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Sport 11: Spring 1993

A Sequence of Sonnets

A Sequence of Sonnets

‘I’d really like to see if he thinks in sonnets . . . ’

(Michael O’Leary, Out of It, ESAW 1987)

Since the Jerusalem Sonnets, the locally-produced sonnet sequence has been constantly revived and reinvented. A history of the post-1972 New Zealand sonnet sequence would have to include—for a start—C. K. Stead, Ian page 139 Wedde, Dinah Hawken, Leigh Davis, Robert Sullivan and Michele Leggott (her recent ‘ladies mile’).

Ian Wedde was one of the first to pick up the long-winded sonnet sequence. He made it even hipper and smarter than Baxter managed, dropping the Catholic mysticism and replacing it with a humanism and animism derived from Pablo Neruda, among others. In Earthly, Wedde’s sonnets are faster moving than Baxter’s, more convoluted and riddled with obscure literary allusions and echoes. They play an internationalist tune against Baxter’s predominantly nationalist one. They witness Baxter’s modernism slipping into the postmodernism that has swayed, if not dominated, New Zealand poetry in recent years.

Wedde also drops the poet-persona fair and square in the centre of the poem, which is where Baxter liked him to be. Although Wedde, like Graham Lindsay, clouds that persona in irony and complexity—we read ‘him’ as a literary construct as well as a version of the poet himself. Codes are shuffled as the poet and poem undercut each other. There’s a slippage which Baxter never allowed himself, content as he was to play Jeremiah, to secure himself a seat and to sit on it. Wedde’s concentration in The Drummer (1993) on the form of the ballad also links him back to Baxter and, beyond that, to the traditional forms of bush ballads, shanties and even doggerel.


Rob Allan has also picked up the extended poem sequence, incorporating narrative and non-narrative devices, the inward looking as well as the universal concerns of the poet co-existing in his Karitane Postcards (1991). Here Baxter’s series of ‘letters’ is given a more contemporary permutation by way of a series of ‘postcards’. And, as is the case with postcards, the writing can be as cryptic and fragmented as it chooses to be. The communication can be as impressionistic as the pictorial format implies.