'Strange Self-Congratulations, Flat Whites': Some notes on Bill Manhire

Robert McLean

Black painting XV, from ‘Malady,’ a poem by Bill Manhire, 1970, by Ralph Hotere.
Black painting XV, from ‘Malady,’ a poem by Bill Manhire, 1970, Dunedin, by Ralph Hotere. Purchased 1971. ©Te Papa. CC BY-NC-ND licence. Te Papa (1971-0024-2).

By international standards all New Zealand publishing is small press publishing. The country is home to only 4.73 million people. If a significant proportion of the adult population supports the authors of cookery and gardening books, such enthusiasm rarely extends to buying titles by novelists, playwrights, and poets. One welcome exception is Eleanor Catton’s Booker-winning The Luminaries; heartened by accolades from London, readers from Bluff in the deep south to Whangarei in the far north have put their money where others’ mouths are — something New Zealanders are adept at doing.

British poet and publisher Peter Riley once observed: “When it comes to poetry the [small press] category becomes illusory. The so-called big publishers produce poetry books in very small editions, sometimes below 1,000 … The notion that some achievement in terms of public recognition is made when a poet is taken on by one of these bigger presses is sadly mistaken: they are run on personal taste and zone-preference like the rest. For the most part the only really commercial poetry publishing … concerns poets laureate, Nobel prize winners, and some popular entertainers.”[1]

What Riley said of Britain applies (without the desired but elusive Nobel prize winners) to New Zealand. While modestly resourced, the university presses who creditably publish poetry here enjoy more media reach than their independent counterparts. Our young literary scene is akin to the horse-racing industry: we welcome writer A sired by mentor N out of Z stable. The sustained failure of journalists, academics, and general readers to test blurb assertions of excellence makes for an inbred canon that depends upon the established reputation of the publisher rather than close-reading of each author’s work.

Bill Manhire is typically regarded as ‘the biggest noise’ in contemporary New Zealand poetry yet, as John Newton complained, “the longer it takes for Manhire’s poems to generate a complex critical writing, the more force accrues to the unhappy insinuation that it’s not the kind of poetry you can actually read and write about.”[2]

So Robert McLean’s essay presents an overdue close-reading rather than a teleprompter’s opining about stature. For decades Manhire’s success as a literary entrepreneur, an astute importer of American models, has been confused with his quality as a poet. For some of the poet’s admirers this essay will read as disrespectful when it is the opposite, a prompt for that ‘complex critical writing’ Newton demanded twenty-one years ago. 


Some of my former students are derivative of me … But I think that the time has come when my faithful reader may as well face certain facts, no matter how painful the experience: namely, that I know a great deal about the art of poetry, theoretically, historically, and practically; that a great many talented people have come … to work with me; that I have been an excellent teacher; that six or seven of my former students are among the best poets of this century; that some of these and a few others are distinguished scholars.

That is Yvor Winters writing about himself towards the end of his Forms of Discovery. The six or seven ‘best poets of the century’ are, I take it, Helen Pinkerton, Thom Gunn, Edgar Bowers, N. Scott Momaday, J.V. Cunningham, Catherine Davis, and Winter’s wife, Janet Lewis. Howard Baker, Don Stanford, Ann Stanford, Alan Stephens, Robert Pinksy, John Mathias, John Peck, and Donald Hall, later US poet laureate, also attended Winters’s classes. It is an impressive roster, not only for the individual excellence of the poets, but for its spanning the Platonic conservatism of Cunningham through to the restlessly questioning late-modernism of John Peck.

Bill Manhire would never make such claims for himself, apart from slightly scaled-back variations on those last couple of clauses, but replace the first person pronouns and possessives with ‘Bill,’ that ubiquitous mononym, and this could easily be written by one of Wellington’s International Institute of Modern Letters’ many satisfied denizens, testaments of the kind found in festschrift Manhire at Sixty = a Book for Bill. It is fair to say Manhire is far from as polarising a figure as Winters, but the charge of nepotism levelled at Winters is repeated, usually in quiet conversation, about Manhire, a charge to which another is often added, that concerning his students’ homogeneity and derivativeness. And by all reports, both men were teachers who made strong impressions, which sometimes exceeded their poetic achievements, on their students.

What follows isn’t meant to be an exposé, but I should say that my estimation of Manhire’s poetry and his cultural entrepreneurship is out of step with our cultural consensus. This harmony can conveniently be sampled on the website of Manhire’s most frequent publisher, Victoria University Press, in this case about Lifted, which is described asthe work of a major poet”:

Turning the pages of Lifted, no reader can fail to be surprised and delighted by the variety of voices and tones … Manhire shows not only his mature formal skills but his ability to look unflinchingly into the heart of things. He is a poet in which a sly sense of humour is coupled with a respect for whatever truths a poem can wring out of experience … Manhire’s poems make us feel as if we are really there.

Manhire is in darkly brilliant form in this death-haunted but scintillating collection.

Manhire risks accusations of sentimentality and produces a triumph. This is richly human work, which acknowledges its — and our — limitations and keeps reaching for the high windows, regardless.

The biggest noise in New Zealand poetry is Bill Manhire … Manhire has always known how to look at the human condition and state it simply through his poems.
Lifted is confident and emotive in what it tries to achieve … Lifted is shining stuff from truly one of our best poets. Definitely check this one out.

Manhire changes tack in every poem, coming at us with different techniques and different personae. It’s a marvellously varied performance …
Lifted is a short book, but few readers will be able to take it all in at a single sitting. It demands -and rewards- re-reading.

An event to be celebrated … a powerful collection.

He has matured sturdily, and grown to an impressive height, and put down roots so tenacious in their grip on the world that it’ll take the devil of a wind to topple him.

I love this latest collection of poems … They are hauntingly beautiful.

This cult of unadulterated praise, self-confidence, and commodification of opinion sounds most foolish when it is at its most strident and unfounded in fact:

Every now and then someone comes along who makes a difference to an entire culture. Bill Manhire already inspired hushed tones from people when I first heard of him in the 1990s.[4]

