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Arachne. No. 3

Arachne — The Place of Maori Poetry

page 1


The Place of Maori Poetry

New Zealand has an extremely homogeneous culture, far less varied than the British with its class differences and cosmopolitan contacts. In New Zealand the people we meet are apt to have all the same background and philosophy. The question, 'Who is this other person? What does he stand for?' does not arise so frequently. The result is an impoverishment. To persons of another background one feels both repelled and attracted; this leads to greater mental clarity and the development of ideas which enrich the existing culture.

The only major contact with alien ideas lies in the contact between Maoris and Pakehas. This is the contact which leads a great number of New Zealanders to consider the virtues and especially the vices of another mode of life. Here the idea is still met that work has a communal, not an individual, purpose; time is not yet conquered by the clock; land is understood not as farm land but as the fertile earth which brings forth all manner of animals and plants on which man may subsist. The Maori dances very differently from the Pakeha; he laughs and also drinks differently; his heart has a softer spot for fellow creatures; he still has his aristocracy.

These differences lead to many questions which seem to make people think in unending vicious circles. Quite justly, moral questions are asked as to the rightness or wrongness of this mode of life, but Maori thought has never been probed and absorbed by the Pakeha imagination. This could only be done if we went back to Maori culture in its purest and deepest manifestations: the art and especially the poetry.

It is possible that the sense of being isolated would tend to become much less acute among New Zealand intellectuals if such culture contacts as are possible in this country were actually made.

The essay presented here is a translation of Sir Apirana Ngata's introduction to a collection of Maori verse, Nga Moteatea (1929). It gives an authoritative review of the forms and nature of Maori poetry. It is significant that this essay, the only one of its kind in existence, should have remained inaccessible to English readers for over 20 years.

Thanks are due to the translator, Mr W. T. Ngata, Sir Apirana's son, a licensed interpreter, and to the publishers, The Maori Purposes Fund Board and Sir Apirana's executors, for permission to print this translation. The essay ought to establish beyond all doubt that New Zealand page 2 possesses an important poetic heritage in the Maori 'waiata', whose verbal and imaginative power and controlled rhythmic strength still make it a formidable rival for the Pakeha verse that came after, and that the assimilation of this body of verse into the New Zealand poetic tradition would mean a considerable enrichment of that tradition.