The state of New Zealand poetry in 2018

Book of the Week: In which Spinoff Review of Books literary editor Steve Braunias commissions Murray Edmond to review an anthology of New Zealand poetry – first appearing on the Spinoff Review of Books – published by Steve Braunias

The cover of The Friday Poem: 100 New Zealand Poems is a photo of someone riding a bike in evening light in a generic New Zealand suburb. Nondescript would be the word. Nondescription raised to the level of high culture. It’s a kind of calculated contradiction.

The categories of these 100 selected poems are equally poised between significance and its opposite. One titled “An influx of Māori women” seems pretty much to a point, as is “I love you so much” – getting what you see. Whereas groupings “Ashleigh” and “Monica” are masterly moves in ducking any point.

The Introduction’s first words are: “New Zealand poetry has got to the point . . . “ Getting to that point immediately. The first poem that editor Steve Braunias quotes from his anthology is by Brian Turner, and it beautifully acts as a chorus for that mysteriously unmysterious cover photo: “I happen to live . . . / in the so-called middle of nowhere.”

Inspired by receiving such inspiring verses as editor for the Friday Poem for the Spinoff in the past four years, Braunias has been inspired to venture in his Introduction that “New Zealand poetry…might even be experiencing some kind of revolution” though he adds the caveat that “it’s pushing it to call it a renaissance.” Later in the Introduction, he becomes more circumspect as he remembers John Newton in his study of New Zealand’s literary nationalists, Hard Frost (2017) where he asks the hard question, “What was New Zealand literature?” before answering himself with the definitive “New Zealand literature is now a finite chapter, complete and increasingly remote.” Whoops. Hard to have a revolution let alone a renaissance if the nondescription has reached a point where it don’t even exist.

So, there are anxieties operating as the Introduction works its way through a number of qualifications. While doing this Braunias shows us he’s aware of the way the anthology wars worked in the past and how the present territory might be no more than a corner of forgotten suburbia.

 

nondescript: lacking distinctive or interesting features or characteristics

When there was such a thing as New Zealand literature, the problems of nationalism revolved around regionalism versus provincialism: did our product bear a true trademark (a region of its own) or were we simply a well-rehearsed outpost of the centre?  You could choose between being quaint or insignificant. Such a miserable choice is a great spur to nationalists – up and at ‘em! We are our own people! But the present situation is much more complicated. First came internationalism, then biculturalism, then post-colonialism (not that colonialism exactly disappeared!), then globalism, then transnationalism, and also inter-culturalism.

It’s at the nexus of these conflicting ideas that a statement such as Paula Harris’s, which Braunias quotes in the Introduction, leaves me wishing for something more, whether it be ‘revolution’ or ‘renaissance’: “I genuinely don’t know why I write this way or how I could possibly change it if I wanted to. This is just how words come together in my head.”

Despite its protestations, this is a theoretical statement of poetics. It says that what happens in my head justifies itself and I can’t control it. But who was it that put those words in her head? Language is only possible because it is shared. It doesn’t ‘come together’ in your head.

The poems in The Friday Poem are mostly of a strikingly similar kind. To say this is to say one wants to be surprised more often when one reads through.

Steven Touissant’s “Aevum Measures,” Tayi Tibble’s “In the 1960s an influx of Māori women,” John Gallas’s “Foggy Identities in Paterau,” Tracey Slaughter’s “breather,” and Michael Steven’s “Neilson Street” all woke me up. They lift their heads to scent the air of the world, and provide surprises. But it doesn’t happen often enough for a revolution or a renaissance.

Too often the mindless plague of parataxis breaks out in poems that go on and on like an epidemic, the same sad case line after line. That said, Colin Craig’s “One World” stands out like the sore sucked thumb it is. The anthology isn’t some kind of overall break-through, rather a familiar version of New Zealand’s middle-of-the-road high culture.

Anthologies

Some subplots and highways and byways in the tale of anthologies in Aotearoa that Braunias omits to mention in his Introduction are worth calling attention to. Allen Curnow’s 1960 Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse set the standard for arguments about who/what has been excluded/included. Vincent O’Sullivan’s 1970 Oxford anthology was a pale shadow of Curnow’s indicating that the general anthology of something called New Zealand literature was on the wane. What began to emerge were niche anthologies: Baysting’s 1973 Young New Zealand Poets; Reimke Ensing’s 1977 Private Gardens as a corrective to Baysting’s gender imbalance; and the Wedde, McQueen 1985 Penguin and the Evans, McQueen, Wedde Contemporary 1989 anthologies as correctives to all earlier general and niche anthologies in their inclusion of Māori poetry. In the 1960s Hone Tuwhare was perceived as ‘the first Māori poet’ (there were others such as Rowley Habib), because those writing in Māori, such as Arapeta Awatere and Ngoingoi Pewhairangi, were not included under the heading of ‘poet.’

It’s interesting to look back and point out that the 1960s Auckland City Council contained a major Māori poet in Awatere as well as a pivotal Māori dramatist in Harry Dansey. Yet the 1960s Auckland City Council has rarely been acknowledged for its literary significance. The last attempt at a general anthology, Bornholdt, O’Brien and Williams in 1998, subtitled itself ‘New Zealand Poetry in English’ marking the moment when a general anthology defined itself as a niche anthology. Whetu Moana: Contemporary Polynesian Poems in English (Wendt Whaitiri, Sullivan), in 2003, and Puna Wai Korero: An Anthology of Māori Poetry in English (Whaitiri and Sullivan), in 2014, followed to complete a completely different kind of corralling than had been carried out in 1960.

When, in 2000, with Alan Brunton and Michele Leggott, I edited Big Smoke: New Zealand Poems 1960-1974, we were in covert agreement that this wasn’t an anthology but a kind of niche cultural history in verse. The dissolution of the generalist anthologies was coeval with the proliferation of the anthology as everybody’s Christmas present: from 2000 onwards, there were anthologies of Wellington poems, Auckland poems, Canterbury poems, haiku poems, death poems, love poems, spiritual poems, small poems, classic poems, garden poems, world issues poems, poems about sex, parenthood (in that order?), animals, science fiction, and even an anthology celebrating the election of Barack Obama (how long ago!).

The Friday Poem certainly brings us news from the present. And it presents something new: the digital world turned back into a good old-fashioned book from Luncheon Sausage Books.


The Friday Poem: 100 New Zealand poems edited and introduced by Steve Braunias (Luncheon Sausage Books, $25) is available from Unity Books.


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