This is exemplary literary wind-bagging. Bill Manhire hasn’t really made a difference to an entire culture, but he has meant a lot to a like-minded cadre. I am confident most New Zealanders haven’t heard of him, and that whilst his ‘name-recognition’ is bigger than our average citizen, though of course smaller than your average All Black or government front-bencher, most people who have heard of him would put the niche-striding colossus in perspective. A more modest proposal, but one that also warrants scrutiny, is that made by Alan Riach, an estimable academic and editor of Hugh MacDiarmid: “There can be little doubt of Bill Manhire’s stature among New Zealand poets. He is the best.”[5] As I have already implied, I do have doubts about whether Manhire’s achievement warrants his stature; I think he is far from our best poet, although he is almost certainly the most influential. This influence has been a straightening, and it has directed the poetry mainstream, through his own poetry, teaching, and spokesmanship, towards aesthetic esotericism, social disseverment, ludic individualism, and comforting commodification. Severe constraints on what is acceptable have been imposed on poetry; whole parts of life and language are no longer available to poets. And as the world, secular and religious alike, eases towards a mutual eschatology, possibly political and almost surely ecological, I read and review book after book written by poets ill-equipped and disinclined to engage with anything beyond their personal baggage and the charms of their medium. The world of historical fact is excluded or treated plastically; it is seen as a bore, an inconvenience, or even as a shibboleth. Manneredness is all. Hushed tones and gushing reverence, symptomatic of a kinder, gentler, more supportive literary community, in which the infighting of the ’50s and ’60s would be unimaginable, have certainly made it difficult to cool-headedly estimate Manhire’s poetry. But that is what I am going to try to do: not, as I said, to offer an exposé, but to give an estimation of Manhire’s poetry and its influence that takes notice of its limitations, provide a provisional reckoning of his activities as a spokesperson and tastemaker, and give notice of how this influence has played out in contemporary New Zealand poetry.


Manhire’s poetry gets under way in the ’70s by clearing ground and establishing a position that he has more or less maintained ever since. It is a poetry defined by exclusions and disavowals, and more positively by its intimacy of speech:

The Elaboration

There was a way out of here:
it went off in the night
licking its lips.

The door flaps like a great wing:
I make fists in the air
and long to weaken.

Ah, to visit you
is the plain thing,
and I shall not come to it.

This is the title poem of Manhire’s first collection, which was published in 1972, whose poems, according to Manhire’s ‘Statement’ included in the book, seem, “more and more, to be fictions, elaborated out of the truth of this or that situation. At some point, hopefully, the elaboration ends and they come to be arbitrary facts, making their own way into the particular worlds of those people who cared to read them.”[6] This is a remarkably confident declaration. Far from poems having to justify their existence reading after reading, it is hoped their derivation ceases to matter and they become part of readers’ unquestionable mental furniture. Time has justified Manhire’s self-assurance. His Great Upsetting, on which his reputation was staked and has been sustained, was quietly suggesting a hygienic solution of fin-de-siècle Art for Art’s sake decadence instead of bothering with articulating “solutions to the business of living.”

“There was a way out of here: / it went off in the night / licking its lips.” Whatever truth this elaborates is beyond detection. And it seems less an elaboration than a distillation. Whatever the case may be, one is left only with words on the page: there was a way of departure from an undisclosed location; this is no longer the case because it left of its own accord, and did so with a clichéd expression of appetite. It is an impossible situation expressed in the most general terms. The speaker notes a definite door and describes it with a hackneyed but mysterious simile, and responds to it with what seem contradictory responses of defiant gesture and cowering feeling. It closes with a stanza much like Ezra Pound’s vocable-ridden parlour pieces of pre-War London, in which the utterly proper “I shall not come to it” thumbs its nose at the colloquial “it went off in the night.” All this very little is conveyed with sharp teeth. Manhire’s youthful technique is alarmingly good and it delivers exactly what he says he will: the poem, divorced from the quotidian, whether by stealth or in substance, is completely self-sufficient and makes no ethical impositions whatsoever on reader or writer; it is a totem of chiselled vagueness.

Although Manhire’s poetry has changed, he has been remarkably consistent in his principles, to which he has added and elaborated, rather than revised. The lyricized ‘you’ is established as Manhire’s most frequent addressee. Manhire’s mise en scène and milieu is that of the Grimm Brothers or the end words of an Auden sestina, though gently post-modernised and generalised to the point of fable, as in the frequently anthologised ‘On Originality,’ [7] in which Manhire’s frequently applied tincture of the amusingly sinister bursts into violence of poetic self-begetting:

Poets, I want to follow them all,
out of the forest into the city
or out of the city into the forest.

The first one I throttle.
I remove his dagger
and tape it to my ankle in a shop doorway.
Then I step into the street
picking my nails.

I have a drink with a man
who loves young women.
Each line is a fresh corpse.

There is a girl with whom we make friends.
As he bends over her body
to remove the clothing
I slip the blade between his ribs.

Humming a melody, I take his gun.
I knot his scarf carelessly at my neck, and

I trail the next one into the country.
On the bank of a river I drill
a clean hole in his forehead.

Moved by poetry
I put his wallet in a plain envelope
and mail it to the widow.

I pocket his gun.
This is progress.
For instance, it is nearly dawn.

Now I slide a gun into the gun
and go out looking.

It is a difficult world.
Each word is another bruise.

This is my nest of weapons.
This is my lyrical foliage.

I have always found this redolent of the Victoriana of Stevenson’s Suicide Club, the Ripper’s apocryphal diary, self-incriminating forensic evidence of horrors given to the reader as magistrate. Manhire’s elicitation of setting as intrinsic to motive is remarkable; done so stealthily and with such assuredness, it is an ability that has always made him exceptional among his peers. Likewise, it gives notice of the tactical equivocation that almost defines Manhire’s diction, as if one could append to his oeuvre something along the lines of maybe I think perhaps it’s possible that if I were or not to suppose …

And occasionally, one supposes,
some marriage may be celebrated.[8]

 Things also seem to get forgotten, or only half-remembered.

It was in the mountains
and I prayed for the swan.
I forget it.[9]

Such second-guessing, ambiguous pronouns, and shifty syntax are programmatic. Manhire has made much of his openness, but it is far from wholesale. He allows chance and contamination to be formative, but his early poems demonstrate his editorial scrupulousness and ludic exclusions. He is closed to verifiability, specificity, observation, or letting things get the better of their names.  

As for open and ignorant, I’m probably less open than I was, but I think I've managed — for good and bad reasons — to stay productively ignorant. I remain a great fan of ‘Write what you don't know.’ Confusion and inner commotion always beat complacent wisdom. [10]

I am sure that wisdom, almost by definition, must involve the lack of complacency; that confusion and inner commotion are not synonymous with ignorance; and that pairing openness with ignorance is casual sophistry. Manhire may be more or less open, but it is his supposed ignorance and paean to ‘Write what you don’t know’ that is most telling, even though it is disingenuous and mischievous. What Manhire’s ’70s most irrevocably establish is that he is a fiction writer whose medium happens usually to be poetry. He makes things up. And given that his technique and diction are almost purpose-built for making things up, when he turns to public concerns, matters of record, and historical persons, this misalliance between means and matter is telling.



