new zealand electronic poetry centre


Murray Edmond

[Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, footnotes]





Part of the narrative of New Zealand history is the narrative of the creation of a New Zealand literature, of which poetry is a part and where the focus of this essay lies. And there is a reciprocity between literature and history, as Cary Nelson notes in his book Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory 1910 - 1945 : 'It is a reading of the literary past that helps sustain an entire vision of the contemporary world'. (8) That a New Zealand literature did not exist and now does, is both evidence of a progressive, nationalist narrative and of a narrative of colonial conquest. That revisions, both nationalist and internationalist, are being carried out, subjects the recently created narrative of New Zealand literature to a range of questions: What is a New Zealand poem? What might make it belong to an entity called New Zealand poetry? Can we speak of a poetry, or would it be more useful to speak of poetries? Nelson makes the point that, '[p]oetry actually has no immutable essence', and expands on this by saying, '[t]he cultural meaning of poetry is historically constructed . . . . [p]oetry's transcendent effects are culturally produced and historically specific'.(9) Rather than this leading to a diminution of poetry's efficacy, it can result in quite the opposite: poetry's ability to participate in history is actually enhanced:

To forget the conditions of our own historical existence, to forget how poetry has intervened in history in the past . . . has led us to repress that knowledge, is thus to miss seeing a series of possible present actions simply evaporate, leaving no trace in our sense of what it is possible to do. Literary history, then, is deeply implicated in the ideological formulation and obliteration of cultural memory and in the process of establishing our current rhetorical and political options; its role is hardly merely that of conserving the past. (10)

What kind of knowledge, then, might a poem have? What might a poem know about history? If the past wakes up and rushes forward to overwhelm the present, then how might the present react?

Questioning such as this can be seen to relate to the wider questioning, now under way internationally, of the long-standing acceptance of the nature of Modernism. In the American context of this questioning, I was struck by parallels between the questions I am asking and Charles Bernstein's article 'Poetics of the Americas' in Modernism and Modernity. In that article he addresses the problematics of a canon: 'Cultural space is not carved up by national borders or language borders'. He affirms the need to sustain the questioning that has begun: 'the idea of American literature understood as a positive, expressive "totalization" needs to continue to be dismantled'. He salutes the value of the 'strange', the non-canonical writing: 'Exploratory writing . . . contributes to an interrogation and reformulation of the description of [a particular] sociohistorical situation, foregrounding heterogenous and anomalous elements rather than homogenizing ones'. And he describes his aim as 'to navigate between the universalizing humanisms of internationalism and the parochialism of regionalism and nationalism'. (11) Since I share these broad intentions, I might, indeed, be better to refer to 'New Zealand poetries' or 'poetry of the New Zealands' rather than 'New Zealand poetry'. Bernstein cites Peter Nicholls, whose book Modernisms:A Literary Guide is one of the recent questionings of the long-standing modernist paradigm. 'New Zealand poetry' was born out of this paradigm and still is guided by its cultural hierarchies.

Major, generalist, contemporary anthologies have attempted to grapple with the crisis of Modernism's improvement narrative. The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (1985), edited by Ian Wedde and Harvey McQueen, and The Penguin Book of Contemporary New Zealand Poetry: Ngaa Kupu Tiitohu o Aotearoa (1989), edited by Miriama Evans, Harvey McQueen, and Ian Wedde, placed traditional, historical, and contemporary Maori poetry and song alongside poetry in English. This bold, if clumsy, intervention in the canon was repudiated by Jenny Bornholdt, Gregory O'Brien, and Mark Williams in their editing of the recent Oxford anthology, which consequently carried the rather defensive title, The Oxford Anthology of New Zealand Poetry in English (1997). Each of these antholgies has conscientiously enhanced the number of women poets; the Robin Hyde poem, 'Young Knowledge', which now can only be read as a 'major' New Zealand poem, was first anthologised in the 1985 Penguin (at the prompting of Rose Beauchamp), 48 years after it was written! Though some editors have toyed with the notion of including traditional European folk songs, no one has yet printed, in an anthology of 'poetry as literature', any of the many fine, locally written, lyrics of pop songs, though, of course, many of the Maori lyrics, printed as poems, are composed for oral performance, as songs or chants. (12) The one exception to this is in Mark Pirie's 1998 anthology of new New Zealand prose and poetry, The Next Wave, where he includes the lyrics of local Maori rapper Dean Hapeta aka D Word aka Te Kupu ('te kupu' = 'the word'). What to include in, what to exclude from, the category 'modern' or 'modernist'? Nicholls proposes 'two modernisms' whereas Bernstein, would like to 'propose at least three modernist projects'. (13) How many then might exist for us, here, now, at this time, in this place?

Who am I to say? After all, I am part of the story, self-declared narrator, in the hall of mirrors. As Cary Nelson writes:

Literary history is never written from the vantage point of a secure and stable distance. It is always written in the midst of - and constituted by - the multiple social determinations of literariness. We can never be anything other than participants in the stories we are driven to tell. (17)

Both as poet and descendant of immigrants, my own story cannot be avoided. So where to start my story? Why not, then, start from Then, and let the past rush forward into the Now.


Last updated 11 July, 2001