Coda — An Aotearoa poetic reconsidered

Coda — An Aotearoa poetic reconsidered

Coda: Towards an Aotearoa Poetic…?

I began this three-month commentary post series with a question as to whether there is or could be an Aotearoa poetic.

I noted back then that I had modified my stance so as to say there seemed to be so many poetry scenes within the country of New Zealand, some thriving, some growing, and one still dominant, that there could not be a single identifiable Aotearoa poetic. I have had no reason to alter this viewpoint as the series went on, only — in fact — to say now even more clearly, that New Zealand has several divergent poetics, not always empathetic to one another …

There are the experimentalists, both within and outside a textual framework. Then there are the poetry slam competitors, whereby orality is king. There are burgeoning Pasifika and Asian groupings, depicting their own tropes and utilising their own languages. There are the fighting small presses and periodicals, staunchly keeping open the possibilities of a poet being published at all, while some more off-the-wall publications — such as Cats & Spaghetti Press — are striving to sustain deep diversity. There are those sturdy individuals who continue to promote and publicize poetry locally, such is the sizeable public demand to be heard, probably more than ever.

Vitally, there is the pre-existing —  i.e. prior to Pākehā colonialization — oral Māori mōteatea and waiata base, on which contemporary Māori poets often found their own current work.

But, that gnarled old beast, the English-language, Anglo-American-centred, poetic still reigns, still dominates the admittedly dwindling funding rounds, the main publishing houses, the mainstream poetry journals, the critical mass, the university teachings of ‘how to write’ a poem as an emotionless intellectual exercise all-too-often founded on language gambols. This beast is not gender biased, it would seem, but does seem preoccupied with stanzas, objective observations and reflections, ‘clever’ linguistic frolics, ‘additional notes’ all on the same page — and still, even in 2015 — with England-based mores, personages, paternalism. And, rather worryingly, as Anne Kennedy, editor of another small publication, Ika Journal, lamented to Joan Fleming very recently in Cordite, ‘The Eurocentricity that still operates in some quarters here is baffling and uninteresting to me.’ Not just to you, Anne.

I think Robert McLean, God bless him for his revealing that the poetic centre all-too-often sports no clothes, best sums up my continual point, via his knife thrusts in the November, 2015 Landfall Review Online, ‘Having been cursed to live proverbially ‘in interesting times,’ which undoubtedly they are, it is extraordinary how little interest our poets seem to take in them … The unfortunate introduction to VUP’s 2009 anthology Twenty Contemporary New Zealand Poets is apposite, stingingly so, to the triviality so sadly apparent in centrist New Zealand writers … members of a shifting roster of residents in Axel’s castle (refurbished in the Memphis style). New Zealand poetry is said to ‘incorporate an “anti-poetry”: it embodies a suspicion of the “poetic,” of the tendency to romanticise, to idealise, to move away from the real world into the realm of pure ideas. The suspicion extends to purity itself, for its capacity to blind us to dangerous absolutism.’ All this, remember, is what our poetry is supposed to be against; instead, it exemplifies it...’

There remains, then, a David vs Goliath ambience permeating through the fissures and fixtures of Aotearoa-New Zealand poetry.

My rather strident call has been for this scenario to radically alter, so that the Davids of the real world beyond universities and schools, get a far fairer share of recognition, funding, respect. The episteme, the regnant paradigm, the zeitgeist — call it what you will — needs to rather radically change sooner rather than later. (I never highlighted IIML or University Presses or indeed, other thin white dukes of middle-class, English language imperium because in so doing the ‘Other’ would have had attention drawn even further away from its very existence, would have in a Derridean sense had more unwanted confirmation of the ‘Centre.’ Others can do such dissection of these dominants now, eh.)

And change it will — necessarily — as the ethnic mix of the country’s population changes, as Māori grab hold more firmly of their traditional poetic formats and reo, as younger others take up my call for change and slam-dunk-smash the hoary carapace of — to me, at least — an increasingly irrelevant old-school poetry mindset here …

Ka pū te ruha, ka hao te rangatahi

As an old net withers, another is remade




And then, too, may I mention Colin Wilson, who wrote Poetry and Mysticism among a flurry of other books on all manner of topics, all interrelated. For him, for me too, poetry has the potential to further open the doors of consciousness, to be a tripdoor toward epiphany. I have not really alluded to this aspect of New Zealand or indeed World poetry throughout these commentaries, but it is well-worth further scrutiny, i.e. Wilson’s entire ‘New Existentialism’ as pertaining the role of poetry within it, given the man’s English-language fixations and its sometimes silly inbred cultural nuances (read Anna Wierzbicka) … Wilson remained the epitome of an Outsider, and his formula of an Existential Literary Criticism bears serious reappraisal: what does a poem bring to the table of our further comprehension of our lives, our possibilities, our potentialities? A poem may not unravel nirvana, but giving us a decent whack at looking at living is surely a start. As I end below —



good poetry is

                         an unsolved murder.

keeping you awake at night

restless in your bed

rattling through your head

about death & love & lust & war

mother, father, so much more,

making you sweat as you read each line

making you go back just one more time

making you queue up in advance.


maybe                 now

you can see

why there’s so few

unsolved murders       around;

                      these      other       poems

leave far too many clues.


I just want to be the best killer in town.

Vaughan Rapatahana

(First published Down among the Dead Men Entropy Press, Auckland, 1986; later in Orbis, England, 2012 — and, yes I do see the irony)


[Finally, I have to say a HUGE thank you to all and sundry who replied to my emails, to my rather incessant nagging. Kia ora katoa. To those whom I inadvertently did not comment on, aroha mai hoki.]