The polished surfaces of Manhire’s ’70s poems are not lost on me, and few readers would fail to find them, to a point, charming. But it was in the ’80s that Manhire’s reputation began to rise to its now seemingly unimpeachable height, after he began to form his poems from partially read social and historical material, along with greater specificity and therefore richness of diction. Even so, the poems of Manhire’s maturity, from Milky Way Bar on, continue to resist analytical readings. Ratiocination pays low dividends — disassembling the poems into their components, however that is construed, one learns very little that informs an understanding of the whole. What is hard to miss is the fictive lens through which Manhire looks at the historical and actual, which are usually represented poetically in small batches of factoids. Here are the first sections of “Hirohito”:

To improve his eyesight
the young Hirohito gazes
at the horizon every day.

Birds and clouds: one day
he will become a living god.


In the playground
he always has to be leader;
the other kids
line up behind.

Already he knows
about physical fitness,
the importance of the will.

He likes insects, plants and butterflies.
He admires
the delicate protocols of Nature.


One day his father went mad:
he peered at his people
through the paper telescope
of his own speech.

Hirohito watched his father
being taken away
and thought of jellyfish.


At the age of 20
he travelled to Europe.

In London he sat for Augustus John.
He played golf
with the Prince of Wales.

In Paris his knowledge
of European military history
amazed the generals of France.

The happiest days of his life.

Hirohito went home to Japan,
ate eggs and bacon,
and dressed like a Western Gentleman.


Then there was the war:
about which we know the truth
or do not know the truth,

in which Hirohito either played
the leading part
or he did not.

This last section, which comes at about the middle of the sequence, is the crux of the poem. And it exemplifies the miscarriages made inevitable by the technique and priorities established by Manhire in the ’70s and strictly adhered to by him ever since. The first set of rhetorical alternatives pivots on a falsehood: there is no truth to be known or not about the war that ‘was.’ It is not clear to which war Manhire is referring. I assume he means the war in the Pacific, in which case Hirohito didn’t play a leading role, apart from nominally or as a signatory, since neither war policy nor strategy were within his control, since they had been firmly in military hands for more than a decade. Whatever the war, there is knowledge to be had of it. What the section does establish is Manhire’s perspective on truth, about which he is right to be sceptical. But this scepticism lapses into a devil-may-care license as Manhire’s poem-making bends history to its will — why, he might suggest, let the truth get in the way of a good poem? Then again, truth in the sense of knowing all there is to know about a person or an event is a nonsense that most professional historians do without, given they are far more concerned with examining what is there to be examined. One can find out a great deal about ‘the war.’ There is statistical information: thirty-three million people died in the Pacific theatre, part of the fifty to eighty-five million who died across the world during the Second World War. There are innumerable scholarly accounts of military operations. Archives across the world contain more records than anyone will ever read, and which historians have drawn on for more than seven decades. There are fewer veterans alive now than when Manhire wrote those lines, but some remain with us; many millions of their children and grandchildren, including of Japanese officials and servicemen, can provide personal information, so if a more personal view of that global maelstrom is more to one’s taste, then it is available if time, money, or work ethic allows. Such knowledge is baby thrown out with truth’s bathwater. Pound’s Browningesque injunction ‘End fact. Try fiction’ in “Near Perigord” is taken far too literally.

I find this flippant moral voluntarism, appropriation of horror for postmodern tomfoolery, and faux (I assume) naïf dismissal of scholarship disquieting. It is the zenith or nadir, depending on one’s point of view, of Manhire’s paeans to ignorance. A deep-seated but hardly unique characteristic of New Zealanders is that although we often welcome and praise hard work, we don’t like to be told how to do it — we prefer, in the words of a work-colleague, ‘to make shit up.’ Often this doesn’t particularly matter. But when actual people, dead or alive, are seconded into the poem, I think it does matter, especially since Manhire speaks neither of nor for Hirohito, but rather around him. And this is done in a childish tone of voice — one cringes at the many stereotypes about the Japanese carried forward by such a juvenile tenor. Hirohito was, for the best part of his life, an adult. Manhire strips him of motivation and context, and Hirohito becomes, with an admittedly light touch, a cluster of odd habits attached to name — his name becomes merely a magnetic locus. If Manhire’s account of Hirohito survived like a gospel account of the Jesus of Nazarene, what would future exegetes make of it? What is the relation of Manhire’s Hirohito to that of history? To my knowledge, Hirohito left no memoirs to consult. Why is it odd and therefore noteworthy that Hirohito played golf and that he played it with fellow royalty? Details, such as the young Emperor’s taste in clothiers, are presented as incongruities; but they are not. They are just facts. It is more interesting to me that Hirohito’s commanders failed to draw on his knowledge of military matters than Frenchmen being amazed by it, though why they were, we are not told. In such omissions and commissions Manhire often comes close to assuming the poetic equivalent of parliamentary privilege. The caricature of Hirohito, since that is assuredly what it is, and the Sanyo television Manhire seconds towards the end of the poem together come very close to “those funny little Japanese with their funny ways, look at him trying to act like us – but they are good at making us electronic devices.”  But then again, we must remind ourselves, the poem is a fiction.



From the ’90s on, Manhire pivots from mythologised historical figures towards a more immediate cast of players and ventriloquized voices, a shift of perspective that toys with recent events and elegiac reportage. The historical appurtenances of song — rhyme, tinkered-with ballad meter, and so on — also start to become routine. As does humour. Indeed, Manhire’s poetry has increasingly depended on humour — in his case usually, droll, dark, and dry — as time has gone on. Humour, of course, is instinctual. Humour is a conditioned response, but each instance of it is felt spontaneously. Whether it is seen to be intelligent, say as in the knowing obliquity of a New Yorker cartoon, or as appealing to baser sensibilities, for instance Benny Hill’s sped-up pursuit of buxom British lasses, it remains, more or less, a question of unaffected taste. One finds a joke funny, or not. Further, though, it is true to say people with a shared perspective on or corresponding stakes in the world tend to find similar things amusing. One example among many is “My Childhood in Ireland” from The Victims of Lightning.

I never climbed the hill
or strolled to the end of the pier
to see what the walkers in the rain
might be finding out there.

Nor did the book fall open
where Maeve had secretly signed it.
In fact, it never fell open.
Not that I minded: the world

streamed away
wherever the great ships
were going. Far away
there were ways beyond knowing.

I walked back to the house.
My sister’s new child was chained
to her breast. She drifted
inside a dark forest.

My father opined while the dog whined.
The television did its best.
While my father opined
the dog licked itself.

Well, you manage to find
what might make you happy.
I went on the Net. I wandered.
Asian bukkake.

To which one responds either ha-ha or not ha-ha. It is hard to imagine either Manhire or his readers being ‘surprised’ by “My Childhood in Ireland.” Like most jokes, and like so many of Manhire’s recent poems, it is bloody-mindedly formulaic: insouciant verbs (strolled, minded, finding); things not happening; incessant negatives; gently sinister air redolent with secrets; off-handed equivocations; pert rhymes; unmotivated journeys to unknown destinations across uncertain distances; unstated or unsayable self-discovery; fairytale forest; askew yet axiomatic domestic scene; flippant fatalism; distasteful punchline.

