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The grandmother of New Zealand poetry: an essay by Helen Hogan, 94 this month

All week this week the Spinoff Review of Books devotes itself to poetry in the build-up to Phantom Billstickers National Poetry Day on Friday. Today: an essay by the remarkable Helen Hogan, who brought poetry to a generation of young New Zealanders.

In 1971, I edited an anthology of New Zealand poetry for secondary school students. I was an English teacher and included a poem by a student of mine, Kama Eng. It had impressed me so much that I popped it into the mix of established poets. That made me wonder if there might be many other similarly gifted high school students.

The book, Nowhere Far From The Sea, sold out. The publisher then agreed to my idea of a children’s anthology, and generously paid for me to mail a letter to all the heads of department of English in New Zealand, inviting them to send their pupils’ work for consideration. As a result, over the next few years, I received about 3000 poems annually. I had to whittle these down to 100, so that they could be published in a slim, spine-stapled volume at a price that children could afford.

The first of these anthologies was entitled My Poem Is A Bubble. It came out in 1973. It, too, sold out; it was the first of its kind in New Zealand. I kept the series going throughout the 1970s and six more titles were published.

Subsequently, I have noticed, with interest and delight, the names of these young people popping up in more adult publications. They include Andrew Johnston, awarded the 2017 Ockham New Zealand national book award for poetry. Another whose name I come across from time to time is Stephen Braunias. His poem, “Gum Tree”, appeared in the last of these booklets, You Can’t Eat A Poem, in 1980.

One memorable correspondence I received quite some years later came from a woman living in China. She had come across my name on the internet in a quite different context. She wrote asking, “You don’t happen to be the same Helen Hogan who edited … etc?” When I wrote back confessing, she told me I had turned her whole life around. She had come from a dysfunctional family, and had regarded her life as worthless. When one of her English teachers had sent me her poem and I had published it, she decided to complete her education, and now, a University graduate, she was teaching English as a second language in China.

In the poetry I received, I found that certain themes cropped up repeatedly. They reflected the thinking of the times. I learned to treat the selection of these carefully. Too often, the writers were rechurning stuff that was preached to them. The poems were trite, dull, and insincere. They spoke of grand ideas and lacked personal observation. Poems about saving the planet, about civil rights, and about racial prejudice, lacking specific reference. Much more exciting, for me, I remember, was a girl’s detailed response to first looking at the nature of a nun’s habit.

A useful tip for teachers wanting to encourage originality in their students might be to set specific topics, e.g. visiting someone in hospital, or having lunch with a grandparent, rather than topics like world poverty, or the problems with gangs.

There were dangers in my method of selection. I recall receiving an angry letter from someone I had never heard of before. (I suspect she might have been the mother of a child whose poem didn’t get selected.) She accused me of publishing a poem that was a plagiarism of an already published poem. In this case, I wrote to the girl who had sent me the poem. I believed her reply. She kept a scrapbook in which she recorded the poems that she read and enjoyed, and, also there, she kept a copy of her own poems. When she chose one to send me, she said she genuinely thought it was one she had written.

The second incident was much more embarrassing. The plagiarism was picked up by the author of The Press review of my book. Worse still, the poem was what I had used to give a title to my anthology. I won’t say which book it was, as I don’t want to identify the culprit who sent it. He was, I think, a migrant to New Zealand, and maybe he was desperate to find acceptance among his co-students. He had found a poem in which he could replace a repeated rhyming word with his own given name, and have it still rhyming. On the surface, it looked as if he was writing an autobiographical poem.

I enjoyed working on the anthologies. It took a huge amount of time. I read all the poems three times on three different runs through, and then I began on a shortlist. By the time the final selection was reached those chosen must have been read many, many times. The delight in each poem grew with each re-read. It was like acquiring a host of new friends.

Postscript: We asked Helen to tell us a little bit about herself. We reprint the emailed reply in its entirety.

I was born in 1923. I was educated at schools in Shirley and at Christchurch Girls High School, and then at Canterbury University from 1943-1948 (six  years because I did a double degree with Hons MA in English and In History.) I graduated with a teaching diploma at Auckland Teachers’ College and taught for six years at Avonside Girls High School broken by one year in Sydney where I studied oboe playing.

My husband contracted polio when he was 10 and he was severely paralysed. He was a highly regarded analytical chemist and held high positions in state service both as a chemist and as organiser and leader of the post-polio society. He and I did a couple of world trips visiting centres of excellence in the treatment of post-polio, which up until the 1990s had not been recognised by GPs in the western world. We met a scientist in East Europe who had recognised it. It is still not well known in NZ because like my husband, most of the sufferers of it are now dead. With the introduction of the Salk vaccine, there has only been one known case of polio in NZ in many years.

Because he was better off living in flat Christchurch (he could scarcely walk and was mostly in a wheelchair) than in a city like Wellington, he frequently turned down promotions in the North Island. That did not worry either of us. I taught for four years at Darfield District High School and took a year off with the birth of my first son. I’m not too hot on housekeeping, so when a new school, Hillmorton High School, was opening just a block away from where I lived, I got myself appointed as a foundation member of staff, and paid my salary over to a housekeeper.

I worked there for I think it was 12 or 13 years. I became pregnant almost immediately after I had been appointed head of English. The principal was very understanding. The housekeeper looked after my first child whom I came home to chat to at lunch time, and as soon as school was over in the afternoon. I did my school preparation after he was in bed, at night time, but as I was breast feeding the baby, I used to take him and feed him whenever I got a chance between one class and another. My form made him a school uniform and took him to sports day as their mascot.

In later years I told myself that it was disgusting to live in a country and be so lazy that I hadn’t bothered to learn the language of New Zealand. I joined correspondence school, and having passed School Cert Māori and sat the bursary and scholarship paper for University, I took myself off to Canterbury and studied with Dr Margaret Orbell. It was such a fascinating subject that I ended up graduating with a PhD in Māori. I published three books in which I studied and translated early 19th century Māori manuscripts that had not been previously translated. All my work delved into the lives of Māori rangatira who had travelled either within New Zealand or abroad, and had set down their personal experiences. Before I published any of this I travelled round New Zealand myself, seeking out their descendants to request their blessing. I have heard of Pākehā who have been snubbed by Māori for dabbling in Māori affairs, but that was not my experience. Quite the reverse.

I suppose at the age of 94 this month that I should be hanging up my boots, but I think that would be the death of me. My husband died 11 years ago, and one of my sons died two years ago. That was a tragic loss not only to his wife and three children, and of course to me, but to New Zealand. He was a professor of economics, and he was generally considered the most promising economist in the country. He was a fine musician, too.

I keep myself going in two ways. I lecture in short story writing at the WEA, a position I have held for the last 22 years. I also am a life member, and active member of the South Island Writers’ Association. It is now a quarter to midnight, and I must now prepare my lecture for tomorrow morning’s WEA class.


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