State-of-the-nation poems

State-of-the-Nation poems (5)

Kendrick Smithyman, “If I Stepped Outside, in May ’93” (2002)

Margaret Edgcumbe
Study, typewriter, banana palms - photograph: Margaret Edgcumbe (1996)

My good friend and fellow-poet David Howard writes in to question my use of the epithet “unquestioned Top Bard” for Bill Manhire in my previous post. He also comments that “we weren't 'all' lost in the postmodern forest of the 1980s” …

I did wonder (as I said in my reply to him) if anyone would react to my canonisation of Manhire:

I can't say I think Top Bard an enviable job, but it does seem to me to have passed from Rex Fairburn to Allen Curnow in the 50s, and thence to Bill Manhire in the 2000s -- I'm speaking of influence and cultural dominance, you understand, not necessarily poetic merit ...

And as for those thickets, I guess I was thinking more of Academics than poets (the principal audience for the website). Again, meant to be a bit teasing ...

State-of-the-Nation poems (4)

Ian Wedde, “Barbary Coast” (1993)

devonport
Auckland Skyline - photograph: Michael Dean

1946 was a good year for poets. Along the fruits of that bumper crop were Alan Brunton, peripatetic troubadour and (co-) founder of radical theatre troupe Red Mole; Bill Manhire, Dean of the Wellington school and unquestioned Top Bard of the country; Sam Hunt, restless road warrior and heart-sore lyricist – and Ian Wedde, New Zealand Poet Laureate for 2011-13.

It’s Wedde [pronounced Wed-dee, not Wed, in case you were wondering] I’d like to talk about here. He’s far harder to characterize in a couple of gimcrack phrases than most other local poets. That’s if he really is a local poet. There’s always been something of an air of the largeness of outside in Wedde’s work from the very beginning.

State-of-the-Nation poems (2)

James K. Baxter, “Ode to Auckland” (1972)

Rangitoto from North Head
"the song of Tangaroa on a thousand beaches" - Rangitoto from North Head

If the Allen Curnow poem I talked about in my latest post looks back on the fifties, that whole post-war “You’ve never had it so good” period, then it seems logical to go on to discuss further “state-of-the-nation” poems commenting successively on the sixties, the seventies, the eighties, the nineties, and (finally) the twenty-tens.

This is the list I’ve come up with. Not all the dates fit perfectly, but at least it provides some sort of a coverage of styles, ideas, voices and views, over the last fifty years of New Zealand poetry. Each one of them will take a fair amount of contextualising and unpacking, but it’s the only way I can think of to give you a reasonable overview of where we’ve been and where (possibly) we might be going.

State-of-the-Nation poems

Allen Curnow, “A Small Room with Large Windows” (1962)

Albany Coronation Hall 1911
"What you call a view" - Albany Coronation Hall (1911)

I think that we’ve had enough generalizations about various different types of New Zealand poetry for a bit. It’s time to descend to cases. But which poems should we talk about?

There’s not much point in doing a mini-anthology of my favourite contemporary poets. In any case, that’s something I’ve already been asked to do for Jacket2. It appeared last year as the feature “Look and look again: Twelve New Zealand Poets.”

Instead I thought it might make sense to concentrate on big-issue public poetry: those “state-of-the-nation” poems which poets more often find themselves writing by accident than actually sitting down to compose (or so I suspect, anyway).

Robert Lowell specialized in such poems: “For the Union Dead”, for example – or “Waking Early Sunday Morning.” It’s a form of engagé, ex cathedra discourse which many modern readers are understandably suspicious of, but when you reread those Lowell poems, or Derek Walcott’s superb sequence “The Schooner Flight,” or even Philip Larkin’s “The Whitsun Weddings,” it becomes clear that there are ways of avoiding pompous attitudinizing within this mini-genre.

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