And that punchline. On the face of it — quite — it is simply a dose of Épater Le Bourgeoisie (for any readers who don’t know, ‘Asian bukkake’ is a pornographic genre in which a mandatorily doe-eyed young Japanese woman, usually dressed in a school uniform, has her face ejaculated on by a succession of men, during which procedure she is expected to betray as little emotion as possible), the recipients of which one imagines shifting slightly in their re-upholstered chaise lounge and whispering breathlessly through a little smile the expected O Bill! Unlike the fantastical forest and Platonic television, the reference to Asian bukkake enlists to the poem the experiences of real women (and men of a sort), whose ontological significances are richer, stranger, and more worthy of compassionate and critical consideration, and which give the lie to their equivalence to the ‘hill,’ ‘dog,’ and ‘dark forest’ and so on that Manhire tries to impose on them. Even if one could infer some kind of point to Manhire’s bad taste, such would again be purely rhetorical and esoteric, like those of an eighteenth-century academic theologian. One can rightly marvel at how the ‘Irish-ness’ is artfully evoked, in much the same way as the mental scenery of “On Originality,” but this clammy-handed fairytale schadenfreude is Manhire at his very worst. And it is preserved for posterity in his Selected Poems of 2012.    

Of course, “My Childhood in Ireland” isn’t about anyone’s childhood in Ireland. It is merely a poem, to be enjoyed or not. It is not about something; it is for something. Manhire has been unswerving from his dedication to this view of reading and writing poetry.

I’ve never been able just to think of a topic I want to write about and then find the words to do it. And the writing I don’t like in other poets is manifestly that sort of writing. But if you constantly want to surprise yourself with what you write, maybe that does mean it’s very hard to get going and some kind of artificial trigger is needed. [11]

I can’t think of any poet who would do what Manhire says he can’t. Poets don’t choose to write poems — a poet’s attention is taken by this or that, often despite themselves, and then they do, indeed, find the words to write about it. Some of the finest New Zealand poets of Manhire’s generation — such as Bill Sewell or Diana Bridge — have done exactly this; they are occasional poets, poets motivated and humbled by consequential forces that trigger, impinge upon, and shape their imaginations, relentless forces greater than themselves, against which the only response is disinterested but responsible; which is to say ethical. Allen Curnow’s finest achievements sprung from this dynamic, as did, though more equivocally, Kendrick Smithyman’s. Although satire is not absent from either’s work, hiding lack of motivation behind comedy would have been anathematic to them. An example of a younger poet equipped and committed to do heavy lifting is Richard Reeve, many of whose poems dramatize the individual human conscience bristling with tooth-and-claw responsibility while finding itself pitted against fates and furies of an almost Grecian ferocity, the dilemma of finding itself ‘in interesting times.’ In contrast, Manhire’s unshifting tongue-in-cheek becomes tiring, at least it does for me. It is like having an open invitation to a friend’s house and having the same practical joke played on you every time you visit — first surprise, tinged with disappointment and betrayal; then, for as many times as credulity allows, increasing boredom and stretched patience; then no more visits, even if the merry prankster substitutes a banana skin on the doorstep for the bucket of water on top of the door.

All the same, this way of doing things has been very influential. Being funny has almost become mandatory. Consequently, Manhire and the acolytes who have taken up his cause find themselves ill-equipped to deal with the adamant and dynamic quotidian, should such ever take their attention. When Manhire does write poems on public occasions, such as “Erebus Voices,” which draws on an occasion in which things have been very much defined, the results are telling — pathetically fallacious consolation is favoured; toughness of vision, ascribing of guilt, of witness, are eschewed:

Erebus Voices

The Mountain

I am here beside my brother, Terror.
I am the place of human error.

I am beauty and cloud, and I am sorrow;
I am tears which you will weep tomorrow.

I am the sky and the exhausting gale.
I am the place of ice. I am the debris trail.

And I am still a hand, a fingertip, a ring.
I am what there is no forgetting.

I am the one with truly broken heart.
I watched them fall, and freeze, and break apart.

The Dead

We fell.

Yet we were loved and we are lifted.

We froze.

Yet we were loved and we are warm.

We broke apart.

Yet we are here and we are whole.

This poem is from Manhire’s 2005 collection Lifted. For readers who don’t know of this place and what happened there, which holds a particular place in the psyches of some New Zealanders, in 1979, a passenger airliner crashed into the slopes of Mt. Erebus in Antarctica. Two hundred fifty-seven people died. In light of this event, “I am what there is no forgetting” says the mountain. Time has told, as Manhire would surely have known it would when he wrote this poem decades after the event, that there has been forgetting and that there almost always is, given forgetting is part of the human condition, especially when ceremonies of remembering, which poems can aspire to be, touch only lightly on what is substantial. Indeed, Manhire’s poem not only elides tough truths, it sometimes, whether for poetic effect or the cause of wishful thinking, tells lies. Not everyone who died was loved; they are not whole. One could say that in some sense this is true, that love, which is attributed to the victims before they died, and wholeness, which is attributed to them postmortem, exist elsewhere than in active human agency and bodily integrity, which would be to skirt very close to literalist Christian Divine Love and corporeal resurrection, hypotheses for which I have little time, though which when confronted with loss seem to offer comfort, despite our better judgement. Likewise, twinning ‘Error’ and ‘Terror’ even around 2004 seems to me a triumph of rhyme and rhetoric over political nous and considered judgement, given the connotations the latter word has come to have given the wilful actions of non-state actors perpetrating war crimes in recent times, although such barbarism had been going on for decades when Manhire made his choice of words.

Writing of the much anthologised and similarly sentimental poem “Kevin” in a review of Manhire’s Lifted for the Guardian, David Wheatley wrote of the poem’s conclusion as

pure Heaneyesque redress of poetry,” tuning us into the consolations we hope are lurking somewhere on the cosmic dial, but the poem loses something by stating so certainly that we are or must be comforted. The tone is simultaneously benevolent and coercive. [12]

Of course an honest and realized attempt to account for the telling silence of Erebus is more difficult for reader and writer than ventriloquizing imagined voices of consolation. Self-assured voices speaking about things of which they have neither knowledge nor experience are the traffic of liberal democracies, domains in which opinion is held sacrosanct, idle chatter privileged over the common good and protected from criticism, the object bent to fit the subject’s perspective. The Prose Edda may well set a precedent for Manhire’s approach to this occasion of public outcry and private pain, but these scars give the lie to what is no doubt an artfully realised articulation of the poet’s imagination, even if bereaved families have thanked Manhire for his troubles. The mountain cannot speak, and even if it could it would be of indifference; the poet can speak, if not on others’ behalf, but for himself and of his irreconcilable complications in a living language of the dead.

