigned role as willing subjects.

All paradises are made from words. The history of settlement is the story of enticement by honeyed words followed by successive disappointments. The land is pure and full of promise until the moment when the desiring gaze touches flesh, when that which was imagined becomes that which is possessed. The writing that invented New Zealand as a desirable destination for Europeans draws on the story of Eden; the literature that resulted often repeats the ancient story of expulsion. It is, as Curnow puts it, ‘the stain of blood that writes an island story’ (‘Landfall in Unknown Seas’).

Before Abel Tasman visited New Zealand in 1642, the land had been inhabited for around 600 years by a people possessed of a variety of means of expressing in vividly figurative language their experience of their world, their sense of themselves, their customs, myths, practices and spiritual beliefs. Long before the arrival of Europeans, Polynesian immigrants had spread throughout the land, establishing an extensive system of tribal lands, kinship bonds and agriculture. Their various art forms of carving, oratory, weaving and decoration flourished and developed local characteristics.

The culture of the Maori people was an oral one. They devised no system of abstract verbal signs with which to record their stories. Yet they were able to pass the stories and songs that were important to them down through the generations with little change. In this way they kept alive the knowledge of their ancestors and their deeds. They preserved the history of the people, battles, events, places and myths that distinguished them as tribes or families in a variety of forms – whakapapa (genealogy); karakia (incantations); whakatauki (wise sayings); and waiata (poetical songs) – that were communicated orally.

An example of such a form is the following passage from a song addressed to the body of a dead lover:

      Ka huri mai o mata nga wai e rere
      I roto Te Wairoa. Ko te wai tenei i tukua iho ai
      To kiri rauwhero, to mata raunui
      Naku i miri iho, kia pai atu koe te haere ki raro ra
      Your eyes will turn to the falling waters in Te Wairoa –
      Those are the waters in which were immersed
      Your red-brown body and your broad face –
      I was the one who painted them, so you would look well on your
                           journey below.

This oral tradition was interrupted by the arrival of Europeans, but not noticeably at first. Until the nineteenth century Europeans came only in small numbers and were generally welcomed by Maori. They were a source of interest, of trade goods, and of prestige for the chiefs who hosted them. In the early nineteenth century missionaries came and Maori were exposed to Christianity; interest in the Bible was considerable once it had been translated into the Maori language. Many Maori became literate through learning to read the Bible. As Maori found themselves losing more and more land and power to the settlers, the Old Testament stories of the People of Israel escaping captivity in Egypt and finding the promised land of their people suggested parallels to the situation of the Maori people themselves.

From the middle of the nineteenth century Maori nationalist movements began to appear, advocating Maori control over their own lives and lands. These movements have lineal links to the Maori sovereignty movement which appeared in the late twentieth century, and which expressed itself in literary as well as political forms. By the 1960s and 1970s a substantial literature in English was being compiled by Maori, politically charged but not purely rhetorical: the struggle was being worked out within language, acknowledging the ambivalent being of Maori people in English as well as in Maori. The results of this negotiation and exchange within and between languages and cultural understandings are often humorous as well as angry. In Hone Tuwhare’s ‘To a Maori Figure Cast in Bronze Outside the Chief Post Office, Auckland’ the ancient warrior figure as civic monument resists his consignment to the heroic past in a vivid colloquial complaint in which Maori words abut against New Zealand-English demotic and the symbols of international pop-culture:

      If I could only move from this bloody pedestal I’d
      show the long-hairs how to knock out a tune on the
      souped-up guitar, my mere quivering, my taiaha held
      at the high port. And I’d fix the ripe kotiro too
      with their mini-piupiu-ed bums twinkling: yeah!
      Somebody give me a drink: I can’t stand it

By the turn of the twentieth century Maori poetry in English was exploring the whole world in Maori terms. While compiling an anthology of Maori writing, Witi Ihimaera confronted questions about what constituted Maori literature. These difficulties caused him to extend rather than contract his sense of what the Maori world included:

      When I was in New York ... and saw rainbow signs in the clouds or a swirl on the
      Hudson River ... then how could I not take heed? Does the Maori world stop when you
      leave the Pacific? So I would always look for those symbols or signs even in New York,
      reinterpreting them as if New York was a Maori world – which it is.

