Jack Ross

Notes on NZ poetry

There’s work yet for the living

A Conversation with Hone Tuwhare

Hone Tuwhare: Mihi: Collected Poems (1987)

“Could you let the cat in?”

I turned. The cat (large, handsome, grey and white), was standing stretched against the glass of the French door, meowing in protest at the cold grey rain bucketing down outside.

State-of-the-Nation poems (3)

Cilla McQueen, ‘Living Here’ (1982)

cilla mcqueen
Cilla McQueen in Auckland (March 29, 2012)

Time for a change of gear, I think. Curnow’s and Baxter’s poems seem designed to wrestle with the big questions, to provoke that “You must change your life” epiphany Rilke got from his Archaic Torso of Apollo. There’s a sense of mission about both of them as writers.

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.

In small press land

Thoughts on booktables

Pania Press books
Pania Press and Titus Books (Old Government House, Auckland, 29 August 2012)

The first thing that I do whenever I go to a poetry conference or symposium is to make a beeline for the booktable.

This is, admittedly, because I generally have a backpack full of my own wares which I’m hoping to flog off to the unwary, but my main motive is actually a strong desire to see what oddities and rarities the others have brought along.

Far more of us than would care to admit it have a cupboard full of old back-issues of magazines and boxes of books from defunct small presses who have gone belly-up. Who else is going to be interested in such things except other writers? Librarians? Antiquarian book collectors? Academics? Funnily enough, I never seem to see any of them putting their hands in their pockets on such occasions.

Here’s the booktable in the marae in for BLUFF 06: a poetry symposium in Southland (21-24 April 2006):

bluff 06