Manhire has done this more difficult work and done it well. The elegy for the historian Michael King is a good poem, one which takes measure of its occasion and respects its subjective licence. Such real but infrequent achievements make clear the amount of five-finger exercises in his oeuvre, and that ‘keeping his hand in’ seems to have dissipated the only rarely allowed but palpable strength of feeling that his remarkably adept control of surface needs to be shaken into life. Very often they are intonations, incantations, scene-settings, inclusive monologues. Lists start, accumulate, and eventually come to an apparently arbitrary end. Scenes are set and end with Larkin-like lift-offs, askew punchlines, partial disavows, or the aforementioned poetic banana skins. This is concomitant with studious poetic deployment of prosaic cliché. It is a pity, given Manhire’s undoubted abilities, that he has become increasingly satisfied with crowd-pleasing chestnuts, never more so than here, in the last three stanzas of “1950s”: 

The Famous Five. The Secret Seven.
Tarzan of the Apes. My idea of Heaven.
The empty sky. My Haere mai.
My View-Master. Sticking Plaster.
My Go outside and play. My ANZAC Day.
My tip-up truck. My saying fuck.
My Did you not hear what I said.
My Mr Potato Head. My Go to bed.

My Do you wanna bet.
My chemistry set. My I forget.
My clove hitch. My reef knot.
My I forgot.
Korea. Measles. Mumps. Down in the dumps.
My just William. Counting to a million.
The Invercargill March. My false moustache.
The King and I. Reach for the Sky.

My stamps from Spain and San Marino.
The Winter Show. The Beano.
Cinerama. Orange fizz.
My toy soldiers. Suez.
My pocket knife. Eternal Life.
The Black Prince. My fingerprints.
My plink-a-plunk. You dirty skunk.
My plunk-a-plink. Invisible ink.

The first half of the poem follows the same procedure: Kenneth Koch without the requisite element of surprise — the blindingly obvious is rehashed, the readily available buttons are pushed, nostalgia is given a poke in the mind’s eye, and equivalence is forced on disparate items by childlike play of the auditory imagination. The ‘Korea’ of the penultimate paragraph is made into part of Manhire’s juvenile furniture, not allowed to stand on its own terms as an intentional and bloody-handed human disaster, which continues even now, more than half a century later. Of course, the much touted irony of New Zealand’s supposed poetic maturity, that get-out-of-critical-jail-free card, may be at work here, the circular self-undermining that excuses any utterance with line-breaks of failing to state its case and thereby risk failure, to stand by and take responsibility for what one has said and to be judged by it, not to refer inquiries to pseudo-democratic ambiguities of language. Manhire, of course, was a child in the 1950s, so he wasn’t to know about men, fresh from the dead-lands of Europe, dying icy deaths in Asia; but surely he does know now. And anyone who lived in the 1950s and who then lived through the social upheavals of the following decades — and who gave things some thought — would know that there was a great deal going on beneath the tourist-poster approved version of life, and that foment and contradiction, so apparent in retrospect, led directly to subsequent generations shaking New Zealand’s foundations, which resulted as much in the systematic destruction of unions, the piecemeal dismantling of the Welfare State, and the legalistic and monetised handling the State’s abrogation of its promises to Māori as it did in the Homosexual Law Reform Bill, loosening of censorship, and the coup de grace delivered to iambic pentameter. We should rightly celebrate people being able to openly and legally love whomever they chose or find themselves loving. But Eros has come at the expense of Agape. New Zealand’s far from mythical egalitarianism has been replaced wholesale by supposedly common sense liberalism. The ’50s in New Zealand is routinely panned, especially by ‘Creative Writers,’ as a state of grey conformity and repressiveness. But not only did it birth what came later, fairness was the baby thrown out with the dirty bathwater.

Donald Justice, to whom I compared Manhire in a review for Landfall of the latter’s The Victims of Lightning, was a minor master of the this-or-that-decade-in-a-nutshell poem. Justice’s 1987 collection The Sunset Maker, which contains such poems as “American Scenes (1904–1905),” “Nostalgia and Complaint of the Grandparents,” “Cinema and Ballad of the Great Depression,” “Nostalgia of the Lakefronts,” and “The Piano Teachers: A Memoir of the Thirties,” demonstrates potential emotional potency of such snow-globe verse. Whereas Manhire’s ‘1950s’ gathers itself by accumulating hoary truisms as instances of reported speech, Justice accounts for what is remembered to have been seen, heard, and done. But of course Donald Justice is a dead American — he isn’t and was never one of us, which is to say one of the Kiwi literati. Manhire’s clichés are our collective clichés, and as such are beyond criticism, given they are constitutive of national culture, even if only to push against with a chuckle. It’s worth remembering that some people live their whole lives expressing themselves almost wholly through clichés, and not only our politicians. And that inarticulateness does not invalidate their emotions.

So it is not so much that Riach is wrong in claiming Manhire is our best poet that worries me, though I am sure we have many better poets than Manhire; it is that it speaks loudly and proudly to our circumscribed and self-defeating idea of what we can and cannot do in a poem, and what it means to do it well. For doing his students’ exercises better than they can, Manhire’s reputation has never been higher. Although his limitations are obvious, they are rarely mentioned locally (though this is true of most New Zealand poetry criticism). When he does write with focussed emotion, as in “Hotel Emergency,” a poem that I have heard moves people to tears, he remains unable, unwilling, or most likely ill-equipped to give attention to particulars; he instead marshals resonant generalities to convey recurrent human tragedy, which is always particular and extremely personal.

Which is here as a Muslim sound: which is here as a Christian
sound: which is here as a Jewish sound: which is here
as a merciful god sound: which is here as a praying sound:
which is here as a kneeling sound: which is here as a
scripture sound: which is here as a black-wing sound: as
a dark-cloud sound: as a black-ash: which is given
as a howling sound: which is given as a fire alarm sound:

James Fenton, another fine minor poet, which is what I take Manhire to be, makes such things matter by being specific. It is never simply ‘a Muslim sound’; it is a sound made by this Muslim, in this place, at this time, and, sometimes, for this reason. It has become rare to expect to find a New Zealand poet who is prepared and able to address shared concerns in terms of particulars. Two or three generations — of graduates, not of calendar age — of poets have looked to Manhire as an exemplar, as someone who defines how and about what it is okay to write, and, more importantly, as someone who demonstrates how to be successful. They are better equipped to elicit what Geoffrey Hill has damned as the ‘poetry recital chortle’[13] than to address fraught and freighted personal responsibility when within a century or so chuckling poetry readings for like-minded people may be less of a concern than inevitable civil wars for scarce resources and seawater washing onto our doorsteps. And yet Nero after Nero fiddles on, playing variations on an approved theme.