Being Maori, thus, is not at odds with all the experiences and informations that have come since contact with Europeans, nor is it necessarily diminished by all that came after colonisation. It is capable of including other cultural experiences without losing its bearings, which is not to say that issues of power are less pressing in the postcolonial era than they were during colonialism. In Star Waka (2000), Robert Sullivan notes that space travel, computers, and fashion are all part of the Maori world.

Literature in English, aside from eighteenth-century ships’ logs and travel accounts, begins with the stories and poems in colonial newspapers. Predictably trite and conventional, these prepare the way for the collections of verse of the late nineteenth century. The accents of Tennyson and the sentiments of Kipling are prominent. Yet among the descriptions of sublime landscape and romantic Maori are works in which unexpected shifts are occurring in the structures of ideas and apprehensions of the colonial world. By the early twentieth century in the work of Blanche Baughan and Mary Ursula Bethell we find, for all the sense that home still lies elsewhere, a conscious effort to adjust accumulated conventions in order to explore the dislocations and discontinuities of colonial life. The most important transitional figure between late-colonial New Zealand and modernism, however, was a figure who disowned the former and was herself disowned by a later generation of local modernists because of her refusal to root herself in her native land: Katherine Mansfield.

When Rudyard Kipling visited New Zealand in 1891 the country was already settled, prosperous, energetically accumulating debts and prospects. The children of the first settlers were looking round for signs of the spiritual wealth that would come after the achievement of material sufficiency. Mansfield was then three years old. Later, she would write the story of her ‘undiscovered country’, but she left in 1908 resentful at its limitations, carrying with her the symbolist prose poems she had been experimenting with:

         It is a sensation that can never be forgotten, to sit in solitude, in semi-darkness,
      and to watch the slow, sweet, shadowful death of a Rose.
         Oh, to see the perfection of the perfumed petals being changed ever so slightly, as
      though a thin flame had kissed with hot breath, and where the wounds have bled the
      colour is savagely intense.

Almost a century later, Salman Rushdie, reflecting on postcolonial efforts to invent national literatures, observes: ‘We must purge ourselves of the natural and prepare to enter fully into what we ourselves have built, the man-made, the artificial, the artifice, the construct, the trick, the joke, the song’. Mansfield anticipated Rushdie in 1908, separating herself from the sentimental and naturalist tradition of New Zealand writing in her own time by remarking: ‘When NZ is more artificial she will give birth to an artist who can treat her natural beauties adequately’. Mansfield’s preference for the artificial over the natural, sets her apart from colonial writing (dubbed ‘Maoriland’); she identifies rather with a dandified and decadent style associated with the 1890s, and especially with Oscar Wilde. She is also, whether consciously or not, offering advice to colonial writers, at that time busily looking for distinctive features – natural and mythological – around which to fashion a New Zealand literature.

By ‘artificial’ Mansfield intends something more than mere stylishness. She means that if the natural beauties which New Zealand so lavishly overproduces are to be reflected adequately in a national literature, the New Zealand artist must be equipped with a broad and sophisticated knowledge of literary forms and styles. She is also acknowledging, long before postmodernism, that conventions shape what we see when we look at any natural scene. Allen Curnow’s testing from the 1930s of the tricky terrain between words and world, Janet Frame’s blackly humorous linguistic games of the 1960s, and Gregory O’Brien’s whimsical poetic landscapes of the 1990s, pitched between fantasy and the actual, all start from the same assumption.