Manhire, though, is more Pied Piper than decadent Emperor. He is just a man writing poems the way he wants to write them, accepting invitations that interest him, doing interviews, and teaching those who choose to learn from him, amongst the other activities that contribute to what must be a very busy life. I have been told by people who know him that he is a shy, generous, encouraging, erudite, and helpful man, who — to borrow that report card staple — ‘works well with others’  (indeed, some of his best work, such as that with the painter Ralph Hotere, has been collaborative). And these personal qualities, for all his published evasiveness, often make themselves manifest in his poems. If someone is upset, it is natural to offer them comfort, as “Erebus Voices” no doubt tried to do, and probably succeeded in doing for many people, who are surely grateful for his efforts. But one can do more and do it better.



Given Manhire’s genuine but limited achievement as a poet, how does one account for his pre-eminence? It was by invitation. New Zealand poets in the ’60s and ’70s recoiled from its poetic patriarchs, especially Curnow, with their Old Testament-style prescriptions, commandments issued from high, modernist reach and astringencies, beckoning the tribes towards the Promised Land with God-given edicts in hand. The newly minted poets decided amongst themselves that they were already in the land of milk and honey, and that if management was needed at all, then something kinder and gentler was preferable: an altogether lighter touch, a facilitator of talents, a pastoral democrat, a unifying figurehead, not a preacher but a spokesperson and conciliator. The merest hint of Eliotic straightening would have scattered the folds. Manhire was no Athena springing fully formed from the head of an Antipodean Zeus; if Bill Manhire had never been born, he would have had to have been invented.

It saddens me to admit that if intelligent people in New Zealand are looking for intelligent things to read, they could do better than read most local poetry. Derived from academically blessed play of ignorance, which is systematically inculcated in prospective writers, there is little to be learnt from it, and in the circles in which I move, at work and socially, most people like to come away from reading a book with greater and clearer knowledge about the world in which they find themselves. David Howard, Diana Bridge, Stephen Oliver, and Richard Reeve are active New Zealand poets whom I would recommend to people willing to make an effort, not so much because they write poetry, which most of my friends and acquaintances regard, quite rightly, as childishly esoteric, a state to which Manhire has given his blessing across all sorts of media. I would recommend the four poets mentioned above because they write excellent poems, one by one, that enrich the reader to the extent they are prepared to admit that they may know less about some things than the poets offering them the benefit of their experiences. Given that such readers are used to such self-knowledge, even though they are biased towards non-fiction prose, I would be confident they would enjoy and profit from spending time (a wonderfully rich phrase) with such poetry. And to trust their noses otherwise — they are quite right in sensing an esoteric suspension of disbelief is being marketed as poetry, promoted by a mutually self-regarding cadre, often at tax-payers’ expense, and promulgated, supposedly for the benefit of our citizens and overseas fellow-travellers, as ‘New Zealand Culture.’ 

In New Zealand there is very little difference between a critically lauded poet, a popular one, and one of influence. Questions of scale aside, which have obvious effects on the willingness and capacity of a culture to be at once both habitually self-critical and instinctually self-sustaining, critics and reviewers tend to express like and dislike of poems and poets (often conflated into a poetic personality) on an auto-formulated spectrum of pleasure rigidly insulated from extra-literary concerns. Memorable phrase-making is esteemed as the proper measure of poets’ worth, bon mots that can be quoted, packaged, made over into blurbage, and trotted out on request as sufficient indicators of poets’ achievements. And Manhire is a phrase-maker with few equals in New Zealand. This is uncomfortably paired with the fashion for the themed collection, in which a poet writes a topical book’s worth of material, planting a foot onto the novelist’s turf, thereby broadening their appeal and potential readership. To these eminently marketable vogues, the red herring ‘diversity’ is attached as our literary descriptor de jour. Perhaps in revolt against the homogeneous grey area of the mid-century, poets and blurb writers strive to emphasise uniqueness and freshness, despite all evidence that New Zealand’s poetry is increasingly uniform and formulaic, and not only in the two ways described above. These are not unique perspectives on a common culture; rather, the vulgar and trivial, the anecdotal and imaginative are fed into an obvious template for getting stuff published and soliciting favourable reviewers. Such is the proverbial small bowl in which Manhire is the requisite big fish. A thought:

If Snow were merely negligible, there would be no need to say so in any insistent public way, and one would choose to do it. But … Snow is a portent. He is a portent in that, being in himself negligible, he has become for a vast public … a master-mind and a sage. His significance is that he has been accepted — or perhaps the point is better made by saying, “created”; he has been created an authoritative intellect by the cultural conditions manifested in his acceptance … he doesn’t know what he means, and doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.[14]

As already alluded to, Manhire’s de facto cultural status means he is frequently consulted as an authority on New Zealand’s literary health. In his “Report from Wellington” — a title that would irk more local poets than it would please — in the Summer 2006 edition of the English Poetry Review, Manhire trots out the hoary old truism of New Zealand poetry’s ‘regional antagonism’ to explain away the animus some poets feel towards our poetic powers-that-be. According to this story, often trotted out when its re-teller feels no need to address counter-mainstream antagonism, New Zealand has a craggy, traditionalist South; a cosmopolitan, self-assured Centre; and an experimentalist, somewhat authoritarian North. These characteristics change depending on circumstances and biases, but they are always chosen for the sake of convenience. The divisions in the New Zealand poetry scene are not regional; they are about the best way to write poetry, how it gets published, criticised, publicised, distributed, and represented. New Zealand has never treated iconoclasts and dissenters from the mainstream with anything better than condescension, tolerance, or misrepresentation; usually they get much worse, and it doesn’t get much worse than pretending that they aren’t there at all, which is the default setting for a levelling, knee-jerk, emotive liberalism: poets have never had it better, and this is the best of possible worlds and would paradoxically keep getting better if only everyone could agree things are superlative. Manhire usually suggests that we are more easy-going than we once were, and that those of us who aren’t should relax and enjoy themselves like everyone else. It is a mind-set that is at once hands off and hectoring.     

Geniality doesn’t make one’s statements beyond scrutiny. Routinely speaking in the vehicle of a seemingly royal ‘we,’ Manhire’s airily beneficent commentary on the local scene is internationally accredited despite its partiality and reliance on easily digestible soundbites.

 Q – You’re widely regarded as having formed the discipline of creative writing in New Zealand in the form of the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML) and the Masters in Creative Writing at Victoria University. Obviously there are nearly always accusations of gate-keeping and the production of literary clones with any creative writing program, but I wonder how your ideas about ‘creative writing’ as an academic discipline have changed over time, and what you tried to make unique about the Victoria program while you were the director?

 A – I fell into it all by accident, really, and slowly learned by trial and error. A lot of creative writing programs in Australia and New Zealand, and recently in the UK, have been invented from the top down by some sort of management fiat — partly because of anxieties about student enrolment levels, and hence job security, in departments of English. In the UK especially you get the impression that ten years ago half the poets in the land woke up and found they were professors of creative writing. That might not be the best way to set things up. A great writer isn't always or often a good teacher; while a successful academic doesn't always have a sufficient track record as a writer. Victoria has always managed to have first-rate, well-known writers who are also inspiring, attentive, time-generous workshop leaders. One of the things that was unusual about Victoria for many years is that different genres lived within the same workshop. Jenny Bornholdt and Elizabeth Knox and Ken Duncum were in the same workshop group. That pluralism has pretty much drifted away now, as the program has grown and professionalised itself. But I still think it's good for the soul, as well as the craft, for fiction writers and screenwriters and poets and creative nonfiction writers to hang out together — even inside the same person. [15]

If one appends ‘he said with a twinkle in his eye’ to Manhire’s cheekily gnomic advice, then it is possible to be more indulgent. But it remains that Manhire’s response conspicuously fails to address “accusations of gate-keeping and the production of literary clones with any creative writing program.” All, it seems, is well. But it seemed well elsewhere and before, too, during another tepid self-congratulatory time. Another thought:

there are few people who can read Shaw, Wells, and Bennett … without feeling that there are values and tonalities to which these authors are wholly insensitive. I do not imply that there cannot be excellent art within quite distinct limitations, but the artist cannot afford to be or to appear to be ignorant of such limitations … they always seem to imply that they are giving us all modern life, the whole social panorama. [16] 

The present is a Celtic Twilight, one which requires a stern corrective, though presently there seems too few strong or persuasive enough to offer it. Alan Riach, while essaying the decline of James K. Baxter’s reputation, made the telling suggestion that Manhire provides readers and writers an alternative “to the dogmatism of the patriarchal lineage among male New Zealand poets,”[17] a pedigree in which Baxter’s reputation had been invested, and who had been found, as it were, guilty by association with sociological and philosophical markers that have little to do with the poetry, with this poem or that, written by Baxter or his supposed progenitors, of whom there were many, and his offspring, of whom there have been few. The difference Riach sees between Baxter and Manhire, which chimes nicely with the ‘raw’ and ‘cooked’ bifurcation critics of mid-century American poetry, is fair enough. But it is their similarities that I find more interesting. The reputation of each poet and of their ascribed persona precedes their poems, and the reputation of the latter is estimated, to a qualified extent, by the former. Celebrity, a lens through which to look at things, always requires both simplification and mystification — the former to make for common currency and the latter to sustain interest. Estimating Manhire the poet has been made difficult by his minimalist celebrity, but one must admit his poetry is too complex and opaque to be distorted by it. Why, it seems more fruitful to ask, has “a genial, all accommodating description that avoids the pressure of definition imposed by the patriarchal structure that Curnow and Baxter would seem to have inherited” proven itself so tempting to poets in the two decades that have followed since Riach stated its terms? “Pressure of definition,” which apparently is best avoided, can of course come from elsewhere than a “patriarchal structure.” And such pressure needn’t be imposed on poets by anyone but themselves. In Riach’s narrative Curnow and Baxter, despite an Argon of disavowal that would surely delight Harold Bloom, are seen as links in a chain that fetters, squeezes, and chokes “room for conversion,” of which the poem, as defined as far as Manhire allows himself to do, is the vehicle.[18] Whatever the case, those cranky, intellectual, pre-occupied, and head-wringing modernists were unseated stealthily in a coup by osmosis. Curnow, Brasch, Smithyman: they were still granted all the respect due to retired statesmen, and their later and posthumous works were given notice as solemn occasions; they were granted special-status, conditional apotheosis, partial but certain posterity. Even the bardic postmodernism of late ’60s and early ’70s Auckland has been filtered into nostalgia. Manhire, in keeping with his paternalistic animus, is the alternative: an avuncular presence. To flip my earlier metaphor, Athena does not spring forth fully armed from his aching forehead; instead, relatives are gathered together and made less distant and familiar with each other in an amicable but expectant setting.

New Zealand poets have lost their nerve and are afraid to embarrass themselves by failing. We have the spectacle of two and a half generations of New Zealand poets occupying themselves with their relationship to their medium — the opacity or lack thereof of language, slippery signifiers, symbiotic readership, etcetera — which really is building an edifice out of groundwork, piling one foundation upon another, constructing a career. Moral seriousness in relation to the ambiguities of history and human agency are, colloquially speaking, put into ‘the too-hard-basket.’ Having fun has become the serious business. And it has become too easy to conclude that one can come to no conclusions, as if Jacob took one look at the angel and decided it wasn’t worth getting his hands dirty. Smithyman is the closest we have had to a Charles Olson, in his capaciousness, almost painful poetic embodiment of history in both time and space, ambition, risk-taking, and ultimate failure — but at least he made an effort. Manhire, in contrast, has hardly put a foot wrong and has undoubtedly succeeded, at least on his own terms, taking little measured steps and walking in a circle. Another example of an ambitious poet is C.K. Stead. C.K. Stead is the world’s leading authority on C.K. Stead. He has been a bit mean about trumpeted novelists, usually female ones. And so on. More importantly, I think, he is also a poet who has taken risks; most importantly, the risk of getting things wrong, the risk of trying to write ‘the poem with history.’ He has sometimes failed, occasionally factually, when tackling ‘big issues’ in poems. His personal affairs are sometimes given equal billing with public disasters, much as Robert Lowell did, to whose canonical ambition and exclusivity of self-estimate, heavily-worn learnedness and protest marching, weightiness of oeuvre, and palpability of posterity Stead bears apt comparison. Stead takes positions and changes them, perhaps — just perhaps — in tacit acknowledgement that they were mistaken. There is no School of Stead. We have too few haters. No Stead. No Swift.

The middle of the road in poetry, like the overly subscribed to but certainly capacious ‘centre’ in politics, has pushed out in both directions, making the margins, where the most interesting work often gets done, even more peripheral and less able to feed back into the mainstream. Manhire, I think, is a figure — I use this term in its full sense — who plays a role similar to the one Mathew Arnold played for insecure literary Victorians, to whom we continue to bear such a resemblance: an accomplished minor poet, limited in range but skilled within those routinely self-imposed limits, and a major taste-maker, who imposes cultural foundations from above down onto an a nebulous and unmoored archipelago. We live in a blithely undemocratic and systemically atomising time, a plutocracy both financial and cultural, in which the excesses of consumer capitalism are enjoyed beyond the point of satiation even as we blunder into sooner or later end-times, a catastrophe of our own making that is paid only lip service by our poets. Such decadence is exemplified by the praise given to books containing talking crystalline poultry and other phrase-making livestock, honey-glow reminiscences, and language talking to itself. Not to account for it, to ignore it, is to give it tacit consent, if not implicit praise. And praise is something best kept for special occasion. Manhire wrote in 1982 that “… courtesy and honesty have been effectively screened out of New Zealanders’ mental landscape in the last few years, virtually by act of government … ”[19] But this was precisely due to common praise of ignorance; recognising and admitting one’s lack of knowledge is a good start; but it seems wiser to me to ask someone who does have knowledge — someone who knows more than you — than to fill the vacuum or page with opinion or confabulation. In a democracy, whether the little one of Letters or the greater Commonwealth, all opinions are equal; but they are always given in the absence of authoritative knowledge, and are not, or should not be, a substitute for it.