Mansfield addressed the problem of how to write non-provincial literature as a late-colonial New Zealander by reversing the migration which had traded intellectual for material capital, that is, by journeying back to Europe. Mansfield’s writing is too various in its styles and too fickle in its loyalties to be circumscribed by nationalism. She takes the modern writer’s condition as being without secure footholds, deeply implicated in the dislocation of all those who find themselves between worlds. When modernism appeared in New Zealand in the 1930s, it had a sharply local, nationalist emphasis. Mansfield was suspect for her expatriation, her bad dreams about being back in New Zealand without a return ticket. The key figure of the modernist-nationalist period of the 1930s and ’40s was Allen Curnow. For a long time it was a matter of faith that New Zealand poetry began around 1933 with Curnow, although there were minor figures – Ursula Bethell especially – who had prepared the way among the plangencies, bluster, and prettiness of a derivative colonial literature.

Not surprisingly, this is a view that has come under sharp scrutiny and attack since the 1960s, not only from younger poets like Ian Wedde influenced by the exuberant forms, demotic rhythms and democratic instincts of American writing but also from succeeding generations of women writers alienated by the hierarchy, masculinity and exclusiveness of the cultural nationalists. Postmodern critics, meanwhile, have critiqued the assumptions of his realism; postcolonialists have critiqued his nationalism. Curnow, however, stands on both sides of such conflicts: he is both a poet of the real and a cartographer of what he calls in ‘A Balanced Bait in Handy Pellet Form’ the ‘word-world’. Curnow’s writing effects a transition from an early stress on the reality that is ‘local and special’ to a highly self-conscious word play. The development of Curnow’s poetry traces a line of increasing scepticism about whether the world can be represented in language at all. Hence, Curnow can be read as a poet who set out to ‘invent’ New Zealand and founded a literary tradition with his own generation as the originating point. But he is also a poet who senses the futility in the exercise of nation-making, the inadequacy of words to undertake those ‘adventures, in search of reality’, and the distances to cover before terms like tradition can have any substantial meaning in a settled world.

Janet Frame’s work involves a powerful criticism of New Zealand society, its conformity and narrowness. Yet she concentrates on a local and immediate world only to open up universal concerns: loneliness, bafflement in the face of the human situation, the existential uncertainties that lie behind the confident surfaces of suburban life, the threat of nuclear war, and the closeness of madness to what is called ‘normality’. In Frame’s poetry language habitually leads us to the mirror worlds of the imagination. Yet she also acknowledges the implication of language in the political terrorism of the late twentieth century. Even her nonsense verse has a hard practical edge. ‘Instructions for Bombing with Napalm’ is both a poem supremely conscious of its status as language and a protest poem. More to the point, the two modes of apprehending reality – linguistic and political – are interwoven:

      concoct ointment
      ultimate oil
      count coil
      act lout to that tune in loin
      toil out then
      lick the lion’s lap
      cut the lint

Curnow’s Abrahamic status in New Zealand poetry has not produced a neat line of descent. Even the admiring sons eventually found it necessary to resist the father, and women poets have staged a long opposition from Robin Hyde in the 1930s to Michele Leggott in the 1990s. (Leggott’s ‘Ladies Mile’ draws respectful attention to Eileen Duggan as a desirable precursor by lifting an image from the latter’s ‘Night’.) The most dramatic refusal of sonship was that of James K. Baxter. Sometimes dismissed as a bardic balladeer, romantic outsider, Catholic hippy, Baxter is a poet who uses masks to dramatise his lover’s quarrel with his country and the world. If facility and easy social satire weakened the verse of his middle years, the later work achieves greatness by the taut lucidity of its compulsive brooding on death, love and meaning and by the tense doubt behind the effort to salvage what might still be used among the icons, myths and gods:

      Since the great ikons fell down,
      God, Mary, home, sex, poetry,
      Whatever one uses as a bridge
      To cross the river that only has one beach,
      And even one’s name is a way of saying –
      ‘This gap inside a coat’ – the darkness I call God,
      The darkness I call Te Whaea, how can they translate
      The blue calm evening sky that a plane tunnels through
      Like a little wasp, or the bucket in my hand,
      Into something else?
            James K. Baxter, ‘The Ikons’