We are too kind. We are too gentle. Saul of Tarsus in his Letter to the Romans gives a lot of bad advice; but he also gives good advice on love, and good advice on growing up. Much of our poetry is childish, indulgent, ineffectual, and intellectually embarrassing. Jeremiads are, at best, whispered in the stalls. I firmly believe most of the poetry written in New Zealand does us a disservice and subtly undermines the basis of civil society, the commonwealth, and mutual benefit. Production of culture is seen as a good in itself, part of what we can sell to the world along with what is milked from the teats of cows. Jacket copy in New Zealand, some of the most vapid in the Anglosphere, when it isn’t trumpeting the best of an inevitably good bunch, incessantly hallelujahs a ‘young/fresh/new/novel/ etc. voice in New Zealand poetry,’ something to add to our proud catalogue of vibrant achievement. Celebratory attributions of difference, which are far more often than not subtle shades on the post-industrial bourgeoisie spectrum, are found on successive books by the same publisher. Marketing and criticism blur into one another. It is symptomatic of our ongoing insecurity, despite it having been thinly papered over by fake-it-till-you-make-it affectation, that we estimate the worth of our work by relative terms, not by a poem’s intrinsic qualities. I find this saddening and I struggle to find an excuse for it, although the culture in which it happens — reliant on primary production, touristic, anti-vocational, market-driven, artistically self-reverential — makes it almost a fait accompli. Almost. Chesterton’s Democracy of the Dead and our responsibility to and participation in it, which has recently been re-voiced by Geoffrey Hill in one of his professorial lectures at Oxford, has a complementary state in which we may choose to take into account those as yet unborn. Poetry, part of the world, is a state that acutely registers the well-being of the Commonwealth. During the time Manhire has been “our best poet,” there has been a shrinking of acceptable forms of discourse, a tightening of viability, and a pre-emptive creation of facts on the ground — and such tactics are familiar to anyone who lived through Rogernomics, and which can be seen in the political shrinkage of the present.

There has been a tendency to overestimate the intelligence of Manhire’s poetry, to regard it as a body of work that has become popular or mainstream due to its secondary qualities. Its surface charm, on this view, is the alluring carapace beneath which lies subversive sophistication. Noel-Tod, writing at the remove of the UK, is closer to the mark when he compares Manhire to Billy Collins, with the caveat that Manhire sometimes over-reaches, such as in his Erebus poems, whereas Collins is content to stick to his droll raison d’etre. For me, Manhire stands somewhere between Billy Collins and Charles Simic, and he shares their best qualities and hardly any of their worst — he is a poet of high achievement within a narrow range, or what has in the past commonly been called, without disparagement, a minor poet. Manhire is greatly loved by many readers and writers, yet he isn’t or maybe can’t be loved for what he is: a writer of light verse, a gently postmodern Antipodean Betjeman, who has shown he can sometimes write with more intensity and purpose, but seldom bothers to do so, preferring to mine a narrow furrow and give pleasure to a loyal readership. As I mentioned earlier, there is to this blindness an air of Candide, in that we live as if we live in the best of possible worlds, simply because we are alive here and now. Manhire’s apologetic complacency and apotheosis of ignorance has played a significant role in making this generation of poets more suited to playing email rounds of Exquisite Corpse than to confronting an increasingly unstable and changing world, not least of all environmentally and politically. But it is not Bill Manhire whom we should blame for our complacency and literary consumerism; after all, we invented him. There is no need to scapegoat a naked emperor — we have only ourselves to blame. Robert McLean

[1] Peter Riley, Small Press Poetry Catalogue 1 (1996): n.p.

[2] John Newton, The Old Man’s Example: Manhire in the Seventies, in Opening the Book: New Essays on New Zealand Writing, ed. Michele Leggott and Mark Williams (Auckland University Press, 1995), 162. Also cited by Nicholas Wright in Traversing The Same River: John Newton’s Unforbidden Romanticism, Journal of New Zealand Literature 34, no. 1 (2016): 125.

[3] Billy Collins, Dominion Post; Peter Simpson, New Zealand Herald; Hugh Roberts, NZ Listener; Hamesh Wyatt, Otago Daily Times; Iain Sharp, Sunday Star Times; Tom Weston, The Press; Michael Hulse, New Zealand Books; Alexandrina Ellis, Salient.

[4] Emily Perkins, “Engl 252 in the Olden Days,” in Manhire at 60 = A Book for Bill (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2006).

[5] Alan Riach, Sunday Times.

[6] Bill Manhire, The Elaboration (Wellington: Square & Circle, 1972).

[7] “On Originality,” in How to Take Off Your Clothes at the Picnic (Wai-te-ata Press: Wellington, 1977).

[8] From “Summer,” in How to Take Off Your Clothes at the Picnic.

[9] From “Pavilion,” in The Elaboration.

[10] Madeleine Watts, Interview with Bill Manhire,” Griffith Review: Pacific Highways 43 (n.d.): n.p. 

[11] Mark Williams and Elizabeth Alley, In the Same Room (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1992).

[12] David Wheatley, Echoes and Quirks, The Guardian, February 10, 2007. 

[13]If I Write About Destruction It’s Because I’m Terrified of It’: An Interview with Geoffrey Hill,” in Isis, April 27, 2015.

[14] F.R. Leavis, The Significance of C.P. Snow, Spectator, March 9, 1962.

[15]  Madeleine Watts, Interview with Bill Manhire.” 

[16] Ezra Pound, “Joyce,” in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound (London: Faber and Faber, 1960).

[17] Alan Riach, “Baxter & the Dialect of the Tribe,” in Opening the Book (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1995).

[18] It is only fair to say that this is only a small part of Riach’s account of Baxter’s standing and only in the context of its relationship to Manhire’s, and that, as mentioned, this was given two decades ago, but such goodwill should be qualified by Riach’s unequivocal and countervailing opinion, quoted above, that “there can be little doubt of Bill Manhire’s stature among New Zealand poets. He is the best.”

[19] Bill Manhire, “Larkin at 60,” in Doubtful Sounds (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1990).