Baxter as a Catholic apologist is at odds with the characteristic scepticism about religious belief and metaphysics that is part of the settler legacy. There is much fierce demythologising in New Zealand poetry and a deflating irony directed at the idea of an afterlife. Yet one also encounters a kind of secularised worship, not of the gods but of the world. In Janet Frame’s poetry, for all the blackness of her sense of humour, there is a continual sense of the strangeness and wonder of the actual and the everyday; in Dinah Hawken’s the sacred is discovered, ecstatically, in the world of trees, ferns, the body. The idea of New Zealand as Eden may have dissipated, but the sheer physical loveliness of so much of the place continually elicits rapt attention and, in fiercely engaged poems by Ian Wedde and Cilla McQueen, a passionate desire to preserve the land from further despoliation.

If New Zealand poets have been conscious of the dislocations of language in a colonial society, they have also been attentive to the world itself – the ubiquitous presence or power of the land, shaping the consciousness of all who write in New Zealand, in ways recognised and subterranean. By the late nineteenth century, while their fellows were busy felling the last of the great primeval forests and clearing the land for pastoralism, some among the European New Zealanders (known as Pakeha) were already attending to what was being rudely displaced. Even among the farmers there were early enthusiasts for patiently and minutely recording the effects of the borrowed and introduced on an ecosystem; this concern continues today and is found in the poetry of Hawken, McQueen and others. In a sense it lies behind the whole enterprise of poetry-writing in New Zealand, inseparable from the conjoined evolution of place and language, as in Hawken’s ‘The Harbour Poems’:

      The blue agapanthus, the yellow fennel, the white
      butterfly, the blue harbour, the golden grass,
      the white verandah post, the blue hills, the yellow
      leaves, the white clouds, the blue
      book, the yellow envelope, the white paper.
      Here is the green verb, releasing everything.

Baxter’s ambiguous efforts in the late 1960s as an early hero of cross-culturalism, abandoning bourgeois suburbia for a version of Maori communalism on the banks of the Whanganui River, anticipated bicultural adventures taken by the country as a whole in the 1980s. The ‘Maori Renaissance’, a movement which began around the 1970s with the stories of lyrical nostalgia for the old ways of Maori life, gathered sharper political focus in the 1980s. By the 1990s the energies of the movement had found new modes of expression; Maori cultural and political assertiveness had not lessened in intensity but there was a growing diversity in Maori writing. Old myths are applied in new ways to familiar details and ordinary pleasures:

         hip-bones press
      flat against the boards.
      catching and getting caught.
      Maui’s net is thrown
      and scoops us both in its rough binding
            Roma Potiki, ‘Bound to’

The ongoing differences in perception between the two parties present at the act of colonization, indeed the whole postcolonial enterprise, could be viewed from a coolly ironic distance, as in Anne French’s ‘Cabin Fever’:

                                                                         It all depends
      on where you’re looking from. The country viewed from an Air New
      Zealand F27 on a misty winter morning, might just resemble a J
      boat, very broad in the beam, sailing bravely south away from
      Europe and towards the ice, or a waka, small as a room, unstable
      in a big swell, blown off course and heading nowhere in particular.

From the start, the preoccupying subject of New Zealand poetry has been language and its dislocations from place as much as naming the hills and rivers, celebrations of love, or the registration of new patterns of social and cultural life. At the same time, the unfolding of New Zealand poetry has recorded a growing relaxation in the use of a demotic and the steady formation of a local way of saying. As Ian Wedde has memorably expressed it, the language ‘grow[s] ... into its location’. Mansfield was keen to put a little symbolist smoke between the artist and the actual. Curnow, in reaction against the colonial homesickness for England, sternly enjoined New Zealand writers to attend to the world to hand. In some of the best of the poetry of the 1990s – Gregory O’Brien’s surrealist word play, John Newton’s dense reworkings of the myths encoded in the legacy of local poetry, in Dinah Hawken and Jenny Bornholdt – a sense of place, the marks of a particular culture, and the traces of prior uses of language have become so bound together as to be inseparable:

      you draw from them splinters     of lives made of words
      though you never take your eyes off the mountains.
      The mountains   reach out to embrace you
      they fold their blue ankles
      they give birth to rivers, they
      can even crouch like tigers if that’s the way you
      want them:   they are a story you tell
            John Newton, ‘Opening the Book’

For younger contemporary writers, especially those identified with Bill Manhire’s creative writing programme at Victoria University, New Zealand’s isolation is mythical not because of air travel and the availability of the New Yorker magazine but because, like everywhere else, New Zealand is as much an imagined as a real world. Realities that are ‘local and special’ are invented not discovered. The local, moreover, must learn to coexist with the imported, whether new plants, diseases, pests, products or automatic bank teller machines as in James Brown’s ‘Cashpoint: A Pantoum’, where the ordinary interactions of global existence collide with an ancient and elegant poetic form, albeit in the most stilted and mechanical kind of language. In much of the best New Zealand poetry, modern or postmodern, one finds sudden switches in register, often from formal kinds of writing to energetic colloquialisms, and an alertness to those minute shifts of tone that signal a local inflection working in language that is not at all local. Often the poetry is deliberately unpoetic, invoking the New Zealand suspicion of overly elaborate speech to make something slyly aware of itself as poetry. Denis Glover and Bill Manhire are especially adept at this.

Manhire’s ‘Milky Way Bar’ quietly dismisses the old sense of homesickness and distance in New Zealand poetry, invoked by R.A.K. Mason in his ‘Sonnet of Brotherhood’: ‘here in this far-pitched perilous hostile place/this solitary hard-assaulted spot/fixed at the friendless outer edge of space’. For Manhire, New Zealand’s geographical isolation is not a cause for anxiety or something for which poets must compensate. Isolation and marginality are, after all, comfortingly universal conditions after the lapse of so many empires:

      I live at the edge of the universe,
      like everybody else. Sometimes I think
      congratulations are in order;
      I look out at the stars
      and my eye merely blinks a little,
      my voice settles for a sigh.

The struggle, then, has not simply been to come to terms with a new place, but to knit thought to it by a process of attending to all that was here, that which was brought, and to the complicated, finicky, often unexpected results of their interrelations. Sometimes the introduced species of animals and plants got away from their well-intentioned donors, becoming pests. Rabbits, gorse, ferrets – the list is long. Yet even the pests became part of the landscape, earning their place by sheer resilience. As Chris Orsman puts it wryly, the gorse became ‘ornamental’. So also did the words and phrases that were brought with the settlers get away from their utilitarian owners; they hybridised with the words they found and appropriated, with those they coined and those they borrowed – little by little making a place in language. The poets, on behalf of the citizens (but as often in the role of followers as of leaders) have set about discovering and making use of what Cilla McQueen, in ‘Vegetable Garden Poem IV’, calls ‘new dialects of earth & air’.

New Zealand poetry in the colonial period seemed to Australian critics – captivated by a stronger literary nationalism and by a firmly established local demotic tradition in that country – to be excessively English, formal and genteel. That is perhaps simply to observe that even in the earliest phase New Zealand writing had its own perverse character. Certainly, it has evolved in its own fashion, less by way of overt acts of nationalistic repudiation than by smuggling a suspicion of high-sounding, rhetorical or resonantly ‘poetic’ discourse into practice that is often unobtrusively formal. Bill Manhire observes of Denis Glover’s ‘The Magpies’ that ‘It’s hardly surprising that New Zealand’s best-known line of poetry – Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle – should be so determinedly unpoetic’. Yet Manhire’s own writing, for all its arch use of laconic irony and its ear for curious local usage, is highly and selfconsciously wrought – deliberately formal. Somewhere in that seeming paradox lies the large story of New Zealand poetry, as well as all the small ones it has engendered.


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